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Chapter XXX. The Military Secret

The second hill was our destination. At the foot of it the car stopped and we got out. A steep path with here and there a wooden step led to the summit. At the foot of the path was a sentry and behind him one of the multicoloured tents.

"Are you a good climber?" asked the officer.

I said I was and we set out. The path extended only a part of the way, to a place perhaps two hundred feet beyond the road, where what we would call a cyclone cellar in America had been dug out of the hillside. Like the others of the sort I had seen, it was muddy and uninviting, practically a cave with a roof of turf.

The path ceased, and it was necessary to go diagonally up the steep hillside through the snow. From numberless guns at the base of the hill came steady reports, and as we ascended it was explained to me that I was about to visit the headquarters of Major General H----, commanding an army division.

"The last person I brought here," said the young officer, smiling, "was the Prince of Wales."

We reached the top at last. There was a tiny farmhouse, a low stable with a thatched roof, and, towering over all, the arms of a great windmill. Chickens cackled round my feet, a pig grunted in a corner, and apparently from directly underneath came the ear-splitting reports of a battery as it fired.

"Perhaps I would better go ahead and tell them you are coming," said the officer. "These people have probably not seen a woman in months, and the shock would be too severe. We must break it gently."

So he went ahead, and I stood on the crest of that wind-swept hill and looked across the valley to Messines, to Wytschaete and Ypres.

The battlefield lay spread out like a map. As I looked, clouds of smoke over Messines told of the bursting of shells.

Major General H---- came hurrying out. His quarters occupy the only high ground, with the exception of the near-by hill with its ruined tower, in the neighbourhood of Ypres. Here, a week or so before, had come the King of Belgium, to look with tragic eyes at all that remained to him of his country. Here had come visiting Russian princes from the eastern field, the King of England, the Prince of Wales. No obscurities--except myself--had ever penetrated so far into the fastness of the British lines.

Later on in the day I wrote my name in a visitors' book the officers have established there, wrote under sprawling royal signatures, under the boyish hand of the Prince of Wales, the irregular chirography of Albert of Belgium, the blunt and soldierly name of General Joffre.

There are six officers stationed in the farmhouse, composing General H----'s staff. And, as things turned out, we did not require the white-paper sandwiches, for we were at once invited to luncheon.

"Not a very elaborate luncheon," said General H----, "but it will give us a great deal of pleasure to share it."

While the extra places were being laid we went to the brow of the hill. Across the valley at the foot of a wooded ridge were the British trenches. The ground rose in front of them, thickly covered with trees, to the German position on the ridge.

"It looks from here like a very uncomfortable position," I said. "The German position is better, isn't it?"

"It is," said General H---- grimly. "But we shall take that hill before long."

I am not sure, and my many maps do not say, but there is little doubt in my mind that the hill in question is the now celebrated Hill 60, of which so much has been published.

As we looked across shells were bursting round the church tower of Messines, and the batteries beneath were sending out ear-splitting crashes of noise. Ypres, less than three miles away, but partly hidden in mist, was echoing the bombardment. And to complete the pandemonium of sound, as we turned, a mitrailleuse in the windmill opened fire behind us.

"Practice!" said General H---- as I started. "It is noisy here, I'm afraid."

We went through the muddy farmyard back to the house. The staff was waiting and we sat down at once to luncheon at a tiny pine table drawn up before a window. It was not a good luncheon. The French wine was like vinegar, the food the ordinary food of the peasant whose house it was. But it was a cheerful meal in spite of the food, and in spite of a boil on General H----'s neck. The marvel of a woman being there seemed to grow, not diminish, as the meal went on.

"Next week," said General H----, "we are to have two parties of correspondents here. The penny papers come first, and later on the ha'pennies!"

That brought the conversation, as usual, to the feeling about the war in America. Like all the other officers I had met, these men were anxious to have things correctly reported in America, being satisfied that the true story of the war would undoubtedly influence any wavering of public opinion in favour of the Allies.

One of the officers was a Canadian, and for his benefit somebody told the following story, possibly by now familiar to America.

Some of the Canadian troops took with them to England a bit of the dash and impatience of discipline of the great Northwest. The story in question is of a group of soldiers at night passing a sentry, who challenges them:

"Halt! Who goes there?"

"Black Watch."

"Advance, Black Watch, and all's well."

The next group is similarly challenged:

"Halt! Who goes there?"

"Cameronians."

"Advance, Cameronians."

The third group comes on.

"Halt! Who goes there?"

"What the devil is that to you?"

"Advance, Canadians!"

In the burst of mirth that followed the Canadian officer joined. Then he told an anecdote also:

"British recruits, practising passing a whispered order from one end of a trench to the other, received this message to pass along: 'Enemy advancing on right flank. Send re-enforcements.' When the message reached the other end of the trench," he said, "it was: 'Enemy advancing with ham shank. Send three and fourpence!'"

It was a gay little meal, the only breaks in the conversation when the great guns drowned out our voices. I wonder how many of those round that table are living to-day. Not all, it is almost certain. The German Army almost broke through the English line at that very point in the late spring. The brave Canadians have lost almost all their officers in the field and a sickening percentage of their men. That little valley must have run deep with blood since I saw it that day in the sunlight.

Luncheon was over. I wrote my name in the visitors' book, to the tune of such a bombardment as almost forbade speech, and accompanied by General H---- we made our way down the steep hillside to the car.

"Some time to-night I shall be in England," I said as I settled myself for the return trip.

The smile died on the general's face. It was as if, in speaking of home, I had touched the hidden chord of gravity and responsibility that underlay the cheerfulness of that cheery visit.

"England!" he said. That was all.

I looked back as the car started on. A battery was moving up along the road behind the hill. The sentry stood by his low painted tent. The general was watching the car, his hand shading his eyes against the glare of the winter sun. Behind him rose his lonely hill, white with snow, with the little path leading, by devious ways, up its steep and shining side.

It was not considered advisable to return by the road behind the trenches. The late afternoon artillery duel was going on. So we turned off a few miles south of the hill and left war behind us.

Not altogether, of course. There were still transports and troops. And at an intersection of three roads we were abruptly halted. A line of military cars was standing there, all peremptorily held up by a handful of soldiers.

The young officer got out and inquired. There was little time to spare, for I was to get to Calais that evening, and to run the Channel blockade some time in the night.

The officer came back soon, smiling.

"A military secret!" he said. "We shall have to wait a little. The road is closed."

So I sat in the car and the military secret went by. I cannot tell about it except that it was thrillingly interesting. My hands itched to get out my camera and photograph it, just as they itch now to write about it. But the mystery of what I saw on the highroad back of the British lines is not mine to tell. It must die with me!

My visit to the British lines was over.

As I look back I find that the one thing that stands out with distinctness above everything else is the quality of the men that constitute the British Army in the field. I had seen thousands in that one day. But I had seen them also north of Ypres, at Dunkirk, at Boulogne and Calais, on the Channel boats. I have said before that they show race. But it is much more than a matter of physique. It is a thing of steady eyes, of high-held heads, of a clean thrust of jaw.

The English are not demonstrative. London, compared with Paris, is normal. British officers at the front and at headquarters treat the war as a part of the day's work, a thing not to talk about but to do. But my frequent meetings with British soldiers, naval men, members of the flying contingent and the army medical service, revealed under the surface of each man's quiet manner a grimness, a red heat of patriotism, a determination to fight fair but to fight to the death.

They concede to the Germans, with the British sense of fairness, courage, science, infinite resource and patriotism. Two things they deny them, civilisation and humanity--civilisation in its spiritual, not its material, side; humanity of the sort that is the Englishman's creed and his religion--the safeguarding of noncombatants, the keeping of the national word and the national honour.

My visit to the English lines was over. I had seen no valiant charges, no hand-to-hand fighting. But in a way I had had a larger picture. I had seen the efficiency of the methods behind the lines, the abundance of supplies, the spirit that glowed in the eyes of every fighting man. I had seen the colonial children of England in the field, volunteers who had risen to the call of the mother country. I had seen and talked with the commander-in-chief of the British forces, and had come away convinced that the mother country had placed her honour in fine and capable hands. And I had seen, between the first and second lines of trenches, an army of volunteers and patriots--and gentlemen.

Mary Roberts Rinehart