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Chapter I. Taking a Chance

I started for the Continent on a bright day early in January. I was searched by a woman from Scotland Yard before being allowed on the platform. The pockets of my fur coat were examined; my one piece of baggage, a suitcase, was inspected; my letters of introduction were opened and read.

"Now, Mrs. Rinehart," she said, straightening, "just why are you going?"

I told her exactly half of why I was going. I had a shrewd idea that the question in itself meant nothing. But it gave her a good chance to look at me. She was a very clever woman.

And so, having been discovered to be carrying neither weapons nor seditious documents, and having an open and honest eye, I was allowed to go through the straight and narrow way that led to possible destruction. Once or twice, later on, I blamed that woman for letting me through. I blamed myself for telling only half of my reasons for going. Had I told her all she would have detained me safely in England, where automobiles sometimes go less than eighty miles an hour, and where a sharp bang means a door slamming in the wind and not a shell exploding, where hostile aeroplanes overhead with bombs and unpleasant little steel darts, were not always between one's eyes and heaven. She let me through, and I went out on the platform.

The leaving of the one-o'clock train from Victoria Station, London, is an event and a tragedy. Wounded who have recovered are going back; soldiers who have been having their week at home are returning to that mysterious region across the Channel, the front.

Not the least of the British achievements had been to transport, during the deadlock of the first winter of the war, almost the entire army, in relays, back to England for a week's rest. It had been done without the loss of a man, across a channel swarming with hostile submarines. They came in thousands, covered with mud weary, eager, their eyes searching the waiting crowd for some beloved face. And those who waited and watched as the cars emptied sometimes wept with joy and sometimes turned and went away alone.

Their week over, rested, tidy, eyes still eager but now turned toward France, the station platform beside the one-o'clock train was filled with soldiers going back. There were few to see them off; there were not many tears. Nothing is more typical of the courage and patriotism of the British women than that platform beside the one-o'clock train at Victoria. The crowd was shut out by ropes and Scotland Yard men stood guard. And out on the platform, saying little because words are so feeble, pacing back and forth slowly, went these silent couples. They did not even touch hands. One felt that all the unselfish stoicism and restraint would crumble under the familiar touch.

The platform filled. Sir Purtab Singh, an Indian prince, with his suite, was going back to the English lines. I had been a neighbour of his at Claridge's Hotel in London. I caught his eye. It was filled with cold suspicion. It said quite plainly that I could put nothing over on him. But whether he suspected me of being a newspaper writer or a spy I do not know.

Somehow, considering that the train was carrying a suspicious and turbaned Indian prince, any number of impatient officers and soldiers, and an American woman who was carefully avoiding the war office and trying to look like a buyer crossing the Channel for hats, the whistle for starting sounded rather inadequate. It was not martial. It was thin, effeminate, absurd. And so we were off, moving slowly past that line on the platform, where no one smiled; where grief and tragedy, in that one revealing moment, were written deep. I shall never forget the faces of the women as the train crept by.

And now the train was well under way. The car was very quiet. The memory of those faces on the platform was too fresh. There was a brown and weary officer across from me. He sat very still, looking straight ahead. Long after the train had left London, and was moving smoothly through the English fields, so green even in winter, he still sat in the same attitude.

I drew a long breath, and ordered luncheon. I was off to the war. I might be turned back at Folkstone. There was more than a chance that I might not get beyond Calais, which was under military law. But at least I had made a start.

This is a narrative of personal experience. It makes no pretensions, except to truth. It is pure reporting, a series of pictures, many of them disconnected, but all authentic. It will take a hundred years to paint this war on one canvas. A thousand observers, ten thousand, must record what they have seen. To the reports of trained men must be added a bit here and there from these untrained observers, who without military knowledge, ignorant of the real meaning of much that they saw, have been able to grasp only a part of the human significance of the great tragedy of Europe.

I was such an observer.

My errand was primarily humane, to visit the hospitals at or near the front, and to be able to form an opinion of what supplies were needed, of conditions generally. Rumour in America had it that the medical and surgical situation was chaotic. Bands of earnest and well-intentioned people were working quite in the dark as to the conditions they hoped to relieve. And over the hospital situation, as over the military, brooded the impenetrable silence that has been decreed by the Allies since the beginning of the war. I had met everywhere in America tales from both the German and the Allies' lines that had astounded me. It seemed incredible that such conditions could exist in an age of surgical enlightenment; that, even in an unexpected and unprepared-for war, modern organisation and efficiency should have utterly failed.

On the steamer crossing the Atlantic, with the ship speeding on her swift and rather precarious journey windows and ports carefully closed and darkened, one heard the same hideous stories: of tetanus in uncounted cases, of fearful infections, of no bandages--worst of all, of no anaesthetics.

I was a member of the American Red Cross Association, but I knew that the great work of the American Red Cross was in sending supplies. The comparatively few nurses they had sent to the western field of war were not at the front or near it. The British, French, Belgian and Dutch nursing associations were in charge of the field hospitals, so far as I could discover.

To see these hospitals, to judge and report conditions, then, was a part of my errand. Only a part, of course; for I had another purpose. I knew nothing of strategy or tactics, of military movements and their significance. I was not interested in them particularly. But I meant to get, if it was possible, a picture of this new warfare that would show it for the horror that it is; a picture that would give pause to that certain percentage of the American people that is always so eager to force a conservative government into conflict with other nations.

There were other things to learn. What was France doing? The great sister republic had put a magnificent army into the field. Between France and the United States were many bonds, much reciprocal good feeling. The Statue of Liberty, as I went down the bay, bespoke the kindly feeling between the two republics. I remembered Lafayette. Battle-scarred France, where liberty has fought so hard for life--what was France doing? Not saying much, certainly. Fighting, surely, as the French have always fought. For certainly England, with her gallant but at that time meagre army, was not fighting alone the great war.

But there were three nations fighting the allied cause in the west. What had become of the heroic Belgian Army? Was it resting on its laurels? Having done its part, was it holding an honorary position in the great line-up? Was it a fragment or an army, an entity or a memory?

The newspapers were full of details that meant nothing: names of strange villages, movements backward and forward as the long battle line bent and straightened again. But what was really happening beyond the barriers that guarded the front so jealously? How did the men live under these new and strange conditions? What did they think? Or fear? Or hope?

Great lorries and transports went out from the French coast towns and disappeared beyond the horizon; motor ambulances and hospital trains came in with the grim harvest. Men came and, like those who had gone before, they too went out and did not come back. "Somewhere in France," the papers said. Such letters as they wrote came from "somewhere in France." What was happening then, over there, beyond the horizon, "somewhere in France"?

And now that I have been beyond the dead line many of these questions have answered themselves. France is saying nothing, and fighting magnificently, Belgium, with two-thirds of her army gone, has still fifty thousand men, and is preparing two hundred thousand more.

Instead of merely an honorary position, she is holding tenaciously, against repeated onslaughts and under horrible conditions, the flooded district between Nieuport and Dixmude. England, although holding only thirty-two miles of front, beginning immediately south of Ypres, is holding that line against some of the most furious fighting of the war, and is developing, at the same time, an enormous fighting machine for the spring movement.[A]

[Footnote A: This is written of conditions in the early spring of 1915. Although the relative positions of the three armies are the same, the British are holding a considerably longer frontage.]

The British soldier is well equipped, well fed, comfortably transported. When it is remembered that England is also assisting to equip all the allied armies, it will be seen that she is doing much more than holding the high seas.

To see the wounded, then; to follow the lines of hospital trains to that mysterious region, the front; to see the men in the trenches and in their billets; to observe their morale, the conditions under which they lived--and died. It was too late to think of the cause of the war or of the justice or injustice of that cause. It will never be too late for its humanities and inhumanities, its braveries and its occasional flinchings, its tragedies and its absurdities.

It was through the assistance of the Belgian Red Cross that I got out of England and across the Channel. I visited the Anglo-Belgian Committee at its quarters in the Savoy Hotel, London, and told them of my twofold errand. They saw at once the point I made. America was sending large amounts of money and vast quantities of supplies to the Belgians on both sides of the line. What was being done in interned Belgium was well known. But those hospital supplies and other things shipped to Northern France were swallowed up in the great silence. The war would not be ended in a day or a month.

"Let me see conditions as they really are," I said. "It is no use telling me about them. Let me see them. Then I can tell the American people what they have already done in the war zone, and what they may be asked to do."

Through a piece of good luck Doctor Depage, the president, had come across the Channel to a conference, and was present. A huge man, in the uniform of a colonel of the Belgian Army, with a great military cape, he seemed to fill and dominate the little room.

They conferred together in rapid French.

"Where do you wish to go?" I was asked.

"Everywhere."

"Hospitals are not always cheerful to visit."

"I am a graduate of a hospital training-school. Also a member of the American Red Cross."

They conferred again.

"Madame will not always be comfortable--over there."

"I don't want to be comfortable," I said bravely.

Another conference. The idea was a new one; it took some mental readjustment. But their cause was just, and mingled with their desire to let America know what they were doing was a justifiable pride. They knew what I was to find out--that one of the finest hospitals in the world, as to organisation, equipment and results, was situated almost under the guns of devastated Nieuport, so close that the roar of artillery is always in one's ears.

I had expected delays, a possible refusal. Everyone had encountered delays of one sort and another. Instead, I found a most courteous and agreeable permission given. I was rather dazed. And when, a day or so later, through other channels, I found myself in possession of letters to the Baron de Broqueville, Premier and Minister of War for Belgium, and to General Melis, Inspector General of the Belgian Army Medical Corps, I realised that, once in Belgian territory, my troubles would probably be at an end.

For getting out of England I put my faith in a card given me by the Belgian Red Cross. There are only four such cards in existence, and mine was number four.

From Calais to La Panne! If I could get to Calais I could get to the front, for La Panne is only four miles from Nieuport, where the confronting lines of trenches begin. But Calais was under military law. Would I be allowed to land?

Such writers as reached there were allowed twenty-four hours, and were then shipped back across the Channel or to some innocuous destination south. Yet this little card, if all went well, meant the privilege of going fifty miles northeast to the actual front. True, it gave no chance for deviation. A mile, a hundred feet off the straight and tree-lined road north to La Panne, and I should be arrested. But the time to think about that would come later on.

As a matter of fact, I have never been arrested. Except in the hospitals, I was always practically where I had no business to be. I had a room in the Hotel des Arcades, in Dunkirk, for weeks, where, just round the corner, the police had closed a house for a month as a punishment because a room had been rented to a correspondent. The correspondent had been sentenced to five years' imprisonment, but had been released after five weeks. I was frankly a writer. I was almost aggressively a writer. I wrote down carefully and openly everything I saw. I made, but of course under proper auspices and with the necessary permits, excursions to the trenches from Nieuport to the La Bassee region and Bethune, along Belgian, French and English lines, always openly, always with a notebook. And nothing happened!

As my notebook became filled with data I grew more and more anxious, while the authorities grew more calm. Suppose I fell into the hands of the Germans! It was a large notebook, filled with much information. I could never swallow the thing, as officers are supposed to swallow the password slips in case of capture. After a time the general spy alarm got into my blood. I regarded the boy who brought my morning coffee with suspicion, and slept with my notes under my pillow. And nothing happened!

I had secured my passport vise at the French and Belgian Consulates, and at the latter legation was able also to secure a letter asking the civil and military authorities to facilitate my journey. The letter had been requested for me by Colonel Depage.

It was almost miraculously easy to get out of England. It was almost suspiciously easy. My passport frankly gave the object of my trip as "literary work." Perhaps the keen eyes of the inspectors who passed me onto the little channel boat twinkled a bit as they examined it.

The general opinion as to the hopelessness of my trying to get nearer than thirty miles to the front had so communicated itself to me that had I been turned back there on the quay at Folkstone, I would have been angry, but hardly surprised.

Not until the boat was out in the channel did I feel sure that I was to achieve even this first leg of the journey.

Even then, all was not well. With Folkstone and the war office well behind, my mind turned to submarines as a sunflower to the sun. Afterward I found that the thing to do is not to think about submarines. To think of politics, or shampoos, or of people one does not like, but not of submarines. They are like ghosts in that respect. They are perfectly safe and entirely innocuous as long as one thinks of something else.

And something went wrong almost immediately.

It was imperative that I get to Calais. And the boat, which had intended making Calais, had had a report of submarines and headed for Boulogne. This in itself was upsetting. To have, as one may say, one's teeth set for Calais, and find one is biting on Boulogne, is not agreeable. I did not want Boulogne. My pass was from Calais. I had visions of waiting in Boulogne, of growing old and grey waiting, or of trying to walk to Calais and being turned back, of being locked in a cow stable and bedded down on straw. For fear of rousing hopes that must inevitably be disappointed, again nothing happened.

There were no other women on board: only British officers and the turbaned and imposing Indians. The day was bright, exceedingly cold. The boat went at top speed, her lifeboats slung over the sides and ready for lowering. There were lookouts posted everywhere. I did not think they attended to their business. Every now and then one lifted his head and looked at the sky or at the passengers. I felt that I should report him. What business had he to look away from the sea? I went out to the bow and watched for periscopes. There were black things floating about. I decided that they were not periscopes, but mines. We went very close to them. They proved to be buoys marking the Channel.

I hated to take my eyes off the sea, even for a moment. If you have ever been driven at sixty miles an hour over a bad road, and felt that if you looked away the car would go into the ditch, and if you will multiply that by the exact number of German submarines and then add the British Army, you will know how I felt.

Afterward I grew accustomed to the Channel crossing. I made it four times. It was necessary for me to cross twice after the eighteenth of February, when the blockade began. On board the fated Arabic, later sunk by a German submarine, I ran the blockade again to return to America. It was never an enjoyable thing to brave submarine attack, but one develops a sort of philosophy. It is the same with being under fire. The first shell makes you jump. The second you speak of, commenting with elaborate carelessness on where it fell. This is a gain over shell number one, when you cannot speak to save your life. The third shell you ignore, and the fourth you forget about--if you can.

Seeing me alone the captain asked me to the canvas shelter of the bridge. I proceeded to voice my protest at our change of destination. He apologised, but we continued to Boulogne.

"What does a periscope look like?" I asked. "I mean, of course, from this boat?"

"Depends on how much of it is showing. Sometimes it's only about the size of one of those gulls. It's hard to tell the difference."

I rather suspect that captain now. There were many gulls sitting on the water. I had been looking for something like a hitching post sticking up out of the water. Now my last vestige of pleasure and confidence was gone. I went almost mad trying to watch all the gulls at once.

"What will you do if you see a submarine?'

"Run it down," said the captain calmly. "That's the only chance we've got. That is, if we see the boat itself. These little Channel steamers make about twenty-six knots, and the submarine, submerged, only about half of that. Sixteen is the best they can do on the surface. Run them down and sink them, that's my motto."

"What about a torpedo?"

"We can see them coming. It will be hard to torpedo this boat--she goes too fast."

Then and there he explained to me the snowy wake of the torpedo, a white path across the water; the mechanism by which it is kept true to its course; the detonator that explodes it. From nervousness I shifted to enthusiasm. I wanted to see the white wake. I wanted to see the Channel boat dodge it. My sporting blood was up. I was willing to take a chance. I felt that if there was a difficulty this man would escape it. I turned and looked back at the khaki-coloured figures on the deck below.

Taking a chance! They were all taking a chance. And there was one, an officer, with an empty right sleeve. And suddenly what for an enthusiastic moment, in that bracing sea air, had seemed a game, became the thing that it is, not a game, but a deadly and cruel war. I never grew accustomed to the tragedy of the empty sleeve. And as if to accentuate this thing toward which I was moving so swiftly, the British Red Cross ship, from Boulogne to Folkstone, came in sight, hurrying over with her wounded, a great white boat, garnering daily her harvest of wounded and taking them "home."

Land now--a grey-white line that is the sand dunes at Ambleteuse, north of Boulogne. I knew Ambleteuse. It gave a sense of strangeness to see the old tower at the water's edge loom up out of the sea. The sight of land was comforting, but vigilance was not relaxed. The attacks of submarines have been mostly made not far outside the harbours, and only a few days later that very boat was to make a sensational escape just outside the harbour of Boulogne.

All at once it was twilight, the swift dusk of the sea. The boat warped in slowly. I showed my passport, and at last I was on French soil. North and east, beyond the horizon, lay the thing I had come to see.

Mary Roberts Rinehart