from the book ‘In the Claws of the German Eagles’ 1917
'Marching with the German Army
in Belgium, 1914'
by Albert Rhys Williams, American journalist
special war correspondent of ‘the Outlook’ in Belgium
 

The Gray Hordes Out of the North

German territorials on guard at Visť in Belgium

 

The outbreak of the Great War found me in Europe as a general tourist, and not in the capacity of war-correspondent. Hitherto I had essayed a much less romantic role in life, belonging rather to the crowd of uplifters who conduct the drab and dreary battle with the slums. The futility of most of these schemes for badgering the poor makes one feel at times that these battles are shams and unavailing. This is depressing. It is thrilling, then, suddenly to acquire the glamorous title of war-correspondent, and to have before one the prospect of real and actual battles.

Commissioned thus and desiring to live up to the code and requirement of the office, I naturally opined that war-correspondents rushed immediately into the thick of the fight. Later I discovered what a mistake that was. Only very young and green ones do so. The seasoned correspondent is inclined to view the whole affair more dispassionately and with a larger perspective. But being of the verdant variety, I naturally figured that if the Germans were smashing down through Belgium onto Liege that that was where I should be. By entering gingerly through the back door of Holland, I planned to join them in their march down the Meuse River.

 

Dutch soldiers on guard at the border with Belgium

 

To The Hague came descriptions of the hordes pressing down out of the north through the fire-swept, blood-drenched plain of northern Belgium. This could be seen from the Dutch frontier at Maastricht. But passage thereto was interdicted by the military authorities. Ambassador Van Dyke's efforts were unavailing. Possessing a red-card, I enlisted the help of Troelstra, the socialist leader of the Netherlands.

He had just returned from an audience with the Queen. The government, seeking to rally all classes to face a grave crisis, was paying court to the labor leaders. Accordingly, the war department, at Troelstra's behest, received me with a handsome show of deference. I was escorted from one gold-laced officer to another. Each one smiled kindly, listened attentively and regretted exceedingly that the granting of the desired permission lay outside his own particular jurisdiction. They were polite, ingratiating, obsequious even, but quite unanimous. At the end I came out by the same door wherein I went — minus a permission.

 

Dutch Red Cross workers in Maastricht

 

Up till now my progress through the fringes of the war zone had been in defiance of all orders and advice. Having failed here officially, I took the matter in my own hands. Finding a seat in a military train, I stuck steadfastly by it so long as our general direction was south. At Eindhoven hunger compelled me to alight. As I was stepping up to the hotel-bar, I felt a tap on my shoulder and some one in excellent English said:,

"You are under suspicion, sir. Follow me. Don't look around. Don't get excited. If you are all right you don't need to get excited; if you aren't it won't do you any good to get excited."

With this running fire of comment he led me into a side-room where a half-hour's examination satisfied him of my good intent. Without further untoward incident I came to Maastricht in Limbourg. Limbourg is the name of the narrow strip of Dutch territory which runs down between Germany and Belgium. At one place this tongue of land ia but a few miles wide. If the Germans could have marched their troops directly across this they might have been spared the two weeks' slaughter at the forts of Liege and Paris, in all probability, would have fallen before them. It was a great temptation to the Germans. That's the reason the Dutch troops had been massed here by the tens of thousands — to prevent Germany succumbing to that temptation.

At our approach to the great Meuse bridge an officer shouted into each compartment:

"Every window closed. All cigars and pipes extinguished."

"Why?" we asked.

"The bridge is mined with explosives and a stray spark might set them off," a soldier informed us.

The first German attempt to set foot on the bridge would be the signal for sending the great structure crashing skywards.

The end of the run was Maastricht, now become a town of crucial interest. It was like a city besieged. Barricades of barbed wire and paving stones ripped from street ran everywhere. Iron rails and ties blocked the exits and the small cannon disconcertingly thrust their nozzles down upon one out of the windows.

I lingered here long enough to secure a carriage and with it made quick time across the harvest fields. We were soon up on the little hill back of Mesch. The sun was sinking and for the first time war, in all its terrible spectacular splendor, smote me hard. From the hill at my feet there stretched away a great plain filled with a dense mass of German soldiery. One could scarcely believe that there were men there so well did their gray- green coats blend with the landscape. One would think that they were indeed a part of it, could he not feel the atmosphere vibrant with the mass personality of the myriad warriors tramping down the crops of the peasants. In the rear the commissariat vans and artillery still came lumbering up, while in the very front pranced the horses of the dreaded Uhlans, who looked with contempt, I imagined, on the Dutch soldiers as they stood there with the warning that here was Netherlands soil.

In the fighting German and Belgian troops had already been pushed up against this line. Here they were greeted with the challenge: "Lay down your arms. This is the neutral soil of Holland." Thus many were interned until the end of the war.

 

 

As even darkened into night, the endless plain became stippled over with points of flame from countless campfires. There were beauty and mystery in this vast menace sweeping the soul of the onlooker now with horror, and now with admiration. There was a terrible background to the spectacle — glowing red and luminous. It was made of the still blazing towns of Mouland and Visť, burned to the ground by order of the invaders. The fire had been set as a warning to the inhabitants round about. They were taking the warning and hastening by the thousands across the border into Holland, their only haven of safety.

When we drove down from the hill into Eysden, we were in the midst of these peasants, fleeing before the red wrath rolling up into the sky. They came shambling in with a few possessions on which they had hurriedly laid their hands, singly or in families, a pitiful procession of the disinherited.

Some of the men were moaning as they marched along, but most of them were taking it with the tragic oxlike resignation of the peasant, stupefied more than terrified, puzzled why these soldiers were coming down into their quiet little villages to fight out their quarrels. The women were crying out to Mary and all the saints. Indeed all the little crosses along the waysides or in the walls were decked with flowers in gratitude for what had been spared them. In most cases it was little more than their lives, their brood of children, and their dogs that followed on.

My driver finally landed me in a shack on the outskirts of Eysden, which boasted the name of a hotel. It had the worst bed I ever slept in, and the only window was a hole in the roof.

I wandered out among the unfortunates, now herded in halls and schools and packed in the homes of the friendly villagers. They were full of the weirdest tales of loot and murder. And while there were no tears in their eyes there was tragedy in their voices.

"It would be worth while getting over to the sources and verifying the truth of these stories," I remarked.

"A sheer impossibility, and only a fool would want to go,'' was one laconic commentary.

I kept up my plaint and was overheard by Souten, head of the Limbourg police.

"American, aren't you?" he interjected. "Well, I have done more work here in the last five days than I did in the five years that I lived in New York. Had the best time in my life there. If you want to go sight-seeing in Belgium, take this paper and get it countersigned at the German consulate. It's the only one I've given out to-day."

I hurried off to the consul who, in return for six marks, duly impressed it with the German seal. Later on I would gladly have given six hundred marks to disown it.

"Of course you understand that this is simply a paper issued by the civil authorities," said the consul, as he passed it out. "Use it at your own risk. If you go ahead and get shot by the military authorities, don't come back and blame us."

I promised that I wouldn't and was off again to my hotel.

As darkness deepened, with two Hollanders come to view the havoc of war, I sat on the stoop of our little inn. A great rumbling of cannon came from the direction of Tongres. A sentry shot rang out on the frontier just across the river which flowed not ten rods away. This was the Meuse, which ran red with the blood of the combatants, and from which the natives drew the floating corpses to the shore. Now its gentle lapping on the stones mingled with the subdued murmur of our talk. In such surroundings my new friends regaled me with stories of pillage and murder which the refugees had been bringing in from across the border. All this produced a distinct depreciation in the value that I had hitherto attached to my permit to go visiting across that border. Souten's declarations of friendship for America had been most voluble. It began dawning on me that his apparently generous and impulsive action might bear a different interpretation than unadulterated kindness.

At this juncture, I remember, a great light flared suddenly up. It was one of the fans of a wind-mill fired by the Germans. In the foreground we could see the soldiers standing like so many gray wolves silhouetted against the red flames. In that light it did seem that motives other than pure affection might have prompted the Police Commissioner's action. The hectic sleep of the night was broken by the endless clatter of the hoofs of the German cavalry pushing south.

 

German troops at a resting-place near Visť

 

My courage rose, however, with the rising sun. In the morning I climbed to the lookout on the hill. The hosts had vanished. A trampled, smoldering fire-blackened land lay before me. But there was the lure of the unknown. I walked down to where the great Netherlands flag proclaimed neutral soil. The worried Dutch pickets honored the signature of Souten and with one step I was over the border into Belgium, now under German jurisdiction. The helmeted soldiers across the way were a distinct disappointment. They looked neither fierce nor fiery. In fact, they greeted me with a smile. They were a bit puzzled by my paper, but the seal seemed echt-Deutsch and they pronounced it "gut, sehr gut." I explained that I wished to go forwards to Liege.

"Was it possible?"

For answer they shrugged their shoulders.

"Was it dangerous?"

"Not in the least," they assured me.

The Germans were right. It was not dangerous — that is, for the Germans. By repeatedly proclaiming the everlasting friendship of Germany and America, and passing out some chocolate, I made good friends on the home base. They charged me only not to return after sundown, giving point to their advice by relating how, on the previous night, they had shot down a peasant woman and her two children who, under the cloak of darkness, sought to scurry past the sentinels. They told this with a genuine note of grief in their voices. So, with a hearty hand-shake and wishes for the best of luck, they waved adieu to me as I went swinging out on the highroad to Liege.

 

German soldiers on their way through Mouland

 

In the Black Wake of the War

A half mile and I came for the first time actually face to face with the wastage of war. There was what once was Mouland, the little village I had seen burning the night before. The houses stood roofless and open to the sky, like so many tombstones over a departed people. The whitewashed outer walls were all shining in the morning sun. Inside they were charred black, or blazing yet with coals from the fire still slowly burning its way through wood and plaster. Here and there a house had escaped the torch.

By some miracle in the smashed window of one of these houses a bright red geranium blossomed. It seemed to cry for water, but I dared not turn aside, for fear of a bullet from a lurking sentry. In another a sewing-machine of American make testified to the thrift and progressiveness of one household. In the last house as I left the village a rocking-horse with its head stuck through the open door smiled its wooden smile, as if at any rate it could keep good cheer even though the roofs might fall.

My road now wound into the open country; and I was heartily glad of it, for the hedges and the houses at Mouland provided fine coverts for prowling German foragers or for Belgians looking for revenge. Dead cows and horses and dogs with their sides ripped open by bullets lay along the wayside. The roads were deep printed with the hoofs of the cavalry. The grain-fields were flattened out. Nine little crosses marked the place where nine soldiers of the Kaiser fell.

This smiling countryside, teeming with one of the densest populations in the world, had been stripped clean of every inhabitant. Along the wasted way not the sign of a civilian, or for that matter even a soldier, was to be seen. I was glad even of the presence of a pig which, with her litter, was enjoying the unwonted pleasure of rooting out her morning meal in a rich flower-garden. She did not reciprocate, however, with any such fellow feeling. Perhaps of late she had seen enough of the doings of the genus homo. Surveying me as though I had been the author of all this destruction, she gave a frightened snort and plunged into a nearby thicket.

 

views of Visť

 

I craved companionship of any living creature to break the spell of death and silence. I was destined to have the wish gratified in abundance. Fifteen minutes brought me to the outskirts of Visť, and there, coming over the hills and wending their way down to the river, were two long lines of German soldiers escorting wagons of the artillery and the commissariat. They came slowly and noiselessly trudging on and I was upon them as they crossed the main road before I realized it. The men were covered with dust; so were the horses. The wagons were in their somber paint of gray. There was something ominous and threatening in the long sullen line which wound down over the hill. The soldiers were evidently tired with the tedious uneventful march, and the drivers were goaded to irritability by the difficulty of the descent. Could I have retreated I would have done so with joy and would never have stopped until my feet were set on Holland soil.

But I dared not do it. As the train came to a stop, I started bravely across the road. A soldier, dropping his gun from his shoulder, cried: "Halt!"

"Is this the way to Visť?" I asked. "Perhaps it is," he replied, "but what do you want in Visť?"

As he spoke, he kept edging up, pointing his bayonet directly at me. A bayonet will never look quite the same to me again. Total retreat, as I remarked, was out of the question. My inward anatomy, however, did the next best thing. As the bayonet point came pressing forward, my stomach retired backward. I could feel it distinctly making efforts to crawl behind my spine. At my first word of German his face relaxed. Ditto my stomach.

"You are an American," he said. "Well, good for that. I don't know what we would have done were you a Belgian. Our orders are to suffer no Belgian in this whole district."

Then he began an apologia which I heard repeated identically again and again, as if it were learned by rote: '' The Germans had peacefully entered the land; boiling hot water was showered on them from upper stories; they were shot at from houses and hedges; many soldiers had thus been killed; the wells had been poisoned. Such acts of treachery had necessarily brought reprisals, etc., etc." It was the defense so regularly served up to neutrals that we learned in time to reproduce it almost word for word ourselves.

We all rise to the glorification of suffering little Belgium. Whatever brief we may hold for her though, we ought not to picture even her peasant people as a mild, meek and inoffensive lot. That isn't the sort of stuff out of which her dogged and continuing resistance was wrought. That isn't the mettle which for two weeks stopped up the German tide before the Liege forts, giving the allies two weeks to mobilize, and all they had asked the Belgians for was two or three days of grace. But before the German avalanche hurled itself on Liege it was this peasant population which bore the first brunt of the battle.

A mistake in the branching roads brought this home to me. I turned off in the direction of Verviers and was puzzled to see the road on either side strewn with tree-trunks, their sprawling limbs still green with leaves. It was along this highway that the invaders first entered Belgium. The peasants, turning their axes loose on the poplars and the royal elms that lined the road, had filled it with a tangle of interlocking limbs.

The Imperial army arrived with cannon which could smash a fort to pieces as though it were made of blue china, but of what avail were these against such yielding obstructions ? Maddened that these shambling creatures of the soil should delay the military promenade through this little land, officers rushed out and held their pistols at the heads of the offenders, threatening to blow their brains out if they did not speedily clear the way. Many a peasant did not live to see his house go up in flames — his dwelling dyed by his own blood was now turned into a funeral pyre. These were the first sacrificial offerings of Belgium on the altar of her independence.

 

more views of villages in Belgium

 

I now entered Visť, or rather what once had been the little city of Visť. It was almost completely annihilated and its three thousand inhabitants scattered. Through the mass of smoking ruins I pushed, with the paving-stones still hot beneath my feet. Quite unawares I ran full tilt into a group of soldiers, looking as ugly and dirty as the ruins amongst which they were prowling.

The green-gray field-uniform is a remarkable piece of obliterative coloration. I had seen it blend with grass and trees, but in this instance it fitted in so well with the stones and debris they were poking over that I was right amongst them without warning. They straightened up with a sudden start and scowled at me. Hollanders and Belgians had faithfully assured me that such marauding bands would shoot at sight. Here was an excellent test-case. Three hundred marks, a gold watch and a lot of food which crammed my pockets would be their booty.

I took the initiative with the bland inquiry, "What are you hunting for, corpses?"

"No," they responded, pointing to their mouths and stomachs, "awful hungry. Hunting something to eat."

I bade a mental farewell to my food-supplies as I emptied out my pockets before these ravagers. I expected everything to be grabbed with a summary demand for more. From these despoilers of a countryside I was ready for any sort of a manifestation — any, except the one that I received. With one accord they refused to take any of my provisions. I recovered from my surprise sufficiently to understand that they were thanking me for my good will while they were constantly reiterating:

"It is your food and you will need every bit of it."

In the name of camaraderie I persuaded each to take a piece of bread and chocolate. They received this offering with profound gratitude. With much cautioning and many solemn Auf Wiedersehens bestowed upon me, I was off again.

Below Visť an entirely new vista opened to me. Tens of thousands of soldiers were marching over the pontoon bridges already flung across the river. Perhaps five hundred more were engaged in building a steel bridge which seemed to be a hurried but remarkable piece of engineering. It was replacing the old structure which had been dynamited by the Belgians, and which now lay a tangled mass of wreckage in the river.

For the next eight miles to Jupilles the country was quite as much alive as the first four miles were dead. It was swarming with the military. Through all the gaps in the hills above the Eiver Meuse the German army came pouring down like an enormous tidal wave — a tidal wave with a purpose, viz: to fling itself against the Allies arranged in battle line at Namur, and with the overwhelming mass of numbers to smash that line to bits and sweep on resistlessly into Paris. I thought of the Blue and Red wall of French and English down there awaiting this Gray-Green tide of Teutons.

 

German infantry on the march through Belgium
photo by Donald Thompson

 

By the hundreds of thousands they were coming; patrols of cavalry clattering along, the hoof-beats of the chargers coming with regular cadence on the hard roads; silent moving riders mounted on bicycles, their guns strapped on their backs; armored automobiles rumbling slowly on, but taking the occasional spaces which opened in the road with a hollow roaring sound and at a terrific pace; individual horsemen galloping up and down the road with their messages, and the massed regiments of dust-begrimed men marching endlessly by.

I was glad to have the spell which had been woven on me broken by strains of music from a wayside cafe, or rather the remains of a cafe, for the windows had been demolished and wreckage was strewn about the door, but the piano within had survived the ravages. Though it was sadly out of tune, the officer, seated on a beer keg, was evoking a noise from its battered keys, and to its accompaniment some soldiers were bawling lustily:

"Deutschlmd, Deutschland uber Alles!"

The only other music that echoed up along those river cliffs came from a full-throated Saxon regiment.

Evidently the Belgians from Visť to Liege had not roused the ire of the invaders as furiously as had the natives on the other side of Visť. They had as a whole established more or less friendly relations with the alien hosts.

On the other side of Visť nothing had availed to stay the wrath of the Germans. Flags of truce made of sheets and pillow-cases and white petticoats were hung out on poles and broom handles; but many of these houses before which they hung had been burned to the ground as had the others.

One Belgian had sought for his own benefit to conciliate the Germans, and as the Kaiser's troops at the turn of the road came upon his house, there was the Kaiser's emblem with the double-headed eagle raised to greet them. The man had nailed it high up in an apple tree, that they might not mistake his attitude of truckling disloyalty to his own country, hoping so to save his home. But let it be said to the credit of the Germans, that they had shown their contempt for this treachery by razing this house to the ground, and the poor fellow has lost his earthly treasures along with his soul.

I now came upon some houses that were undamaged and showed signs of life therein. Below Argenteau there was a vine-covered cottage before which stood a peasant woman guarding her little domain. Her weapon was not a rifle but several buckets of water and a pleasant smile. I ventured to ask how she used the water. She had no time to explain, for at that very moment a column of soldiers came slowly plodding down the dusty road. She motioned me away as though she would free herself from whatever stigma my presence might incur. A worried look clouded her face, as though she were saying to herself: "I know that we have been spared so far by all the brigands which have gone by, but perhaps here at last is the band that has been appointed to wipe us out."

This water, then, was a peace-offering, a plea for mercy.

As soon as the soldiers looked her way she put a smile on her face, but it ill concealed her anxiety. She pointed invitingly to her pails. At the sight of the water a thirsty soldier here and there would break from the ranks, rush to the pails, take the proffered cup, and hastily swallow down the cooling draught. Then returning the cup to the woman, he would rush back again to his place in the ranks. Perhaps a dozen men removed their helmets, and, extracting a sponge from the inside, made signs to the woman to pour water on it; then, replacing the sponge in the helmet, marched on refreshed and rejoicing.

A mounted officer, spying this little oasis, drew rein and gave the order to halt. The troopers, very wearied by the long forced march, flung themselves down upon the grass while the officer's horse thrust his nose deep into the pail and greedily sucked the water up. More buckets were being continually brought out. Some of them must surely have been confiscated from her neighbors who had fled. The officer, dismounting, sought to hold converse with his hostess, but even with many signs it proved a failure. They both laughed heartily together, though her mirth I thought a bit forced.

I do not remember witnessing any finer episode in all the war than that enacted in this region where the sky was red with flames from the neighbors' houses, and the lintels red with blood from their veins. A frail little soul with only spiritual weapons, she fought for her hearth against a venging host in arms; facing these rough war-stained men, she forced her trembling body to outward calm and graciousness. Her nerve was not unappreciated. Not one soldier returned his cup without a word of thanks and a look of admiration.

Nor did this pluck go unrewarded. Three months later, passing again through this region as a prisoner, I glimpsed the little cottage still standing in its plot by the flowing river. I want to visit it again after the war. It will always be to me a shrine of the spirit's splendid daring.

 

photo by Donald Thompson

 

A Duelist from Marburg

A squad of soldiers stretched out on a bank beckoned me to join them; I did so and at once they begged for news. They were not of an order of super-intelligence, and informed me that it was the French they were to fight at Liege. Unaware that England had entered the lists against Germany, "Belgium" was only a word to them. I took it upon myself to clear up their minds on these points. An officer overheard and plainly showed his disapproval of such missionary activity, yet he could not conceal his own curiosity. I sought to appease him by volunteering some information.

"Japan," I blandly announced, "is about to join the foes of Germany." As the truth, that was unassailable; but as diplomacy it was a wretched fluke.

"You're a fool!" he exploded. "What are you talking about? Japan is one of our best friends, almost as good as America. Those two nations will fight for us — not against us. You're verruckt."

That was a severe stricture but in the circumstances I thought best to overlook the reflection upon my mentality. One of the soldiers passed some witticism, evidently at my expense; taking advantage of the outburst of laughter, I made off down the road. They did not offer to detain me. The officer probably reasoned that my being there was guarantee enough of my right to be there, taking it for granted that the regular sentries on the road had passed upon my credentials. However, I made a very strong resolution hereafter to be less zealous in my proclamation of the truth, to hold my tongue and keep walking.

In the midst of my reflections I was startled by a whistle, and, looking back, saw in the distance a puff of steam on what I supposed was the wholly abandoned railway, but there, sure enough, was a train rattling along at a good rate. I could make out soldiers with guns sitting upon the tender, and presumed that they were with these instruments directing the operations of some Belgian engineer and fireman. In a moment more I saw I was mistaken, for at the throttle was a uniformed soldier, and another comrade in his gray-green costume was shoveling coal into the furnace. One of the guards, seeing me plodding on, smilingly beckoned to me to jump aboard. When I took the cue and made a move in that direction he winked his eye and significantly tapped upon the barrel of his gun. The train was loaded with iron rails and timbers, and I speculated as to their use, but farther down the line I saw hundreds of men unloading these, making a great noise as they flung them down the river bank to the water's edge. They were destined for a big pontoon bridge which these men were, with thousands of soldiers, throwing across the stream. Ceaselessly the din and clangor of hammerings rang out over the river.

My way now wound through what was, to all purposes, one German camp, strung for miles along the Meuse. The soldiers were busy with domestic' duties. Everywhere there was the cheer and rhythm of well-ordered industry in the open air. In one place thousands of loaves of black bread were being shifted from wagon to wagon. In another they were piling a yard high with mountains of grain. The air was full of the drone of a great mill, humming away at full speed, while the Belgian fields were yielding up their golden harvests to the invaders. Apples in great clusters hung down around the necks of horses tethered in the orchards. With their keepers they were enjoying a respite from their hard fatiguing exertions.

Here and there among the groves, or along the wayside, was a contrivance that looked like a tiny engine; smoke curled out of its chimney and coals blazed brightly in the grate. They were the kitchen-wagons, each making in itself a complete, compact cooking apparatus. Some had immense caldrons with a spoon as large as a spade. In these the stews, put up in dry form and guaranteed to keep for twenty years, were being heated. A savory smell permeated the air and at the sound of the bugle the men clustered about, each looking happy as he received his dish filled with steaming rations.

Through this scene the native Belgians moved freely in and out. Tables had been dragged out into the yard, and around them officers were sitting eating, drinking, and chatting with the peasant women who were serving them and with whom they had set up an entente cordiale. Indeed, these Belgians seemed to be rather enjoying this interruption in the monotony of their lives, and a few were making the most of the great adventure. In one case I could not help believing that a certain strikingly-pretty, self- possessed girl was not altogether averse to a war which could thus bring to her side the attentions of such a handsome and gallant set of officers as were gathered round her. At any rate, she was equal to the occasion, and over her little court, which rang with laughter, she presided with a certain rustic dignity and ease.

The ordinary soldier could make himself understood only with motions and sundry grunt- ings, and consequently had to content himself with smoking in the sun or sleeping in the shade. Everywhere was the atmosphere of physical relaxation after the long journey. So far did my tension wear off, that I even forgot the resolution to hold my tongue. Two officers leaning back in their chairs at a table by the wayside surveyed me intently as I came along. Rather than wait to be challenged, I thought it best to turn aside and ask them my usual question, "How does one get to Liege?"

One of them answered somewhat stiffly, adding, "And where did you learn your German?" "I was in a German university a few months,'' I replied. "Which one?" the officer asked. '' Marburg,'' I replied.

"Ah!" he said, this time with a smile; "that was mine. I studied philology there.''

We talked together of the fine, rich life there, and I spoke of the students' duels I had witnessed a few miles out.

"Ah!" he said, uncovering his head and pointing to the scars across his scalp; "that's where I got these. Perhaps I will get some deeper ones down in this country," he added with a smile.

Ofttimes in the early morning hours I had trudged out to a students' inn on the outskirts of Marburg. As many times I had heard the solemn announcement of the umpire warning all assembled to disperse as the place might be raided by the police and all imprisoned. That was a mere formality. No one left. The umpire forthwith cried "Los," there was a flash of swords in the air as each duelist sought, and sometimes succeeded, in cutting his opponent's face into a Hamburg steak. It was a sanguinary affair and undoubtedly connived at by the officials. When I had asked what was the point of it all, I was told that it developed Mut and Enschlossenheit — a fine contempt of pain and blood. That dueling was not without its contribution to the general program of German preparedness. Only now the blood-letting was gone at on a colossal scale.

"Yes, that's where I received these cuts," this young officer said, "and if I do not get some too deep down here I'll write to you after the war," he added with another smile. As I gave him my address, I asked for his.

"It's against all the rules," he answered. "It can't be done. But you shall hear from me, I assure you," he said with a hearty handshake.

Only once all the way into Liege did I feel any suspicion directed towards me. That was when I presented my paper to the next guard, a morose-looking individual. He looked at it very puzzled, and put several questions to me. His last one was,

“Where is your home ?''

"I come from Boston, Massachusetts," I replied.

Encouraged with my success with the last officers, I ventured to ask him where he came from.

Looking me straight in the eyes, he replied very pointedly, "Ich komme aus Deutschland."

Good form among invading armies, I found, precluded the guest making inquiry .into anyone's antecedents. I made a second resolution to keep my own counsel, as I hurried down the road.

There was no release from his searching eyes until a turn in the highway put an intervening obstacle between myself and him. But this relief was short-lived, for no sooner had I rounded the bend than a cry of "Halt!" shot fear into me. I turned to see a man on a wheel waving wildly at me. I thought it was a summons back to my inquisitor, and the end of my journey. Instead, it was my officer from Marburg, who dismounted, took two letters from his pocket, and asked me if I would have the kindness to deliver them to the Feld Post if I got through to Liege. He said that seemed like a God-given opportunity to lift the load off the hearts of his mother and his sweetheart back home. Gladly I took them, with his caution not to drop them into an ordinary letter-box in Liege, but to take them to the Feld Post or give them to an officer. I went on my way rejoicing that I could add these letters to my credentials. I now passed down the long street of Jupilles, which was plastered with notices from the German authorities guaranteeing observance of the rights of the citizens of Jupilles, but threatening to visit any overt acts against the soldiers "with the most terrible reprisals."

I arrived on the outskirts of Liege with the expectation of seeing a sorry-looking battered city, as the reports which had drifted to the outer world had made it; but considering that it had been the center around which the storm of battle had raged for over two weeks, it showed outwardly but little damage. The chief marks of war were in the shattered windows; the great pontoon bridge of barges, which replaced the dynamited structure by the Rue Leopold, and hundreds of stores and public buildings, flying the white flag with the Red Cross on it. The walls, too, were fairly white with placards posted by order of the German burgomaster Klyper. It was an anachronism to find along the trail of the forty- two centimeter guns warnings of death to persons harboring courier pigeons.

Another bill which was just being posted was the announcement of the war-tax of 50,000,000 francs imposed on the city to pay for the "administration of civil affairs." That was the first of those war-levies which leeched the life blood out of Belgium.

The American consul, Heingartner, threw up his hands in astonishment as I presented myself. No one else had come through since the beginning of hostilities. He begged for newspapers but, unfortunately, I had thrown my lot away, not realizing how completely Liege had been cut off from the outer world. He related the incidents of that first night entry of German troops into Liege. The clatter of machine gun bullets sweeping by the consulate had scarcely ceased when the sounds of gun-butts battering on the doors accompanied by hoarse shouts of "Auf Steigen" (get up) reverberated through the street. As the doors unbolted and swung back, officers peremptorily demanded quarters for their troops, receiving with contempt the protests of Heingartner that they were violating precincts under protection of the American flag.

On the following day, however, a wholehearted apology was tendered along with an invitation to witness the first firing of the big guns.

"Put your fingers in your ears, stand on your toes, and open your mouth," the officer said. There was a terrific concussion, a black speck up in the heavens, and a ton of metal dropped down out of the blue, smashing one of the cupolas of the forts to pieces. That one shot annihilated 260 men. I shuddered as we all do. But it should not be for the sufferings of the killed. For they did not suffer at all. They were wiped out as by the snapping of a finger.

The taking of those 260 bodies out of the world, then, was a painless process. But not so the bringing of these bodies into the world. That cost an infinite sum of pain and anguish. To bring these bodies into being 260 mothers went down into the very Valley of the Shadow of Death. And now in a flash all this life had been sent crashing into eternity. "Women may not bear arms, but they bear men, and so furnish the first munitions of war.'' Thus are they deeply and directly concerned in the affairs of the state.

The consul with his wife and daughter gave me dinner along with a cordial welcome. At first he was most appreciative of my exploits. Then it seemed to dawn on him that possibly other motives than sheer love of adventure might have spurred me on. The harboring of a possible spy was too large a risk to run in the uncertain temper of the Germans. In that light I took on the aspects of a liability.

The clerks of the two hotels to whom I applied assumed a like attitude. In fact every one with whom I attempted to hold converse became coldly aloof. Holding the best of intents, I was treated like a pariah. The only one whom I could get a raise from was a bookseller who spoke English. His wrath against the spoilers overcame his discretion, and he launched out into a bitter tirade against them. I reminded him that, as civilians, his fellow- countrymen had undoubtedly been sniping on the German troops. That was too much.

"What would you do if a thief or a murderer entered your house?" he exploded. "No matter if he had announced his coming, you would shoot him, wouldn't you?"

Realizing that he had confided altogether too much to a casual passerby, he suddenly subsided. The only other comment I could drag out of him was that of a German officer who had told him that "one Belgian could fight as good as four Germans." My request for a lodging-place met with the same evasion from him as from the others.

 

photo by Donald Thompson

 

Thirty-Seven Miles in a Day

It’s death if you try to cross the line after nightfall." Thus my soldier friends picketing the Holland-Belgium frontier had warned me in the morning. That rendezvous with death was not a roseate prospect; but there was something just as omnious about the situation in Liege. To cover the sixteen miles back to the Dutch border before dark was a big task to tackle with blistered feet. I knew the sentries along the way returning, but I knew not the pitfalls for me if I remained in Liege. This . drove me to a prompt decision and straightway I made for the bridge.

It was no prophetically favorable sight that greeted me at the outset. A Belgian, a mere stripling of twenty or thereabouts, had just been shot, and the soldiers, rolling him on a stretcher, were carrying him off. I made so bold as to approach a sentry and ask: "What has he been doing?" For an answer the sentry pointed to a nearby notice. In four languages it announced that any one caught near a telegraph pole or wire in any manner that looked suspicious to the authorities would be summarily dealt with. They were carrying him away, poor lad, and the crowd passed on in heedless fashion, as though already grown accustomed to death.

When the troops at the front are taking lives by the thousands, those guarding the lines at the rear catch the contagion of killing. Knowing that this was the temper of some of the sentries, I speeded along at a rapid rate, daring to make one cut across a field, and so came to Jupilles without challenge. Stopping to get a drink there, I realized what a protest my feet were making against the strain to which I was putting them. Luckily, a peasant's vegetable cart was passing, and, jumping on, I was congratulating myself on the relief, when after a few hundred yards the cart turned up a lane, leaving me on the road again with one franc less in my pocket.

There were so few soldiers along this stretch that I drove myself along at a furious pace, slowing up only when I sighted a soldier. I was very hot, and felt my face blazing red as the natives gazed after me stalking so fiercely past them. But the great automobiles plunging by flung up such clouds of dust that my face was being continually covered by this gray powder. What I most feared was lest, growing dizzy, I should lose my head and make incoherent answers.

Faint with the heat I dragged myself into a little wayside place. Everything wore a dingy air of poverty except the gracious keeper of the inn. I pointed to my throat. She understood at once my signs of thirst and quickly produced water and coffee, of which I drank until I was ashamed.

"How much?" I asked.

She shook her head negatively. I pushed a franc or two across the table.

"No," she said smilingly but with resolution. "I can't take it. You need it on your journey. We are all just friends together now."

So my dust and distress had their compensations. They had brought me inclusion in that deeper Belgian community of sorrow.

It was apparent that the Germans were going to make this rich region a great center for their operations and a permanent base of supply. There must have been ten thousand clean-looking cattle on the opposite bank of the river; they were raising a great noise as the soldiers drove their wagons among them, throwing down the hay and grain. Otherwise, the army had settled down from the hustling activities of the morning, and the guards had been posted for the oncoming evening. I knew now that I was progressing at a good pace because near Wandre I noticed a peasant's wagon ahead, and soon overtook it. It was carrying eight or nine Belgian farm-hands, and the horse was making fair time under constant pressure from the driver.

I did not wish to add an extra burden to the overloaded animal, but it was no time for the exercise of sentiment. So I held up a two-franc piece to the driver. He looked at the coin, then he looked at the horse, and then, picking out the meekest and the most inoffensive of his free passengers, he bade him get off and motioned me to take the vacated seat at my right as a first-class paying passenger. Two francs was the fare, and he seemed highly gratified with the sum, little realizing that he could just as well have had two hundred francs for that seat. We stopped once more to hitch on a small wood-cart, and with that bumping behind us, we trailed along fearfully slowly. Gladly would I have offered a generous bounty to have him urge his horse along, but I feared to excite suspicion by too lavish an outlay of money. So I sat tight and let my feet dangle off the side, glad of the relief, but feeling them slowly swelling beneath me.

I was saving my head as well as my feet, for the perpetual matching of one's wits in encounters with the guards was continually nerve-frazzling. But now as the cart joggled past, the guard made a casual survey of us all, taking it for granted that I was one of the local inhabitants. For this respite from constant inquisition I was indebted to the dust, grime and sweat that covered me. It blurred out all distinction between myself and the peasants, forming a perfect protective coloration.

To slide past so many guards so easily was a net gain indeed. However, the end of such easy passing came at the edge of Charrate, where the driver turned into his yard, and I was dumped down into an encampment of soldiers. Acting on the militarists' dictum that the best defensive is a strong offensive I pushed my way boldly into the midst of a group gathered round a pump and made signs that I desired a drink. At first they did not understand, or, thinking that I was a native Belgian, they were rather taken aback by such impertinence; but one soldier handed me his cup and another pumped it full. I drank it, and, thanking them, started off. This calm assurance gained me passage past the guard, who had stood by watching the procedure. In the next six hundred yards I was brought to a standstill by a sudden "Halt!"

At one of the posts some soldiers were ringed around a prisoner garbed in the long black regulation cassock of a priest. Though he wore a white handkerchief around his arm as a badge of a peaceful attitude, he was held as a spy. His hands and his eyes were twitching nervously. He seemed to be glad to welcome the addition of my company into the ranks of the suspects, but he was doomed to disappointment, for I was passed along. The next guard took me to his superior officer directly. But the superior officer was the incarnation of good humor and he was more interested in a little repast that was being made ready for him than in entering into the questions involved in my case.

"Search him for weapons," he said casually, while he himself made a few perfunctory passes over my pockets. No weapons being found, he said, "Let him go. We've done damage here enough."

These interruptions were getting to be distressingly frequent. I had journeyed but a few hundred yards farther when a surly fellow sprang out from behind a wagon and in a raucous voice bade me "Stand by." He had an evil glint in his eye, and was ready to go out of his way hunting trouble. Totally dissatisfied with any answer I could make, he kept roaring louder and louder. There was no doubt that he was venting his spleen upon an unprotected and humble civilian, and that he was thoroughly enjoying seeing me cringe under his bulldozing. It flashed upon me that he might be a self-appointed guardian of the way. So when he began to wax still more arrogant, I simply said, "Take me to your superior officer."

He softened down like a child, and, standing aside, motioned me along.

I would put nothing past a bully of that stripe. He was capable of committing any kind of an atrocity. And his sort undoubtedly did. But what else can one expect from a conscript army, which, as it puts every man on its roster, must necessarily contain the worst as well as the best? Draft 1,000 men out of any community in any country and along with the decent citizens there will be a certain number of cowards, braggarts and brutes. When occasion offers they will rob, rape and murder. To such a vicious strain this fellow belonged.

 

photo by Donald Thompson

 

The soldier whom next I encountered is really typical of the Gemutlichkeit of the men who, on the 20th of August, were encamped along the Meuse River. I was moving along fast now under the cover of a hedge which paralleled the road when a voice called out'' Halt!" In a step or two I came to a stop. A large fellow climbed over the hedge, and, coming on the road, fell, or rather stumbled over himself, into the ditch. I was afraid he was drunk, and that this tumble would add vexation to his spirits; but he was only tired and over-weighted, carrying a big knapsack and a gun, a number of articles girdled around his waist, along with too much avoirdupois. It seems that even in this conquered territory the Germans never relaxed their vigilance. Fully a thousand men stood guarding the pontoon bridge, and this man, who had gone out foraging and was returning with a bottle of milk, carried his full fighting equipment with him, as did all the others. I gave him a hand and pulled him to his feet, offering to help carry something, as he was breathing heavily; but he refused my aid. As we walked along together I gave him my last stick of chocolate, and, being assured by my demeanor that I was a friend, he showed a real kindly, fatherly interest in me.

"A bunch of robbers, that's what these Belgians are,'' he asserted stoutly. '' They charged me a mark for a quart of milk."

I put my question of the morning to him: "Is it dangerous traveling along here so late?" His answer was anything but reassuring. "Yes, it is very dangerous."

Then he explained that one of his comrades had been shot by a Belgian from the bluffs above that very afternoon and that the men were all very angry. All the Belgians had taken to cover, for the road was totally cleared of pedestrians from this place on to Mouland. "Well, what am I to do?" I asked.

"Go straight ahead. Swerve neither to the right nor left. Be sure you have no weapons, and stop at once when the guard cries 'Halt!' and you will get through all right. But, above all, be sure to stand stock still immediately at the challenge. Above all — that," he insisted.

"But did I not stop still when you cried 'Halt!' a minute ago?" I asked.

"No," he said; "you took two or three steps before you came to a perfect stop. See, this is the way to do it." He started off briskly, and as I cried "Halt!" came to a standstill with marvelous and sudden precision for a man of his weight.

"Do it that way and cry out, 'Ready, here!' and it will be all right."

I would give a great deal for a vignette of that ponderous fellow acting as drillmaster to this stray American. The intensity of the situation rapidly ripened his interest into an affection. I was fretting to get away, but the amenities demanded a more formal leave- taking. At last, however, I broke away, bearing with me his paternal benediction. Far ahead a company of soldiers was forming into line. Just as I reached the place they came to attention, and at a gesture from the captain I walked like a royal personage down past the whole line, feeling hundreds of eyes critically playing upon me. I suspect that the captain had a sense of humor and was enjoying the discomfiture he knew I must feel.

Estimating my advance by the signboards, where distances were marked in kilometers, it appeared that I was getting on with wretched slowness, considering the efforts I was making. At this rate, I knew I should never reach the Holland frontier by nightfall, and from the warnings I had received I dreaded to attempt crossing after sundown. Sleeping in the fields when the whole country was infested by soldiers was out of the question, so I turned to the first open cottage of a peasant and asked him to take me in for the night. He shook his head emphatically, and gave me to understand it would be all his life were worth if he did so. So I rallied my energies for one last effort, and plunged wildly ahead.

The breeze was blowing refreshingly up the river, the road was clear, and soon I was rewarded by seeing the smoke still curling up from the ruins of Visť. I looked at my watch, which pointed to the time for sunset, and yet there was the sun, curiously enough, some distance up from the horizon. The fact of the matter is that I had reset my watch at Liege, and clocks there had all been changed to German time. With a tremendous sense of relief I discovered that I had a full hour more than I had figured on.

There was ample time now to cover the remaining distance, and so I rested a moment before what appeared to be a deserted house. Slowly the shutters were pushed back and a sweet-faced old lady timorously thrust her head out of an upper window. She apparently had been hiding away terror-stricken, and there was something pathetic in the half-trusting way she risked her fate even now. In a low voice she put some question in the local patois to me. I could not understand what she was asking, but concluded that she was seeking comfort and assurance. So I sought to convey by much gesturing and benevolent smiling that all was quiet and safe along the Meuse. She may have concluded that I was some harmless, roaming idiot who could not answer a plain question; but it was the best I could do, and I walked on to Visť with the fine feeling of having played the role of comforter.

At Visť I was heartened by two dogs who jumped wildly and joyously around me. I gathered courage enough here to swerve to the right, and from the window of a still burning roadside cafe extracted three wine-glasses as souvenirs of the trip.

Presently I was in Mouland, whose few forlorn walls grouped about the village church made a pathetic picture as they glowed luminously in the setting sun. A flock of doves were cooing in the blackened ruins. Now I was on the home-stretch; and, that there might be no mistake with my early morning comrades, I cried out in German, "Here comes a friend!" With broad smiles on their faces, they were waiting there to receive me.

They made a not unpicturesque group gathered around their camp-fire. One was plucking a chicken, another making the straw beds for the night. A third was laboriously at work writing a post-card. I ventured the information that I had made over fifty kilometers that day. They punctured my pride somewhat by stating that that was often the regular stint for German soldiers. But, pointing to their own well-made hobnailed boots, they added, "Never in thin rubber soles like yours." After emptying my pockets of eatables and promising to deliver the post-card, I passed once more under the great Dutch banner into neutral territory.

My three Holland friends were there with an automobile, and, greeting me with a hearty "Gute Knabe!" whisked me off to Maastricht. For the next three days I did all my writing in bed, nursing a couple of bandaged feet. I wouldn't have missed that trip for ten thousand dollars. I wouldn't go through it again for a hundred thousand.

 

photo by Donald Thompson

 

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