'Belgium — The Rag Doll of Europe'
by Irvin S. Cobb
from his book 'Paths of Glory'


An American Journalist on a Trip Through Devasted Belgium

a German myth of the war - Belgian franc-tireurs


I HAVE told you already, how on the first battlefield of any consequence that was visited by our party I picked up, from where it lay in the track of the Allies' retreat, a child's rag doll. It was a grotesque thing of print cloth, with sawdust insides. I found it at a place where two roads met. Presumably some Belgian child, fleeing with her parents before the German advance, dropped it there, and later a wagon or perhaps a cannon came along and ran over it. The heavy wheel had mashed the head of it flat.

In impressions which I wrote when the memory of the incident was vivid in my mind, I said that, to me, this shabby little rag doll typified Belgium. Since then I have seen many sights. Some were dramatic and some were pathetic, and nearly all were stirring; but I still recall quite clearly the little picture of the forks of the Belgian road, with a background of trampled fields and sacked houses, and just at my feet the doll, with its head crushed in and the sawdust spilled out in the rut the ongoing army had made. And always now, when I think of this, I find myself thinking of Belgium.

They have called her the cockpit of Europe. She is too. In wars that were neither of her making nor her choosing she has borne the hardest blows — a poor little buffer state thrust in between great and truculent neighbors. To strike at one another they must strike Belgium. By the accident of geography and the caprice of boundary lines she has always been the anvil for their hammers. Jemmapes and Waterloo, to cite two especially conspicuous examples among great Continental battles, were fought on her soil. Indeed, there is scarcely an inch of her for the possession of which men of breeds not her own — Austrians and Spaniards, Hanoverians and Hollanders, Englishmen and Prussians, Saxons and Frenchmen — have not contended. These others won the victories or lost them, kept the spoils or gave them up; she wore the scars of the grudges when the grudges were settled. So there is a reason for calling her the cockpit of the nations; but, as I said just now, I shall think of her as Europe's rag doll — a thing to be clouted and kicked about; to be crushed under the hoofs and the heels; to be bled and despoiled and ravished.

Thinking of her so, I do not mean by this comparison to reflect in any wise on the courage of her people. It will be a long time before the rest of the world forgets the resistance her soldiers made against overbrimming odds, or the fortitude with which the families of those soldiers faced a condition too lamentable for description.

Unsolicited, so competent an authority as Julius Caesar once gave the Belgians a testimonial for their courage. If I recall the commentaries aright, he said they were the most valorous of all the tribes of Gaul. Those who come afterward to set down the tale and tally of the Great War will record that through the centuries the Belgians retained their ancient valor.

First and last, I had rather exceptional opportunities for viewing the travail of Belgium. I was in Brussels before it surrendered and after it surrendered. I was in Louvain when the Germans entered it and I was there again after the Germans had wrecked it. I trailed the original army of invasion from Brussels southward to the French border, starting at the tail of the column and reaching the head of it before, with my companions, I was arrested and returned by another route across Belgium to German soil.

Within three weeks thereafter I started on a ten-day tour which carried me through Liege, Namur, Huy, Dinant and Chimay, and brought me back by Mons, Brussels, Louvain and Tirlemont, with a side trip to the trenches before Antwerp — roughly, a kite- shaped journey which comprehended practically all the scope of active operations among the contending armies prior to the time when the struggle for western Flanders began. Finally, just after Antwerp fell, I skirted the northern frontiers of Belgium and watched the refugees pouring across the borders into Holland. I was four times in Liege and three times in Brussels, and any number of times I crossed and recrossed my own earlier trails. I traveled afoot; in a railroad train, with other prisoners; in a taxi-cab, which we lost; in a butcher's cart, which we gave away; in an open carriage, which deserted us; and in an automobile, which vanished.

I saw how the populace behaved while their little army was yet intact, offering gallant resistance to the Germans; I saw how they behaved when the German wedge split that army into broken fragments and the Germans were among them, holding dominion with the bayonet and the bullet; and finally, six weeks later, I saw how they behaved when substantially all their country, excluding a strip of seaboard, had been reduced to the state of a conquered fief held and ruled by force of arms.

By turns I saw them determined, desperate, despairing, half rebellious, half subdued; resigned with the resignation of sheer helplessness, which I take it is a different thing from the resignation of sheer hopelessness. It is no very pleasant sight to see a country flayed and quartered like a bloody carcass in a meat shop; but an even less pleasant thing than that is to see a country's heart broken. And Belgium to-day is a country with a broken heart.

These lines were written with intent to be printed early in January. By that time Christmas was over and done with. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in lieu of the Christmas carols, the cannon had rung its brazen Christmas message across the trenches, making mockery of the words: "On earth peace, good will toward men." On our side of the ocean the fine spirit of charity and graciousness which comes to most of us at Christmastime and keeps Christmas from becoming a thoroughly commercialized institution had begun to abate somewhat of its fervor.

To ourselves we were saying, many of us: "We have done enough for the poor, whom we have with us always." But not always do we have with us a land famous for its fecundity that is now at grips with famine; a land that once was light-hearted, but where now you never hear anyone laugh aloud; a land that is half a waste and half a captive province; a land that cannot find bread to feed its hungry mouths, yet is called on to pay a tribute heavy enough to bankrupt it even in normal times; a land whose best manhood is dead on the battleground or rusting in military prisons; whose women and children by the countless thousands are either homeless wanderers thrust forth on the bounty of strangers in strange places, or else are helpless, hungry paupers sitting with idle hands in their desolated homes — and that land is Belgium.

Having been an eyewitness to the causes that begot this condition and to the condition itself, I feel it my duty to tell the story as I know it. I am trying to tell it dispassionately, without prejudice for any side and without hysteria. I concede the same to be a difficult undertaking.

Some space back I wrote that I had been able to find in Belgium no direct proof of the mutilations, the torturings and other barbarities which were charged against the Germans by the Belgians. Though fully a dozen seasoned journalists, both English and American, have agreed with me, saying that their experiences in this regard had been the same as mine; and though I said in the same breath that I could not find in Germany any direct evidence of the brutalities charged against the Belgians by the Germans, the prior statement was accepted by some persons as proof that my sympathy for the Belgians had been chilled through association with the Germans. No such thing. But what I desire now is the opportunity to say this: In the face of the present plight of this little country we need not look for individual atrocities. Belgium herself is the capsheaf atrocity of the war. No matter what our nationality, our race or our sentiments may be, none of us can get away from that.

Going south into France from the German border city of Aix-la-Chapelle, our automobile carried us down the Meuse. On the eastern bank, which mainly we followed during the first six hours of riding, there were craggy cliffs, covered with forests, which at intervals were cleft by deep ravines, where small farms clung to the sides of the steep hills. On the opposite shore cultivated lands extended from the limit of one's vision down almost to the water. There they met a continuous chain of manufacturing plants, now all idle, which stretched along the river shore from end to end of the valley. Culm and flume and stack and kiln succeeded one another unendingly, but no smoke issued from any chimney; and we noted that already weeds were springing up in the quarry yards and about the mouths of the coal pits and the doorways of the empty factories.

Considering that the Germans had to fight their way along the Meuse, driving back the French and Belgians before they trusted their columns to enter the narrow defiles, there was in the physical aspect of things no great amount of damage visible. Stagnation, though, lay like a blight on what had been one of the busiest and most productive industrial districts in all of Europe. Except that trains ran by endlessly, bearing wounded men north, and fresh troops and fresh supplies south, the river shore was empty and silent.

In twenty miles of running we passed just two groups of busy men. At one place a gang of German soldiers were strengthening the temporary supports of a railroad bridge which had been blown up by the retiring forces and immediately repaired by the invaders. In another place a company of reserves were recharging cases of artillery shells which had been sent back from the front in carload lots. There were horses here — a whole troop of draft horses which had been worn out in that relentless, heartbreaking labor into which war sooner or later resolves itself. The drove had been shipped back this far to be rested and cured up, or to be shot in the event that they were past mending.

I had seen perhaps a hundred thousand head of horses, drawing cannon and wagons, and serving as mounts for officers in the first drive of the Germans toward Paris, and had marveled at the uniformly prime condition of the teams. Presumably these sorry crow-baits, which drooped and limped about the barren railroad yards at the back of the siding where the shell loaders squatted, had been whole-skinned and sound of wind and joint in early August.

Two months of service had turned them into gaunt wrecks. Their ribs stuck through their hollow sides. Their hoofs were broken; their hocks were swelled enormously; and, worst of all, there were great raw wounds on their shoulders and backs, where the collars and saddles had worn through hide and flesh to the bones. From that time on, the numbers of mistreated, worn-out horses we encountered in transit back from the front increased steadily. Finally we ceased to notice them at all.

I should explain that the description I have given of the prevalent idleness along the Meuse applied to the towns and to the scattered workingmen's villages that flanked all or nearly all the outlying and comparatively isolated factories. In the fields and the truck patches the farming folks — women and old men usually, with here and there children — bestirred themselves to get the moldered and mildewed remnants of their summer- ripened crops under cover before the hard frost came.

Invariably we found this state of affairs to. exist wherever we went in the districts of France and of Belgium that had been fought over and which were now occupied by the Germans. Woodlands and cleared places, where engagements had taken place, would, within a month or six weeks thereafter, show astonishingly few traces of the violence and death that had violated the peace of the countryside. New grass would be growing in the wheel ruts of the guns and on the sides of the trenches in which infantry had screened itself. As though they took pattern by the example of Nature, the peasants would be afield, gathering what remained of their harvests — even plowing and harrowing the ground for new sowing. On the very edge of the battle front we saw them so engaged, seemingly paying less heed to the danger of chance shell-fire than did the soldiers who passed and repassed where they toiled.


one of many gutted Belgian villages and towns - Visé


In the towns almost always the situation was different. The people who lived in those towns seemed like so many victims of a universal torpor. They had lost even their sense of inborn curiosity regarding the passing stranger. Probably from force of habit, the shopkeepers stayed behind their counters; but between them and the few customers who came there was little of the vivacious chatter one has learned to associate with dealings among the dwellers in most Continental communities. We passed through village after village and town after town, to find in each the same picture — men and women in mute clusters about the doorways and in the little squares, who barely turned their heads as the automobile flashed by. Once in a while we caught the sound of a brisker tread on the cobbled street; but when we looked, nine times in ten we saw that the walker was a soldier of the German garrison quartered there to keep the population quiet and to help hold the line of communication.

I think, though, this cankered apathy has its merciful compensations. After the first shock and panic of war there appears to descend on all who have a share in it, whether active or passive, a kind of numbed indifference as to danger; a kind of callousness as to consequences, which I find it difficult to define in words, but which, nevertheless, impresses itself on the observer's mind as a definite and tangible fact. The soldier gets it, and it enables him to endure his own discomforts and sufferings, and the discomforts and sufferings of his comrades, without visible mental strain. The civic populace get it, and, as soon as they have been readjusted to the altered conditions forced on them by the presence of war, they become merely sluggish, dulled spectators of the great and moving events going on about them. The nurses and the surgeons get it, or else they would go mad from the horrors that surround them. The wounded get it, and cease from complaint and lamenting.

It is as though all the nerve ends in every human body were burnt blunt in the first hot gush of war. Even the casual eyewitness gets it. We got it ourselves; and not until we had quit the zone of hostilities did we shake it off. Indeed, we did not try. It made for subsequent sanity to carry for the time a drugged and stupefied imagination.


from a 1914 Dutch magazine cover - a street in Dinant


Barring only Huy, where there had been some sharp street fighting, as attested by shelled buildings and sandbag barricades yet resting on housetops and in window sills, we encountered in the first stage of our journey no considerable evidences of havoc until late in the afternoon, when we reached Dinant. I do not understand why the contemporary chronicles of events did not give more space to Dinant at the time of its destruction, and why they have not given it more space subsequently.

I presume the reason lies in the fact that the same terrible week which included the burning of Louvain included also the burning of Dinant; and in the world-wide cry of protestation and distress which arose with the smoke of the greater calamity the smaller voice of grief for little ruined Dinant was almost lost. Yet, area considered, no place in Belgium that I have visited — and this does not exclude Louvain — suffered such wholesale demolition as Dinant.

Before war began, the town had something less than eight thousand inhabitants. When I got there it had less than four thousand, by the best available estimates. Of those four thousand more than twelve hundred were then without food from day to day except such as the Germans gave them. There were almost no able-bodied male adults left. Some had fled, some were behind bars as prisoners of the Germans, and a great many were dead. Estimates of the number of male inhabitants who had been killed by the graycoats for offenses against the inflexible code set up by the Germans in eastern Belgium varied. A cautious native whispered that nine hundred of his fellow townsmen were "up there" — by that meaning the trenches on the hills back of the town. A German officer, newly arrived on the spot and apparently sincere in his efforts to alleviate the misery of the survivors, told us that, judging by what data he had been able to gather, between four and six hundred men and youths of Dinant had fallen in the house-to-house conflicts between Germans and civilians, or in the wholesale executions which followed the subjugation of the place and the capture of such ununiformed belligerents as were left.

In this instance subjugation meant annihilation. The lower part of the town, where the well-to-do classes lived, was almost unscathed. Casual shell-fire in the two engagements with the French that preceded the taking of Dinant had smashed some cornices and shattered some windows, but nothing worse befell. The lower half, made up mainly of the little plaster-and-stone houses of working people, was gone, extinguished, obliterated. It lay in scorched and crumbled waste; and in it, as we rode through, I saw, excluding soldiers, just two living creatures. Two children, both little girls, were playing at housekeeping on some stone steps under a doorway where there was no door, using bits of wreckage for furniture. We stopped a moment to watch them. They had small china dolls.

The river, flowing placidly along between the artificial boundaries of its stone quays, and the strange formation of cliffs, rising at the back to the height of hundreds of feet, were as they had been. Soldiers paddled on the water in skiffs and thousands of ravens flickered about the pinnacles of the rocks, but between river and cliff there was nothing but ruination — the graveyard of the homes of three thousand people.

Yes, it was the graveyard not alone of their homes but of their prosperity and their hopes and their ambitions and their aspirations — the graveyard of everything human beings count worth having. This was worse than Hervé or Battice or Visé, or any of the leveled towns we had seen. Taken on the basis of comparative size, it was worse even than Louvain, as we discovered later. It was worse than anything I ever saw — worse than anything I ever shall see, I think.


two views of the destruction in Dinant


These hollow shells about us were like the picked cadavers of houses. Ends of burnt and broken rafters stood up like ribs. Empty window openings stared at us like the eye sockets in skulls. It was not a town upon which we looked, but the dead and rotting bones of a town.

Just over the ragged line that marked the lowermost limits of the destructive fury of the conquerors, and inside the section which remained intact, we traversed a narrow street called — most appropriately, I thought — the Street of Paul the Penitent, and passed a little house on the shutters of which was written, in chalked German script, these words: "A Grossmutter" — grandmother — "ninety-six years old lives here. Don't disturb her." Other houses along here bore the familiar line, written by German soldiers who had been billeted in them: "Good people. Leave them alone!"

The people who enjoyed the protection of these public testimonials were visible, a few of them. They were nearly all women and children. They stood in their shallow doorways as our automobile went by bearing four Americans, two German officers and the orderly of one of the officers — for we had picked up a couple of chance passengers in Huy — and a German chauffeur. As we interpreted their looks, they had no hate for the Germans. I take it the weight of their woe was so heavy on them that they had no room in their souls for anything else.

Just beyond Dinant, at Anseremme, a beautiful little village at the mouth of a tiny river, where artists used to come to paint pictures and sick folks to breathe the tonic balsam of the hills, we got rooms for the night in a smart, clean tavern. Here was quartered a captain of cavalry, who found time — so brisk was he and so high-spirited — to welcome us to the best the place afforded, to help set the table for our belated supper, and to keep on terms of jovial yet punctilious amiability with the woman proprietor and her good-looking daughters; also, to require his troopers to pay the women, in salutes and spoken thanks, for every small office performed.

The husband of the older woman and the husband of one of the daughters were then serving the Belgian colors, assuming that they had not been killed or caught; but between them and this German captain a perfect understanding had been arrived at. When the head of the house fixed the prices she meant to charge us for our accommodations, he spoke up and suggested that the rate was scarcely high enough; and also, since her regular patrons had been driven away at the beginning of the war, he advised us that sizable tips on our leaving would probably be appreciated.

Next morning we rose from a breakfast — the meat part of it having been furnished from the German commissary — to find twenty lancers exercising their horses in a lovely little natural arena, walled by hills, just below the small eminence whereon the house stood. It was like a scene from a Wild West exhibition at home, except that these German horsemen lacked the dash of our cowpunchers. Watching the show from a back garden, we stood waist deep in flowers, and the captain's orderly, when he came to tell us our automobile was ready, had a huge peony stuck in a buttonhole of his blouse. I caught a peep at another soldier, who was flirting with a personable Flemish scullery maid behind the protection of the kitchen wall. The proprietress and her daughters stood at the door to wave us good-by and to wish us, with apparent sincerity, a safe journey down into France, and a safe return.

To drop from this cozy, peaceful place into the town of Dinant again was to drop from a small earthly paradise into a small earthly hell. Somewhere near the middle of the little perdition our cavalry captain pointed to a shell of a house.

"A fortnight ago," he told us, "we found a French soldier in that house — or under it, rather. He had been there four weeks, hiding in the basement. He took some food with him or found some there; at any rate, he managed to live four weeks. He was blind, and nearly deaf, too, when we found out where he was and dug him out — but he is still alive."

One of us said we should like to have a look at a man who had undergone such an entombment.

"No, you wouldn't," said the captain; "for he is no very pleasant sight. He is a slobbering idiot."


a view of the Grand Place in Dinant


In the Grand Place, near the shell-riddled Church of Notre Dame — built by the Bishops in the thirteenth century, restored by the Belgian Government in the nineteenth, and destroyed by the German guns in the twentieth — a long queue of women wound past the doorway of a building where German noncommissioned officers handed out to each applicant a big loaf of black soldier bread.

"Oh, yes; we feed the poor devils," the German commandant, an elderly, scholarly looking man of the rank of major, said to us when he had come up to be introduced. " When our troops entered this town the men of the lower classes took up arms and fired at our soldiers; so the soldiers burned all their houses and shot all the men who came out of those houses.

"All this occurred before I was sent here. Had I been the commander of the troops, I should have shot them without mercy. It is our law for war times, and these Belgian civilians must be taught that they cannot fire on German soldiers and not pay for it with their lives and their homes. With the women and children, however, the case is different. On my own responsibility I am feeding the destitute. Every day I give away to these people between twelve hundred and fifteen hundred loaves of bread; and I give to some who are particularly needy rations of tea and sugar and coffee and rice. Also, I sell to the butcher shops fresh and salt meat from our military stores at cost, requiring only that they, in turn, shall sell it at no more than a fair profit. So long as I am stationed here I shall do this, for I cannot let them starve before my eyes. I myself have children."


the ruined bridge over the Meuse


It was like escaping from a pesthouse to cross the one bridge of Dinant that remained standing on its piers, and go winding down the lovely valley, overtaking and passing many German wagon trains, the stout, middle-aged soldier drivers of which drowsed on their seats; passing also one marching battalion of foot-reserves, who, their officers concurring, broke from the ranks to beg newspapers and cigars from us. On the mountain ash the bright red berries dangled in clumps like Christmas bells, and some of the leaves of the elm still clung to their boughs; so that the wide yellow road was dappled like a wild-cat's back with black splotches of shadow. Only when we curved through some village that had been the scene of a skirmish or a reprisal did the roofless shells and the toppled walls of the houses, standing gaunt and ugly in the sharp sunlight, make us realize that we were still in the war tracks.

As nearly as we could tell from our brief scrutiny a great change had come over the dwellers in southern Belgium. In August they had been buoyant and confident of the ultimate outcome and very proud of the behavior of their little army. Even when the Germans burst through the frontier defenses and descended on them in innumerable swarms they were, for the most part, not daunted by those evidences of the invaders' numerical superiority and of their magnificent equipment. The more there were of the Germans the fewer of them there would be to come back when the Allies, over the French border, fell on them. This we conceived to be the mental attitude of the villagers and the peasants; but now they were different. The difference showed in all their outward aspects — in their gaits; in their drooped shoulders and half-averted faces; and, most of all, in their eyes. They had felt the weight of the armed hand, and they must have heard the boast, filtering down from the officers to the men, and from the men to the native populace, that, having taken their country, the Germans meant to keep it; that Belgium, ceasing to be Belgium, would henceforth be set down on the map as a part of Greater Prussia.

Seeing them now, I began to understand how an enforced docility may reduce a whole people to the level of dazed, unresisting automatons. Yet a national spirit is harder to kill than a national boundary — so the students of these things say. A little flash of flaming hate from the dead ashes of things; a quick, darting glance of defiance; a hissed word from a seemingly subdued man or woman; a shrill, hostile whoop from a ragged youngster behind a hedge — things such as these showed us that the courage of the Belgians was not dead. It had been crushed to the ground, but it had not been torn up by the roots. The roots went down too far. The under dog had secret dreams of the day to come, when he should not be underneath, but on top.

Even had there been no abandoned custom-houses to convince us of it, we should have known when we crossed from southern Belgium into northern France; for in France the proportion of houses that had suffered in punitive attacks was, compared with Belgium, as one to ten. Understand, I am speaking of houses that had been deliberately burned in punishment, and not of houses that stood in the way of the cannon and the rapid-fire guns, and so underwent partial or complete destruction as the result of an accidental yet inevitable and unavoidable process. Of these last France, to the square mile, could offer as lamentably large a showing as Belgium; but buildings that presented indubitable signs of having been fired with torches rather than with shells were few.

Explaining this and applauding it, Germans of high rank said it presented direct and confirmatory proof of their claim that sheer wanton reprisals were practically unknown in their system of warfare. Perhaps I can best set forth the German attitude in this regard by quoting a general whom we interviewed on the subject:

"We do not destroy for the pleasure it gives us. We destroy only when it is necessary. The French rural populace are more rational, more tractable and much less turbulent than the Belgians. To a much greater degree than the Belgians they have refrained from acts against our men that would call for severe retaliatory measures on our part. Consequently we have spared the houses and respected the property of the French noncombatants."

Personally I had a theory of my own. So far as our observations went, the people living immediately on both sides of the line were an interrelated people, using the same speech and being much alike in temperament, manners and mode of conduct. I reached the private conclusion that, because of the chorus of protest that arose from all the neutral countries, and particularly from the United States, against the severities visited on Belgium in August and September, the word went forth to the German forces in the field that the scheme of punishment for offenders who violated the field code should be somewhat softened and relaxed. However, that is merely a personal theory. I may be absolutely wrong about it. The German general who interpreted the meaning of the situation may have been absolutely right about it. Certainly the physical testimony was on his side.

Also, it seemed to me, the psychology of the people — particularly of the womenfolk — in northern France was not that of their neighboors over the frontier. In a trade way the small shopkeepers here faced ruin; the Belgians already had been ruined. The Frenchwomen, whose sons and brothers and husbands and fathers were at the front, walked in the shadow of a great fear, as you might tell by a look into the face of any one of them. They were as peppercorns between the upper millstone and the nether, and the sound of the crunching was always in their ears, even though their turn to be ground up had not yet come.

For the Belgian women, however, the worst that might befall had already happened to them; their souls could be wrung no more; they had no terror of the future, since the past had been so terrible and the present was a living desolation of all they counted worth while. You might say the Frenchwomen dreaded what the Belgians endured. The refilled cup was at the lips of France; Belgium had drained it dry.

Yet in both countries the women generally manifested the same steadfast and silent patience. They said little; but their eyes asked questions. In the French towns we saw how bravely they strove to carry on their common affairs of life, which were so sadly shaken and distorted out of all normality by the earthquake of war.

For currency they had small French coins and strange German coins, and in some places futile-looking, little green-and-white slips, issued by the municipality in denominations of one franc and two francs and five francs, and redeemable in hard specie "three months after the declaration of peace." For wares to sell they had what remained of their depleted stocks; and for customers, their friends and neighbors, who looked forward to commercial ruin, which each day brought nearer to them all. Outwardly they were placid enough, but it was not the placidity of content. It bespoke rather a dumb, disciplined acceptance by those who have had fatalism literally thrust on them as a doctrine to be practiced.

Looking back on it I can recall just one woman I saw in France who maintained an unquenchable blitheness of spirit. She was the little woman who managed the small cafe in Maubeuge where we ate our meals. Perhaps her frugal French mind rejoiced that business remained so good, for many officers dined at her table and, by Continental standards, paid her well and abundantly for what she fed them; but I think a better reason lay in the fact that she had within her an innate buoyancy which nothing — not even war — could daunt.

She was one of those women who remain trig and chic though they be slovens by instinct. Her blouse was never clean, but she wore it with an air. Her skirt testified that skillets spit grease; but in it she somehow looked as trim as a trout fly. Even the hole in her stocking gave her piquancy; and she had wonderful black hair, which probably had not been combed properly for a month, and big, crackling black eyes. They told us that one day, a week or two before we came, she had been particularly cheerful — so cheerful that one of her patrons was moved to inquire the cause of it.

"Oh," she said, "I am quite content with life to-day. I have word that my husband is a prisoner. Now he is out of danger and you Germans will have to feed him — and he is a great eater! If you starve him then I shall starve you."

At breakfast Captain Mannesmann, who was with us, asked her in his best French for more butter. She paused in her quick, bird-like movements — for she was waitress, cook, cashier, manager and owner, all rolled into one — and cocking a saucy, unkempt head at him asked that the question be repeated. This time, in his efforts to be understood, he stretched his words out so that unwittingly his voice took on rather a whining tone.

"Well, don't cry about it!" she snapped. "I'll see what I can do."

Returning from the battle front our itinerary included a long stretch of the great road that runs between Paris and Brussels, a road much favored formerly by auto tourists, but now used almost altogether for military purposes. Considering that we traversed a corner of the stage of one of the greatest battles thus far waged — Mons — and that this battle had taken place but a few weeks before, there were remarkably few evidences remaining of it.

With added force we remarked a condition that had given us material for wonderment in our earlier journeyings. Though a retreating army and an advancing army, both enormous in size, had lately poured through the country, the houses, the farms and the towns were almost undamaged.

Certain contrasts which took on a heightened emphasis by reason of their brutal abruptness, abounded all over Belgium. You passed at a step, as it were, from a district of complete and irreparable destruction to one wherein all things were orderly and ordered, and much as they should be in peaceful times. Were it not for the stagnated towns and the depression that berode the people, one would hardly know these areas had lately been overrun by hostile soldiers and now groaned under enormous tithes. In isolated instances the depression had begun to lift. Certain breeds of the polyglot Flemish race have, it appears, an almost unkillable resilience of temper; but in a town a mile away all those whom we met would be like dead people who walked.

Also, there were many graves. If we passed a long ridged mound of clay in a field, unmarked except by the piled-up clods, we knew that at this spot many had fought and many had fallen; but if, as occurred constantly, one separate mound or a little row of separate mounds was at the roadside, that probably meant a small skirmish. Such a grave almost always was marked by a little wooden cross, with a name penciled on it; and often the comrades of the dead man had hung his cap on the upright of the cross. If it were a French cap or a Belgian the weather would have worn it to a faded blue-and- red wisp of worsted. The German helmets stood the exposure better. They retained their shape.

On a cross I saw one helmet with a bullet hole right through the center of it in front. Sometimes there would be flowers on the mound, faded garlands of field poppies and wreaths of withered wild vines; and by the presence of these we could tell that the dead man's mates had time and opportunity to accord him greater honor than usually is be- stowed on a soldier killed in an advance or during a retreat.

Mons was reached soon, looking much as I imagine Mons must always have looked; and then, after a few stretching and weary leagues, Brussels — to my mind the prettiest and smartest of the capital cities of Europe, not excluding Paris. I first saw Brussels when it was as gay as carnival — that was in mid-August; and, though Liege had fallen and Namur was falling, and the German legions were eating up the miles as they hurried forward through the dust and smoke of their own making, Brussels still floated her flags, built her toy barricades, and wore a gay face to mask the panic clutching at her nerves.

Getting back four days later I found her beginning to rally from the shock of the invasion. Her people, relieved to find that the enemy did not mean to mistreat noncombatants who obeyed his code of laws, were going about their affairs in such odd hours as they could spare from watching the unending gray freshet that roared and pounded through their streets. The flags were down and the counterfeit light-heartedness was gone; but essentially she was the same Brussels.


German troops on review in Brussels


Coming now, however, six weeks later, I found a city that had been transformed out of her own customary image by captivity and hunger and hard-curbed resentment. The pulse of her life seemed hardly to beat at all. She lay in a coma, flashing up feverishly sometimes at false rumors of German repulses to the southward.

Only the day before we arrived a wild story got abroad among the starvelings in the poorer quarters that the Russians had taken Berlin and had swept across Prussia and were now pushing forward, with an irresistible army, to relieve Brussels. So thousands of the deluded populace went to a bridge on the eastern outskirts of the town to catch the first glimpse of the victorious oncoming Russians; and there they stayed until nightfall, watching and hoping and — what was more pitiable — believing.

From what I saw of him I judged that the military governor of Brussels, Major Bayer, was not only a diplomat but a kindly and an engaging gentleman. Certainly he was wrestling most manfully, and I thought tactfully, with a difficult and a dangerous situation. For one thing, he was keeping his soldiers out of sight as much as possible without relaxing his grip on the community. He did this, he said, to reduce the chances of friction between his men and the people; for friction might mean a spark and a spark might mean a conflagration, and that would mean another and greater Louvain. We could easily understand that small things might readily grow into great and serious troubles. Even the most docile-minded man would be apt to resent in the wearer of a hated uniform what he might excuse as over-officiousness or love of petty authority were the offender a policeman of his own nationality. Brooding over their own misfortunes had worn the nerves of these captives to the very quick.

In any event, be the outcome of this war what it may, I do not believe the Belgians can ever be molded, either by kindness or by sternness, into a tractable vassal race. German civilization I concede to be a magnificent thing — for a German; but it seems to press on an alien neck as a galling yoke. Belgium under Berlin rule would be, I am sure, Alsace and Lorraine all over again on a larger scale, and an unhappier one. She would never, in my humble opinion, be a star in the Prussian constellation, but always a raw sore in the Prussian side.

In Major Bayer's office I saw the major stamp an order that turned over to the acting burgomaster ten thousand bags of flour for distribution among the more needy citizens. We were encouraged to believe that this was by way of a free gift from the German Government. It may have been made without payment or promise of payment. In regard to that I cannot say positively; but this was the inference we drew from the statements of the German officers who took part in the proceeding. As for the acting burgomaster, he stood through the scene silent and inscrutable, saying nothing at all. Possibly he did not understand; the conversation — or that part of it which concerned us — was carried on exclusively in English. His face, as he bowed to accept the certified warrant for the flour, gave us no hint of his mental processes.

Major Bayer claimed a professional kinship with those of us who were newspaper men, as he was the head of the Boy Scout movement in Germany and edited the official organ of the Boy Scouts. He had a squad of his scouts on messenger duty at his headquarters — smart, alert-looking youngsters. They seemed to me to be much more competent in their department than were the important-appearing German Secret Service agents who infested the building. The Germans may make first-rate spies — assuredly their system of espionage was well organized before the war broke out — but I do not think they are conspicuous successes as detectives: their methods are so delightfully translucent.

Major Bayer had been one of the foremost German officers to set foot on Belgian soil after the severance of friendly relations between the two countries. "I believe," he said, "that I heard the first shot fired in this war. It came from a clump of trees within half an hour after our advance guard crossed the boundary south of Aachen, and it wounded the leg of a captain who commanded a company of scouts at the head of the column. Our skirmishers surrounded the woods and beat the thickets, and presently they brought forth the man who had fired the shot. He was sixty years old, and he was a civilian. Under the laws of war we shot him on the spot. So you see probably the first shot fired in this war was fired at us by a franc-tireur. By his act he had forfeited his life, but personally I felt sorry for him; for I believe, like many of his fellow countrymen who afterward committed such offenses, he was ignorant of the military indefensibility of his attack on us and did not realize what the consequences would be.

"I am sure, though, that the severity with which we punished these offenses at the outset was really merciful, for only by killing the civilians who fired on us, and by burning their houses, could we bring home to thousands of others the lesson that if they wished to fight us they must enlist in their own army and come against us in uniforms, as soldiers."

Within the same hour we were introduced to Privy Councilor Otto von Falke, an Austrian by birth, but now, after long service in Cologne and Berlin, promoted to be Director of Industrial Arts for Prussia. He had been sent, he explained, by order of his Kaiser, to superintend the removal of historic works of art from endangered churches and other buildings, and turn them over to the curator of the Royal Belgian Gallery, at Brussels, for storage in the vaults of the museum until such time as peace had been restored and they might be returned with safety to their original positions.

"So you see, gentlemen," said Professor von Falke, "the Germans are not despoiling Belgium of its wealth of pictures and statues. We are taking pains to preserve and perpetuate them. They belong to Belgium — not to us; and we have no desire to take them away. Certainly we are not vandals who would wantonly destroy the splendid things of art, as our enemies have claimed."

He was plainly a sincere man and he was much in love with his work; that, too, was easy to see. Afterward, though, the thought came to us that, if Belgium was to become a German state by right of seizure and conquest, he was saving these masterpieces of Vandyke and Rubens, not for Belgium, but for the greater glory of the Greater Empire.

However, that was beside the mark. What at the moment seemed to us of more conse- quence even than rescuing holy pictures was that all about us were sundry hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who did not need pictures, but food. You had only to look at them in the streets to know that their bellies felt the grind of hunger. Famine knocked at half the doors in that city of Brussels, and we sat in the glittering cafe of the Palace Hotel and talked of pictures!

We called on Minister Brand Whitlock, whom we had not seen — McCutcheon and I — since the Sunday afternoon a month and a half before when we two left his official residence in a hired livery rig for a ride to Waterloo, which ride extended over a thousand miles, one way and another, and carried us into three of the warring countries. Mention of this call gives me opportunity to say in parenthesis, so to speak, that if ever a man in acutely critical circumstances kept his head, and did a big job in a big way, and reflected credit at a thousand angles on himself and the country that had the honor to be served by him, that man was Brand Whitlock. To him, a citizen of another nation, the people of forlorn Brussels probably owe more than to any man of their own race.

Grass was sprouting from between the cobbles of the streets in the populous residential districts through which we passed on the way from the American Ministry to our next stopping place. Viewed at a short distance each vista of empty street had a wavy green beard on its face; and by this one might judge to what a low ebb the commerce and the pleasure of the city had fallen since its occupation. There was one small square where goats and geese might have been pastured. It looked as though weeks might have passed since wagon wheels had rolled over those stones; and the town folks whose houses fronted on the little square lounged in their doorways, with idle hands thrust into their pockets, regarding us with lackluster, indifferent eyes. It may have been fancy, but I thought nearly all of them looked griped of frame and that their faces seemed drawn. Seeing them so, you would have said that, with them, nothing mattered any more.

We saw a good many people, though, who were taking for the moment an acute and uneasy interest in their own affairs, at the big city prison, where we spent half an hour or so. Here, in a high-walled courtyard, we found upward of two hundred offenders against small civic regulations, serving sentences ranging in length from seven days to thirty. Perhaps one in three was a German soldier, and probably one in ten was a woman or a girl; the rest were male citizens of all ages, sizes and social grading, a few Congo negroes being mixed in. Most of the time they stayed in their cells, in solitary confinement; but on certain afternoons they might take the air and see visitors in the bleak and barren inclosure where they were now herded together.

By common rumor in Brussels the Germans were shooting all persons caught secretly peddling copies of French or English papers or unauthorized and clandestine Belgian papers; since only orthodox German papers were permitted to be sold. The Germans themselves took no steps to deny these stories, but in the prison we found a large collection of forlorn newsdealers. Having been captured with the forbidden wares in their possession, they had mysteriously vanished from the ken of their friends; but they had not been "put against the wall," as they say in Europe. They had been given fourteen days apiece, with a promise of six months if they transgressed a second time.

One little man, with the longest and sleekest and silkiest black whiskers I have seen in many a day, recognized us as Americans and drew near to tell us his troubles in a confidential whisper. By his bleached indoor complexion and his manners anyone would have known him for a pastry cook or a hairdresser. A hairdresser he was; and in a better day than this, not far remote, had conducted a fashionable establishment on a fashionable boulevard.

"Ah, I am in one very sad state," he said in his twisted English. "I start for Ostend to take winter garments for my two small daughters, which are there at school, and they arrest me — these Germans — and keep me two days in a cowshed, and then bring me back here and put me here in this so-terrible-a-place for two weeks; and all for nothing at all."

"Didn't you have a pass to go through the lines?" I asked. "Perhaps that was it."

"I have already a pass," he said; "but when they search me they find in my pockets letters which I am taking to people in Ostend. I do not know what is in those letters. People ask me to take them to friends of theirs in Ostend and I consent, not knowing it is against the rule. They read these letters — the Germans — and say I am carrying news to their enemies; and they become very enrage at me and lock me up. Never again will I take letters for anybody anywhere.

"Oh, sirs, if you could but see the food we eat here! For dinner we have a stew — oh, such a stew! — and for breakfast only bread and coffee who is not coffee!" And with both hands he combed his whiskers in a despair that was comic and yet pitiful.

He was standing there, still combing, as we came away.


the German presence in Brussels

left : a supply train in the Grand Place
right : a German church service outdoors in Brussels


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