from ‘the War Illustrated’, 24th February, 1917
'the Flight from the City '
By Max Pemberton

Battle Pictures of the Great War

an illustration from ‘the War Illustrated'


An Impression of Invasion from the Civilian's Standpoint

In the absence of a noteworthy military engagement on any of the far-spread battle- fronts of the Allies, the Editor has suggested to Mr. Pemberton that he might employ those so-long-popular imaginative gifts of his which have given to the reading public such engaging tales as "The Impregnable City," "The Iron Pirate," "The Giant's Gate," and many another romance of action — in penning certain "battle pictures" which, though strictly not narratives of actuality, would yet give as true a record of events in general as any war correspondent has sent from the front. For it often happens that by the selective process of the imagination a description that is idealised, gets nearer to the truth and better interprets the soul of things than the most carefully written account of an eye-witness. Already Mr. Pemberton has contributed to his series of brilliant "Battle Pictures" several on the lines indicated — e.g., "The Battle of the Great High Road" and "In the Darkest Hours." This week appears another in which we have a very real picture of the terror that comes upon a city when its people suddenly realise the enemy is about to enter it. This contribution contains something that is true of Antwerp, of Belgrade, of Warsaw, and of Bukarest, although it is not put forth as the description of any one city in particular.

At first nobody believed that the city could ever fall, and joyous confidence prevailed. People spoke of the mighty ring of forts and of their impregnability. They pointed to the splendid guns, and asked what enemy could prevail against them. The Germans were far off, and it was incredible that they could defeat the magnificent armies which opposed them.

So the city went upon its merry way. There was a little excitement: everywhere, but no habits were changed. Idlers sat in the sunshine at the doors of the cafes. There were motor-cars with pretty women driving in the parks. The shops did their accustomed business. People went with quickened steps, and the truculent chaffed the timid. By night the theatres flung their doors wide open. It was the visit of the Zeppelins, and this particular city bad not yet turned its eyes to the sky. In the revues you even heard the comedians rolling the Boches upon their tongues. Cabmen of the old school whipped their horses and cried with their fellows of an ancient day: "Gee ho, Wilhelm !"

While Danger Seems Distant

"Now, this was in tile early days, when war was a new thing. There were sonic who rather liked its bustle and such panoply as war can afford nowadays. Others in their hearts were a little anxious for the children, who asked them every day such childish questions. A few — a very few — sent their little ones away, not because they were afraid, but as a measure of exaggerated prudence. The holder declared that such a course was rank cowardice, and would not even think of the day when this city might be beleaguered. Even the first aeroplane merely shocked them. A bomb fell over yonder upon the little brasserie where the workmen from the railway got their beer. It killed a waiter and wounded an old woman who was passing .by. The city was sorry for the injured, but it laughed at the enemy. Was this all it could do — one killed and one injured Was this the punishment which the Kaiser had promised ?

Coming of the Zepps

There came other aeroplanes, however, and one day a Zepp. It was just after breakfast, and all the city was on its way to business. A good many people were killed this time, and there was something like a panic on the crowded boulevard. You saw a mob flying helter-skelter for safety. Strangers rushed into private houses, and did not apologise for their presence. Some of the women fainted, and the fire-brigade came dashing down the street. Nobody in the place had ever heard the crash of a falling building before, and everybody thought it very terrible. The bomb from the Zepp, they said in the byways, had smashed the hotel from garret to cellar, and it was now but a heap of smouldering ruins. There was cause for thought here, and not a little perplexity.

The city's spirits fell with the lights that night. No more were the doors of the theatres flung wide open ; you passed beneath blue lights to the joys within. And there, perhaps, you thought less about the play than the promise of to-morrow. These Zeppelins certainly were the devil ! More would come, of course, and we were very short of aeroplanes to fight them. Still, they were tot an adventure. No need for any but the cowards to run away. The city was as safe as any place in Europe that day, and the Army would soon learn how to deal with the gasbags.

"If the Germans Get Here"

The spirit was excellent, but unhappily the argument was unsound. The Zepps came again next day, and for many days afterwards. Great gaps were made in streets now, and the injured filled the hospitals. A few of the citizens sent their children away because of them, but the majority stood their ground. After all, this was not the danger they had feared. The "if" which set the father looking at his children across the breakfast table — it was not the "if" which was born of the skies. The main thing was that the city should remain impregnable, and nobody up to this time had ever debated the possibility that it should not. When the news of "the victory" came the citizens could hardly believe it to be true. What — Generals Y and Z defeated ! The invincible army pressed back twenty miles ! Ten thousand taken prisoners ! No, certainly it was not true ! Men cried a denial to each other in the streets.

Crowds pressed about the steps of the great War Office, curious groups gathered in the purlieus of the Embassies, and watched the windows as though for tidings. If the Ambassadors and Foreign Ministers left, that would be serious. Fathers stood out in the street all day looking for the finger which should guide them. "Good God !" they had begun to say. "If the Germans really get here !" And their thoughts went swiftly to their houses, and showed them the children wakened from their sleep.


French villagers flee while French artillery advances


Voice of the Guns

All that day and the next the tremor of this perplexity was in the air. People in the theatres did not listen to the comedians unless they spoke of victory. The foyers were fuller than the stalls, and a good deal of wine was drunk in the bars. What really had happened ? Of course, this might only be a temporary set-back. Generals Y and Z were too clever to be taken by surprise. It was not credible that the Hun could really reach them. When an excited fellow came in to say that a booming of cannon had been heard at a village near by which he named, they thought him to be no better than a lunatic. For all that, many did not go to bed at all that night. Adventurers made up parties and walked a little way out into the country. "Did you hear anything ?" they would ask each other. "Well, to be truthful," the answer would run, "I did think I heard it." So the sun rose upon the momentous morning. There were no Zepps to-day — goodness knows there was news enough without them.

Men heard the booming of the cannon while they were shaving, but few of them made mention of it to their wives, who, perchance, were still sleeping. Downstairs, the children had come in from the garden to speak of it, and, although they were afraid, their confidence was unshaken. Father had said it would be all right, so what did it matter ? Nevertheless, there were the sounds, and soon all the city stood to hear them. "Boom, boom, boom !" went the guns — very far off, it is true, but unmistakable. People naturally could not think of their work amidst emotions like these. They went anywhere for news. The clubs were crowded ; the tongues of the gossips never still. Such excitement had never been known in these splendid streets. Even the church bells were ringing, and many good women going to the altars to pray.

Those who made the Embassies the barometers of war soon discovered that there were motor-cars at many of their doors, and that luggage was coming out. The news Sew like wildfire round the city. This Minister had left with his family ; that one was just putting his valuables into a camion. Their children had gone already to the station ; evidently it was to be a kind of sauve qui peut, and when the news came at last that the Government itself was leaving, a dead silence fell upon all as though the last word had been spoken.

Stragglers From a Retreating Army

What a debacle was this! Sheep without a shepherd were a well-conditioned flock compared to this multitude. In truth, they were as landsmen who find themselves upon a ship which the captain has deserted. Vainly they wandered about the streets, asking what it all meant. Men spoke to perfect strangers and hardly knew what they said. Shopkeepers put up their shutters ; the cafes alone did a roaring business. Soon the omens of reality were thronging the streets itself. Fugitives from the beaten army came in by twos and threes — then by tens and twenties — ultimately by their thousands.

The armies themselves, they declared, were intact and would not retreat upon the city ; but the game was up, and the Germans would be here to-morrow. Many of the poor fellows were half dead with exposure and fatigue, caked with mud, wanting all equipment. Others nursed wounds bound now in filthy rags ; some 'were carried upon the shoulders of their comrade-. But the tale of all was the same — man for man they could have smashed the Hun, but they had no artillery. Ah, those dreadful guns — the thunder of them, the blinding crash, the jagged metal which tore a man to pieces. The Army must have guns, and then it would defeat the Boche all right. But for the 'moment he was invincible, to-morrow, when the savage hordes at their would rape and pillage at will.

There is a darkest hour before the dawn — a lull before the tempest, a moment of dread silence before the avalanche will fall, in the face of the truth this hush fell upon the amazed community — but it was a. hush of a brief instant. Upon it there swept the freshets of panic unconcealed. The security of a man's house — what was it worth now ? He who had talked in his club of impregnability but three days ago now had from that club and gathered his own about him. The children watched him with wide eyes and played no more. The women wept, but let none see their tears. Methodically, but with trembling hands, they gathered together what goods they could. My lady's jewels, of course, and all the money that was to hand ; the particular treasures they loved, and, at the bidding of the good housewife, what food they could carry upon the journey. The head himself, meanwhile, was running frantically hither and thither for any vehicle which could help them on the road. In vain to think of the railway, for there already the mob was fighting with the ferocity of the savage for any place, however comfortless. It was almost the same in the stable and the garage — any price for a car ; even for a place in a car. Room for the children, for God's sake !

Tumultuously the poorer majority flocked out upon the great northern road and went as with the hum of a mighty swarm of insects — each for himself and the "devil take the hindmost." The weak fell ; the strong pressed on. Children hid their faces from the truth in the enfolding arms of the mothers who carried them. Drivers cracked their whips and forced their way through the press that cursed. The. horns of the motor-cars tooted with a horrid cacophony which was as dreadful as the Germans.

That night the city slept in silence and in darkness. Every window that could be was shuttered ; the doors of those which stood fast were barred and bolted. For a few brave hearts had remained, and watching them were the sleek Huns who had betrayed them. "Pro-Germans" they were called, but history will give them a baser name. And a-tiptoe the fellows stood next day when the German cavalry rode in. "Hoch !" they cried, and again "Hoch !” and the delighted savages on horseback waved their swords in reply and told them that this was victory.

Vain boasting, for this city that fell shall rise again, and its story shall be written in letters of gold for all the generations that come after.


British soldiers helping French villagers


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