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Ch. 4: In the North

June 19th, 1915.

On the way from Doullens to Montreuil-sur-Mer, on a shining summer
afternoon. A road between dusty hedges, choked, literally strangled,
by a torrent of westward-streaming troops of all arms. Every few
minutes there would come a break in the flow, and our motor would
wriggle through, advance a few yards, and be stopped again by a
widening of the torrent that jammed us into the ditch and splashed a
dazzle of dust into our eyes. The dust was stifling--but through it,
what a sight!

Standing up in the car and looking back, we watched the river of war
wind toward us. Cavalry, artillery, lancers, infantry, sappers and
miners, trench-diggers, road-makers, stretcher-bearers, they swept
on as smoothly as if in holiday order. Through the dust, the sun
picked out the flash of lances and the gloss of chargers' flanks,
flushed rows and rows of determined faces, found the least touch of
gold on faded uniforms, silvered the sad grey of mitrailleuses and
munition waggons. Close as the men were, they seemed allegorically
splendid: as if, under the arch of the sunset, we had been watching
the whole French army ride straight into glory...

Finally we left the last detachment behind, and had the country to
ourselves. The disfigurement of war has not touched the fields of
Artois. The thatched farmhouses dozed in gardens full of roses and
hollyhocks, and the hedges above the duck-ponds were weighed down
with layers of elder-blossom. On all sides wheat-fields skirted with
woodland went billowing away under the breezy light that seemed to
carry a breath of the Atlantic on its beams. The road ran up and
down as if our motor were a ship on a deep-sea swell; and such a
sense of space and light was in the distances, such a veil of beauty
over the whole world, that the vision of that army on the move grew
more and more fabulous and epic.

The sun had set and the sea-twilight was rolling in when we dipped
down from the town of Montreuil to the valley below, where the
towers of an ancient abbey-church rise above terraced orchards. The
gates at the end of the avenue were thrown open, and the motor drove
into a monastery court full of box and roses. Everything was sweet
and secluded in this mediaeval place; and from the shadow of
cloisters and arched passages groups of nuns fluttered out, nuns all
black or all white, gliding, peering and standing at gaze. It was as
if we had plunged back into a century to which motors were unknown
and our car had been some monster cast up from a Barbary shipwreck;
and the startled attitudes of these holy women did credit to their
sense of the picturesque; for the Abbey of Neuville is now a great
Belgian hospital, and such monsters must frequently intrude on its
seclusion...

Sunset, and summer dusk, and the moon. Under the monastery windows a
walled garden with stone pavilions at the angles and the drip of a
fountain. Below it, tiers of orchard-terraces fading into a great
moon-confused plain that might be either fields or sea...

June 20th.


Today our way ran northeast, through a landscape so English that
there was no incongruity in the sprinkling of khaki along the road.
Even the villages look English: the same plum-red brick of tidy
self-respecting houses, neat, demure and freshly painted, the
gardens all bursting with flowers, the landscape hedgerowed and
willowed and fed with water-courses, the people's faces square and
pink and honest, and the signs over the shops in a language half way
between English and German. Only the architecture of the towns is
French, of a reserved and robust northern type, but unmistakably in
the same great tradition.

War still seemed so far off that one had time for these digressions
as the motor flew on over the undulating miles. But presently we
came on an aviation camp spreading its sheds over a wide plateau.
Here the khaki throng was thicker and the familiar military stir
enlivened the landscape. A few miles farther, and we found ourselves
in what was seemingly a big English town oddly grouped about a
nucleus of French churches. This was St. Omer, grey, spacious,
coldly clean in its Sunday emptiness. At the street crossings
English sentries stood mechanically directing the absent traffic
with gestures familiar to Piccadilly; and the signs of the British
Red Cross and St. John's Ambulance hung on club-like facades that
might almost have claimed a home in Pall Mall.

The Englishness of things was emphasized, as we passed out through
the suburbs, by the look of the crowd on the canal bridges and along
the roads. Every nation has its own way of loitering, and there is
nothing so unlike the French way as the English. Even if all these
tall youths had not been in khaki, and the girls with them so pink
and countrified, one would instantly have recognized the passive
northern way of letting a holiday soak in instead of squeezing out
its juices with feverish fingers.

When we turned westward from St. Omer, across the same pastures and
watercourses, we were faced by two hills standing up abruptly out of
the plain; and on the top of one rose the walls and towers of a
compact little mediaeval town. As we took the windings that led up
to it a sense of Italy began to penetrate the persistent impression
of being somewhere near the English Channel. The town we were
approaching might have been a queer dream-blend of Winchelsea and
San Gimignano; but when we entered the gates of Cassel we were in a
place so intensely itself that all analogies dropped out of mind.

It was not surprising to learn from the guide-book that Cassel has
the most extensive view of any town in Europe: one felt at once that
it differed in all sorts of marked and self-assertive ways from
every other town, and would be almost sure to have the best things
going in every line. And the line of an illimitable horizon is
exactly the best to set off its own quaint compactness.

We found our hotel in the most perfect of little market squares,
with a Renaissance town-hall on one side, and on the other a
miniature Spanish palace with a front of rosy brick adorned by grey
carvings. The square was crowded with English army motors and
beautiful prancing chargers; and the restaurant of the inn (which
has the luck to face the pink and grey palace) swarmed with khaki
tea-drinkers turning indifferent shoulders to the widest view in
Europe. It is one of the most detestable things about war that
everything connected with it, except the death and ruin that result,
is such a heightening of life, so visually stimulating and
absorbing. "It was gay and terrible," is the phrase forever
recurring in "War and Peace"; and the gaiety of war was everywhere
in Cassel, transforming the lifeless little town into a romantic
stage-setting full of the flash of arms and the virile animation of
young faces.

From the park on top of the hill we looked down on another picture.
All about us was the plain, its distant rim merged in northern
sea-mist; and through the mist, in the glitter of the afternoon sun,
far-off towns and shadowy towers lay steeped, as it seemed, in
summer quiet. For a moment, while we looked, the vision of war
shrivelled up like a painted veil; then we caught the names
pronounced by a group of English soldiers leaning over the parapet
at our side. "That's Dunkerque"--one of them pointed it out with his
pipe--"and there's Poperinghe, just under us; that's Furnes beyond,
and Ypres and Dixmude, and Nieuport... "And at the mention of
those names the scene grew dark again, and we felt the passing of
the Angel to whom was given the Key of the Bottomless Pit.

That night we went up once more to the rock of Cassel. The moon was
full, and as civilians are not allowed out alone after dark a
staff-officer went with us to show us the view from the roof of the
disused Casino on top of the rock. It was the queerest of sensations
to push open a glazed door and find ourselves in a spectral painted
room with soldiers dozing in the moonlight on polished floors, their
kits stacked on the gaming tables. We passed through a big vestibule
among more soldiers lounging in the half-light, and up a long
staircase to the roof where a watcher challenged us and then let us
go to the edge of the parapet. Directly below lay the unlit mass of
the town. To the northwest a single sharp hill, the "Mont des Cats,"
stood out against the sky; the rest of the horizon was unbroken, and
floating in misty moonlight. The outline of the ruined towns had
vanished and peace seemed to have won back the world. But as we
stood there a red flash started out of the mist far off to the
northwest; then another and another flickered up at different points
of the long curve. "Luminous bombs thrown up along the lines," our
guide explained; and just then, at still another point a white light
opened like a tropical flower, spread to full bloom and drew itself
back into the night. "A flare," we were told; and another white
flower bloomed out farther down. Below us, the roofs of Cassel slept
their provincial sleep, the moonlight picking out every leaf in the
gardens; while beyond, those infernal flowers continued to open and
shut along the curve of death.

June 21st.


On the road from Cassel to Poperinghe. Heat, dust, crowds,
confusion, all the sordid shabby rear-view of war. The road running
across the plain between white-powdered hedges was ploughed up by
numberless motor-vans, supply-waggons and Red Cross ambulances.
Labouring through between them came detachments of British
artillery, clattering gun-carriages, straight young figures on
glossy horses, long Phidian lines of youths so ingenuously fair that
one wondered how they could have looked on the Medusa face of war
and lived. Men and beasts, in spite of the dust, were as fresh and
sleek as if they had come from a bath; and everywhere along the
wayside were improvised camps, with tents made of waggon-covers,
where the ceaseless indomitable work of cleaning was being carried
out in all its searching details. Shirts were drying on
elder-bushes, kettles boiling over gypsy fires, men shaving,
blacking their boots, cleaning their guns, rubbing down their
horses, greasing their saddles, polishing their stirrups and bits:
on all sides a general cheery struggle against the prevailing dust,
discomfort and disorder. Here and there a young soldier leaned
against a garden paling to talk to a girl among the hollyhocks, or
an older soldier initiated a group of children into some mystery of
military housekeeping; and everywhere were the same signs of
friendly inarticulate understanding with the owners of the fields
and gardens.

From the thronged high-road we passed into the emptiness of deserted
Poperinghe, and out again on the way to Ypres. Beyond the flats and
wind-mills to our left were the invisible German lines, and the
staff-officer who was with us leaned forward to caution our
chauffeur: "No tooting between here and Ypres." There was still a
good deal of movement on the road, though it was less crowded with
troops than near Poperinghe; but as we passed through the last
village and approached the low line of houses ahead, the silence and
emptiness widened about us. That low line was Ypres; every monument
that marked it, that gave it an individual outline, is gone. It is a
town without a profile.

The motor slipped through a suburb of small brick houses and stopped
under cover of some slightly taller buildings. Another military
motor waited there, the chauffeur relic-hunting in the gutted
houses.

We got out and walked toward the centre of the Cloth Market. We had
seen evacuated towns--Verdun, Badonviller, Raon-l'Etape--but we had
seen no emptiness like this. Not a human being was in the streets.
Endless lines of houses looked down on us from vacant windows. Our
footsteps echoed like the tramp of a crowd, our lowered voices
seemed to shout. In one street we came on three English soldiers who
were carrying a piano out of a house and lifting it onto a
hand-cart. They stopped to stare at us, and we stared back. It
seemed an age since we had seen a living being! One of the soldiers
scrambled into the cart and tapped out a tune on the cracked
key-board, and we all laughed with relief at the foolish noise...
Then we walked on and were alone again.

We had seen other ruined towns, but none like this. The towns of
Lorraine were blown up, burnt down, deliberately erased from the
earth. At worst they are like stone-yards, at best like Pompeii. But
Ypres has been bombarded to death, and the outer walls of its houses
are still standing, so that it presents the distant semblance of a
living city, while near by it is seen to be a disembowelled corpse.
Every window-pane is smashed, nearly every building unroofed, and
some house-fronts are sliced clean off, with the different stories
exposed, as if for the stage-setting of a farce. In these exposed
interiors the poor little household gods shiver and blink like owls
surprised in a hollow tree. A hundred signs of intimate and humble
tastes, of humdrum pursuits, of family association, cling to the
unmasked walls. Whiskered photographs fade on morning-glory
wallpapers, plaster saints pine under glass bells, antimacassars
droop from plush sofas, yellowing diplomas display their seals on
office walls. It was all so still and familiar that it seemed as if
the people for whom these things had a meaning might at any moment
come back and take up their daily business. And then--crash! the
guns began, slamming out volley after volley all along the English
lines, and the poor frail web of things that had made up the lives
of a vanished city-full hung dangling before us in that deathly
blast.

We had just reached the square before the Cathedral when the
cannonade began, and its roar seemed to build a roof of iron over
the glorious ruins of Ypres. The singular distinction of the city is
that it is destroyed but not abased. The walls of the Cathedral, the
long bulk of the Cloth Market, still lift themselves above the
market place with a majesty that seems to silence compassion. The
sight of those facades, so proud in death, recalled a phrase used
soon after the fall of Liege by Belgium's Foreign Minister--"_La
Belgique ne regrette rien_ "--which ought some day to serve as the
motto of the renovated city.

We were turning to go when we heard a whirr overhead, followed by a
volley of mitrailleuse. High up in the blue, over the centre of the
dead city, flew a German aeroplane; and all about it hundreds of
white shrapnel tufts burst out in the summer sky like the miraculous
snow-fall of Italian legend. Up and up they flew, on the trail of
the Taube, and on flew the Taube, faster still, till quarry and pack
were lost in mist, and the barking of the mitrailleuse died out. So
we left Ypres to the death-silence in which we had found her.

The afternoon carried us back to Poperinghe, where I was bound on a
quest for lace-cushions of the special kind required by our Flemish
refugees. The model is unobtainable in France, and I had been
told--with few and vague indications--that I might find the cushions
in a certain convent of the city. But in which?

Poperinghe, though little injured, is almost empty. In its tidy
desolation it looks like a town on which a wicked enchanter has laid
a spell. We roamed from quarter to quarter, hunting for some one to
show us the way to the convent I was looking for, till at last a
passer-by led us to a door which seemed the right one. At our knock
the bars were drawn and a cloistered face looked out. No, there were
no cushions there; and the nun had never heard of the order we
named. But there were the Penitents, the Benedictines--we might try.
Our guide offered to show us the way and we went on. From one or two
windows, wondering heads looked out and vanished; but the streets
were lifeless. At last we came to a convent where there were no nuns
left, but where, the caretaker told us, there were cushions--a great
many. He led us through pale blue passages, up cold stairs, through
rooms that smelt of linen and lavender. We passed a chapel with
plaster saints in white niches above paper flowers. Everything was
cold and bare and blank: like a mind from which memory has gone. We
came to a class room with lines of empty benches facing a
blue-mantled Virgin; and here, on the floor, lay rows and rows of
lace-cushions. On each a bit of lace had been begun--and there they
had been dropped when nuns and pupils fled. They had not been left
in disorder: the rows had been laid out evenly, a handkerchief
thrown over each cushion. And that orderly arrest of life seemed
sadder than any scene of disarray. It symbolized the senseless
paralysis of a whole nation's activities. Here were a houseful of
women and children, yesterday engaged in a useful task and now
aimlessly astray over the earth. And in hundreds of such houses, in
dozens, in hundreds of open towns, the hand of time had been
stopped, the heart of life had ceased to beat, all the currents of
hope and happiness and industry been choked--not that some great
military end might be gained, or the length of the war curtailed,
but that, wherever the shadow of Germany falls, all things should
wither at the root.

The same sight met us everywhere that afternoon. Over Furnes and
Bergues, and all the little intermediate villages, the evil shadow
lay. Germany had willed that these places should die, and wherever
her bombs could not reach her malediction had carried. Only Biblical
lamentation can convey a vision of this life-drained land. "Your
country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land,
strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as
overthrown by strangers."

Late in the afternoon we came to Dunkerque, lying peacefully between
its harbour and canals. The bombardment of the previous month had
emptied it, and though no signs of damage were visible the same
spellbound air lay over everything. As we sat alone at tea in the
hall of the hotel on the Place Jean Bart, and looked out on the
silent square and its lifeless shops and cafes, some one suggested
that the hotel would be a convenient centre for the excursions we
had planned, and we decided to return there the next evening. Then
we motored back to Cassel.

June 22nd.


My first waking thought was: "How time flies! It must be the
Fourteenth of July!" I knew it could not be the Fourth of that
specially commemorative month, because I was just awake enough to be
sure I was not in America; and the only other event to justify such
a terrific clatter was the French national anniversary. I sat up and
listened to the popping of guns till a completed sense of reality
stole over me, and I realized that I was in the inn of the Wild Man
at Cassel, and that it was not the fourteenth of July but the
twenty-second of June.

Then, what--? A Taube, of course! And all the guns in the place were
cracking at it! By the time this mental process was complete, I had
scrambled up and hurried downstairs and, unbolting the heavy doors,
had rushed out into the square. It was about four in the morning,
the heavenliest moment of a summer dawn, and in spite of the tumult
Cassel still apparently slept. Only a few soldiers stood in the
square, looking up at a drift of white cloud behind which--they
averred--a Taube had just slipped out of sight. Cassel was evidently
used to Taubes, and I had the sense of having overdone my excitement
and not being exactly in tune; so after gazing a moment at the white
cloud I slunk back into the hotel, barred the door and mounted to my
room. At a window on the stairs I paused to look out over the
sloping roofs of the town, the gardens, the plain; and suddenly
there was another crash and a drift of white smoke blew up from the
fruit-trees just under the window. It was a last shot at the
fugitive, from a gun hidden in one of those quiet provincial gardens
between the houses; and its secret presence there was more startling
than all the clatter of mitrailleuses from the rock.

Silence and sleep came down again on Cassel; but an hour or two
later the hush was broken by a roar like the last trump. This time
it was no question of mitrailleuses. The Wild Man rocked on its
base, and every pane in my windows beat a tattoo. What was that
incredible unimagined sound? Why, it could be nothing, of course,
but the voice of the big siege-gun of Dixmude! Five times, while I
was dressing, the thunder shook my windows, and the air was filled
with a noise that may be compared--if the human imagination can
stand the strain--to the simultaneous closing of all the iron
shop-shutters in the world. The odd part was that, as far as the
Wild Man and its inhabitants were concerned, no visible effects
resulted, and dressing, packing and coffee-drinking went on
comfortably in the strange parentheses between the roars.

We set off early for a neighbouring Head-quarters, and it was not
till we turned out of the gates of Cassel that we came on signs of
the bombardment: the smashing of a gas-house and the converting of a
cabbage-field into a crater which, for some time to come, will spare
photographers the trouble of climbing Vesuvius. There was a certain
consolation in the discrepancy between the noise and the damage
done.

At Head-quarters we learned more of the morning's incidents.
Dunkerque, it appeared, had first been visited by the Taube which
afterward came to take the range of Cassel; and the big gun of
Dixmude had then turned all its fury on the French sea-port. The
bombardment of Dunkuerque was still going on; and we were asked, and
in fact bidden, to give up our plan of going there for the night.

After luncheon we turned north, toward the dunes. The villages we
drove through were all evacuated, some quite lifeless, others
occupied by troops. Presently we came to a group of military motors
drawn up by the roadside, and a field black with wheeling troops.
"Admiral Ronarc'h!" our companion from Head-quarters exclaimed; and
we understood that we had had the good luck to come on the hero of
Dixmude in the act of reviewing the marine fusiliers and
territorials whose magnificent defense of last October gave that
much-besieged town another lease of glory.

We stopped the motor and climbed to a ridge above the field. A high
wind was blowing, bringing with it the booming of the guns along the
front. A sun half-veiled in sand-dust shone on pale meadows, sandy
flats, grey wind-mills. The scene was deserted, except for the
handful of troops deploying before the officers on the edge of the
field. Admiral Ronarc'h, white-gloved and in full-dress uniform,
stood a little in advance, a young naval officer at his side. He had
just been distributing decorations to his fusiliers and
territorials, and they were marching past him, flags flying and
bugles playing. Every one of those men had a record of heroism, and
every face in those ranks had looked on horrors unnameable. They had
lost Dixmude--for a while--but they had gained great glory, and the
inspiration of their epic resistance had come from the quiet officer
who stood there, straight and grave, in his white gloves and gala
uniform.

One must have been in the North to know something of the tie that
exists, in this region of bitter and continuous fighting, between
officers and soldiers. The feeling of the chiefs is almost one of
veneration for their men; that of the soldiers, a kind of
half-humorous tenderness for the officers who have faced such odds
with them. This mutual regard reveals itself in a hundred
undefinable ways; but its fullest expression is in the tone with
which the commanding officers speak the two words oftenest on their
lips: "My men."

The little review over, we went on to Admiral Ronarc'h's quarters in
the dunes, and thence, after a brief visit, to another brigade
Head-quarters. We were in a region of sandy hillocks feathered by
tamarisk, and interspersed with poplar groves slanting like wheat in
the wind. Between these meagre thickets the roofs of seaside
bungalows showed above the dunes; and before one of these we
stopped, and were led into a sitting-room full of maps and aeroplane
photographs. One of the officers of the brigade telephoned to ask if
the way was clear to Nieuport; and the answer was that we might go
on.

Our road ran through the "Bois Triangulaire," a bit of woodland
exposed to constant shelling. Half the poor spindling trees were
down, and patches of blackened undergrowth and ragged hollows marked
the path of the shells. If the trees of a cannonaded wood are of
strong inland growth their fallen trunks have the majesty of a
ruined temple; but there was something humanly pitiful in the frail
trunks of the Bois Triangulaire, lying there like slaughtered rows
of immature troops.

A few miles more brought us to Nieuport, most lamentable of the
victim towns. It is not empty as Ypres is empty: troops are
quartered in the cellars, and at the approach of our motor knots of
cheerful zouaves came swarming out of the ground like ants. But
Ypres is majestic in death, poor Nieuport gruesomely comic. About
its splendid nucleus of mediaeval architecture a modern town had
grown up; and nothing stranger can be pictured than the contrast
between the streets of flimsy houses, twisted like curl-papers, and
the ruins of the Gothic Cathedral and the Cloth Market. It is like
passing from a smashed toy to the survival of a prehistoric
cataclysm.

Modern Nieuport seems to have died in a colic. No less homely image
expresses the contractions and contortions of the houses reaching
out the appeal of their desperate chimney-pots and agonized girders.
There is one view along the exterior of the town like nothing else
on the warfront. On the left, a line of palsied houses leads up like
a string of crutch-propped beggars to the mighty ruin of the
Templars' Tower; on the right the flats reach away to the almost
imperceptible humps of masonry that were once the villages of St.
Georges, Ramscappelle, Pervyse. And over it all the incessant crash
of the guns stretches a sounding-board of steel.

In front of the cathedral a German shell has dug a crater thirty
feet across, overhung by splintered tree-trunks, burnt shrubs, vague
mounds of rubbish; and a few steps beyond lies the peacefullest spot
in Nieuport, the grave-yard where the zouaves have buried their
comrades. The dead are laid in rows under the flank of the
cathedral, and on their carefully set grave-stones have been placed
collections of pious images gathered from the ruined houses. Some of
the most privileged are guarded by colonies of plaster saints and
Virgins that cover the whole slab; and over the handsomest Virgins
and the most gaily coloured saints the soldiers have placed the
glass bells that once protected the parlour clocks and
wedding-wreaths in the same houses.

From sad Nieuport we motored on to a little seaside colony where
gaiety prevails. Here the big hotels and the adjoining villas along
the beach are filled with troops just back from the trenches: it is
one of the "rest cures" of the front. When we drove up, the regiment
"au repos" was assembled in the wide sandy space between the
principal hotels, and in the centre of the jolly crowd the band was
playing. The Colonel and his officers stood listening to the music,
and presently the soldiers broke into the wild "chanson des zouaves"
of the --th zouaves. It was the strangest of sights to watch that
throng of dusky merry faces under their red fezes against the
background of sunless northern sea. When the music was over some one
with a kodak suggested "a group": we struck a collective attitude on
one of the hotel terraces, and just as the camera was being aimed at
us the Colonel turned and drew into the foreground a little grinning
pock-marked soldier. "He's just been decorated--he's got to be in
the group." A general exclamation of assent from the other officers,
and a protest from the hero: "Me? Why, my ugly mug will smash the
plate!" But it didn't--

Reluctantly we turned from this interval in the day's sad round, and
took the road to La Panne. Dust, dunes, deserted villages: my memory
keeps no more definite vision of the run. But at sunset we came on a
big seaside colony stretched out above the longest beach I ever saw:
along the sea-front, an esplanade bordered by the usual foolish
villas, and behind it a single street filled with hotels and shops.
All the life of the desert region we had traversed seemed to have
taken refuge at La Panne. The long street was swarming with throngs
of dark-uniformed Belgian soldiers, every shop seemed to be doing a
thriving trade, and the hotels looked as full as beehives.

June 23rd LA PANNE.


The particular hive that has taken us in is at the extreme end of
the esplanade, where asphalt and iron railings lapse abruptly into
sand and sea-grass. When I looked out of my window this morning I
saw only the endless stretch of brown sand against the grey roll of
the Northern Ocean and, on a crest of the dunes, the figure of a
solitary sentinel. But presently there was a sound of martial music,
and long lines of troops came marching along the esplanade and down
to the beach. The sands stretched away to east and west, a great
"field of Mars" on which an army could have manoeuvred; and the
morning exercises of cavalry and infantry began. Against the brown
beach the regiments in their dark uniforms looked as black as
silhouettes; and the cavalry galloping by in single file suggested a
black frieze of warriors encircling the dun-coloured flanks of an
Etruscan vase. For hours these long-drawn-out movements of troops
went on, to the wail of bugles, and under the eye of the lonely
sentinel on the sand-crest; then the soldiers poured back into the
town, and La Panne was once more a busy common-place _bain-de-mer_.
The common-placeness, however, was only on the surface; for as one
walked along the esplanade one discovered that the town had become a
citadel, and that all the doll's-house villas with their silly
gables and sillier names--"Seaweed," "The Sea-gull," "Mon Repos,"
and the rest--were really a continuous line of barracks swarming
with Belgian troops. In the main street there were hundreds of
soldiers, pottering along in couples, chatting in groups, romping
and wrestling like a crowd of school-boys, or bargaining in the
shops for shell-work souvenirs and sets of post-cards; and between
the dark-green and crimson uniforms was a frequent sprinkling of
khaki, with the occasional pale blue of a French officer's tunic.

Before luncheon we motored over to Dunkerque. The road runs along
the canal, between grass-flats and prosperous villages. No signs of
war were noticeable except on the road, which was crowded with motor
vans, ambulances and troops. The walls and gates of Dunkerque rose
before us as calm and undisturbed as when we entered the town the
day before yesterday. But within the gates we were in a desert. The
bombardment had ceased the previous evening, but a death-hush lay on
the town, Every house was shuttered and the streets were empty. We
drove to the Place Jean Bart, where two days ago we sat at tea in
the hall of the hotel. Now there was not a whole pane of glass in
the windows of the square, the doors of the hotel were closed, and
every now and then some one came out carrying a basketful of plaster
from fallen ceilings. The whole surface of the square was literally
paved with bits of glass from the hundreds of broken windows, and at
the foot of David's statue of Jean Bart, just where our motor had
stood while we had tea, the siege-gun of Dixmude had scooped out a
hollow as big as the crater at Nieuport.

Though not a house on the square was touched, the scene was one of
unmitigated desolation. It was the first time we had seen the raw
wounds of a bombardment, and the freshness of the havoc seemed to
accentuate its cruelty. We wandered down the street behind the hotel
to the graceful Gothic church of St. Eloi, of which one aisle had
been shattered; then, turning another corner, we came on a poor
_bourgeois_ house that had had its whole front torn away. The
squalid revelation of caved-in floors, smashed wardrobes, dangling
bedsteads, heaped-up blankets, topsy-turvy chairs and stoves and
wash-stands was far more painful than the sight of the wounded
church. St. Eloi was draped in the dignity of martyrdom, but the
poor little house reminded one of some shy humdrum person suddenly
exposed in the glare of a great misfortune.

A few people stood in clusters looking up at the ruins, or strayed
aimlessly about the streets. Not a loud word was heard. The air
seemed heavy with the suspended breath of a great city's activities:
the mournful hush of Dunkerque was even more oppressive than the
death-silence of Ypres. But when we came back to the Place Jean Bart
the unbreakable human spirit had begun to reassert itself. A handful
of children were playing in the bottom of the crater, collecting
"specimens" of glass and splintered brick; and about its rim the
market-people, quietly and as a matter of course, were setting up
their wooden stalls. In a few minutes the signs of German havoc
would be hidden behind stacks of crockery and household utensils,
and some of the pale women we had left in mournful contemplation of
the ruins would be bargaining as sharply as ever for a sauce-pan or
a butter-tub. Not once but a hundred times has the attitude of the
average French civilian near the front reminded me of the gallant
cry of Calanthea in _The Broken Heart:_ "Let me die smiling!" I
should have liked to stop and spend all I had in the market of
Dunkerque...

All the afternoon we wandered about La Panne. The exercises of the
troops had begun again, and the deploying of those endless black
lines along the beach was a sight of the strangest beauty. The sun
was veiled, and heavy surges rolled in under a northerly gale.
Toward evening the sea turned to cold tints of jade and pearl and
tarnished silver. Far down the beach a mysterious fleet of fishing
boats was drawn up on the sand, with black sails bellying in the
wind; and the black riders galloping by might have landed from them,
and been riding into the sunset out of some wild northern legend.
Presently a knot of buglers took up their stand on the edge of the
sea, facing inward, their feet in the surf, and began to play; and
their call was like the call of Roland's horn, when he blew it down
the pass against the heathen. On the sandcrest below my window the
lonely sentinel still watched...

June 24th.


It is like coming down from the mountains to leave the front. I
never had the feeling more strongly than when we passed out of
Belgium this afternoon. I had it most strongly as we drove by a
cluster of villas standing apart in a sterile region of sea-grass
and sand. In one of those villas for nearly a year, two hearts at
the highest pitch of human constancy have held up a light to the
world. It is impossible to pass that house without a sense of awe.
Because of the light that comes from it, dead faiths have come to
life, weak convictions have grown strong, fiery impulses have turned
to long endurance, and long endurance has kept the fire of impulse.
In the harbour of New York there is a pompous statue of a goddess
with a torch, designated as "Liberty enlightening the World." It
seems as though the title on her pedestal might well, for the time,
be transferred to the lintel of that villa in the dunes.

On leaving St. Omer we took a short cut southward across rolling
country. It was a happy accident that caused us to leave the main
road, for presently, over the crest of a hill, we saw surging toward
us a mighty movement of British and Indian troops. A great bath of
silver sunlight lay on the wheat-fields, the clumps of woodland and
the hilly blue horizon, and in that slanting radiance the cavalry
rode toward us, regiment after regiment of slim turbaned Indians,
with delicate proud faces like the faces of Princes in Persian
miniatures. Then came a long train of artillery; splendid horses,
clattering gun-carriages, clear-faced English youths galloping by
all aglow in the sunset. The stream of them seemed never-ending. Now
and then it was checked by a train of ambulances and supply-waggons,
or caught and congested in the crooked streets of a village where
children and girls had come out with bunches of flowers, and bakers
were selling hot loaves to the sutlers; and when we had extricated
our motor from the crowd, and climbed another hill, we came on
another cavalcade surging toward us through the wheat-fields. For
over an hour the procession poured by, so like and yet so unlike the
French division we had met on the move as we went north a few days
ago; so that we seemed to have passed to the northern front, and
away from it again, through a great flashing gateway in the long
wall of armies guarding the civilized world from the North Sea to
the Vosges.

Edith Wharton

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