from ‘Harper’s Weekly’ January 22, 1916
'The True Capital of Belgium'

Unoccupied Belgium

Queen Elizabeth and Doctor Depage at La Panne
illustration by Belgian artist James Thiriar


La Panne is a small town on the Belgian coast, now a few miles behind the trenches. Formerly known only as a bathing resort, today it is the true capital of Belgian hopes and sorrows. The grave referred to is that of Madame Marie Depage, who went to the United States in behalf of the Belgian Red Cross and, returning, was lost on the "Lusitania." The La Panne Hospital was largely founded on the contributions she collected.

On a leveled sand-dune, looking out over the tossed up billows of sand and beyond to the breaking surf and the gray expanse of the ocean, desolate, profound, big with life, there stands a wooden chapel, constructed much like the temporary hospital wards now abounding in this region congested with wounded. At one end rises a modest tower, surmounted by the cross. On the crest of each dune, silhouetted against the sky, are the figures of Belgian sentinels in their sand-colored coats and metal casques, each with his rifle, watching and guarding. On the beach, the beautiful, smooth plage of gay summer days, are the soldiers: soldiers marching, soldiers playing football, soldiers struggling to wash their poor clothes in the cold salt- water. A troop of cavalry gallops by. At the far end, where the black hulls of deserted fishing smacks lie half buried in the sand, with children swinging in play from their disused halyards, companies of soldiers are drilling. A row of little villas pressed closely together along its entire length, ungraceful, ill-built, meretricious, redolent of illicit associations and cabbage soup, now serve as barracks, their windows often broken, their floors covered with straw. Towards the centre stands a large hotel. The Red Cross flag shows that this has become a hospital and shelters hundreds of wounded, lying in their cots within its staring white walls and in the group of low, gray, corrugated iron buildings closely surrounding it. These are emergency wards which were hastily called for in the summer.

Here in this little summer town of pleasure beats the heart of free Belgium. Here in an unassuming villa live the King and Queen. Here a group of refugees and of Red Cross doctors and nurses have formed together to carry on the work of the hospital, to care for the men to whom their country must look for the reestablishment of its independence. The administration of the hospital, and of its laundry and storerooms, the ordering of supplies, the pathetic attempt at the education and care of the little children of the ruined countryside, and much of the arduous nursing are carried on by a little band of Belgian women. Their husbands dead or in the trenches, unaccustomed to work, they devote themselves for long hours to these prosaic tasks, and have done this not for a few weeks or months, but for a full year, with the expectation of continuing until the end of the war.

The wounded are everywhere, creeping out to enjoy the fitful winter sunlight, gazing over the dreary sea to their dreary future. They are young men, without legs, without arms, their crushed bodies contained in long wicker baskets, their mutilated heads sheathed in white bandages. The convalescents walk cheerily. Their time for returning to the front is near. They will go with courage and devotion and reluctance. Out of the enveloping mist which rolls in from the sea there appear evanescent, half outlined, half dissolved in the rift, the gray forms of the British monitors. A deep, penetrating reverberation and a roar speeds over the waters. Again and again this comes. The windows in the little villas rattle and sometimes crash, and the doctors must halt in their operations. These shells are finding their target in the sand-dunes a few miles to the northward, where lie the German trenches. At night the northern sky is silver with the clear light of the star shells glittering and reflecting in the waters of the inundation which spreads between the opposing lines.

The little brown chapel stands guardian over all. On the summit of an adjoining sand-dune is the grave of one who died that this hospital and its work might live and grow. The cold gray waves, as they roll in, bring a message of her brave struggle and her agony in the far Atlantic. Within the chapel are the precious relics, saved from the ruined churches of free Belgium,— from Nieuport and Furnes and Dixmude, and many others:—a bell from the first, the statue of a Gothic saint, a beautiful carved pulpit, a confessional box, crucifixes, nearly all broken and mutilated. At the Sunday mass the chapel is crowded with officers and soldiers, with white coiffed nurses and attendants in the hospital, with a few black-robed women and old men, many little children, and always the wounded. Near the altar kneels the Queen—noble woman and great lady of suffering and of inspiration. Above the music from the little organ and the broken voice of a wounded soldier sounds the vibrant whirr of an aeroplane. A slight shudder passes over the congregation. Strained nerves, temporarily relaxed in the accustomed security of peace and prayer, recoil. On the previous Sunday bombs were thrown and a hundred perished. That this is a friendly aeroplane they cannot know. Above the altar hangs the figure of the Christ on the Cross, preserved uninjured from His ruined church, in His eternal patience, wondering at His second martyrdom.


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