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Chapter XV. Running the Blockade

From my journal written during an attack of influenza at the Gare Maritime in Calais:

Last night I left England on the first boat to cross the Channel after the blockade. I left London at midnight, with the usual formality of being searched by Scotland Yard detectives. The train was empty and very cold.

"At half-past two in the morning we reached Folkestone. I was quite alone, and as I stood shivering on the quay waiting to have my papers examined a cold wind from the harbour and a thin spray of rain made the situation wretched. At last I confronted the inspector, and was told that under the new regulations I should have had my Red Cross card viseed in Paris. It was given back to me with a shrug, but my passport was stamped.

"There were four men round the table. My papers and I were inspected by each of the four in turn. At last I was through. But to my disgust I found I was not to be allowed on the Calais boat. There was one going to Boulogne and carrying passengers, but Calais was closed up tight, except to troops and officers.

"I looked at the Boulogne boat. It was well lighted and cheerful. Those few people who had come down from London on the train were already settling themselves for the crossing. They were on their way to Paris and peace.

"I did not want Paris and certainly I did not want peace. I had telegraphed to Dunkirk and expected a military car to meet me at Calais. Once across, I knew I could neither telegraph nor telephone to Dunkirk, all lines of communication being closed to the public. I felt that I might be going to be ill. I would not be ill in Boulogne.

"At the end of the quay, dark and sinister, loomed the Calais boat. I had one moment of indecision. Then I picked up my suitcase and started toward it in the rain. Luckily the gangway was out. I boarded the boat with as much assurance as I could muster, and was at once accosted by the chief officer.

"I produced my papers. Some of them were very impressive. There were letters from the French Ambassador in London, Monsieur Cambon, to leading French generals. There was a letter to Sir John French and another letter expediting me through the customs, but unluckily the customs at Boulogne.

"They left him cold. I threw myself on his mercy. He apologised, but continued firm. The Boulogne boat drew in its gangway. I mentioned this, and that, so to speak, I had burned my Boulogne gangway behind me. I said I had just had an interview with Mr. Winston Churchill, and that I felt sure the First Lord of the Admiralty would not approve of my standing there arguing when I was threatened with influenza. He acted as though he had never heard of the First Lord.

"At last he was called away. So I went into a deck cabin, and closed and bolted the door. I remember that, and that I put a life preserver over my feet, in case of a submarine, and my fur coat over the rest of me, because of a chill. And that is all I do remember, until this morning in a grey, rainy dawn I opened the door to find that we were entering the harbour of Calais. If the officers of the boat were surprised to see me emerge they concealed it. No doubt they knew that with Calais under military law I could hardly slip through the fingers of the police.

"This morning I have a mild attack of what the English call 'flu.' I am still at the hotel in Calais. I have breakfasted to the extent of hot coffee, have taken three different kinds of influenza remedies, and am now waiting and aching, but at least I am in France.

"If the car from Dunkirk does not come for me to-day I shall be deported to-night.

"Two torpedo boats are coaling in the harbor. They have two large white letters which answer for their names. One is the BE; the other is the ER. As they lie side by side these tall white letters spell B-E-E-R.

"I have heard an amusing thing: that the English have built duplicates of all their great battleships, building them of wood, guns and all, over the hulls of other vessels; and that the Germans have done the same thing! What would happen if one of the 'dummy' fleets met the other? Would it be a battle of expletives? Would the German consonant triumph over the English aspirate, and both ships go down in a sea of language?

"The idea is, of course, to delude submarines into the belief that they are sinking battleships, while the real dreadnoughts are somewhere else--pure strategy, but amusing, except for the crews of these sham war flotillas."

       *       *       *       *       *

The French Ambassador in London had given me letters to the various generals commanding the divisions of the French Army.

It was realised that America knew very little of what the French were doing in this great war. We knew, of course, that they were holding a tremendous battle line and that they were fighting bravely. Rumours we had heard of the great destruction done by the French seventy-five millimetre gun, and the names of numerous towns had become familiar to us in print, even when we could not pronounce them. The Paris omnibuses had gone to the front. Paris fashions were late in coming to us, and showed a military trend. For the first time the average American knew approximately where and what Alsace-Lorraine is, and that Paris has forts as well as shops and hotels.

But what else did we know of France and its part in the war? What does America generally know of France, outside of Paris? Very little. Since my return, almost the only question I have been asked about France is: "Is Paris greatly changed?"

Yet America owes much to her great sister republic; much encouragement in the arts, in literature, in research. For France has always extended a kindly hand and a splendid welcome to gifted and artistic Americans. But her encouragement neither begins nor ends there.

It was in France that American statesmen received the support that enabled them to rear the new republic on strong and sturdy foundations. It is curious to think of that France of Louis the Sixteenth, with its every tradition opposed to the democracy for which America was contending, sending the very flower of her chivalry to assist the new republic. It is amazing to remember that when France was in a deplorable condition financially it was yet found possible to lend America six million dollars, and to exempt us from the payment of interest for a year.

And the friendship of France was of the people, not alone of the king, for it survived the downfall of the monarchy and the rise of the French Republic. When Benjamin Franklin died the National Assembly at Paris went into three days' mourning for "the great American."

As a matter of fact, France's help to America precipitated her own great crisis. The Declaration of Independence was the spark that set her ablaze. If the king was right in America he was utterly wrong at home. Lafayette went back from America convinced that "resistance is the most sacred of duties."

The French adopted the American belief that liberty is the object of government, and liberty of the individual--that very belief which France is standing for to-day as opposed to the nationalism of Germany. The Frenchman believes, like the American, that pressure should be from within out, not from without in. In other words, his own conscience, and not the arbitrary ruling of an arbitrary government, is his dictator. To reconcile liberty and democracy, then, has been France's problem, as it has been that of America. She has faced the same problems against a handicap that America has not had--the handicap of a discontented nobility. And by sheer force and determination France has won.

It has been said that the French in their Revolution were not reckless innovators. They were confiding followers. And the star they followed was the same star which, multiplied by the number of states, is the American flag to-day--Liberty.

Because of the many ties between the two countries, I had urged on the French Ambassador the necessity of letting America know a little more intimately what was being done by the French in this war. Since that time a certain relaxation has taken place along all the Allied lines. Correspondents have been taken out on day excursions and have cabled to America what they saw. But at the time I visited the French Army of the North there had been no one there.

Those Americans who had seen the French soldier in times of peace had not been greatly impressed. His curious, bent-kneed, slouching step, so carefully taught him--so different from the stately progress of the British, for instance, but so effective in covering ground--his loose trousers and huge pack, all conspire against the ensemble effect of French soldiers on the march.

I have seen British regiments at ease, British soldiers at rest and in their billets. Always they are smart, always they are military. A French regiment at ease ceases to be a part of a great machine. It shows, perhaps, more humanity. The men let their muscles sag a bit. They talk, laugh, sing if they are happy. They lie about in every attitude of complete relaxation. But at the word they fall in again. They take up the slack, as it were, and move on again in that remarkable pas de flexion that is so oddly tireless. It is a difference of method; probably the best thing for men who are Gallic, temperamental. A more lethargic army is better governed probably by rule of thumb.

I had crossed the Channel again to see the French and English lines. On my previous visit, which had lasted for several weeks, I had seen the Belgian Army at the front and the French Army in billets and on reserve. This time I was to see the French Army in action.

The first step to that end, getting out of Calais, proved simple enough. The car came from Dunkirk, and brought passes. I took more influenza medicine, dressed and packed my bag. There was some little regret mingled with my farewell to the hotel at the Gare Maritime. I had had there a private bath, with a porcelain tub. More than that, the tub had been made in my home city. It was, I knew, my last glimpse of a porcelain tub, probably of any tub, for some time. There were bath towels also. I wondered if I would ever see a bath towel again. I left a cake of soap in that bathroom. I can picture its next occupant walking in, calm and deliberate, and then his eye suddenly falling on a cake of soap. I can picture his stare, his incredulity. I can see him rushing to the corridor and ringing the fire bell and calling the other guests and the strangers without the gates, and the boot boy in an apron, to come and see that cake of soap.

But not the management. They would take it away.

The car which came for me had been at the front all night. It was filled inside and out with mud, so that it was necessary to cover the seat before I got in. Of all the cars I have ever travelled in, this was the most wrecked. Hardly a foot of the metal body was unbroken by shell or bullet hole. The wind shield had been torn away. Tatters of curtain streamed out in the wind. The mud guards were bent and twisted. Even in that region of wrecked cars people turned to look at it.

Calais was very gay that Sunday afternoon. The sun was out. At the end of the drawbridge a soldier was exercising a captured German horse.

Officers in scarlet and gold, in pale blue, in green and red, in all the picturesqueness of a Sunday back from the front, were decked for the public eye. They walked in groups or singly. There were no women with them. Their wives and sweethearts were far away. A Sunday in Calais, indifferent food at a hotel, a saunter in the sunlight, and then--Monday and war again, with the bright colours replaced by sombre ones, with mud and evil odours and wretchedness.

They wandered about, smoking eternal cigarettes and watching the harbour, where ships were coaling, and where, as my car waited, the drawbridge opened to allow a great Norwegian merchantman to pass. The blockade was only two days old, but already this Norwegian boat had her name painted in letters ten feet high along each side of her hull, flanked on both sides by the Norwegian flag, also painted. Her crew, leaning over the side, surveyed the quay curiously. So this was war--this petulant horse with its soldier rider, these gay uniforms!

It had been hoped that neutral shipping would, by thus indicating clearly its nationality, escape the attacks of submarines. That very ship was sunk three days later in the North Sea.

Convalescent soldiers limped about on crutches; babies were wheeled in perambulators in the sun; a group of young aviators in black leather costumes watched a French biplane flying low. English naval officers from the coaling boats took shore leave and walked along with the free English stride.

There were no guns; everything was gaiety and brightness. But for the limping soldiers, my own battered machine, and the ominous grey ships in the harbour, it might have been a carnival.

In spite of the appearance of the machine it went northeast at an incredible pace, its dried mud flying off like missiles, through those French villages, which are so tidy because there is nothing to waste; where there is just enough and no more--no extra paper, no extra string, or food, or tin cans, or any of the litter that goes to make the disorder of a wasteful American town; where paper and string and tin cans and old boots serve their original purpose and then, in the course of time, become flower-pots or rag carpets or soup meat, or heaven knows what; and where, having fulfilled this second destiny, they go on being useful in feeding chickens, or repairing roads, or fertilising fields.

For the first time on this journey I encountered difficulty with the sentries. My Red Cross card had lost its potency. A new rule had gone out that even a staff car might not carry a woman. Things looked very serious for a time. But at last we got through.

There were many aviators out that bright day, going to the front, returning, or merely flying about taking the air. Women walked along the roads wearing bright-coloured silk aprons. Here and there the sentries had stretched great chains across the road, against which the car brought up sharply. And then at last Dunkirk again, and the royal apartment, and a soft bed, and--influenza.

Two days later I started for the French lines. I packed a small bag, got out a fresh notebook, and, having received the proper passes, the start was made early in the morning. An officer was to take me to the headquarters of the French Army of the North. From there I was to proceed to British headquarters.

My previous excursions from Dunkirk had all been made east and southeast. This new route was south. As far as the town of Bergues we followed the route by which I had gone to Ypres. Bergues, a little fortified town, has been at times owned by the French, English, Spanish and Dutch.

It is odd, remembering the new alignment of the nations, to see erected in the public square a monument celebrating the victory of the French over the English in 1793, a victory which had compelled the British to raise the siege of Dunkirk.

South of Bergues there was no sign of war. The peasants rode along the road in their high, two-wheeled carts with bare iron hoops over the top, hoops over which canvas is spread in wet weather.

There were trees again; windmills with their great wings turning peacefully; walled gardens and wayside shrines; holly climbing over privet hedges; and rows of pollard willows, their early buds a reddish brown; and tall Lombardy poplars, yellow-green with spring.

The road stretched straight ahead, a silver line. Nothing could have been more peaceful, more unwar-like. Peasants trudged along with heavy milk cans hanging from wooden neck yokes, chickens flew squawking from the onslaught of the car. There were sheep here and there.

"It is forbidden to take or kill a sheep--except in self-defence!" said the officer.

And then suddenly we turned into a small town and came on hundreds of French omnibuses, requisitioned from all parts of France and painted a dingy grey.

Out of the town again. The road rose now to Cassel, with its three windmills in a row on the top of a hill. We drove under an arch of trees, their trunks covered with moss. On each side of the highway peasants were ploughing in the mud--old peasants, bent to the plough, or very young boys, who eyed us without curiosity.

Still south. But now there were motor ambulances and an occasional long line of motor lorries. At one place in a village we came on a great three-ton lorry, driven and manned by English Tommies. They knew no French and were completely lost in a foreign land. But they were beautifully calm. They sat on the driving seat and smoked pipes and derided each other, as in turn they struggled to make their difficulty known.

"Bailleul," said the Tommies over and over, but they pronounced it "Berlue," and the villagers only laughed.

The officer in the car explained.

"'Berlue,'" he said, "is--what do you Americans say--dotty? They are telling the villagers they want to go crazy!"

So he got out and explained. Also he found out their road for them and sent them off, rather sheepish, but laughing.

"I never get over the surprises of this war," said the officer when he returned. "Think of those boys, with not a word of French, taking that lorry from the coast to the English lines! They'll get there too. They always do."

As we left the flat land toward the coast the country grew more and more beautiful. It rolled gently and there were many trees.

The white houses with their low thatched roofs, which ended in a bordering of red tiles, looked prosperous. But there were soldiers again. We were approaching the war zone.

Mary Roberts Rinehart