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Chapter XXVI. A Luncheon at British Headquarters

The same high-crowned roads, with pitfalls of mud at each side; the same lines of trees; the same coating of ooze, over which the car slid dangerously. But a new element--khaki.

Khaki everywhere--uniforms, tents, transports, all of the same hue. Skins, too, where one happens on the Indian troops. It is difficult to tell where their faces end and their yellow turbans begin.

Except for the slightly rolling landscape and the khaki one might have been behind the Belgian or French Army. There were as usual aeroplanes overhead, clouds of shrapnel smoke, and not far away the thunder of cannonading. After a time even that ceased, for I was on my way to British General Headquarters, well back from the front.

I carried letters from England to Field Marshal Sir John French, to Colonel Brinsley Fitzgerald, aid-de-camp to the "Chief," as he is called, and to General Huguet, the liaison between the French and English Armies. His official title is something entirely different, but the French word is apt. He is the connecting link between the English and French Armies.

I sent these letters to headquarters, and waited in the small hotel for developments. The British antipathy to correspondents was well known. True, there were indications that a certain relaxation was about to take place. Frederick Palmer in London had been notified that before long he would be sent across, and I had heard that some of the London newspapers, the Times and a few others, were to be allowed a day at the lines.

But at the time my machine drew into that little French town and deposited me in front of a wretched inn, no correspondent had been to the British lines. It was terra incognita. Even London knew very little. It was rumoured that such part of the Canadian contingent as had left England up to that time had been sent to the eastern field, to Egypt or the Dardanelles. With the exception of Sir John French's reports and the "Somewhere in France" notes of "Eyewitness," a British officer at the front, England was taking her army on faith.

And now I was there, and there frankly as a writer. Also I was a woman. I knew how the chivalrous English mind recoiled at the idea of a woman near the front. Their nurses were kept many miles in the rear. They had raised loud protests when three English women were permitted to stay at the front with the Belgian Army.

My knees were a bit weak as I went up the steps and into the hotel. They would hardly arrest me. My letters were from very important persons indeed. But they could send me away with expedition and dispatch. I had run the Channel blockade to get there, and I did not wish to be sent away with expedition and dispatch.

The hotel was cold and bare. Curious eyed officers came in, stared at me and went out. A French gentleman in a military cape walked round the bare room, spoke to the canaries in a great cage in the corner, and came back to where I sat with my fur coat, lap-robe fashion, over my knees.

"Pardon!" he said. "Are you the Duchess of Sutherland?"

I regretted that I was not the Duchess of Sutherland.

"You came just now in a large car?"

"I did."

"You intend to stay here for some time?"

"I have not decided."

"Where did you come from?"

"I think," I said after a rather stunned pause, "that I shall not tell you."

"Madame is very cautious!"

I felt convinced that he spoke with the authority of the army, or of the town gendarmerie, behind him. But I was irritated. Besides, I had been cautioned so much about telling where I had been, except in general terms, that I was even afraid to talk in my sleep.

"I think," I said, "that it does not really matter where I came from, where I am going, or what I am doing here."

I expected to see him throw back his cape and exhibit a sheriff's badge, or whatever its French equivalent. But he only smiled.

"In that case," he said cheerfully, "I shall wish you a good morning."

"Good-bye," I said coldly. And he took himself off.

I have never solved the mystery of that encounter. Was he merely curious? Or scraping acquaintance with the only woman he had seen in months? Or was he as imposing a person as he looked, and did he go away for a warrant or whatever was necessary, and return to find me safe in the lap of the British Army?

The canary birds sang, and a porter with a leather apron, having overcome a national inability to light a fire in the middle of the day, came to take me to my room. There was an odour of stewing onions in the air, and soapsuds, and a dog sniffed at me and barked because I addressed him in English.

And then General Huguet came, friendly and smiling, and speaking English. And all was well.

Afterward I learned how that same diplomacy which made me comfortable and at home with him at once has made smooth the relations between the English and French Armies. It was Chesterfield, wasn't it, who spoke of "Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re"? That is General Huguet. A tall man, dark, keen and of most soldierly bearing; beside the genial downrightness of the British officers he was urbane, suave, but full of decision. His post requires diplomacy but not concession.

Sir John French, he regretted to say, was at the front and would not return until late in the evening. But Colonel Fitzgerald hoped that I would come to luncheon at headquarters, so that we might talk over what was best to be done. He would, if the arrangement suited me, return at one o'clock for me.

It was half past twelve. I made such concessions to the occasion as my travelling bag permitted, and, prompt to the minute, General Huguet's car drew up at the inn door. It was a wonderful car. I used it all that afternoon and the next day, and I can testify both to its comfort and to its speed. I had travelled fast in cars belonging to the Belgian and French staffs, but never have I gone as I did in that marvel of a car. Somewhere among my papers I have a sketch that I made of the interior of the limousine body, with the two soldier-chauffeurs outside in front, the two carbines strapped to the speedometer between the vis-a-vis seats inside the car, and the speedometer registering ninety kilometres and going up.

We went at once to British Headquarters, with its sentries and its flag; a large house, which had belonged to a notary, its grim and forbidding exterior gave little promise of the comfort within. A passage led to a square centre hall from which opened various rooms--a library, with a wood fire, the latest possible London and Paris papers, a flat-topped desk and a large map; a very large drawing-room, which is Sir John French's private office, with white walls panelled with rose brocade, a marble mantel, and a great centre table, covered, like the library desk, with papers; a dining room, wainscoted and comfortable. There were other rooms, which I did not see. In the square hall an orderly sat all day, waiting for orders of various sorts.

Colonel Fitzgerald greeted me amiably. He regretted that Sir John French was absent, and was curious as to how I had penetrated to the fastnesses of British Headquarters without trouble. Now and then, glancing at him unexpectedly during the excellent luncheon that followed, I found his eyes fixed on me thoughtfully, intently. It was not at all an unfriendly gaze. Rather it was the look of a man who is painstakingly readjusting his mental processes to meet a new situation.

He made a delightful host. I sat at his right. At the other end of the table was General Huguet, and across from me a young English nobleman, attached to the field marshal's staff, came in, a few minutes late, and took his place. The Prince of Wales, who lives there, had gone to the trenches the day before.

Two soldier-servants served the meal. There was red wine, but none of the officers touched it. The conversation was general and animated. We spoke of public opinion in America, of the resources of Germany and her starvation cry, of the probable length of the war. On this opinions varied. One of the officers prophesied a quick ending when the Allies were finally ready to take the offensive. The others were not so optimistic. But neither here, nor in any of the conversations I have heard at the headquarters of the Allies, was there a doubt expressed as to ultimate victory. They had a quiet confidence that was contagious. There was no bluster, no assertion; victory was simply accepted as a fact; the only two opinions might be as to when it would occur, and whether the end would be sudden or a slow withdrawal of the German forces.

The French Algerian troops and the Indian forces of Great Britain came up for discussion, their bravery, their dislike for trench fighting and intense longing to charge, the inroads the bad weather had made on them during the winter.

One of the officers considered the American press rather pro-German. The recent American note to Sir Edward Grey and his reply, with the press comments on both, led to this statement. The possibility of Germany's intentionally antagonising America was discussed, but not at length.

From the press to the censorship was but a step. I objected to the English method as having lost us our perspective on the war.

"You allow anything to go through the censor's office that is not considered dangerous or too explicit," I said. "False reports go through on an equality with true ones. How can America know what to believe?"

It was suggested by some one that the only way to make the censorship more elastic, while retaining its usefulness in protecting military secrets and movements, was to establish such a censorship at the front, where it is easier to know what news would be harmful to give out and what may be printed with safety.

I mentioned what a high official of the admiralty had said to me about the censorship--that it was "an infernal nuisance, but necessary."

"But it is not true that messages are misleadingly changed in transmission," said one of the officers at the table.

I had seen the head of the press-censorship bureau, and was able to repeat what he had said--that where the cutting out of certain phrases endangered the sense of a message, the words "and" or "the" were occasionally added, that the sense might be kept clear, but that no other additions or changes of meaning were ever made.

Luncheon was over. We went into the library, and there, consulting the map, Colonel Fitzgerald and General Huguet discussed where I might go that afternoon. The mist of the morning had turned to rain, and the roads at the front would be very bad. Besides, it was felt that the "Chief" should give me permission to go to the front, and he had not yet returned.

"How about seeing the Indians?" asked Colonel Fitzgerald, turning from the map.

"I should like it very much."

The young officer was turned to, and agreed, like a British patriot and gentleman, to show me the Indian villages. General Huguet offered his car. The officer got his sheepskin-lined coat, for the weather was cold.

"Thirty shillings," he said, "and nothing goes through it!"

I examined that coat. It was smart, substantial, lined throughout with pure white fur, and it had cost seven dollars and a half.

There is a very popular English word just making its place in America. The word is "swank." It is both noun and verb. One swanks when one swaggers. One puts on swank when one puts on side. And because I hold a brief for the English, and because I was fortunate enough to meet all sorts of English people, I want to say that there is very little swank among them. The example of simplicity and genuineness has been set by the King and Queen. I met many different circles of people. From the highest to the lowest, there was a total absence of that arrogance which the American mind has so long associated with the English. For fear of being thought to swagger, an Englishman will understate his case. And so with the various English officers I met at the front. There was no swank. They were downright, unassuming, extremely efficient-looking men, quick to speak of German courage, ready to give the benefit of the doubt where unproved outrages were in question, but rousing, as I have said, to pale fury where their troops were being unfairly attacked.

While the car was being brought to the door General Huguet pointed out to me on the map where I was going. As we stood there his pencil drew a light semicircle round the town of Ypres.

"A great battle," he said, and described it. Colonel Fitzgerald took up the narrative. So it happened that, in the three different staff headquarters, Belgian, French and English, executive officers of the three armies in the western field described to me that great battle--the frightful slaughter of the English, their re-enforcement at a critical time by General Foch's French Army of the North, and the final holding of the line.

The official figures of casualties were given me again: English forty-five thousand out of a hundred and twenty thousand engaged; the French seventy thousand, and the German over two hundred thousand.

Turning to the table, Colonel Fitzgerald picked up a sheet of paper covered with figures.

"It is interesting," he said, "to compare the disease and battle mortality percentages of this war with the percentages in other wars; to see, considering the frightful weather and the trenches, how little disease there has been among our troops. Compare the figures with the Boer War, for instance. And even then our percentage has been somewhat brought up by the Indian troops."

"Have many of them been ill?"

"They have felt the weather," he replied; "not the cold so much as the steady rain. And those regiments of English that have been serving in India have felt the change. They particularly have suffered from frostbitten feet."

I knew that. More than once I had seen men being taken back from the British lines, their faces twisted with pain, their feet great masses of cotton and bandages which they guarded tenderly, lest a chance blow add to their agony. Even the English system of allowing the men to rub themselves with lard and oil from the waist down before going into flooded trenches has not prevented the tortures of frostbite.

It was time to go and the motor was waiting. We set off in a driving sleet that covered the windows of the car and made motoring even more than ordinarily precarious. But the roads here were better than those nearer the coast; wider, too, and not so crowded. To Ham, where the Indian regiment I was to visit had been retired for rest, was almost twenty miles. "Ham!" I said. "What a place to send Mohammedans to!"

In his long dispatch of February seventeenth Sir John French said of the Indian troops:

"The Indian troops have fought with the utmost steadfastness and gallantry whenever they have been called upon."

This is the answer to many varying statements as to the efficacy of the assistance furnished by her Indian subjects to the British Empire at this time. For Sir John French is a soldier, not a diplomat. No question of the union of the Empire influences his reports. The Indians have been valuable, or he would not say so. He is chary of praise, is the Field Marshal of the British Army.

But there is another answer--that everywhere along the British front one sees the Ghurkas, slant-eyed and Mongolian, with their broad-brimmed, khaki-coloured hats, filling posts of responsibility. They are little men, smaller than the Sikhs, rather reminiscent of the Japanese in build and alertness.

When I was at the English front some of the Sikhs had been retired to rest. But even in the small villages on billet, relaxed and resting, they were a fine and soldierly looking body of men, showing race and their ancient civilisation.

It has been claimed that England called on her Indian troops, not because she expected much assistance from them but to show the essential unity of the British Empire. The plain truth is, however, that she needed the troops, needed men at once, needed experienced soldiers to eke out her small and purely defensive army of regulars. Volunteers had to be equipped and drilled--a matter of months.

To say that she called to her aid barbarians is absurd. The Ghurkas are fierce fighters, but carefully disciplined. Compare the lances of the Indian cavalry regiments and the kukri, the Ghurka knife, with the petrol squirts, hand grenades, aeroplane darts and asphyxiating bombs of Germany, and call one barbarian to the advantage of the other! The truth is, of course, that war itself is barbarous.

Mary Roberts Rinehart