'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

left : the author Albert Rhys Williams with a Belgian soldier in Termonde
right : scenes in Termonde

 

The Little Belgian Who Said, "You Betcha"

IN the fighting around Termonde the bridge over the Scheldt had been three times blown up and three times reconstructed. Wires now led to explosives under the bridge on the Termonde side, and on the side held by the Belgians they led to a table in the room of the commanding officer. In this table was an electric button. By the button stood an officer. The entrance of the Germans on that bridge was the signal for the officer to push that button, and thus to blow both bridge and Germans into bits.

But the Belgians were taking no chances. If by any mishap that electric connection should fail them, it would devolve upon the artillery lined upon the bank to rake the bridge with shrapnel. A roofed-over trench ran along the river like a levee and bristled with machine guns whose muzzles were also trained upon the bridge. Full caissons of ammunition were standing alongside, ready to feed the guns their death-dealing provender, and in the rear, all harnessed, were the horses, ready to bring up more caissons.

Though in the full blaze of day, the gunners were standing or crouching by their guns. The watchers of the night lay stretched out upon the ground, sleeping in the warm sun after their long, anxious vigil. Stumbling in among them, I was pulled back by one of the photographers.

"For heaven's sake," he cried, "don't wake up those men!"

"Why?" I asked.

"Because this picture I'm taking here is to be labeled 'Dead Men in the Termonde Trenches,' and you would have them starting up as though the day of resurrection had arrived."

 

photos by Donald Thompson

another view of the bridge at Termonde

 

After taking these pictures we were ready to cross the bridge; but the two sentries posted at this end were not ready to let us. They were very small men, but very determined, and informed us that their instructions were to allow no one to pass over without a permit signed by the General. We produced scores of passes and passports decorated with stamps and seals and covered with myriad signatures. They looked these over and said that our papers were very nice and undoubtedly very numerous, but ungraciously insisted on that pass signed by the General.

So back we flew to the General at Grembergen. I waited outside until my companions emerged from the office waving passes. They were in a gleeful, bantering mood. That evening they apprised me of the fact that all day I had been traveling as a rich American with my private photographers securing pictures for the Belgian Relief Fund.

Leaving our automobile in charge of the chauffeur, we cautiously made our way over the bridge into the city of Termonde, or what was once Termonde, for it is difficult to dignify with the name of city a heap of battered buildings and crumbling brick — an ugly scar upon the landscape.

I was glad to enter the ruins with my companions instead of alone. It was not so much fear of stray bullets from a lurking enemy as the suggestion of the spirits of the slain lingering round these tombs. For Termonde appeared like one vast tomb. As we first entered its sepulchral silences we were greatly relieved that the three specter-like beings who sat huddled up over a distant ruin turned out not to be ghosts, but natives hopelessly and pathetically surveying this wreck that was once called home, trying to rake out of the embers some sort of relic of the past.

 

photos by Donald Thompson

 

A regiment of hungry dogs came prowling up the street, and, remembering the antics of the past week, they looked at us as if speculating what new species of crazy human being we were. To them the world of men must suddenly have gone quite insane, and if there had been an agitator among them he might well have asked his fellow-dogs why they had acknowledged a race of madmen as their masters. Indeed, one could almost detect a sense of surprise that we didn't use the photographic apparatus to commit some new outrage. They stayed with us for a while, but at the sight of our cinema man turning the crank like a machine gun, they turned and ran wildly down the street.

Emptied bottles looted from winecellars were strung along the curbs. To some Germans they had been more fatal than the Belgian bullets, for while one detachment of the German soldiers had been setting the city blazing with petrol from the petrol flasks, others had set their insides on fire with liquors from the wine flasks, and, rolling through the town in drunken orgy, they had fallen headlong into the canal.

There is a relevant item for those who seek further confirmation as to the reality of the atrocities in Belgium. If men could get so drunken and uncontrolled as to commit atrocities on themselves (i. e., self-destruction), it is reasonable to infer that they could commit atrocities on others — and they undoubtedly did. The surprise lies not in the number of such crimes, but the fewness of them.

Three boys who had somehow managed to crawl across the bridge were prodding about in the canals with bamboo poles.

"What are you doing?" we inquired.

"Fishing," they responded.

"What for?" we asked.

"Dead Germans," they replied.

"What do you do with them — bury them?"

"No!" they shouted derisively. "We just strip them of what they've got and shove 'em back in.''

Their search for these hapless victims was not motivated by any sentimental reasons, but simply by their business interest as local dealers in helmets, buttons and other German mementos.

 

photos by Donald Thompson

 

We took pictures of these young water-ghouls ; a picture of the Hotel de Ville, the calcined walls standing like a shell, the inside a smoking mass of debris; then a picture of a Belgian mitrailleuse car, manned by a crowd of young and jaunty dare-devils. It came swinging into the square, bringing a lot of bicycles from a German patrol which had just been mowed down outside the city. After taking a shot at an aeroplane buzzing away at a tremendous distance overhead, they were off again on another scouting trip.

I got separated from my party and was making my way alone when a sharp "Hello!" ringing up the street, startled me. I turned to see, not one of the photographers, but a fully-armed, though somewhat diminutive, soldier in Belgian uniform waving his hand at me.

"Hello!" he shouted; "are you an American?"

I could hardly believe my eyes or my ears, but managed to shout back, "Yes, yes, I'm an American. Are you?" I asked dubiously.

"You betcha I'm a 'Merican," he replied, coming quickly up to me. It was my turn again.

"What are you doing down here — fighting?" I put in fatuously.

"What the hell you think I'm doing?" he rejoined.

I now felt quite sure that he was an American. Further offerings of similar "language of small variety but great strength" testified to his sojourn in the States.

"You betcha I'm a 'Merican," he reiterated, "though I was over there but two years. My name is August Bidden. I worked in a lumber-mill in Wagner, Wisconsin. Came back here to visit my family. The war broke out. I was a Reservist and joined my regiment. I'm here on scout-duty. Got to find out when the Germans come back into the city."

"Been in any battles!"

"You betcha," he replied.

"Kill any Germans?"

"You betcha."

"Did you enjoy it?"

"You betcha."

"Any around here now?"

"You betcha. A lot of them down in the bushes over the brook." Then his eyes flashed a sudden fire as though an inspired idea had struck him. "There's no superior officer around," he exclaimed confidentially. "Come right down with me and you can take a pot- shot at the damned Boches with my rifle." He said it with the air of a man offering a rare treat to his best friend. I felt that it devolved on me to exhibit a proper zest for this little shooting party and save my reputation without risking my skin. So I said eagerly:

"Now are you dead sure that the Germans are down there?" implying that I couldn't afford any time unless the shooting was good.

"You betcha they're down there," was his disconcerting reply. "You can see their green- gray uniforms. I counted sixteen or seventeen of them."

The thought of that sixteen-to-one shot made my cheeks take on the color of the German uniforms. The naked truth was my last resort. It was the only thing that could prevent my zealous friend from dragging me forcibly down to the brookside. He may have heard the chattering of my teeth. At any rate he looked up and exclaimed, "What's the matter? You 'fraid?"

I replied without any hesitation, "You betcha.''

The happy arrival of the photographer at this juncture, however, redeemed my fallen reputation; for a soldier is always peculiarly amenable to the charms of the camera and is even willing to quit fighting to get his picture taken.

This photograph happens to hit off our little episode exactly. It shows Ridden serene, smiling, confident, and my sort of evasive hangdog look as though, in popular parlance, I had just "got one put over me."

Then, while seated on a battered wall, Ridden poured out his story of the last two months of hardships and horrors. It was the single individual's share in the terrific gruelling that the Belgian army had received while it was beaten back from the eastern frontier to its stand on the river Scheldt. Always being promised aid by the Allies if they would hold out just a little longer, they were led again and again frantically to pit their puny strength against the overwhelming tide out of the North. For the moment they would stay it. Eagerly they would listen for sounds of approaching help, asking every stranger when it was coming. It never came. From position to position they fell back, stubbornly fighting, a flaming pillar of sparks and clouds of smoke marking the path of their retreat.

Though smashed and broken that army was never crushed. Its spirit was incarnate in this cheerful and undaunted Ridden. He recounted his privations as nonchalantly as if it was just the way that he had planned to spend his holiday. As a farewell token he presented me with an epaulet from an officer he had killed, and a pin from a German woman spy he had captured.

"Be sure to visit me when you get back to America," I cried out down the street to him.

He stood waving his hand in farewell as in greeting, the same happy ingenuous look upon his face and sending after me in reply the same old confident standby, "You betcha." But I do not cherish a great hope of ever seeing Ridden again. The chances are that, like most of the Belgian army, he is no longer treading the gray streets of those demolished cities, but whatever golden streets there may be in the City Celestial. War is race suicide. It kills the best and leaves behind the undermuscled and the under-brained to propagate the species.

 

photos by Donald Thompson

 

Striking farther into the heart of the ruins, we beheld in a section all burned and shattered to the ground a building which stood straight up like a cliff intact and undamaged amidst the general wreckage. As we stumbled over the debris, imagine our surprise when an old lady of about seventy thrust her head out of a basement window. She was the owner of the house, and while the city had been the fighting ground for the armies she had, through it all, bravely stuck to her home.

"I was born here, I have always lived here, and I am going to die here," she said, with a look of pride upon her kindly face.

Madame Callebaut-Ringoot was her name. During the bombardment of the town she had retired to the cellar; but when the Germans entered to burn the city she stood there at the door watching the flames rolling up from the warehouses and factories in the distance. Nearer and nearer came the billowing tide of fire. A fountain of sparks shooting up from a house a few hundred yards away marked the advance of the firing squad into her street, but she never wavered. Down the street came the spoilers, relentless, ruthless, and remorseless, sparing nothing. They came like priests of the nether world, anointing each house with oil from the petrol flasks and with a firebrand dedicating it to the flames. Every one, panic-stricken, fled before them. Every one but this old lady, who stood there bidding defiance to all the Kaiser's horses and all the Kaiser's men.

"I saw them smashing in the door of the house across the way," said Madame Callebaut, "and when the flames burst forth they rushed over here, and I fell down on my knees before them, crying out,' For the love of Heaven, spare an old woman's house!' "

It must have been a dramatic, soul-curdling sight, with the wail of the woman rising above the crashing walls and the roaring flames. And it must have been effective pleading to stop men in their wild rush lusting to destroy. But Madame Callebaut was endowed with powerful emotions. Carried away in her recital of the events, she fell down on her knees before me, wringing her hands and pleading so piteously that I felt for a moment as if I were a fiendish Teuton with a firebrand about to set the old lady's house afire. I can understand how the wildest men capitulated to such pleadings, and how they came down the steps to write, in big, clear words,

"Nicht anbrennen" (Do not set fire to)

Only they unwittingly wrote it upon her neighbor's walls, thus saving both houses.

How much a savior of other homes Madame Callebaut had been Termonde will never know. Certainly she made the firing squad first pause in the wild debauch of destruction. For frequently now an undamaged house stood with the words chalked on its front, ''Only harmless old woman lives here; do not burn down." Underneath were the numbers and initials of the particular corps of the Kaiser's Imperial Army. Often the flames had committed lesÚ majestÚ by leaping onto the forbidden house, and there amidst the charred ruins stood a door or a wall bearing the mocking inscription, "Nicht Anbrennen."

Another house, belonging to Madame Louise Bal, bore the words, "Protected; Gute alte Leute hier' (good old people here). A great shell from a distant battery had totally disregarded this sign and had torn through the parlor, exploding in the back yard, ripping the clothes from the line, but touching neither of the inmates. As the Chinese ambassador pertinently remarked when reassured by Whitlock that the Germans would not bombard the embassies, "Ah! but a cannon has no eyes."

These houses stood up like lone survivors above the wreckage wrought by fire and shell, and by contrast served to emphasize the dismal havoc everywhere. '' So this was once a city,'' one mused to himself; "and these streets, now sounding with the footfalls of some returning sentry, did they once echo with the roar of traffic? And those demolished shops, were they once filled with the babble of the traders ? Over yonder in that structure, which looks so much like a church, did the faithful once come to pray and to worship God ? Can it be that these courtyards, now held in the thrall of death-like silence, once rang to the laughter of the little children?" One said to himself, "Surely this is some wild dream. Wake up."

 

several views of the destruction in Termonde
from a Dutch newsmagazine 'Panorama'

 

But hardly a dream, for here were the ruins of a real city, and fresh ruins, too. Still curling up from the church was smoke from the burning rafters, and over there the hungry dogs, and the stragglers mournfully digging something out of the ruins. However preposterous it seemed, none the less it was a city that yesterday ran high with the tide of human life. And thousands of people, when they recall the lights and shadows, the pains and raptures, which make up the thing we call life, will think of Termonde. Thousands of people, when they think of home and all the tender memories that cluster round that word, say ''Termonde."' And now where Termonde was there is a big black ragged spot — an ugly gaping wound in the landscape. There are a score of other wounds like that.

There are thousands of them.

There is one bleeding in every Belgian heart.

The sight of their desolated cities cut the soldiers to the quick.

They turned the names of those cities into battle cries. Shouting "Remember Termonde and Louvain," these Belgians sprang from the trenches and like wild men flung themselves upon the foe.

 

photos by Donald Thompson

 

Atrocities and the Socialist

"With these sentries holding us up at every cross-roads, there is no use trying to get to Antwerp," said the free-lance.

"Yes, there is," retorted the chauffeur. "Watch me the next time.'' He beckoned to the first sentry barring the way, and, leaning over, whispered into the man's ear a single word. The sentry saluted, and, stepping to one side, motioned us on in a manner almost deferential. We had hardly been compelled to stop.

After our tedious delays this was quite exhilarating. How our chauffeur obtained the password we did not know, nor did we challenge the inclusion of 8 francs extra in his memorandum of expenses. As indicated, he was a man of parts. The magic word of the day, "France," now opened every gate to us.

Behind the Antwerp fortifications the Belgian sappers and miners were on an organized rampage of destruction. On a wide zone every house, windmill and church was either going up in flames or being hammered level to the ground.

We came along as the oil was applied to an old house and saw the flames go crackling up through the rafters. The black smoke curled away across the wasted land and the fire glowed upon the stolid faces of the soldiers and the trembling woman who owned it. To her it was a funeral pyre. Her home endeared by lifetime memories was being offered up on the altar of Liberty and Independence. Starting with the invaders on the western frontier, clear through to Antwerp by the sea, a wild black swathe had been burnt.

By such drastic methods space was cleared for the guns in the Belgian forts, and to the advancing besiegers no protection would be offered from the raking fire. The heart of a steel-stock owner would have rejoiced to see the maze of wire entanglement that ran everywhere. In one place a tomato-field had been wired; the green vines, laden with their rich red fruit, were intertwined with the steel vines bearing their vicious blood- drawing barbs whose intent was to make the red field redder still. We had just passed a gang digging man-holes and spitting them with stakes, when an officer cried:

"Stop! No further passage here. You must turn back."

"Why?" we asked protestingly.

"The entire road is being mined," he replied.

Even as he spoke we could see a liquid explosive being poured into a sort of cup, and electric wires connected. The officer pictured to us a regiment of soldiers advancing, with the full tide of life running in their veins, laughing and singing as they marched in the smiling sun. Suddenly the road rocks and hell heaves up beneath their feet; bodies are blown into the air and rained back to the earth in tiny fragments of human flesh; while brains are spattered over the ground, and every crevice runs a rivulet of blood. He sketched this in excellent English, adding:

"A magnificent climax for Christian civilization, eh! And that's my business. But what else can one do ?"

 

photos by Donald Thompson

 

For the task of setting this colossal stage for death, the entire peasant population had been mobilized to assist the soldiers. In self-defense Belgium was thus obliged to drive the dagger deep into her own bosom. It seemed indeed as if she suffered as much at her own hands, as at the hands of the enemy. To arrest the advancing scourge she impressed into her service dynamite, fire and flood. I saw the sluice-gates lifted and meadows which had been waving with the golden grain of autumn now turned into silver lakes. So suddenly had the waters covered the land that hay-cocks bobbed upon the top of the flood, and peasants went out in boats to dredge for the beets and turnips which lay beneath the waters.

The roads were inundated and so we ran along an embankment which, like a levee, lifted itself above the water wastes. The sun, sinking down behind the flaming poplars in the west, was touching the rippling surface into myriad colors. It was like a trip through Fairyland, or it would have been, were not men on all sides busy preparing for the bloody shambles.

After these elaborate defensive works the Belgians laughed at any one taking Antwerp, the impregnable fortress of Western Europe. The Germans laughed, too. But it was the bass, hollow laugh of their great guns placed ten to twenty miles away, and pouring into the city such a hurricane of shell and shrapnel that they forced its evacuation by the British and the Belgians. Through this vast array of works which the reception committee had designed for their slaughter, the Germans came marching in as if on dress parade.

A few shells were even now crashing through Malines and had played havoc with the carillon in the cathedral tower. During a lull in the bombardment we climbed a stairway of the belfry where, above us, balanced great stones which a slight jar would send tumbling down. On and up we passed vents and jagged holes which had been ripped through these massive walls as if they were made of paper. It was enough to carry the weight of one's somber reflections without the addition of cheerful queries of the movie-man as to "how would you feel if the German gunners suddenly turned loose again?''

We gathered in a deal of stone ornaments that had been shot down and struggled with a load of them to our car. Later they became a weight upon our conscience. When Cardinal Mercier starts the rebuilding of his cathedral, we might surprise him with the return of a considerable portion thereof. To fetch these souvenirs through to England, we were compelled to resort to all the tricks of a gang of smugglers.

I made also a first rate collection of German posters. By day I observed the location of these placards, announcing certain death to those who "sniped on German troops," "harbored courier-pigeons," or "destroyed" these self-same posters.

At night with trembling hands I laid cold compresses on them until the adhering paste gave way; then, tucking the wet sheets beneath my coat, I stole back to safety. At last in England I feasted my eyes on the precious documents, dreaming of the time when posterity should rejoice in the possession of these posters relating to the German overlordship of Belgium, and give thanks to the courage of their collector. Unfortunately, their stained and torn appearance grated on the aesthetic sensibilities of the maid.

"Where are they?" I demanded on my return to my room one time, as I missed them.

"Those nasty papers?" she inquired naively.

"Those priceless souvenirs," I returned severely. She did not comprehend, but with a most aggravatingly sweet expression said:

"They were so dirty, sir, I burned them all up."

She couldn't understand why I rewarded her with something akin to a fit of apoplexy, instead of a liberal tip. That day was a red-letter one for our photographers. They paid the price in the risks which constantly strained their nerves. But in it they garnered vastly more than in the fortnight they had hugged safety.

But, despite all our efforts, there was one object that we were after that we never did attain. That was a first-class atrocity picture. There were atrocity stories in endless variety, but not one that the camera could authenticate. People were growing chary of verbal assurances of these horrors; they yearned for some photographic proof, and we yearned to furnish it.

"What features are you looking for?" was the question invariably put to us on discovering our cameras.

"Children with their hands cut off," we replied. "Are there any around here?"

"Oh, yes! Hundreds of them," was the invariable assurance.

"Yes, but all we want is one — just one in flesh and bone. Where can we find that?"

The answer was ever the same. "In the hospital at the rear, or at the front." "Back in such-and-such a village," etc. Always somewhere else; never where we were.

Let no one attempt to gloss the cruelties perpetrated in Belgium. My individual wish is to see them pictured as crimson as possible, that men may the fiercer revolt against the shame and horror of this red butchery called war. But this is a record of just one observer's reactions and experiences in the war zone. After weeks in this contested ground, the word "atrocity" now calls up to my mind hardly anything I saw in Belgium, but always the savageries I have witnessed at home in America.

For example, the organized frightfulness that I once witnessed in Boston. Around the strikers picketing a factory were the police in full force and a gang of thugs. Suddenly at the signal of a shrill whistle, sticks were drawn from under coats and, right and left, men were felled to the cobblestones. After a running fight a score were stretched out unconscious, upon the square. As blood poured out of the gashes, like tigers intoxicated by the sight and smell thereof, the assailants became frenzied, kicking and beating their victims, already insensible. In a trice the beasts within had been unleashed.

If in normal times men can lay aside every semblance of restraint and decency and turn into raging fiends, how much greater cause is there for such a transformation to be wrought under the stress of war when, by government decree, the sixth commandment is suspended and killing has become glorified. At any rate my experiences in America make credible the tales told in Belgium.

But there are no pictures of these outrages such as the Germans secured after the Russian drive into their country early in the war. Here are windrows of mutilated Germans with gouged eyes and mangled limbs, attesting to that same senseless bestial ferocity which lies beneath the veneer.

All the photographers were fired with desire to make a similar picture in Belgium, yet though we raced here and there, and everywhere that rumor led us, we found it but a futile chase.

Through the Great Hall in Ghent there poured 100,000 refugees. Here we pleaded how absolutely imperative it was that we should obtain an atrocity picture. The daughter of the burgomaster, who was in charge, understood our plight and promised to do her best. But out of the vast concourse she was able to uncover but one case that could possibly do service as an atrocity.

It was that of a blind peasant woman with her six children. The photographers told her to smile, but she didn't, nor did the older children; they had suffered too horribly to make smiling easy. When the Germans entered the village the mother was in bed with her day-old baby. Her husband was seized and, with the other men, marched away, as the practice was at that period of the invasion, for some unaccountable reason. With the roof blazing over her head, she was compelled to arise from her bed and drag herself for miles before she found a refuge. I related this to a German later and he said: "Oh, well, there are plenty of peasant women in the Fatherland who are hard at work in the fields three days after the birth of their child."

The Hall filled with women wailing for children, furnished heartrending sights, but no victim bore such physical marks as the most vivid imagination could construe into an atrocity.

"I can't explain why we don't get a picture," said the free lance. "Enough deviltry has been done. I can't see why some of the stuff doesn't come through to us."

"Simply because the Germans are not fools," replied the movie-man; "when they mutilate a victim, they go through with it to the finish. They take care not to let telltales go straggling out to damn them."

Some one proposed that the only way to get a first-class atrocity picture was to fake it. It was a big temptation, and a fine field for the exercise of their inventive genius. But on this issue the chorus of dissent was most emphatic.

The nearest that I came to an atrocity was when in a car with Van Hee, the American vice-consul at Ghent. Van Hee was a man of laconic speech and direct action. I told him what Lethbridge, the British consul, had told me; viz., that the citizens of Ghent must forthwith erect a statue of Van Hee in gold to commemorate his priceless services. "The gold idea appeals to me, all right," said Van Hee, "but why put it in a statue!" He routed me out at five one morning to tell me that I could go through the German lines with Mr. Fletcher into Brussels. We left the Belgian Army cheering the Stars and Stripes, and came to the outpost of sharpshooters. Crouching behind a barricade, they were looking down the road. They didn't know whether the Germans were half a mile, two miles, or five miles down that road.

Into that uncertain No-Man's-Land we drove with only our honking to disturb the silence, while our minds kept growing specters of Uhlans the size of Goliath. Fletcher and I kept up a hectic conversation upon the flora and fauna of the country. But Van Hee, being of strong nerves, always gleefully brought the talk back to Uhlans.

"How can you tell an Uhlan?" I faltered.

"If you see a big gray man on horseback, with a long lance, spearing children," said Van Hee, "why, that's an Uhlan."

Turning a sharp corner, we ran straight ahead into a Belgian bicycle division — scouting in this uncertain zone. In a flash they were off their wheels, rifles at their shoulders and fingers on triggers.

Two boys, gasping with fear, thrust their guns up into our very faces. In our gray coats we had been taken for a party of German officers. They were positive that a peasant was hanging in a barn not far away. But we insisted that our nerves had had enough for the day. Even Van Hee was willing to let the conversation drift back to flowers and birds. We drove along in chastened spirit until hailed by the German outpost, about five miles from where we had left the Belgians. No-Man's-Land was wide in those days.

But what is it that really constitutes an atrocity? In a refugee shed, sleeping on the straw, we found an old woman of 88. All that was left to her was her shawl, her dress, and the faint hope of seeing two sons for whom she wept. Extreme old age is pitiful in itself. With homelessness it is tragic. But such homeless old age as this, with scarce one flickering ray of hope, is double-distilled tragedy. If some marauder had bayoneted her, and she had died therefrom, it would have been a kindly release from all the anguish that the future now held in store for her. Of course that merciful act would have constituted an atrocity, because it would have been a breach in the rules of the war game.

But in focusing our attention upon the violations of the code, we are apt to forget the greater atrocity of the violation of Belgium, and the whole hideous atrocity of the great war. That is getting things out of proportion, for the sufferings entailed by these technical atrocities are infinitesimal alongside of those resulting from the war itself.

Another point has been quite overlooked. In recounting the atrocities wrought by Prussian Imperialism, no mention is made of those that it has committed upon its own people. And yet at any rate a few Germans suffered in the claws of the German eagle quite as cruelly as any Belgians did. One fine morning in September three Germans came careening into Ghent in a great motor car. They were dazed to find no evidence of their army which they supposed was in possession. Before the men became aware of their mistake, a Belgian mitrailleuse poured a stream of lead into their midst, killing two of them outright. The third German, with a ball in his neck, was rescued by Van Hee and placed under the protection of the American flag.

Incidentally that summary action, followed by a quick visit to the German general in his camp on the outskirts, saved the city. That is a long story. It is told in Alexander Powell's "Fighting in Flanders," but it suffices here to state that by a pact between the Belgian burgomaster of Ghent and the German commandant it was understood that the wounded man was not to be considered a prisoner, but under the jurisdiction of the American Consulate.

A week after this incident Van Hee paid his first visit to this wounded man in the Belgian hospital. He was an honest fellow of about forty — the type of working-man who had aspired to nothing beyond a chance to toil and raise a family for the Fatherland. Weltpolitik, with its vaunting boast of "World-power or Downfall," was meaningless to him and his comrades gathered in the beer-gardens on a Sunday.

Suddenly out of this quiet, uneventful life he was called to the colors and sent killing and and burning through the Belgian villages. His officers had told him that it would be a sorry thing for any German soldier to be captured, for these Belgians, maddened by the pillage of their country, would take a terrible revenge upon any luckless wretches that fell into their hands. Now, more suddenly than anything else had ever happened in his life, a bullet had stabbed him in the throat and he found himself a prisoner at the mercy of these dreaded Belgians.

"Why are they tending me so carefully during these last seven days?" "Are they getting me ready for the torturing?" "Are they making me well in order that I may suffer all the more?" Grim speculation of that kind must have been running through his simple mind. For when we opened the door of his room, he slunk cowering over to his bed, staring at us as if we were inquisitors about to lead him away to the torture chamber, there to suffer vicariously for all the crimes of the German army.

His body, already shrunken by overwork, visibly quivered before us, the perspiration beading on his ashen face.

We had come to apprise him of his present status as a citizen under the protectorate of America.

Van Hee approached the subject casually with the remark: "You see, you are not a Frenchman!"

"No, I am not a Frenchman," the quailing fellow mechanically repeated.

"And you are not a Belgian," resumed Van Hee.

He was not quite sure about disclaiming that, but he saw what was expected of him. So he faltered: '' No, I am not a Belgian.'' "And you are not an Englishman, eh?"

According to formula he answered: "No, I am not an Englishman!" but I sensed a bit more of emphasis in the disavowal of any English taint to his blood.

Van Hee was taking this process of elimination in order to clear the field so that his man could grasp the fact that he was to all intents an American, and at last he said: "No longer are you a German either." The poor fellow was in deep seas, and breathing hard. Everything about him proclaimed the fact that he was a German, even to his field-gray uniform, and he knew it. But he did not venture to contradict Van Hee, and he whispered hoarsely: "No, I am not a German either."

He was completely demoralized, a picture of utter desolation.

"If you are not German, or Belgian, or French, or English, what are you then?"

The poor fellow whimpered: "0 Gott! I don't know what I am."

"I’ll tell you what you are. You 're an American!" exclaimed Van Hee with great gusto. "That's what you are — an American! Get that ? An American!''

"Ja, ja ich bin ein Amerihaner!" he eagerly cried ("Yes, yes, I am an American!"), relieved to find himself no longer a man without a country. Had he been told that he was a Hindoo, or an Eskimo, he would have acquiesced as obediently.

But when he was shown an American flag and it began to dawn on him that he had nothing more to fear from his captors, his tenseness relaxed. And when Van Hee said: "As the American consul I shall do what I can for you. What is it you want the most?" a light shone in the German's eyes and he replied:

"I want to go home. I want to see my wife and children."

"I thought you came down here because you wanted to see the war," said Van Hee.

"War!" he gasped, and putting hands up to his eyes as if to shut out some awful sights, he began muttering incoherently about "Louvain," "children screaming," "blood all over his breast," repeating constantly "schrecklich, schrecklich." "I don't want to see any more war. I want to see my wife and my three children!"

' The big guns! Do you hear them ?" I said.

"I don't want to hear them," he answered, shaking his head.

"They're killing you Germans by the thousands down there," announced Van Hee. "I should think you would want to get out and kill the French and the English."

"I don't want to kill anybody," he repeated. "I never did want to kill anybody. I only want to go home." As we left him he was repeating a refrain: "I want to go home" — "Schrecklich, schrecklich." "I never did want to kill anybody."

Every instinct in that man's soul was against the murder he had been set to do. His conscience had been crucified. A ruthless power had invaded his domain, dragged him from his hearthside, placed a gun in his hands and said to him: "Kill!"

Perhaps before the war, as he had drilled along the German roads, he had made some feeble protest. But then war seemed so unreal and so far away; now the horror of it was in his soul.

A few days later Van Hee was obliged to return him to the German lines. Again he was marched out to the shambles to take up the killings against which his whole nature was in rebellion. No slave ever went whipped to his task with greater loathing.

Once I saw slowly plodding back into Brussels a long gray line of soldiers; the sky, too, was gray and a gray weariness had settled down upon the spirits of these troops returning from the destruction of a village. I was standing by the roadside holding in my arms a refugee baby.

Its attention was caught by an officer on horseback and in baby fashion it began waving its hand at him. Arrested by this sudden gleam of human sunshine the stern features of the officer relaxed into a smile. Forgetting for the moment his dignity he waved his hand at the baby in a return salute, turning his face away from his men that they might not see the tears in his eyes. But we could see them.

Perhaps through those tears he saw the mirage of his own fireside. Perhaps for the moment his homing spirit rested there, and it was only the body from which the soul had fled that was in the saddle here before us riding through a hostile land. Perhaps more powerfully than the fulminations of any orator had this greeting of a little child operated to smite him with the senseless folly of this war. Who knows but that right then there came flashing into his mind the thought: "Why not be done with this cruel orphaning of Belgian babies, this burning down of their homes and turning them adrift upon the world?"

Brutalizing as may be the effect of militarism in action, fortified as its devotees may be by all the iron ethics of its code, I cannot help but believe that here again the ever-recurring miracle of repentance and regeneration had been wrought by the grace of a baby's smile; that again this stern-visaged officer had become just a human being longing for peace and home, revolting against laying waste the peace and homes of his fellowmen. But to what avail? All things would conspire to make him conform and stifle the revolt within. How could he escape from the toils in which he was held ? Next morrow or next week he would again be in the saddle riding out to destruction.

The irony of history again! It was this German folk who said, centuries ago: "No religious authority shall invade the sacred precincts of the soul and compel men to act counter to their deepest convictions." In a costly struggle the fetters of the church were broken. But now a new iron despotism is riveted upon them. The great state has become the keeper of men's consciences. The dragooning of the soul goes on just the same. Only the power to do it has been transferred from the priests to the officers of the state. To compel men to kill when their whole beings cry out against it, is an atrocity upon the souls of men as real as any committed upon the bodies of the Belgians.

Amidst the wild exploits and wilder rumors of those crucial days when Belgium was the central figure in the world-war, the calmness of the natives was a source of constant wonder. In the regions where the Germans had not yet come they went on with their accustomed round of eating, drinking and trading with a sang-froid that was distressing to the fevered outsider.

Yet beneath this surface calmness and gayety ran a smoldering hate, of whose presence one never dreamed, unless he saw it shoot out in an ugly flare.

I saw this at Antwerp when about 300 of us had been herded into one of the great halls. As one by one the suspects came up to the exit gate to be overhauled by the examiners, I thought that there never could be such a complacent, dead-souled crowd as this. They had dully waited for two hours with scarce a murmur.

The most pathetic weather-worn old man — a farm drudge, I surmise — came up to the exit. All I heard were the words of the officer: "You speak German, eh?"

At a flash this dead throng became an infuriated blood-thirsting mob. " Allemamd! Espion!" it shouted, swinging forward until the gates sagged. ''Kill him! Kill the damned German!"

The mob would have put its own demand into execution but for the soldiers, who flung the poor quivering fellow into one corner and pushed back the Belgians, eager to trample him to the station floor.

There was the girl Yvonne, who, while the color was mounting to her pretty face, informed us that she "wanted the soldiers to keel every German in the world. No,'' she added, her dark eyes snapping fire, "I want them to leave just one. The last one I shall keel myself!"

 

right - a Belgian soldier being treated by German Red Cross orderlies

 

Yet, every example of Belgian ferocity towards the spoilers one could match with ten of Belgian magnanimity. We obtained a picture of Max Crepin, carbinier voluntaire, in which he looks seventy years of age — he was really seventeen. At the battle of Melle he had fallen into the hands of the Germans after a bullet had passed clean through both cheeks. In their retreat the Germans had left Max in the bushes, and he was now safe with his friends.

He could not speak, but the first thing he wrote in the little book the nurse handed him was, "The Germans were very kind to me." There was a line about his father and mother; then "We had to lie flat in the bushes for two days. One German took off his coat and wrapped it around me, though he was cold himself. Another German gave me all the water in his canteen." Then came a line about a friend, and finally: "The Germans were very kind to me." I fear that Max would not rank high among the haters.

Whenever passion swept and tempted to join their ranks, the figure of Gremberg comes looming up to rebuke me. He was a common soldier whose camaraderie I enjoyed for ten days during the skirmishing before Antwerp. In him the whole tragedy of Belgium was incarnated. He had lost his two brothers; they had gone down before the German bullets. He had lost his home; it had gone up in flames from the German torch. He had lost his country; it had been submerged beneath the gray horde out of the north.

"Why is it, Gremberg," I asked, "you never rage against the Boches? I should think you would delight to lay your hands on every German and tear him into bits. Yet you don't seem to feel that way."

"No, I don't," he answered. "For if I had been born a Boche, I know that I would act just like any Boche. I would do just as I was ordered to do."

"But the men who do the ordering, the officers and the military caste, the whole Prussian outfit?"

"Well, I have it in for that crowd," Gremberg replied, "but, you see, I'm a Socialist, and I know they can't help it. They get their orders from the capitalists."

The capitalists, he explained, were likewise caught in the vicious toils of the system and could act no differently. Bayonet in hand, he expounded the whole Marxian philosophy as he had learned it at the Voorhuit in Ghent. The capitalists of Germany were racing with the capitalists of England for the markets of the world, so they couldn't help being pitted against each other. The war was simply the transference of the conflict from the industrial to the military plane, and Belgium, the ancient cockpit of Europe, was again the battlefield.

He emphasized each point by poking me with his bayonet. As an instrument of argument it is most persuasive. When I was a bit dense, he would press harder until I saw the light. Then he would pass on to the next point.

I told him that I had been to Humanite's office in Paris after Jaures was shot, and the editors, pointing to a great pile of anti-war posters, explained that so quickly had the mobilization been accomplished, that there had been no time to affix these to the walls.

"The French Socialists had some excuse for their going out to murder their fellow work- ers," I said, "and the Germans had to go or get shot, but you are a volunteer. You went to war of your own free-will, and you call yourself a Socialist."

"I am, but so am I a Belgian!" he answered hotly. "We talked against war, but when war came and my land was trampled, something rose up -within me and made me fight. That's all. It's all right to stand apart, but you don't know."

I did know what it was to be passion swept, but, however, I went on baiting him.

"Well, I suppose that you are pretty well cured of your Socialism, because it failed, like everything else."

"Yes, it did," he answered regretfully, "but at any rate people are surprised at Socialists killing one another — not at the Christians. And anyhow if there had been twice as many priests and churches and lawyers and high officials, that would not have delayed the war. It would have come sooner; but if there had been twice as many Socialists there would have been no war."

The free-lance interrupted to call him out for a picture before it was too dark. Gremberg took his position on the trench, his hand shading his eyes. It is the famous iron trench at Melle from which the Germans had withdrawn.

He is not looking for the enemy. If they were near, ten bullets would have brought him down in as many seconds. He is looking into the West.

And to me he is a symbol of all the soldiers of Europe, and all the women of Europe who huddle to their breasts their white-faced, sobbing children. They are all looking into the West, for there lies Hope. There lies America. And their prayer is that the young republic of the West shall not follow the blood-rusted paths of militarism, but somehow may blaze the way out of chaos into a new world-order.

back to part 1

 

Belgian infantry in Termonde

 

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