'German Wounded in France and Belgium'
by Irwin S. Cobb
from his book - 'Paths of Glory' 1915


Those Yellow Pine Boxes

German wounded arrive per train from France


IT was late in the short afternoon, and getting close on to twilight, when we got back into the town. Except for the soldiers there was little life stirring in the twisting streets. There was a funeral or so in progress. It seemed to us that always, no matter where we stopped, in whatsoever town or at whatsoever hour, some dead soldier was being put away. Still, I suppose we shouldn't have felt any surprise at that. By now half of Europe was one great funeral. Part of it was on crutches and part of it was in the graveyard and the rest of it was in the field.

Daily in these towns back behind the firing lines a certain percentage of the invalided and the injured, who had been brought thus far before their condition became actually serious, would die; and twice daily, or oftener, the dead would be buried with military honors.

So naturally we were eyewitnesses to a great many of these funerals. Somehow they impressed me more than the sight of dead men being hurriedly shoveled under ground on the battle front where they had fallen. Perhaps it was the consciousness that those who had these formal, separate burials were men who came alive out of the fighting, and who, even after being stricken, had a chance for life and then lost it. Perhaps it was the small show of ceremony and ritual which marked each one — the firing squad, the clergyman in his robes, the tramping escort — that left so enduring an impress upon my mind. I did not try to analyze the reasons; but I know my companions felt as I did.

I remember quite distinctly the very first of these funerals that I witnessed. Possibly I remember it with such distinctness because it was the first. On our way to the advance positions of the Germans we had come as far as Chimay, which is an old Belgian town just over the frontier from France. I was sitting on a bench just outside the doorway of a parochial school conducted by nuns, which had been taken over by the conquerors and converted into a temporary receiving hospital for men who were too seriously wounded to stand the journey up into Germany. All the surgeons on duty here were Germans, but the nursing force was about equally divided between nuns and Lutheran deaconesses who had been brought overland for this duty. Also there were several volunteer nurses — the wife of an officer, a wealthy widow from Dusseldorf and a school-teacher from Coblenz among them. Catholic and Protestant, Belgian and French and German, they all labored together, cheerfully and earnestly doing drudgery of the most exacting, the most unpleasant sorts.

One of the patronesses of the hospital, who was also its manager ex officio, had just left with a soldier chauffeur for a guard and a slightly wounded major for an escort. She was starting on a three-hundred-mile automobile run through a half subdued and dangerous country, meaning to visit base hospitals along the German frontier until she found a supply of anti-tetanus serum. Lockjaw, developing from seemingly trivial wounds in foot or hand, had already killed six men at Chimay within a week. Four more were dying of the same disease. So, since no able-bodied men could be spared from the overworked staffs of the lazarets, she was going for a stock of the serum which might save still other victims. She meant to travel day and night, and if a bullet didn't stop her and if the automobile didn't go through a temporary bridge she would be back, she thought, within forty-eight hours. She had already made several trips of the sort upon similar missions. Once her car had been fired at and once it had been wrecked, but she was going again. She was from near Cologne, the wife of a rich manufacturer now serving as a captain of reserves. She hadn't heard from him in four weeks. She didn't know whether he still lived. She hoped he lived, she told us with simple fortitude, but of course these times one never knew.

It was just before sundown. The nuns had gone upstairs to their little chapel for evening services. Through an open window of the chapel just above my head their voices, as they chanted the responses between the sonorous Latin phrases of the priest who had come to lead them in their devotions, floated out in clear sweet snatches, like the songs of vesper sparrows. Behind me, in a paved courtyard, were perhaps twenty wounded men lying on cots. They had been brought out of the building and put in the sunshine. They were on the way to recovery; at least most of them were. I sat facing a triangular- shaped square, which was flanked on one of its faces by a row of shuttered private houses and on another by the principal church of the town, a fifteenth-century structure with outdoor shrines snuggled up under its eaves. Except for the chanting of the nuns and the braggadocio booming of a big cock-pigeon, which had flown down from the church tower to forage for spilt grain almost under my feet, the place was quiet. It was so quiet that when a little column of men turned into the head of the street which wound past the front of the church and off to the left, I heard the measured tramping of their feet upon the stony roadway fully a minute before they came in sight. I was wondering what that rhythmic thumping meant, when one of the nursing sisters came and closed the high wooden door at my back, shutting off the view of the wounded men.

There appeared a little procession, headed by a priest in his robes and two altar-boys. At the heels of these three were six soldiers bearing upon their shoulders a wooden box painted a glaring yellow; and so narrow was the box and so shallow-looking, that on the instant the thought came to me that the poor clay inclosed therein must feel cramped in such scant quarters. Upon the top of the box, at its widest, highest point, rested a wreath of red flowers, a clumsy, spraddly wreath from which the red blossoms threatened to shake loose. Even at a distance of some rods I could tell that a man's inexpert fingers must have fashioned it.

Upon the shoulders of the bearers the box swayed and jolted.

Following it came, first, three uniformed officers, two German nurses and two surgeons from another hospital, as I subsequently learned; and following them half a company of soldiers bearing their rifles and wearing side arms. As the small cortege reached a point opposite us an officer snapped an order and everybody halted, and the gun-butts of the company came down with a smashing abruptness upon the cobbles. At that moment two or three roughly clad civilians issued from a doorway near by. Being Belgians they had small cause to love the Germans, but they stopped in their tracks and pulled off their caps. To pay the tribute of a bared head to the dead, even to the unknown dead, is in these Catholic countries of Europe as much a part of a man's rule of conduct as his religion is.

The priest who led the line turned my way inquiringly. He did not have to wait long for what was to come, nor did I. Another gate farther along in the nunnery wall opened and out came six more soldiers, bearing another of these narrow-shouldered coffins, and accompanied by a couple of nurses, an officer and an assistant surgeon. At sight of them the soldiers brought their pieces up to a salute, and held the posture rigidly until the second dead man in his yellow box had joined the company of the first dead man in his.

Just before this happened, though, one of the nurses of the nunnery hospital did a thing which I shall never forget. She must have seen that the first coffin had flowers upon it, and in the same instant realized that the coffin in whose occupant she had a more direct interest was bare. So she left the straggling line and came running back. The wall streamed with woodbine, very glorious in its autumnal flamings. She snatched a trailer of the red and yellow leaves down from where it clung, and as she hurried back her hands worked with magic haste, making it into a wreath. She reached the second squad of bearers and put her wreath upon the lid of the box, and then sought her place with the other nurses. The guns went up with a snap upon the shoulders of the company. The soldiers' feet thudded down all together upon the stones, and with the priest reciting his office the procession passed out of sight, going toward the burial ground at the back of the town. Presently, when the shadows were thickening into gloom and the angelus bells were ringing in the church, I heard, a long way off, the rattle of the rifles as the soldiers fired goodnight volleys over the graves of their dead comrades.

On the next day, at Hirson, which was another of our stopping points on the journey to the front, we saw the joint funeral of seven men leaving the hospital where they had died during the preceding twelve hours, and I shan't forget that picture either. There was a vista bounded by a stretch of one of those unutterably bleak backways of a small and shabby French town. The rutted street twisted along between small gray plaster houses, with ugly, unnecessary gable-ends, which faced the road at wrong angles. Small groups of towns-people stood against the walls to watch.

There was also a handful of idling soldiers who watched from the gateway of the house where they were billeted.

Seven times the bearers entered the hospital door, and each time as they reappeared, bringing one of the narrow, gaudy, yellow boxes, the officers lined up at the door would salute and the soldiers in double lines at the opposite side of the road would present arms, and then, as the box was lifted upon the wagon waiting to receive it, would smash their guns down on the bouldered road with a crash. When the job of bringing forth the dead was done the wagon stood loaded pretty nearly to capacity. Four of the boxes rested crosswise upon the flat wagon-bed and the other three were racked lengthwise on top of them. Here, too, was a priest in his robes, and here were two altar boys who straggled, so that as the procession started the priest was moved to break off his chanting long enough to chide his small attendants and wave them back into proper alignment. With the officers, the nurses and the surgeons all marching afoot marched also three bearded civilians in frock coats, having the air about them of village dignitaries. From their presence in such company we deduced that one of the seven silent travelers on the wagon must be a French soldier, or else that the Germans had seen fit to require the attendance of local functionaries at the burial of dead Germans.

As the cortege — I suppose you might call it that — went by where I stood with my friends, I saw that upon the sides of the coffins names were lettered in big, straggly black letters. I read two of the names — Werner was one, Vogel was the other. Somehow I felt an acuter personal interest in Vogel and Werner than in the other five whose names I could not read.

Wherever we stopped in Belgium or in France or in Germany these soldiers' funerals were things of daily, almost of hourly occurrence. And in Maubeuge on this evening, even though dusk had fallen, two of the inevitable yellow boxes, mounted upon a two- wheeled cart, were going to the burying ground. We figured the cemetery men would fill the graves by lantern light; and knowing something of their hours of employment we imagined that with this job disposed of they would probably turn to and dig graves by night, making them ready against the needs of the following morning. The new graves always were ready. They were made in advance, and still there were rarely enough of them, no matter how long or how hard the diggers kept at their work. At Aix-la-Chapelle, for example, in the principal cemetery the sexton's men dug twenty new graves every morning. By evening there would be twenty shaped mounds of clay where the twenty holes had been. The crop of the dead was the one sure crop upon which embattled Europe might count. That harvest could not fail the warring nations, however scanty other yields might be.


German soldier's graves


In the towns in occupied territory the cemeteries were the only actively and constantly busy spots to be found, except the hospitals. Every schoolhouse was a hospital; indeed I think there can be no schoolhouse in the zone of actual hostilities that has not served such a purpose. In their altered aspects we came to know these schoolhouses mighty well. We would see the wounded going in on stretchers and the dead coming out in boxes. We would see how the blackboards, still scrawled over perhaps with the chalked sums of lessons which never were finished, now bore pasted-on charts dealing in nurses' and surgeons' cipher-manual, with the bodily plights of the men in the cots and on the mattresses beneath. We would see classrooms where plaster casts and globe maps and dusty textbooks had been cast aside in heaps to make room on desktops and shelves for drugs and bandages and surgical appliances. We would see the rows of hooks intended originally for the caps and umbrellas of little people; but now from each hook dangled the ripped, bloodied garments of a soldier — gray for a German, brown- tan for an Englishman, blue-and-red for a Frenchman or a Belgian. By the German rule a wounded man's uniform must be brought back with him from the place where he fell and kept handily near him, with tags on it, to prove its proper identity, and there it must stay until its owner needs it again — if ever he needs it again.

We would see these things, and we would wonder if these schoolhouses could ever shake off the scents and the stains and the memories of these present grim visitations — wonder if children would ever frolic any more in the courtyards where the ambulances stood now with red drops trickling down from their beds upon the gravel. But that, on our part, was mere morbidness born of the sights we saw. Children forget even more quickly than their elders forget, and we knew, from our own experience, how quickly the populace of a French or Flemish community could rally back to a colorable counterfeit of their old sprightliness, once the immediate burdens of affliction and captivity had been lifted from off them.

From a jumbled confusion of recollection of these schoolhouse-hospitals sundry incidental pictures stick out in my mind as I write this article. I can shut my eyes and visualize the German I saw in the little parish school building in the abandoned hamlet of Colligis near by the River Aisne. He was in a room with a dozen others, all suffering from chest wounds. He had been pierced through both lungs with a bullet, and to keep him from choking to death the attendants had tied him in a half erect posture. A sort of ham- mocklike sling passed under his arms, and a rope ran from it to a hook in a wall and was knotted fast to the hook. He swung there, neither sitting nor lying, fighting for the breath of life, with an unspeakable misery looking out from his eyes; and he was too far spent to lift a hand to brush away the flies that swarmed upon his face and his lips and upon his bare, throbbing throat. The flies dappled the faces of his fellow sufferers with loathsome black dots; they literally masked his. I preserve a memory which is just as vivid of certain things I saw in a big institution in Laon. Although in German hands, and nominally under German control, the building was given over entirely to crippled and ailing French prisoners. These patients were minded and fed by their own people and attended by captured French surgeons. In our tour of the place I saw only two men wearing the German gray. One was the armed sentry who stood at the gate to see that no recovering inmate slipped out, and the other was a German surgeon-general who was making his daily round of inspection of the hospitals and had brought us along with him. Of the native contingent the person who appeared to be in direct charge was a handsome, elderly lady, tenderly solicitous of the frowziest Turco in the wards and exquisitely polite, with a frozen politeness, to the German officer. When he saluted her she bowed to him deeply and ceremoniously and silently. I never thought until then that a bow could be so profoundly executed and yet so icily cold. It was a lesson in congealed manners.

As we were leaving the room a nun serving as a nurse hailed the German and told him one of her charges was threatening to die, not because of his wound, but because he had lost heart and believed himself to be dying.

"Where is he?" asked the German.

"Yonder," she said, indicating a bundled-up figure on a pallet near the door. A drawn, hopeless face of a half-grown boy showed from the huddle of blankets. The surgeon- general cast a quick look at the swathed form and then spoke in an undertone to a French regimental surgeon on duty in the room. Together the two approached the lad.

"My son," said the German to him in French, "I am told you do not feel so well to-day."

The boy-soldier whispered an answer and waggled his head despondently. The German put his hand on the youth's forehead.

"My son," he said, "listen to me. You are not going to die — I promise you that you shall not die. My colleague here" — he indicated the French doctor — "stands ready to make you the same promise. If you won't believe a German, surely you will take your own countryman's professional word for it," and he smiled a little smile under his gray mustache. "Between us we are going to make you well and send you, when this war is over, back to your mother. But you must help us; you must help us by being brave and confident. Is it not so, doctor?" he added, again addressing the French physician, and the Frenchman nodded to show it was so and sat down alongside the youngster to comfort him further.

As we left the room the German surgeon turned, and looking round I saw that once again he saluted the patrician French lady, and this time as she bowed the ice was all melted from her bearing. She must have witnessed the little byplay; perhaps she had a son of her own in service. There were mighty few mothers in France last fall who did not have sons in service.

Yet one of the few really humorous recollections of this war that I preserve had to do with a hospital too; but this hospital was in England and we visited it on our way home to America. We went — two of us — in the company of Lord Northcliffe, down into Surrey, to spend a day with old Lord Roberts. Within three weeks thereafter Lord Roberts was dead where no doubt he would have willed to die — at the front in France, with the sound of the guns in his ears, guarded in his last moments by the Ghurkas and the Sikhs of his beloved Indian contingent. But on this day of our visit to him we found him a hale, kindly gentleman of eighty-two who showed us his marvelous collection of firearms and Oriental relics and the field guns, all historic guns by the way, which he kept upon the terraces of his mansion house, and who told us, among other things, that in his opinion our own Stonewall Jackson was perhaps the greatest natural military genius the world had ever produced. Leaving his house we stopped, on our return to London, at a hospital for soldiers in the grounds of Ascot Race Course scarcely two miles from Lord Roberts' place. The refreshment booths and the other rooms at the back and underside of the five-shilling stand had been thrown together, except the barber's shop, which was being converted into an operating chamber; and, what with its tiled walls and high sloped ceiling and glass front, the place made a first-rate hospital.

It contained beds for fifty men; but on this day there were less than twenty sick and crippled Tommies convalescing here. They had been brought out of France, out of wet and cold and filth, with hurried dressings on their hurts; and now they were in this bright, sweet, wholesome place, with soft beds under them and clean linen on their bodies, and flowers and dainties on the tables that stood alongside them, and the gentlefolk of the neighborhood to mind them as volunteer nurses.

There were professional nurses, of course; but, under them, the younger women of the wealthy families of this corner of Surrey were serving; and mighty pretty they all looked, too, in their crisp blue-and-white uniforms, with their arm badges and their caps, and their big aprons buttoned round their slim, athletic young bodies. I judge there were about three amateur nurses to each patient. Yet you could not rightly call them amateurs either; each of them had taken a short course in nursing, it seemed, and was amply competent to perform many of the duties a regular nurse must know. Lady Aileen Roberts was with us during our tour of the hospital. As a daily visitor and patroness she spent much of her time here and she knew most of the inmates by name. She halted alongside one bed to ask its occupant how he felt. He had been returned from the front suffering from pneumonia.

He was an Irishman. Before he answered her he cast a quick look about the long hall. Afternoon tea was just being served, consisting, besides tea, of homemade strawberry jam and lettuce sandwiches made of crisp fresh bread, with plenty of butter; and certain elderly ladies had just arrived, bringing with them, among other contributions, sheaves of flowers and a dogcart loaded with hothouse fruit and a dozen loaves of plumcake, which last were still hot from the oven and which radiated a mouth-watering aroma as a footman bore them in behind his mistress. The patient looked at all these and he sniffed; and a grin split his face and an Irish twinkle came into his eyes.

"Thank you, me lady, for askin'," he said; "but I'm very much afeared I'm gettin' better."


a German soldier's burial in enemy soil


We might safely assume that the hospitals and the graveyard of Maubeuge would be busy places that evening, thereby offering strong contrasts to the rest of the town. But I should add that we found two other busy spots, too: the railroad station — where the trains bringing wounded men continually shuttled past — and the house where the commandant of the garrison had his headquarters. In the latter place, as guests of Major von Abercron, we met at dinner that night and again after dinner a strangely mixed company. We met many officers and the pretty American wife of an officer, Frau Elsie von, Heinrich, late of Jersey City, who had made an adventurous trip in a motor ambulance from Germany to see her husband before he went to the front, and who sent regards by us to scores of people in her old home whose names I have forgotten. We met also a civilian guest of the commandant, who introduced himself as August Blankhertz and who turned out to be a distinguished big-game hunter and gentleman aeronaut. With Major von Abercron for a mate he sailed from St. Louis in the great balloon race for the James Gordon Bennett Cup. They came down in the Canadian woods and nearly died of hunger and exposure before they found a lumber camp. Their balloon was called the Germania. There was another civilian, a member of the German secret-service staff, wearing the Norfolk jacket and the green Alpine hat and on a cord about his neck the big gold token of authority which invariably mark a representative of this branch of the German espionage bureau; and he was wearing likewise that transparent air of mystery which seemed always to go with the followers of his ingenious profession.

During the evening the mayor of Maubeuge came, a bearded, melancholy gentleman, to confer with the commandant regarding a clash between a German under-officer and a household of his constituents. Orderlies and attendants bustled in and out, and somebody played Viennese waltz songs on a piano, and altogether there was quite a gay little party in the parlor of this handsome house which the Germans had commandeered for the use of their garrison staff.

At early bedtime, when we stepped out of the door of the lit-up mansion into the street, it was as though we had stepped into a far-off country. Except for the tramp of a sentry's hobbed boots over the sidewalks and the challenging call of another sentry round the corner the town was as silent as a town of tombs. All the people who remained in this place had closed their forlorn shops where barren shelves and emptied showcases testified to the state of trade; and they had shut themselves up in their houses away from sight of the invaders. We could guess what their thoughts must be. Their industries were paralyzed, and their liberties were curtailed, and every other house was a breached and worthless shell. Among ourselves we debated as we walked along to the squalid tavern where we had been quartered, which of the spectacles we had that day seen most fitly typified the fruitage of war — the shattered, haunted forts lying now in the moonlight beyond the town, or the brooding conquered, half-destroyed town itself. I guess, if it comes to that, they both typified it.


a Red Cross train


The Red Glutton

AS we went along next day through the town of Maubeuge we heard singing; and singing was a most rare thing to be hearing in this town. In a country where no one smiles any more who belongs in that country, singing is not a thing which you would naturally expect to hear. So we turned off of our appointed route.

There was a small wine shop at the prow of a triangle of narrow streets. It had been a wine shop. It was now a beer shop. There had been a French proprietor; he had a German partner now. It had been only a few weeks — you could not as yet measure the interval of time in terms of months — since the Germans came and sat themselves down before Maubeuge and blew its defenses flat with their 42-centimeter earthquakes and marched in and took it. It had been only these few weeks; but already the Germanizing brand of the conqueror was seared deep in the galled flanks of this typically French community. The town-hall clock was made to tick German time, which varied by an even hour from French time. Tacked upon the door of the little cafe where we ate our meals was a card setting forth, with painful German particularity, the tariff which might properly be charged for food and for lodging and drink and what not; and it was done in German-Gothic script, all very angular and precise; and it was signed by His Excellency, the German commandant; and its prices were predicated on German logic and the estimated depth of a German wallet. You might read a newspaper printed in German characters, if so minded; but none printed in French, whether so minded or not.

So when we entered in at the door of the little French wine shop where the three streets met, to find out who within had heart of grace to sing ‘0 Strassburg, 0 Strassburg’, so lustily, lo and behold, it had been magically transformed into a German beer shop. It was, as we presently learned, the only beer shop in all of Maubeuge, and the reason for that was this: No sooner had the Germans cleared and opened the roads back across Belgium to their own frontiers than an enterprising tradesman of the Rhein country, who somehow had escaped military service, loaded many kegs of good German beer upon trucks and brought his precious cargoes overland a hundred miles and more southward. Certainly he could not have moved the lager caravan without the consent and aid of the Berlin war office. For all I know to the contrary he may have been financed in that competent quarter. That same morning I had seen a field weather station, mounted on an automobile, standing in front of our lodging place just off the square. It was going to the front to make and compile meteorological reports. A general staff who provided weather offices on wheels and printing offices on wheels — this last for the setting up and striking off of small proclamations and orders — might very well have bethought themselves that the soldier in the field would be all the fitter for the job before him if stayed with the familiar malts of the Vaterland. Believe me, I wouldn't put it past them.

Anyway, having safely reached Maubeuge, the far-seeing Rheinishman effected a working understanding with a native publican, which was probably a good thing for both, seeing that one had a stock of goods and a ready-made trade but no place to set up business, and that the other owned a shop, but had lost his trade and his stock-in-trade likewise. These two, the little, affable German and the tall, grave Frenchman, stood now behind their counter drawing off mugs of Pilsener as fast as their four hands could move. Their patrons, their most vocal and boisterous patrons, were a company of musketeers who had marched in from the north that afternoon. As a rule the new levies went down into France on troop trains, but this company was part of a draft which for some reason came afoot.

Without exception they were young men, husky and hearty and inspired with a beefish joviality at having found a place where they could ease their feet, and rest their legs, and slake their week-old thirst upon their own soothing brews. Being German they expressed their gratefulness in song. We had difficulty getting into the place, so completely was it filled. Men sat in the window ledges, and in the few chairs that were available, and even in the fireplace, and on the ends of the bar, clunking their heels against the wooden baseboards. The others stood in such close order they could hardly clear their elbows to lift their glasses. The air was choky with a blended smell derived from dust and worn boot leather and spilt essences of hops and healthy, unwashed, sweaty bodies. On a chair in a corner stood a tall, tired and happy youth who beat time for the singing with an empty mug and between beats nourished himself on drafts from a filled mug which he held in his other hand. With us was a German officer. He was a captain of reserves and a person of considerable wealth. He shoved his way to the bar and laid down upon its sloppy surface two gold coins and said something to a petty officer who was directing the distribution of the refreshments.

The noncom. hammered for silence and, when he got it, announced that the Herr Hauptmann had donated twenty marks' worth of beer, all present being invited to cooperate in drinking it up, which they did, but first gave three cheers for the captain and three more for his American friends and afterward, while the replenished mugs radiated in crockery waves from the bar to the back walls, sang for us a song which, so far as the air was concerned, sounded amazingly like unto Every Little Movement Has a Meaning All Its Own. Their weariness was quite fallen away from them; they were like schoolboys on a frolic. Indeed, I think a good many of them were schoolboys.

As we came out a private who stood in the doorway spoke to us in fair English. He had never been in America, but he had a brother living in East St. Louis and he wanted to know if any of us knew his brother. This was a common experience with us. Every third German soldier we met had a brother or a sister or somebody in America. This soldier could not have been more than eighteen years; the down on his cheeks was like corn silk. He told us he and his comrades were very glad to be going forward where there would be fighting. They had had no luck yet. There had been no fighting where they had been. I remembered afterward that luck was the word he used.

We went back to the main street and for a distance the roar of their volleying chorus followed us. Men and women stood at the doors of the houses along the way. They were silent and idle. Idleness and silence seemed always to have fallen as grim legacies upon the civilian populace of these captured towns; but the look upon their faces as they listened to the soldiers' voices was not hard to read. Their town was pierced by cannonballs where it was not scarified with fire; there was sorrow and the abundant cause for sorrow in every house; commerce was dead and credit was killed; and round the next turning their enemy sang his drinking song. I judge that the thrifty Frenchman who went partner with the German stranger in the beer traffic lost popularity that day among his fellow townsmen.

We were bound for the railway station, which the Germans already had rechristened Bahnhof. Word had been brought to us that trains of wounded men and prisoners were due in the course of the afternoon from the front, and more especially from the right wing; and in this prospect we scented a story to be written. To reach the station we crossed the river Sambre, over a damaged bridge, and passed beneath the arched passageway of the citadel which the great Vauban built for the still greater Louis XIV, thinking, no doubt, when he built it, that it would always be potent to keep out any foe, however strong. Next to its stupid massiveness what most impressed us this day was its utter uselessness as a protection. The station stood just beyond the walls, with a park at one side of it, but the park had become a timber deadfall. At the approach of the enemy hundreds of splendid trees had been felled to clear the way for gunfire from the inner defenses in the event that the Germans got by the outer circle of fortresses. After the Germans took the forts, though, the town surrendered, so all this destruction had been futile. There were acres of ragged stumps and, between the stumps, jungles of overlapping trunks and interlacing boughs from which the dead and dying leaves shook off in showers. One of our party, who knew something of forestry, estimated that these trees were about forty years old.

"I suppose," he added speculatively, "that when this war ends these people will replant their trees. Then in another forty years or so another war will come and they will chop them all down again. On the whole I'm rather glad I don't live on this continent."

The trains which were expected had not begun to arrive yet, so with two companions I sat on a bench at the back of the station, waiting. Facing us was a line of houses. One, the corner house, was a big black char. It had caught fire during the shelling and burned quite down. Its neighbors were intact, except for shattered chimneys and smashed doors and riddled windows. The concussion of a big gunfire had shivered every window in this quarter of town. There being no sufficient stock of glass with which to replace the broken panes, and no way of bringing in fresh supplies, the owners of the damaged buildings had patched the holes with bits of planking filched from more complete ruins near by. Of course there were other reasons, too, if one stopped to sum them up: Few would have the money to buy fresh glass, even if there was any fresh glass to buy, and the local glaziers — such of them as survived — would be serving the colors. All France had gone to war and at this time of writing had not come back, except in dribbling streams of wounded and prisoners.

These ragged boards, sparingly nailed across the window sockets, gave the houses the air of wearing masks and of squinting at us through narrow eye slits. The railroad station was windowless, too, like all the buildings round about, but nobody had closed the openings here, and it gaped emptily in fifty places, and the raw, gusty winds of a North European fall searched through it.

In this immediate neighborhood few of the citizens were to be seen. Even those houses which still were humanly habitable appeared to be untenanted; only soldiers were about, and not so very many of them. A hundred yards up the tracks, on a siding, a squad of men with a derrick and crane were hoisting captured French field guns upon flat cars to be taken to Berlin and exhibited as spoils of conquest for the benefit of the stay-at- homes. A row of these cannons, perhaps fifty in all, were ranked alongside awaiting loading and transportation. Except for the agonized whine of the tackle-blocks and the buzzing of the flies the place where we sat was pretty quiet. There were a million flies, and there seemed to be a billion. You wouldn't have thought, unless you had been there to see for yourself, that there were so many flies in the world. By the time this was printed the cold weather had cured Europe of its fly plague, but during the first three months I know that the track of war was absolutely sown with these vermin. Even after a night of hard frost they would be as thick as ever at midday — as thick and as clinging and as nasty. Go into any close, ill-aired place and no matter what else you might smell, you smelled flies too.

As I sit and look back on what I myself have seen of it, this war seems to me to have been not so much a sight as a stench. Everything which makes for human happiness and human usefulness it has destroyed. What it has bred, along with misery and pain and fatted burying grounds, is a vast and loathsome stench and a universe of flies.

The smells and the flies; they were here in this railroad station in sickening profusion.

I call it a railroad station, although it had lost its functions as such weeks before. The only trains which ran now were run by the Germans for strictly German purposes, and so the station had become a victualing point for troops going south to the fighting and a way hospital for sick and wounded coming back from the fighting. What, in better days than these, had been the lunch room was a place for the redressing of hurts. Its high counters, which once held sandwiches and tarts and wine bottles, were piled with snowdrifts of medicated cotton and rolls of lint and buckets of antiseptic washes and drug vials. The ticket booth was an improvised pharmacy. Spare medical supplies filled the room where formerly fussy customs officers examined the luggage of travelers coming out of Belgium into France. Just beyond the platform a wooden booth, with no front to it, had been knocked together out of rough planking, and relays of cooks, with greasy aprons over their soiled gray uniforms, made vast caldrons of stews — always stews — and brewed so-called coffee by the gallon against the coming of those who would need it. The stuff was sure to be needed, all of it and more too. So they cooked and cooked unceasingly and never stopped to wipe a pan or clean a spoon.

At our backs was the waiting room for first-class passengers, but no passengers of any class came to it any more, and so by common consent it was a sort of rest room for the Red Cross men, who mostly were Germans, but with a few captured Frenchmen among them, still wearing their French uniforms. There were three or four French military surgeons — prisoners, to be sure, but going and coming pretty much as they pleased. The tacit arrangement was that the Germans should succor Germans and that the Frenchmen should minister to their own disabled countrymen among the prisoners going north, but in a time of stress — and that meant every time a train came in from the south or west — both nationalities mingled together and served, without regard for the color of the coat worn by those whom they served.

Probably from the day it was put up this station had never been really and entirely clean. Judged by American standards Continental railway stations are rarely ever clean, even when conditions are normal. Now that conditions were anything but normal, this Maubeuge station was incredibly and incurably filthy. No doubt the German nursing sisters who were brought here tried at first, with their German love for orderliness, to keep the interior reasonably tidy; but they had been swamped by more important tasks. For two weeks now the wounded had been passing through by the thousands and the tens of thousands daily. So between trains the women dropped into chairs or down upon cots and took their rest in snatches. But their fingers didn't rest. Always their hands were busy with the making of bandages and the fluffing of lint.

By bits I learned something about three of the women who served on the so-called day shift, which meant that they worked from early morning until long after midnight. One was a titled woman who had volunteered for this duty. She was beyond middle age, plainly in poor health herself and everlastingly on the verge of collapse from weakness and exhaustion. Her will kept her on her feet. The second was a professional nurse from one of the university towns — from Bonn, I think. She called herself Sister Bartholomew, for the German nurses who go to war take other names than their own, just as nuns do. She was a beautiful woman, tall and strong and round-faced, with big, fine gray eyes. Her energy had no limits. She ran rather than walked. She had a smile for every maimed man who was brought to her, but when the man had been treated, and had limped away or had been carried away, I saw her often wringing her hands and sobbing over the utter horror of it all. Then another sufferer would appear and she would wipe the tears off her cheeks and get to work again. The third — so an assistant surgeon confided to us — was the mistress of an officer at the front, a prostitute of the Berlin sidewalks, who enrolled for hospital work when her lover went to the front. She Was a tall, dark, handsome girl, who looked to be more Spaniard than German, and she was graceful and lithe even in the exceedingly shapeless costume of blue print that she wore. She was less deft than either of her associates but very willing and eager. As between the three — the noblewoman, the working woman and the woman of the street — the medical officials in charge made no distinction whatsoever. Why should they? In this sisterhood of mercy they all three stood upon the same common ground. I never knew that slop jars were noble things until I saw women in these military lazarets bearing them in their arms; then to me they became as altar vessels.

Lacking women to do it, the head surgeon had intrusted the task of clearing away the dirt to certain men. A sorry job they made of it. For accumulated nastiness that waiting room was an Augean stable and the two soldiers who dawdled about in it with brooms lacked woefully in the qualities of Hercules. Putting a broom in a man's hands is the best argument in favor of woman's suffrage that I know of, anyhow. A third man who helped at chores in the transformed lunch room had gathered up and piled together in a heap upon the ground near us a bushel or so of used bandages — grim reminders left behind after the last train went by — and he had touched a match to the heap in an effort to get rid of it by fire. By reason of what was upon them the clothes burned slowly, sending up a smudge of acrid smoke to mingle with smells of carbolic acid and iodo-form, and the scent of boiling food, and of things infinitely less pleasant than these.

Presently a train rolled in and we crossed through the building to the trackside to watch what would follow. Already we had seen a sufficiency of such trains; we knew before it came what it would be like: In front the dumpy locomotive, with a soldier engineer in the cab; then two or three box cars of prisoners, with the doors locked and armed guards riding upon the roofs; then two or three shabby, misused passenger coaches, containing injured officers and sometimes injured common soldiers, too; and then, stretching off down the rails, a long string of box cars, each of which would be bedded with straw and would contain for furniture a few rough wooden benches ranging from side to side. And each car would contain ten or fifteen or twenty, or even a greater number, of sick and crippled men.

Those who could sit were upon the hard benches, elbow to elbow, packed snugly in. Those who were too weak to sit sprawled upon the straw and often had barely room in which to turn over, so closely were they bestowed. It had been days since they had started back from the field hospitals where they had had their first-aid treatment. They had moved by sluggish stages with long halts in between. Always the wounded must wait upon the sidings while the troop trains from home sped down the cleared main line to the smoking front; that was the merciless but necessary rule. The man who got himself crippled became an obstacle to further progress, a drag upon the wheels of the machine; whereas the man who was yet whole and fit was the man whom the generals wanted. So the fresh grist for the mill, the raw material, if you will, was expedited upon its way to the hoppers; that which already had been ground up was relatively of the smallest consequence.

Because of this law, which might not be broken or amended, these wounded men would, perforce, spend several days aboard train before they could expect to reach the base hospitals upon German soil, Maubeuge being at considerably less than midway of the distance between starting point and probable destination. Altogether the trip might last a week or even two weeks — a trip that ordinarily would have lasted less than twelve hours. Through it these men, who were messed and mangled in every imaginable fashion, would wallow in the dirty matted straw, with nothing except that thin layer of covering between them and the car floors that jolted and jerked beneath them. We knew it and they knew it, and there was nothing to be done. Their wounds would fester and be hot with fever. Their clotted bandages would clot still more and grow stiffer and harder with each dragging hour. Those who lacked overcoats and blankets — and some there were who lacked both — would half freeze at night. For food they would have slops dished up for them at such stopping places as this present one, and they would slake their thirst on water drawn from contaminated wayside wells and be glad of the chance. Gangrene would come, and blood poison, and all manner of corruption. Tetanus would assuredly claim its toll. Indeed, these horrors were already at work among them. I do not tell it to sicken my reader, but because I think I should tell it that he may have a fuller conception of what this fashionable institution of war means — we could smell this train as we could smell all the trains which followed after it, when it was yet fifty yards away from us.

Be it remembered, furthermore, that no surgeon accompanied this afflicted living freightage, that not even a qualified nurse traveled with it. According to the classifying processes of those in authority on the battle lines these men were lightly wounded men, and it was presumed that while en route they would be competent to minister to themselves and to one another. Under the grading system employed by the chief surgeons a man, who was still all in one piece and who probably would not break apart in transit, was designated as being lightly wounded. This statement is no attempt upon my part to indulge in levity concerning the most frightful situation I have encountered in nearly twenty years of active newspaper work; it is the sober, unexaggerated truth.

And so these lightly wounded men — men with their jaws shot away, men with holes in their breasts and their abdomens, men with their spine tips splintered, men with their arms and legs broken, men with their hands and feet shredded by shrapnel, men with their scalps ripped open, men with their noses and their ears and their fingers and toes gone, men jarred to the very marrow of their bones by explosives — these men, for whom ordinarily soft beds would have been provided and expert care and special food, came trundling up alongside that noisome station; and, through the door openings from where they were housed like dumb beasts, they looked out at us with the glazed eyes of dumb suffering beasts.

As the little toy-like European cars halted, bumping together hard, orderlies went running down the train bearing buckets of soup, and of coffee and of drinking water, and loaves of the heavy, dark German bread. Behind them went other men — bull-necked strong men picked for this job because of their strength. Their task was to bring back in their arms or upon their shoulders such men as were past walking. There were no stretchers. There was no time for stretchers. Behind this train would be another one just like it and behind that one, another, and so on down an eighty-mile stretch of dolorous way. And this, mind you, was but one of three lines carrying out of France and Belgium into Germany victims of the war to be made well again in order that they might return and once more be fed as tidbits into the maw of that war; it was but one of a dozen or more such streams, threading back from as many battle zones to the countries engaged in this wide and ardent scheme of mutual extermination.

Half a minute after the train stopped a procession was moving toward us, made up of men who had wriggled down or who had been eased down out of the cars, and who were coming to the converted buffet room for help. Mostly they came afoot, sometimes holding on to one another for mutual support. Perhaps one in five was borne bodily by an orderly. He might be hunched in the orderly's arms like a weary child, or he might be traveling upon the orderly's back, pack-fashion, with his arms gripped about the bearer's neck; and then, in such a case, the pair of them, with the white hollow face of the wounded man nodding above the sweated red face of the other, became a monstrosity with two heads and one pair of legs.

Here, advancing toward us with the gait of a doddering grandsire, would be a boy in his teens, bent double and clutching his middle with both hands. Here would be a man whose hand had been smashed, and from beyond the rude swathings of cotton his fingers protruded stiffly and were so congested and swollen they looked like fat red plantains. Here was a man whose feet were damaged. He had a crutch made of a spade handle. Next would be a man with a hole in his neck, and the bandages had pulled away from about his throat, showing the raw inflamed hole. In this parade I saw a French infantryman aided along by a captured Zouave on one side and on the other by a German sentry who swung his loaded carbine in his free hand. Behind them I saw an awful nightmare of a man — -a man whose face and bare cropped head and hands and shoes were all of a livid, poisonous, green cast. A shell of some new and particularly devilish variety had burst near him and the fumes which it generated in bursting had dyed him green. Every man would have, tied about his neck or to one of his buttonholes, the German field-doctor's card telling of the nature of his hurt and the place where he had sustained it; and the uniform of nearly every one would be discolored with dried blood, and where the coat gaped open you marked that the harsh, white cambric lining was made harsher still by stiff, brownish-red streakings.

In at the door of the improvised hospital filed the parade, and the wounded men dropped on the floor or else were lowered upon chairs and tables and cots — anywhere that there was space for them to huddle up or stretch out. And then the overworked surgeons, French and German, and the German nursing sisters and certain of the orderlies would fall to. There was no time for the finer, daintier proceedings that might have spared the sufferers some measure of their agony. It was cut away the old bandage, pull off the filthy cotton, dab with antiseptics what was beneath, pour iodine or diluted acid upon the bare and shrinking tissues, perhaps do that with the knife or probe which must be done where incipient mortification had set in, clap on fresh cotton, wind a strip of cloth over it, pin it in place and send this man away to be fed — providing he could eat; then turn to the next poor wretch. The first man was out of that place almost before the last man was in; that was how fast the work went forward.

One special horror was spared: The patients made no outcry. They gritted their teeth and writhed where they lay, but none shrieked out. Indeed, neither here nor at any of the other places where I saw wounded men did we hear that chorus of moans and shrieks with which fiction always has invested such scenes. Those newly struck seemed stunned into silence; those who had had time to recover from the first shock of being struck appeared buoyed and sustained by a stoic quality which lifted them, mute and calm, above the call of tortured nerves and torn flesh. Those who were delirious might call out; those who were conscious locked their lips and were steadfast. In all our experience I came upon just two men in their senses who gave way at all. One was a boy of nineteen or twenty, in a field hospital near Rheims, whose kneecap had been smashed. He sat up on his bed, rocking his body and whimpering fretfully like an infant. He had been doing that for days, a nurse told us, but whether he whimpered because of his suffering or at the thought of going through life with a stiffened leg she did not know. The other was here at Maubeuge. I helped hold his right arm steady while a surgeon took the bandages off his hand. When the wrapping came away a shattered finger came with it — it had rotted off, if you care to know that detail — and at the sight the victim uttered growling, rasping, animal-like sounds. Even so, I think it was the thing he saw more than the pain of it that overcame him; the pain he could have borne. He had been bearing it for days.

I particularly remember one other man who was brought in off this first train. He was a young giant. For certain the old father of Frederick the Great would have had him in his regiment of Grenadier Guards. Well, for that matter, he was a grenadier in the employ of the same family now. He hobbled in under his own motive power and leaned against the wall until the first flurry was over. Then, at a nod from one of the shirt-sleeved surgeons, he stretched himself upon a bare wooden table which had just been vacated and indicated that he wanted relief for his leg — which leg, I recall, was incased in a rude, splintlike arrangement of plaited straw. The surgeon took off the straw and the packing beneath it. The giant had a hole right through his knee, from side to side, and the flesh all about it was horribly swollen and purplish-black. So the surgeon soused the joint, wound and all, with iodine; the youth meanwhile staring blandly up at the ceiling with his arms crossed on his wide breast. I stood right by him, looking into his face, and he didn't so much as bat an eyelid. But he didn't offer to get up when the surgeon was done with treating him. He turned laboriously over on his face, pulling his shirt free from his body as he did so, and then we saw that he had a long, infected gash from a glancing bullet across the small of his back. He had been lying on one angry wound while the other was redressed. You marveled, not that he had endured it without blenching, but that he had endured it at all.

The train stayed with us perhaps half an hour, and in that half hour at least a hundred men must have had treatment of sorts. A signal sounded and the orderlies lifted up the few wasted specters who still remained and toted them out. Almost the last man to be borne away was injured in both legs; an orderly carried him in his arms. Seeing the need of haste the orderly sought to heave his burden aboard the nearest car. The men in that car protested; already their space was overcrowded. So the patient orderly staggered down the train until he found the crippled soldier's rightful place and thrust him into the straw just as the wheels began to turn. As the cars, gathering speed, rolled by us we could see that nearly all the travelers were feeding themselves from pannikins of the bull-meat stew. Wrappings on their hands and sometimes about their faces made them doubly awkward, and the hot tallowy mess spilt in spattering streams upon them and upon the straw under them.

They were on their way. At the end of another twenty-four hour stretch they might have traveled fifty or sixty or even seventy miles. The place they left behind them was in worse case than before. Grease spattered the earth; the floor of the buffet room was ankle deep, literally, in discarded bandages and blood-stiffened cotton; and the nurses and the doctors and the helpers dropped down in the midst of it all to snatch a few precious minutes of rest before the next creaking caravan of misery arrived. There was no need to tell them of its coming; they knew. All through that afternoon and night, and through the next day and night, and through the half of the third day that we stayed on in Maubeuge, the trains came back. They came ten minutes apart, twenty minutes apart, an hour apart, but rarely more than an hour would elapse between trains. And this traffic in marred and mutilated humanity had been going on for four weeks and would go on for nobody knew how many weeks more.

When the train had gone out of sight beyond the first turn to the eastward I spoke to the head surgeon of the German contingent — a broad, bearded, middle-aged man who sat on a baggage truck while an orderly poured a mixture of water and antiseptics over his soiled hands.

"A lot of those poor devils will die?" I suggested.


German wounded convalesing at a hospital


"Less than three per cent of those who get back to the base hospitals will die," he said with a snap of his jaw, as though challenging me to doubt the statement. "That is the wonder of this war — that so many are killed in the fighting and that so few die who get back out of it alive. These modern scientific bullets, these civilized bullets" — he laughed in self-derision at the use of the word — "they are cruel and yet they are merciful too. If they do not kill you outright they have a little way, somehow, of not killing you at all."

"But the bayonet wounds and the saber wounds?" I said. "How about them?"

"I have been here since the very first," he said; "since the day after our troops took this town, and God knows how many thousands of wounded men — Germans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Turcos, some Belgians — have passed through my hands; but as yet I have to see a man who has been wounded by a saber or a lance. I saw one bayonet wound yesterday or the day before. The man had fallen on his own bayonet and driven it into his side. Shrapnel wounds? Yes. Wounds from fragments of bombs? Again, yes. Bullet wounds? I can't tell you how many of those I have seen, but surely many thousands. But no bayonet wounds. This is a war of hot lead, not of cold steel. I read of these bayonet charges, but I do not believe that many such stories are true."

I didn't believe it either.

The train which followed after the first, coming up out of France, furnished for us much the same sights the first one had furnished, and so, with some slight variations, did the third train and the fourth and all the rest of them. The station became a sty where before it had been a kennel; the flies multiplied; the stenches increased in volume and strength, if such were possible; the windows of the littered waiting room, with their cracked half panes, were like ribald eyes winking at the living afflictions which continually trailed past them; the floors looked as though there had been a snowstorm.

A train came, whose occupants were nearly all wounded by shrapnel. Wounds of the head, the face and the neck abounded among these men — for the shells, exploding in the air above where they crouched in their trenches, had bespattered them with iron pebbles. Each individual picture of! suffering recurred with such monotonous and regular frequency that after an hour or so it took something out of the common run — an especially vivid splash of daubed and crimson horror — to quicken our imaginations and make us fetch out our note books. I recall a young lieutenant of Uhlans who had been wounded in the breast by fragments of a grenade, which likewise had smashed in several of his ribs. He proudly fingered his newly acquired Iron Cross while the surgeon relaced his battered torso with strips of gauze. Afterward he asked me for a cigar, providing I had one to spare, saying he had not tasted tobacco for a week and was perishing for a smoke. We began to take note then how the wounded men watched us as we puffed at our cigars, and we realized they were dumbly envying us each mouthful of smoke. So we sent our chauffeur to the public market with orders to buy all the cigars he could find on sale there. He presently returned with the front and rear seats of the automobile piled high with bundled sheaves of the brown weed — you can get an astonishingly vast number of those domestic French cigars for the equivalent of thirty dollars in American money — and we turned the whole cargo over to the head nurse on condition that, until the supply was exhausted, she give a cigar to every hurt soldier who might crave one, regardless of his nationality. She cried as she thanked us for the small charity.

"We can feed them — yes," she said, "but we have nothing to give them to smoke, and it is very hard on them."

A little later a train arrived which brought three carloads of French prisoners and one carload of English. Among the Frenchmen were many Alpine Rangers, so called — the first men we had seen of this wing of the service — and by reason of their dark blue uniforms and their flat blue caps they looked more like sailors than soldiers. At first we took them for sailors. There were thirty-four of the Englishmen, being all that were left of a company of the West Yorkshire Regiment of infantry. Confinement for days in a bare box car, with not even water to wash their faces and hands in, had not altogether robbed them of a certain trim alertness which seems to belong to the British fighting man. Their puttees were snugly reefed about their shanks and their khaki tunics buttoned up to their throats.

We talked with them. They wanted to know if they had reached Germany yet, and when we told them that they were not out of France and had all of Belgium still to traverse, they groaned their dismay in chorus.

"We've 'ad a very 'ard time of it, sir," said a spokesman, who wore sergeant's stripes on his sleeves and who told us he came from Sheffield. "Seventeen 'ours we were in the trench, under fire all the time, with water up to our middles and nothing to eat. We were 'olding the center and when the Frenchies fell back they didn't give our chaps no warning, and pretty soon the Dutchmen they 'ad us flanked both sides and we 'ad to quit. But we didn't quit until we'd lost all but one of our officers and a good 'alf of our men."

"Where was this?" one of us asked.

"Don't know, sir," he said. "It's a blooming funny war. You never knows the name of the place where you're fighting at, unless you 'ears it by chance."

Then he added:

"Could you tell us, sir, 'ow's the war going? Are we giving the Germans a proper 'iding all along the line?"

We inquired regarding their treatment. They didn't particularly fancy the food — narsty slop, the sergeant called it — although it was reasonably plentiful; and, being true Englishmen, they sorely missed their tea. Then, too, on the night before their overcoats had been taken from them and no explanations vouchsafed.

"We could 'ave done with them," said the speaker bitterly; "pretty cold it was in this 'ere car. And what with winter coming on and everything I call it a bit thick to be taking our overcoats off of us."

We went and asked a German officer who had the convoy in charge the reason for this, and he said the overcoats of all the uninjured men, soldiers as well as prisoners, had been confiscated to furnish coverings for such of the wounded as lacked blankets. Still, I observed that the guards for the train had their overcoats. So I do not vouch for the accuracy of his explanation.

It was getting late in the afternoon and the fifth train to pull in from the south since our advent on the spot — or possibly it was the sixth — had just halted when, from the opposite direction, a troop-train, long and heavy, panted into sight and stopped on the far track while the men aboard it got an early supper of hot victuals. We crossed over to have a look at the new arrivals.

It was a long train, drawn by one locomotive and shoved by another, and it included in its length a string of flat cars upon which were lashed many field pieces, and commandeered automobiles, and even some family carriages, not to mention baggage wagons and cook wagons and supply wagons. For a wonder, the coaches in which the troops rode were new, smart coaches, seemingly just out of the builders' hands. They were mainly first and second class coaches, varnished outside and equipped with upholstered compartments where the troopers took their luxurious ease. Following the German fashion, the soldiers had decorated each car with field flowers and sheaves of wheat and boughs of trees, and even with long paper streamers of red and white and black. Also, the artists and wags of the detachment had been busy with colored chalks. There was displayed on one car a lively crayon picture of a very fierce, two-tailed Bavarian lion eating up his enemies — a nation at a bite. Another car bore a menu:

Russian caviar
Servian rice meat English roast beef
Belgian ragout French pastry


Upon this same car was lettered a bit of crude verse, which, as we had come to know, was a favorite with the German private. By my poor translation it ran somewhat as follows:

For the Slav, a kick we have,
And for the Jap a slap;
The Briton too — we'll beat him blue,
And knock the Frenchman flat.


Altogether the train had quite the holidaying air about it and the men who traveled on it had the same spirit too. They were Bavarians — all new troops, and nearly all young fellows. Their accouterments were bright and their uniforms almost unsoiled, and I saw that each man carried in his right boot top the long, ugly-looking dirk-knife that the Bavarian foot-soldier fancies. The Germans always showed heat when they found a big service clasp-knife hung about a captured Englishman's neck on a lanyard, calling it a barbarous weapon because of the length of the blade and long sharp bradawl which folded into a slot at the back of the handle; but an equally grim bit of cutlery in a Bavarian's bootleg seemed to them an entirely proper tool for a soldier to be carrying.

The troops — there must have been a full battalion of them — piled off the coaches to exercise their legs. They skylarked about on the earth, and sang and danced, and were too full of coltish spirits to eat the rations that had been brought from the kitchen for their consumption. Seeing our cameras, a lieutenant who spoke English came up to invite us to make a photograph of him and his men, with their bedecked car for a background. He had been ill, he said, since the outbreak of hostilities, which explained why he was just now getting his first taste of active campaigning service.

"Wait," he said vaingloriously, "just wait until we get at the damned British. Some one else may have the Frenchmen — we want to get our hands on the Englishmen. Do you know what my men say? They say they are glad for once in their lives to enjoy a fight where the policemen won't interfere and spoil the sport. That's the Bavarian for you — the Prussian is best at drill, but the Bavarian is the best fighter in the whole world. Only let us see the enemy — that is all we ask!

"I say, what news have you from the front? All goes well, eh? As for me I only hope there will be some of the enemy left for us to kill. It is a glorious thing — this going to war! I think we shall get there very soon, where the fighting is. I can hardly wait for it." And with that he hopped up on the steps of the nearest car and posed for his picture.

Having just come from the place whither he was so eagerly repairing I might have told him a few things. I might for example have told him what the captain of a German battery in front of La Fere had said, and that was this:

"I have been on this one spot for nearly three weeks now, serving my guns by day and by night. I have lost nearly half of my original force of men and two of my lieutenants. We shoot over those tree tops yonder in accordance with directions for range and distance which come from somewhere else over field telephone, but we never see the men at whom we are firing. They fire back without seeing us, and sometimes their shells fall short or go beyond us, and sometimes they fall among us and kill and wound a few of us. Thus it goes on day after day. I have not with my own eyes seen a Frenchman or an Englishman unless he was a prisoner. It is not so much pleasure — fighting like this."

I might have told the young Bavarian lieutenant of other places where I had been — places where the dead lay for days unburied. I might have told him there was nothing particularly pretty or particularly edifying about the process of being killed. Death, I take it, is never a very tidy proceeding; but in battle it acquires an added unkemptness. Men suddenly and sorely stricken have a way of shrinking up inside their clothes; unless they die on the instant they have a way of tearing their coats open and gripping with their hands at their vitals, as though to hold the life in; they have a way of sprawling their legs in grotesque postures; they have a way of putting their arms up before their faces as though at the very last they would shut out a dreadful vision. Those contorted, twisted arms with the elbows up, those spraddled stark legs, and, most of all, those white dots of shirts — those I had learned to associate in my own mind with the accomplished fact of mortality upon the field.


German wounded in France


I might have told him of sundry field hospitals which I had lately visited. I could recreate in my memory, as I shall be able to recreate it as long as I live and have my senses, a certain room in a certain schoolhouse in a French town where seven men wriggled and fought in the unspeakable torments of lockjaw; and another room filled to capacity with men who had been borne there because there was nothing humanly to be done for them, and who now lay very quietly, their suetty-gray faces laced with tiny red stripes of fever, and their paling eyes staring up at nothing at all; and still another room given over entirely to stumps of men, who lacked each a leg or an arm, or a leg and an arm, or both legs or both arms; and still a fourth room wherein were men — and boys too — all blinded, all learning to grope about in the everlasting black night which would be their portion through all their days. Indeed for an immediate illustration of the products of the business toward which he was hastening I might have taken him by the arm and led him across two sets of tracks and shown him men in the prime of life who were hatcheled like flax, and mauled like blocks, and riddled like sieves, and macerated out of the living image of their Maker.

But I did none of these things. He had a picture of something uplifting and splendid before his eyes. He wanted to fight, or he thought he did, which came to the same thing.

So what I did was to take down his name and promise to send him a completed copy of his picture in the care of his regiment and brigade; and the last I saw of him he was half out of a car window waving good-by to us and wishing us auf wiedersehen as he was borne away to his ordained place.

As we rode back through the town of Mau-beuge in the dusk, the company which had sung 0 Strassburg in the Franco-German beer shop at the prow of the corner where the three streets met were just marching away. I thought I caught, in the weaving gray line that flowed along like quicksilver, a glimpse of the boy who was so glad because he was about to have some luck.

In two days fourteen thousand wounded men came back through Maubeuge, and possibly ten times that many new troops, belonging to the first October draft of a million, passed down the line. In that week fifty thousand wounded men returned from the German right wing alone.

He's a busy Red Glutton. There seems to be no satisfying his greed..


a German soldier's grave somewhere in France


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