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Chapter III. La Panne

From Calais to La Panne is fifty miles. Calais is under military law. It is difficult to enter, almost impossible to leave in the direction in which I wished to go. But here again the Belgian Red Cross achieved the impossible. I was taken before the authorities, sharply questioned, and in the end a pink slip was passed over to the official of the Red Cross who was to take me to the front. I wish I could have secured that pink slip, if only because of its apparent fragility and its astounding wearing qualities. All told, between Calais and La Panne it was inspected--texture, weight and reading matter, front and reverse sides, upside down and under glass--by some several hundred sentries, officials and petty highwaymen. It suffered everything but attack by bayonet. I found myself repeating that way to madness of Mark Twain's:

  Punch, brothers, punch with care,
  Punch in the presence of the passenjaire,
  A pink trip slip for a five-cent fare--

and so on.

Northeast then, in an open grey car with "Belgian Red Cross" on each side of the machine. Northeast in a bitter wind, into a desolate and almost empty country of flat fields, canals and roads bordered by endless rows of trees bent forward like marching men. Northeast through Gravelines, once celebrated of the Armada and now a manufacturing city. It is curious to think that a part of the Armada went ashore at Gravelines, and that, by the shifting of the English Channel, it is now two miles inland and connected with the sea by a ship canal. Northeast still, to Dunkirk.

From Calais to Gravelines there had been few signs of war--an occasional grey lorry laden with supplies for the front; great ambulances, also grey, and with a red cross on the top as a warning to aeroplanes; now and then an armoured car. At Gravelines the country took on a more forbidding appearance. Trenches flanked the roads, which were partly closed here and there by overlapping earthworks, so that the car must turn sharply to the left and then to the right to get through. At night the passage is closed by barbed wire. In one place a bridge was closed by a steel rope, which a sentry lowered after another operation on the pink slip.

The landscape grew more desolate as the daylight began to fade, more desolate and more warlike. There were platforms for lookouts here and there in the trees, prepared during the early days of the war before the German advance was checked. And there were barbed-wire entanglements in the fields. I had always thought of a barbed-wire entanglement as probably breast high. It was surprising to see them only from eighteen inches to two feet in height. It was odd, too, to think that most of the barbed wire had been made in America. Barbed wire is playing a tremendous part in this war. The English say that the Boers originated this use for it in the South African War. Certainly much tragedy and an occasional bit of grim humour attach to its present use.

With the fortified town of Dunkirk--or Dunkerque--came the real congestion of war. The large square of the town was filled with soldiers and marines. Here again were British uniforms, British transports and ambulances. As a seaport for the Allied Armies in the north, it was bustling with activity. The French and Belgians predominated, with a sprinkling of Spahis on horseback and Turcos. An air of activity, of rapid coming and going, filled the town. Despatch riders on motor cycles, in black leather uniforms with black leather hoods, flung through the square at reckless speed. Battered automobiles, their glass shattered by shells, mud guards crumpled, coated with clay and riddled with holes, were everywhere, coming and going at the furious pace I have since learned to associate with war.

And over all, presiding in heroic size in the centre of the Square, the statue of Jean Bart, Dunkirk's privateer and pirate, now come into his own again, was watching with interest the warlike activities of the Square. Things have changed since the days of Jean Bart, however. The cutlass that hangs by his side would avail him little now. The aeroplane bombs that drop round him now and then, and the processions of French "seventy-five" guns that rumble through the Square, must puzzle him. He must feel rather a piker in this business of modern war.

Dunkirk is generally referred to as the "front." It is not, however. It is near enough for constant visits from German aeroplanes, and has been partially destroyed by German guns, firing from a distance of more than twenty miles. But the real line begins fifteen miles farther along the coast at Nieuport.

So we left Dunkirk at once and continued toward La Panne. A drawbridge in the wall guards the road out of the city in that direction. And here for the first time the pink slip threatened to fail us. The Red Cross had been used by spies sufficiently often to cover us with cold suspicion. And it was worse than that. Women were not allowed, under any circumstances, to go in that direction--a new rule, being enforced with severity. My little card was produced and eyed with hostility.

My name was assuredly of German origin. I got out my passport and pointed to the picture on it. It had been taken hastily in Washington for passport purposes, and there was a cast in the left eye. I have no cast in the left eye. Timid attempts to squint with that eye failed.

But at last the officer shrugged his shoulders and let us go. The two sentries who had kept their rifles pointed at me lowered them to a more comfortable angle. A temporary sense of cold down my back retired again to my feet, whence it had risen. We went over the ancient drawbridge, with its chains by which it may be raised, and were free. But our departure was without enthusiasm. I looked back. Some eight sentries and officers were staring after us and muttering among themselves.

Afterward I crossed that bridge many times. They grew accustomed to me, but they evidently thought me quite mad. Always they protested and complained, until one day the word went round that the American lady had been received by the King. After that I was covered with the mantle of royalty. The sentries saluted as I passed. I was of the elect.

There were other sentries until the Belgian frontier was passed. After that there was no further challenging. The occasional distant roar of a great gun could be heard, and two French aeroplanes, winging home after a reconnaissance over the German lines, hummed overhead. Where between Calais and Dunkirk there had been an occasional peasant's cart in the road or labourer in the fields, now the country was deserted, save for long lines of weary soldiers going to their billets, lines that shuffled rather than marched. There was no drum to keep them in step with its melancholy throbbing. Two by two, heads down, laden with intrenching tools in addition to their regular equipment, grumbling as the car forced them off the road into the mud that bordered it, swathed beyond recognition against the cold and dampness, in the twilight those lines of shambling men looked grim, determined, sinister.

"We are going through Furnes," said my companion. "It has been shelled all day, but at dusk they usually stop. It is out of our way, but you will like to see it."

I said I was perfectly willing, but that I hoped the Germans would adhere to their usual custom. I felt all at once that, properly conserved, a long and happy life might lie before me. I mentioned that I was a person of no importance, and that my death would be of no military advantage. And, as if to emphasise my peaceful fireside at home, and dinner at seven o'clock with candles on the table, the fire re-commenced.

"Artillery," I said with conviction, "seems to me barbarous and unnecessary. But in a moving automobile--"

It was a wrong move. He hastened to tell me of people riding along calmly in automobiles, and of the next moment there being nothing but a hole in the road. Also he told me how shrapnel spread, scattering death over large areas. If I had had an idea of dodging anything I saw coming it vanished.

We went into the little town of Furnes. Nothing happened. Only one shell was fired, and I have no idea where it fell. The town was a dead town, its empty streets full of brick and glass. I grew quite calm and expressed some anxiety about the tires. Although my throat was dry, I was able to enunciate clearly! We dared not light the car lamps, and our progress was naturally slow.

Furnes is not on the coast, but three miles inland. So we turned sharp to the left toward La Panne, our destination, a small seaside resort in times of peace, but now the capital of Belgium. It was dark now, and the roads were congested with the movements of troops, some going to the trenches, those out of the trenches going back to their billets for twenty-four hours' rest, and the men who had been on rest moving up as pickets or reserves. Even in the darkness it was easy to tell the rested men from the ones newly relieved. Here were mostly Belgians, and the little Belgian soldier is a cheery soul. He asks very little, is never surly. A little food, a little sleep--on straw, in a stable or a church--and he is happy again. Over and over, as I saw the Belgian Army, I was impressed with its cheerfulness under unparalleled conditions.

Most of them have been fighting since Liege. Of a hundred and fifty thousand men only fifty thousand remain. Their ration is meagre compared with the English and the French, their clothing worn and ragged. They are holding the inundated district between Nieuport and Dixmude, a region of constant struggle for water-soaked trenches, where outposts at the time I was there were being fought for through lakes of icy water filled with barbed wire, where their wounded fall and drown. And yet they are inveterately cheerful. A brave lot, the Belgian soldiers, brave and uncomplaining! It is no wonder that the King of Belgium loves them, and that his eyes are tragic as he looks at them.

La Panne at last, a straggling little town of one street and rows of villas overlooking the sea. La Panne, with the guns of Nieuport constantly in one's ears, and the low, red flash of them along the sandy beach; with ambulances bringing in their wounded now that night covers their movements; with English gunboats close to the shore and a searchlight playing over the sea. La Panne, with just over the sand dunes the beginning of that long line of trenches that extends south and east and south again, four hundred and fifty miles of death.

It was two weeks and four days since I had left America, and less than thirty hours since I boarded the one-o'clock train at Victoria Station, London. Later on I beat the thirty-hour record twice, once going from the Belgian front to England in six hours, and another time leaving the English lines at Bethune, motoring to Calais, and arriving in my London hotel the same night. Cars go rapidly over the French roads, and the distance, measured by miles, is not great. Measured by difficulties, it is a different story.

Mary Roberts Rinehart