Reporting from a Neutral Country
passing over the Dutch frontier in a motor vehicle
NEARLY two years I lived behind the German lines seeing and hearing much both good and bad of the German military machine. For taking a too keen in German military movements beyond the Dutch frontier I spent six weeks awaiting trial in a Dutch gaol - an experience that was good for the liver but bad for the nerves. I have seen thousands of German soldiers marching through one of the five roads near Maastricht, with flowers in their rifles and songs on their lips. They were the last of the reserves massing in Belgium for the second great battle for Ypres, when the gallant Canadians heroically withstood the horrors of the first gas attack and saved Calais for a second time. I have been photographed between German sentries at the little frontier town of Esschen ; and two Christmasses ago I drank "donker" beer beneath the decorated fir-tree in a German guard-room which was once a Belgian school.
From the cliffs of Cadzand I have seen German recruits drilling on the sands below Knocke and Heyst, while Prussian officers took riding exercise within sight of Zeebrugge. I have heard the guns of British warships on the Belgian coast, and I have stood at the frontier and watched German deserters making a dash for the neutral zone guarded by double lines of live wires.
Living next door to the war one experienced the thrills of combat while risking none of its dangers. Like privileged spectators above a blood-stained arena we saw and heard the war in the west, separated sometimes only by a few yards from the battle zone.
But if we had none of the dangers of combat, we had the excitement of war. During the last two years Holland has been the mirror of the world. To Rotterdam, Amsterdam and the Hague came spies and adventurers from all belligerent and neutral countries, moved either by personal greed or patriotic impulse to get something from the back-wash of the war. A police list of hotel guests taken any week showed representatives of all civilised countries - some picking lip orders, others trying to win them. Everybody had something or somebody to buy or sell. In an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, the general principle was : Never let year right-hand neighbour know what your left-hand neighbour does.
'Mid Spies and Adventurers
While other countries sent out single spies, Germany had her agents in battalions. Thousands of Germans are always living in or passing through Holland. In Rotterdam the German language is heard almost as frequently as the Dutch. One of the most charming and accomplished men I met in Holland was a captain in a German infantry who had worked as a commercial traveller for fifteen years in the, north of England. A native of Hamburg, he was a true patriot; but he admired much in the British character and he detested the "Hymn of Hate." He was buying cotton or anything else useful for the German Government and, before cotton was made contraband, he sent huge quantities across the frontier. He had no delusions about the war for he knew the strength and weaknesses of both sides. Eighteen months ago he made a statement which I have often recalled : If the war ends in a year. he said, "we shall have won. If it lasts longer you will win, but not without conscription."
Germany's spy system in Holland is the last word in organisation. There is not a large hotel in the country without its German agent. German agents frequent the cafés at The Hague, and they are ever on the look-out for intelligent young Dutchmen whom they can send to England as spies. Tempted by sums which are princely compared with the meagre salaries that prevail in Holland, Dutch clerks possessing a thorough knowledge of English frequently fall to the bait, and they are sent to a spy school at Antwerp where they are initiated into the mysteries of secret codes and military and naval terms.
No sooner does an Englishman arrive in Holland than he is drawn into the web of the German spy system.
Myself, I have been the object of diligent espionage throughout my stay in the Lowlands. My polite and courteous German captain had my career docketed it the German Legation at The Hague, and when I was arrested by the Dutch police I was permitted to obtain a of a copy of this interesting document, which I found both flattering and damnatory. My German acquaintance had done his work well.
A German Christmas in Belgium
People disappear in Holland with the alarming secrecy and swiftness of a sensational novel. One German deserter whom I interviewed was stupid enough to walk into the German Consulate. He has not been heard of since. The Dutch police made inquiries, but they learned nothing. A Belgian traitor sought profit and safety in Holland. He had a good time for two or three weeks, then one night he was missing and will betray his country no more. Several Dutchmen in the pay of the Germans took the boat to England. They never returned.
Returning to my own personal experiences, the most exciting hour of my life was the one I spent with members of the German Landsturm festivities in the Belgian village of Esschen. My hosts thought I was American the days before the Americans were strafed" by all good Germans.
The Landsturm guards, being south Germans, were good-natured and hospitable. Some were old enough to be grandfathers. Heavy drinkers and hearty eaters, they were slow and fat, resembling prosperous publicans more than German soldiers. I had taken care to ascertain there were no officers nearer than Antwerp and I had nothing to fear from the boisterous, beer-drinking, carol-singing Landsturm. They had bought up all the toys in the villa and decorated a large fir-tree with the eager delight of little children. We drank beer, ate sausage and sang the "Tannenbaum" the favourite German Christmas carol which is set to the same tune as our socialistic "Keep the Red Flag Flying."
There was no thought or talk of war. Most of the guard were seized with home-sickness and men shed sentimental tears. Others were too busy drinking quarts of dark beer to worry about the war. I had a dozen invitations to visit as many German homes, and I ate enough sausage and drank enough beer to make myself thoroughly ill. It was a merry hour, but I was glad to get across the barrier among the friendly Dutch guards.
While in Holland I saw scores of German deserters. They were all weary of the war, but they were convinced that Germany could not be beaten. They hated their officers, but believed strongly in their efficiency. Their one idea was to get to America where their family could join them. Although they were deserters they never forgot they were German, and several were forgiven on the condition they acted as spies in Holland. It was through one of these deserters that I got into trouble with the Dutch police. In informing against me however, he risked his own liberty and quickly made himself scarce. I have not seen him since.
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