- 'Dispatches from 1918'
- by Philip Gibbs
The Last Months of the War
British troops march into Lille
October 14th - 1918
There is no sign of an impending armistice on the Western Front this morning, and the only hint of its possibility was in the speech of German prisoners brought down by Allied troops in the new attack launched this morning in Flanders.
It was an international battle up there, between Menin and the coast, and above all it was the Belgians' day out, and once again the Belgian Army was in the field inspired with an ambition to advance into their own country and to be the first to carry tidings of liberation to their people.
The first advance in Flanders had been made on September 28th when our Second Army attacked without preliminary bombardment on a front of four and a half miles south of the Ypres-Zonnebeke road. The 14th, 35th, 29th and 9th Divisions delivered the initial assault, supported in later stages of the battle by the 41st and 36th Divisions. On the left the Belgian army attacked as far north as Dixmude. The enemy had been holding his position thinly, and by the end of the day we had driven him far afield and had captured Kortevilde, Zandvoorde, and Becelaere.
The battle in Flanders, which began yesterday morning and is continuing today in the direction of Thourout and Courtrai, is being fought by combined Belgian, French and British armies under the supreme command of King Albert. Our Second Army, under General Sir Herbert Plumer, is on the right of this group of armies, with the Belgians on the left between Roulers and Menin, and the French are in the centre around Roulers itself, which they had the honour of taking in touch with the Belgians, again south of Thourout.
All this country between the Flanders ridges is in the flats cut up by small canals and hedges and ditches and avenues of tall poplar- trees, and the enemy had made use of these natural features for defensive purposes. His machine-gunners lined the ditches under cover of the hedges, and had cut down many of the poplars to make barricades of tree-trunks across the roads, and had smashed the bridges and the canals. There were also many pill-boxes, exactly similar to those concrete shelters below Passchendaele and Pilkem, which our men found such hard nuts to crack in the battles of Flanders last year.
The German machine-gunners, driven from their ditches and routed out of the pill-boxes, then fell back into the villages, and used little Flemish houses with red-tiled roofs as machine-gun fortresses, from which they fired at close range when Belgian, French, and British soldiers forced their way into the streets.
So it was at Roulers, which the French encircled yesterday morning, and at Winkel-St.-Eloi, captured by the Belgians, with Scottish battalions of the 9th Division on their right. One by one the German machine-guns were silenced, and German garrisons surrendered when they found themselves cut off and hopeless. Then from below the houses there came up other people, strange to see in bullet- swept streets. Old women came up out of their cellars, trembling and crying out to the Belgians and French searching their houses for living Germans over the bodies of the dead. Men in peasant clothes, haggard and pale under their beards, shouted out hoarse words of welcome and said, "We are saved ! "
The German soldiers seemed to know everything about recent events, and their constant refrain was, "We want Peace." They are persuaded that everything is over, and asked whether the Armistice would be signed tonight. The Kaiser must go, they said, and when asked about the Crown Prince, shrugged their shoulders and said, "The Crown Prince does not count. Nobody will bother about him." Some of them even made jokes about the fate of Germany, and when some of us said, "What about 'Deutschland uber Alles'?" they said, "Now Germany is the under-dog."
the chaos of war
Up in Flanders, where the war began began at least for us and the French after the gates of Belgium had been smashed wide open by the invading army there is now a movement of massed armies towards the end of the war.
By the steady pressure of Belgian, French, and British troops under the command King Albert, the Germans are being driven back from places which were on their main lines of communications between the coast and their centre, and now being lost to them are like open doors into their back parlours. The Belgian cavalry today are reported to be working round Thielt, sixteen miles from Ghent. French entered Lichtervelde this morning and their patrols are about Thourout, ten miles from Bruges. Ostend is almost within sight.
Knowing his inevitable withdrawal is at hand from this western part of Belgium, the Germans are not inclined to give battle here on a big scale, and their rear-guards are being sacrificed to gain time for the main retreat. Farther south where our own Second Army troops are fighting on the right of the Belgians and French in this "Group of the Armies of Flanders" commanded by the Belgian King, the enemy is gradually finding himself in the far-flung loop of attack which by our capture of the outskirts of Courtrai last night, following our steady advance north and east of Cambrai and Douai, which was entered by our 8th Division, is gradually encircling a large territory of Northern France, containing the great textile and manufacturing cities of Lille, Tourcoing, and Roubaix, from which so much of the wealth of France flowed in time of peace.
jubilant French inhabitants
The enemy has abandoned Lille and Tourcoing, those great industrial towns of Northern France which he held so long as his trump cards in the devil's gamble of this war, and we are following him up. We have taken Lombaertzyde on the coast, and have captured Ostend. From one end of the line to the other the German armies are in retreat from great portions of France and Belgium, and it is a landslide of all their ambitions and their military power.
Today I have seen scenes of history of which many people have been dreaming through all these years of war, until at last they were sick with deferred hope. I have seen Belgian and French soldiers riding through liberated towns, cheered by people who have been prisoners of war in their own houses for all these dreary years, under hostile rule which was sometimes cruel and always hard, so that their joy now is wonderful to see.
In Lille the first news of the enemy's flight was received by our airmen today, who saw people signalling to them with their handkerchiefs, waving frantically to give some message. Our airmen guessed that it was joyful news, and could only mean one thing. After that a civilian came over to our lines and said, "You can go in; the enemy has gone in the night." Our patrols felt forward and encountered no opposition.
This regaining of Lille will be the most wonderful occurrence since the combined offensive of the Allies on the Western Front in August last, and is the prize of many victories, won by the heroism of young officers and men and by the fine strategy of Marshal Foch, whose brain has been behind all these movements of men. One feels the horror of this war is lifting, and that the iron ramparts of the enemy, so strong against us year after year in spite of the desperate efforts of millions of gallant men who dashed themselves against those barriers, have yielded at last, and that many gates are open for our men to pass through on their way to victory.
This morning I went again over the old belt of battlefields out from Ypres and beyond Passchendaele, through which the combined armies of Belgium, France and Britain struggled and surged to keep up with their vanguards. Over the shell-craters and the rutted roads, sometimes axle-deep in mud, in slow columns of turbulent traffic poured our guns and transport of the three nations following up the pursuit, bringing up food and ammunition and men, and more men.
The pursuit is not a dashing charge. Men shout to each other in three tongues to clear the way, and ease themselves by furious shouts and gusts of laughter, because it is all so slow. But it is too fast for the enemy. Before he is ready to leave our men are on his heels. Our horse-artillery is firing along his tracks before he can escape with his heavy loads. His rear-guards are captured before the main body is out of danger. It is very slow, this pursuit, when seen from our side of things, but as quick as a hurrying death to masses of German soldiers. It quickens beyond the old deep belt of strife, for beyond that there are good roads, except where the Germans have blown great craters, and this morning I went for many miles through country where there are unshelled fields, where there are cabbage-patches, and neat farmsteads, and cottage gardens, and villages with red-tiled roofs, and houses with glass windows.
civilians in the Grande Place in Lille
Our troops are engaged in heavy fighting on the whole length of our front, north-east of Courtrai to south-east of Le Cateau, for more than fifty miles, and in spite of the enemy's desperate resistance in order to hold the line of the Scheldt southward from Ghent, covering Tournai and Valenciennes, we are getting close to that canal everywhere, and are beyond it between Denain and Le Cateau.
This morning's advance by our Second and Third Armies threatens the crossings of the canal, and the two historic cities of Tournai and Valenciennes will soon be within our reach.
I went into Courtrai itself this morning. It has now been freed from the enemy. But it was not wholly a joyous entry, like that into Lille or Bruges, or other towns where civilian crowds have greeted any Englishman with cheers and embraces. The people here, 25,000 to 30,000 of them, have suffered too much to have any complete reaction yet. Some of them called out "Good morning," and all their men doffed their hats to us, but with gravity and a kind of dullness, like people who have long been stunned by misery. I could not wonder at that. I was chilled by the sinister spirit of this old city, so beautiful in time of peace with its tall belfry of St. Martin's Church high above its gabled houses, and Flemish Town Hall and the broad market-place.
I found one old English lady in the city, or rather an Irish lady named Miss Mary Cunningham. She is an old lady of over seventy, who has lived in Courtrai for twelve years, at first in well-to-do circumstances, her father being a flax-spinner, but afterwards obliged to earn her living by teaching French and English to Flemish pupils. Even that failed her after the war, because, as it dragged on, English and French did not seem much good to people surrounded by Germans. So Miss Cunningham is poor now, and lives in a tiny house opposite the cathedral, with a cooking-stove in her parlour, and not much to cook on it, poor soul. But she received us as a great lady of the old school with most beautiful dignity, undisturbed by "noises without," ominous crashes close at hand, and sounds of breaking glass. She made only one remark showing that she noticed these things. "Do you mind shutting the door, my dear? I don't like those bombs coming in." I noticed that "bombs," as she called German shells, had already broken the front part of her little parlour, and she was very close to the danger-point of hostile shell-fire range by the belfry of Courtrai.
She did not say much about the war, except when she spoke of the Germans as highway robbers; but her mind went back to Ireland and old friends there, and her old people. Her grandmother, was a Miss Kimmins, the sister of President Wilson's great-grandmother. She told us that as a passing. thought, but I was startled by her words and thought how queer it was that I should be sitting with President Wilson's cousin in a little front parlour of Courtrai, with Germans not far away and the city under shell-fire.
Our troops, fighting in foul weather and over boggy ground, are along the line of the Scheldt Canal in front of Tournai and Valenciennes, and farther north also hold the west bank of the canal for some distance between Tournai and Courtrai.
From the village of Poedrisch, on the Scheldt, where the 41st Division is engaged, our line bends back westwards along another canal known as the Bossuyt-Courtrai Canal, which the enemy has defended strongly with barbed wire, and is holding in strength with machine-guns.
We have now reached a stage when the Germans will undoubtedly make a stand in order to delay our pursuit, and there will be hard fighting for our men before we can hope to liberate Tournai and Valenciennes, and drive farther east. The enemy has his guns behind the Scheldt, and in this way has for the time being some advantage over us, as the bringing up of our heavies is very difficult over the old battlefields, now in the filthiest conditions of mud and swamps. The Germans have also organized the trench-mortar defence of the Scheldt, and are firing heavy barrages along the opposite banks to prevent our men from gaining the bridgeheads. In spite of this our men, in the most gallant and stubborn way, have closed in upon the Scheldt River and Canal except where, on our Second Army front, east of Courtrai, they have been checked by the Bossuyt Canal.
Yesterday, north of Courtrai, troops of one corps of the Second Army captured twenty guns, with their limbers and ammunition, and one long-range naval gun. They also captured two railways trains of one metre gauge.
Courtrai is still under fire from high-velocity guns, but they are not doing much damage, and the civilians are happier than when I saw them yesterday. There is considerable shelling against our troops east of the city and in the villages near it.
On our Fifth Army front north and south of Tournai some of our patrols crossed the Scheldt yesterday at Obigies, above that city, and at Chin, south of it, but after their reconnaissance came back to the west side. The enemy has been fighting hard at the village of Froyennes, north of Tournai, which still remains in his hands, and at St.-Maur, on the south side, which our men have now captured.
Among the places which have fallen into our hands in this advance are the German headquarters formerly used by General Sixt von Armin, our antagonist in the Battles of the Somme, whose report, with its frank criticism of German methods and weaknesses, revealed for the first time the growing weakness of the enemy's fighting machine. The German general and his staff seem to have found war a thirsty business, for they ordered and received consignments of wine to the amount of 10,000 bottles, now lying empty around these buildings.
North of Valenciennes, where the Scarpe runs into the Scheldt, we have captured the town of St.-Amand, and there has been hard fighting in the forest of Vicogne, near by. All this district was crowded with civilians who have now been liberated, and the First Army, which does not include in its boundaries any big manufacturing towns like Lille or Roubaix, has rescued 70,000 people from German rule.
The enemy's resistance is increasing along this line, and there has been heavy fighting in the village of Thiant (four and a half miles south-west of Valenciennes), where the Germans counterattacked under a violent bombardment and forced our troops back to the western side of it.
Prisoners still crowd back behind our lines, and the enemy's strength in man-power has been much weakened since October, apart from his severe losses in dead and wounded.
liberated French villages and towns
Valenciennes was closed in by the Canadian troops this morning after heavy fighting, and the enemy will have to abandon it within a few hours. It seems almost certain that it will be ours tonight or tomorrow morning, when all the thousands of civilians still living there and waiting with desperate anxiety foi our entry will be rescued from these days of terror.
The enemy's guns had put down a fierce line of fire before the attack started, or soon afterwards, but their batteries were quickly silenced by the power of our artillery, and after that the Canadians were only faced by machine-gun fire from positions in ruined buildings and in embanked ditches, where Germans held out to the last. The Canadians casualties were not heavy, I am told by their own officers, and they were perfectly successful in reaching their objectives along the railway, which is the southern boundary of Valenciennes.
While that attack was taking place another brigade of Canadians, on the west side of the city where the canal forms the boundary-line, were pushing outposts across and establishing themselves on the inner bank. So they hold Valenciennes in a tight grip, as Cambrai was held on the last day in German hands, and the enemy must get out. At midday today he made one last effort to check us, and a counter- attack was delivered from the village of Saultain, on the eastern side, but orders were given for the artillery to deal with this, and I have no doubt that it was shattered. The Germans have already lost many men on this southern side of the city, and the Canadians were sur- prised at the number of German dead lying about the Rhonelle River after the fighting of recent days.
For the survivors it is a hopeless business, for they know now that they are not only beaten in the field but in the world. "We have been betrayed," said one of the German officers today, "and that is why we have lost the war." He had a list of betrayals, beginning with Italy and going on to Roumania and then to Bulgaria, and now, worst of all from his point of view, Austria. They acknowledge that with Austria out of the war they will find it impossible to fight on alone except in a losing fight to save their pride, so humiliation and despair have entered their souls where once arrogance had a dwelling-place and a sense of victory over all the world.
So it is today around Valenciennes, where all the neighbouring country is beautiful in the light of a golden All Souls' Day, with a blue sky over the coloured woods through which the uproar of gun-fire comes, and where in villages very close to the fighting-line women and children liberated from German rule are walking with bouquets of autumn flowers to put on the altars of their churches in memory of the dead to whom they owe their rescue.
I went into Valenciennes yesterday morning, shortly after its capture, when there was still heavy fighting on its south-east side, so that all our guns were in action as I passed them, with an enormous noise, in the outskirts of the city, and flights of shells passing over its houses, where many civilians were waiting with mingled joy and fear, knowing that they were free again, but afraid of this fury of guns around them. The way to Valenciennes from Douai was full of haunting pictures of war, because Canadian and English troops have fought through many of the villages along these roads and those places have not escaped unscathed. Their people have fled from those nearest to Valenciennes because of the German gun-fire, which has smashed through their roofs and walls and made wreckage in many houses. Some of them have been sliced in half, so that one looks into rooms where cottage pianos and women's sewing-machines and babies' cradles still stand against the farthest walls amidst broken beams and plaster. Only a few soldiers move among these abandoned villages, and yesterday, on a foul day, with wet mist steaming through their shell-pierced walls, which shook like sounding-boards to the roar of the gun-fire, they smelt of tragedy. Through Oisy and Aubry to La Sentinelle, suburbs of Valenciennes on this side of the Scheldt, there was hardly a living soul about, except odd figures like shadows in the wet fog lurking under the walls our soldiers, by the shape of their steel hats.
All along the railway from Douai the bridges had been blown up by the enemy, and lay in monstrous wreckage across the lines. Beyond, in this thick veil of mist, black slag mountains, faintly pencilled above them, as though this were a war in Lancashire. Some people came dragging a cart piled high with furniture, and I called out to them, "Are you from Valenciennes?"
"No, monsieur," said the man straining at his ropes, and he named another village close by, looking back in a scared way, as though of some fear that dwelt there. Dead horses, horribly mangled, lay on the roadside. War had passed this way not long ago. It was still very close to Valenciennes, and that city was between two fires. Most of the fire came from our side. Guns were crowded in this wet fog through which their flashes stabbed with sudden gusts of flame. Monsters raised up their snouts and bellowed from muddy fields near by, shaking earth and sky. Field-batteries, stark in the open, were hard at work, and as I passed within a few yards of them, their sharp strokes hit my ear-drums like the crack of hammers.
I went across a pontoon bridge built only a few hours ago by Canadian Engineers, and passed into the city. The ruins of its railway station were elaborate ruins. Liverpool Street Station would look like this if it had been smashed into twisted iron and broken glass by storms of high explosives. Our airmen had done most of the damage by constant raids upon this great junction of German traffic, and they had made a complete job of it. Rails were torn up and sleepers burnt and charred. Their bombs had torn the fronts off the booking offices and waiting-rooms and made matchwood of the signal-boxes and sheds. For German soldiers detraining here it was a hellish place, but beyond the town was untouched by any raid, of ours, and the fire of our flying men had been deadly accurate. I went through this ruin out into the station square. It was empty of all life, but one human figure was there all alone. It was the dead body of a young German soldier, lying with outstretched arms in a pool of blood. He looked as if he had fallen on his way to our lines, as though in hope of escape. I went across the solitude of this station square into the Rue St.-Jacques, and wondered because that was empty too, and as yet I saw no people of Valenciennes. I looked through the broken windows of shop-fronts, and no face looked back at me, but there was loneliness behind the counters. I peered through the window of the Hotel St.- Jacques, and saw its tables and chairs set as though for dinner, but no one sat at the board. At the corner of one street leading into the Place St.-Jean there was a table and chair, and on the table there were many spent cartridges, and the pavement was littered with them. It was a sniper's post of some German soldier who had taken cover behind the corner of the shop-front as the Canadians had come in a few hours ago.
There was still the noise of machine-gun fire somewhere on the right, long bursts of staccato shots, and I had heard from a Canadian colonel that the enemy were still holding out in a machine-gun post in the suburb of Marly. We kept our ears alert for any ping of a close bullet. A German ready for death might take many sure shots from any window or cellar here before paying the price. But where were the people of Valenciennes? The solitude was beginning to be oppressive. This was not like an entry into Lille. There were no manifestations of joy in this liberated city. The fury of that gun-fire overhead had kept the people hidden in their houses. Presently, here and there I saw some faces peering out and then a door opened and a man and a woman appeared and two thin children. The woman thrust out a skinny hand and grasped mine and began to weep. Then she talked passionately with a strange mingling of rage and grief. "Oh, my God!" she said, "those devils have gone at last. What have they not made us suffer! My husband and I had four little houses we were innkeepers and last night they sent us to this part of the town and burnt all of them." She used a queer word in French. "Last night," she said, "they made a devil's charivari and set many houses on fire."
Her husband spoke to me over his wife's shoulder. "Sir," he said, "they have stolen everything, broken everything, and have ground us down for four years. They are bandits and brigands." "We are hungry," said a thin girl and a smaller boy by her side with a pinched white face. "We have eaten all our bread, and I am hungry." They had some coffee, and asked me to go inside and drink it with them, but I could not wait. The woman held my wrists tight in her skinny hands and said, "You will come back." Then she wept again and said, "We are grateful to the English soldiers. It is they who have saved us."
British troops enter Roubaix
In the north, along our Second Army front, about Tournai, the line of the Scheldt is still held by machine-gunners beyond the canal and floods, but they are now at the pivot of the salient, which is sharply increasing every day, so that it is only a question of time when they get out of that pocket. Tournai must be ours before long, and then all the enemy's line will have a landslide as far north as Ghent. There, with water in front of them and lines of machine-guns well placed, and a well-hidden rearguard garrison, it is difficult for the Belgians to enter that fine old city of theirs where thousands of people are awaiting liberation; and even now this could only be done by tragic loss of life. The Belgians would not spare themselves that price if it were worth while, but things are happening beyond the lines on the Belgian Front, as on ours, which may make more sacrifice unnecessary.
News came to us last night over the wires that Germany was sending plenipotentiaries to ask for terms of armistice from Marshal Foch. And those men were coming over under the white flag, knowing through President Wilson what those terms are, and what surrender they will have to make of all their pride. Last night, when that news came among British officers in touch with headquarters, they drew a sudden breath, and said, "Then tonight is the end . . . The last battle has been fought... It is too wonderful to believe." I heard those words this morning again in Valenciennes among generals and Staff Officers gathered there in the Place d'Armes. "It must mean the end of the war . . . Surely it is the end at last. . . Who would ever have believed it?" And one man standing near me said very gravely, "Thank God!" And another, who was a younger man, laughed with a queer break in his voice, and raised a big bouquet of flowers given to him by the townspeople, and gave a little dance, and said, "Back to peace again, and not too quick for me Back to life."
In wet weather and mud and autumn mists our men of the 1st and 32nd Divisions, with the Guards and others, keep trudging after the retreating Germans east of Valenciennes and the forest of Mormal, keeping in touch with their rearguards, and hastening their abandonment of villages and woods where they have machine-gun screens. It is not a walk-over, for the enemy is still losing prisoners, and we are still losing a few men here and there. As late as yesterday German resistance has stiffened at various places, like Eclaibes and Limont-Fontaine, to gain time for an orderly retreat. We are within a few thousand yards of Mauberge, and working towards Mons. It would indeed be an astounding coincidence if the British Army were to end the war where they began it at Mons, where the "Old Contemptibles" fought their first big fight and that looks as though it might happen. These small rearguard actions, with fights for machine-guns, and the stealthy forward movement of advanced screens feeling their way through the forest lands of this country beyond Valenciennes, and hearing by the sudden chatter of machine-guns that the enemy is close ahead of them, make hard work for the men engaged, and are great adventures, with all the risks of death and wounds.
But now for our armies as a whole there is only one all-absorbing interest and thought, and that is to know whether the terms of the armistice have been signed by that party of four men who went over last night into the French lines with a trumpet heralding their approach and a white flag for safe induct. They were late, it seems, and, by wireless, regretted at they had been delayed by the transport on their roads, as we might well imagine, with knowledge of what retreat means in weather like this. They were late, but by this time, one way or another, the fate of Germany must have been settled for peace terms, however hard they are, are the last ditch of war in front of revolution and anarchy. As far as I know our armies, their hope is for the quick ending of this business, for the saving of endless bloodshed, for the return to normal life, and for all that peace means to men who have fought long and hard in exile from their homes, under the daily menace of death. On the other hand, if these four plenipotentiaries refused the terms, our men will fight on again, sure that, whatever happens now, the Germans cannot hold them on this front, and are bound to break.
The spirit of victory is in the air. Our troops are following up the retreating enemy with bands playing, and go singing down the roads with flags on their rifles and on their gun-limbers through villages from which German rear-guards have gone only an hour or two before, and where French and Flemish people cheer them as they pass with cries of "Vive les Anglais!" It is glorious autumn weather, with a sparkle of gold in the sunlight and a glint of gold on the russet leaves and shining pools along the roads, so that it seems as though Nature rejoices with men because a horror is being lifted from the world by the ending of this war, and is smiling through tears, like old men we meet and women who take our hands telling of their thankfulness. It is Sunday, and in many churches in France and Belgium, and in cathedrals which have escaped destruction by a narrow chance, only scathed a little by battles round their town, the Te Deum is being sung, and people who a week ago crept to a church close in the shadow of the walls, afraid of the noise of gun-fire around them, and who a day or two ago saw the grey wolves of the German army still prowling in their streets, though with a hang-dog look, are now singing their praises to God because of their deliverance, almost doubting even still that this miracle has happened to them, and that after four years under the hostile yoke they are free. Free to speak their minds, free to display flags of their nation, free of fines and punishments, and requisitions, and spying, and German police, and German arrogance, free in their souls and hearts after four years of servitude under hostile rule.
So it was in Tournai today. For three weeks the people there had lived in their cellars listening to the fury of the gun-fire along the Scheldt Canal and closing in about them. They were afraid of having their old city smashed above their heads and of being buried under its ruins. They were afraid of asphyxiating gas creeping down into their cellars and killing them with its poisoned fumes. The Germans said, "The English will do this to you. You will all be killed before they come." But, in spite of their fear, they would not leave, and prayed for the coming of the English. A month ago more than 10,000 went away from Tournai, but that was behind German bayonets after a roll-call for all able-bodied men, who were forced to go, while their women wept for them. A week ago the roar of the bombardment increased, and never ceased day or night, and people became haggard in their cellars because of this awful noise above them. But they were comforted by the knowledge that this British gun-fire was not directed on Tournai, and said, "The Germans have lied again. We shall not be killed by our friends." Then two nights ago, above the noise of the guns, there were louder noises, stupendous explosions, shaking the very stones of their cellars and their vaulted roofs as by a convulsion in the bowels of the earth. Again and again through the night these explosions happened, and the people of Tournai guessed that the Germans were blowing up the bridges over the Scheldt Canal, and that it was a signal of their retreat. They crept out of their houses on Friday morning and went down to the canal, dividing one part of the town from the other, where all the houses had had their windows blown out, and were badly shattered by the blowing up of the bridges. A few German machine-gunners remained hidden in those houses. But presently the last of them came out and went away. One of them turned, and said to a woman of Tournai: "Your friends will soon be here. So much the better, because the war is ended for us. Germany is kaput."
The men and women waited, and presently they saw an English soldier make his way across the broken girders of the bridge, He was a tall, gallant-looking fellow, and as he stepped on to the inner side of the canal he drew his revolver, and held it ready, looking about keenly for any enemy. But they were friends who rushed at him, shouting, "English, English," and women flung their arms about his neck, and kissed him, and led him into the town, with seething crowds about him, and one family took him into their house and gave him wine, which they had hidden for this day, and, raising their glasses, said, "Vive les Anglais!" As today, another family brought out their wine for me, and touched my glass with all their glasses, and said, "Vive l'Angleterre!" After the first soldier had come there came in a small patrol, while the enemy fired some shells into the town and killed some civilians, and after that other British soldiers and staff officers arrived, and today there came marching through long columns of troops, with their guns and field-cookers and transport, and they had a welcome of heroes and liked it, with the laughter of British soldiers for hero-worship.
- left : sounding the Armistice on the front-lines
- right : a civilian celebration several days later
Our troops knew early this morning that the Armistice had been signed. I stopped on my way to Mons outside brigade headquarters, and an officer said, "Hostilities will cease at eleven o'clock." Then he added, as all men add in their hearts, "Thank God for that!" All the way to Mons there were columns of troops on the march, and their bands played ahead of them, and almost every man had a flag on his rifle, the red, white and blue of France, the red, yellow and black of Belgium. They wore flowers in their caps and in their tunics, red and white chrysanthemums given them by crowds of people who cheered them on their way, people who in many of these villages had been only one day liberated from the German yoke. Our men marched singing, with a smiling light in their eyes. They had done their job, and it was finished with the greatest victory in the world.
The war ended for us at Mons, as it had begun there. When I went into this town this morning it seemed to me a most miraculous coincidence and a joyful one. Last night there was a fight outside the town before our men forced their way in at ten o'clock. The Germans left many of their guns in the gardens before they ran. This morning Mons was full of English cavalry and Canadian troops, about whom there were crowds of townspeople, cheering them and embracing them. One old man told me of all they had suffered in Mons, but he wept only when he told me of the sufferings of our prisoners. "What shame for Germany," he said. "What shame when these things are known about your poor men starving to death. Our women tried to give them food, but were beaten for it, and fifteen days ago down there by the canal one of your English was killed because a woman gave him a bit of bread." Little children came up to me and described the fighting the night before, and many people narrated the first fighting in Mons in August of 1914, when the "Old Contemptibles" were there and fought their battle through the town, and then on their way of retreat outside.
All that is now a memory of the past. The war belongs to the past. There will be no flash of gun-fire in the sky tonight. The fires of hell have been put out, and I have written my last message as war correspondent. Thank God !
Last night for the first time since August in the first year of the war there was no hght of gun-fire in the sky, no sudden stabs of flame through the darkness, no long spreading flow above the black trees, where for four years of nights human beings were being smashed to death. The fires of hell had been put out. It was silent all along the front with the beautiful silence of the nights of peace. We did not stand listening to the dull rumbling of artillery at work, which has been the undertone of all closer sounds for fifteen hundred nights, nor have sudden heart-beats at explosions shaking the earth and the air, nor say in whisper to oneself, "Curse those guns!" At eleven o'clock in the morning the order had gone to all the batteries to cease fire. No more men were to be killed, no more to be mangled, no more to be blinded. The last of the boyhood of the world was reprieved. On the way back from Mons I listened to this silence which followed the going down of the sun, and heard the rustling of the russet leaves and the little sounds of night in peace, and it seemed as though God gave a benediction to the wounded soul of the world. Other sounds rose from the towns and fields in the yellowing twilight, and in the deepening shadow-world of the day of Armistice. They were sounds of human joy. Men were singing somewhere on the roads, and their voices rang out gladly. Bands were playing, as all day on the way to Mons I had heard their music ahead of the marching columns. Bugles were blowing. In the villages from which the enemy had gone out that morning round about Mons crowds of figures surged in the narrow streets, and English laughter rose above the silvery chatter of women and children.
The British soldiers were still on the march with their guns and their transport and their old field-cookers, and all along their lines I heard these men talking to each other gaily, as though something had loosened their tongues and made them garrulous. Motor cars streaked through the Belgian streets, dodging the traffic, and now and then when night fell rockets were fired from them, and there were gusts of laughter from young officers shooting off Very pistols into the darkness to celebrate the end of hostilities by this symbol of rising stars, which did not soar so high as their spirits. From dark towns like Tournai and Lille these rockets rose and burned a little while with white light. Our aviators flew like bats in the dusk, skimming the tree- tops and gables, doing Puck-like gambols above the tawny sunset, looping and spiralling and falling in steep dives which looked like death for them until they flattened out and rose again, and they, too, these boys who have been reprieved from the menace which was close to them on every flight, fired flares and rockets which dropped down to the crowds of French and Flemish people waving to them from below.
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