'Stories of the War Photographers'
in Belgium
told by Albert Rhys Williams, War Correspondent
from his book 'In the Claws of the German Eagle' 1917

An American at the Battlefront

from a Dutch newsmagazine
possibly the automobile belonging to the reporters referred to in the text


This narrator tells of his experiences with the spy hunters of Belgium. He was swept into the war-stricken country where he was arrested by the Germans, sweating under the German third degree, spending a fearful night on a prison floor, suffering with his fellow prisoners the torments of a trial as a spy in a German military court in Brussels, and finally securing his liberty. He has collected his experiences in a volume under title "In the Claws of the German Eagle," thus preserving in book form his remarkable articles which were first published in 'The Outlook'.


two photos of the author, Albert Rhys Williams
left in 1904 and right in 1922


I — Story of an American in Ghent

In the last days of September, the Belgians moving in and through Ghent in their rainbow-colored costumes, gave to the city a distinctively holiday touch. The clatter of cavalry hoofs and the throb of racing motors rose above the voices of the mobs that surged along the streets.

Service was normal in the cafés. To the accompaniment of music and clinking glasses the dress-suited waiter served me a five-course lunch for two francs. It was uncanny to see this blaze of life while the city sat under the shadow of a grave disaster. At any moment the gray German tide might break out of Brussels and pour its turbid flood of soldiers through these very streets. Even now a Taube hovered in the sky, and from the skirmish-line an occasional ambulance rumbled in with its crimsoned load.

I chanced into Gambrinus' café and was lost in the babbling sea of French and Flemish. Above the melee of sounds, however, I caught a gladdening bit of English. Turning about, I espied a little group of men whose plain clothes stood out in contrast to the colored uniforms of officers and soldiers crowded into the cafe. Wearied of my efforts at conversing in a foreign tongue, I went over and said:

"Do you really speak English?"

"Well, rather!" answered the one who seemed to act as leader of the group. "We are the only ones now and it will be scarcer still around here in a few days."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because Ghent will be in German hands."

This brought an emphatic denial from one of his confreres who insisted that the Germans had already reached the end of their rope. A certain correspondent, joining in the argument, came in for a deal of banter for taking the war de luxe in a good hotel far from the front.

"What do you know about the war ?" they twitted him. "You've pumped all your best stories out of the refugees ten miles from the front, after priming them with a glass of beer."

There were a group of young war-photographers to whom danger was a magnet. Though none of them had yet reached the age of thirty, they had seen service in all the stirring events of Europe and even around the globe. Where the clouds lowered and the seas tossed, there they flocked. Like stormy petrels they rushed to the center of the swirling world. That was their element. A freelance, a representative of the Northcliffe press, and two movie-men comprised this little group and made an island of English amidst the general babel.

Like most men who have seen much of the world, they had ceased to be cynics. When I came to them out of the rain, carrying no other introduction than a dripping overcoat, they welcomed me into their company and whiled away the evening with tales of the Balkan wars. They were in high spirits over their exploits of the previous day, when the Germans, withdrawing from Melle on the outskirts of the city, had left a long row of cottages still burning. As the enemy troops pulled out the further end of the street, the movie men came in at the other and caught the pictures of the still blazing houses. We went down to view them on the screen. To the gentle throbbing of drums and piano, the citizens of Ghent viewed the unique spectacle of their own suburbs going up in smoke.

At the end of the show they invited me to fill out their automobile on the morrow. Nearly every other motor had been commandeered by the authorities for the "Service Militaire" and bore on the front the letters "S. M." Our car was by no means in the blue-ribbon class. It had a hesitating disposition and the authorities, regarding it as more of a liability than an asset, passed it over. But the correspondents counted it a great stroke of fortune to have any car at all; and, that they might continue to have it, they kept it at night carefully locked in a room in the hotel. They had their chauffeur under like supervision. He was one of their kind, and with the cunning of a diplomat obtained the permit to buy petrol, most precious of all treasures in the field of war. Indeed, gasoline, along with courage and discipline, completed the trinity of success in the military mind.


Belgian soldiers at check-points on the Ghent-Antwerp road


II — Stories of the War Photographers in Belgium

With the British flag flying at the front, we sped away next morning on the road to Termonde. At Melle we came upon the blazing cottages we had seen pictured the night before. Here we encountered a roving band of Belgian soldiers who were in a free and careless mood and evinced a ready willingness to put themselves at our disposal. Under the command of the photographers, they charged across the fields with fixed bayonets, wriggled up through the grass, or, standing behind the trenches, blazed away with their guns at an imaginary enemy. They did some good acting, grim and serious as death. All except one.

This youth couldn't suppress his sense of humor. He could not, or would not, keep from laughing, even when he was supposed to be blowing the head off a Boche. He was properly disciplined and put out of the game, and we went on with our manoeuvers to the accompaniment of the clicking cameras until the photographers had gathered in a fine lot of realistic fighting-line pictures.

One of the photographers sat stolidly in the automobile smoking his cigarette while the others were reaping their harvest.

"Why don't you take these too?" I asked.

"Oh," he replied, "I've been sending in so much of that stuff that I just got a telegram from my paper saying, 'Pension off that Belgian regiment which is doing stunts in the trenches.'"


these are possibly some of the posed photos taken in Melle mentioned above
note the row of ruined houses similar to the others on photos on this page

While his little army rested from their manoeuvers the Director-in-Chief turned to me and said:

"Wouldn't you like to have a photograph of yourself in these war-surroundings, just to take home as a souvenir?"

That appealed to me. After rejecting some commonplace suggestions, he exclaimed: "I have it. Shot as a German Spy. There's the wall to stand up against; and we'll pick a crack firing-squad out of these Belgians. A little bit of all right, eh ?"

I acquiesced in the plan and was led over to the wall while a movie-man whipped out a handkerchief and tied it over my eyes. The director then took a firing squad in hand. He had but recently witnessed the execution of a spy where he had almost burst with a desire to photograph the scene. It had been excruciating torture to restrain himself. But the experience had made him feel conversant with the etiquette of shooting a spy, as it was being done amongst the very best firing-squads. He made it now stand him in good stead.

"Aim right across the bandage," the director coached them. I could hear one of the soldiers laughing excitedly as he was warming up to the rehearsal. It occurred to me that I was reposing a lot of confidence in a stray band of soldiers. Some one of those Belgians, gifted with a lively imagination, might get carried away with the suggestion and act as if I really were a German spy.

"Shoot the blooming blighter in the eye," said one movie man playfully.

"Bally good idea!" exclaimed the other one approvingly, while one eager actor realistically clicked his rifle-hammer. That was altogether too much. I tore the bandage from my eyes, exclaiming:

"It would be a bally good idea to take those cartridges out first." Some fellow might think his cartridge was blank or try to fire wild, just as a joke in order to see me jump. I wasn't going to take any risk and flatly refused to play my part until the cartridges were ejected. Even when the bandage was readjusted "Didn't-know-it-was-loaded" stories still were haunting me. In a moment, however, it was over and I was promised my picture within a fortnight.

A week later I picked up the London Daily Mirror from a news-stand. It had the caption:


Belgian Soldiers Shoot a German Spy Caught at Termonde ...

from two British magazines - 'the War Budget' and 'the War Illustrated'
Albert Rhys Williams as a 'stand-in spy' for British photographers


I opened up the paper and what was my surprise to see a big spread picture of myself, lined up against that row of Melle cottages and being shot for the delectation of the British public. There is the same long raincoat that runs as a motif through all the other pictures. Underneath it were the words:

"The Belgians have a short, sharp method of dealing with the Kaiser's rat-hole spies. This one was caught near Termonde and, after being blindfolded, the firing-squad soon put an end to his inglorious career."

One would not call it fame exactly, even though I played the star-role. But it is a source of some satisfaction to have helped a royal lot of fellows to a first-class scoop. As the "authentic spy-picture of the war," it has had a broadcast circulation. I have seen it in publications ranging all the way from The Police Gazette to Collier's Photographic History of the European War. In a university club I once chanced upon a group gathered around this identical picture. They were discussing the psychology of this "poor devil" in the moments before he was shot. It was a further source of satisfaction to step in and arbitrarily contradict all their conclusions and, having shown them how totally mistaken they were, proceed to tell them exactly how the victim felt. This high-handed manner nettled one fellow terribly:

"Not so arbitrary, my friend!" he said. "You haven't any right to be so devilish cock-sure."

"Haven't I?" I replied. "Who has any better right? I happen to be that identical man!"

But that little episode has been of real value to me. It is said that if one goes through the motions he gets the emotions. I believe that I have an inkling of how a man feels when he momentarily expects a volley of cold lead to turn his skull into a sieve.


Belgian refugees on the road


Ill — How Camera Men Risk Their Lives

Most of the pictures which the public casually gazes on have been secured at a price — and a large one, too. The names of these men who go to the front with cameras, rather than with rifles or pens, are generally unknown. They are rarely found beneath the pictures, yet where would be our vivid impression of courage in daring and of skill in doing, of cunning strategy upon the field of battle, of wounded soldiers sacrificing for their comrades, if we had no pictures? A few pictures are faked, but behind most pictures there is another tale of daring and of strategy, and that is the tale concerning the man who took it. That very day thrice these same men risked their lives.

The apparatus loaded in the car, we were off again. Past a few barricades of paving- stones and wagons, past the burned houses which marked the place where the Germans had come within five miles of Ghent, we encountered some uniformed Belgians who looked quite as dismal and dispirited as the fog which hung above the fields. They were the famous Guarde Civique of Belgium. Our Union Jack, flapping in the wind, was very likely quite the most thrilling spectacle they had seen in a week, and they hailed it with a cheer and a cry of "Vive I'Angleterre!" (Long live England!) The Guarde Civique had a rather inglorious time of it. Wearisomely in their wearisome-looking uniform, they stood for hours on their guns or marched and counter-marched in dreary patrolling, often doomed not even to scent the battle from afar off.

Whenever we were called to a halt for the examination of our passports, these men crowded around and begged for newspapers. We held up our stock, and they would clamor for the ones with pictures. The English text was unintelligible to most of them, but the pictures they could understand, and they bore them away to enjoy the sight of other soldiers fighting, even if they themselves were denied that excitement. Our question to them was always the same, "Where are the Germans?"

Out of the conflicting reports it was hard to tell whether the Germans were heading this way or not. That they were expected was shown by the sign-posts whose directions had just been obliterated by fresh paint — a rather futile operation, because the Germans had better maps and plans of the region than the Belgians themselves, maps which showed every by-path, well and barn. The chauffeur's brother had been shot in his car by the Germans but a week before, and he didn't relish the idea of thus flaunting the enemy's flag along a road where some German scouting party might appear at any moment. The Union Jack had done good service in getting us easy passage so far, but the driver was not keen for going further with it.

It was proposed to turn the car around and back it down the road, as had been done the previous day. Thus the car would be headed in the home direction, and at sight of the dreaded uniform we could make a quick leap for safety. At this juncture, however, I produced a small Stars and Stripes, which the chauffeur hailed with delight, and we continued our journey now under the aegis of a neutral flag.

It might have secured temporary safety, but only temporary; for if the Englishmen with only British passports had fallen into the hands of the Germans, like their unfortunate kinsmen who did venture too far into the war zone, they, too, would have had a chance to cool their ardor in some detention-camp of Germany. This cheerful prospect was in the mind of these men, for, when we espied coming around a distant corner two gray- looking men on horseback, they turned white as the chauffeur cried, "Uhlans!"

It is a question whether the car or our hearts came to a dead standstill first. Our shock was unnecessary. They proved to be Belgians, and assured us that the road was clear all the way to Termonde; and, except for an occasional peasant tilling his fields, the country-side was quite deserted until at Grembergen we came upon an unending procession of refugees streaming down the road. They were all coming out of Termonde. Termonde, after being taken and retaken, bombarded and burned, was for the moment neutral territory. A Belgian commandant had allowed the refugees that morning to return and gather what they might from among the ruins.

In the early morning, then, they had gone into the city, and now at high noon they were pouring out, a great procession of the dispossessed. They came tracking their way to where — God only knows. All they knew was that in their hearts was set the fear of Uhlans, and in the sky the smoke and flames of their burning homesteads. They came laden with their lares and penates, — mainly dogs, feather beds, and crayon portraits of their ancestors.


Belgian refugees
Note that the houses in the background
are probably the same ones in Melle as in the above 'spy' photo


IV — When Lens Has a Heart

Women came carrying on their heads packs which looked like their entire household paraphernalia. The men were more unassuming, and, as a rule, carried a package considerably lighter and comporting more with their superior masculine dignity. I recall one little woman in particular. She was bearing a burden heavy enough to send a strong American athlete staggering down to the ground, while at her side majestically marched her faithful knight, bearing a bird-cage, and there wasn't any bird in it, either.

Nothing could be more mirth-provoking than that sight; yet, strangely enough, the most tear-compelling memory of the war is connected with another bird-cage. Two children rummaging through their ruined home dug it out of the debris. In it was their little pet canary. While fire and smoke rolled through the house it had beat its wings against the bars in vain. Its prison had become its tomb. Its feathers were but slightly singed, yet it was dead with that pathetic finality which attaches itself to only a dead bird — its silver songs and flutterings, once the delight of the children, now stilled forever.

The photographers had long looked for what they termed a first-class sob-picture. Here it was par excellence. The larger child stood stroking the feathers of her pet and murmuring over and over "Poor Annette," "Poor Annette!" Then the smaller one snuggling the limp little thing against her neck wept inconsolably.

Instead of seizing their opportunity, the movie man was clearing his throat while the free lance was busy on what he said was a cinder in his eye. Yet this very man had brought back from the Balkan War of 1907 a prime collection of horrors; corpses thrown into the death-cart with arms and legs sticking out like so much stubble; the death-cart creeping away with its ghastly load; and the dumping together of bodies of men and beasts into a pit to be eaten by the lime. This man who had gone through all this with good nerve was now touched to tears by two children crying over their pet canary. There are some things that are too much for the heart of even a war-photographer.

To give the whole exodus the right tragic setting, one is tempted to write that tears were streaming down all the faces of the refugees, but on the contrary, indeed, most of them carried a smile and a pipe, and trudged stolidly along, much as though bound for a fair. Some of our pictures show laughing refugees. That may not be fair, for man is so constituted that the muscles of his face automatically relax to the click of the camera. But as I recall that pitiful procession, there was in it very little outward expression of sorrow.

Undoubtedly there was sadness enough in all their hearts, but people in Europe have learned to live on short rations; they rarely indulge in luxuries like weeping, but bear the most unwonted afflictions as though they were the ordinary fortunes of life. War has set a new standard for grief. So these victims passed along the road, but not before the record of their passing was etched for ever on our moving-picture films. The coming generation will not have to reconstruct the scene from the colored accounts of the journalist, but with their own eyes they can see the hegira of the homeless as it really was.

The resignation of the peasant in the face of the great calamity was a continual source of amazement to us. Zola in "he Debacle" puts into his picture of the battle of Sedan an old peasant plowing on his farm in the valley. While shells go screaming overhead he placidly drives his old white horse through the accustomed furrows. One naturally presumed that this was a dramatic touch of the great novelist. But similar incidents we saw in this Great War over and over again.


British Naval Brigade members at a rally-point on the outskirts of Antwerp
note the automobile at the right - possibly the one belonging to the reporters


V — A Thousand Horses Strain at Their Bridles

We were with Consul van Hee one morning early before the clinging veil of sleep had lifted from our spirits or the mists from the low-lying meadows. Without warning our car shot through a bank of fog into a spectacle of mediaeval splendor — a veritable Field of the Cloth of Gold, spread out on the green plains of Flanders.

A thousand horses strained at their bridles while their thousand riders in great fur busbies loomed up almost like giants. A thousand pennons stirred in the morning air while the sun burning through the mists glinted on the tips of as many lances. The crack Belgian cavalry divisions had been gathered here just behind the firing-lines in readiness for a sortie; the Lancers in their cherry and green and the Guides in their blue and gold making a blaze of color.

It was as if in a trance we had been carried back to a tourney of ancient chivalry — this was before privations and the new drab uniforms had taken all glamor out of the war. As we gazed upon the glittering spectacle the order from the commander came to us:

"Back, back out of danger!"

"Forward I" was the charge to the Lancers.

The field-guns rumbled into line and each rider un-slung his carbine. Putting spurs to the horses, the whole line rode past saluting our Stars and Stripes with a "Vive L'Amerique." Bringing up the rear two cassocked priests served to give this pageantry a touch of prophetic grimness.

And yet as the cavalcade swept across the fields thrilling us with its color and its action, the nearby peasants went on spreading fertilizer quite as calm and unconcerned as we were exhilarated.

"Stupid," "Clods," "Souls of oxen," we commented, yet a protagonist of the peasant might point out that it was perhaps as noble and certainly quite as useful to be held by a passion for the soil as to be caught by the glamor of men riding out to slaughter. And Zola puts this in the mind of his peasants.

"Why should I lose a day? Soldiers must fight, but folks must live. It is for me to keep the corn growing."

Deep down into the soil the peasant strikes his roots. Urban people can never comprehend when these roots are cut away how hopelessly lost and adrift this European peasant in particular becomes. Wicked as the Great War has seemed to us in its bearing down upon these innocent folks, yet we can never understand the cruelty that they have suffered in being uprooted from the land and sent forth to become beggars and wanderers upon the highroads of the world.

to part 2


in Antwerp with the British Naval Brigade

enlargement with arrows showing reporters


to part 2

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