'In Aachen and Fort Loncin'
by Irwin S. Cobb
from his book 'Paths of Glory' 1915

an American Reporter Behind the Lines

a relief map of Liege and the surrounding forts


The Grapes of Wrath

There is a corner of Rhenish Prussia that shoulders up against Holland and drives a nudging elbow deep into the ribs of Belgium; and right here, at the place where the three countries meet, stands Charlemagne's ancient city of Aix-la-Chapelle, called Aachen by the Germans.

To go from the middle of Aix-la-Chapelle to the Dutch boundary takes twenty minutes on a tram-car, and to go to the Belgian line requires an even hour in a horse-drawn vehicle, and considerably less than that presuming you go by automobile. So you see the toes of the town touch two foreign frontiers; and of all German cities it is the most westerly and, therefore, closest of all to the zone of action in the west of Europe.

You would never guess it, however. When we landed in Aix-la-Chapelle, coming out of the heart of the late August hostilities in Belgium, we marveled; for, behold, here was a clean, white city that, so far as the look of it and the feel of it went, might have been a thousand miles from the sound of gunfire. On that Sabbath morning of our arrival an air of everlasting peace abode with it. That same air of peace continued to abide with it during all the days we spent here. Yet, if you took a step to the southwest — a figurative step in seven-league boots — you were where all hell broke loose. War is a most tremendous emphasizer of contrasts.

These lines were written late in September, in a hotel room at Aix-la-Chapelle. The writing of them followed close on an automobile trip to Liege, through a district blasted by war and corrugated with long trenches where those who died with their boots on still lie with their boots on.

Let me, if I can, draw two pictures — one of this German outpost town, and the other of the things that might be seen four or five miles distant over the border.

I have been told that, in the first flurry of the breaking out of the World-War, Aix was not placid. It went spy-mad, just as all Europe went spy-mad — a mania from which this Continent has not entirely recovered by any means. There was a great rounding up of suspected aliens. Every loyal citizen resolved himself or herself into a self-appointed policeman, to watch the movements of those suspected of being disloyal. Also, they tell me, when the magic mobilization began and troops poured through without ceasing for four days and four nights, and fighting broke out just the other side of the Belgian customhouse, on the main high road to Liege, there was excitement. But all that was over long before we came.

The war has gone onward, down into France; and all the people know is what the official bulletins tell them; in fact, I think they must know less about operations and results than our own people in America. I know not what the opportunity of the spectator may have been with regard to other wars, but certainly in this war it is true that the nearer you get to it the less you understand of its scope.

All about you, on every side, is a screen of secrecy. Once in a while it parts for a moment, and through the rift you catch a glimpse of the movement of armies and the swing and sweep of campaigns. Then the curtain closes and again you are shut in.

Let me put the case in another way: It is as though we who are at the front, or close to it, stand before a mighty painting, but with our noses almost touching the canvas. You who are farther away see the whole picture. We, for the moment, see only so much of it as you might cover with your two hands; but this advantage we do have — that we see the brush strokes, the color shadings, the infinite small detail, whereas you view its wider effects.

And then, having seen it, when we try to put our story into words — when we try to set down on paper the unspeakable horror of it — we realize what a futile, incomplete thing the English language is.

This present day in Aix-la-Chapelle will be, I assume, much like all the other days I have spent here. An hour ago small official bulletins, sanctioned by the Berlin War Office, were posted in the windows of the shops and on the front of the public buildings; and small groups gathered before them to read the news.

If it was good news they took it calmly. If it was not so good, still they took it calmly. If it was outright bad news I think they would still take it calmly. For, come good or evil, they are all possessed now with the belief that, in the long run, Germany must win. Their confidence is supreme.

It was characteristic of them, though, that, until word came of the first German success, there was no general flying of flags in the town. Now flags are up everywhere — the colors of the Empire and of Prussia, and often enough just a huge yellow square bearing the spraddled, black, spidery design of the Imperial eagle. But there is never any hysteria; I don't believe these Prussians know the meaning of the word. It is safe to assume that out of every three grown men in front of a bulletin one will be a soldier.


a German soldier on the Rhine
photo by Ernst Vollbehr


Yet, considering that Germany is supposed, at this moment, to have upward of five million men in the field or under arms, and that approximately two millions more, who were exempt from call by reason of age or other disabilities, are said to have volunteered, you would be astonished to see how many men in civilian dress are on the streets. Whether in uniform or not, though, these men are at work after some fashion or other for their country. Practically all the physicians in Aix are serving in the hospitals. The rich men — the men of affairs — are acting as military clerks at headquarters or driving Red Cross cars. The local censor of the telegraph is over eighty years old — a splendid-looking old white giant, who won the Iron Cross in the Franco-Prussian War and retired with the rank of general years and years ago. Now, in full uniform, he works twelve hard hours a day. The head waiter at this hotel told me yesterday that he expected to be summoned to the colors in a day or two. He has had his notice and is ready to go. He is more than forty years old. I know my room waiter kept watch on me until he satisfied himself I was what I claimed to be — an American — and not an English spy posing as an American.

So, at first, did the cheery little girl cashier in the Arcade barber shop downstairs. For all I know, she may still have me under suspicion and be making daily reports on me to the secret-service people. The women help, too — and the children. The wives and daughters of the wealthiest men in the town are minding the sick and the wounded. The mothers and the younger girls meet daily to make hospital supplies. Women come to you in the cafes at night, wearing Red Cross badges on their left arms, and shaking sealed tin canisters into which you are expected to drop contributions for invalided soldiers.

Since so many of their teachers are carrying rifles or wearing swords, the pupils of the grammar schools and the high schools are being organized into squads of crop- gatherers. Beginning next week, so I hear, they will go out into the fields and the orchards to assist in the harvesting of the grain and the fruit. For lack of hands to get it under cover the wheat has already begun to suffer; but the boys and girls will bring it in.

It is now half-past eleven o'clock in the forenoon. At noon, sharp, an excellent orchestra will begin to play in the big white casino maintained by the city, just opposite my hotel. It will play for an hour then, and again this afternoon, and again, weather permitting, to- night.

The townspeople will sit about at small, white tables and listen to the music while they sip their beer or drink their coffee. They will be soberer and less vivacious than I imagine they were two months ago; but then these North Germans are a sober-minded race anyhow, and they take their amusements quietly. Also, they have taken the bad tidings of the last few days from France very quietly.

During the afternoon crowds will gather on the viaduct, just above the principal railroad station, where they will stand for hours looking down over the parapet into the yards below. There will be smaller crowds on the heights of Ronheide, on the edge of the town, where the tracks enter the long tunnel under one of the hills that etch the boundary between Germany and Belgium.


in a German railway-station


Rain or shine, these two places are sure to be black with people, for here they may see the trains shuttle by, like long bobbins in a loom that never ceases from its weaving — trains going west loaded with soldiers and naval reservists bound for the front, and trains headed east bearing prisoners and wounded. The raw material passes one way — that's the new troops; the finished product passes the other — the wounded and the sick.

When wounded men go by there will be cheering, and some of the women are sure to raise the song of Die Wacht am Rhein; and within the cars the crippled soldiers will take up the chorus feebly. God knows how many able-bodied soldiers already have gone west; how many maimed and crippled ones have gone east! In the first instance the number must run up into the second million; of the latter there must have been well above two hundred thousand.

No dead come back from the front — at least, not this way. The Germans bury their fallen soldiers where they fall. Regardless of his rank, the dead man goes into a trench. If so be he died in battle he is buried, booted and dressed just as he died. And the dead of each day must be got underground before midnight of that same day — that is the hard-and-fast rule wherever the Germans are holding their ground or pressing forward. There they will lie until the Judgment Day, unless their kinsfolk be of sufficient wealth and influence to find their burial places and dig them up and bring them home privily for interment. Even so, it may be days or even weeks after a man- is dead and buried before his people hear of it. It may be they will not hear of it until a letter written to him in the care of his regiment and his company comes back unopened, with one word in sinister red letters on it — Gefallen!

At this hotel, yesterday, I saw a lady dressed in heavy black. She had the saddest, bravest face I ever looked into, I think. She sat in the restaurant with two other ladies, who were also in black. The octogenarian censor of telegrams passed them on the way out. To her two companions he bowed deeply, but at her side he halted and, bending very low, he kissed her hand, and then went away without a word.

The head waiter, who knows all the gossip of the house and of half the town besides, told us about her. Her only son, a lieutenant of artillery, was killed at the taking of Liege. It was three days before she learned of his death, though she was here in Aachen, only a few miles away; for so slowly as this does even bad news travel in war times when it pertains to the individual.

Another week elapsed before her husband, who is a lieutenant-colonel, could secure leave of absence and return from the French border to seek for his son's body; and there was still another week of searching before they found it. It was at the bottom of a trench, under the bodies of a score or more of his men; and it was in such a state that the mother had not been permitted to look on her dead boy's face.

Such things as this must be common enough hereabouts, but one hears very little of them and sees even less. Aix-la-Chapelle has suffered most heavily. The Aix regiment was shot to pieces in the first day's fighting at Liege. Nearly half its members were killed or wounded; but astonishingly few women in mourning are to be seen on the street, and none of the men wear those crape arm bands that are so common in Europe ordinarily; nor, except about the railroad station, are very many wounded to be seen.

There are any number of wounded privates in the local hospitals; but there must be a rule against their appearance in public places, for it is only occasionally that I meet one abroad. Slightly wounded officers are more plentiful. I judge from this that no such restriction applies to them as applies to the common soldiers. This hotel is full of them — young officers mostly, with their heads tied up or their arms in black silk slings, or limping about on canes or crutches.

Until a few days ago the columns of the back pages of the Aix and Cologne papers were black-edged with cards inserted by relatives in memory of officers who had fallen — "For King and Fatherland!" the cards always said. I counted thirteen of these death notices in one issue of a Cologne paper. Now they have almost disappeared. I imagine that, because of the depressing effect of such a mass of these publications on the public mind, the families of killed officers have been asked to refrain from reciting their losses in print. Yet there are not wanting signs that the grim total piles up by the hour and the day.

Late this afternoon, when I walk around to the American consulate, I shall pass the office of the chief local paper; and there I am sure to find anywhere from seventy-five to a hun- dred men and women waiting for the appearance on a bulletin board of the latest list of dead, wounded and missing men who are credited to Aix-la-Chapelle and its vicinity. A new list goes up each afternoon, replacing the list of the day before. Sometimes it contains but a few names; sometimes a good many. Then there will be piteous scenes for a little while; but presently the mourners will go away, struggling to compose themselves as they go; for their Kaiser has asked them to make no show of their loss among their neighbors. Having made the supremest sacrifice they can make, short of offering up their own lives, they now make another and hide their grief away from sight. Surely, this war spares none at all — neither those who fight nor those who stay behind.

Toward dusk the streets will fill up with promenaders. Perhaps a regiment or so of troops, temporarily quartered here on the way to the front, will clank by, bound for their barracks in divers big music halls. The squares may be quite crowded with uniforms; or there may be only one gray coat in proportion to three or four black ones — this last is the commoner ratio. It all depends on the movements of the forces.

To-night the cafes will be open and the moving-picture places will run full blast; and the free concert will go on and there will be services in the cathedral of Charlemagne. The cafes that had English names when the war began have German ones now. Thus the Bristol has become the Crown Prince Café, and the Piccadilly is the Germania; but otherwise they are just as they were before the war started, and the business in them is quite as good, the residents say, as it ever was. Prices are no higher than they used to be — at least I have not found them high.

After the German fashion the diners will eat slowly and heavily; and afterward they will sit in clusters of three or four, drinking mugs of Munich or Pilsner, and talking deliberately. At the Crown Prince there will be dancing, and at two or three other places there will be music and maybe singing; but at the Kaiserhof, where I shall dine, there is nothing more exciting than beer and conversation. It was there, two nights ago, I met at the same time three Germans representing three dominant classes in the life of their country, and had from each of them the viewpoint of his class toward the war. They were, respectively, a business man, a scientist, and a soldier. The business man belongs to a firm of brothers which ranks almost with the Krupps in commercial importance. It has branches in many cities and agencies and plants in half a dozen countries. He said:

"We had not our daily victory to-day, eh? Well, so it goes; we must not expect to win always. We must have reverses, and heavy ones too; but in the end we must win. To lose now would mean national extinction. To win means Germany's commercial and military preeminence in this hemisphere.

"There can be but one outcome of this war — either Germany, as an empire, will cease to exist, or she will emerge the greatest Power, except the United States, on the face of the earth. And so sure are we of the result that to-day my brothers and I bought ground for doubling the size and capacity of our largest plant.

"In six weeks from now we shall have beaten France; in six months we shall have driven Russia to cover. For England it will take a year — perhaps longer. And then, as in all games, big and little, the losers will pay. France will be made to pay an indemnity from which she will never recover.

"Of Belgium I think we shall take a slice of seacoast; Germany needs ports on the English Channel. Russia will be so humbled that no longer will the Muscovite peril threaten Europe. Great Britain we shall crush utterly. She shall be shorn of her navy and she shall lose her colonies — certainly she shall lose India and Egypt. She will become a third-class Power and she will stay a third-class Power. Forget Japan — Germany will punish Japan in due season.

"Within five years from now I predict there will be an offensive and defensive alliance of all the Teutonic and all the Scandinavian races of Europe, with Bulgaria included, holding absolute dominion over this continent and stretching in an unbroken line from the North Sea to the Adriatic and the Black Sea.

"Europe is to have a new map, my friends, and Germany will be in the middle of that map. When this has been accomplished we shall talk about disarmament — not before. And first, we shall disarm our enemies who forced this war on us."

The scientist spoke next. He is a tall, spectacled, earnest Westphalian, who has invented and patented over a hundred separate devices used in electric-lighting properties, and, in between, has found time to travel round the world several times and write a book or two.

"I do not believe in war," he said. "War has no place in the civilization of the world to-day; but this war was inevitable. Germany had to expand or be suffocated. And out of this war good will come for all the world, especially for Europe. We Germans are the most industrious, the most earnest and the best-educated race on this side of the ocean. To- day one-fourth of the population of Belgium cannot read and write. Under German influence illiteracy will disappear from among them. Russia stands for reaction; England for selfishness and perfidy; France for decadence. Germany stands for progress. Do not believe the claims of our foes that our Kaiser wishes to be another Napoleon and hold Europe under his thumb. What he wants for Germany and what he means to have is, first, breathing room for his people; and after that a fair share of the commercial opportunities of the world.

"German enlightenment and German institutions will do the rest. And after this war — if we Germans win it — there will never be another universal war."

The soldier spoke last. He is a captain of field artillery, a member of a distinguished Prussian family, and one of the most noted big-game hunters in Europe. Three weeks ago, in front of Charleroi, a French sharpshooter put a bullet in him. It passed through his left forearm, pierced one lung and lodged in the muscles of his breast, where it lies imbedded. In a week from now he expects to rejoin his command.

To look at him you would never guess that he had so recently been wounded; his color is high and he moves with the stiff, precise alertness of the German army man. He is still wearing the coat he wore in the fight; there are two ragged little holes in the left sleeve and a puncture in the side of it; and it is spotted with stiff, dry, brown stains.

"I don't presume to know anything about the political or commercial aspects of this war," he said over his beer mug; "but I do know this: War was forced on us by these other Powers. They were jealous of us and they made the Austrian-Servian quarrel their quarrel. But when war came we were ready and they were not.

"Not until the mobilization was ordered did the people of Germany know the color of the field uniform of their soldiers; yet four millions of these service uniforms were made and finished and waiting in our military storehouses. Not until after the first shot was fired did we who are in the army know how many army corps we had, or the names of their commanders, or even the names of the officers composing the general staff.

"A week after we took the field our infantry, in heavy marching order, was covering fifty kilometers a day — thirty of your American miles — and doing it day after day without straggling and without any footsore men dropping behind.

"Do these things count in the sum total? I say they do. Our army will win because it deserves to win through being ready and being complete and being efficient. Don't discount the efficiency of our navy either. Remember, we Germans have the name of being thorough. When our fleet meets the British fleet I think you will find that we have a few Krupp surprises for them."

I may meet these confident gentlemen tonight. If not, it is highly probable I shall meet others who are equally confident, and who will express the same views, which they hold because they are the views of the German people.

At eleven o'clock, when I start back to the hotel, the streets will be almost empty. Aix will have gone to bed, and in bed it will peacefully stay unless a military Zeppelin sails over its rooftrees, making a noise like ten million locusts all buzzing at once. There were two Zeppelins aloft last night, and from my window I saw one of them quite plainly. It was hanging almost stationary in the northern sky, like a huge yellow gourd. After a while it made off toward the west. One day last week three of them passed, all bound presumably for Paris or Antwerp, or even London. That time the people grew a bit excited; but now they take a Zeppelin much as a matter of course, and only wonder mildly where it came from and whither it is going.

As for to-morrow, I imagine to-morrow will be another to-day; but yesterday was different. I had a streak of luck. It is forbidden to civilians, and more particularly to correspondents, to go prowling about eastern Belgium just now; but I found a friend in a naturalized German-American, formerly of Chicago, but living now in Germany, though he still retains his citizenship in the United States.

Like every one else in Aachen, he is doing something for the government, though I can only guess at the precise nature of his services. At any rate he had an automobile, a scarce thing to find in private hands in these times; and, what was more, he had a military pass authorizing him to go to Liege and to take two passengers along. He invited me to go with him for a day's ride through the country where the very first blows were swapped in the western theater of hostilities.

We started off in the middle of a fickle-minded shower, which first blew puffs of wetness in our faces, like spray on a flawy day at sea, and then broke off to let the sun shine through for a minute or two. For two or three kilometers after clearing the town we ran through a district that smiled with peace and groaned with plenty. On the verandas of funny little gray roadhouses with dripping red roofs officers sat over their breakfast coffee. A string of wagons passed us, bound inward, full of big, white, clean-looking German pigs. A road builder, repairing the ruts made by the guns and baggage trains, stood aside for us to pass and pulled off his hat to us. This was Europe as it used to be — Europe as most American tourists knew it.

We came to a tall barber pole which a careless painter had striped with black on white instead of with red on white, and we knew by that we had arrived at the frontier. Also, there stood alongside the pole a royal forest ranger in green, with a queer cockaded hat on his head, doing sentry duty. As we stopped to show him our permits, and to give him a ripe pear and a Cologne paper, half a dozen soldiers came tumbling out of the guardroom in the little customhouse, and ran up to beg from us, not pears, but papers. Clear to Liege we were to be importuned every few rods by soldiers begging for papers. Some had small wooden sign-boards bearing the word Zeitung, which they would lift and swing across the path of an approaching automobile. I began to believe after a while that if a man had enough newspapers in stock he could bribe his way through the German troops clear into France.

These fellows who gathered about us now were of the Landsturm, men in their late thirties and early forties, with long, shaggy mustaches. Their kind forms the handle of the mighty hammer whose steel nose is battering at France. Every third one of them wore spectacles, showing that the back lines of the army are extensively addicted to the favorite Teutonic sport of being nearsighted. Also, their coat sleeves invariably were too long for them, and hid their big hands almost to the knuckles. This is a characteristic I have everywhere noted among the German privates. If the French soldier's coat is over- lengthy in the skirt the German's is ultra-generous with cloth in the sleeves. I saw that their hair was beginning to get shaggy, showing that they had been in the field some weeks, since every German soldier — officer and private alike — leaves the barracks so close-cropped that his skin shows pinky through the bristles. Among them was one chap in blue sailor's garb, left behind doubtless when forty-five hundred naval reserves passed through three days before to work the big guns in front of Antwerp.

We went on. At first there was nothing to show we had entered Belgium except that the Prussian flag did not hang from a pole in front of every farmhouse, but only in front of every fourth house, say, or every fifth one. Then came stretches of drenched fields, vacant except for big black ravens and nimble piebald magpies, which bickered among themselves in the neglected and matted grain; and then we swung round a curve in the rutted roadway and were in the town of Battice.


a view of Battice taken from a German history book


No; we were not in the town of Battice. We were where the town of Battice had been — where it stood six weeks ago. It was famous then for its fat, rich cheeses and its green damson plums. Now, and no doubt for years to come, it will be chiefly notable as having been the town where, it is said, Belgian civilians first fired on the German troops from roofs and windows, and where the Germans first inaugurated their ruthless system of reprisal on houses and people alike.

Literally this town no longer existed. It was a scrap-heap, if you like, but not a town. Here had been a great trampling out of the grapes of wrath, and most sorrowful was the vintage that remained.

It was a hard thing to level these Belgian houses absolutely, for they were mainly built of stone or of thick brick coated over with a hard cement. So, generally, the walls stood, even in Battice; but always the roofs were gone, and the window openings were smudged cavities, through which you looked and saw square patches of the sky if your eyes inclined upward, or else blackened masses of ruination if you gazed straight in at the interiors. Once in a while one had been thrown flat. Probably big guns operated here. In such a case there was an avalanche of broken masonry cascading out into the roadway.

Midway of the mile-long avenue of utter waste which we now traversed we came on a sort of small square. Here was the yellow village church. It lacked a spire and a cross, and the front door was gone, so we could see the wrecked altar and the splintered pews within. Flanking the church there had been a communal hall, which was now shapeless, irredeemable wreckage. A public well had stood in the open space between church and hall, with a design of stone pillars about it. The open mouth of the well we could see was choked with foul debris; but a shell had struck squarely among the pillars and they fell inward like wigwam poles, forming a crazy apex. I remember distinctly two other things: a picture of an elderly man with whiskers — one of those smudged atrocities that are called in the States crayon portraits — hanging undamaged on the naked wall of what had been an upper bedroom; and a wayside shrine of the sort so common in the Catholic countries of Europe. A shell had hit it a glancing blow, so that the little china figure of the Blessed Virgin lay in bits behind the small barred opening of the shrine.

Of living creatures there was none. Heretofore, in all the blasted towns I had visited, there was some human life stirring. One could count on seeing one of the old women who are so numerous in these Belgian hamlets — more numerous, I think, than anywhere else on earth. In my mind I had learned to associate such a sight with at least one old woman — an incredibly old woman, with a back bent like a measuring worm's, and a cap on her scanty hair, and a face crosshatched with a million wrinkles — who would be pottering about at the back of some half-ruined house or maybe squatting in a desolated doorway staring at us with her rheumy, puckered eyes. Or else there would be a hunchback — crooked spines being almost as common in parts of Belgium as goiters are in parts of Switzerland. But Battice had become an empty tomb, and was as lonely and as silent as a tomb. Its people — those who survived — had fled from it as from an abomination.

Beyond Battice stood another village, called Herve; and Herve was Battice all over again, with variations. At this place, during the first few hours of actual hostilities between the little country and the big one, the Belgians had tried to istem the inpouring German flood, as was proved by wrecks of barricades in the high street. One barricade had been built of wagon bodies and the big iron hods of road-scrapers; the wrecks of these were still piled at the road's edge. Yet there remained tangible proof of the German claim that they did not harry and burn indiscriminately, except in cases where the attack on them was by general concert.

Here and there, on the principal street, in a row of ruins, stood a single house that was intact and undamaged. It was plain enough to be seen that pains had been taken to spare it from the common fate of its neighbors. Also, I glimpsed one short side street that had come out of the fiery visitation whole and unscathed, proving, if it proved anything, that even in their red heat the Germans had picked and chosen the fruit for the wine press of their vengeance.

After Herve we encountered no more destruction by wholesale, but only destruction by piecemeal, until, nearing Liege, we passed what remained of the most northerly of the ring of fortresses that formed the city's defenses. The conquerors had dismantled it and thrown down the guns, so that of the fort proper there was nothing except a low earthen wall, almost like a natural ridge in the earth.

All about it was an entanglement of barbed wire; the strands were woven and interwoven, tangled and twined together, until they suggested nothing so much as a great patch of blackberry briers after the leaves have dropped from the vines in the fall of the year. To take the works the Germans had to cut through these trochas. It seemed impossible to believe human beings could penetrate them, especially when one was told that the Belgians charged some of the wires with high electricity, so that those of the advancing party who touched them were frightfully burned and fell, with their garments blazing, into the jagged wire brambles, and were held there until they died.

Before the charge and the final hand-to-hand fight, however, there was shelling. There was much shelling. Shells from the German guns that fell short or overshot the mark descended in the fields, and for a mile round these fields were plowed as though hundreds of plowshares had sheared the sod this way and that, until hardly a blade of grass was left to grow in its ordained place. Where shells had burst after they struck were holes in the earth five or six feet across and five or six feet deep. Shells from the German guns and from the Belgian guns had made a most hideous hash of a cluster of small cottages flanking a small smelting plant which stood directly in the line of fire. Some of these houses — workmen's homes, I suppose they had been — were of frame, sheathed over with squares of tin put on in a diamond pattern; and you could see places where a shell, striking such a wall a glancing blow, had scaled it as a fish is scaled with a knife, leaving the bare wooden ribs showing below. The next house, and the next, had been hit squarely and plumply amidships, and they were gutted as fishes are gutted. One house in twenty, perhaps, would be quite whole, except for broken windows and fissures in the roof — as though the whizzing shells had spared it deliberately.

I recall that of one house there was left standing only a breadth of front wall between the places where windows had been. It rose in a ragged column to the line of the roof-rafters — only, of course, there was neither roof nor rafter now. On the face of the column, as though done in a spirit of bitter irony, was posted a proclamation, signed by the burgomaster and the military commandant, calling on the vanished dwellers of this place to preserve their tranquillity.

On the side of the fort away from the city, and in the direction whence we had come, a corporal's guard had established itself in a rent-asunder house in order to be out of the wet. On the front of the house they had hung a captured Belgian bugler's uniform and a French dragoon's overcoat, which latter garment was probably a trophy brought back from the lower lines of fighting; it made you think of an old-clothes-man's shop. The corporal came forth to look at our passes before permitting us to go on. He was a dumpy, good-natured-looking Hanoverian with patchy saffron whiskers sprouting out on him.

"Ach! yes," he said in answer to my conductor's question. "Things are quiet enough here now; but on Monday" — that would be three days before — "we shot sixteen men here — rioters and civilians who fired on our troops, and one graverobber — a dirty hound! They are yonder."

He swung his arm; and following its swing we saw a mound of fresh-turned clay, perhaps twenty feet in length, which made a yellow streak against the green of a small inclosed pasture about a hundred yards away. We saw many such mounds that day; and this one where the ignoble sixteen lay was the shortest of the lot. Some mounds were fifty or sixty feet in length. I presume there were distinguishing marks on the filled- up trenches where the German dead lay, but from the automobile we could make out none.


the forts surrounding Liege


As we started on again, after giving the little Hanoverian the last treasured copy of a paper we had managed to keep that long against continual importunity, a big Belgian dog, with a dragging tail and a sharp jackal nose, loped round from behind an undamaged cow barn which stood back of the riven shell of a house where the soldiers were quartered. He had the air about him of looking for somebody or something.

He stopped short, sniffing and whining, at sight of the gray coats bunched in the doorway; and then, running back a few yards, with his head all the time turned to watch the strangers, he sat on his haunches, stuck his pointed muzzle upward toward the sky and fetched a long, homesick howl from the bottom of his disconsolate canine soul. When we turned a bend in the road, to enter the first recognizable street of Liege, he was still hunkered down there in the rain. He finished the picture; he keynoted it. The composition of it — for me — was perfect now.

I mean no levity when I say that Liege was well shaken before taken; but merely that the phrase is the apt one for use, because it better expresses the truth than any other I can think of. Yet, considering what it went through, last month, Liege seemed to have emerged in better shape than one would have expected.


German troops marching through Liege


Driving into the town I saw more houses with white flags — the emblem of complete surrender — fluttering from sill and coping, than houses bearing marks of the siege. In the bombardment the shells mostly appeared to have passed above the town — which was natural enough, seeing that the principal Belgian forts stood on the hilltops westward of and overlooking the city; and the principal German batteries — at least, until the last day of fighting — were posted behind temporary defenses, hastily thrown up, well to the east and north.

Liege, squatted in the natural amphitheater below, practically escaped the fire of the big guns. The main concern of the noncombatants, they tell me, was to shelter themselves from the street fighting, which, by all accounts, was both stubborn and sanguinary. The doughty Walloons who live in this corner of Belgium have had the name of being sincere and willing workers with bare steel since the days when Charles the Bold, of Burgundy, sought to curb their rebellious spirits by razing their city walls and massacring some ten thousand of them. And quite a spell before that, I believe, Julius Caesar found them tough to bend and hard to break.

As for the Germans, checked as they had been in their rush on France by a foe whom they had regarded as too puny to count as a factor in the war, they sacrificed themselves by hundreds and thousands to win breathing space behind standing walls until their great seventeen-inch siege guns could be brought from Essen and mounted by the force of engineers who came for that purpose direct from the Krupp works.

In that portion of the town lying west of the Meuse we counted perhaps ten houses that were leveled flat and perhaps twenty that were now but burnt-out, riddled hulls of houses, as empty and useless as so many shucked pea-pods. Of the bridges spanning the river, the principal one, a handsome four-span structure of stone ornamented with stone figures of river gods, lay now in shattered fragments, choking the current, where the Belgians themselves had blown it apart. One more bridge, or perhaps two — I cannot be sure — were closed to traffic because dynamite had made them unsafe; but the remaining bridges, of which I think there were three, showed no signs of rough treatment. Opposite the great University there was a big, black, ragged scar to show where a block of dwellings had stood.

Liege, to judge from its surface aspect, could not well have been quieter. Business went on; buyers and sellers filled the side streets and dotted the long stone quays. Old Flemish men fished industriously below the wrecked stone bridge, where the debris made new eddies in the swift, narrow stream; and blue pigeons swarmed in the plaza before the Palais de Justice, giving to the scene a suggestion of St. Mark's Square at Venice.

The German Landwehr, who were everywhere about, treated the inhabitants civilly enough, and the inhabitants showed no outward resentment against the Germans. But beneath the lid a whole potful of potential trouble was brewing, if one might believe what the Germans told us. We talked with a young lieutenant of infantry who in more peaceful times had been a staff cartoonist for a Berlin comic paper. He received us beneath the portico of the Theatre Royale, built after the model of the Odeon in Paris. Two waspish rapid-fire guns stood just within the shelter of the columns, with their black snouts pointing this way and that to command the sweep of the three-cornered Place du Theatre. A company of soldiers was quartered in the theater itself. At night, so the lieutenant said, those men who were off duty rummaged the costumes out of the dressing rooms, put them on, and gave mock plays, with music. An officer's horse occupied what I think must have been the box office. It put its head out of a little window just over our heads and nickered when other horses passed. Against the side of the building were posters advertising a French company to play the Gallicized version of an American farce — "Baby Mine" — by Margaret Mayo. The borders of the posters were ornamented with prints of American flags done in the proper colors.

"Yes, Liege seems quiet enough," said the lieutenant; "but we expect a revolt to break out at any time. We expected it last night, and the guard in the streets was tripled and doubled; and these little dears" — patting the muzzle of one of the machine guns — "were put here; and more like them were mounted on the porticoes of the Hotel de Ville and the Palais de Justice. So nothing happened in the city proper, though in the outskirts three soldiers disappeared and are supposed to have been murdered, and a high officer" — he did not give the name or the rank — "was waylaid and killed just beyond the environs.


crossing the Meuse in Liege on a pontoon bridge


"Now we fear that the uprising may come to-night. For the last three days the residents, in great numbers, have been asking for permits to leave Liege and go into neutral territory in Holland, or to other parts of their own country. To us this sudden exodus — there seems to be no reason for it — looks significant.

"These people are naturally turbulent. Always they have been so. Most of them are makers of parts for firearms — gunmaking, you know, was the principal industry here — and they are familiar with weapons; and many of the men are excellent shots. This increases the danger. At first they were content to ambush single soldiers who strayed into obscure quarters after dark. Now it is forbidden for less than three soldiers in a party to go anywhere at night; and they think from this that we are afraid, and are growing more daring.

"By day they smile at us and bow, and are as polite as dancing masters; but at night the same men who smile at us will cheerfully cut the throat of any German who is foolish enough to venture abroad alone.

"Besides, this town and all the towns between here and Brussels are being secretly flooded with papers printed in French telling the people that we have been beaten everywhere to the south, and that the Allies are but a few miles away; and that if they will rise in numbers and destroy the garrisons re-enforcements will arrive the next morning to hold the district against us.

"If they do rise it will be Louvain all over again. We shall burn Liege and kill all who are suspected of being in league against our troops. Assuredly many innocent ones will suffer then with the guilty; but what else can we do? We are living above a seething volcano."

Certainly, though, never did volcano seethe more quietly.


several views of the ruins of Fort Loncin


The garrison commander would not hear of our visiting any of the wrecked Belgian fortresses on the wooded heights behind the city. As a reason for his refusal he said that explosives in the buried magazines were beginning to go off, making it highly dangerous for spectators to venture near them. However, he had no objection to our going to a certain specified point within the zone of supposed safety. With a noncommissioned officer to guide us we climbed up a miry footpath to the crest of a low hill; and from a distance of perhaps a hundred yards we looked across at what was left of Fort Loncin, one of the principal defenses.

I am wrong there. We did not look at what was left of Fort Loncin. Literally nothing was left of it. As a fort it was gone, obliterated, wiped out, vanished. It had been of a triangular shape. It was of no shape now. We found it difficult to believe that the work of human hands had wrought destruction so utter and overwhelming. Where masonry walls had been was a vast junk heap; where stout magazines had been bedded down in hard concrete was a crater; where strong barracks had stood was a jumbled, shuffled nothingness.

Standing there on the shell-torn hilltop, looking across to where the Krupp surprise wrote its own testimonials at its first time of using, in characters so deadly and devastating, I found myself somehow thinking of that foolish nursery tale wherein it is recited that a pig built himself a house of straw, and the wolf came; and he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down. The noncommissioned officer told us an unknown number of the defenders, running probably into the hundreds, had been buried so deeply beneath the ruins of the fort in the last hours of the fighting that the Germans had been unable to recover the bodies. Even as he spoke a puff of wind brought to our nostrils a smell which, once a man gets it into his nose, he will never get the memory of it out again so long as he has a nose. Being sufficiently sick, we departed thence.

As we rode back, and had got as far as the two ruined villages, it began to rain very hard. The rain, as it splashed into the puddles, stippled the farther reaches of the road thickly with dots, and its slanting lines turned everything into one gray etching which you might have labeled Desolation! And you would make no mistake in your labeling. Then — with one of those tricks of deliberate drama by which Nature sometimes shames stage managers — the late afternoon sun came out just after we crossed the frontier, and shone on us; and on the dapper young officers driving out in carriages; and on the peaceful German country places with their formal gardens; and on a crate of fat white German pigs riding to market to be made up into sausages for the placid burghers of Aix-la-Chapelle.


entrance to Fort Loncin after the bombardment


Three Generals and a Cook

To get to the civic midriff of the ancient and honorable French city of Laon you must ascend a road that winds in spirals about a high, steep hill, like threads cut in a screw. Doing this you come at length to the flat top of the screw — a most curiously flat top — and find on this side of you the Cathedral and the market-place, and on that side of you the Hotel de Ville, where a German flag hangs among the iron lilies in the grille-worked arms of the Republic above the front doors. Dead ahead of you is the Prefecture, which is a noble stone building, facing southward toward the River Aisne; and it has decorations of the twentieth century, a gateway of the thirteenth century and plumbing of the third century, when there was no plumbing to speak of.

We had made this journey and now the hour was seven in the evening, and we were dining in the big hall of the Prefecture as the guests of His Excellency, Field Marshal von Heeringen, commanding the Seventh Army of the German Kaiser — dining, I might add, from fine French plates, with smart German orderlies for waiters.


the 'Berlin artist ... Follbehr' (sic)
Ernst Vollbehr painting at the front


Except us five, and one other, the twenty-odd who sat about the great oblong table were members of the Over-General's staff. We five were Robert J. Thompson, American consul at Aix-la-Chapelle; McCutcheon and Bennett, of the Chicago Tribune; Captain Alfred Mannesmann, of the great German manufacturing firm of Mannesmann Mulag; and myself. The one other was a Berlin artist, by name Follbehr, who having the run of the army, was going out daily to do quick studies in water colors in the trenches and among the batteries. He did them remarkably well, too, seeing that any minute a shell might come and spatter him all over his own drawing board. All the rest, though, were generals and colonels and majors, and such — youngish men mostly. Excluding our host I do not believe there was a man present who had passed fifty years of age; but the General was nearer eighty than fifty, being one of the veterans of the Franco-Prussian War, whom their Emperor had ordered out of desk jobs in the first days of August to shepherd his forces in the field. At his call they came — Von Heeringen and Von Hindenberg and Von Zwehl, to mention three names that speedily became catchwords round the world — with their gray heads full of Prussian war tactics; and very soon their works had justified the act of their imperial master in choosing them for leadership, and now they had new medals at their throats and on their breasts to overlay the old medals they won back in 1870-71.


General von Zwehl - two portraits painted by Ernst Vollbehr


Like many of the older officers of the German Army I met, Von Heeringen spoke no English, in which regard he was excessively unlike ninety per cent of the younger officers. Among them it was an uncommon thing in my experience to find one who did not know at least a smattering of English and considerably more than a smattering of understandable French. Even that marvelous organism, the German private soldier, was apt to astonish you at unexpected moments by answering in fair-enough English the questions you put to him in fractured and dislocated German.

Not once or twice, but a hundred times during my cruising about in Belgium and Germany and France, I laboriously unloaded a string of crippled German nouns and broken-legged adjectives and unsocketed verbs on a hickory-looking sentry, only to have him reply to me in my own tongue. It would come out then that he had been a waiter at a British seaside resort or a steward on a Hamburg-American liner; or, oftener still, that he had studied English at the public schools in his native town of Kiel, or Coblenz, or Dresden, or somewhere.

The officers' English, as I said before, was nearly always ready and lubricant. To one who spoke no French and not enough German to hurt him, this proficiency in language on the part of the German standing army was a precious boon. The ordinary double- barreled dictionary of phrases had already disclosed itself as a most unsatisfying volume in which to put one's trust. It was wearing on the disposition to turn the leaves trying to find out how to ask somebody to pass the butter and find instead whole pages of parallel columns of translated sentences given over to such questions as "Where is the aunt of my stepfather's second cousin?"

As a rule a man does not go to Europe in time of war to look up his relatives by marriage. He may even have gone there to avoid them. War is terrible enough without lugging in all the remote kinsfolk a fellow has. How much easier, then, to throw oneself on the superior educational qualifications of the German military machine. Somebody was sure to have a linguistic life net there, rigged and ready for you to drop into.

It was so in this instance, as it has been so in many instances before and since. The courteous gentlemen who sat at my right side and at my left spoke in German or French or English as the occasion suited, while old Von Heeringen boomed away in rumbling German phrases. As I ate I studied him.

Three weeks later, less a day, I met by appointment Lord Kitchener and spent forty minutes, or thereabouts, in his company at the War Office in London. In the midst of the interview, as I sat facing Kitchener I began wondering, in the back part of my head, who it was Lord Kitchener reminded me of. Suddenly the answer came to me, and it jolted me. The answer was Von Heeringen.

Physically the two men — Kitchener of Khartoum and Von Heeringen, the Gray Ghost of Metz — had nothing in common; mentally I conceived them to be unlike. Except that both of them held the rank of field marshal, I could put my finger on no point of similarity, either in personality or in record, which these men shared between them. It is true they both served in the war of 1870-71; but at the outset this parallel fell flat, too, because one had been a junior officer on the German side and the other a volunteer on the French side. One was a Prussian in every outward aspect; the other was as British as it is possible for a Briton to be. One had been at the head of the general staff of his country, and was now in the field in active service with a sword at his side. The other, having served his country in the field for many years, now sat intrenched behind a roll- top desk, directing the machinery of the War Office, with a pencil for a baton. Kitchener was in his robust sixties, with a breast like a barrel; Von Heeringen was in his shrinking, drying-up seventies, and his broad shoulders had already begun to fold in on his ribs and his big black eyes to retreat deeper into his skull. One was beaky-nosed, hatchet- headed, bearded; the other was broad-faced and shaggily mustached. One had been famed for his accessibility; the other for his inaccessibility.


a German soldier looking from the tower of the Laon cathedral
photo by Ernst Vollbehr


So, because of these acutely dissimilar things, I marveled to myself that day in London why, when I looked at Kitchener, I should think of Von Heeringen. In another minute, though, I knew why: Both men radiated the same quality of masterfulness; both of them physically typified competency; both of them looked on the world with the eyes of men who are born to have power and to hold dominion over lesser men. Put either of these two in the rags of a beggar or the motley of a Pantaloon, and at a glance you would know him for a leader. Considering that we were supposed to be at the front on this evening at Laon, the food was good, there being a soup, and the invariable veal on which a German buttresses the solid foundations of his dinner, a salad and fruit, red wine and white wine and brandy. Also, there were flies amounting in numbers to a great multitude. The talk, like the flies, went to and fro about the table; and always it was worth hearing, since it dealt largely with first-hand experiences in the very heart of the fighting.

Yet I must add that not all the talk was talk of war. In peaceful Aix-la-Chapelle, whence we had come, the people knew but one topic. Here, on the forward frayed edge of the battle line, the men who had that day played their part in battle occasionally spoke of other things. I recall there was a discussion between Captain von Theobald, of the Artillery, and Major Humplmayer, of the Automobile Corps, on the merits of a painting that filled one of the panels in the big, handsome, overdecorated hall. The major won, which was natural enough, since, in time of peace, he was by way of being a collector of and dealer in art objects at Munich. Somebody else mentioned big-game shooting. For five minutes, then, or such a matter, the ways of big game and the ways of shooting it held the interest of half a dozen men at our curve of the table.

In such an interlude as this the listener might almost have lulled himself into the fancy that, after all, there was no war; that these courteous, gray-coated, shoulder-strapped gentlemen were not at present engaged in the business of killing their fellowmen; that this building wherein we sat, with its florid velvet carpets underfoot and its too-heavy chandeliers overhead, was not the captured chateau of the governor of a French province; and that the deep-eyed, white-fleeced, bull-voiced old man who sat just opposite was not the commander of sundry hundreds of thousands of fighting men with guns in their hands, but surely was no more and no less than the elderly lord of the manor, who, having a fancy for regimentals, had put on his and had pinned some glittering baubles on his coat and then had invited a few of his friends and neighbors in for a simple dinner on this fine evening of the young autumn.

Yet we knew that already the war had taken toll of nearly every man in uniform who was present about this board. General von Heeringen's two sons, both desperately wounded, were lying in field hospitals — one in East Prussia, the other in northern France not many miles from where we were. His second in command had two sons — his only two sons — killed in the same battle three weeks before. When, a few minutes earlier, I had heard this I stared at him, curious to see what marks so hard a stroke would leave on a man. I saw only a grave middle-aged gentleman, very attentive to the consul who sat beside him, and very polite to us all

Prince Scharmberg-Lippe, whom we had passed driving away from the Prefecture in his automobile as we drove to it in ours, was the last of four brothers. The other three were killed in the first six weeks of fighting. Our own companion, Captain Mannesmann, heard only the day before, when we stopped at Hirson — just over the border from Belgium — that his cousin had won the Iron Cross for conspicuous courage, and within three days more was to hear that this same cousin had been sniped from ambush during a night raid down the left wing.

Nor had death been overly stingy to the members of the Staff itself. We gathered as much from chance remarks. And so, as it came to be eight o'clock, I caught myself watching certain vacant chairs at our table and at the two smaller tables in the next room with a strained curiosity.

One by one the vacant chairs filled up. At intervals the door behind me would open and an officer would clank in, dusted over with the sift of the French roads. He would bow ceremoniously to his chief and then to the company generally, slip into an unoccupied chair, give an order over his shoulder to a soldier-waiter, and at once begin to eat his dinner with the air of a man who has earned it. After a while there was but one place vacant at our table; it was next to me. I could not keep my eyes away from it. It got on my nerves — that little gap in the circle; that little space of white linen, bare of anything but two unfilled glasses. To me it became as portentous as an unscrewed coffin lid. No one else seemed to notice it. Cigars had been passed round and the talk eddied casually back and forth with the twisty smoke wreaths.

An orderly drew the empty chair back with a thump. I think I jumped. A slender man, whose uniform fitted him as though it had been his skin, was sitting down beside me. Unlike those who came before him, he had entered so quietly that I had not sensed his coming. I heard the soldier call him Excellency; and I heard him tell the soldier not to give him any soup. We swapped commonplaces, I telling him what my business there was; and for a little while he plied his knife and fork busily, making the heavy gold curb chain on his left wrist tinkle musically.

"I'm rather glad they did not get me this afternoon," he said as though to make conversation with a stranger. "This is first-rate veal — better than we usually have here."

"Get you?" I said. "Who wanted to get you?"

"Our friends, the enemy," he answered. "I was in one of our trenches rather well toward the front, and a shell or two struck just behind me. I think, from their sound, they were French shells."

This debonair gentleman, as presently transpired, was Colonel von Scheller, for four years consul to the German Embassy at Washington, more lately minister for foreign affairs of the kingdom of Saxony, and now doing staff duty in the ordnance department here at the German center. He had the sharp brown eyes of a courageous fox terrier, a mustache that turned up at the ends, and a most beautiful command of the English language and its American idioms. He hurried along with his dinner and soon he had caught up with us.

"I suggest," he said, "that we go out on the terrace to drink our coffee. It is about time for the French to start their evening benediction, as we call it. They usually quit firing their heavy guns just before dark, and usually begin again at eight and keep it up for an hour or two."

So we two took our coffee cups and our cigars in our hands and went out through a side passage to the terrace, and sat on a little iron bench, where a shaft of light, from a window of the room we had just quit, showed a narrow streak of flowering plants beyond the bricked wall and a clump of red and yellow woodbine on a low wall.

The rest lay in blackness; but I knew, from what I had seen before dusk came, that we must be somewhere near the middle of a broad terrace — a hanging garden rather — full of sundials and statues and flower beds, which overhung the southern face of the Hill of Laon, and from which, in daylight, a splendid view might be had of wooded slopes falling away into wide, flat valleys, and wide, flat valleys rising again to form more wooded slopes. I knew, too, from what I remembered, that the plateau immediately beneath us was flyspecked with the roofs of small abandoned villages; and that the road which ran straight from the base of the heights toward the remote river was a-crawl with supply wagons and ammunition wagons going forward to the German batteries, seven miles away, and with scouts and messengers in automobiles and on motor cycles, and the day's toll of wounded in ambulances coming back from the front.

We could not see them when we went to the parapet and looked downward into the black gulf below, but the rumbling of the wheels and the panting of the motors came up to us. With these came, also, the remote music of those queer little trumpets carried by the soldiers who ride beside the drivers of German military automobiles; and this sounded as thinly and plaintively to our ears as the cries of sandpipers heard a long way off across a windy beach.

We could hear something else too: the evening benediction had started. Now fast, now slow, like the beating of a feverish pulse, the guns sounded in faint throbs; and all along the horizon from southeast to southwest, and back again, ran flares and waves of a sullen red radiance. The light flamed high at one instant — like fireworks — and at the next it died almost to a glow, as though a great bed of peat coals or a vast limekiln lay on the farthermost crest of the next chain of hills. It was the first time I had ever seen artillery fire at night, though I had heard it often enough by then in France and in Belgium, and even in Germany; for when the wind blew out of the west we could hear in Aix-la-Chapelle the faint booming of the great cannons before Antwerp, days and nights on end.

I do not know how long I stood and looked and listened. Eventually I was aware that the courteous Von Scheller, standing at my elbow, was repeating something he had already stated at least once.

"Those brighter flashes you see, apparently coming from below the other lights, are our guns," he was saying. "They seem to be below the others because they are nearer to us. Personally I don't think these evening volleys do very much damage," he went on as though vaguely regretful that the dole of death by night should be so scanty, "because it is impossible for the men in the outermost observation pits to see the effect of the shots; but we answer, as you notice, just to show the French and English we are not asleep."

Those iron vespers lasted, I should say, for the better part of an hour. When they were ended we went indoors. Everybody was assembled in the long hall of the Prefecture, and a young officer was smashing out marching songs on the piano. The Berlin artist made an art gallery of the billiard table and was exhibiting the water-color sketches he had done that day — all very dashing and spirited in their treatment, though a bit splashy and scrambled-eggish as to the use of the pigments.

A very young man, with the markings of a captain on shoulder and collar, came in and went up to General von Heeringen and showed him something — something that looked like a very large and rather ornamental steel coal scuttle which had suffered from a serious personal misunderstanding with an ax. The elongated top of it, which had a fluted, rudder-like adornment, made you think of Siegfried's helmet in the opera; but the bottom, which was squashed out of shape, made you think of a total loss.

When the general had finished looking at this object we all had a chance to finger it. The young captain seemed quite proud of it and bore it off with him to the dining room. It was what remained of a bomb, and had been loaded with slugs of lead and those iron cherries that are called shrapnel. A French flyer had dropped it that afternoon with intent to destroy one of the German captive balloons and its operator. The young officer was the operator of the balloon in question. It was his daily duty to go aloft, at the end of a steel tether, and bob about for seven hours at a stretch, studying the effects of the shell fire and telephoning down directions for the proper aiming of the guns. He had been up seven hundred feet in the air that afternoon, with no place to go in case of accident, when the Frenchman came over and tried to hit him. "It struck within a hundred meters of me," called back the young captain as he disappeared through the dining-room doorway. "Made quite a noise and tore up the earth considerably."

"He was lucky — the young Herr Captain," said Von Scheller — "luckier than his predecessor. A fortnight ago one of the enemy's flyers struck one of our balloons with a bomb and the gas envelope exploded. When the wreckage reached the earth there was nothing much left of the operator — poor fellow! — except the melted buttons on his coat. There are very few safe jobs in this army, but being a captive-balloon observer is one of the least safe of them all."

I had noted that the young captain wore in the second buttonhole of his tunic the black- and-white-striped ribbon and the black-and-white Maltese Cross; and now when I looked about me I saw that at least every third man of the present company likewise bore such a decoration. I knew the Iron Cross was given to a man only for gallant conduct in time of war at the peril of his life.

A desire to know a few details beset me. Humplmayer, the scholarly art dealer, was at my side. He had it too — the Iron Cross of the first class.

"You won that lately?" I began, touching the ribbon.

"Yes," he said; "only the other day I received it."

"And for what, might I ask?" said I, pressing my advantage.

"Oh," he said, "I've been out quite a bit in the night air lately. You know we Germans are desperately afraid of night air."

Later I learned — though not from Humplmayer — that he had for a period of weeks done scout work in an automobile in hostile territory; which meant that he rode in the darkness over the strange roads of an alien country, exposed every minute to the chances of ambuscade and barbed-wire mantraps and the like. I judge he earned his bauble.

I tried Von Theobald next — a lynx-faced, square-shouldered young man of the field guns. To him I put the question: "What have you done, now, to merit the bestowal of the Cross?"

"Well," he said — and his smile was born of embarrassment, I thought — "there was shooting once or twice, and I — well, I did not go away. I remained."

So after that I quit asking. But it was borne in upon me that if these gold-braceletted, monocled, wasp-waisted exquisites could go jauntily forth for flirtations with death as afore-time I had seen them going, then also they could be marvelously modest touching on their own performances in the event of their surviving those most fatal blandishments.

Pretty soon we told the Staff good night, according to the ritualistic Teutonic fashion, and took ourselves off to bed; for the next day was expected to be a full day, which it was indeed and verily. In the hotels of the town, such as they were, officers were billeted, four to the room and two to the bed; but the commandant enthroned at the Hotel de Ville looked after our comfort. He sent a soldier to nail a notice on the gate of one of the handsomest houses in Laon — a house whence the tenants had fled at the coming of the Germans — which notice gave warning to all whom it might concern that Captain Mannesmann, who carried the Kaiser's own pass, and four American Herren were, until further orders, domiciled there. And the soldier tarried to clean our boots while we slept and bring us warm shaving water in the morning.


German soldiers in a French city
photo by Ernst Vollbehr


Being thus provided for we tramped away through the empty winding streets to Number Five, Rue St. Cyr, which was a big, fine three-story mansion with its own garden and courtyard. Arriving there we drew lots for bedrooms. It fell to me to occupy one that evidently belonged to the master of the house. He must have run away in a hurry. His bathrobe still hung on a peg; his other pair of suspenders dangled over the footboard; and his shaving brush, with dried lather on it, was on the floor. I stepped on it as I got into bed and hurt my foot.

Goodness knows I was tired enough, but I lay awake a while thinking what changes in our journalistic fortunes thirty days had brought us. Five weeks before, bearing dangerously dubious credentials, we had trailed afoot — a suspicious squad — at the tail of the German columns, liable to be halted and locked up any minute by any fingerling of a sublieutenant who might be so minded to so serve us. In that stressful time a war correspondent was almost as popular, with the officialdom of the German army, as the Asiatic cholera would have been. The privates were our best friends then. Just one month, to the hour and the night, after we slept on straw as quasi-prisoners and under an armed guard in a schoolhouse belonging to the Prince de Caraman- Chimay, at Beaumont, we dined with the commandant of a German garrison in the castle of another prince of the same name — the Prince de Chimay — at the town of Chimay, set among the timbered preserves of the ancient house of Chimay. In Belgium, at the end of August, we fended and foraged for ourselves aboard a train of wounded and prisoners.

In northern France, at the end of September, Prince Reuss, German minister to Persia, but serving temporarily in the Red Cross Corps, had bestirred himself to find lodgings for us. And now, thanks to a newborn desire on the part of the Berlin War Office to let the press of America know something of the effects of their operations on the people of the invaded states, here we were, making free with a strange French gentleman's chateau and messing with an Over-General's Staff. Lying there, in another man's bed, I felt like a burglar and I slept like an oyster — the oyster being, as naturalists know, a most sound sleeper.

In the morning there was breakfast at the great table — the flies of the night before being still present — with General von Heeringen inquiring most earnestly as to how we had rested, and then going out to see to the day's killing. Before doing so, however, he detailed the competent Captain von Theobald and the efficient Lieutenant Giebel to serve for the day as our guides while we studied briefly the workings of the German war machine in the actual theater of war.

It was under their conductorship that about noon we aimed our automobiles for the spot where, in accordance with provisions worked out in advance, but until that moment unknown to us, we were to lunch with another general — Von Zwehl, of the reserves. We left the hill, where the town was, some four miles behind us, and when we had passed through two wrecked and silent villages and through three of those strips of park timber which Continentals call forests, we presently drew up and halted and dismounted where a thick fringe of undergrowth, following the line of an old and straggly thorn hedge, met the road at right angles on the comb of a small ridge commanding a view of the tablelands to the southward.

As we climbed up the banks we were aware of certain shelters which were like overgrown rabbit hutches cunningly contrived of wattled faggots and straw sheaves plaited together. They had tarpaulin interlinings and dug-out earthen floors covered over thickly with straw. These cozy small shacks hid themselves behind a screen of haws among the scattered trees which flanked an ancient fortification, abandoned many years before, I judged, by the grass-grown looks of it. Out in front, upon the open crest of the rise, staff officers were grouped about two telescopes mounted on tripods. An old man — you could tell by the hunch of his shoulders he was old — sat on a camp chair with his back to us and his face against the barrels of one of the telescopes. "With his long dust-colored coat and the lacings of violent scarlet upon his cap and his upturned collar he made you think of one of those big gray African parrots that talk so fluently and bite so viciously. But when, getting nimbly up, he turned to greet us and be introduced the resemblance vanished.

There was nothing of the parrot about him now, Here was a man part watch dog and part hawk. His cheeks and the flanges of his nostrils were thickly hair-lined with those little red-and-blue veins that are to be found in the texture of good American paper currency and in the faces of elderly men who have lived much out-of-doors during their lives. His jowls were heavy and pendulous like a mastiff's. His frontal bone came down low and straight so that under the flat arch of the brow his small, very bright agate-blue eyes looked out as from beneath half-closed shutters. His hair was clipped close to his scalp and the shape of his skull showed, rounded and bulgy; not the skull of a thinker, nor yet the skull of a creator, just the skull of a natural-born fighting man. The big, ridgy veins in the back of his neck stood out like window-cords from a close smocking of fine wrinkles. The neck itself was tanned to a brickdust red. A gnawed white mustache bristled on his upper lip. He was tall without seeming to be tall and broad without appearing broad, and he was old enough for a grandfather and spry enough for his own grandchild. You know the type. Our Civil War produced it in number.


general von Zwehl in the field with his sons
photo by Ernst Vollbehr


At his throat was the blue star of the Order of Merit, the very highest honor a German soldier can win, and below it on his breast the inevitable black-and-white striped ribbon. The one meant leadership and the other testified to individual valor in the teeth of danger. It was Excellency von Zwehl, commander of the Seventh Reserve Corps of the Western Army, the man who took Maubeuge from the French and English, and the man who in the same week held the imperiled German center against the French and English.

We lunched with the General and his staff on soup and sausages, with a rare and precious Belgian melon cut in thin, salmon-tinted crescents to follow for dessert. But before the lunch he took us and showed us, pointing this way and that with his little riding whip, the theater wherein he had done a thing which he valued more than the taking of a walled city. Indeed there was a certain elemental boy-like bearing of pride in him as he told us the story. If I am right in my dates the defenses of Maubeuge caved in under the batterings of the German Jack Johnsons on September sixth and the citadel surrendered September seventh. On the following day, the eighth, Von Zwehl got word that a sudden forward thrust of the Allies threatened the German center at Laon. Without waiting for orders he started to the relief. He had available only nine thousand troops, all reserves. As many more shortly re-enforced him. He marched this small army — small, that is, as armies go these Titan times — for four days and three nights. In the last twenty-four hours of marching the eighteen thousand covered more than forty English miles — in the rain. They came on this same plateau, the one which we now faced, at six o'clock of the morning of September thirteenth, and within an hour were engaged against double or triple their number. Von Zwehl held off the enemy until a strengthening force reached him, and then for three days, with his face to the river and his back to the hill, he fought.

Out of a total force of forty thousand men he lost eight thousand and more in killed and wounded, but he saved the German Army from being split asunder between its shoulder-blades. The enemy in proportion lost even more than he did, he thought. The General had no English; he told us all this in German, Von Theobald standing handily by to translate for him when our own scanty acquaintance with the language left us puzzled.

"We punished them well and they punished us well," he added. "We captured a group of thirty-one Scotchmen — all who were left out of a battalion of six hundred and fifty, and there was no commissioned officer left of that battalion. A sergeant surrendered them to my men. They fight very well against us — the Scotch."

Since then the groundswell of battle had swept forward, then backward, until now, as chance would have it, General von Zwehl once more had his headquarters on the identical spot where he had them four weeks before during his struggle to keep the German center from being pierced. Then it had been mainly infantry fighting at close range; now it was the labored pounding of heavy guns, the pushing ahead of trench- work preparatory to another pitched battle.

Considering what had taken place here less than a month before the plain immediately before us seemed peaceful enough.

Nature certainly works mighty fast to cover up what man at war does. True, the yellow- green meadowlands ahead of us were scuffed and scored minutely as though a myriad swine had rooted there for mast. The gouges of wheels and feet were at the roadside. Under the broken hedge-rows you saw a littering of weather-beaten French knapsacks and mired uniform coats, but that was all. New grass was springing up in the hoof tracks, and in a pecking, puny sort of way an effort was being made by certain French peasants within sight to get back to work in their wasted truck patches. Near at hand I counted three men and an old woman in the fields, bent over like worms. On the crest above them stood this gray veteran of two invasions of their land, aiming with his riding whip. The whip, I believe, signifies dominion, and sometimes brute force.

Beyond the tableland, and along the succession of gentle elevations which ringed it in to the south, the pounding of the field pieces went steadily on, while Von Zwehl lectured to us upon the congenial subject of what he here had done. Out yonder a matter of three or four English miles from us the big ones were busy for a fact. We could see the smoke clouds of each descending shell and the dust clouds of the explosion, and of course we could hear it. It never stopped for an instant, never abated for so much as a minute. It had been going on this way for weeks; it would surely go on this way for weeks yet to come. But so far as we could discern the General paid it no heed — he nor any of his staff. It was his business, but seemingly the business went well.

It was late that afternoon when we met our third general, and this meeting was quite by chance. Coming back from a spin down the lines we stopped in a small village called Amifontaine, to let our chauffeur, known affectionately as The Human Rabbit, tinker with a leaky tire valve or something. A young officer came up through the dusk to find out who we were, and, having found out, he invited us into the chief house of the place, and there in a stuffy little French parlor we were introduced in due form to General d'Elsa, the head of the Twelfth Reserve Corps, it turned out. Standing in a ceremonious ring, with filled glasses in our hands, about a table which bore a flary lamp and a bottle of bad native wine, we toasted him and he toasted us.

He was younger by ten years, I should say, than either Von Heeringen or Von Zwehl; too young, I judged, to have got his training in the blood-and-iron school of Bismarck and Von Moltke of which the other two must have been brag-scholars. Both of them, I think, were Prussians, but this general was a Saxon from the South. Indeed, as I now recall, he said his home in peace times was in Dresden. He seemed less simple of manner than they; they in turn lacked a certain flexibility and grace of bearing which were his. But two things in common they all three had and radiated from them — a superb efficiency in the trade at which they worked and a superb confidence in the tools with which they did the work. This was rather a small man, quick and supple in his movements. He had a limited command of English, and he appeared deeply desirous that we Americans should have a good opinion of the behavior of his troops and that we should say as much in what we wrote for our fellow Americans to read.


German soldiers in a French city
photo by Ernst Vollbehr


Coming out of the house to reenter our automobile I saw, across the small square of the town, which by now was quite in darkness, the flare of a camp kitchen. I wanted very much to examine one of these wheeled cook wagons at close range. An officer — the same who had first approached us to examine our papers — accompanied me to explain its workings and to point out the various compartments where the coal was kept and the fuel, and the two big sunken pots where the stew was cooked and the coffee was brewed. The thing proved to be cumbersome, which was German, but it was most complete in detail, and that, take it, was German too. While the officer rattled the steel lids the cook himself stood rigidly alongside, with his fingers touching the seams of his trousers. Seen by the glare of his own fire he seemed a clod, fit only to make soups and feed a fire box. But by that same flickery light I saw something. On the breast of his grease-spattered blouse dangled a black-and-white ribbon with a black-and-white Maltese cross fastened to it. I marveled that a company cook should wear the Iron Cross of the second class and I asked the captain about it. He laughed at the wonder that was evident in my tones.

"If you will look more closely," he said, "you will see that a good many of our cooks already have won the Iron Cross since this war began, and a good many others will yet win it — if they live. We have no braver men in our army than these fellows. They go into the trenches at least twice a day, under the hottest fire sometimes, to carry hot coffee and hot food to the soldiers who fight. A good many of them have already been killed.

"Only the other day — at La Fere I think it was — two of our cooks at daybreak went so far forward with their wagon that they were almost inside the enemy's lines. Sixteen bewildered Frenchmen who had got separated from their company came straggling through a little forest and walked right into them. The Frenchmen thought the cook wagon with its short smoke funnel and its steel fire box was a new kind of machine gun, and they threw down their guns and surrendered. The two cooks brought their sixteen prisoners back to our lines too, but first one of them stood guard over the Frenchmen while the other carried the breakfast coffee to the men who had been all night in the trenches. They are good men, those cooks!"

So at last I found out at second hand what one German soldier had done to merit the bestowal of the Iron Cross. But as we came away, I was in doubt on a certain point and, for that matter, am still in doubt on it: I am in doubt as to which of two men most fitly typified the spirit of the German Army in this war — the general feeding his men by thousands into the maw of destruction because it was an order, or the pot-wrestling private soldier, the camp cook, going to death with a coffee boiler in his hands — because it was an order.


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