A Journal of Impressions in Belgium Part 9

I am glad I am going. But the odd thing is that there is no excitement about it. It seems an entirely fit and natural thing that the vision should materialize, that I should see the sh.e.l.ls battering the forts of Antwerp and hear the big siege-guns from Namur. For all its incredibility, the adventure lacks every element of surprise. It is simply what I came out for. For here in Belgium the really incredible things are the things that existed and happened before the War. They existed and happened a hundred years ago and the memory of them is indistinct; the feeling of them is gone. You have ceased to have any personal interest in them; if they happened at all they happened to somebody else. What is happening now has been happening always. All your past is soaking in the vivid dye of these days, and what you are now you have been always. I have been a War Correspondent all my life--_blasee_ with battles. The Commandant orders me into the front seat beside the chauffeur Tom, so that I may see things. Even Tom's face cannot shake me in my conviction that I am merely setting out once more on my usual, legitimate, daily job.

It is all so natural that you do not wonder in the least at this really very singular extension of your personality. You are not aware of your personality at all. If you could be you would see it undergoing shrinkage. It is, anyhow, one of the things that ceased to matter a hundred years ago. If you could examine its contents at this moment you would find nothing there but that shining vision of danger, the siege of Antwerp, indistinct, impalpable, aerial.

Presently the vision itself shrinks and disappears on the north-west horizon. The car has shot beyond the streets into the open road, the great paved highway to Antwerp, and I am absorbed in other matters: in Car 1 and in the chauffeur Tom, who is letting her rip more and more into her top speed with every mile; in M. C----, the Belgian Red Cross guide, beside me on my left, and in the Belgian soldier sitting on the floor at his feet. The soldier is confiding some fearful secret to M. C---- about somebody called Achille. M. C---- bends very low to catch the name, as if he were trying to intercept and conceal it, and when he _has_ caught it he a.s.sumes an air of superb mystery and gravity and importance. With one gesture he buries the name of Achille in his breast under his uniform. You know that he would die rather than betray the secret of Achille. You decide that Achille is the heroic bearer of dispatches, and that we have secret orders to pick him up somewhere and convey him in safety to Antwerp. You do not grasp the meaning of this pantomime until the third sentry has approached us, and M. C---- has stopped for the third time to whisper "Ach-ille!" behind the cover of his hand, and the third sentry is instantly appeased.

(Concerning sentries, you learn that the Belgian kind is amiable, but that the French sentry is a terrible fellow, who will think nothing of shooting you if your car doesn't stop dead the instant he levels his rifle.)

Except for sentries and straggling troops and the long trains of refugees, the country is as peaceful between Ghent and Saint Nicolas as it was last week between Ostend and Ghent. It is the same adorable Flemish country, the same flat fields, the same paved causeway and the same tall, slender avenues of trees. But if anything could make the desolation of Belgium more desolate it is this intolerable beauty of slender trees and infinite flat land, the beauty of a country formed for the very expression of peace. In the vivid gold and green of its autumn it has become a stage dressed with ironic splendour for the spectacle of a people in flight. Half the population of Antwerp and the country round it is pouring into Ghent.[8] First the automobiles, Belgian officers in uniform packed tight between women and children and their bundles, convoying the train. Then the carriages secured by the _bourgeois_ (they are very few); then men and boys on bicycles; then the carts, and with the coming on of the carts the spectacle grows incredible, fantastic.

You see a thing advancing like a house on wheels. It is a tall hay-wagon--the tallest wagon you have ever seen in your life--piled with household furniture and mattresses on the top of the furniture, and on top of the mattresses, on the roof, as it were, a family of women and children and young girls. Some of them seem conscious of the stupendous absurdity of this appearance; they smile at you or laugh as the structure goes towering and toppling by.

Next, low on the ground, enormous and grotesque bundles, endowed with movement and with legs. Only when you come up to them do you see that they are borne on the bowed backs of men and women and children. The children--when there are no bundles to be borne these carry a bird in a cage, or a dog, a dog that sits in their arms like a baby and is pressed tight to their b.r.e.a.s.t.s. Here and there men and women driving their cattle before them, driving them gently, without haste, with a great dignity and patience.

These, for all the panic and ruin in their bearing, might be pilgrims or suppliants, or the servants of some religious rite, bringing the votive offerings and the sacrificial beasts. The infinite land and the avenues of slender trees persuade you that it is so.

And wherever the ambulance cars go they meet endless processions of refugees; endless, for the straight, flat Flemish roads are endless, and as far as your eye can see the stream of people is unbroken; endless, because the misery of Belgium is endless; the mind cannot grasp it or take it in. You cannot meet it with grief, hardly with conscious pity; you have no tears for it; it is a sorrow that transcends everything you have known of sorrow. These people have been left "only their eyes to weep with." But they do not weep any more than you do. They have no tears for themselves or for each other.[9] This is the terrible thing, this and the manner of their flight. It is not flight, it is the vast, unhasting and unending movement of a people crushed down by grief and weariness, pushed on by its own weight, by the ceaseless impact of its ruin.

This stream is the main stream from Antwerp, swollen by its tributaries.

It doesn't seem to matter where it comes from, its strength and volume always seem the same. After the siege of Antwerp it will thicken and flow from some other direction, that is all. And all the streams seem to flow into Ghent and to meet in the Palais des Fetes.[10]

I forget whether it was near Lokeren or Saint Nicolas that we saw the first sign of fighting, in houses levelled to the ground to make way for the artillery fire; levelled, and raked into neat plots without the semblance of a site.

After the refugees, the troops. Village streets crowded with military automobiles and trains of baggage wagons and regiments of infantry.

Little villas with desolate, surprised and innocent faces, standing back in their gardens; soldiers sitting in their porches and verandahs, soldiers' faces looking out of their windows; soldiers are quartered in every room, and the gra.s.s grows high in their gardens. Soldiers run down the garden paths to look at our ambulance as it goes by.

There is excitement in the village streets.

At Saint Nicolas we overtake Dr. Wilson and Mr. Davidson walking into Antwerp. They tell us the news.

The British troops have come. At last. They have been through before us on their way to Antwerp. Dr. Wilson and Mr. Davidson have seen the British troops. They have talked to them.

Mr. Davidson cannot conceal his glee at getting in before the War Correspondents. Pure luck has given into his hands _the_ great journalistic scoop of the War in Belgium. And he is not a journalist. He is a sculptor out for the busts of warriors, and for actuality in those tragic and splendid figures that are grouped round memorial columns, for the living att.i.tude and gesture.

We take up Mr. Davidson and Dr. Wilson, and leave one of our professors (if he is a professor) at Saint Nicolas, for the poor man has come without his pa.s.sport. He will have to hang about at Saint Nicolas, doing nothing, until such time as it pleases Heaven to send us back from Antwerp. He resigns himself, and we abandon him, a piteous figure wrapped in a brown shawl.

After Saint Nicolas more troops, a few batteries of artillery, some infantry, long, long regiments of Belgian cavalry, coming to the defence of the country outside Antwerp. Cavalry halting at a fork of the road by a little fir-wood. A road that is rather like the road just outside Wareham as you go towards Poole. More troops. And after the troops an interminable procession of labourers trudging on foot. At a distance you take them for refugees, until you see that they are carrying poles and spades. Presently the road cuts through the circle of stakes and barbed wire entanglements set for the German cavalry. And somewhere on our left (whether before or after Saint Nicolas I cannot remember), across a field, the rail embankment ran parallel with our field, and we saw the long ambulance train, flying the Red Cross and loaded with wounded, on its way from Antwerp to Ghent. At this point the line is exposed conspicuously, and we must have been well within range of the German fire, for the next ambulance train--but we didn't know about the next ambulance train till afterwards.

After the circle of the stakes and wire entanglements you begin to think of the bombardment. You strain your ears for the sound of the siege-guns from Namur. Somewhere ahead of us on the horizon there is Antwerp.

Towers and tall chimneys in a very grey distance. Every minute you look for the flight of the sh.e.l.ls across the grey and the fall of a tower or a chimney. But the grey is utterly peaceful and the towers and the tall chimneys remain. And at last you turn in a righteous indignation and say: "Where is the bombardment?"

The bombardment is at the outer forts.

And where are the forts, then? (You see no forts.)

The outer forts? Oh, the outer forts are thirty kilometres away.

No. Not there. To your right.

And you, who thought you would have died rather than see the siege of Antwerp, are dumb with disgust. Your heart swells with a holy and incorruptible resentment of the sheer levity of the Commandant.

A pretty thing--to bring a War Correspondent out to see a bombardment when there isn't any bombardment, or when all there ever was is a hundred--well then, _thirty_ kilometres away.[11]

It was twilight as we came into Antwerp. We approached it by the west, by the way of the sea, by the great bridge of boats over the Scheldt.

The sea and the d.y.k.es are the defence of Antwerp on this side. Whole regiments of troops are crossing the bridge of boats. Our car crawls by inches at a time. It is jammed tight among some baggage wagons. It disentangles itself with difficulty from the baggage wagons, and is wedged tighter still among the troops. But the troops are moving, though by inches at a time. We get our front wheels on to the bridge. Packed in among the troops, but moving steadily as they move, we cross the Scheldt. On our right the sharp bows and on our left the blunt sterns of the boats. Boat after boat pressed close, gunwale to gunwale, our roadway goes across their b.r.e.a.s.t.s. Their b.r.e.a.s.t.s are taut as the b.r.e.a.s.t.s of gymnasts under the tramping of the regiments. They vibrate like the b.r.e.a.s.t.s of living things as they bear us up.

No heaving of any beautiful and beloved ship, no crossing of any sea, no sight of any city that has the sea at her feet, not New York City nor Venice, no coming into any foreign land, ever thrilled me as that coming into Antwerp with the Belgian army over that bridge of boats.

At twilight, from the river, with its lamps lit and all its waters shining, Antwerp looked beautiful as Venice and as safe and still. For the d.y.k.es are her defences on this side. But for the trudging regiments you would not have guessed that on the land side the outer ramparts were being sh.e.l.led incessantly.

It was a struggle up the slope from the river bank to the quay, a struggle in which we engaged with commissariat and ammunition wagons and troops and refugees in carts, all trying to get away from the city over the bridge of boats. The ascent was so steep and slippery that you felt as though at any moment the car might hurl itself down backwards on the top of the processions struggling behind it.

At last we landed. I have no vivid recollection[12] of our pa.s.sage through the town. Except that I know we actually were in Antwerp I could not say whether I really saw certain winding streets and old houses with steep gables or whether I dreamed them. There was one great street of white houses and gilded signs that stood shimmering somewhere in the twilight; but I cannot tell you what street it was. And there were some modern boulevards, and the whole place was very silent. It had the silence and half darkness of dreams, and the beauty and magic and sinister sadness of dreams. And in that silence and sadness our car, with its backings and turnings and its snorts, and our own voices as we asked our way (for we were more or less lost in Antwerp) seemed to be making an appalling and inappropriate and impious noise.

Antwerp seems to me to have been all hospitals, though I only saw two, or perhaps three. One was in an ordinary house in a street, and I think this must have been the British Field Hospital; for Mrs. Winterbottom was there. And of all the women I met thus casually "at the front" she was, by a long way, the most attractive. We went into one or two of the wards; in others, where the cases were very serious, we were only allowed to stand for a second in the doorway; there were others again which we could not see at all.

I think, unless I am rolling two hospitals into one, that we saw a second--the English Hospital. It was for the English Hospital that we heard the Commandant inquire perpetually as we made our way through the strange streets and the boulevards beyond them, following at his own furious pace, losing him in byways and finding him by some miracle again. Talk of dreams! Our progress through Antwerp was like one of those nightmares which have no form or substance but are made up of ghastly twilight and hopeless quest and ever-accelerating speed. It was not till it was all over that we knew the reason for his excessive haste.

When we got to Mrs. St. Clair Stobart's Hospital--in a garden, planted somewhere away beyond the boulevards in an open place--we had hardly any time to look at it. All the same, I shall never forget that Hospital as long as I live. It had been a concert-hall[13] and was built princ.i.p.ally of gla.s.s and iron; at any rate, if it was not really the greenhouse that it seemed to be there was a great deal of gla.s.s about it, and it had been sh.e.l.led by aeroplane the night before. No great damage had been done, but the sound and the shock had terrified the wounded in their beds. This hospital, as everybody knows, is run entirely by women, with women doctors, women surgeons, women orderlies. Mrs. St. Clair Stobart and some of her gallant staff came out to meet us on a big verandah in front of this fantastic building, she and her orderlies in the uniform of the British Red Cross, her surgeons in long white linen coats over their skirts. Dr. ---- whom we are to take back with us to Ghent, was there.

We asked for Miss ----, and she came to us finally in a small room adjoining what must have been the restaurant of the concert-hall.

I was shocked at her appearance. She was quieter than ever and her face was grey and worn with watching. She looked as if she could not have held out another night.

She told us about last night's bombardment. The effect of it on this absurd greenhouse must have been terrific. Every day they are expecting the bombardment of the town.

No, none of them are leaving except two. Every woman will stick to her post[14] till the order comes to evacuate the hospital, and then not one will quit till the last wounded man is carried to the transport.

It seems that Miss ---- is a hospital orderly, and that her duty is to stand at the gate of the garden with a lantern as the ambulances come in and to light them to the door of the hospital, and then to see that each man has the number of his cot pinned to the breast of his sleeping-jacket.

Mrs. Stobart, very properly, will have none but trained women in her hospital. But even an untrained woman is equal to holding a lantern and pinning on tickets, so I implored Miss ---- to let me take her place while she went back to rest in my room at Ghent, if it was only for one night. I used every argument I could think of, and for one second I thought the best argument had prevailed. But it was only for a second.

Probably not even for a second. Miss ---- may drop to pieces at her post, but it is there that she will drop.

Outside on the verandah the Commandant was fairly ramping to be off.

No--I can't see the Hospital. There isn't any time to see the Hospital.

But Miss ---- could not bear me not to see it, and together we made a surrept.i.tious bolt for it, and I did see the Hospital.

It was not like any hospital you had ever seen before. Except that the wounded were all comfortably bedded, it was more like the sleeping-hall of the Palais des Fetes. The floor of the great concert-hall was covered with mattresses and beds, where the wounded lay about in every att.i.tude of suffering. No doubt everything was in the most perfect order, and the nurses and doctors knew how to thread their way through it all, but to the hurried spectator in the doorway the effect was one of the most _macabre_ confusion. Only one object stood out--the large naked back of a Belgian soldier, who sat on the edge of his bed waiting to be washed.

He must have been really the most cheerful and (comparatively) uninjured figure in the whole crowd, but he seemed the most pitiful, because of the sheer human insistence of his pathetic back.

Over this back and over all that prostrate agony the enormous floriated bronze rings that carried the lights of the concert-hall hung from the ceiling in frightful, festive decoration.

Miss ---- whispered: "One of them is dying. We can't save him."

She seemed to regard this one as a positive slur on their record. I thought: "Only one--among all that crowd!"

Mrs. Stobart came after us in some alarm as we ran down the garden.

"What are you doing with Miss ----? You're not going to carry her off?"

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