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Chapter IV. "'Twas a Famous Victory"


LA PANNE, January 25th, 10 P.M.

I am at the Belgian Red Cross hospital to-night. Have had supper and have been given a room on the top floor, facing out over the sea.

This is the base hospital for the Belgian lines. The men come here with the most frightful injuries. As I entered the building to-night the long tiled corridor was filled with the patient and quiet figures that are the first fruits of war. They lay on portable cots, waiting their turn in the operating rooms, the white coverings and bandages not whiter than their faces.

11 P.M. The Night Superintendent has just been in to see me. She says there is a baby here from Furnes with both legs off, and a nun who lost an arm as she was praying in the garden of her convent. The baby will live, but the nun is dying.

She brought me a hot-water bottle, for I am still chilled from my long ride, and sat down for a moment's talk. She is English, as are most of the nurses. She told me with tears in her eyes of a Dutch Red Cross nurse who was struck by a shell in Furnes, two days ago, as she crossed the street to her hospital, which was being evacuated. She was brought here.

"Her leg was shattered," she said. "So young and so pretty she was, too! One of the surgeons was in love with her. It seemed as if he could not let her die."

How terrible! For she died.

"But she had a casket," the Night Superintendent hastened to assure me. "The others, of course, do not. And two of the nurses were relieved to-day to go with her to the grave."

I wonder if the young surgeon went. I wonder--

The baby is near me. I can hear it whimpering.

Midnight. A man in the next room has started to moan. Good God, what a place! He has shell in both lungs, and because of weakness had to be operated on without an anaesthetic.

2 A.M. I cannot sleep. He is trying to sing "Tipperary."

English battleships are bombarding the German batteries at Nieuport from the sea. The windows rattle all the time.

6 A.M. A new day now. A grey and forbidding dawn. Sentries every hundred yards along the beach under my window. The gunboats are moving out to sea. A number of French aeroplanes are scouting overhead.

The man in the next room is quiet.

       *       *       *       *       *

Imagine one of our great seaside hotels stripped of its bands, its gay crowds, its laughter. Paint its many windows white, with a red cross in the centre of each one. Imagine its corridors filled with wounded men, its courtyard crowded with ambulances, its parlours occupied by convalescents who are blind or hopelessly maimed, its card room a chapel trimmed with the panoply of death. For bathchairs and bathers on the sands substitute long lines of weary soldiers drilling in the rain and cold. And over all imagine the unceasing roar of great guns. Then, but feebly, you will have visualised the Ambulance Ocean at La Panne as I saw it that first winter of the war.

The town is built on the sand dunes, and is not unlike Ostend in general situation; but it is hardly more than a village. Such trees as there are grow out of the sand, and are twisted by the winds from the sea. Their trunks are green with smooth moss. And over the dunes is long grass, then grey and dry with winter, grass that was beaten under the wind into waves that surge and hiss.

The beach is wide and level. There is no surf. The sea comes in in long, flat lines of white that wash unheralded about the feet of the cavalry horses drilling there. Here and there a fisherman's boat close to the line of villas marks the limit of high tide; marks more than that; marks the fisherman who has become a soldier; marks the end of the peaceful occupations of the little town; marks the change from a sea that was a livelihood to a sea that has become a menace and a hidden death.

The beach at La Panne has its story. There are guns there now, waiting. The men in charge of them wait, and, waiting, shiver in the cold. And just a few minutes away along the sands there was a house built by a German, a house whose foundation was a cemented site for a gun. The house is destroyed now. It had been carefully located, strategically, and built long before the war began. A gun on that foundation would have commanded Nieuport.

Here, in six villas facing the sea, live King Albert and Queen Elisabeth and their household, and here the Queen, grief-stricken at the tragedy that has overtaken her innocent and injured people, visits the hospital daily.

La Panne has not been bombarded. Hostile aeroplanes are always overhead. The Germans undoubtedly know all about the town; but it has not been touched. I do not believe that it will be. For one thing, it is not at present strategically valuable. Much more important, Queen Elisabeth is a Bavarian princess by birth. Quite aside from both reasons, the outcry from the civilised world which would result from injury to any member of the Belgian royal house, with the present world-wide sympathy for Belgium, would make such an attack inadvisable.

And yet who knows? So much that was considered fundamental in the ethics of modern warfare has gone by the board; so certainly is this war becoming one of reprisals, of hate and venom, that before this is published La Panne may have been destroyed, or its evacuation by the royal family have been decided.

The contrast between Brussels and La Panne is the contrast between Belgium as it was and as it is. The last time I was in Belgium, before this war, I was in Brussels. The great modern city of three-quarters of a million people had grown up round the ancient capital of Brabant. Its name, which means "the dwelling on the marsh," dates from the tenth century. The huge Palais de Justice is one of the most remarkable buildings in the world.

Now in front of that great building German guns are mounted, and the capital of Belgium is a fishing village on the sand dunes. The King of Belgium has exchanged the magnificent Palais du Roi for a small and cheaply built house--not that the democratic young King of Belgium cares for palaces. But the contrast of the two pictures was impressed on me that winter morning as I stood on the sands at La Panne and looked at the royal villa. All round were sentries. The wind from the sea was biting. It set the long grey grass to waving, and blew the fine sand in clouds about the feet of the cavalry horses filing along the beach.

I was quite unmolested as I took photographs of the stirring scenes about. It was the first daylight view I had had of the Belgian soldiers. These were men on their twenty-four hours' rest, with a part of the new army that was being drilled for the spring campaign. The Belgian system keeps a man twenty-four hours in the trenches, gives him twenty-four hours for rest well back from the firing line, and then, moving him up to picket or reserve duty, holds him another twenty-four hours just behind the trenches. The English system is different. Along the English front men are four days in the trenches and four days out. All movements, of course, are made at night.

The men I watched that morning were partly on rest, partly in reserve. They were shabby, cold and cheery. I created unlimited surprise and interest. They lined up eagerly to be photographed. One group I took was gathered round a sack of potatoes, paring raw potatoes and eating them. For the Belgian soldier is the least well fed of the three armies in the western field. When I left, a good Samaritan had sent a case or two of canned things to some of the regiments, and a favoured few were being initiated into the joys of American canned baked beans. They were a new sensation. To watch the soldiers eat them was a joy and a delight.

I wish some American gentleman, tiring of storing up his treasures only in heaven, would send a can or a case or a shipload of baked beans to the Belgians. This is alliterative, but earnest. They can heat them in the trenches in the cans; they can thrive on them and fight on them. And when the cans are empty they can build fires in them or hang them, filled with stones, on the barbed-wire entanglements in front of the trenches, so that they ring like bells on a herd of cows to warn them of an impending attack.

And while we are on this subject, I wish some of the women who are knitting scarfs would stop,[B] now that winter is over, and make jelly and jam for the brave and cheerful little Belgian army. I am aware that it is less pleasant than knitting. It cannot be taken to lectures or musicales. One cannot make jam between the courses of a luncheon or a dinner party, or during the dummy hand at bridge. But the men have so little--unsweetened coffee and black bread for breakfast; a stew of meat and vegetables at mid-day, taken to them, when it can be taken, but carried miles from where it is cooked, and usually cold. They pour off the cold liquor and eat the unpalatable residue. Supper is like breakfast with the addition of a ration of minced meat and potatoes, also cold and not attractive at the best.

[Footnote B: This was written in the spring. By the time this book is published knitted woollens will be again in demand. Socks and mittens, abdominal belts and neck scarfs are much liked. A soldier told me he liked his scarf wide, and eight feet long, so he can carry it around his body and fasten it in the back.]

Sometimes they have bully beef. I have eaten bully beef, which is a cooked and tinned beef, semi-gelatinous. The Belgian bully beef is drier and tougher than the English. It is not bad; indeed, it is quite good. But the soldier needs variety. The English know this. Their soldiers have sugar, tea, jam and cheese.

If I were asked to-day what the Belgian army needs, now that winter is over and they need no longer shiver in their thin clothing, I should say, in addition to the surgical supplies that are so terribly necessary, portable kitchens, to give them hot and palatable food. Such kitchens may be bought for two hundred and fifty dollars, with a horse to draw them. They are really sublimated steam cookers, with the hot water used to make coffee when they reach the trenches. I should say, then, surgical supplies and hospital equipment, field kitchens, jams of all sorts, canned beans, cigarettes and rubber boots! A number of field kitchens have already been sent over. A splendid Englishman attached to the Belgian Army has secured funds for a few more. But many are needed. I have seen a big and brawny Belgian officer, with a long record of military bravery behind him, almost shed tears over the prospect of one of these kitchens for his men.

I took many pictures that morning--of dogs, three abreast, hauling mitrailleuse, the small and deadly quick-firing guns, from the word mitraille, a hail of balls; of long lines of Belgian lancers on their undipped and shaggy horses, each man carrying an eight-foot lance at rest; of men drilling in broken boots, in wooden shoes stuffed with straw, in carpet slippers. I was in furs from head to foot--the same fur coat that has been, in turn, lap robe, bed clothing and pillow--and I was cold. These men, smiling into my camera, were thinly dressed, with bare, ungloved hands. But they were smiling.

Afterward I learned that many of them had no underclothing, that the blue tunics and trousers were all they had. Always they shivered, but often also they smiled. Many of them had fought since Liege; most of them had no knowledge of their families on the other side of the line of death. When they return to their country, what will they go back to? Their homes are gone, their farm buildings destroyed, their horses and cattle killed.

But they are a courageous people, a bravely cheery people. Flor every one of them that remained there, two had gone, either to death, captivity or serious injury. They were glad to be alive that morning on the sands of La Panne, under the incessant roaring of the guns. The wind died down; the sun came out. It was January. In two months, or three, it would be spring and warm. In two months, or three, they confidently expected to be on the move toward their homes again.

What mattered broken boots and the mud and filth of their trenches? What mattered the German aeroplane overhead? Or cold and insufficient food? Or the wind? Nothing mattered but death, and they still lived. And perhaps, beyond the line--

That afternoon, from the Ambulance Ocean, a young Belgian officer was buried.

It was a bright, sunny afternoon, but bitterly cold. Troops were lined up before the hospital in the square; a band, too, holding its instruments with blue and ungloved fingers.

He had been a very brave officer, and very young. The story of what he had done had been told about. So, although military funerals are many, a handful of civilians had gathered to see him taken away to the crowded cemetery. The three English gunboats were patrolling the sea. Tall Belgian generals, in high blue-and-gold caps and great cape overcoats, met in the open space and conferred.

The dead young officer lay in state in the little chapel of the hospital. Ten tall black standards round him held burning candles, the lights of faith. His uniform, brushed of its mud and neatly folded, lay on top of the casket, with his pathetic cap and with the sword that would never lead another charge. He had fought very hard to live, they said at the hospital. But he had died.

The crowd opened, and the priest came through. He wore a purple velvet robe, and behind him came his deacons and four small acolytes in surplices. Up the steps went the little procession. And the doors of the hospital closed behind it.

The civilians turned and went away. The soldiers stood rigid in the cold sunshine, and waited. A little boy kicked a football over the sand. The guns at Nieuport crashed and hammered.

After a time the doors opened again. The boy picked up his football and came closer. The musicians blew on their fingers to warm them. The dead young officer was carried out. His sword gleamed in the sun. They carried the casket carefully, not to disorder the carefully folded tunic or the pathetic cap. The body was placed in an ambulance. At a signal the band commenced to play and the soldiers closed in round the ambulance.

The path of glory, indeed!

But it was not this boyish officer's hope of glory that had brought this scene to pass. He died fighting a defensive war, to save what was left to him of the country he loved. He had no dream of empire, no vision of commercial supremacy, no thrill of conquest as an invaded and destroyed country bent to the inevitable. For months since Liege he had fought a losing fight, a fight that Belgium knew from the beginning must be a losing fight, until such time as her allies could come to her aid. Like the others, he had nothing to gain by this war and everything to lose.

He had lost. The ambulance moved away.

I was frequently in La Panne after that day. I got to know well the road from Dunkirk, with its bordering of mud and ditch, its heavy transports, its grey gunboats in the canals that followed it on one side, its long lines of over-laden soldiers, its automobiles that travelled always at top speed. I saw pictures that no artist will ever paint--of horrors and beauties, of pathos and comedy; of soldiers washing away the filth of the trenches in the cold waters of canals and ditches; of refugees flying by day from the towns, and returning at night to their ruined houses to sleep in the cellars; of long processions of Spahis, Arabs from Algeria, silhouetted against the flat sky line against a setting sun, their tired horses moving slowly, with drooping heads, while their riders, in burnoose and turban, rode with loose reins; of hostile aeroplanes sailing the afternoon breeze like lazy birds, while shells from the anti-aircraft guns burst harmlessly below them in small balloon-shaped clouds of smoke.

But never in all that time did I overcome the sense of unreality, and always I was obsessed by the injustice, the wanton waste and cost and injustice of it all. The baby at La Panne--why should it go through life on stumps instead of legs? The boyish officer--why should he have died? The little sixteen-year-old soldier who had been blinded and who sat all day by the phonograph, listening to Madame Butterfly, Tipperary, and Harry Lauder's A Wee Deoch-an'-Doris--why should he never see again what I could see from the window beside him, the winter sunset over the sea, the glistening white of the sands, the flat line of the surf as it crept in to the sentries' feet? Why? Why?

All these wrecks of boys and men, where are they to go? What are they to do? Blind and maimed, weak from long privation followed by great suffering, what is to become of them when the hospital has fulfilled its function and they are discharged "cured"? Their occupations, their homes, their usefulness are gone. They have not always even clothing in which to leave the hospital. If it was not destroyed by the shell or shrapnel that mutilated them it was worn beyond belief and redemption. Such ragged uniforms as I have seen! Such tragedies of trousers! Such absurd and heart-breaking tunics!

When, soon after, I was presented to the King of the Belgians, these very questions had written lines in his face. It is easy to believe that King Albert of Belgium has buried his private anxieties in the common grief and stress of his people.

Mary Roberts Rinehart