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Chapter VI. The Cause

The Belgian Red Cross may well be proud of the hospital at La Panne. It is modern, thoroughly organised, completely equipped. Within two weeks of the outbreak of the war it was receiving patients. It was not at the front then. But the German tide has forced itself along until now it is almost on the line.

Generally speaking, order had taken the place of the early chaos in the hospital situation when I was at the front. The British hospitals were a satisfaction to visit. The French situation was not so good. The isolated French hospitals were still in need of everything, even of anaesthetics. The lack of an organised nursing system was being keenly felt.

But the early handicaps of unpreparedness and overwhelming numbers of patients had been overcome to a large extent. Scientific management and modern efficiency had stepped in. Things were still capable of improvement. Gentlemen ambulance drivers are not always to be depended on. Nurses are not all of the same standard of efficiency. Supplies of one sort exceeded the demand, while other things were entirely lacking. Food of the kind that was needed by the very ill was scarce, expensive and difficult to secure at any price.

But the things that have been done are marvellous. Surgery has not failed. The stereoscopic X-ray and antitetanus serum are playing their active part. Once out of the trenches a soldier wounded at the front has as much chance now as a man injured in the pursuit of a peaceful occupation.

Once out of the trenches! For that is the question. The ambulances must wait for night. It is not in the hospitals but in the ghastly hours between injury and darkness that the case of life or death is decided. That is where surgical efficiency fails against the brutality of this war, where the Red Cross is no longer respected, where it is not possible to gather in the wounded under the hospital flag, where there is no armistice and no pity. This is war, glorious war, which those who stay at home say smugly is good for a nation.

But there are those who are hurt, not in the trenches but in front of them. In that narrow strip of No Man's Land between the confronting armies, and extending four hundred and fifty miles from the sea through Belgium and France, each day uncounted numbers of men fall, and, falling, must lie. The terrible thirst that follows loss of blood makes them faint; the cold winds and snows and rains of what has been a fearful winter beat on them; they cannot have water or shelter. The lucky ones die, but there are some that live, and live for days. This too is war, glorious war, which is good for a nation, which makes its boys into men, and its men into these writhing figures that die so slowly and so long.

I have seen many hospitals. Some of the makeshifts would be amusing were they not so pathetic. Old chapels with beds and supplies piled high before the altar; kindergarten rooms with childish mottoes on the walls, from which hang fever charts; nuns' cubicles thrown open to doctors and nurses as living quarters.

At La Panne, however, there are no makeshifts. There are no wards, so called. But many of the large rooms hold three beds. All the rooms are airy and well lighted. True, there is no lift, and the men must be carried down the staircases to the operating rooms on the lower floor, and carried back again. But the carrying is gently done.

There are two operating rooms, each with two modern operating tables. The floors are tiled, the walls, ceiling and all furnishings white. Attached to the operating rooms is a fully equipped laboratory and an X-ray room. I was shown the stereoscopic X-ray apparatus by which the figure on the plate stands out in relief, like any stereoscopic picture. Every large hospital I saw had this apparatus, which is invaluable in locating bullets and pieces of shell or shrapnel. Under the X-ray, too, extraction frequently takes place, the operators using long-handled instruments and gloves that are soaked in a solution of lead and thus become impervious to the rays so destructive to the tissues.

Later on I watched Doctor DePage operate at this hospital. I was put into a uniform, and watched a piece of shell taken from a man's brain and a great blood clot evacuated. Except for the red cross on each window and the rattle of the sash under the guns, I might have been in one of the leading American hospitals and war a century away. There were the same white uniforms on the surgeons; the same white gauze covering their heads and swathing their faces to the eyes; the same silence, the same care as to sterilisation; the same orderly rows of instruments on a glass stand; the same nurses, alert and quiet; the same clear white electric light overhead; the same rubber gloves, the same anaesthetists and assistants.

It was twelve minutes from the time the operating surgeon took the knife until the wound was closed. The head had been previously shaved by one of the assistants, and painted with iodine. In twelve minutes the piece of shell lay in my hand. The stertorous breathing was easier, bandages were being adjusted, the next case was being anaesthetised and prepared.

I wish I could go further. I wish I could follow that peasant-soldier to recovery and health. I wish I could follow him back to his wife and children, to his little farm in Belgium. I wish I could even say he recovered. But I cannot. I do not know. The war is a series of incidents with no beginning and no end. The veil lifts for a moment and drops again.

I saw other cases brought down for operation at the Ambulance Ocean. One I shall never forget. Here was a boy again, looking up with hopeful, fully conscious eyes at the surgeons. He had been shot through the spine. From his waist down he was inert, helpless. He smiled. He had come to be operated on. Now all would be well. The great surgeons would work over him, and he would walk again.

When after a long consultation they had to tell him they could not operate, I dared not look at his eyes.

Again, what is he to do? Where is he to go? He is helpless, in a strange land. He has no country, no people, no money. And he will live, think of it!

I wish I could leaven all this with something cheerful. I wish I could smile over the phonograph playing again and again A Wee Deoch-an'-Doris in that room for convalescents that overlooks the sea. I wish I could think that the baby with both legs off will grow up without missing what it has never known. I wish I could be reconciled because the dead young officer had died the death of a patriot and a soldier, or that the boy I saw dying in an upper room, from shock and loss of blood following an amputation, is only a pawn in the great chess game of empires. I wish I could believe that the two women on the floor below, one with both arms gone, another with one arm off and her back ripped open by a shell, are the legitimate fruits of a holy war. I cannot. I can see only greed and lust of battle and ambition.

In a bright room I saw a German soldier. He had the room to himself. He was blue eyed and yellow haired, with a boyish and contagious smile. He knew no more about it all than I did. It must have bewildered him in the long hours that he lay there alone. He did not hate these people. He never had hated them. It was clear, too, that they did not hate him. For they had saved a gangrenous leg for him when all hope seemed ended. He lay there, with his white coverlet drawn to his chin, and smiled at the surgeon. They were evidently on the best of terms.

"How goes it?" asked the surgeon cheerfully in German.

"Sehr gut," he said, and eyed me curiously.

He was very proud of the leg, and asked that I see it. It was in a cast. He moved it about triumphantly. Probably all over Germany, as over France and this corner of Belgium, just such little scenes occur daily, hourly.

The German peasant, like the French and the Belgian, is a peaceable man. He is military but not militant. He is sentimental rather than impassioned. He loves Christmas and other feast days. He is not ambitious. He fights bravely, but he would rather sing or make a garden.

It is over the bent shoulders of these peasants that the great Continental army machines must march. The German peasant is poor, because for forty years he has been paying the heavy tax of endless armament. The French peasant is poor, because for forty years he has been struggling to recover from the drain of the huge war indemnity demanded by Germany in 1871. The Russian peasant toils for a remote government, with which his sole tie is the tax-gatherer; toils with childish faith for The Little Father, at whose word he may be sent to battle for a cause of which he knows nothing.

Germany's militarism, England's navalism, Russia's autocracy, France, graft-ridden in high places and struggling for rehabilitation after a century of war--and, underneath it all, bearing it on bent shoulders, men like this German prisoner, alone in his room and puzzling it out! It makes one wonder if the result of this war will not be a great and overwhelming individualism, a protest of the unit against the mass; if Socialism, which has apparently died of an ideal, will find this ideal but another name for tyranny, and rise from its grave a living force.

Now and then a justifiable war is fought, for liberty perhaps, or like our Civil War, for a great principle. There are wars that are inevitable. Such wars are frequently revolutions and have their origins in the disaffection of a people.

But here is a world war about which volumes are being written to discover the cause. Here were prosperous nations, building wealth and culture on a basis of peace. Europe was apparently more in danger of revolution than of international warfare. It is not only war without a known cause, it is an unexpected war. Only one of the nations involved showed any evidence of preparation. England is not yet ready. Russia has not yet equipped the men she has mobilised.

Is this war, then, because the balance of power is so nicely adjusted that a touch turns the scale, whether that touch be a Kaiser's dream of empire or the eyes of a Czar turned covetously toward the South?

I tried to think the thing out during the long nights when the sound of the heavy guns kept me awake. It was hard, because I knew so little, nothing at all of European politics, or war, or diplomacy. When I tried to be logical, I became emotional. Instead of reason I found in myself only a deep resentment.

I could see only that blue-eyed German in his bed, those cheery and cold and ill-equipped Belgians drilling on the sands at La Panne.

But on one point I was clear. Away from all the imminent questions that filled the day, the changing ethics of war, its brutalities, its hideous necessities, one point stood out clear and distinct. That the real issue is not the result, but the cause of this war. That the world must dig deep into the mire of European diplomacy to find that cause, and having found it must destroy it. That as long as that cause persists, be it social or political, predatory or ambitious, there will be more wars. Again it will be possible for a handful of men in high place to overthrow a world.

And one of the first results of the discovery of that cause will be a demand of the people to know what their representatives are doing. Diplomacy, instead of secret whispering, a finger to its lips, must shout from the housetops. Great nations cannot be governed from cellars. Diplomats are not necessarily conspirators. There is such a thing as walking in the sunlight.

There is no such thing in civilisation as a warlike people. There are peaceful people, or aggressive people, or military people. But there are none that do not prefer peace to war, until, inflamed and roused by those above them who play this game of empires, they must don the panoply of battle and go forth.

Mary Roberts Rinehart