from Colliers - The National Magazine November 14th, 1914
from a British magazine 'The Penny War Weekly'
"I came out of Antwerp last Friday with one of the biggest stories of the war. In twenty-four hours I had been through the bombardment, under fire in the trenches, and have helped get the wounded out of a hospital under fire. If I could have got to a wire at once I should have had a news story that everyone would have been glad to get on both sides of the water. As it was, however, I was three days getting to England, a good part of that time with Belgian refugees, with little sleep or food, and when I finally reached there late Sunday night I was so done up, partly from mere physical fatigue, partly from the emotional excitement of the whole thing, that as far as writing was concerned I was reduced to mere grunts. For a couple of days I literally floundered, trying to find a place to begin and writing stuff only to tear it up. I have been at the thing ever since, literally, and in the amount of nervous energy put into it have done about ten thousand dollars worth of work. The result is, of course, not commensurate with the tremendous drama of the facts themselves - the thing stupefies ones imagination rather than stimulates it. The last part - the flight across Belgium with the refugees - I simply had to give up, partly because the article was so long already, Partly because it was one of those things that simply can't be described. I think there are about 7,000 words here. The fall of Antwerp is undoubtedly one of the big single tragedies of the war."
The storm which was to burst over Antwerp the following night was gathering fast when we arrived on Tuesday morning. Army motor trucks loaded with dismantled aeroplanes and the less essential impedimenta screamed through the streets bound away from, not toward, the front. The Queen, that afternoon, was seen in the Hotel St. Antoine receiving the good-bys of various friends. Consuls suddenly locked their doors and fled. And the cannon, rumbling along the eastern horizon as they had rumbled, nearer and nearer, for a fortnight, were now beyond the outer line of forts and within striking distance of the town.
That night, an hour or two after midnight, in my hotel by the water front, I awoke to the steady clatter of hoofs on cobblestones and the rumble of wheels. I went to the window, on the narrow side street, black as all streets had been in Antwerp since the night that the Zeppelin threw its first bombs, and looked out. It was a moonlight night, clear and cold, and there along the Quai St. Michael, at the end of the street, was an army in retreat. They were Belgians, battered and worn out with their unbroken weeks of hopeless fighting; cavalrymen on their tired horses, artillerymen, heads sunk on their chests, drowsing on their lurching caissons; the patient little foot soldiers, rifles slung across their shoulders, scuffling along in their heavy overcoats.
In the dark shadow of the tall old houses a few people came out and stood there watching silently and, as one felt, in a sort of despair. All night long men were marching by - and in London they were still reading that it was but a "demonstration" the Germans were engaged in - down the quay and across the pontoon bridge - the only way over the Scheldt - over to the Tete de Flandre and the road to Ghent. They were strung along the street next morning, boots mud-covered, mud-stained, intrenching shovels hanging to their belts, faces unshaven for weeks just as they had come from the trenches; yet still patient and cheerful, with that unshakable Flemish good cheer. Perhaps, after all, it was not a retreat; they might be swinging round to the south and St. Nicholas to attack the German flank. . . .
But before they had crossed, another army, a civilian army, flowed down on and over the quay. For a week people had been leaving Antwerp, now the general flight began. From villages to the east and southeast, from the city itself, People came pouring down. In wagons drawn by huge Belgian draft horses, in carts pulled by the captivating Belgian work dogs, panting mightily and digging their paws into the slippery cobbles; on foot, leading little children and carrying babies and dolls and canaries and great bundles of clothes and household things wrapped in sheets, they surged toward that one narrow bridge and the crowded ferryboats. I saw one old woman, gray-haired and tanned like an Indian squaw with work in the fields, yet with a fine, well-made face, pushing a groaning wheelbarrow. A strap went from the handles over her shoulders, and, stopping now and then to ask the news, she would slip off this harness, gossip for a time, then push on again.
That afternoon under my window there was a tall wagon, a sort of hay wagon, in which there were twenty-two little children, none more than eight or ten, and several almost babies in arms. By the side of the wagon a man, evidently father of some of them, stood buttering the end of a huge round loaf of bread and cutting off slice after slice, which the older children broke and distributed to the little ones. Two cows were tied to the back of the wagon and the man's wife squatted there milking them. All along the quay and in the streets leading into it were people like this - harmless, helpless, hard-working people, going they knew not where. The entrance to the bridge was soon choked. One went away and returned an hour later and found the same people waiting almost in the same spot, and, with that wonderful calm and patience of theirs, feeding their children or giving a little of their precious hay to the horses, quietly waiting their turn while the cannon which had driven them from their homes kept on thundering behind them. .
That afternoon I walked uptown through the shuttered, silent streets - silent but for that incessant rumbling in the southeast and the occasional honking flight of some military automobile - to two of the hospitals. In one, a British hospital on the Boulevard Leopold, the doctor in charge was absent for the moment, and there was no one to answer my offer of occasional help if an outsider could be of use. As I sat waiting a tall, brisk Englishwoman, in nurses uniform, came up and asked what I wanted. I told her.
"Oh," she said, and in her crisp English voice, without further ado, "will you help me with a leg?"
She led the way into her ward, and there we contrived between 'us to bandage and slip a board and pillow under a fractured thigh. Between whispers of "Courage! Courage!" to the Belgian soldier, she said that she was the wife of a British general and had two sons in the army, and a third - "Poor boy!" she murmured, more to him than to me - on one of the ships in the North Sea. I arranged to come back next morning to help with the lifting, and went on to another hospital in the Rue Nerviers, to find that little English lady who crossed with us in the Ostend boat in August on the way to her sister's hospital in Antwerp.
Here in the quiet wards she had been working while the Germans swept down on Paris and were rolled back again, and while the little nation which she and her sister loved so well was being clubbed to its knees. Louvain, Liege, Malines, Namur - chapters in all the long. pitiless story were lying there in the narrow iron beds. There were men with faces chewed by shrapnel, men burned In the explosion of the powder magazine at Fort Waelhem, when the attack on Antwerp began - dragged out from the underground passage in which the garrison had sought momentary refuge and where most of them were killed, burned, and blackened. One strong, good-looking young fellow, able to eat and live apparently, was shot through the temples and blind in both eyes. It was the hour for carrying those well enough to stand it out into the court and giving them their afternoon's airing and smoke. One had lost an arm, another, a whimsical young Belgian, had only the stump of a left leg. When we started to lift him back into his bed, he said he had a better way than that. So he put his arms round my neck and showed me how to take him by the back and the well leg.
"Bon!" he said, and again "Bon!" when I let him down, and then reaching out and patting me on the back,
"Bon!" he smiled again.
That night, behind drawn curtains which admitted no light to the street, we dined peacefully and well, and. except for this unwonted seclusion, just outside which were the black streets and still the endless procession of carts and wagons and shivering people, one might have forgotten, in that cheerfully lighted room, that we were not in times of peace. We even loitered over a grate fire before going to bed, and talked in drowsy and almost indifferent fashion of whether it was absolutely sure that the Germans were trying to take the town.
The Flying Death
It was almost exactly midnight that I found myself listening, half awake, to the familiar sound of distant cannon. One had come to think of it, almost, as nothing but a sound; and to listen with a detached and not unpleasant interest as a man tucked comfortably in bed follows a roll of thunder to its end or listens to the fall of rain.
It struck me suddenly that there was something new about this sound; I sat up in bed to listen, and at that instant a far-off, sullen "Boom!" was followed by a crash as if lightning had struck a house a little way down the street. As I hurried to the window there came another far-off detonation, a curious walling whistle swept across the sky and over behind the roofs to the left there was another crash.
One after another they came, at intervals of half a minute, or screaming on each other's heels as if racing to their goal. And then the crash or, if farther away, muffled explosion as another roof toppled in, or cornice dropped off, as a house made of canvas drops to pieces in a play.
The effect of those unearthly wails, suddenly singing in across country in the dead of night from six-eight-ten miles away - Heaven knows where - was, as the Germans intended it to be, tremendous. It Is not easy to describe nor to be imagined by those who had not lived in that threatened city - the last Belgian stronghold - and felt that vast, unseen power rolling nearer and nearer. And now, all at once, it was here, materialized, demoniacal, a flying death, swooping across the dark into your very room.
It was like one of those dreams In which you cannot stir from your tracks, and meanwhile "Boom! . . . Tzee~ee-ee-e.e!" - Is this one meant for you?
Already there was a patter of feet in the dark, and people with white bundles on their backs went stumbling by toward the river and the bridge. Motors came honking down from the inner streets, and the quay, which had begun to clear by this time, was again jammed. I threw on some clothes, hurried to the street. A rank smell of kerosene hung In the air; presently a petrol shell burst to the southward, lighting up the sky for an instant like the flare from a blast furnace, and a few moments later there showed over the roofs the flames of the first fire.
Although we. could hear the wail of shells flying across their wide parabola both into the town and out from the first ring of forts. few burst in our part of the city that night, and we walked up as far as the cathedral without seeing anything but black and silent streets. Everyone in the hotel was up and dressed by this time. Some were for leaving at once; one family, piloted by the comfortable Belgian servants - far cooler than anyone else - went to the cellar, some gathered about the grate in the writing room to watch the night out; the rest of us went back to bed.
Pouring Out of Antwerp
There wasn't much sleep for anyone that night. The bombardment kept on until morning, lulled slightly as If the enemy might be taking breakfast, then it continued into the next day. And now the city - a busy city of near four hundred thousand people - emptied itself In earnest. Citizens and soldiers, field guns, motor trucks, wheelbarrows, dogcarts, hayricks, baby carriages, droves of people on foot, all flowing down to the Scheldt, the ferries, and the bridge. They poured Into coal barges, filling the yawning black holes as Africans used to fill slave ships, into launches and tugs, and along the roads leading down the river and southwestward toward Ostend.
One thought with a shudder of what would happen if the Germans dropped a few of their high-explosive shells into that helpless mob, and It is only fair to remember that they did not, although retreating Belgian soldiers were a part of it, and one of the German aeroplanes, a mere speck against the blue, was looking calmly down overhead. Nor did they touch the cathedral, and their agreement not to shell any of the buildings previously pointed out on a map delivered to them through the American Legation seemed to be observed.
Down through that mass of fugitives pushed a London motor-bus ambulance with several wounded British soldiers, one of them sitting upright, supporting with his right hand a left arm, the biceps, bound in a blood-soaked tourniquet, half torn away. They had come in from the trenches, where their comrades were now waiting, with their helpless little rifles, for an enemy miles away, who lay back at his ease and swept them with shrapnel. I asked them how things were going, and they said not very well. They could only wait until the German aeroplanes had given the range and the trenches became too hot, then fall back, dig themselves in, and play the same game over again.
Toward the Cannon
Following them was a hospital-service motor car, driven by a Belgian soldier and in charge of a clean-cut, soldierlike-appearing young British officer. It was his present duty to motor from trench to trench across the zone of fire, with the London bus trailing behind, and pick up wounded. It wasn't a particularly pleasant job, he said, jerking his head toward the distant firing, and frankly he wasn't keen about it. We talked for some time, everyone talked to everyone else In Antwerp that morning, and when he started out again I asked him to give me a lift to the edge of town.
Quickly we raced through the Place de Meir and the deserted streets of the politer part of Antwerp, where, the night before, most of the shells had fallen.
We went crackling over broken glass, past gaping cornices and holes In the pavement, five feet across and three feet deep, and once passed a house quietly burning away with none to so much as watch the fire. The city wall, along which are the first line of forts, drew near, then the tunnel passing under it, and we went through without pausing and on down the road to Malines. We were beyond the town now, bowling rapidly out into the flat Belgian country, and clinging there to the running board with the October wind blowing quite through a thin flannel suit, it suddenly came over me that things had moved very fast in the last five minutes, and that all at once, in some unexpected fashion, all that elaborate barrier of laissez-passers, sauf conduits, and so on. bad been swept aside, and, quite as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world, I was spinning out to that almost mythical "front."
The Gunners' Chorus
Front indeed! It was two fronts. There was an explosion just behind us, a hideous noise overhead, as if the whole zenith had somehow been ripped across like a tightly stretched piece of silk, and a shell from the Belgian fort under which we had just passed went hurtling down long aisles of air - further - further - to end in a faint detonation miles away.
Out of sight in front of us, there was an answering thud, and -"T-ee-ee-ee-er-r-r-BONG!" - a German shell had gone over us and burst behind the Belgian fort. Under this gigantic antiphony the motor car raced along, curiously small and irrelevant on that empty country road.
We passed great holes freshly made craters five or six feet across and three feet deep, neatly blown out of the macadam, then a dead horse. There were plenty of dead horses along the roads in France, but they had been so for days. This one's blood was not yet dry, and the shell that had torn the great rip In its chest must have struck here this morning.
We turned into the avenue of trees leading up to an empty chateau, a field hospital until a few hours before. Mattresses and bandages littered the deserted room, and an electric chandelier was still burning. The young officer pointed to some trenches In the garden. "I had those dug to put the wounded in in case we had to hold the place," he said. "It was getting pretty hot."
While the Shells Burst
There was nothing here now, however, and, followed by the London bus with its obedient enlisted men doing duty as ambulance orderlies, we motored a mile or so further on to the nearest trench. It was in an orchard beside a brick farmhouse with a vista in front of barbed-wire entanglement and a carefully cleaned firing field stretching out to a village and trees about half a mile away. They had looked very interesting and difficult, those barbed-wire mazes and suburbs, ruthlessly swept of trees and houses, when I had seen the Belgians preparing for the siege six weeks before, and they were to be of about as much practical use now as pictures on a wall.
There are, it will be recalled, three lines of forts about Antwerp - the inner one, corresponding to the city's wall; a middle one a few miles further out, where the British now were, and the outer line, which the enemy had already passed. Their artillery was hidden far over behind the horizon. trees, and the British marines and naval reserve men who manned these trenches could only wait there, rifle in hand, for an enemy that would not come, while a captive balloon a mile or two away to the eastward and an aeroplane sailing far overhead gave the ranges, and they waited for the shrapnel to burst. The trenches were narrow and shoulder deep, very like trenches for gas or water pipes, and reasonably safe except when a shell burst directly overhead. One had struck that morning just on the inner rim of the trench, blown out one of those craterlike holes and discharged all Its shrapnel backward across the trench and into one of the heavy timbers supporting a bomb-proof roof. A raincoat hanging to a nail in this timber was literally shot to shreds. "That's where I was standing," said the young lieutenant in command pointing with a dry smile to a spot not more than a yard away from where the shell had burst.
Half a dozen young fellows, crouched there in the bombproof, looked out at us and smiled, They were brand-new soldiers, some of them, boys from the London streets who had answered the thrilling posters and signs, "Your King and Country Need You," and been sent on this ill-fated expedition for their first sight of war. The, London papers are talking about it as I am writing this - how this handful of nine thousand men, part of them recruits who scarcely knew one end of a rifle from another were flung across the Channel on Sunday night and rushed up to the front to be shot at and rushed back again. I did not know this then, but wondered if this was what they had dreamed of - squatting helplessly in a ditch - until another order cane to retire when they swung through the London streets singing "It's a long, long way to Tipperary" two months ago.
What a Picnic It Was
Yet not one of the youngest and the greenest showed the least nervousness as they waited there in that melancholy little orchard under the incessant scream of shells. That unshakable British coolness, part sheer pluck. part a sort of lack of imagination, perhaps, or at least of "nerves" left them as calm and casual as if they were but drilling on the turf of Hyde Park. And with it persisted that almost equally unshakable sense of class, that touching confidence in one's superiors - the young clerk's or mechanic's inborn conviction that whatever that smart, clean-cut, imperturbable young officer does and says must inevitably be right - at least that if he is cool and serene you must. if the skies fall, be cool and serene too.
We met one young fellow as we walked through an empty lateral leading to a bombproof prepared for wounded, and the ambulance officer asked him sharply how things had been going that morning.
"Oh very well, sir," he said with the most respectful good humor, though a shell bursting just then a stone's throw beyond the orchard made both of us duck our head. "A bit hot, sir, about nine o'clock but only one man hurt. They do seem to know just where we are sir: but wait till their infantry comes up - we'll clean them out right enough sir."
And if he bad been ordered to stay there and hold the trench alone, one could imagine him saying in that same tone of deference and chipper good humor: "Yes, sir; thank you, sir," and staying too, till the cows came home.
Right at Our Feet
We motored down the line to another trench - this one along a road with fields in front and about a couple of hundred yards behind a clump of trees which masked a Belgian battery. The officer here, a tall, upstanding, gravely handsome young man, with a deep, strong, slightly humorous voice. and the air of one - both born to and used to command - the best type of navy man - came over to meet us, rather glad, it seemed, to see some one. The ambulance officer hall just started to speak when there was a roar from the clump of trees, at the same instant in explosion directly overhead. and in ugly chunk of iron - a bit of broken casing from a shrapnel shell - plunged at our very feet. The shell had been wrongly timed and exploded prematurely.
"I say!" the lieutenant called out to a Belgian officer standing not far away, "can't you telephone over to your people to stop that. That's the third time we've been nearly hit by their shrapnel this morning. After all" - he turned to us with the air of apologizing somewhat for his display of irritation - "it's quite annoying enough here without that, you know."
It was indeed annoying - very. The trenches were not under fire in the sense that the enemy were making a persistent effort to clear them out, but they were in the zone of fire, their range was known, and there was no telling when that distant boom thudded across the fields whether that particular shell might be intended for them or for somebody's else in town. We could see in the distance their captive balloon, and there were a couple of scouts the officer said in a tower, not much more than half a mile away. He pointed to the spot across the barbed wire. "We've been trying to pick them off with our rifles for the last half hour."
The Desire to Be Somewhere Else
We left them engaged in this interesting distraction, the little rifle snaps in all that mighty thundering seeming only to accept the loneliness and helplessness of their position and spun all down the transverse road, toward another trench oil the left. The progress of the motor seemed slow and disappointing. Not that the spot a quarter of a mile off was at all less likely to be lilt, yet one felt conscious of a growing desire to be somewhere else. And though I took off my hat to keep it from blowing off, I found that every time a shell went over I promptly put it on again, indicating, one suspected, a decline in what the military experts call morale.
As we bowled down the road toward a group of brick houses on the left, a shell passed not more than fifty yards in front of us and through the side of one of these houses as easily as a circus rider pops through a tissue-paper hoop. Almost at the same instant another exploded - where I haven't the least idea, except that the dust from it hit us in the face. The motor rolled smoothly along meanwhile and the Belgian soldier driving it stared as imperturbably ahead of him as if he were back at Antwerp on the seat of his taxicab.
You get used to shells in time it seems, and deciding that you either are or are not going to be hit, dismiss responsibility and leave it all to fate. I must admit that in my brief experience I was not able to arrive at this restful state. We reached at last the city gate through which we had left Antwerp, and the motor came to a stop just at the inner edge of the passage under the fort, and I said good-by to the young Englishman ere he started back for the trenches again.
"Well," he called after me as I started across the open space between the gate and the houses a stone's throw away, "you've had an experience anyway."
I was just about to answer that undoubtedly I had when -" Tzeee-cc-ce-cr-r" - a shell just cleared the ramparts over our heads and disappeared in the side of a house directly in front of us with a roar and a geyser of dust. Neither the motor nor a guest's duty now detained me, and waving him good-by, I turned at right angles and made with true civilian speed for the shelter of a side street.
The shells all appeared to be coining from a southeast direction and in the lee of houses on the south side of the street one was reasonably protected. Keeping close to the house fronts and dodging - rather absurdly no doubt - into doorways when that wailing whistle came up from behind, I went zigzagging through the deserted city toward the hotel on the other side of town.
It was such a progress as one might make in some fantastic nightmare - as the hero of some eerie piece of fiction about the Last Man in the World. Street after street, with doors locked, shutters closed, sandbags, mattresses, or little heaps of earth piled over cellar windows; streets in which the only sound was that of one's own feet, where the loneliness was made more lonely by some, forgotten dog cringing against the closed door and barking nervously as one hurried past.
Here, where most of the shells had fallen the preceding night, nearly all the houses were empty. Yet occasionally one caught sight of faces peering up from basement windows or of some stubborn householder standing in his southern doorway staring into space. Once I passed a woman bound away from, instead of toward, the river with her big bundle; and once an open carriage with a family in it driving, with peculiarly Flemish composure, toward the quay, and as I hurried past the park, along the Avenue Van Dyck - where fresh craters made by exploding shells had been dug in the turf - the swans, still floating on the little lake, placidly dipped their white necks under water as if it were a quiet morning in May.
Work for a Samaritan
Now and then, as the shell's wail swung over its long parabola, there came with the detonation, across the roofs, the rumble of falling masonry. Once I passed a house quietly burning, and on the pavement were lopped-off trees. The impartiality with which those far-off gunners distributed their attentions was disconcerting. Peering down one of the up-and-down streets before crossing it, as if a shell were an automobile which you might see and dodge, you would shoot across, and, turning into a cozy little side street, think to yourself that here at least they had not come, and then promptly see, squarely in front, another of those craters blown down through the Belgian blocks.
Presently I found myself under the trees of the Boulevard Leopold, not far from the British hospital, and recalled that it was about time that promise was made good. It was time indeed, and help with lifting they needed very literally. The order had just come to leave the building, bringing the wounded and such equipment as they could pack into half a dozen motor busses and retire - just where I did not hear - in the direction of Ghent. As I entered the porte-cochere two poor wrecks of war were being led out by their nurses - more men burned in the powder explosion at Waelhem, their seared faces and hands covered with oil and cotton just as they had been lifted from bed.
Parade of the Wounded
The phrase "whistle of shells" had taken on a new reality since midnight. Now one was to learn something of the meaning of those equally familiar words, "they succeeded in saving their wounded, although under heavy fire."
None of the wounded could walk, none dress himself; most of them In ordinary times would have lain where they were for weeks. There were fractured legs not yet set, men with faces half shot away, men half out of their heads, and all these had to be dressed somehow, covered up, crowded into or on top of the busses find started off through a city under bombardment toward open country which might already be occupied by the enemy.
Bundles of uniforms, sand-stained, blood-stained, just as they had come from the trenches, were dumped out of the storeroom and distributed, hit or miss.
British "Tommies" went out as Belgians, Belgians in British khaki; the man whose broken leg I bad lifted the day before we simply bundled in his bed blanket, and set lip in the corner of a bus. One healthy-looking Belgian boy, on whom I was trying to pull a pair of British trousers, seemed to have nothing at all the matter with him, until it presently appeared that he was speechless find paralyzed in both left arm and left leg. And while we were working, an English soldier shot through the jaw and throat sat on the edge of his bed, shaking with a hideous rattling cough.
The hospital was in a handsome stone building, in ordinary times a club, perhaps, or a school; a wide stone stairway led up the center, and above it was a glass skylight. This central well would have been a charming place for a shell to drop into, and one did drop not more than fifty feet or so away, in or close to the rear court. A few yards down the avenue another shell hit a cornice and sent a ton or so of masonry crashing down on the sidewalk. Under conditions like these the nurses kept running up and down that staircase during the endless hour or two in which the wounded were being, dressed and carried on stretchers to the street. They stood by the busses making their men comfortable, and when the first busses were filled they sat in the open street on top of them, patiently waiting, as calm and smiling as circus queens on their gilt chariots. The behavior of the men in the trenches was cool enough, but they at least were fighting men and but taking the chance of war. These were civilian volunteers, they had not even trenches to shelter them, and it took a rather unforeseen and difficult sort of courage to leave that fairly safe masonry building and sit smiling and helpful on top of a motor bus during a wait of half an hour or so, any second of which might be one's last.
There was an American nurse there, a tall, radiant girl, whom they called, and rightly, "Morning Glory," who had been introduced to me the day before because we both belonged to that curious foreign race of Americans. What her name was I haven't the least idea. and if we were to meet tomorrow, doubtless we should have to be carefully presented over again, but I remember calling out to her: "Good-by, American girl!" as we passed in the hall during the last minute or two, and she said good-by, and suddenly reached out and put her hand on my shoulder and added, "Good luck!" or "God bless you!" or something like that.
And these seemed at the moment quite the usual things to do and say. The doctor in charge and the general's wife apologized for running away. as they called it, and the last I saw of the latter was as she waved back to me from the top of a bus, with just that look of concern over the desperate ride they were beginning which a slightly preoccupied hostess casts over a dinner table about which are seated a number of oddly assorted guests.
The strange procession got away safely at last and safely too, so I was told later, across the river; but where they finally spent the night I never heard.
Anything but Capture
I hurried down the street and into the Rue Nerviers. It must have been about four o'clock by that time. The bright October morning had changed to a chill and dismal afternoon. and up the western sky in the direction of the. river a vast curtain of greasy black smoke was rolling. The petrol tanks which stretched for half a mile or so along the Scheldt had been set afire. It looked at the moment as if the whole city might be going, but there was no time then to think of possibilities and I slipped down the lee side of the street to the door with the Red Cross flag. The front of the hospital was shut tight. It took several pulls at the bell to bring anyone, and inside I found a Belgian family who had left their own house for the thicker ceilings of the hospital, and the nuns back in the wards with their nervous men.
Their servants had left that morning, the three or four sisters in charge who had to do all the cooking and housework as well as look after their patient and now they were keeping calm, and smiling - to subdue as best they could the fears of the Belgian wounded, who were ready to jump out of bed, whatever their condition. rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. Each one had no doubt that if he were not murdered outright he would be taken to Germany and forced to fight in the east against the Russians.
Several. who knew very well what was going on outside had been found by the nurses that morning out of bed and all ready to take to the street.
Yet They Remain
Lest they should hear that their comrades in the Boulevard Leopold had been moved, the lay sister - the English lady and I withdrew to the operating room, closed the door, and in that curious retreat talked over the situation. No orders had come to leave: in fact. they had been told to stay. They did have a man now in the shape of the Belgian gentleman, and from the same source; an able-bodied servant. but how long these would stay, where food was to be found in that desolate city, when the bombardment would cease. and what the Germans would do with them - well, it was not a pleasant situation for a handful of women. But it was not of themselves she was thinking, but of their wounded and of Belgium, and of what both had suffered already and of what might yet be in store. It was of that this frail little sister talked that hopeless afternoon, while the smoke in the west spread farther up the sky, and she would now and then pause in the middle of a syllable while a shell sang overhead, then take it up again.
Meanwhile the light was going. and before it became quite dark and my hotel deserted. perhaps as the rest of Antwerp, it seemed best to be getting across town. I could not believe that the Germans could treat such a place and people with anything but consideration and told the little nurse so. She came to the edge of the glass-covered court, laughingly saying I had best run across it, and wondering where we, who had met twice now under such curious circumstances, would meet again. Then she turned back to the ward - to wait with that roomful of more or less panicky men for the tramp of German soldiers and the knock on the door which meant that they were prisoners.
Flight or the Germans ?
Hurrying across town. I passed, not far from the Hotel St. Antoine, a blazing four-story building, nearly burned out now, and, like the other Antwerp fires, not spreading beyond its four walls. The cathedral was not touched, and indeed. In spite of the noise and terror. the material damage was comparatively slight.
Soldiers were clearing the quay and setting a guard directly in front of our hotel - one of the few places in Antwerp that night where one could get so much as a crust of bread - and behind drawn curtains as usual we made what cheer we could. There were two American photographers and a correspondent who had spent the night before in the cellar of a house. the upper story of which had been wrecked by a shell: a British intelligence officer. with the most bewildering way of hopping back and forth between a brown civilian suit and a spick-and-span new uniform, and several Belgian families hoping to get a boat downstream in the morning.
We sat round the great fire in the hall, above which the architect, building for happier times, had had the bad grace to place a skylight and discussed the time and means of getting away. The intelligence officer. not willing to be made a prisoner, was for getting a boat of some sort at the first crack of dawn and the photographers. Who had had the roof blown off over their head heartily agreed with him. I did not like to leave without at least a glimpse of those spiked helmets nor to desert my friends in the Rue Nerviers, and yet there was the likelihood, if one remained, of being marooned indefinitely in the midst of the conquering army.
Even the British
Meanwhile the flight of shells continued. a dozen or more fires could be seen from the upper windows of the hotel. and billows of red flame from the burning petrol tanks rolled up the southern sky. It had been what might be called a rather full day, and the wall of approaching projectiles began to get a bit on one's nerves. One started at the slamming of it door, took every dull thump for a distant explosion, and when we finally turned in. I carried the mattress from my room which fared the south over to the other side of the building and laid it on the floor beside another man's bed. Before a shell could reach nip it would have to traverse at least three partitions and possibly him as well.
After midnight the bombardment quieted, but shells continued to visit us from time to time all night. All night the Belgians were retreating across the pontoon bridge, and once - it must have been about two or three o'clock - I heard a sound which meant that all was over. It was the crisp tramp of feet - distinct from the Belgian shuffle - of British soldiers, and up from the street came an English voice: "Best foot forward, boys!" and a little farther on: "Look alive, men: they've just picked up our range."
I went to the window and watched them tramp by - the same men we had seen that morning. The petrol fire was still flaming across the south. a steamer of some sort was burning at the wharf beside the bridge - Napoleon's veterans retreating from Moscow could scarcely have left behind a more complete picture of war than did those young recruits.
The Frenzy of Retreat
Morning came dragging up out of that dreadful ill-lit, smoky, damp. and chill. It was almost a London fog that lay over the abandoned town. I had just packed up and was walking through one of the upper halls when there was a crash that shook the whole building. The sound of falling glass and out in the river a geyser of water shot up, timbers and boards flew from the bridge. In the river were dozens of smaller splashes as if from a shower of shot. I thought that the hotel was hit at last and that the Germans. having let civilians escape over the bridge, were turning everything loose, determined to make in end of the business. It was as a matter of fact, the Belgians blowing up the bridge to cover their retreat. In any ease it seemed useless to stay longer and within an hour on a tug jammed with the last refugees, we were starting downstream.
Behind us, up the river a vast curtain of lead-colored smoke from the petrol tanks had climbed up the sky and spread out mushroom-wise, as smoke and ashes sometimes spread out from a volcano. This smoke mingling with the fog and the smoke from the Antwerp fires, seemed to cover the whole sky. And under that sullen mantle the dark flames of the petrol still glowed; to the left was the blazing skeleton of the ship, and on the right Antwerp itself, the rich old beautiful comfortable city all but hidden, and now and then sending forth the boom of an exploding shell like a groan.
A large empty German steamer, the Gneisenau, marooned here since the war, came swinging slowly out into the river, pushed by two or three nervous little tugs - to be sunk there apparently, in midstream. From the pontoon bridge, which stubbornly refused to yield, came explosion after explosion. and up and down the river fires sprang up and there were other explosions as the crushed Belgians, in a sort of rage of devastation, became their own destroyers.
What to Think Of
By following the adventures of one individual I have endeavored to suggest what the bombardment of a modern city was like - what you might expect if all invading army came to-morrow to New York or Chicago or San Francisco.
I have only coasted along the edges of Belgium's tragedy, in the rest of the story of which we were a part for the next two days - the flight of those hundreds of thousands of homeless people is something that can scarcely be told - you must follow it out in imagination into its countless, uprooted disorganized lives. You must imagine old people struggling along over miles and miles of country roads: young girls under burdens a man might not care to bear, tramping until they had to carry their shoes in their hands and go barefoot to rest their unaccustomed feet. You must imagine the pathetic effort of hundreds of people to keep clean by washing in wayside streams or ditches; imagine babies going without milk because there was no milk to be had; families shivering in damp hedgerows or against haystacks where darkness overtook them; and you must imagine this not on one road but on every road for miles and miles over a whole countryside. What was to become of these people when their little supply of food was exhausted ? Where could they go ? Even if back to their own homes it would be but to lift their hat to the conquerors. Never to know but that the next week or month would sweep the tide of war back over them again.
Never in modern times, not in our generation at least, has the world seen anything like that flight - nothing so strange, so overwhelming, so pitiful. And when I say pitiful, you must not think of hysterical women, desperate, trampling men, tears and screams. In all those miles one saw neither complaining nor protestation - at times one might almost have thought it some vast eccentric picnic. No, it was their orderliness, their thrift and kindness, their unmistakable usefulness which made the waste and irony of it all so colossal and hideous. Each family had its big round loaves of bread and its pile of hay for the horses, the bags of pears and potatoes; the children had their little dolls. and you would see. some tired mother with her big bundle under one arm and some fluffy little puppy in the other. You could not associate them with forty-centimeter shells or burned churches and libraries or anything but quiet homes and peaceable. helpful lives. You could not be swept along by that endless stream of exiles and retain at the end of the day any particular enthusiasm for the red glory of war. And when we crossed the Dutch border that afternoon and came on a village street full of Belgian soldiers cut off and forced to cross the line. to be interned here. presumably until the war was over. one could not mourn very deeply their lost chances of martial glory as they unslung their rifles and turned them over to the good-natured Dutch guard. They had held back that avalanche long enough, these Belgians, and one felt as one would to see lost children get home again or some one dragged from under the wheels.
from a British magazine 'The Penny War Weekly'
*see also 'Collier's'
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