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Chapter XIII. "Wipers"


An aeroplane man at the next table starts to-night on a dangerous scouting expedition over the German lines. In case he does not return he has given a letter for his mother to Captain T----.

It now appears quite certain that I am to be sent along the French and English lines. I shall be the first correspondent, I am told, to see the British front, as "Eyewitness," who writes for the English papers, is supposed to be a British officer.

I have had word also that I am to see Mr. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the British Admiralty. But to-day I am going to Ypres. The Tommies call it "Wipers."

       *       *       *       *       *

Before I went abroad I had two ambitions among others: One was to be able to pronounce Ypres; the other was to bring home and exhibit to my admiring friends the pronunciation of Przemysl. To a moderate extent I have succeeded with the first. I have discovered that the second one must be born to.

Two or three towns have stood out as conspicuous points of activity in the western field. Ypres is one of these towns. Day by day it figures in the reports from the front. The French are there, and just to the east the English line commences.[D] The line of trenches lies beyond the town, forming a semicircle round it.

[Footnote D: Written in May, 1915.]

A few days later I saw this semicircle, the flat and muddy battlefield of Ypres. But on this visit I was to see only the town, which, although completely destroyed, was still being shelled.

The curve round the town gave the invading army a great advantage in its destruction. It enabled them to shell it from three directions, so that it was raked by cross fire. For that reason the town of Ypres presents one of the most hideous pictures of desolation of the present war.

General M---- had agreed to take me to Ypres. But as he was a Belgian general, and the town of Ypres is held by the French, it was a part of the etiquette of war that we should secure the escort of a French officer at the town of Poperinghe.

For war has its etiquette, and of a most exacting kind. And yet in the end it simplifies things. It is to war what rules are to bridge--something to lead by! Frequently I was armed with passes to visit, for instance, certain batteries. My escort was generally a member of the Headquarters' Staff of that particular army. But it was always necessary to visit first the officer in command of that battery, who in his turn either accompanied us to the battlefield or deputised one of his own staff. The result was an imposing number of uniforms of various sorts, and the conviction, as I learned, among the gunners that some visiting royalty was on an excursion to the front!

It was a cold winter day in February, a grey day with a fine snow that melted as soon as it touched the ground. Inside the car we were swathed in rugs. The chauffeur slapped his hands at every break in the journey, and sentries along the road hugged such shelter as they could find.

As we left Poperinghe the French officer, Commandant D----, pointed to a file of men plodding wearily through the mud.

"The heroes of last night's attack," he said. "They are very tired, as you see."

We stopped the car and let the men file past. They did not look like heroes; they looked tired and dirty and depressed. Although our automobile generally attracted much attention, scarcely a man lifted his head to glance at us. They went on drearily through the mud under the pelting sleet, drooping from fatigue and evidently suffering from keen reaction after the excitement of the night before.

I have heard the French soldier criticised for this reaction. It may certainly be forgiven him, in view of his splendid bravery. But part of the criticism is doubtless justified. The English Tommy fights as he does everything else. There is a certain sporting element in what he does. He puts into his fighting the same fairness he puts into sport, and it is a point of honour with him to keep cool. The English gunner will admire the enemy's marksmanship while he is ducking a shell.

The French soldier, on the other hand, fights under keen excitement. He is temperamental, imaginative; as he fights he remembers all the bitterness of the past, its wrongs, its cruelties. He sees blood. There is nothing that will hold him back. The result has made history, is making history to-day.

But he has the reaction of his temperament. Who shall say he is not entitled to it?

Something of this I mentioned to Monsieur le Commandant as the line filed past.

"It is because it is fighting that gets nowhere," he replied. "If our men, after such an attack, could advance, could do anything but crawl back into holes full of water and mud, you would see them gay and smiling to-day."

After a time I discovered that the same situation holds to a certain extent in all the armies. If his fighting gets him anywhere the soldier is content. The line has made a gain. What matter wet trenches, discomfort, freezing cold? The line has made a gain. It is lack of movement that sends their spirits down, the fearful boredom of the trenches, varied only by the dropping shells, so that they term themselves, ironically, "Cannon food."

We left the victorious company behind, making their way toward whatever church bedded down with straw, or coach-house or drafty barn was to house them for their rest period.

"They have been fighting waist-deep in water," said the Commandant, "and last night was cold. The British soldier rubs his body with oil and grease before he dresses for the trenches. I hope that before long our men may do this also. It is a great protection."

I have in front of me now a German soldier's fatigue cap, taken by one of those men from a dead soldier who lay in front of the trench.

It is a pathetic cap, still bearing the crease which showed how he folded it to thrust it into his pocket. When his helmet irked him in the trenches he was allowed to take it off and put this on. He belonged to Bavarian Regiment Number Fifteen, and the cap was given him in October, 1914. There is a blood-stain on one side of it. Also it is spotted with mud inside and out. It is a pathetic little cap, because when its owner died, that night before, a thousand other Germans died with him, died to gain a trench two hundred yards from their own line, a trench to capture which would have gained them little but glory, and which, since they failed, lost them everything, even life itself.

We were out of the town by this time, and started on the road to Ypres. Between Poperinghe and Ypres were numerous small villages with narrow, twisting streets. They were filled with soldiers at rest, with tethered horses being re-shod by army blacksmiths, with small fires in sheltered corners on which an anxious cook had balanced a kettle.

In each town a proclamation had been nailed to a wall and the townspeople stood about it, gaping.

"An inoculation proclamation," explained the Commandant. "There is typhoid here, so the civilians are to be inoculated. They are very much excited about it. It appears to them worse than a bombardment."

We passed a file of Spahis, native Algerians who speak Arabic. They come from Tunis and Algeria, and, as may be imagined, they were suffering bitterly from the cold.

They peered at us with bright, black eyes from the encircling folds of the great cloaks with pointed hoods which they had drawn closely about them. They have French officers and interpreters, and during the spring fighting they probably proved very valuable. During the winter they gave me the impression of being out of place and rather forlorn. Like the Indian troops with the British, they were fighting a new warfare. For gallant charges over dry desert sands had been substituted mud and mist and bitter cold, and the stagnation of armies.

Terrible tales have been told of the ferocity of these Arabs, and of the Turcos also. I am inclined to think they are exaggerated. But certainly, met with on a lonely road, these long files of men in their quaint costumes moving silently along with heads lowered against the wind were sombre, impressive and rather alarming.

The car, going furiously, skidded, was pulled sharply round and righted itself. The conversation went on. No one appeared to notice that we had been on the edge of eternity, and it was not for me to mention it. But I made a jerky entry in my notebook:

"Very casual here about human life. Enlarge on this."

The general, who was a Belgian, continued his complaint. It was about the Belgian absentee tax.

The Germans now in control in Belgium had imposed an absentee tax of ten times the normal on all Belgians who had left the country and did not return by the fifteenth of March. The general snorted his rage and disgust.

"But," I said innocently, "I should think it would make very little difference to you. You are not there, so of course you cannot pay it."

"Not there!" he said. "Of course I am not there. But everything I own in the world is there, except this uniform that I have on my back."

"They would confiscate it?" I asked. "Not the uniform, of course; I mean your property."

He broke into a torrent of rapid French. I felt quite sure that he was saying that they would confiscate it; that they would annihilate it, reduce it to its atomic constituents; take it, acres and buildings and shade trees and vegetable garden, back to Germany. But as his French was of the ninety horse-power variety and mine travels afoot, like Bayard Taylor, and limps at that, I never caught up with him.

Later on, in a calmer moment, I had the thing explained to me.

It appears that the Germans have instituted a tax on all the Belgian refugees of ten times the normal tax; the purpose being to bring back into Belgium such refugees as wish to save the remnants of their property. This will mean bringing back people of the better class who have property to save. It will mean to the far-seeing German mind a return of the better class of Belgians to reorganise things, to put that prostrate country on its feet again, to get the poorer classes to work, to make it self-supporting.

"The real purpose, of course," said my informant, "is so that American sympathy, now so potent, will cease for both refugees and interned Belgians. If the factories start, and there is work for them, and the refugees still refuse to return, you can see what it means."

He may be right; I do not think so. I believe that at this moment Germany regards Belgium as a new but integral part of the German Empire, and that she wishes to see this new waste land of hers productive. Assuredly Germany has made a serious effort to reorganise and open again some of the great Belgian factories that are now idle.

In one instance that I know of a manufacturer was offered a large guarantee to come back and put his factory into operation again. He refused, although he knew that it spelled ruin. The Germans, unable themselves at this time to put skilled labour in his mill, sent its great machines by railroad back into Germany. I have been told that this has happened in a number of instances. Certainly it sounds entirely probable.

The factory owner in question is in America at the time I am writing this, obtaining credit and new machines against the time of the retirement of the German Army.

From the tax the conversation went on to the finances of Belgium. I learned that the British Government, through the Bank of England, is guaranteeing the payment of the Belgian war indemnity to Germany! The war indemnity is over nineteen million pounds, or approximately ninety-six millions of dollars. Of this the Belgian authorities are instructed to pay over nine million dollars each month.

The Societe Generale de Belgique has been obliged by the German Government to accept the power of issuing notes, on a strict understanding that it must guarantee the note issue on the gold reserve and foreign bill book, which is at present deposited in the Bank of England at London. If the Societe Generale de Belgique had not done so, all notes of the Bank of Belgium would have been declared valueless by Germany.

A very prominent Englishman, married to a Belgian lady, told me a story about this gold reserve which is amusing enough to repeat, and which has a certain appearance of truth.

When the Germans took possession of Brussels, he said, their first move was to send certain officers to the great Brussels Bank, in whose vaults the gold reserve was kept. The word had been sent ahead that they were coming, and demanding that certain high officials of the bank were to be present.

The officials went to the bank, and the German officers presented themselves promptly.

The conversation was brief.

"Take us to the vaults," said one of the German officers.

"To the vaults?" said the principal official of the bank.

"To the vaults," was the curt reply.

"I am not the vault keeper. We shall have to send for him."

The bank official was most courteous, quite bland, indeed. The officer scowled, but there was nothing to do but wait.

The vault keeper was sent for. It took some time to find him.

The bank official commented on the weather, which was, he considered, extremely warm.

At last the vault keeper came. He was quite breathless. But it seemed that, not knowing why he came, he had neglected to bring his keys. The bank official regretted the delay. The officers stamped about.

"It looks like a shower," said the bank official. "Later in the day it may be cooler."

The officers muttered among themselves.

It took the vault keeper a long time to get his keys and return, but at last he arrived. They went down and down, through innumerable doors that must be unlocked before them, through gratings and more steel doors. And at last they stood in the vaults.

The German officers stared about and then turned to the Belgian official.

"The gold!" they said furiously. "Where is the gold?"

"The gold!" said the official, much surprised. "You wished to see the gold? I am sorry. You asked for the vaults and I have shown you the vaults. The gold, of course, is in England."

We sped on, the same flat country, the same grey fields, the same files of soldiers moving across those fields toward distant billets, the same transports and ambulances, and over all the same colourless sky.

Not very long ago some inquiring British scientist discovered that on foggy days in London the efficiency of the average clerk was cut down about fifty per cent. One begins to wonder how much of this winter impasse is due to the weather, and what the bright and active days of early spring will bring. Certainly the weather that day weighed on me. It was easier to look out through the window of the car than to get out and investigate. The penetrating cold dulled our spirits.

A great lorry had gone into the mud at the side of the road and was being dug out. A horse neatly disembowelled lay on its back in the road, its four stark legs pointed upward.

"They have been firing at a German Taube," said the Commandant, "and naturally what goes up must come down."

On the way back we saw the same horse. It was dark by that time, and some peasants had gathered round the carcass with a lantern. The hide had been cut away and lay at one side, and the peasants were carving the animal into steaks and roasts. For once fate had been good to them. They would dine that night.

Everywhere here and there along the road we had passed the small sheds that sentries built to protect themselves against the wind, little huts the size of an American patrol box, built of the branches of trees and thatched all about with straw.

Now we passed one larger than the others, a shed with the roof thatched and the sides plastered with mud to keep out the cold.

The Commandant halted the car. There was one bare little room with a wooden bench and a door. The bench and the door had just played their part in a tragedy.

I have been asked again and again whether it is true that on both sides of the line disheartened soldiers have committed suicide during this long winter of waiting. I have always replied that I do not know. On the Allied side it is thought that many Germans have done so; I daresay the Germans make the same contention. This one instance is perfectly true. But it was the result of an accident, not of discouragement.

The sentry was alone in his hut, and he was cleaning his gun. For a certain length of time he would be alone. In some way the gun exploded and blew off his right hand. There was no one to call on for help. He waited quite a while. It was night. Nobody came; he was suffering frightfully.

Perhaps, sitting there alone, he tried to think out what life would be without a right hand. In the end he decided that it was not worth while. But he could not pull the trigger of his gun with his left hand. He tried it and failed. So at last he tied a stout cord to the trigger, fastened the end of it to the door, and sitting on the bench kicked the door to. They had just taken him away.

Just back of Ypres there is a group of buildings that had been a great lunatic asylum. It is now a hospital for civilians, although it is partially destroyed.

"During the evacuation of the town," said the Commandant, "it was decided that the inmates must be taken out. The asylum had been hit once and shells were falling in every direction. So the nuns dressed their patients and started to march them back along the route to the nearest town. Shells were falling all about them; the nuns tried to hurry them, but as each shell fell or exploded close at hand the lunatics cheered and clapped their hands. They could hardly get them away at all; they wanted to stay and see the excitement."

That is a picture, if you like. It was a very large asylum, containing hundreds of patients. The nuns could not hurry them. They stood in the roads, faces upturned to the sky, where death was whining its shrill cry overhead. When a shell dropped into the road, or into the familiar fields about them, tearing great holes, flinging earth and rocks in every direction, they cheered. They blocked the roads, so that gunners with badly needed guns could not get by. And behind and all round them the nuns urged them on in vain. Some of them were killed, I believe. All about great holes in fields and road tell the story of the hell that beat about them.

Here behind the town one sees fields of graves marked each with a simple wooden cross. Here and there a soldier's cap has been nailed to the cross.

The officers told me that in various places the French peasants had placed the dead soldier's number and identifying data in a bottle and placed it on the grave. But I did not see this myself.

Unlike American towns, there is no gradual approach to these cities of Northern France; no straggling line of suburbs. Many of them were laid out at a time when walled cities rose from the plain, and although the walls are gone the tradition of compactness for protection still holds good. So one moment we were riding through the shell-holed fields of Northern France and the next we were in the city of Ypres.

At the time of my visit few civilians had seen the city of Ypres since its destruction. I am not sure that any had been there. I have seen no description of it, and I have been asked frequently if it is really true that the beautiful Cloth Hall is gone--that most famous of all the famous buildings of Flanders.


What a tragedy! Not a city now; hardly a skeleton of a city. Rumour is correct, for the wonderful Cloth Hall is gone. There is a fragment left of the facade, but no repairing can ever restore it. It must all come down. Indeed, any storm may finish its destruction. The massive square belfry, two hundred and thirty feet high and topped by its four turrets, is a shell swaying in every gust of wind.

The inimitable arcade at the end is quite gone. Nothing indeed is left of either the Cloth Hall, which, built in the year 1200, was the most remarkable edifice of Belgium, or of the Cathedral behind it, erected in 1300 to succeed an earlier edifice. General M---- stood by me as I stared at the ruins of these two great buildings. Something of the tragedy of Belgium was in his face.

"We were very proud of it," he said. "If we started now to build another it would take more than seven hundred years to give it history."

There were shells overhead. But they passed harmlessly, falling either into the open country or into distant parts of the town. We paid no attention to them, but my curiosity was roused.

"It seems absurd to continue shelling the town," I said. "There is nothing left."

Then and there I had a lesson in the new warfare. Bombardment of the country behind the enemy's trenches is not necessarily to destroy towns. Its strategical purpose, I was told, is to cut off communications, to prevent, if possible, the bringing up of reserve troops and transport wagons, to destroy ammunition trains. I was new to war, with everything to learn. This perfectly practical explanation had not occurred to me.

"But how do they know when an ammunition train is coming?" I asked.

"There are different methods. Spies, of course, always. And aeroplanes also."

"But an ammunition train moves."

It was necessary then to explain the various methods by which aeroplanes signal, giving ranges and locations. I have seen since that time the charts carried by aviators and airship crews, in which every hedge, every ditch, every small detail of the landscape is carefully marked. In the maps I have seen the region is divided into lettered squares, each square made up of four small squares, numbered. Thus B 3 means the third block of the B division, and so on. By wireless or in other ways the message is sent to the batteries, and B 3, along which an ammunition train is moving, suddenly finds itself under fire. Thus ended the second lesson!

An ammunition train, having safely escaped B 3 and all the other terrors that are spread for such as it, rumbled by, going through the Square. The very vibration of its wheels as they rattled along the street set parts of the old building to shaking. Stones fell. It was not safe to stand near the belfry.

Up to this time I had found a certain philosophy among the French and Belgian officers as to the destruction of their towns. Not of Louvain, of course, or those earlier towns destroyed during the German invasion, but of the bombardment which is taking place now along the battle line. But here I encountered furious resentment.

There is nothing whatever left of the city for several blocks in each direction round the Cloth Hall. At the time it was destroyed the army of the Allies was five miles in advance of the town. The shells went over their heads for days, weeks.

So accurate is modern gunnery that given a chart of a city the gunner can drop a shell within a few yards of any desired spot. The Germans had a chart of Ypres. They might have saved the Cloth Hall, as they did save the Cathedral at Antwerp. But they were furious with thwarted ambition--the onward drive had been checked. Instead of attempting to save the Cloth Hall they focussed all their fire on it. There was nothing to gain by this wanton destruction.

It is a little difficult in America, where great structures are a matter of steel and stone erected in a year or so, to understand what its wonderful old buildings meant to Flanders. In a way they typified its history, certainly its art. The American likes to have his art in his home; he buys great paintings and puts them on the walls. He covers his floors with the entire art of a nomadic people. But on the Continent the method is different. They have built their art into their buildings; their great paintings are in churches or in structures like the Cloth Hall. Their homes are comparatively unadorned, purely places for living. All that they prize they have stored, open to the world, in their historic buildings. It is for that reason that the destruction of the Cloth Hall of Ypres is a matter of personal resentment to each individual of the nation to which it belonged. So I watched the faces of the two officers with me. There could be no question as to their attitude. It was a personal loss they had suffered. The loss of their homes they had accepted stoically. But this was much more. It was the loss of their art, their history, their tradition. And it could not be replaced.

The firing was steady, unemotional.

As the wind died down we ventured into the ruins of the Cloth Hall itself. The roof is gone, of course. The building took fire from the bombardment, and what the shells did not destroy the fire did. Melted lead from ancient gutters hung in stalactites. In one place a wall was still standing, with a bit of its mural decoration. I picked up a bit of fallen gargoyle from under the fallen tower and brought it away. It is before me now.

It is seven hundred and fifteen years since that gargoyle was lifted into its place. The Crusades were going on about that time; the robber barons were sallying out onto the plains on their raiding excursions. The Norman Conquest had taken place. From this very town of Ypres had gone across the Channel "workmen and artisans to build churches and feudal castles, weavers and workers of many crafts."

In those days the Yperlee, a small river, ran open through the town. But for many generations it has been roofed over and run under the public square.

It was curious to stand on the edge of a great shell hole and look down at the little river, now uncovered to the light of day for the first time in who knows how long.

In all that chaos, with hardly a wall intact, at the corner of what was once the cathedral, stood a heroic marble figure of Burgomaster Vandenpeereboom. It was quite untouched and as placid as the little river, a benevolent figure rising from the ruins of war.

"They have come like a pestilence," said the General. "When they go they will leave nothing. What they will do is written in what they have done."

Monsieur le Commandant had disappeared. Now he returned triumphant, carrying a great bundle in both arms.

"I have been to what was the house of a relative," he explained. "He has told me that in the cellar I would find these. They will interest you."

"These" proved to be five framed photographs of the great paintings that had decorated the walls of the great Cloth Hall. Although they had been hidden in a cellar, fragments of shell had broken and torn them. But it was still possible to gain from them a faint idea of the interior beauty of the old building before its destruction.

I examined them there in the public square, with a shell every now and then screeching above but falling harmlessly far away.

A priest joined us. He told pathetically of watching the destruction of the Arcade, of seeing one arch after another go down until there was nothing left.

"They ate it," said the priest graphically. "A bite at a time."

We walked through the town. One street after another opened up its perspective of destruction. The strange antics that shell fire plays had left doors and lintels standing without buildings, had left intact here and there pieces of furniture. There was an occasional picture on an exposed wall; iron street lamps had been twisted into travesties; whole panes of glass remained in facades behind which the buildings were gone. A part of the wooden scaffolding by which repairs were being made to the old tower of the Cloth Hall hung there uninjured by either flame or shell.

On one street all the trees had been cut off as if by one shell, about ten feet above the ground, but in another, where nothing whatever remained but piles of stone and mortar, a great elm had apparently not lost a single branch.

Much has been written about the desolation of these towns. To get a picture of it one must realise the solidity with which even the private houses are built. They are stone, or if not, the walls are of massive brick coated with plaster. There are no frame buildings; wood is too expensive for that purpose. It is only in prodigal America that we can use wood.

So the destruction of a town there means the destruction of buildings that have stood for centuries, and would in the normal course of events have stood for centuries more.

A few civilians had crept back into the town. As in other places, they had come back because they had no place else to go. At any time a shell might destroy the fragment of the building in which they were trying to reestablish themselves. There were no shops open, because there were no shops to open. Supplies had to be brought from long distances. As all the horses and automobiles had been commandeered by the government, they had no way to get anything. Their situation was pitiable, tragic. And over them was the daily, hourly fear that the German Army would concentrate for its onward drive at some near-by point.

Mary Roberts Rinehart