“Le Brave Belge!"
from the book 'My Year of the War'
by Frederic Palmer


An American Journalist in War-Time Belgium 1914

the bliss of ignorance - joyous scenes in Brussels during the defence of Liege


The rush from Monterey, in Mexico, when a telegram said that general European war was inevitable ; the run and jump on board the Lusitania at New York the night that war was declared by England against Germany ; the Atlantic passage on the liner of ineffaceable memory, a suspense broken by fragments of war news by wireless ; the arrival in England before the war was a week old ; the journey to Belgium in the hope of reaching the scene of action! — as I write, all seem to have the perspective of history, so final are the processes of war, so swift their execution, and so eager is everyone for each day's developments. As one grows older the years seem shorter ; but the first year of the Great War is the longest year most of us have ever known.

Le brave Belge! One must be honest about him. The man who lets his heart run away with his judgment does his mind an injustice. A fellow-countryman who was in London and fresh from home in the eighth month of the war, asked me for my views of the relative efficiency of the different armies engaged.

"Do you mean that I am to speak without regard to personal sympathies ?" I asked.

"Certainly," he replied.

When he had my opinion he exclaimed : "You have mentioned them all except the Belgian army. I thought it was the best of all."

"Is that what they think at home ?" I asked.

"Yes, of course."

"The Atlantic is broad," I suggested.

This man of affairs, an exponent of the efficiency of business, was a sentimentalist when it came to war, as Anglo-Saxons usually are. The side which they favour — that is the efficient side. When I ventured to suggest that the Belgian army, in a professional sense, was hardly to be considered as an army, it was clear that he had ceased to associate my experience with any real knowledge.

In business he was one who saw his rivals, their abilities, the organization of their concerns, and their resources of competition with a clear eye. He could say of his best personal friend : "I like him, but he has a poor head for affairs." Yet he was the type who, if he had been a trained soldier, would have been a business man of war who would have wanted a sharp, ready sword in a well-trained hand and to leave nothing to chance in a battle for the right. In Germany, where some of the best brains of the country are given to making war a business, he might have been a soldier who would rise to a position on the staff. In America he was the employer of three thousand men — a general of civil life.

"But look how the Belgians have fought !" he exclaimed. "They stopped the whole German army for two weeks !"


Belgian soldiers in the streets of Brussels : early August 1914


The best army was best because it had his sympathy. His view was the popular view in America : the view of the heart. America saw the pigmy fighting the giant rather than let him pass over Belgian soil. On that day when a gallant young king cried, "To arms !" all his people became gallant to the imagination. When I think of Belgium's part in the war I always think of the little Belgian dog, the schipperke who lives on the canal boats. He is a home-staying dog, loyal, affectionate, domestic, who never goes out on the tow-path to pick quarrels with other dogs ; but let anything on two or four feet try to go on board when his master is away and he will fight with every ounce of strength in him. The King had the schipperke spirit. All the Belgians who had the schipperke spirit tried to sink their teeth in the calves of the invader.

One's heart was with the Belgians on that eighteenth day of August, 1914, when one set out toward the front in a motor-car from a Brussels rejoicing over bulletins of victory, its streets walled with bunting ; but there was something brewing in one's mind which was as treason to one's desires. Let Brussels enjoy its flags and its capture of German cavalry patrols while it might!

On the hills back of Louvain we came upon some Belgian troops in their long, cumbersome coats, dark silhouettes against the field, digging shallow trenches in an uncertain sort of way. Whether it was due to the troops or to Belgian staff officers hurrying by in their cars, I had the impression of the will and not the way and a parallel of raw militia in uniforms taken from grandfather's trunk facing the trained antagonists of an Austerlitz, or a Waterloo, or a Gettysburg.

Le brave Beige ! The question on that day was not, Are you brave ? but. Do you know how to fight ? Also, Would the French and the British arrive in time to help you ? Of a thousand rumours about the positions of the French and the British armies, one was as good as another. All the observer knew was that he was an atom in a motor-car and all he saw for the defence of Belgium was a regiment of Belgians digging trenches. He need not have been in Belgium before to realize that here was an unwarlike people, living by intensive thrift and caution — a most domesticated civilization in the most thickly-populated workshop in Europe, counting every blade of grass and every kernel of wheat and making its pleasures go a long way at small cost; a hothouse of a land, with the door about to be opened to the withering blast of war.


Belgians waiting at the Louvain train station


Out of the Hotel de Ville at Louvain, as our car halted by the cathedral door, came an elderly French officer, walking with a light, quick step, his cloak thrown back over his shoulders, and hurriedly entered a car ; and after him came a tall British officer, walking more slowly, imperturbably, as a man who meant to let nothing disturb him or beat him — both characteristic types of race. This was the break-up of the last military conference held at Louvain, which had. now ceased to be Belgian Headquarters.

How little you knew and how much they knew! The sight of them was helpful. One was the representative of a force of millions of Frenchman ; of the army. I had always believed in the French army, and have more reason now than ever to believe in it. There was no doubt that if a French corps and a German corps were set the task of marching a hundred miles to a strategic position, the French would arrive first and win the day in a pitched battle. But no one knew this better than that German Staff whose superiority, as von Moltke said, would always ensure victory. Was the French army ready ? Could it bring the fullness of its strength into the first and perhaps the deciding shock of arms ? Where was the French army ?

The other officer who came out of the Hotel de Ville was the representative of a little army — a handful of regulars — hard as nails and ready to the last button. Where was the British army ? The restaurant keeper where we had luncheon at Louvain — he knew. He whispered his military secret to me. The British army was toward Antwerp, waiting to crush the Germans in the flank should they advance on Brussels. We were "drawing them on !" Most cheerful, most confident, mine host! When I went back to Louvain under German rule his restaurant was in ruins.

We were on our way to as near the front as we would go, with a pass which was written for us by a Belgian reservist in Brussels between sips of beer brought him by a boy scout. It was a unique, a most accommodating pass ; the only one I have received from the Allies' side which would have taken me into the German lines.


Belgian machine-gun unit preparing a position in a field


The front which we saw was in the square of the little town of Haelen, where some dogs of a dog machine-gun battery lay panting in their traces. A Belgian officer in command there I recollect for his passionate repetition of, "Assassins! The barbarians!" which seemed to choke out any other words whenever he spoke of the Germans. His was a fresh, livid hate, born of recent fighting. We could go where we pleased, he said ; and the Germans were "out there," not far away. Very tired he was, except for the flash of hate in his eyes; as tired as the dogs of the machine-gun battery.

We went outside to see the scene of "the battle," as it was called in the dispatches ; a field in the first flush of the war, where the headless lances of Belgian and German cavalrymen were still scattered about. The peasants had broken off the lance-heads for the steel, which was something to pay for the grain smouldering in the barn which had been shelled and burned.

A battle! It was a battle because the reporters could get some account of it, and the fighting in Alsace was hidden under the cloud of secrecy. A superficial survey was enough to show that it had been only a reconnaissance by the Germans with some infantry and guns as well as cavalry. Their defeat had been an incident to the thrust of a tiny feeling finger of the German octopus for information. The scouting of the German cavalry patrols here and there had the same object. Waiting behind hedges or sweeping around in the rear of a patrol with their own cavalry when the word came by telephone, the Belgians bagged many a German, man and horse, dead and alive.

Brussels and London too, thrilled over these exploits supplied to eager readers. It was the Uhlan week of the war ; for every German cavalry-man was a Uhlan, according to popular conception. These Uhlans seemed to have more temerity than sense from the accounts that you read. But if one out of a dozen of these mounted youths, with horses fresh and a trooper's zest in the first flush of war, returned to say that he had ridden to such and such points without finding any signs of British or French forces, he had paid for the loss of the others. The Germans had plenty of cavalry. They used it as the eyes of the army, in co- operation with the aerial eyes of the planes.

A peasant woman came out of the house beside the battlefield with her children around her ; a flat-chested, thin woman, prematurely old with toil. "Les Anglais !" she cried at sight of us. Seeing that we had some lances in the car, she rushed into her house and brought out half a dozen more. If the English wanted lances they should have them. She knew only a few words of French, not enough to express the question which she made understood by gestures. Her eyes were burning with appeal to us and flashing with hate as she shook her fist toward the Germans.

When were the English coming ? All her trust was in the English, the invincible English, to save her country. Probably the average European would have passed her by as an excited peasant woman. But pitiful she was to me, more pitiful than the raging officer and his dog battery, or the infantry awkwardly intrenching back of Louvain, or flag-bedecked Brussels believing in victory : one of the Belgians with the true schipperke spirit. She was shaking her fist at a dam which was about to burst in a flood.

It was strange to an American, who comes from a land where everyone learns a single language, English, that she and her ancestors, through centuries of living neighbour in a thickly-populated country to people who speak French and to French civilization, should never have learned to express themselves in any but their own tongue — singular, almost incredible, tenacity in the age of popular education! She would save the lance-heads and garner every grain of wheat; she economized in all but racial animosity. This racial stubbornness of Europe — perhaps it keeps Europe powerful in jealous competition of race with race.

The thought that went home was that she did not want the Germans to come ; no Belgian wanted them ; and this was the fact decisive in the scales of justice. She said, as the officer had said, that the Germans were " out there." Across the fields one saw nothing on that still August day ; no sign of war unless a Taube over- head, the first enemy aeroplane I had seen in war. For the last two days the German patrols had ceased to come. Liege, we knew, had fallen. Looking at the map, we prayed that Namur would hold.

"Out there" beyond the quiet fields, that mighty force which was to swing through Belgium in flank was massed and ready to move when the German Staff opened the throttle. A mile or so away a patrol of Belgian cyclists stopped us as we turned toward Brussels. They were dust-covered and weary ; the voice of their captain was faint with fatigue. For over two weeks he had been on the hunt of Uhlan patrols. Another schipperke he, who could not only hate but fight as best he knew how.

"We had an alarm," he said. "Have you heard anything ?"

When we told him no, he pedalled on more slowly, and oh, how wearily! to the front. Rather pitiful that, too, when you thought of what was " out there."

One had learned enough to know, without the confidential information that he received, that the Germans could take Brussels if they chose. But the people of Brussels still thronged the streets under the blankets of bunting. If bunting could save Brussels, it was in no danger.

There was a mockery about my dinner that night. The waiter who laid the white cloth on a marble table was unctuously suggestive as to menu. Luscious grapes and crisp salad, which Belgian gardeners grow with meticulous care, I remember of it. You might linger over your coffee, knowing the truth, and look out at the people who did not know it. When they were not buying more buttons with the allied colours, or more flags, or dropping nickel pieces in Red Cross boxes, they were thronging to the kiosks for the latest edition of the evening papers, which told them nothing.

A man had to make up his mind. Clearly, he had only to keep in his room in his hotel in order to have a great experience. He might see the German troops enter Belgium. His American passport would protect him as a neutral He could depend upon the legation to get him out of trouble.

"Stick to the army you are with!" an eminent American had told me.

"Yes, but I prefer to choose my army," I had replied.

The army I chose was not about to enter Brussels. It was that of " mine own people " on the side of the schipperke dog machine-gun battery which I had seen in the streets of Haelen, and the peasant woman who shook her fist at the invader, and all who had the schipperke spirit.

My empty appointment as the representative of the American Press with the British army was, at least, taken seriously by the policeman at the War Office in London when I returned from trips to Paris. The day came when it was good for British trenches and gun-positions ; when it was worth all the waiting, because it was the army of my race and tongue.


Belgian soldiers in the streets of Brussels : early August 1914


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