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Chapter XIV. Lady Decies' Story

It was growing dark; the chauffeur was preparing to light the lamps of the car. Shells were fewer. With the approach of night the activity behind the lines increased; more ammunition trains made their way over the debris; regiments prepared for the trenches marched through the square on their way to the front.

They were laden, as usual, with extra food and jars of water. Almost every man had an additional loaf of bread strapped to the knapsack at his back. They were laughing and talking among themselves, for they had had a sleep and hot food; for the time at least they were dry and fed and warm.

On the way out of the town we passed a small restaurant, one of a row of houses. It was the only undestroyed building I saw in Ypres.

"It is the only house," said the General, "where the inhabitants remained during the entire bombardment. They made coffee for the soldiers and served meals to officers. Shells hit the pavement and broke the windows; but the house itself is intact. It is extraordinary."

We stopped at the one-time lunatic asylum on our way back. It had been converted into a hospital for injured civilians, and its long wards were full of women and children. An English doctor was in charge.

Some of the buildings had been destroyed, but in the main it had escaped serious injury. By a curious fatality that seems to have followed the chapels and churches of Flanders, the chapel was the only part that was entirely gone. One great shell struck it while it was housing soldiers, as usual, and all of them were killed. As an example of the work of one shell the destruction of that building was enormous. There was little or nothing left.

"The shell was four feet high," said the Doctor, and presented me with the nose of it.

"You may get more at any moment," I said.

He shrugged his shoulders. "What must be, must be," he said quietly.

When the bombardment was at its height, he said, they took their patients to the cellar and continued operating there. They had only a candle or two. But it was impossible to stop, for the wards were full of injured women and children.

I walked through some of the wards. It was the first time I had seen together so many of the innocent victims of this war--children blind and forever cut off from the light of day, little girls with arms gone, women who will never walk again.

It was twilight. Here and there a candle gleamed, for any bright illumination was considered unwise.

What must they think as they lie there during the long dark hours between twilight and the late winter morning? Like the sentry, many of them must wonder if it is worth while. These are people, most of them, who have lived by their labour. What will they do when the war is over, or when, having made such recovery as they may, the hospital opens its doors and must perforce turn them out on the very threshold of war?

And yet they cling to life. I met a man who crossed the Channel--I believe it was from Flushing--with the first lot of hopelessly wounded English prisoners who had been sent home to England from Germany in exchange for as many wrecked and battered Germans on their way back to the Fatherland.

One young boy was all eagerness. His home was on the cliff above the harbour which was their destination. He alternately wept and cheered.

"They'll be glad enough to see me, all right," he said. "It's six months since they heard from me. More than likely they think I'm lying over there with some of the other chaps."

He was in a wheeled chair. In his excitement the steamer rug slipped down. Both his legs were gone above the knees!

Our hands were full. The General had picked up a horseshoe on the street at Ypres and given it to me to bring me luck; the Commandant had the framed pictures. The General carried the gargoyle wrapped in a newspaper. I had the nose of the shell.

We walked through the courtyard, with its broken fountain and cracked walks, out to the machine. The password for the night was "Ecosse," which means "Scotland." The General gave the word to the orderly and we went on again toward Poperinghe, where we were to have coffee.

The firing behind us had ceased. Possibly the German gunners were having coffee also. We went at our usual headlong speed through almost empty roads. Now and then a lantern waved. We checked our headlong speed to give the password, and on again. More lanterns; more challenges.

Since we passed, a few hours before, another car had been wrecked by the road. One sees these cars everywhere, lying on their sides, turned turtle in ditches, bent and twisted against trees. No one seems to be hurt in these accidents; at least one hears nothing of them, if they are. And now we were back at Poperinghe again.

The Commandant had his headquarters in the house of a notary. Except in one instance, all the houses occupied by the headquarters' staffs that I visited were the houses of notaries. Perhaps the notary is the important man of a French town. I do not know.

This was a double house with a centre hall, a house of some pretension in many ways. But it had only one lamp. When we went from one room to another we took the lamp with us. It was not even a handsome lamp. In that very comfortable house it was one of the many anomalies of war.

One or two of the best things from the museum at Ypres had been secured and brought back here. On a centre table was a bronze equestrian statue in miniature of a Crusader, a beautiful piece of work.

While we were waiting for coffee the Commandant opened the lower drawer of a secretary and took out a letter.

"This may interest Madame," he said. "I have just received it. It is from General Leman, the hero of Liege."

He held it close to the lamp and read it. I have the envelope before me now. It is addressed in lead pencil and indorsed as coming from General Leman, Prisoner of War at Magdeburg, Germany.

The letter was a soldier's simple letter, written to a friend. I wish I had made a copy of it; but I remember in effect what it said. Clearly the hero of Liege has no idea that he is a hero. He said he had a good German doctor, but that he had been very ill. It is known, of course, that his foot was injured during the destruction of one of the fortresses just before he was captured.

"I have a very good German doctor," he wrote. "But my foot gives me a great deal of trouble. Gangrene set in and part of it had to be amputated. The wound refuses to heal, and in addition my heart is bad."

He goes on to ask for his family, for news of them, especially of his daughter. I saw this letter in March. He had been taken a prisoner the previous August. He had then been seven or eight months without news of his family.

"I am no longer young," he wrote in effect, for I am not quoting him exactly, "and I hope my friends will not forget me, in case of an exchange of prisoners."

He will never be forgotten. But of course he does not realise that. He is sixty-four and very ill. One read through all the restraint of the letter his longing to die among his own people. He hopes he will not be forgotten in an exchange of prisoners!

The Commandant's orderly announced that coffee was served, and we followed the lamp across the hall. An English officer made a fourth at the table.

It was good coffee, served with cream, the first I had seen for weeks. With it the Commandant served small, very thin cakes, with a layer of honey in the centre. "A specialty of the country," he said.

We talked of many things: of the attitude of America toward the war, her incredulity as to atrocities, the German propaganda, and a rumour that had reached the front of a German-Irish coalition in the House of Representatives at Washington.

From that the talk drifted to uniforms. The Commandant wished that the new French uniforms, instead of being a slaty blue, had been green, for use in the spring fighting.

I criticised the new Belgian uniform, which seemed to me much thinner than the old.

"That is wrong. It is of excellent cloth," said the General, and brought his cape up under the lamp for examination.

The uniforms of three armies were at the table--the French, the Belgian and the English. It was possible to compare them under the light of a single lamp.

The General's cloak, in spite of my criticism, was the heaviest of the three. But all of them seemed excellent. The material was like felt in body, but much softer.

All of the officers were united in thinking khaki an excellent all-round colour.

"The Turcos have been put into khaki," said the Commandant. "They disliked it at first; but their other costumes were too conspicuous. Now they are satisfied."

The Englishman offered the statement that England was supplying all of the Allies, including Russia, with cloth.

Sitting round the table under the lamp, the Commandant read a postcard taken from the body of a dead German in the attack the night before. There was a photograph with it, autographed. The photograph was of the woman who had written the card. It began "Beloved Otto," and was signed "Your loving wife, Hedwig."

This is the postcard:

"Beloved Otto: To-day your dear cards came, so full of anxiety for us. So that now at last I know that you have received my letters. I was convinced you had not. We have sent you so many packages of things you may need. Have you got any of them? To-day I have sent you my photograph. I wished to send a letter also instead of this card, but I have no writing paper. All week I have been busy with the children's clothing. We think of you always, dear Otto. Write to us often. Greetings from your Hedwig and the children."

So she was making clothing for the children and sending him little packages. And Otto lay dead under the stars that night--dead of an ideal, which is that a man must leave his family and all that he loves and follow the beckoning finger of empire.

"For king and country!"

The Commandant said that when a German soldier surrenders he throws down his gun, takes off his helmet and jerks off his shoulder straps, saying over and over, "Pater familias." Sometimes, by way of emphasising that he is a family man, he holds up his fingers--two children or three children, whatever it may be. Even boys in their teens will claim huge families.

I did not find it amusing after the postcard and the photograph. I found it all very tragic and sad and disheartening.

It was growing late and the General was impatient to be off. We had still a long journey ahead of us, and riding at night was not particularly safe.

I got into the car and they bundled in after me the damaged pictures, the horseshoe, the piece of gargoyle from the Cloth Hall and the nose of the shell.

The orderly reported that a Zeppelin had just passed overhead; but the General shrugged his shoulders.

"They are always seeing Zeppelins," he said. "Me, I do not believe there is such a thing!"

       *       *       *       *       *

That night in my hotel, after dinner, Gertrude, Lady Decies, told me the following story:

"I had only twelve hours' notice to start for the front. I am not a hospital nurse, but I have taken for several years three months each summer of special training. So I felt that I would be useful if I could get over.

"It was November and very cold. When I got to Calais there was not a room to be had anywhere. But at the Hotel Centrale they told me I might have a bathroom to sleep in.

"At the last moment a gentleman volunteered to exchange with me. But the next day he left, so that night I slept in a bathtub with a mattress in it!

"The following day I got a train for Dunkirk. On the way the train was wrecked. Several coaches left the track, and there was nothing to do but to wait until they were put back on.

"I went to the British Consul at Dunkirk and asked him where I could be most useful. He said to go to the railroad station at once.

"I went to the station. The situation there was horrible. Three doctors and seven dressers were working on four-hour shifts.

"As the wounded came in only at night, that was when we were needed. I worked all night from that time on. My first night we had eleven hundred men. Some of them were dead when they were lifted out onto the stone floor of the station shed. One boy flung himself out of the door. I caught him as he fell and he died in my arms. He had diphtheria, as well as being wounded.

"The station was frightfully cold, and the men had to be laid on the stone floors with just room for moving about between them. There was no heat of any sort. The dead were laid in rows, one on top of another, on cattle trucks. As fast as a man died they took his body away and brought in another wounded man.

"Every now and then the electric lights would go out and leave us there in black darkness. Finally we got candles and lamps for emergencies.

"We had no surgical dressings, but we had some iodine. The odours were fearful. Some of the men had not had their clothes off for five weeks. Their garments were like boards. It was almost impossible to cut through them. And underneath they were coated with vermin. Their bodies were black with them frequently.

"In many cases the wounds were green through lack of attention. One man, I remember, had fifteen. The first two nights I was there we had no water, which made it terrible. There was a pump outside, but the water was bad. At last we had a little stove set up, and I got some kettles and jugs and boiled the water.

"We were obliged to throw the bandages in a heap on the floor, and night after night we walked about in blood. My clothing and stockings were stained with blood to my knees.

"After the first five nights I kept no record of the number of wounded; but the first night we had eleven hundred; the second night, nine hundred; the third night, seven hundred and fifty; the fourth night, two thousand; the fifth night, fifteen hundred.

"The men who were working at the station were English Quakers. They were splendid men. I have never known more heroic work than they did, and the cure was a splendid fellow. There was nothing too menial for him to do. He was everywhere."

       *       *       *       *       *

This is the story she told me that night, in her own words. I have not revised it. Better than anything I know it tells of conditions as they actually existed during the hard fighting of the first autumn of the war, and as in the very nature of things they must exist again whenever either side undertakes an offensive.

It becomes a little wearying, sometimes, this constant cry of horrors, the ever-recurring demands on America's pocketbook for supplies, for dressings, for money to buy the thousands of things that are needed.

Read Lady Decies' account again, and try to place your own son on that stone floor on the station platform. Think of that wounded boy, sitting for hours in a train, and choking to death with diphtheria.

This is the thing we call war.

Mary Roberts Rinehart