A Journal of Impressions in Belgium Part 1

A Journal of Impressions in Belgium.

by May Sinclair.

INTRODUCTION

This is a "Journal of Impressions," and it is nothing more. It will not satisfy people who want accurate and substantial information about Belgium, or about the War, or about Field Ambulances and Hospital Work, and do not want to see any of these things "across a temperament." For the Solid Facts and the Great Events they must go to such books as Mr.

E. A. Powell's "Fighting in Flanders," or Mr. Frank Fox's "The Agony of Belgium," or Dr. H. S. Souttar's "A Surgeon in Belgium," or "A Woman's Experiences in the Great War," by Louise Mack.

For many of these impressions I can claim only a psychological accuracy; some were insubstantial to the last degree, and very few were actually set down there and then, on the spot, as I have set them down here. This is only a Journal in so far as it is a record of days, as faithful as I could make it in every detail, and as direct as circ.u.mstances allowed.

But circ.u.mstances seldom _did_ allow, and I was always behindhand with my Journal--a week behind with the first day of the seventeen, four months behind with the last.

This was inevitable. For in the last week of the Siege of Antwerp, when the wounded were being brought into Ghent by hundreds, and when the fighting came closer and closer to the city, and at the end, when the Germans were driving you from Ghent to Bruges, and from Bruges to Ostend and from Ostend to Dunkirk, you could not sit down to write your impressions, even if you were cold-blooded enough to want to. It was as much as you could do to scribble the merest note of what happened in your Day-Book.

But when you had made fast each day with its note, your impressions were safe, far safer than if you had tried to record them in their flux as they came. However far behind I might be with my Journal, it was _kept_.

It is not written "up," or round and about the original notes in my Day-Book, it is simply written _out_. Each day of the seventeen had its own quality and was soaked in its own atmosphere; each had its own unique and incorruptible memory, and the slight lapse of time, so far from dulling or blurring that memory, crystallized it and made it sharp and clean. And in writing _out_ I have been careful never to go behind or beyond the day, never to add anything, but to leave each moment as it was. I have set down the day's imperfect or absurd impression, in all its imperfection or absurdity, and the day's crude emotion in all its crudity, rather than taint its reality with the discreet reflections that came after.

I make no apology for my many errors--where they were discoverable I have corrected them in a footnote; to this day I do not know how wildly wrong I may have been about kilometres and the points of the compa.s.s, and the positions of batteries and the movements of armies; but there were other things of which I was dead sure; and this record has at least the value of a "human doc.u.ment."

There is one question that I may be asked: "Why, when you had the luck to go out with a Field Ambulance Corps distinguished by its gallantry--why in heaven's name have you not told the story of its heroism?"

Well--I have not told it for several excellent reasons. When I set out to keep a Journal I pledged myself to set down only what I had seen or felt, and to avoid as far as possible the second-hand; and it was my misfortune that I saw very little of the field-work of the Corps.

Besides, the Corps itself was then in its infancy, and it is its infancy--its irrepressible, half-irresponsible, whole engaging infancy--that I have touched here. After those seventeen days at Ghent it grew up in all conscience. It was at Furnes and Dixmude and La Panne, after I had left it, that its most memorable deeds were done.[A]

And this story of the Corps is not mine to tell. Part of it has been told already by Dr. Souttar, and part by Mr. Philip Gibbs, and others.

The rest is yet to come.

M. S.

July 15th, 1915.

FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote A: See Postscript.]

A JOURNAL OF IMPRESSIONS IN BELGIUM

[_September 25th, 1914._]

After the painful births and deaths of I don't know how many committees, after six weeks' struggling with something we imagined to be Red Tape, which proved to be the combined egoism of several persons all desperately anxious to "get to the Front," and desperately afraid of somebody else getting there too, and getting there first, we are actually off. Impossible to describe the mysterious processes by which we managed it. I think the War Office kicked us out twice, and the Admiralty once, though what we were doing with the Admiralty I don't to this day understand. The British Red Cross kicked us steadily all the time, on general principles; the American snubbed us rather badly; what the French said to us I don't remember, and I can't think that we carried persistency so far as to apply to the Russian and the j.a.panese.

Many of our scheme perished in their own vagueness. Others, vivid and adventurous, were checked by the first encounter with the cra.s.s reality. At one time, I remember, we were to have sent out a detachment of stalwart Amazons in khaki breeches who were to dash out on to the battle-field, reconnoitre, and pick up the wounded and carry them away slung over their saddles. The only difficulty was to get the horses. But the author of the scheme--who had bought her breeches--had allowed for that. The horses were to be caught on the battle-field; as the wounded and dead dropped from their saddles the Amazons were to leap into them and ride off. On this system "remounts" were also to be supplied.

Whenever a horse was shot dead under its rider, an Amazon was to dash up with another whose rider had been shot dead. It was all perfectly simple and only needed a little "organization." For four weeks the lure of the battle-field kept our volunteers dancing round the War Office and the Red Cross Societies, and for four weeks their progress to the Front was frustrated by Lord Kitchener. Some dropped off disheartened, but others came on, and a regenerated committee dealt with them. Finally the thing crystallized into a Motor Ambulance Corps. An awful sanity came over the committee, chastened by its sufferings, and the volunteers, under pressure, definitely renounced the battle-field. Then somebody said, "Let's help the Belgian refugees." From that moment our course was clear. Everybody was perfectly willing that we should help the refugees, provided we relinquished all claim on the wounded. The Belgian Legation was enchanted. It gave pa.s.sports to a small private commission of inquiry under our Commandant to go out to Belgium and send in a report.

At Ostend the commission of inquiry whittled itself down to the one energetic person who had taken it out. And before we knew where we were our Ambulance Corps was accepted by the Belgian Red Cross.

Only we had not got the ambulances.

And though we had got some money, we had not got enough. This was really our good luck, for it saved us from buying the wrong kind of motor ambulance car. But at first the blow staggered us. Then, by some abrupt, incalculable turn of destiny, the British Red Cross, which had kicked us so persistently, came to our help and gave us all the ambulances we wanted.

And we are off.

There are thirteen of us: The Commandant, and Dr. Haynes and Dr. Bird under him; and Mrs. Torrence, a trained nurse and midwife, who can drive a motor car through anything, and take it to bits and put it together again; Janet McNeil, also an expert motorist, and Ursula Dearmer and Mrs. Lambert, Red Cross emergency nurses; Mr. Grierson, Mr. Foster and Mr. Riley, stretcher-bearers, and two chauffeurs and me. I don't know where I come in. But they've called me the Secretary and Reporter, which sounds very fine, and I am to keep the accounts (Heaven help them!) and write the Commandant's reports, and toss off articles for the daily papers, to make a little money for the Corps. We've got some already, raised by the Commandant's Report and Appeal that we published in the _Daily Telegraph_ and _Daily Chronicle_. I shall never forget how I sprinted down Fleet Street to get it in in time, four days before we started.

And we have landed at Ostend.

I'll confess now that I dreaded Ostend more than anything. We had been told that there were horrors upon horrors in Ostend. Children were being born in the streets, and the state of the bathing-machines where the refugees lived was unspeakable. I imagined the streets of Ostend crowded with refugee women bearing children, and the Digue covered with the horrific bathing-machines. On the other hand, Ostend was said to be the safest spot in Europe. No Germans there. No Zeppelins. No bombs.

And we found the bathing-machines planted out several miles from the town, almost invisible specks on a vanishing sh.o.r.e-line. The refugees we met walking about the streets of Ostend were in fairly good case and bore themselves bravely. But the town had been bombarded the night before and our hotel had been the object of very special attentions. We chose it (the "Terminus") because it lay close to the landing-stage and saved us the trouble of going into the town to look for quarters. It was under the same roof as the railway station, where we proposed to leave our ambulance cars and heavy luggage. And we had no difficulty whatever in getting rooms for the whole thirteen of us. There was no sort of compet.i.tion for rooms in that hotel. I said to myself, "If Ostend ever is bombarded, this railway station will be the first to suffer. And the hotel and the railway station are one." And when I was shown into a bedroom with gla.s.s windows all along its inner wall and a fine gla.s.s front looking out on to the platforms under the immense gla.s.s roof of the station, I said, "If this hotel is ever bombarded, what fun it will be for the person who sleeps in this bed between these gla.s.s windows."

We were all rather tired and hungry as we met for dinner at seven o'clock. And when we were told that all lights would be put out in the town at eight-thirty we only thought that a munic.i.p.ality which was receiving all the refugees in Belgium must practise _some_ economy, and that, anyway, an hour and a half was enough for anybody to dine in; and we hoped that the Commandant, who had gone to call on the English chaplain at the Grand Hotel Littoral, would find his way back again to the peaceful and commodious shelter of the "Terminus."

He did find his way back, at seven-thirty, just in time to give us a chance of clearing out, if we chose to take it. The English chaplain, it seemed, was surprised and dismayed at our idea of a suitable hotel, and he implored us to fly, instantly, before a bomb burst in among us (this was the first we had heard of the bombardment of the night before). The Commandant put it to us as we sat there: Whether would we leave that dining-room at once and pack our baggage all over again, and bundle out, and go hunting for rooms all through Ostend with the lights out, and perhaps fall into the harbour; or stay where we were and risk the off-chance of a bomb? And we were all very tired and hungry, and we had only got to the soup, and we had seen (and smelt) the harbour, so we said we'd stay where we were and risk it.

And we stayed. A Taube hovered over us and never dropped its bomb.

[_Sat.u.r.day, 26th._]

When we compared notes the next morning we found that we had all gone soundly to sleep, too tired to take the Taube seriously, all except our two chauffeurs, who were downright annoyed because no bomb had entered their bedroom. Then we all went out and looked at the little hole in the roof of the fish market, and the big hole in the hotel garden, and thought of bombs as curious natural phenomena that never had and never would have any intimate connection with _us_.

And for five weeks, ever since I knew that I must certainly go out with this expedition, I had been living in black funk; in shameful and appalling terror. Every night before I went to sleep I saw an interminable spectacle of horrors: trunks without heads, heads without trunks, limbs tangled in intestines, corpses by every roadside, murders, mutilations, my friends shot dead before my eyes. Nothing I shall ever see will be more ghastly than the things I have seen. And yet, before a possibly-to-be-bombarded Ostend this strange visualizing process ceases, and I see nothing and feel nothing. Absolutely nothing; until suddenly the Commandant announces that he is going into the town, by himself, to _buy a hat_, and I get my first experience of real terror.

For the hats that the Commandant buys when he is by himself--there are no words for them.

This morning the Corps begins to realize its need of discipline. First of all, our chauffeurs have disappeared and can nowhere be found. The motor ambulances languish in inactivity on c.o.c.kerill's Wharf. We find one chauffeur and set him to keep guard over a tin of petrol. We _know_ the ambulances can't start till heaven knows when, and so, first Mrs.

Lambert, our emergency nurse, then, I regret to say, our Secretary and Reporter make off and sneak into the Cathedral. We are only ten minutes, but still we are away, and Mrs. Torrence, our trained nurse, is ready for us when we come back. We are accused bitterly of sight-seeing. (We had betrayed the inherent levity of our nature the day before, on the boat, when we looked at the sunset.) Then the Secretary and Reporter, utterly intractable, wanders forth ostensibly to look for the Commandant, who has disappeared, but really to get a sight of the motor ambulances on c.o.c.kerill's Wharf. And Mrs. Torrence is ready again for the Secretary, convicted now of sight-seeing. And I have seen no Commandant, and no motor ambulances and no wharf. (Unbearable thought, that I may never, absolutely never, see c.o.c.kerill's Wharf!) It is really awful this time, because the President of the Belgian Red Cross is waiting to get the thirteen of us to the Town Hall to have our pa.s.sports _vises_. And the Commandant is rounding up his Corps, and Ursula Dearmer is heaven knows where, and Mrs. Lambert only somewhere in the middle distance, and Mrs. Torrence's beautiful eyes are blazing at the slip-sloppiness of it all. Things were very different at the ---- Hospital, where she was trained.

Only the President remains imperturbable.

For, after all this fuming and fretting, the President isn't quite ready himself, or perhaps the Town Hall isn't ready, and we all stroll about the streets of Ostend for half an hour. And the Commandant goes off by himself, to buy that hat.

It is a terrible half-hour. But after all, he comes back without it, judging it better to bear the ills he has.

Very leisurely, and with an immense consumption of time, we stroll and get photographed for our pa.s.sports. Then on to the Town Hall, and then to the Military Depot for our _Laissez-pa.s.ser_, and then to the Hotel Terminus for lunch. And at one-thirty we are off.

Whatever happens, whatever we see and suffer, nothing can take from us that run from Ostend to Ghent.

We go along a straight, flat highway of grey stones, through flat, green fields and between thin lines of trees--tall and slender and delicate trees. There are no hedges. Only here and there a row of poplars or pollard willows is flung out as a screen against the open sky. This country is formed for the very expression of peace. The straight flat roads, the straight flat fields and straight tall trees stand still in an immense quiet and serenity. We pa.s.s low Flemish houses with white walls and red roofs. Their green doors and shutters are tall and slender like the trees, the colours vivid as if the paint had been laid on yesterday. It is all unspeakably beautiful and it comes to me with the natural, inevitable shock and ecstasy of beauty. I am going straight into the horror of war. For all I know it may be anywhere, here, behind this sentry; or there, beyond that line of willows. I don't know. I don't care. I cannot realize it. All that I can see or feel at the moment is this beauty. I look and look, so that I may remember it.

Is it possible that I am enjoying myself?

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