a Visit to the Soldier King
I - 'ON MY WAY TO GENERAL HEADQUARTERS OF THE BELGIAN ARMY"
Today on my way to the General Headquarters of the Belgian Army, whither I am bound on a mission from the President of the French Republic to His Majesty King Albert, I pass through Furnes, another town wantonly and savagely bombarded, where at this hour of the day there is a raging storm of icy wind, snow, rain, and hail, under a black sky.
Here as at Ypres the barbarians bent their whole soul on the destruction of the historical part, the charming old town hall and its surroundings. It is here that King Albert, driven forth from his palace, established himself at first. Thereupon the Germans, with that delicacy of feeling to which at present no one in the world disputes their claim, immediately made this place their objective, in order to bombard it with their brutal, heavy shells. I need hardly say that there was scarcely anyone in the - streets, where I slowed down my motor so that I might have leisure for a better appreciation of the effects of the Kaiser's "work of civilisation"; there were only some groups of soldiers, fully armed, some with their coat-collars turned up, others with the back curtains of their service-caps turned down. They hastened along in the squalls, running like children, and laughing good-humouredly, as if it were very amusing, this downpour, which for once was not of fire.
How is it that there is no atmosphere of sadness about this half-empty town? It is as if the gaiety of these soldiers, in spite of the gloomy weather, had communicated itself to the ruined surroundings. And how full of splendid health and spirits they seem! I see no more on any faces that somewhat startled, haggard expression, common at the beginning of the war. The outdoor life, combined with good food, has bronzed the cheeks of these men whom the shrapnel has spared, but their principal support and stay is their complete confidence, their conviction that they have already gained the upper hand and are marching to victory. The invasion of the Boches will pass away like this horrible weather, which after all is only a last shower of March; it will all come to an end.
II - I CAME UPON A LITTLE KNOT OF FRENCH SAILORS IN THE STORM"
At a turning, during a lull in the storm, I come very unexpectedly upon a little knot of French sailors. I cannot refrain from beckoning to them, as one would beckon to children whom one had suddenly found again in some distant jungle, and they come running to the door of my car equally delighted to see someone in naval uniform. They seem to be picked men; they have such gallant, comely faces and such frank, spirited eyes. Other sailors, too, who were passing by at a little distance and whom I had not called, come likewise and surround me as if it were the natural thing to do, but with respectful familiarity, for are we not in a strange country, and at war? Only yesterday, they tell me, they arrived a whole battalion strong, with their officers, and they are camping in a neighbouring village while waiting to "down" the Boches. And I should like so much to make a detour and pay them a visit in their own camp if I were not pressed for time, tied down to the hour of my audience with His Majesty. Indeed it gives me pleasure to associate with our soldiers, but it is a still greater delight to associate with our sailors, among whom I passed forty years of my life. Even before I caught sight of them, just from hearing them talk, I could recognise them for what they were. More than once, on our military thoroughfares in the north, on a pitch-dark night, when it was one of their detachments who stopped me to demand the password, I have recognised them simply by the sound of their voices.
One of our generals, army commander on the Northern Front was speaking to me yesterday of that pleasant, kindly familiarity which prevails from the highest to the lowest grade of the military ladder, and which is a new tone characteristic of this essentially national war in which we all march hand in hand.
"In the trenches," he said to me, "if I stop to talk to a soldier, other soldiers gather round me so that I may talk to them too. And they are becoming more and more admirable for their high spirits and their brotherliness. If only our thousands of dead could be restored to us what a benefit this war would have bestowed upon us, drawing us near together, until we all possess but one heart."
It is a long way to the General Headquarters. Out in the open country the weather is appalling beyond description. The roads are broken up, fields flooded until they resemble marshes, and sometimes there are trenches, chevaux de frise, reminding the traveller that the barbarians are still very near. And yet all this, which ought to be depressing, no longer succeeds in being so. Every meeting with soldiers - and the car passes them every minute - is sufficient to restore your serenity. They have all the same cheerful faces, expressive of courage and gaiety. Even the poor sappers, up to their knees in water, working hard to repair the shelter pits and defences, have an expression of gaiety under their dripping service-caps. What numbers of soldiers there are in the smallest villages, Belgian and French, very fraternally intermingling. By what wonderful organisation of the commissariat are these men housed and fed ?
But who asserted that there were no Belgian soldiers left ? On the contrary, I pass imposing detachments on their way to the front, in good order, admirably equipped, and of fine bearing, with a convoy of excellent artillery of the very latest pattern. Never can enough be said in praise of the heroism of a people who had every reason for not preparing themselves for war, since they were under the protection of solemn treaties that should have preserved them forever from any such necessity, yet who, nevertheless, sustained and checked the brunt of the attack of the great barbarism. Disabled at first and almost annihilated, yet they are recovering themselves and gathering around their sublimely heroic king.
III - "WE ARRIVE AT LAST-I SEE THE KING"
It is raining, raining, and we are numb with cold, but we have arrived at last, and in another moment I shall see him, the King, without reproach and without fear. Were it not for these troops and all these service motor cars, it would be impossible to believe that this remote village was the General Headquarters. I have to leave the car, for the road which leads to the royal residence is nothing more than a footpath. Among the rough motor cars standing there, all stained with mud from the roads, there is one car of superior design, having no armorial bearings of any kind, nothing but two letters traced in chalk on the black door, S.M. (Sa Majesté), for this is his car. In this charming comer of ancient Flanders, in an old abbey, surrounded by trees and tombs, here is his dwelling. Out in the rain, on the path which borders on the little sacred cemetery, an aide-de-camp comes to meet me, a man with the charm and simplicity that no doubt likewise characterise his sovereign. There are no guards at the entrance to the dwelling, and no ceremony is observed. At the end of an unimposing corridor where I have just time to remove my overcoat, in the embrasure of an opening door, the King appears, erect, tall, slender, with regular features and a surprising air of youth, with frank eyes, gentle and noble in expression, stretching out his band in kindly welcome.
In the course of my life other kings and emperors have been gracious enough to receive me, but in spite of pomp, in spite of the splendour of some of their palaces, I have never yet felt such reverence for sovereign majesty as here, on the threshold of this little house, where it is infinitely exalted by calamity and self-sactifice; and when I express this sentiment to King Albert he replies with a smile, "Oh, as for my palace," and he completes his phrase with a negligent wave of the hand, indicating his humble surroundings. It is indeed a simple room that I have just entered, yet by the mere absence of all vulgarity, still possessing distinction. A bookcase crowded with books occupies the whole of one wall; in the background there is an open piano with a music-book on the stand; in the middle a large table, covered with maps and strategic plans; and the window, open in spite of the cold, looks out on to a little old-world garden, like that of a parish priest, almost completely enclosed, stripped of its leaves, melancholy, weeping, as it were, the rains of winter.
After I have executed the simple mission entrusted to me by the President of the Republic, the King graciously detains me a long time in conversation. But if I felt reluctant to write even the beginning of these notes, still more do I hesitate to touch upon this interview, even with the utmost discretion, and then how colourless will it seem, all that I shall venture to say! It is because in truth I know that he never ceases to enjoin upon those around him, "Above all, see that people do not talk about me," because I know and understand so well the horror he professes for anything resembling an "interview." So then at first I made up my mind to be silent, and yet when there is an opportunity of making himself heard, who would not long to help to spread abroad, to the utmost of his small ability, the renown of such a name?
Very striking in the first place is the sincere and exquisite modesty of his heroic nature; it is almost as if he were unaware that he is worthy of admiration. In his opinion he has less deserved the veneration which France has devoted to him, and his popularity among us, than the least of his soldiers, slain for our common defence. When I tell him that I have seen even in the depths of the country, in peasants' cottages, the portraits of the King and Queen of the Belgians in the place of honour, with little flags, black, yellow and red, piously pinned around them, he appears scarcely to believe me his smile and his silence seem to answer:
"Yet all that I did was so natural. Could a king worthy of the name have acted in any other way?"
Now we talk about the Dardanelles, where in this hour serious issues hang in the balance; he is pleased to question me about ambushes in those parts, which I frequented for so long a time, and which have not ceased to be very dear to me. But suddenly a colder gust blows in through the window, still opening on to the forlorn little garden. With what kindly thoughtfulness, then, he rises, as any ordinary officer might have done, and himself closes the window near which I am seated.
And then we talk of war, of rifles, of artillery. His Majesty is well posted in everything, like a general already broken in to his craft.
IV - "A GREAT WARRIOR IN THE MIDST OF AN ARMY OF HEROES"
Strange destiny for a prince, who, in the beginning, did not seem designated for the throne, and who, perhaps, should have preferred to go on living his former somewhat retired life by the side of his beloved princess. Then, when the unlooked-for crown was placed upon his youthful brow, he might well have believed that he could hope for an era of profound peace, in the midst of the most peaceful of all nations, but contrary to every expectation he has known the most appallingly tragic reign of all. Between one day and the next, without a moment's weakness, without even a moment's hesitation, disdainful of compromises, which for a time, at least, ,though to the detriment of the civilisation of the world, might have preserved for a little space his towns and palaces, he stood erect in the way of the Monster's onrush, a great warrior king in the midst of an army of heroes.
To-day it is clear that he has no longer a doubt of victory, and his own loyally gives him complete confidence in the loyalty of the Allies, who truly desire to restore life to his country of Belgium; nevertheless, he insists that his soldiers shall co-operate with all their remaining strength in the work of deliverance, and that they shall remain to the end at the post of danger and honour. Let us salute him with the profoundest reverence.
Another less noble, might have said to himself: "I have amply paid my debt to the common cause; it was my troops who built the first rampart against barbarism. My country, the first to be trampled under the feet of these German brutes, is no more than a heap of ruins. That suffices."
But no, he will have the name of Belgium inscribed upon a yet prouder page, by the side of Serbia, in the golden book of history.
And that is the reason why I met on my way those inestimable troops, alert and fresh, miraculously revived, who were on their way to the front to continue the holy struggle.
Before him let us bow down to the very ground.
Night is falling when the audience comes to an end and I find myself again on the footpath that leads to the abbey. On my return journey, along those roads broken up by rain and by military transport wagons, I remain under the charm of his welcome. And I compare these two monarchs, situated, as it were, at opposite poles of humanity, the one at the pole of light, the other at the pole of darkness; the one yonder, swollen with hypocrisy and arrogance, a monster among monsters, his hands full of blood, his nails full of torn flesh, who still dares to surround himself with insolent pomp; the other here, banished without a murmur to a little house in a village, standing on a last strip of his martyred kingdom, but in whose honour rises from the whole civilised earth a concert of sympathy, enthusiasm, magnificent appreciation, and for whom are stored up crowns of most pure and immortal glory.
le Commandant Julien Viaud - alias Pierre Loti
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