from ‘the Sphere’ July 10th 1915
In ‘Wipers’
'a Personal Narrative of a Visit to the Ruined City'

by Mary Roberts Rineharts


In the Ruined City

views of the Ypres Cloth Hall before and after bombardment


General M-----had agreed to take me to Ypres. But as he was a Belgian general, and the town of Ypres is held by the French, it was a part of the etiquette of war that we should secure the escort of a French officer at the town of Poperinghe. For war has its etiquette, and of a most exacting kind. And yet in the end it simplifies things. It is to war what rules are to bridge — something to lead by ! Frequently I was armed with passes to visit, for instance, certain batteries. My escort was generally a member of the Headquarters' Staff of that particular army. But it was always necessary to visit first the officer in command of that battery, who in his turn either accompanied us to the battlefield or deputed one of his own staff. The result was an imposing number of uniforms of various sorts, and the conviction doubtless among the gunners that some visiting royalty was on an excursion to the front. It was a cold winter day in February, a grey day with a fine snow that melted as soon as it touched the ground. Inside the car we were swathed in rugs. The chauffeur slapped his hands at every break in the journey, and sentries along the road hugged such shelter as they could find. As we left Poperinghe the French officer, Commandant Delannoy, pointed to a file of men plodding wearily through the mud.

" The heroes of last night's attack," he said. " They are very tired, as you see."

We stopped the car and let the men file past. They did not look like heroes ; they looked tired and dirty and depressed. Although our automobile generally attracted much attention, scarcely a man lifted his head to glance at us. They went on drearily through the mud under the pelting sleet, drooping from fatigue and evidently suffering from keen reaction after the excitement of the night before.

The Frenchman's Splendid Bravery

I have heard the French soldier criticised for this reaction. It may certainly be forgiven him, in view of his splendid bravery. But part of the criticism is doubtless justified. The English Tommy fights as he does everything else. There is a certain sporting element in what he does. He puts into his fighting the same fairness he puts into his sport, and it is a point of honour with him to keep cool. The English gunner will admire the enemy's marksmanship while he is ducking a shell.

The French soldier, on the other hand, fights under keen excitement. He is temperamental, imaginative ; as he fights he remembers all the bitterness of the past, its wrongs, its cruelties. He sees blood. There is nothing that will hold him back. The result has made history, is making history to-day. But he has the reaction of his temperament. Who shall say he is not entitled to it ? Something of this I mentioned to M. le Commandant as the line filed past. "It is because it is fighting that gets nowhere," he replied. "If our men, after such an attack, could advance, could do anything but crawl back into holes full of water and mud, you would see them gay and smiling to-day."

After a time I discovered that the same situation holds to a certain extent in all the armies. If his fighting gets him anywhere the soldier is content. The line has made a gain. What matter wet trenches, discomfort, freezing cold ! The line has made a gain. It is a lack !of movement that sends their spirits down, the fearful boredom of the trenches, varied only by the dropping shells, so that they term themselves ironically, "Cannon food."

We left the victorious company behind, making their way toward whatever church bedded down with or coach-house, or draughty barn was to house them for their rest period.

"They have been fighting waist-deep in water," said the Commandant, "and last night was cold. The British soldier rubs his body with oil and grease before he dresses for the trenches. I hope that before long our men may do this also. It is a great protection."

I have in front of me now a German soldier's fatigue cap, taken by one of those men from a dead soldier who lay in front of the trench. It is a pathetic cap, still bearing the crease which showed how he folded it to thrust it into his pocket. When his helmet irked him in the trenches he was allowed to take it off and put this on. He belonged to the Bavarian Regiment Number Fifteen, and the cap was given him in October, 1914. There is a bloodstain on one side of it. Also it is spotted with mud inside and out. It is a pathetic little cap, because when its owner died, that night before, a thousand other Germans died with him, died to gain a trench two hundred yards from their own line, a trench to capture which would have gained them but little glory, and which, since they failed, lost them everything, even life itself.

Crowded Village Streets

We were out of town by this time, and started on the road to Ypres. Between Poperinghe and Ypres were numerous small villages with narrow twisting streets. They were filled with soldiers at rest, with tethered horses being re-shod by army blacksmiths, with small fires in sheltered corners on which an anxious cook had balanced a kettle.

In each town a proclamation had been nailed to a wall, and the townspeople stood about it gaping.

"An inoculation proclamation," explained the commandant. "There is typhoid here, so the civilians are to be inoculated. They are very much excited about it. It appears to them worse than a bombardment."

We passed a file of Spahis, native Algerians who speak Arabic. They come from Tunis and Algeria, and as may be imagined they were suffering bitterly from the cold. They peered at us with bright black eyes from the encircling folds of the great cloaks with pointed hoods which they had drawn closely about them. They have French officers and interpreters, and during the spring fighting they will probably prove valuable. During the winter they gave me the impression of being out of place and rather forlorn. Like the Indian troops with the British, they were fighting a new warfare. For gallant charges over dry desert sands have been substituted mud and grey and bitter cold, and the stagnation of armies.

Taxing the Refugees

Terrible tales have been told of the ferocity of these Arabs, and of the Turcos also. I am inclined to think they are exaggerated; but certainly, met with on a lonely road, these long files of men in their quaint costumes, moving silently along with heads lowered against the wind, were sombre, impressive, and rather alarming.

The car, going furiously, skidded, was pulled sharply round, and righted itself. The conversation went on. No one appeared to notice that we had been on the edge of eternity, and it was not for me to mention it.

The general, who was a Belgian, continued his complaint. It was about the Belgian absentee tax. The Germans, now in control in Belgium, had imposed an absentee tax of ten times the normal on all Belgians who had left the country and did not return by March 15. The general snorted his rage and disgust.

"But," I said innocently, "I should think it would make very little difference to you. You are not there so, of course, you cannot pay it."

"Not there! " he said. "Of course I am not there; but everything I own in the world is there, except this uniform that I have on my back."

"They would confiscate it?" I asked. "Not the uniform, of course; I mean your property."

He broke into a torrent of rapid French. I felt quite sure that he was saying that they would confiscate it, that they would annihilate it, reduce it to its atomic constituents; take it, acres and buildings and shade trees and vegetable garden, back to Germany. But as his French was of the ninety horse-power variety and mine travels afoot like Bayard Taylor, and limps at that, I never caught up with him. Later on, in a calmer moment, I had the thing explained to me. It appears that the Germans have instituted a tax on all the Belgian refugees of ten times the normal tax, the purpose being to bring back into Belgium such refugees as wish to save the remnants of their property. This will mean bringing back people of the better class who have property to save. It will mean to the far-seeing German mind a return of the better class of Belgians to reorganise things, to put that prostrate country on its feet again, to get the poorer classes to work, to make it self-supporting.

We sped on, the same flat country, the same grey fields, the same files of soldiers moving across those fields toward distant billets, the same transports and ambulances, and over all the same colourless sky.

A great lorry had gone into the mud at the side of the road and was being dug out. A horse, neatly disembowelled, lay on its back in the road, its four stark legs pointing upward.

"They have been firing at a German Taube," said the commandant, "and naturally what goes up must come down."

On the way back we saw the same horse. It was dark by that time, and some peasants had gathered round the carcass with a lantern. The hide had been neatly cut away and lay at one side, and the peasants were carving the animal into steaks and roasts. For once fate had been good to them. They would dine that night.

One of the Last Traders to do Business In Ypres

Just back of Ypres there is a group of buildings that had been a great lunatic asylum. It is now a hospital for civilians, although it is partly destroyed.

"During the evacuation of the town," said the commandant, "it was decided that the lunatics must be taken out. The asylum had been hit once and shells were falling in every direction. So the nuns dressed their patients and started to march them back along the route to the nearest town. Shells were falling all about them ; the nuns tried to hurry them, but as each shell fell or exploded close at hand the lunatics cheered and clapped their hands. They could hardly get them away at all; they wanted to stay and see the excitement."

That is a picture, if you like. It was a very large asylum, containing hundreds of patients. The nuns could not hurry them. They stood in the roads, faces upturned to the sky, where death was whining its shrill cry overhead. When a shell dropped into the road, or into the familiar fields about them, tearing great holes, flinging earth and rocks in every direction, they cheered. They blocked the roads, so that gunners with badly-needed guns could not get by. And behind and all round them the nuns urged them on in vain. Some of them were killed, I believe.

In the City of Ypres

Here behind the town one sees fields of graves marked each with a simple wooden cross. Here and there a soldier's cap has been nailed to the cross. The officers told me that in various places the French peasants had placed the dead soldier's number and identifying data in a bottle and placed it on the grave. But I did not see this myself.

There is no gradual approach to these cities of Northern France ; no straggling line of suburbs. Many of them were laid out at a time when walled cities rose from the plain, and although the walls are gone the tradition of compactness for protection still holds good. So one moment we were riding through the shell-holed fields of Northern France and the next we were in the city of Ypres.

Ypres! What a tragedy! Not a city now; hardly a skeleton of a city. Rumour is correct, for the wonderful Cloth Hall is gone. There is a fragment left of the facade, but no repairing can ever restore it. It must all come down. Indeed, any storm may finish its destruction. The massive square belfry, 230 ft. high and topped by its four turrets, is a shell swaying in every gust of wind.

The inimitable arcade at the end is quite gone. Nothing, indeed, is left of either the Cloth Hall, which, built in the year 1200, was the most remarkable edifice of Belgium, or of the cathedral behind it, erected .in 1300 to succeed an earlier edifice. General Melis stood by me as I stared at the ruins of these two great buildings. Something of the tragedy of Belgium was in his face.

"We were very proud of it," he said. "If we started now to build another it would take more than 700 years to give it history."

There were shells overhead. But they passed harmlessly, falling either into the open country or into distant parts of the town. We paid no attention to them, but my curiosity was roused.

"It seems absurd to continue shelling the town," I said. "There is nothing left."

Then and there I had a little lesson in the new warfare. That bombardment of the country behind the enemy's trenches is not necessarily to destroy towns. Its strategical purpose is to cut off communications, to prevent, if possible, the bringing up of reserve troops and transport waggons, to destroy ammunition trains. I was new to war, with everything to learn. This perfectly practical explanation had not occurred to me.

"But how do they know when an ammunition train is coming ?" I asked.

"There are different methods. Spies, of course, always. And aeroplanes also."

"But an ammunition train moves."

It was necessary then to explain to me the various methods by which aeroplanes signal, giving ranges and locations. I have seen since that time the charts carried by aviators and airship crews, in which every hedge, every ditch, every small detail of the landscape is carefully marked. In the maps I have seen the region is divided into lettered squares, each square made up of four small squares, numbered. Thus B 3 means the third block of the B division, and so on. By wireless or in other ways the message is sent to the batteries, and B 3, along which an ammunition train is moving, suddenly finds itself under fire.

The ammunition train, having safely escaped B 3 and all the other terrors that are spread for such as it, rumbled by, going through the Square. The very vibration of its wheels as they rattled over the stone set parts of the old building to shaking. Stones fell. It was not safe to stand near the belfry.

The Tragedy of the Cloth Hall of Ypres

Up to this time I had found a certain philosophy among the French and Belgian officers as to the destruction of their towns. Not of Louvain, of course, or those earlier towns destroyed during the German invasion, but of the bombardment which is taking place now along the battle line. But here I encountered furious resentment. There is nothing whatever left of the city for several blocks -in each direction round the Cloth Hall. At the time it was destroyed the army of the Allies was five miles in advance of the town. The shells went over their heads for days, weeks.

It is a little difficult for the modern citizen, used to great structures of steel and stone erected in a year or so, to understand what its wonderful old buildings meant to Flanders. In a way they typified its history, certainly its art. The Western man likes to have his art in his home; he buys great paintings and puts them on the walls. He covers his floors with the entire art of a nomadic people. But on the Continent the method is different. They have built their art into their buildings ; their great paintings are in churches or in structures like the Cloth Hall. Their homes are unadorned, purely places for living. All that they prize they have stored, open to the world, in their historic buildings. It is for that reason that the destruction of the Cloth Hall of Ypres is a matter of personal resentment to each individual of the nation to which it belonged. So I watched the faces of the two officers with me. There could be no question as to their attitude. It was a personal loss they had suffered. The loss of their homes they had accepted stoically. But this was much more. It was the loss of their art, their history, their tradition. And it could not be replaced.

The firing was steady, rather unemotional. As the wind died down we ventured into the ruins of the Cloth Hall itself. The roof is gone, of course. The building took fire from the bombardment, and what the shells did not destroy the fire did. Melted lead from ancient gutters hung in stalactites. In one place a wall was still standing, with a bit of its mural decoration. I picked up a bit of fallen gargoyle from under the fallen tower and brought it away. It is before me now. It is 715 years since that gargoyle was lifted into its place. The Crusades were going on about that time ; the robber barons were sallying out on to the plains on their raiding excursions. The Norman Conquest had taken place. From this very town of Ypres had gone across the Channel " workmen and artisans to build churches and feudal castles, weavers, and workers of many crafts."

Twisted Street Lamps

In those days the Yperlee, a small river, ran open through the town. But for many generations it has been roofed over and run under the public square. It was curious to stand on the edge of a great shell hole and look down at the little river, now uncovered to the light of day for the first time in who knows how long.

A priest joined us. He told pathetically of watching the destruction of the Arcade, of seeing one arch after another go down until there was nothing left. We walked through the town. One street after another opened up its perspective of destruction. The strange antics that shell fire plays had left doors and lintels standing without buildings, had left intact here and there pieces of furniture. There was an occasional picture on an exposed wall; iron street lamps had been twisted into travesties ; whole panes of glass remained in facades behind which the buildings were g6ne. A part of the wooden scaffolding by which repairs were being made to the old tower of the Cloth Hall hung there uninjured by either flame or shell. On one street all the trees had been cut off as if by one shell, about ten feet above the ground, but in another, where nothing whatever remained but piles of stone and mortar, a great elm has apparently not lost a single branch.

Irreparable Harm

Much has been written about the desolation of these towns. To get a picture of it one must realise the solidity with which even the private houses are built. They are stone, or if not, the walls are of massive brick coated with plaster. There are no frame buildings; wood is too expensive for that purpose. So the destruction of a town there means the destruction of buildings that have stood for centuries, and would in the normal course of events have continued to stand for centuries more.


more scenes of ruin and devastation in Ypres


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