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French people, so deep that in some cases there is the fire of
madness there.

In a small château in France an English friend of mine serving with a
volunteer ambulance column with the French troops on the Meuse
was sitting at ease one night with some of his comrades and fellow-
countrymen. The conversation turned to England, because April was
there, and after ten months of war the thoughts of these men yearned
back to their homes. They spoke of their mothers and wives and
children. One man had a pretty daughter, and read a piece of her
latest letter, and laughed at her gay little jests and her descriptions of
the old pony and the dogs and the antics of a black kitten. Other men
gave themselves away and revealed the sentiment which as a rule
Englishmen hide. In the room was a French officer, who sat very still,
listening to these stories. The candles were burning dim on the table
when he spoke at last in a strange, hard voice:

"It is good for you Englishmen when you go back home. Those who
are not killed out here will be very happy to see their women again.
You do not want to die, because of that. ... If I were to go home now,
gentlemen, I should not be happy. I should find my wife and my
daughter both expecting babies whose fathers are German soldiers...
England has not suffered invasion."


11


The most complete destruction I saw in France was in Champagne,
when I walked through places which had been the villages of
Sermaize, Heiltz-le-Maurupt, Blesmes, and Huiron. Sermaize was
utterly wiped out. As far as I could see, not one house was left
standing. Not one wall was spared. It was laid flat upon the earth, with
only a few charred chimney-stacks sticking out of the piles of bricks
and cinders. Strange, piteous relics of pretty dwelling-places lay about
in the litter, signifying that men and women with some love for the arts
of life had lived here in decent comfort. A notice-board of a hotel
which had given hospitality to many travellers before it became a
blazing furnace lay sideways on a mass of broken bricks with a
legend so frightfully ironical that I laughed among the ruins:
"Chauffage central" - the system of "central heating" invented by
Germans in this war had been too hot for the hotel, and had burnt it to
a wreck of ashes. Half a dozen peasants stood in one of the
"streets" - marked by a line of rubbish-heaps which had once been
their homes. Some of them had waited until the first shells came over
their chimney-pots before they fled. Several of their friends, not so
lucky in timing their escape, had been crushed to death by the falling
houses. But it was not shell-fire which did the work. The Germans
strewed the cottages with their black inflammable tablets, which had
been made for such cases, and set their torches to the window-
curtains before marching away to make other bonfires on their road of
retreat. Sermaize became a street of fire, and from each of its houses
flames shot out like scarlet snakes, biting through the heavy pall of
smoke. Peasants hiding in ditches a mile away stared at the furnace
in which all their household goods were being consumed. Something
of their own life seemed to be burning there, leaving the dust and
ashes of old hopes and happiness.

"That was mine," said one of the peasants, pointing to a few square
yards of wreckage. "I took my woman home across the threshold that
was there. She was a fine girl, with hair like gold, Monsieur. Now her
hair has gone quite white, during these recent weeks. That's what war
does for women. There are many like that hereabouts, white-haired
before their time."

I saw some of those white-haired women in Blesmes and Huiron and
other scrap-heaps of German ruthlessness. They wandered in a
disconsolate way about the ruins, watching rather hopelessly the
building of wooden huts by a number of English "Quakers" who had
come here to put up shelters for these homeless people of France.
They were doing good work - one of the most beautiful works of
charity which had been called out of this war, and giving a new
meaning to their name of the Society of Friends. But though they
were handy in the use of the wood given them by the French
Government for this purpose, not all their industry nor all their
friendliness could bring back the beauty of these old-world villages of
Champagne, built centuries ago by men of art and craft, and chiselled
by Time itself, so that the stones told tales of history to the villagers.
It would be difficult to patch up the grey old tower of Huiron Church,
through which shells had come crashing, or to rebuild its oak roof
whose beams were splintered like the broken ribs of a rotting
carcase. A white-haired priest passed up and down the roadway
before the place in which he had celebrated Mass and praised God
for the blessings of each day. His hands were clenched behind his
bent back, and every now and then he thrust back his broad felt hat
and looked up at the poor, battered thing which had been his church
with immense sadness in his eyes.

There was an old château near Huiron in which a noble family of
France had lived through centuries of war and revolution. It had many
pointed gables and quaint turrets and mullioned windows, overlooking
a garden in which there were arbours for love-in-idleness where
ladies had dreamed awhile on many summer days in the great
yesterday of history. When I passed it, after the Germans had gone
that way, the gables and the turrets had fallen down, and instead of
mullioned windows there were gaping holes in blackened walls. The
gardens were a wild chaos of trampled shrubberies among the
cinder-heaps, the twisted iron, and the wreckage of the old mansion.
A flaming torch or two had destroyed all that time had spared, and the
château of Huiron was a graveyard in which beauty had been killed,
murderously, by outrageous hands.

In one of these villages of Champagne - I think it was at Blesmes - I
saw one relic which had been spared by chance when the flames of
the incendiaries had licked up all other things around, and somehow,
God knows why, it seemed to me the most touching thing in this
place of desolation.

It was a little stone fountain, out of which a jet of water rose playfully,
falling with a splash of water-drops into the sculptured basin. While
the furnace was raging in the village this fountain played and reflected
the glare of crimson light in its bubbling jet. The children of many
generations had dabbled their hands in its basin. Pretty girls had
peeped into their own bright eyes mirrored there. On summer days
the village folk had sauntered about this symbol of grace and beauty.
Now it was as though I had discovered a white Venus in the dust-
heap of a burying-place.


12


The great horror of Invasion did not reach only a few villages in
France and blanch the hair of only a few poor women. During the
long months of this stationary war there was a long black line on all
the maps, printed day after day with depressing repetition in all the
newspapers of the world. But I wonder how many people understood
the meaning of that black line marking the length of the German front
through France, and saw in their mind's eye the blackness of all
those burnt and shattered villages, for ten miles in width, on that
border-line of the war trail? I wonder how many people, searching for
news of heroic bayonet charges or for thrilling stories of how Private
John Smith kept an army corps at bay, single-handed, with a smile on
his face, saw even faintly and from afar the flight of all the fugitives
from that stricken zone, the terror of women and children trapped in
its hell-fire, and the hideous obscenity of that long track across the
fields of France, where dead bodies lay rotting in the rain and sun and
the homesteads of a simple people lay in heaps from Artois to
Lorraine?

Along the valley of the Aisne and of the Vesle the spirit of destruction
established its kingdom. It was a valley of death. In the official reports
only a few villages were mentioned by name, according to their
strategical importance, but there were hundreds of hamlets,
unrecorded in dispatches, which were struck by death and became
the charnel-houses of bones and ruins.

In the single district of Vie-sur-Aisne, the little communities of
Saconin, Pernant, Ambleny, and Ressons - beautiful spots in old days
of peace, where Nature displayed all her graciousness along the
winding river and where Time itself seemed to slumber - French
soldiers stared upon broken roofs, shattered walls, and trampled
gardens, upon the twisted iron of ploughs and the broken woodwork
of farmers' carts, and all the litter of war's ruthless damage. Week
after week, turn and turn about, German, French, and British shells
crashed over these places, making dust and ashes of them.
Peasants who clung to their cots, hid in their cellars and at last fled,
described all this in a sentence or two when I questioned them. They
had no grievance even against fate - their own misery was swallowed
up in that of their neighbours; each family knew a worse case than its
own, and so, with a shake of the head, they said there were many
who suffered these things.

Shopkeepers and peasants of Celles, of Conde, of Attichy, along the
way to Berry-au-Bac and from Billy to Sermoise, all those who have
now fled from the Valley of the Vesle and the valley of the Aisne had
just the same story to tell - monotonous, yet awful because of its
tragedy. It was their fate to be along the line of death. One old fellow
who came from Vailly had lived for two months in a continual
cannonade. He had seen his little town taken and retaken ten times in
turn by the French and the Germans.

When I heard of this eye-witness I thought: "Here is a man who has a
marvellous story to tell. If all he has seen, all the horrors and heroism
of great engagements were written down, just as he describes them
in his peasant speech, it would make an historic document to be read
by future generations."

But what did he answer to eager questions about his experience? He
was hard of hearing and, with a hand making a cup for his right ear,
stared at me a little dazed. He said at last, "It was difficult to get to
sleep."

That was all he had to say about it, and many of these peasants were
like him, repeating some trivial detail of their experience, the loss of a
dog or the damage to an old teapot, as though that eclipsed all other
suffering. But little by little, if one had the patience, one could get
wider glimpses of the truth. Another old man from the village of Soupir
told a more vivid tale. His dwelling-place sheltered some of the
Germans when they traversed the district. The inhabitants of Soupir,
he said, were divided into two groups. Able-bodied prisoners were
sent off to Germany, and women and children who were carried off in
the retreat were afterwards allowed to go back, but not until several
poor little creatures had been killed, and pretty girls subjected to
gross indignities by brutal soldiers. Upon entering Soupir the French
troops found in cellars where they had concealed themselves thirty
people who had gone raving mad and who cried and pleaded to
remain so that they could still hear the shells and gibber at death.
"War is so bracing to a nation," says the philosopher. "War purges
peoples of their vanities." If there is a devil - and there must be many
old-time sceptics who believe now not in one but in a hundred
thousand devils - how the old rogue must chuckle at such words!


13


It was astounding to any student of psychology wandering in the war
zone to see how many of the peasants of France clung to their
houses, in spite of all their terror of German shells and German
soldiers. When in the first month of 1915 the enemy suddenly
swarmed over the ridges of Cuffies and Crouy, to the north of
Soissons, and with overwhelming numbers smashed the French
back across the Aisne at a time, when the rising of the river had
broken many pontoon bridges, so that the way of escape was almost
cut off, they drove out crowds of peasant folk who had remained
along this fifteen miles of front until actually shelled out in that last
attack which put the ruins of their houses into the hands of the
Germans. As long as three months before Crouy itself had been a
target for the enemy's guns, so that hardly a cottage was standing
with solid walls.

Nevertheless, with that homing instinct which is the strongest emotion
in the heart of the French peasant, many of the inhabitants had been
living an underground life in their cellars, obtaining food from French
soldiers and cowering close together as shells came shrieking
overhead, and as the shattered buildings collapsed into greater ruin.

So it was in Rheims and Arras and other towns which were not
spared in spite of the glories of an architecture which can never be
rebuilt in beauty. Only a few days before writing these lines, I stood on
the edge of the greatest battlefield in France and from an observation
post perched like an eyrie in a tree above the valley, looked across to
the cathedral of Rheims, that shrine of history, where the bones of
kings lie, and where every stone speaks of saints and heroes and a
thousand years of worship. The German shells were still falling about
it, and its great walls stood grim and battered in a wrack of smoke.
For nine months the city of Rheims has suffered the wounds of war.
Shrapnel and air-bombs, incendiary shells and monstrous marmites
had fallen within its boundaries week by week; sometimes only one or
two on an idle day, sometimes in a raging storm of fire, but always
killing a few more people, always shattering another house or two,
always spoiling another bit of sculptured beauty. Nevertheless, there
were thousands of citizens, women as well as men, who would not
leave their city. They lived in cellars, into which they had dragged their
beds and stores, and when the shell fire slackened they emerged,
came out into the light of day, looked around at the new damage, and
went about their daily business until cleared underground again by
another storm of death. There were two old ladies with an elderly
daughter who used to sit at table in the salle-à-manger of a hotel in
Paris a week or two ago. I saw them arrive one day, and watched the
placid faces of these stately old dames in black silk with little lace
caps on their white hair. It was hardly possible to believe that for three
months they had lived in a cellar at Rheims, listening through the day
and night to the cannonading of the city, and to the rushing of the
shells above their own house.

Yet I think that even in a cellar those old women of France preserved
their dignity, and in spite of dirty hands (for water was very scarce)
ate their meagre rations with a stately grace.


14


More miserable and less armed with courage were the people of
France who lived in cities held by the enemy and secure from shell-
fire - in Lille, and St. Quentin, and other towns of the North, where the
Germans paraded in their pointed casques. For the most part in
these great centres of population the enemy behaved well. Order was
maintained among the soldiers with ruthless severity by German
officers in high command. There were none of the wild and obscene
acts which disgraced the German army in its first advance to and its
retreat from the Marne. No torch bearers and tablet scatterers were
let loose in the streets. On the contrary any German soldier
misbehaving himself by looting, raping, or drunken beastliness found
a quick death against a white wall. But to the French citizens it was a
daily agony to see those crowds of hostile troops in their streets and
houses, to listen to their German speech, to obey the orders of
generals who had fought their way through Northern France across
the bodies of French soldiers, smashing, burning, killing along the
bloody track of war. These citizens of the captured soil of France
knew bitterness of invasion more poignantly than those who hid in
cellars under shell-fire. Their bodies were unwounded, but their spirits
bled in agony. By official placards posted on the walls they read of
German victories and French defeats. In the restaurants and cafés,
and in their own houses, they had to serve men who were engaged in
slaughtering their kinsfolk. It was difficult to be patient with those
swaggering young officers who gave the glad eye to girls whose
sweethearts lay dead somewhere between the French and German
trenches.

From a lady who had been seven months in St. Quentin, I heard the
story of how invasion came suddenly and took possession of the
people. The arrival of the German troops was an utter surprise to the
population, who had had no previous warning. Most of the French
infantry had left the town, and there remained only a few
detachments, and some English and Scottish soldiers who had lost
their way in the great retreat, or who were lying wounded in the
hospitals. The enemy came into the town at 4 P.M. on August 28,
having completely surrounded it, so that they entered from every
direction. The civil population, panic-stricken, remained for the most
part in their houses, staring through their windows at the columns of
dusty, sun-baked men who came down the streets. Some of the
British soldiers, caught in this trap, decided to fight to the death, which
they knew was inevitable. Several English and Scottish soldiers fired
at the Germans as they advanced into the chief square and were
instantly shot. One man, a tall young soldier, stationed himself at the
corner of the Place du Huit Octobre, and with extraordinary coolness
and rapidity fired shot after shot, so that several German soldiers
were killed or wounded. The enemy brought up a machine gun and
used it against this one man who tried to stop an army. He fell riddled
with bullets, and was blown to pieces as he lay.

On the whole the Germans behaved well at St. Quentin. Their rule
was stern but just, and although the civil population had been put on
rations of black bread, they got enough and it was not, after all, so
bad. As one of the most important bases of the German army in
France, the town was continually filled with troops of every regiment,
who stayed a little while and then passed on. Meanwhile the
permanent troops in occupation of the town settled down and made
themselves thoroughly at home. They established many of their own
shops - bakeries, tailoring establishments, and groceries; and in
consequence of the lack of discipline and decency which prevailed in
some of the cafés and restaurants, these places were conducted by
German officers, who acted as censors of morals and professors of
propriety.

Astounding as it seems, there were Frenchwomen in St. Quentin who
sold themselves for German money and gave their kisses for a price
to men who had ravaged France and killed the sons of France. Such
outrageous scenes took place, that the German order to close some
of the cafés was hailed as a boon by the decent citizens, who saw the
women expelled by order of the German commandant with enormous
thankfulness.

It is strange that the Huns, as they are called, should have been so
strict in moral discipline. Many of them were not so austere in the
villages when they let their passions loose and behaved like drunken
demons or satyrs with flaming torches. There is a riddle in the
psychology of all these contrasts between the iron discipline and
perfect organization by which all outrage was repressed in the large
towns occupied for any length of time by German troops, and the
lawlessness and rapine of the same race in villages through which
they passed hurriedly, giving themselves just time enough to wreak a
cruel ferocity upon unoffending people. Riddle as it is, it holds
perhaps the key to the mystery of the German character and to their
ideal of war. Whenever there was time to establish discipline, the men
were well behaved, and did not dare to disobey the orders of their
chiefs. It was only when special orders for "frightfulness" had been
issued, or when officers in subordinate command let their men get out
of hand, or led the way to devilry by their own viciousness of action,
that the rank and file of the enemy's army committed its brutalities.

Even now, after all that I have seen in the ruined villages in France, I
cannot bring myself to believe that the German race is distinguished
from all other peoples in Europe by the mark of the beast, or that
'they are the exclusive possession of the devil. The prisoners I have
spoken to, the blue-eyed Saxons and plump Bavarians with whom I
travelled for awhile after the battle of Neuve Chapelle, seemed to me
uncommonly like the yokels of our own Somersetshire and
Devonshire. Their officers were polite and well-bred men in whom I
saw no sign of fiendish lusts and cruelties. In normal moods they are
a good-natured people, with a little touch of Teuton grossness
perhaps, which makes them swill overmuch beer, and with an
arrogance towards their womenfolk which is not tolerable to
Englishmen, unless they have revolted from the older courtesies of
English life because the Suffragettes have challenged their authority.

It was in abnormal moods that they committed their atrocities, for in
the hot sun of the first September of the war their blood was
overheated, and in the first intoxication of their march through France,
drunk with the thrill of butcher's work as well as with French wine,
brought back suddenly to the primitive lusts of nature by the spirit of
war, which strips men naked of all refinements and decent veils, they
became for a time savages, with no other restraint than that of Red
Indians on the warpath. They belonged to an Army of Invasion,
marching through hostile territory, and the soul of war robbed the
individual of his own separate soul and put a spell of madness on
him, so that his eyes were bloodshot and his senses inflamed with
lust. In the Peninsular War young Englishmen from decent villages in
quiet countrysides, with pious mothers praying for them at home in
grey old churches, and with pretty sisters engaged in hero-worship,
were bewitched by the same spell of wizardry and did foul and
frightful things which afterwards made them dream of nights and
wake in a cold sweat of shame and horror. There are many young
Germans who will wake out of such dreams when they get back to
Dusseldorf and Bingen-am-Rhein, searching back in their hearts to
find a denial of the deeds which have become incredible after their
awakening from the nightmare. For a little while they had been caught
up in the soul of war and their heroism had been spoilt by obscenity,
and their ideals debased by bestial acts. They will have only one
excuse to their recaptured souls: "It was War." It is the excuse which
man has made through all the ages of his history for the bloody thing
which, in all those ages, has made him a liar to his faith and a traitor
to the gentle gods.




Chapter VII
The Last Stand Of The Belgians



1


During the first two and a half months of the war I was a wanderer in
France, covering many hundreds of miles in zig-zag journeys
between Nancy and the west coast, always on the move, backwards
and forwards, between the lines of the French and British armies, and
watching with a tireless though somewhat haggard interest the drama
of a great people engaged in a life-and-death struggle against the
most formidable army in the world. I had been in the midst of
populations in flight, armies in retreat, and tremendous movements of
troops hurled forward to new points of strategical importance. Now
and again I had come in touch with the British army and had seen
something of the men who had fought their way down from Mons to
Meaux, but for the most part my experience had been with the
French, and it was the spirit of France which I had done my best to
interpret to the English people.

Now I was to see war, more closely and intimately than before, in
another nation; and I stood with homage in my heart before the spirit
of Belgium and that heroic people who, when I came upon them, had
lost all but the last patch of territory, but still fought, almost alone, a
tenacious, bloody and unending battle against the Power which had
laid low their cities, mangled their ancient beauties, and changed their
little land of peaceful industry into a muck-heap of slaughter and
destruction.

Even in France I had this vision of the ruin of a nation, and saw its
victims scattered. Since that day when I came upon the first trainload
of Belgian soldiers near Calais, weary as lame dogs after their retreat,



Online LibraryPhilip GibbsThe Soul of the War → online text (page 13 of 30)