'Devastation and Some Emotions'
by the Editor

Little Journeys to the Great War

illustrations by Francois Flameng


The emotional effects of destroyed cities upon their beholders must be as various as the individual differences of men. Hence it is well to remember, when reading descriptions of the devastated towns of France and Flanders, that we are seeing these through the emotional filter of other minds, which may be convoying to ours impressions entirely unlike any our individual minds would receive if we looked upon the same scenes with our own eyes.

Often, before my first visit to these war-ruined cities, had I endeavoured to visualise them in my mind's eye after studying innumerable photographs that faithfully reproduced their material aspects. But not until I myself had walked the streets of Albert, Arras, Bapaume, Ypres, and many another ruined or ravaged town, could I fairly say that clear arid definite impressions of these martyr places were stored within my memory.


illustrations by Francois Flameng


Ruins, Ancient and Modern

So individual are all things that exist, so instinct with character even when they look most alike, that in their very ruins we may find essential differences. Through the camera's eye, perhaps, glimpses of one wrecked town are very similar to those of another. In reality the towns may differ in their ruin as completely as Edinburgh and Sheffield do in all their actualities of life. They may differ as widely as the Druidic remains of Stone-henge and the Inca fragments of Tiahuanaca.

To one who had looked upon the ancient remnants of Pompeii and the modern ruins of Messina, and had seen an earthquake's havoc on Pacific shores, it did not seem that there could be strange, unheard-of havoc to witness in these ruined cities of the war. But just as the sights that may be seen where an earthquake smacked its mumbling lips o'er some thick-peopled city,

are as weirdly different from the scenes in a, town that has been shelled, to atoms, so these in turn present no real likeness to another that has been destroyed by mine and bomb, and I found myself marvelling at my own unexpected feelings as I went among the ruined places of France and Flanders.

From Pompeii to Peronne

Walking the ancient streets of Pompeii to-day we people them afresh with the pleasure- throngs of Nero's time. We see the ruts the chariots made in the Street of Plenty, the little hollows worn on the rims of public fountains by the hands of the thirsty as they leant forward to drink, the great earthern jars still standing in the wine shops, and a multitude of mute witness to the pulsing life which, more than eighteen hundred years ago, was so suddenly stayed for ever. The drama of it all is recreated by the imagination in swift and flashing scenes, for the stage remains, the players have merely withdrawn to the instruction " Exeunt omnes."

Now, in Ypres this is not so. I have elsewhere likened that city to an abandoned brickfield. To have known it as it was, and to witness it as it is, so overwhelms the mind with the sense of " chaos come again " that the very emotions of the heart are submerged in the devastation. All reminiscent thought is suffocated, stupefied. One stands at the heart of desolation and accepts it, just as one accepts the stony desolation of the Andes, the lava-strewn slopes of Vesuvius. Even hatred of the fiends who made this waste is but faintly felt. The soldiers who thread its crazy lanes are also, I am persuaded, only dimly conscious of this tragic setting to the great drama in. which they are playing their parts.

A dead body mangled out of all resemblance, to anything human is far less an object of pity than one that lies prone with nothing but a trickle of blood upon its brow, or a dark clot by its side, to tell you why it moves no more. Ypres is a mangled, shapeless corpse of a town. So, too, Bapaume, Peronne, and others I have seen. Yet Bapaume is unlike Ypres, for death came to it from within, while Ypres was blasted down by missiles from afar. Ypres was knocked down, Bapaum.e was blown up; Peronne likewise.

In every house of Bapaume, where so long the Huns had habited the cellars-each of these, when I first saw it, still bearing a notice stating how many officers or men could be accommodated within-bombs had been placed and detonated as the fiends withdrew. They did their work well; not one building was spared. The Town Hall seemed to have escaped, but ten days after they had gone a cunningly concealed mine added it to the general ruin, and gave ghastly burial to some of our brave countrymen.

Corpses of Towns

There are many buildings in Bapaume that, seen a little way off, look curiously erect amid the neighbouring wreckage; but these are mere shells from which the cores have gone. The fine old monastic pile beside the wreck of the church is the only one whose splendid brickwork withstood in some measure the force of the bombs that burst within. Some day it might be capable of restoration.

For the rest, Bapaume is a bewildering scene of wreckage, and within its shattered walls one pondered less upon the pathos and tragedy of the lives of the townspeople that had been broken for ever than on the meaningless idiocy of it all.

The signs of the quiet life once lived here are so utterly swept away that, despite the outer shells of things that still stand mockingly real, but soon must fall, the mind is merely conscious of a sense of impotent wrath against those who wrought this abomination of waste; sorrow, compassion for the pitiful townsfolk, scattered abroad as indiscriminately as their old hearths, comes rather in the retrospect than in the actuality of witnessing the devastated scene.

If Ypres, Bapaume, Peronne are but mangled corpses of towns, not so Albert or Arras. These places, when I revisited them and .last walked their historic causeways, a few days before the Hun recaptured the one and drew perilously near to the other, impressed me profoundly with the pathos of their tortured lives. They were as wounded things that might yet be made whole; as creatures still worth saving, for whom the final doom had Hot yet struck. The Virgin impending from the shattered spire of Albert's great brick church was a strange symbol of hope, and the church itself, battered by countless shells, presented a certain dignity of suffering which probably outshone any beauty it had been endowed with by its builders.

In Pitiful Contrast

The venturesome folk who had come back to these shell-torn towns and were doggedly trying to live on in houses that still stood scathless alongside many a gaping ruin; the children skipping light-heartedly from school, at Albert; the horses and donkeys drawing the little carts of baker and greengrocer; the thronging little tea-shops for officers and men; and all the small tradesmen's places that still clutched at life where death had been so instant and might come again so soon-all these sights and sounds touched the heart to a tenderness which the rubbish-heaps of Ypres or Bapaume could not evoke.

It was at Arras that my memory went fumbling after some half-forgotten line of Browning, which later I found in his characteristic poem "House":

I have mixed with a crowd and heard free talk In a foreign land where an earthquake chanced;
And a house stood gaping, nought to baulk Man's, eye wherever he gazed or glanced.
The whole of the frontage shaven sheer, The inside gaped; exposed to day,
Right and wrong and common and queer, Bare, as the palm of your hand, it lay.
The owner? Oh, he had been crushed, no doubt!
"Odd tables and chairs for a man of wealth! What a parcel of musty old books about!
He smoked-no wonder he lost his health!
"I doubt if he bathed before lie dressed.
A brasier-the pagan, he burned perfumes! You see it is proved, what the neighbours guessed,
His wife and himself had separate rooms."

Something for Tears

You will notice that an earthquake had inspired the lines; but they will serve, as it was just such a scene that recalled them. The front of a house was "shaven sheer," and there on a nail hung some poor woman's black moire underskirt. Here was something for tears; but the ruin of Ypres and Bapaume is too utter to touch the gentler emotions of the heart.

We can only pray that these islands of ours may never know such devastation, and hope that Arras, Albert, and all the pathetic places where one saw some remnant of the old life surviving the shocks of the Hun, may yet be spared to. heal their sores and refashion themselves anew.


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