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Vagabonding through changing Germany online

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that was the second grievance of the American soldier on the
Rhine; the first was the uncertainty that surrounded his
return to the land of his birth. While the neighboring
armies were walking the necessary posts and sleeping many
and long naps, our soldiers had scarcely found time to wash
the feet that had carried them from the trenches to the
Rhine, much less cure them of their blisters, when orders
swept over the Army of Occupation calling for long hours
of intensive training six days a week. It is said that an
English general on an inspection tour of our area watched
this mile after mile of frenzied trench-digging, of fake
bombing - parties, of sham battles the barrages of which
still made the earth tremble for a hundred miles around,
of never-ending "Squads east and squads west," without a
word, until he came to the end of the day and of his review.
Then he remarked:

"Astounding! Extraordinary, all this, upon my word!
You chaps certainly have the vim of youth. But . . . ah . . .
er . . . if you don't mind telling me, just what are you
planning to do? Fight your way back through France?"
7 83



V

GETTING NEUTRALIZED

HTHERE is an aged saying to the effect that the longest
"»• way round is often the shortest way home. It applies
to many of the crossroads of life. Toward the end of March
I found myself facing such a fork in my own particular
footpath. My "duties" with the Army of Occupation
had slowed down to a point where I could only write the
word between quotation-marks and speak it with a throaty
laugh. I suggested that I be sent on a walking trip through
unoccupied Germany, whence our information was not so
meager as contradictory. It would have been so simple
to have dropped into the inconspicuous garb of a civilian
right there in Coblenz, and to have slipped noiselessly
over the outer arc of our bridgehead. Eventually, I believe,
the army would have adopted the suggestion. There were
times when it showed an almost human interest in the proj-
ect. But I am of an intensely selfish, self-centered dis-
position; I wanted to try the adventure myself , personally.
Besides, there was no certainty that my grandson would
care for that species of sport. He might be of quite the
opposite temperament — a solid, respectable, church-going,
respected citizen, and all that sort of thing, you know.
Furthermore, I had not yet taken the first preliminary,
indispensable step toward acquiring a grandson. Where-
fore, in a lucid moment, I recalled the moth-eaten adage
above plagiarized, and concluded that the easiest way



GETTING NEUTRALIZED

to get "over into Germany" was to turn my back on the
Rhine and return to France.

It may be that my offer to relieve Uncle Sam from the
burden of my support caught the authorities napping.
At any rate, the application sailed serenely over the reef
on which I fully expected to see it hopelessly shipwrecked,
and a week later I was speeding toward that village in cen-
tral France known to the A. E. F. as the "canning factory."

Relieved for the first time in twenty-three months of
the necessity of awaiting authority for my goings and com-
ings, I returned a fortnight later to Coblenz. It would
not have been difficult to sneak directly over our line
into unoccupied territory. I knew more than one forest-
hidden loophole in it. But that would scarcely have been
fair to my erstwhile colonel — and with all his faults the
colonel had been rather decent. Besides, while that would
have been the more romantic thing, it might not have led
to as long and unhampered a stay in Germany as a more
orderly and gentlemanly entrance.

Of the two neutralizing points, that to the north was re-
puted the more promising. The express to Cologne sped
across white fields that belied the calendar and gave the
heavily blossomed cherry- and apple-trees the appearance
of being laden with clinging snow. The more brassy
British khaki took the place of our own, the compartment
groups changed gradually from American to English officers.
The latter were very young, for the most part, and one
scarcely needed to listen to their almost childish prattle
of their work and things warlike to know that they were
not veterans. Long freight-trains crowded with still
younger Britishers, exuding the extreme callowness of the
untraveled insular youth, rattled into town with us from a
more northern direction, happy to take the place of the
grim and grizzled warriors that were being demobilized.
In the outskirts of the city Germans of both sexes and all

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ages were placidly yet diligently toiling in their little garden
patches into the twilight of the long spring day.

The British, rating me a correspondent, billeted me in a
once proud hotel in the shadow of the great cathedral.
In the scurry of pursuing passport and visees in Paris I
had found no time to change my garb to the kind that
flaps about the ankles. In consequence my evening stroll
was several times broken by as many of England's boyish
new guardsmen, their bayonets overtopping them by
several inches in some cases, who pounded their rifle-
butts on the pavement in salute and stage-whispered a bit
tremulously :

"Officers is not to walk about too much by theirselves,
sir."

My query at the first warning had been answered with a :

"Three of them was badly cut up last night, sir."

There were no outward signs of any such serious enmity,

however; on the contrary, the populace seemed almost

friendly, and at the officers' club guests were checking their

side-arms with the German doorman.

The tall and hearty Irish guardsman in charge of British
Rhine traffic readily granted my request to go down the
river in one of the daily steamers carrying troops back to
"Blighty" for demobilization. That day's boat floundered
under the simple little name of Ernst Ludwig Gross Herzog
von Hessen und hei Rhein! I believe the new owners
called it Louie. A score of German girls came down
to the wharf to wave the departing "Tommies" farewell.
All day we passed long strings of barges flying the triangular
flag of the Food Commission, bearing supplies for the Army
of Occupation and the civilian population of the occupied
region. The time was but a few weeks off when the arteries
of the Third Army flowing through France would be entirely
cut off. The food on board the Louie was not unlike our
own army ration; the bunks supplied the officers were of

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GETTING NEUTRALIZED

a sort that would have moved our own more exacting
wearers of the "Sam Browne" to start a Congressional
investigation. The most noticeable differences between this
Blighty -bound multitude and our own doughboys were three
in number — their lack of inventiveness in amusing them-
selves, their lower attitude toward women, and the utter
lack of care of the teeth, conspicuous even among the offi-
cers. We should have been hard put to it, however, to
fmd a higher type than the youthful captains and lieutenants
in charge of the steamer.

At five we halted for the night beside several huge barges
anchored well out in the stream, their holds filled with very
passable bunks — as soldiering goes. While the Tommies,
pack-laden, clambered down the half-dozen narrow hatches
to their light quarters, I dropped in on the families that
dwelt in the stern of each. Those who have never paid a
similar call might be surprised to find what homelike com-
fort reigns in these floating residences. Outwardly the
barges are of the plainest and roughest, coal-carriers for
the most part, with all the smudge and discomfort of such
occupation. As the lower house door at the rear opens, his
eyes are prepared to behold something about as inviting
as the forecastle of a windjammer. Instead they are all
but dazzled by the immaculate, housewifely cleanliness,
the orderly comfort of the interior. The Rhine-plying
dwelling is a close replica of a "lower middle-class " residence
ashore — a half-dozen rooms, carpeted, lace-curtained, the
walls decorated with family portraits, elaborate-framed
mottoes and over-colored statuettes of the Catholic faith,
a great square bed of inviting furnishings in the parental
room, smaller though no less attractive ones in the other
sleeping-chambers, easy-chairs, the latest thing in kitchen
ranges, large lamps that are veritable chandeliers suspended
from the ceiling — nothing was missing, down to the family
cat and canary.

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VAGABONDING THROUGH CHANGING GERMANY

It was noticeable that though the barges had been com-
mandeered by their army and they never lost sight of the
fact that their owners were "the enemy," the English
officers were meticulously courteous in requesting permis-
sion to enter the family cabins. Your Britisher never for-
gets that a man's home is his castle. One could not but
wonder just what the attitude of a German officer would
have been under reversed conditions, for the same motto
is far less deeply ingrained in the Teuton character. The
barge nearest the steamer was occupied by a family with
five children, the oldest aged fourteen, all bom on board,
at as many points of the vessel's constant going and coming
between Rotterdam and Mannheim. Two of them were at
school in the town in which the family was registered as
residents, where the parental marriage was on record,
where the father reported when the order of mobilization
called him to arms. The oldest had already been entered as
"crew," and was preparing to follow in his father's foot-
steps — ^if the expression be allowed under the circumstances.

When they had arranged themselves for the night, the
"Tommies" returned on board the steamer for a two-hour
entertainment of such caliber as could be aroused from their
own midst. There were several professional barn-storming
vaudeville performers among them, rather out of practice
from their long trench vigils, but willing enough to offer
such talents as they still possessed. Nor were the amateurs
selfish in preserving their incognito. It was simple fare,
typified by such uproarious jokes as :

"'Ungry, are you? Well, 'ere, 'ere's a piece of chalk.
Go draw yourself a plate of 'am an' eggs."

But it all served to pass the endless last hours that
separated the war-weary veterans from the final ardently
awaited return to "the old woman an' the kids."

The tramp of hundreds of hobnailed shoes on the deck
over our heads awoke us at dawn, and by the time we had



GETTING NEUTRALIZED

reached the open air Germany had been left behind. It
needed only the glimpse of a cart, drawn by a dog, occupied
by a man, and with a horse hitched behind — a genuine case
of the cart before the horse — trotting along an elevated
highway, sharp-cut against the floor-flat horizon, to tell
us we were in Holland. Besides, there were stodgy wind-
mills slowly laboring on every hand, to say nothing of the
rather unprepossessing young Dutch lieutenant, in his
sickly gray-green uniform, who had boarded us at the
frontier, to confirm the change of nationality of Father
Rhine. The lieutenant's duties consisted of graciously
accepting an occasional sip of the genuine old Scotch that
graced the sideboard of the youthful commanding officer,
and of seeing to it that the rifles of the Tommies remained
under lock and key until they reached their sea-going vessel
at the mouth of the river — a task that somehow suggested
a Lilliputian sent to escort a regiment of giants through his
diminutive kingdom.

In the little cluster of officers on the upper deck the
conversation rarely touched on war deeds, even casually,
though one knew that many a thrilling tale was hidden
away in their memories. The talk was all of rehabilitation,
rebuilding of the civilian lives that the Great Adventure
had in so many cases all but wholly wrecked. Among the
men below there was more apathy, more silent dreaming,
interspersed now and then by those crude witticisms with
which their class breaks such mental tension :

"These 'ere blinkin' Dutch girls always makes me think
as 'ow their faces 'ave been mashed by a steam-roller an'
their bloomin* legs blowed up with a bicycle pump, so
'elp me!"

The remark might easily be rated an exaggeration, but
the solid Jongvrouws who clattered their wooden-shod way
along the banks could not in all fairness have been called
delicate.

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VAGABONDING THROUGH CHANGING GERMANY

I was conscious of a flicker of surprise when the Dutch
authorities welcomed me ashore without so much as open-
ing my baggage — particularly as I was still in uniform.
The hotel I chose turned out to be German in ownership
and personnel. Steeped in the yarns of the past five years,
I looked forward to at least the excitement of having spies
go through my baggage the moment I left it unguarded.
Possibly they did ; if so, they were superhumanly clever in
repacking the stuff as they found it.

If I had been so foolish as to suppose that I could hurry
on at once into Germany I should have been sadly disap-
pointed. The first of the several duties before me was to
apply to the police for a Dutch identity card. Without it
no one could exist at liberty in nor leave the flat little
kingdom. As usually happens in such cases, when one is
in a hurry, the next day was Sunday. The chief excitement
in Rotterdam on the day of rest was no longer the Zoo,
but the American camp, a barbed-wire inclosure out along
the wharves about which the Dutchman and his wife and
progeny packed a dozen rows deep to gaze at doughboys
tossing baseballs or swinging boxing-gloves, with about
as much evidence of the amusement as they might show
before a Rembrandt or a Van Dyck painting. Naturally
so hilarious a Sabbath passes swiftly for a man eager to be
elsewhere !

There were, of course, the window displays of the closed
shops, of unfailing interest to any one long famiHar only
with warring lands. No wonder these placid Dutchmen
looked so full-cheeked and contented. Though a trades-
man may have found some things missing, to the casual
eye there were apparently none of the material good things
of life that could not be had in superabundance. Butter,
eggs, cakes, bonbons, fat bacon, meat of every species,
sweets of all kinds, soap as good and as cheap as before
the war, cigarettes, cigars, and tobacco enough to have

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GETTING NEUTRALIZED

set all France to rioting, all those little dainties which the
gormands of the belligerent countries had ceased even
to sigh for, were here tantalizingly spread out for block
after block, street after street. Restaurants ostentated
menu -cards offering anything a hungry man could pay
for; milk was to be had every few yards at ten Dutch
cents a glass. One had something of the sensation that
would come from seeing diamonds and gold nuggets strewn
along the way just around the corner from the abode of a
band of unsuccessful yeggmen. With the caution bred of
nineteen months in France I had filled the interstices of
my baggage with chocolate and cigars. It was like car-
rying gloves to Grenoble. Nothing was more abundantly
displayed in the windows of Rotterdam than those two
articles.

A closer inspection, however, showed that Holland had
not entirely escaped the secondary effects of the war. The
milk that still sold so cheaply showed a distinct evidence
now of too close an alliance between the herd and the pump.
If the restaurants were fully supplied from hors-d'oeuvre
to coffee, the aftermath was a very serious shock to the
financial system. There seemed, moreover, to be no place
where the average rank and file of laboring humanity could
get its wholesome fill for a reasonable portion of its income.
The bonbons were a trifle pasty; the cigars not only as
expensive as across the Atlantic — which means manyfold
more than the old Dutch prices — they were far more invit-
ing behind a plate-glass than when burning in front of the
face. The clothing that was offered in such abundance
usually confessed frankly to membership in the shoddy
class. Suspenders and garters had all but lost their elas-
ticity ; shoes — except the more popular Dutch variety — had
soared to the lofty realms to which all articles of leather
have ascended the world over. Bicycles, the Dutchman's
chief means of locomotion, however, seemed as easily within

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VAGABONDING THROUGH CHANGING GERMANY

reach as if the far-spread "rubber crisis" had never dis-
covered this corner of Europe.

Yet on the whole these happy, red - cheeked, overfed
Dutchmen did not seem to have a care in the world. Their
attitude toward the American uniform appeared to be cold,
at best not above indifference, though the new doughboy-
weekly credited them with genuine friendliness. One got
the impression that they were pro-Ally or pro-Boche inter-
changeably, as it served their own interests — which after
all is quite in keeping with human nature the world roimd.
The most serious task of the American detachment was to
prevent the supplies destined for hungry Europe beyond
from dwindling under the hands of the Dutch stevedores
who transhipped them. It would, perhaps, be unfair to
call the stodgy little nation a war profiteer, yet there were
suggestions on all sides that it had not always scorned to
take advantage of the distress of its neighbors. I may be
prejudiced, but I did not find the Hollanders what the
Spaniards calls simpdtico, not even so much as I had fifteen
years before. If I may so express it, the kingdom left the
same impression one feels upon meeting an old classmate
who has amassed wealth in some of the quicker, less laborious
methods our own land affords. One rejoices, in a way,
at his prosperity, yet one feels more in tune with the less
"successful" old-time friend who has been mellowed by
his fair share of adversities.

Monday, though it was the last day of April, shivered
under a ragged blanket of wet snow. The line-up at the
police station was international and it was long. Further-
more, the lieutenants behind the extemporized wickets
were genuinely Dutch; they neither gossiped nor loafed,
yet they did not propose to let the haste of a disorderly
outside world disturb their racial serenity or jar their
superb penmanship. They preserved the same sense of

order amid the chaos that surrounded their tight little

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GETTING NEUTRALIZED

land as the magnificent policemen directing traffic in the
main streets outside, who halted the stranger inadvertently
following the wrong sidewalk with a courteous but exceed-
ingly firm "You are taking a valk on the rhight side of the
street, pleasse." In the course of two hours I reached a
wicket — only to find that I needed two photographs. By
the time I had been mugged and reached the head of the
international line again another day had drifted into the
irredeemable past.

It was not easy to get the Hollander to talk of the war
and its kindred topics, even when one found him able
to speak some better-known tongue than his own. He
seemed to hold the subject in some such abhorrence as
cultured persons do the latest scandal, or, more exactly,
perhaps, to look upon it as a highly successful soap manu-
facturer does the plebeian commodity on which his social
superstructure is erected. Americans who had been in
the country long enough to penetrate a bit below the surface
were inclined to think that, if he had any other feeling
than pro-Dutch, he leaned a little to the eastward. Es-
pecially, however, was he interested in seeing to it that
both sides were given an equal opportunity of eating undis-
turbed at his table — and paying well for the privilege.
In a mild way a clean and orderly hotelkeeper housing
two rival football teams would have displayed the same
attitude.

But gibes at either side were not wholly tabooed. At an
alleged "musical comedy" in a local theater the scene that
produced the most audible mirth depicted the erstwhile
Kaiser and Crown Prince — excellently mimed down to the
crippled arm of the one and the goat-face of the other —
enjoying the bucolic hospitality of their land of refuge.
The father, dressed in one of the most gorgeous of his
innumerable uniforms, stood at a convenient block, splitting
kindling with a one-handed hatchet; the son, in wooden

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VAGABONDING THROUGH CHANGING GERMANY

shoes and a Zuyder Zee cap, sat on a pierhead serenely
fishing. Above their heads stood a road-sign pointing in
opposite directions to:

"PARIS— 45,000 kilometers; CALAIS— 75,000 kilo-
meters."

Their extended quarrel on who started the war, and why,
brought no evidence of pro-German sympathy from the
audience. It was easy to imagine the horrified protest
from the German Legation which such a skit would have
brought down upon the producer's head a year before.
A scene that caused little less mirth showed a Dutch frontier
guard so hoary with service that their clothing had sprouted
toadstools and their feet barnacles.

The more widely I inquired the more unlikely seemed the
possibility of getting into Germany. This was in keeping
with my experiences in other lands, had I stopped to think
of it, where it had always proved simpler to dash forward
on a difficult trip first and make inquiries afterward. Our
consulate in Rotterdam had no suggestions to offer and
advised me to see our Legation at The Hague. An excellent
train, showing no evidence that the world had ever been at
war, set me down at the Dutch capital an hour later.

"You want to get into Germany?" queried the Legation,
with elevated eyebrows. "Well, all we can say is God bless
you!"

A deeper probing, however, showed that this was only the
official voice speaking.

"Personally," continued the particular secretary to whom
I had appealed, with a decided accent on the word, "I would
suggest that you see the German Legation. Officially, of
course, we do not know that any such place exists, but — I
have heard — quite unofficially — that there is a Herr Maltzen
there who. . . . But of course you could not call on him
in American khaki. ..."

I came near making the faux pas of asking where the Ger-

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man Legation was situated. Of course the secretary could
not have known officially. The first passer-by outside,
however, readily pointed it out to me — just around the
comer. By the time I had returned to Rotterdam and
outfitted myself in civilian garb carefully adjusted to pass
muster at so exacting a function as a German official visit
and at the same time not to suggest wealth to fellow-road-
sters should I succeed in entering the Empire, another day
had been added to my debit column.

On the train to The Hague next morning I tested the
disguise which exceedingly European clothing, a recently
acquired mustache, and the remnants of a tongue I had
once spoken rather fluently afforded by playing German
before my fellow-passengers. To all outward appearances
the attempt was successful, but try as I would I saw a
German spy in every rosy-cheeked, prosperous Dutchman
who turned his bovine eyes fixedly upon me. Herr Maltzen's
office hours were not imtil five in the afternoon. When
at last I was ushered into his august presence I summoned
my best German accent and laid as much stress as was
becoming on some distant relatives who — the past five
years willing — still dwelt within the Empire.

"The primary question, of course," pronounced Herr
Maltzen, in the precise, resonant language of his calling,
"is, are you German or are you an American?"

"American, certainly," I replied.

"Ah, then it will be difficult, extremely difficult," boomed
the immaculate Teuton, solemnly. "Up to nine days ago
I was permitted to pass personally on the credentials of
foreign correspondents. But now they must be referred
to Berlin. If you care to make official application ..."

"I hereby do so."

"Unfortunately, it is not so simple as that. The ap-
plication must be in writing, giving references to several
persons of the responsible class in Germany, with a state-
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VAGABONDING THROUGH CHANGING GERMANY

ment of your activities during the war, copies of your
credentials ..."

"And how soon could I expect the answer?"

"With the very best of luck in two weeks, more probably
three or four."

I returned to Rotterdam in a somewhat dazed condition,
having left Herr Maltzen with the impression that I had
gone to think the problem over. Nor was that a false
impression. It was more of a problem than even the
suave diplomat suspected. It happened that I had a bare
six weeks left for a tramp "over in Germany." If I frittered
away three-fourths of them among the placid and contented



Online LibraryHarry Alverson FranckVagabonding through changing Germany → online text (page 8 of 29)