'Being a Guest of the German Kaiser'
by Irwin S. Cobb - American journalist

An American Journalist Gets an Inside View

two war-time portraits of the Kaiser


IN ORDER that the reader of this article may understand how I came to be the guest of the Kaiser away down yonder by the French frontier, and how subsequently I travelled — still as his guest — aboard a private train, personally conducted by the German Army, clear across Belgium from its French side to its German side, it is best, perhaps, that he should first hear as briefly as may be of the series of circumstances that landed us at the head of the invading column, within hulloing distance of the Franco-Belgian frontier.

Incidentally I might add my belief that we stayed longer with the German troops and went farther with them than any individual correspondent or any other group of correspondents.

You must know that four of us blundered into the German lines east of Brussels at Louvain, and, getting out of Louvain after three days and back to Brussels, we undertook, in less than twenty-four hours thereafter, to trail the main forces then shoving steadily southward with no other goal before them but Paris.

First by hired hack, as we used to say when writing accounts of funerals down in Paducah, then afoot through the dust, and finally, with an equipment consisting of a butcher's superannuated dog-cart, an elderly mare emeritus and two bicycles, we made our zigzagging way downward through Belgium.

We knew that our credentials were, for German purposes, of most dubious and uncertain value. We knew that the Germans were permitting no correspondents — not even German correspondents — to accompany them. We knew that any alien caught in the German front was liable to death on the spot without investigation of his motives. We knew all these things, and the knowledge of them gave a fellow tingling sensations in the tips of his toes when he permitted himself to think about his situation. But after the first few hours we took heart unto ourselves, for everywhere we met only kindness and courtesy at the hands of the Kaiser's soldiers, men and officers alike.

The Language of the Automatic

There was, it is true, the single small instance of the excited non-com, who poked a large, unwholesome-looking automatic pistol into my shrinking diaphragm when he wanted me to get off the running board of a military automobile into which I had climbed half a minute before by invitation of the private who steered it. I gathered his meaning right away, even though he uttered only guttural German, and that at the top of his voice. A pointed revolver speaks with a tongue which is understood by all peoples. Besides, he had the distinct advantage in repartee, and so, with no extended argument, I got down from there and he put up his hardware. I regarded the incident as being closed, and was perfectly willing that it should remain closed.

That, however, though of consuming interest to me at the moment, was but a detail — an exception to prove the standing rule. One place we dined with a Rittmeister's mess, and while we sat, eating of their midday ration of thick pea soup with sliced sausages in it, some of the younger officers stood ; also they let us stretch our wearied legs on their mattresses, which were ranged seven in a row on the parlour floor of a Belgian house, where from a corner a plaster statue of Joan of Arc gazed at us with her plaster eyes.

Common soldiers offered repeatedly to share their rye bread sandwiches and bottled beer with us. Not once, but a dozen times, officers of various ranks let us look at their maps and use their field glasses, and they gave us advice for reaching the zone of actual fighting and swapped gossip with us, and frequently regretted that they had no spare mounts or spare automobiles to loan us.

We attributed a good deal of this to the inherent kindliness of the German gentleman's nature, but more of it we attributed to a newborn desire on the part of these men to have disinterested journalists see with their own eyes the scope and result of the German operations in the hope that the truth regarding alleged German atrocities might reach the outside world and particularly might reach America.

I take it that right here is a good opportunity for me to say what I have hinted at before, and what I shall have reason to refer to hereafter at greater length, which is that in the course of over a hundred miles of travel through Belgium, immediately with or immediately behind the German troops, I did not personally witness a single case of brutality on the part of the Germans toward any peaceable Belgian non-combatant or toward any prisoner in their hands ; nor was I able, though I tried hard enough, to confirm by reasonably reliable evidence any of the stories of murder and pillage that reached me at second or third hand.

Of the waste and wreckage of war ; of desolated homes and shattered villages ; of the ruthless, relentless, punitive exactness with which the Germans punished not only those civilians they accused of firing on them, but those they suspected of giving harbour or aid to the offenders ; of widows and orphans; of families of innocent sufferers without a roof to shelter them or a bite to stay them; of fair lands ploughed by cannon balls and harrowed with rifle bullets and sown with dead men's bones; of men horribly maimed and mangled by lead and steel; of long mud trenches where the killed lay thick under the fresh clods; of all this and more I have seen enough to cure any man of the delusion that war is a beautiful, glorious, inspiring thing, and to make him know it for what it is — altogether hideous and unalterably awful.

As for Uhlans spearing babies on their lances and officers sabring their own men, and soldiers murdering and mutilating and torturing at will — I have seen nothing. I know of these tales only from having read them in the despatches sent from the Continent to England and from there cabled to American papers.

Even so, I hold no brief for the Germans, or for the reasons that inspired them in waging this war, or for the fashion after which they are waging it. I am only trying to tell what I see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears.

Be all that as it may, we straggled into Beaumont, five of us, on the evening of the third day out from Brussels, without baggage or equipment, barring only what we wore on our several tired and drooping backs. As in the case of our other trip to Louvain, a simple sightseeing ride had resolved itself into an expeditionary campaign; and so there we were, bearing as proof of our good faith and professional intentions only our American passports, our passes issued by General von Jarotzky at Brussels, and, most potent of all for winning confidence from the casual eye, a little frayed silk American flag with a hole burned in it by a careless cigar butt which was knotted to the front rail of our creaking dogcart.

Immediately after passing the ruined and deserted village of Montignies St. Christophe we came at dusk to a place where a company of German infantrymen were in camp about a big greystone farmhouse. They were cooking supper over big trench fires, and, as usual, were singing. The light shone up into the faces of the cooks, bringing out in ruddy relief their florid skins and yellow beards. A yearling bull calf was tied to a supply- waggon wheel bellowing his indignation. I imagine he quit bellowing shortly thereafter.

An officer came to the edge of the road and, peering sharply at us over a broken hedge, made as if to stop us, then changed his mind and permitted us to go unchallenged, Entering the town we proceeded, winding our way among pack trains and stalled motor trucks, to the town square. Our little cavalcade halted to the accompaniment of good- natured titterings from many soldiers in front of the town house of the Prince de Caraman-Chimay.

The Hospitality of the Absent Prince

By most Americans the prince is remembered as having been one of the husbands of the much-married Clara Ward of Detroit, but at this moment, though absent, he had particularly endeared himself to the Germans through the circumstance of his having left behind in his wine cellars twenty thousand bottles of rare vintages. Wine, I believe, is contraband of war; certainly in this instance it was. As we speedily discovered, it was a very unlucky common soldier who did not have a swig of rare Burgundy or ancient claret to wash down his black bread and sausage that I night at supper.

Unwittingly we had bumped into the headquarters of the whole army — not of a single corps, but of an army. In the thickening twilight on the little square gorgeous staff officers came and went, afoot, on horseback, and in automobiles, and through an open window we caught a glimpse of a splendid-looking general sitting booted and sword-belted at a table in the Prince de Caraman-Chimay's library, with hunting trophies — skin and horn and claw — looking down at him from the high-panelled oak wainscottings, and spick- and-span aides waiting to take his orders and discharge his commissions.

It dawned on us that, having accidentally slipped through a hole in the German rear guard, we had reached a point close to the front of operations. We felt uncomfortable. It was not at all likely that a Herr Over-Commander would expedite us with the graciousness that had marked his underlings back along the line of communication. We remarked as much to one another, and it was a true prophecy. A staff officer — a colonel who spoke good English — received us at the door of the villa, and examined our papers in the light which streamed over his shoulder from a fine big hallway behind him. In everything, both then and thereafter, he was most polite.

"I do not understand how you came here, you gentlemen," he said at length, "we have no correspondents with our army."

"You have now," said one of us, seeking to brighten the growing embarrassment of the situation with a small jape.

Perhaps he did not understand. Perhaps it is against the regulations for a colonel, in full caparison of sword and shoulder straps, to laugh at a joke from a dusty, wayworn, shabby stranger in a dented straw hat and a wrinkled Yankee-made coat. At any rate this colonel did not laugh.

"You did quite right to report yourselves here and explain your purposes," he continued gravely; "but it is impossible that you may proceed. To-morrow morning we shall give you escort and transportation back to Brussels. I anticipate" — here he glanced quizzically at our aged mare, drooping knee-sprung between the shafts of the lop-sided dogcart — " I anticipate that you will return more speedily than you arrived.

"You will kindly report to me here in the morning at eleven. Meantime remember, gentlemen, that you are not prisoners — by no means not. You may consider yourselves for the time being — shall we say? — guests of the German Army, temporarily detained. You are at perfect liberty to come and go, only I should advise you not to go too far, because if you should try to leave town to-night our soldiers would certainly shoot you quite dead. It is not agreeable to be shot; and besides, your great Government might object. So, then, I shall have the pleasure of seeing you in the morning, shall I not ? Yes ? Good night, gentlemen!"

He clicked his neat heels so that his spurs jangled, and bowed us out into the dark. The question of securing lodgings loomed large and imminent before us. Officers filled the few small inns and hotels; soldiers, as we could see, were quartered thickly in all the houses in sight; and already the inhabitants were locking their doors and dousing their lights in accordance with an order from a source that was not to be disobeyed.

Nine out of ten houses about the square were now but black oblongs rising against the grey sky. We had nowhere to go ; and yet if we did not go somewhere, and that pretty soon, the patrols would undoubtedly take unpleasant cognizance of our presence. Besides, the searching chill of a Belgian night was making us stiff.

Scouting up a narrow winding alley, one of the party who spoke German found a courtyard behind a schoolhouse called imposingly L'Ecole Moyenne de Beaumont, where he obtained permission from a German sergeant to stable our mare for the night in the aristocratic company of a troop of officers' horses. Through another streak of luck we pre-empted a room in the schoolhouse and held it against all comers by right of squatter sovereignty. There my friends and I slept on the stone floor with a scanty amount of hay under us for a bed and our coats for coverlets. But before we slept we dined.

We dined on hard-boiled egg's and stale cheese — which we had saved from midday — in a big, bare study hall full of lancers. They gave us rye bread and some of the Prince de Chimay's wine to go with the provender we had brought, and they made room for us at the long benches that ran lengthwise of the room. Afterwards one of them — a master musician for all his soiled grey uniform and grimed fingers — played a piano that was in the corner, while all the rest sang.

It was a strange picture they made there. On the wall, on a row of hooks, still hung the small umbrellas and book-satchels of the pupils. Presumably at the coming of the Germans they had run home in such a panic that they left their school-traps behind. There were sums in chalk, half erased, on the blackboard ; and one of the troopers took a scrap of chalk and wrote, "On to Paris !" in big letters here and there.

A sleepy parrot, looking like a bundle of rumpled green feathers, squatted on its perch in a cage behind the master's desk, occasionally emitting a loud squawk as though protesting against this intrusion on its privacy.

We See Royalty in Action

When their wine had warmed them our soldier-hosts sang and sang unendingly. They had been on the march all day, and next day would probably march half the day and fight the other half, for the French and English were just ahead ; but now they sprawled over the school benches and pounded on the boards with their fists and feet, and sang at the tops of their voices. They sang their favourite marching songs — "Die Wacht am Rhein," of course, and "Deutschland, Deutschland, iiber Alles," which has a fine sonorous cathedral swing to it, and "God Save the King " — with different words to the air, be it said — and "Haltet Aus !"

Also, for variety, they sang "Tannenbaum" — with the same tune as "Maryland, My Maryland " — and "Heil dir im Sieges-kranz," and snatches from various operas.

Dancing with a Scullery Maid

When Bennett asked for Heine's "Lorelei " they sang not one verse of it, or two, but twenty or more, and then by way of compliment to the guests of the evening they reared up on their feet and gave us "The Star-spangled Banner" to German words. Suddenly two of them began dancing. In their big rawhide boots, with hobbled soles and steel- shod heels, they pounded back and forth, while the others whooped them on.

One of the dancers gave out presently, but the other seemed still unimpaired in wind and limb. He darted into an adjoining room and came back in a minute dragging a half- frightened, half-pleased little Belgian scullery-maid and whirled her about to waltz music until she dropped for want of breath to carry her another turn; after which he did a solo — Teutonic version — of a darky breakdown, stopping only to join in the next song.

It was eleven o'clock, and they were still singing when we left them and went groping through dark hallways to where our simple hay mattress awaited us.

I might add that we were indebted to a corporal of lancers for the hay, which he pilfered from the feed-racks outside after somebody had stolen the two bundles of straw one of us had previously purchased. Except for his charity of heart we should have lain on the cold flagging.

The Staff Hurry Away in Automobiles

The next morning was Thursday morning, and by Thursday night, at the very latest, we counted on being back in Brussels; but we were not destined to see Brussels again during this campaign. And as I write these words it is now highly probable we shall not see it again during this war. We breakfasted frugally on good bread and execrable coffee at a half-wrecked little cafe where soldiers had slept, and at eleven o'clock, when we had bestowed Bulotte, the ancient nag, and the dog-cart on an accommodating youth — giving them to him as a gracious gift since neither he nor anyone else would buy the outfit at any price — we repaired to the villa to report ourselves and start back to the place whence we had come so laboriously.

The commander and his staff were just leaving and were in a big hurry. We knew the reason for their hurry, for since daylight the sound of heavy firing to the south and south- west across the French border in the neighbourhood of Maubeuge had been plainly audible. Officers in long grey overcoats with fastenings of blue, green, yellow, and four shades of red — depending on the branches of the service to which they belonged — were piling into automobiles and scooting away.

As we sat on a wooden bench before the prince's villa waiting for further instructions from our friend of the night before — meaning by that the colonel who could not take a joke, but could make one of his own — a tall, slender young man of about twenty-four with a little silky moustache and a long vulpine nose came striding across the square with long steps.

A Tall Slender Young Prince

As nearly as we could tell he wore a colonel's shoulder straps, and, aside from the fact that he seemed exceedingly youthful to be a colonel, we were astonished at the deference that was paid him by those of higher rank who stood about waiting for their cars. Generals and the like, even grizzled old generals with breasts full of decorations, bowed and clicked before him, and when he, smiling broadly, insisted on shaking hands with all of them some of the group seemed overcome with gratification.

Presently a sort of family resemblance in his face to someone whose picture we had seen often somewhere began to impress itself on us, and we wondered who he was ; but, being rather out of the setting ourselves, none of us cared to ask. This week in Aix- la-Chapelle I was passing a shop and saw his likeness in full uniform on a souvenir post card in the window. It was Prince August Wilhelm, fourth son of the Kaiser, and we had seen him as he was about getting his first taste of being under fire by the enemy.

Pretty soon he was gone and our colonel was gone, and nearly everybody else was gone too. Companies of infantry and cavalry fell in and moved off, and a belated battery of field artillery rumbled out of sight up the twisting main street. The field post-office staff, the field telegraph staff, the Red Cross corps, and the waggon trains followed in due turn, leaving behind only a small squad to hold the town — and us.


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