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Chapter XXXVII. An Army of Children

It is undeniably true that the humanities are failing us as the war goes on. Not, thank God, the broad humanity of the Red Cross, but that individual compassion of a man for his wounded brother, of which the very fabric of mercy is woven. There is too much death, too much suffering. Men grow calloused. As yet the loss is not irretrievable, but the war is still only a matter of months. What if it is to be of years?

France and Belgium were suffering from a wave of atheism before the war. But there comes a time in the existence of nations, as in the lives of individuals, when human endeavour seems useless, when the world and the things thereof have failed. At such time nations and individuals alike turn at last to a Higher Power. France is on her knees to-day. Her churches are crowded. Not perhaps since the days of chivalry, when men were shriven in the churches before going out to battle, has France so generally knelt and bowed her head--but it is to the God of Battles that she prays.

On her battlefields the priests have most signally distinguished themselves. Some have exchanged the soutane for the uniform, and have fought bravely and well. Others, like the priests who stood firm in the midst of Jordan, have carried their message of hope to the dying into the trenches.

No article on the work of the Red Cross can be complete without a reference to the work of these priests, not perhaps affiliated with the society, but doing yeoman work of service among the wounded. They are everywhere, in the trenches or at the outposts, in the hospitals and hospital trains, in hundreds of small villages, where the entire community plus its burden of wounded turns to the cure for everything, from advice to the sacrament.

In prostrate Belgium the demands on the priests have been extremely heavy. Subjected to insult, injury and even death during the German invasion, where in one diocese alone thirteen were put to death--their churches destroyed, or used as barracks by the enemy--that which was their world has turned to chaos about them. Those who remained with their conquered people have done their best to keep their small communities together and to look after their material needs--which has, indeed, been the lot of the priests of battle-scarred Flanders for many generations.

Others have attached themselves to the hospital service. All the Belgian trains of wounded are cared for solely by these priests, who perform every necessary service for their men, and who, as I have said before, administer the sacrament and make coffee to cheer the flagging spirits of the wounded, with equal courage and resource.

Surgeons, nurses, priests, nuns, volunteer workers who substitute for lack of training both courage and zeal, these are a part of the machinery of mercy. There is another element--the boy scouts.

During the early days of the war the boy scouts of England, then on school holiday, did marvellous work. Boys of fourteen made repeated trips across the Channel, bringing back from France children, invalids, timorous women. They volunteered in the hospitals, ran errands, carried messages, were as useful as only willing boys can be. They did scout service, too, guarding the railway lines and assisting in watching the Channel coast; but with the end of the holiday most of the English boy scouts were obliged to go back to school. Their activities were not over, but they were largely curtailed.

There were five thousand boy scouts in Belgium at the beginning of the war. I saw them everywhere--behind the battle lines, on the driving seats of ambulances, at the doors of hospitals. They were very calm. Because I know a good deal about small boys I smothered a riotous impulse to hug them, and spoke to them as grown-up to grown-up. Thus approached, they met my advances with dignity, but without excitement.

And after a time I learned something about them from the Chief Scout of Belgium; perhaps it will show the boy scouts of America what they will mean to the country in time of war. Perhaps it will make them realise that being a scout is not, after all, only camping in the woods, long hikes, games in the open. The long hikes fit a boy for dispatch carrying, the camping teaches him to care for himself when, if necessity arises, he is thrown on the country, like his older brother, the fighting man.

A small cog, perhaps, in the machinery of mercy, but a necessary one. A vital cog in the vast machinery of war--that is the boy scout to-day.

The day after the declaration of war the Belgian scouts were mobilised, by order of the minister of war--five thousand boys, then, ranging in age from twelve to eighteen, an army of children. What a sight they must have been! How many grown-ups can think of it with dry eyes? What a terrible emergency was this, which must call the children into battle!

They were placed at the service of the military authorities, to do any and every kind of work. Some, with ordinary bicycles or motorcyles, were made dispatch riders. The senior scouts were enlisted in the regular army, armed, and they joined the soldiers in barracks. The younger boys, between thirteen and sixteen, were letter-carriers, messengers in the different ministries, or orderlies in the hospitals that were immediately organised. Those who could drive automobiles were given that to do.

Others of the older boys, having been well trained in scouting, were set to watch points of importance, or given carbines and attached to the civic guard. During the siege of Liege between forty and fifty boy scouts were constantly employed carrying food and ammunition to the beleaguered troops.

The Germans finally realised that every boy scout was a potential spy, working for his country. The uniform itself then became a menace, since boys wearing it were frequently shot. The boys abandoned it, the older ones assuming the Belgian uniform and the younger ones returning to civilian dress. But although, in the chaos that followed the invasion and particularly the fall of Liege, they were virtually disbanded, they continued their work as spies, as dispatch riders, as stretcher-bearers.

There are still nine boy scouts with the famous Ninth Regiment, which has been decorated by the king.

One boy scout captured, single-handed, two German officers. Somewhere or other he had got a revolver, and with it was patrolling a road. The officers were lost and searching for their regiments. As they stepped out of a wood the boy confronted them, with his revolver levelled. This happened near Liege.

Trust a boy to use his wits in emergency! Here is another lad, aged fifteen, who found himself in Liege after its surrender, and who wanted to get back to the Belgian Army. He offered his services as stretcher-bearer in the German Army, and was given a German Red Cross pass. Armed with this pass he left Liege, passed successfully many sentries, and at last got to Antwerp by a circuitous route. On the way he found a dead German and, being only a small boy after all, he took off the dead man's stained uniform and bore it in his arms into Antwerp!

There is no use explaining about that uniform. If you do not know boys you will never understand. If you do, it requires no explanation.

Here is a fourteen-year-old lad, intrusted with a message of the utmost importance for military headquarters in Antwerp. He left Brussels in civilian clothing, but he had neglected to take off his boy scout shirt--boy-fashion! The Germans captured him and stripped him, and they burned the boy scout shirt. Then they locked him up, but they did not find his message.

All day he lay in duress, and part of the night. Perhaps he shed a few tears. He was very young, and things looked black for him. Boy scouts were being shot, remember! But it never occurred to him to destroy the message that meant his death if discovered.

He was clever with locks and such things, after the manner of boys, and for most of the night he worked with the window and shutter lock. Perhaps he had a nail in his pocket, or some wire. Most boys have. And just before dawn he got window and shutter opened, and dropped, a long drop, to the ground. He lay there for a while, getting his breath and listening. Then, on his stomach, he slid away into the darkest hour that is just before the dawn.

Later on that day a footsore and weary but triumphant youngster presented himself at the headquarters of the Belgian Army in Antwerp and insisted on seeing the minister of war. Being at last admitted, he turned up a very travel-stained and weary little boy's foot and proceeded to strip a piece of adhesive plaster from the sole.

Underneath the plaster was the message!

       *       *       *       *       *

War is a thing of fearful and curious anomalies. It has shown that humane units may comprise a brutal whole; that civilisation is a shirt over a coat of mail. It has shown that hatred and love are kindred emotions, boon companions, friends. It has shown that in every man there are two men, devil and saint; that there are two courages, that of the mind, which is bravest, that of the heart, which is greatest.

It has shown that government by men only is not an appeal to reason, but an appeal to arms; that on women, without a voice to protest, must fall the burden. It is easier to die than to send a son to death.

It has shown that a single hatred may infect a world, but it has shown that mercy too may spread among nations. That love is greater than cannon, greater than hate, greater than vengeance; that it triumphs over wrath, as good triumphs over evil.

Direct descendant of the cross of the Christian faith, the Red Cross carries onto every battlefield the words of the Man of Mercy:

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy."

On a day in March I went back to England. March in England is spring. Masses of snowdrops lined the paths in Hyde Park. The grass was green, the roads hard and dry under the eager feet of Kitchener's great army. They marched gayly by. The drums beat. The passers-by stopped. Here and there an open carriage or an automobile drew up, and pale men, some of them still in bandages, sat and watched. In their eyes was the same flaming eagerness, the same impatience to get back, to be loosed against the old lion's foes.

All through England, all through France, all through the tragic corner of Belgium that remains to her, were similar armies drilling and waiting, equally young, equally eager, equally resolute. And the thing that they were going to I knew. I had seen it in that mysterious region that had swallowed up those who had gone before; in the trenches, in the operating rooms of field hospitals, at outposts where the sentries walked hand in hand with death.

War is not two great armies meeting in the clash and frenzy of battle. War is a boy carried on a stretcher, looking up at God's blue sky with bewildered eyes that are soon to close; war is a woman carrying a child that has been injured by a shell; war is spirited horses tied in burning buildings and waiting for death; war is the flower of a race, battered, hungry, bleeding, up to its knees in filthy water; war is an old woman burning a candle before the Mater Dolorosa for the son she has given.

For King and Country!

THE END

Mary Roberts Rinehart