from ‘the Sphere’ March 20th 1915
'What I Saw in Brussels'
by Louise Mack

an Australian Lady Reporter in Occupied Brussels

a German patrol checking Belgian peasants

see also by Louise Mack : A Woman's Experiences in the Great War
Belgian Refugees in Holland / Burgomaster Adolphe Max of Brussels


Antwerp to S. Niccola by military train, S. Niccola to Ghent in a gun trolly, Ghent to Grammont by passenger train, Grammont to Brussels (thirty-five miles) in an open waggonette with two horses.

It was a gorgeous day, and five people got into the waggonette with me — five Belgians — so I felt ashamed to be afraid. We only paid 15 francs each and a tip of 5 francs when (and if!) we arrived !

Every five minutes or so we would shout to peasants on the road, "Have you seen any Germans ?"

And people shouted back to us, "Les Allemands sont la !" or " Les Allemands sont la !"

If they point to the left we go to the right; if they point to the right we try and go to the left. We tack like a boat in a fright.

Then all of a sudden we run right into the Germans. We meet them on the brow of a hill a mile out of Engheim. We see the blue of their uniforms washing up and down the great sunlit Brabant highway like a river of indigo — 500 of them. Infantry and a little artillery, there they were. And there we were !

They stopped us, and I sat still in my corner, saying to myself under my breath, "Now, you little fool, what's going to happen to you ?"

For, you see, I had no passport to show the Germans—not anything they would care to see— only my papers from Sir Edward Grey which I had already asked the driver to hide somewhere, anywhere, for me in case we met the enemy. They asked the little Flemish driver for his passport. He showed it. "Gut," they said. They asked the old professor from Liege University. They asked the Brussels banker and his wife. But they didn't ask me ! That was all about it. They didn't ask me. And so by a hair's breadth I was saved. I can't believe it yet. I still believe they're going to ask me. And I still don't know what I'm going to say.

Finally, after a wild and breathless drive of thirty-five miles through rich orchard country, and always between German patrols, we entered Brussels. Crowds of German officers and men were dashing about in motor-cars in all directions, while the populace moved by them taking not the slightest notice of their presence.

We drove to an old hotel in a quiet street and our driver jumped down and rang the courtyard bell.

Then the door opened and an old, old Belgian porter stood and looked at us with sad eyes, saying in a low voice, "Come in quickly, messieurs !"

We all got down and went through the gateway. We found ourselves in a big old courtyard. Then the driver ran out and returned carrying in his arms the long, flat seat-cushion from the carriage.

Then the old porter locked the gate and we all gathered round the brave little Flemish driver who was down on his knees now over the cushion, doing something with a knife.

Next minute he held up a bundle of letters, and then another, and then another, "And here is your English passport, madam !" he said to me. It seems that unknown to most of us the driver had made a little slit in the cushion, had taken out some stuffing, and put in instead a great mass of letters and papers for Belgian people in Brussels ; then he had wired up the slit, turned the cushion upside down, and let us sit on it.

It was rather like sitting on a mine. Only, like the heroine of the song, we didn't care ; we didn't know !

The sunlight had faded now and the lights were lit in Brussels, and I gazed about me, filled with an inordinate curiosity. At first I thought the people seemed to be moving about just as usual, but soon I discovered an immense difference between these Brussels crowds and those of normal times and conditions. It was as though all the red roses and carnations had been picked out of the garden—I mean to say, the smart world had completely disappeared.

Those daintily-dressed, exquisite women and elegant young and old men that made such persuasive notes among the streets and shops of Brussels in ordinary times, had vanished completely under the German occupation. In their place was now a rambling roaming crowd of the lower middle-classes, dashed with a big sprinkling of wide-eyed, wrinkled peasants from the Brabant country outside, who had come into the big city for the protection of the lights and the houses, even though the dreaded Allemands were there. Listlessly they strolled about. People looked in the shop windows but nobody bought. No business seemed to be done at all except in the provision shops (where I generally saw Germans buying sausages). Groups gathered before the German notices, pasted on the walls so continuously that Brussels was half-covered beneath these great black and white printed declarations, which, as they were always printed in three languages—German, French, and Flemish—took up an enormous amount of wall-space. Here and there Dutch journalists stood hastily copying these affiches into their notebooks.

Now and then, from the crowd reading, a low voice would mutter languidly, "Les sales cochons" But more often the Brussels sense of humour would see something funny in those absurd proclamations, and people were often to be seen grinning ironically at the German War News specially concocted for the people of Brussels. It was all the Direct Opposite of the news in Belgian and English papers. And all the time, while the Belgians moved dawdlingly up and down and round about their favourite streets and arcades, the Germans kept up their everlasting rush, flying past in motors, or striding quickly by with their firm, long tread. They always seemed to be going somewhere in a hurry, or doing something extraordinarily definite.

After I had been ten minutes in Brussels I became aware of this curious sense of immense and unceasing activity flowing like some loud, swift, resistless current through the dull depleted stream of Brussels' life. All day long it went on without ceasing, and all night, too. In and out of the city, in and out of the city, in and out of the city. Past the empty lace shops, with their exquisite delicate burdens ; past the many closed hotels; past the great white beauties of Brussels architecture; past the proud but yellowing avenue of trees along the heights; past those sculptured monuments of Belgians who fell in bygone battles and now, in the light of 1914, leapt afresh into life again, galvanised back into reality by the shriek of a thousand obus, and the blood poured warm on the blackened fields of Belgium.

Suddenly I started. Horribly conscious as I was that I was an English war correspondent and in danger, I felt distinctly nervous when I saw a queer young man in a bulky brown coat move slowly along at my side with a curious sidling movement, whispering something under his breath. I was not sure whether to hurry on or to stand still. I chose the latter course. Where-upon he flicked a look up and down the street, then put his hand in his inner breast pocket.

"The Times!" he whispered hoarsely, flashing more looks up and down the street, adding quickly, "Put it in your bag toute suite, Madam,'n'est-ce-pas ? C'est dangereux, vous savez ! The price is five francs."

Then quickly he added, walking along beside me still, and speaking still in that hoarse melodramatic voice (which pleased him a little, I couldn't help .thinking!), "Les Allemands will give me a year in prison if they catch me, so I have to make it pay, n'est-ce-pas ? The Brussels people must have their newspapers. They've got to know the truth about the war, n'est-ce-pas ?"

"How do you get the newspapers ? " I whispered, like a conspirator myself.

"I sneak in and out of Brussels in a peasant's cart all the way to Sottegem," he whispered back, " Every week they catch one of us. But still we go on, n'est-ce-pas ? We don't know what fear is in Brussels. That's because we've got M. Max at the head of us. Ah, there's a man for you, M. Max."

At the look of pride and tenderness that suddenly flashed across his dark, queer, crafty face, my eyes filled with tears, and I hurried speechlessly onwards, longing for the morning when I should see this wonderful Max for myself. But next morning, Sunday, I was awakened by the loud booming of cannon proceeding from the direction of Malines.

Hurrying through the rain-wet streets to meet M. Max at the Hotel de la Ville, I became quickly aware that something extraordinary was happening, and then suddenly my eyes were confronted by an incredible notice on the walls, printed in German, French, and Flemish, and flaming all over Brussels, and I knew that my visit to Brussels had been in vain. The man I had come all the way to see was a prisoner of the Germans.

Loud exclamations of rage kept bursting from the people in the streets, for there is not a man or woman in the city who does not worship the very ground Max walks on. Crowds kept on gathering in the streets. Presently, with that never-ceasing accompaniment of the distant cannon, the anger of the populace found vent in groans and hisses as a body of Uhlans made their appearance conducting two Belgian prisoners towards the town hall. Then, in a moment, Brussels was in an uproar. Prudence and fear were flung to the winds. Like mad creatures the seething crowds of men, women, and children went tearing along towards the Hotel de la Ville, groaning and hooting at every German they saw, and shouting aloud the name of " Max," while, to add to the indescribable tumult, hundreds of little boys ran shrieking at the tops of their voices, "Voici la photographic de Monsieur Max, dix centimes! "

The Civic Guard, composed now mostly of enrolled Brussels civilians, dashed in and out among the infuriated mob, waving their sticks, and imploring the population to restrain itself or the consequences might be fatal for one and all.

In their attitude to the Germans the Bruxellois undoubtedly take their tone from M. Max, and for his sake they now suppressed themselves as quickly as possible, and soon went on their usual way, and their attitude towards the .Germans revealed itself as a truly remarkable one. It was perfect in every sense. They were never rude, never sullen, never afraid, and until that particular Sunday, and afterwards again, they always behaved as though the Germans did not exist at all. They walked past them as though they were air. It was a curious sight to see the German officers and men dining in the restaurants and cafes with the Belgians seated at the tables adjoining but never taking the very slightest notice of them, never looking at them, never speaking to them, while the waiters brought them their food with the same admirable detached air as though they were placing viands before a set of invisible spectres. Always alone were the Germans in Brussels, and sometimes they looked extremely bored. No one ever spoke to them. They sat there alone or in groups, eating, eating, eating. Hour after hour they sat there. If you passed at seven they were still eating and drinking. If you passed at nine they were still eating and drinking, their red faces growing redder and redder, and their gold wedding rings growing tighter and tighter on their fingers, while the Belgians waited on them with an admirable air of not noticing their presence. They did their best to win a little friendliness from the citizens, but in vain. At the restaurants they always paid for their food. They also made a point of sometimes ostentatiously dropping money into the boxes for collecting funds for the Belgians. But the Bruxellois never for one moment let down the barriers.

The truth is that the spirit of M. Max hangs over Brussels, steals through it, pervades it. It is Max's ego that possesses the town. It is Max who is really in occupation there. It is Max who is the true conqueror. It is Max who holds Brussels and will hold it through all time to come. For all that Max is detained in his "honorable forteresse" near Charleroi, the man's spirit is so indomitable, so ardent, that he makes himself felt through his prison walls.


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