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   Chapter 1 CROSSING THE CHANNEL

A Woman's Experience in the Great War By Louise Mack Characters: 6650

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"What do you do for mines?"

I put the question to the dear old salt at Folkestone quay, as I am waiting to go on board the boat for Belgium, this burning August night.

The dear old salt thinks hard for an answer, very hard indeed.

Then he scratches his head.

"There ain't none!" he makes reply.

All the same, in spite of the dear old salt, I feel rather creepy as the boat starts off that hot summer night, and through the pitch-black darkness we begin to plough our way to Ostend.

Over the dark waters the old English battleships send their vivid flashes unceasingly, but it is not a comfortable feeling to think you may be blown up at any minute, and I spend the hours on deck.

I notice our little fair-bearded Belgian captain is looking very sad and dejected.

"They're saying in Belgium now that our poor soldiers are getting all the brunt of it," he says despondently to a group of sympathetic War-Correspondents gathered round him on deck, chattering, and trying to pick up bits of news.

"But that will all be made up," says Mr. Martin Donohue, the Australian War-Correspondent, who is among the crowd. "All that you lose will be given back to Belgium before long."

"But they cannot give us back our dead," the little captain answers dully.

And no one makes reply to that.

There is no reply to make.

It is four o'clock in the morning, instead of nine at night, when we get to Ostend at last, and the first red gleams of sunrise are already flashing in the east.

We leave the boat, cross the Customs, and, after much ringing, wake up the Belgian page-boy at the Hotel. In we troop, two English nurses, twenty War-Correspondents, and an "Australian Girl in Belgium."

Rooms are distributed to us, great white lofty rooms with private bathrooms attached, very magnificent indeed.

Then, for a few hours we sleep, to be awakened by a gorgeous morning, golden and glittering, that shews the sea a lovely blue, but a very sad deserted town.

Poor Ostend!

Once she had been the very gayest of birds; but now her feathers are stripped, she is bare and shivery. Her big, white, beautiful hotels have dark blinds over all their windows. Her long line of blank, closed fronts of houses and hotels seems to go on for miles. Just here and there one is open. But for the most, everything is dead; and indeed, it is almost impossible to recognise in this haunted place the most brilliant seaside city in Europe.

It is only half-past seven; but all Ostend seems up and about as I enter the big salon and order coffee and rolls.

Suddenly a noise is heard,-shouts, wheels, something indescribable.

Everyone jumps up and runs down the long white restaurant.

Out on the station we run, and just then a motor dashes past us, coming right inside, under the station roof.

It is full of men.

And one is wounded.

My blood turns suddenly cold. I have never seen a wounded soldier before. I remember quite well I said to myself, "Then it is true. I had never really believed before!"

Now they are lifting him out, oh, so tenderly, these four other big, burly Belgians, and they have laid him on a stretcher.

He lies there on his back. His face is quite red. He has a bald head. He doesn't look a bit like my idea of a wounded soldier, and his expression remains unchang

ed. It is still the quiet, stolid, patient Belgian look that one sees in scores, in hundreds, all around.

And now they are carrying him tenderly on to the Red Cross ship drawn up at the station pier, and after a while we all go back and try and finish our coffee.

Barely have we sat down again before more shouts are heard.

Immediately, everybody is up and out on to the station, and another motor car, full of soldiers, comes dashing in under the great glassed roofs.

Excitement rises to fever heat now.

Out of the car is dragged a German.

And one can never forget one's first German. Never shall I forget that wounded Uhlan! One of his hands is shot off, his face is black with smoke and dirt and powder, across his cheek is a dark, heavy mark where a Belgian had struck him for trying to throttle one of his captors in the car.

He is a wretch, a brute. He has been caught with the Red Cross on one arm, and a revolver in one pocket. But there is yet something cruelly magnificent about the fellow, as he puts on that tremendous swagger, and marches down the long platform between two lines of foes to meet his fate.

As he passes very close to me, I look right into his face, and it is imprinted on my memory for all time.

He is a big, typical Uhlan, with round close-cropped head, blue eyes, arrogant lips, large ears, big and heavy of build. But what impresses me is that he is no coward.

He knows his destiny. He will be shot for a certainty-shot for wearing the Red Cross while carrying weapons. But he really is a splendid devil as he goes strutting down the long platform between the gendarmes, all alone among his enemies, alone in the last moments of his life. Then a door opens. He passes in. The door shuts. He will be seen no more!

All is panic now. We know the truth. The Germans have made a sudden sortie, and are attacking just at the edge of Ostend.

The gendarmes are fighting them, and are keeping them back.

Then a boy scout rushes in on a motor cycle, and asks for the Red Cross to be sent out at once; and then and there it musters in the dining-room of the Hotel, and rushes off in motor cars to the scene of action.

Then another car dashes in with another Uhlan, who has been shot in the back.

And now I watch the Belgians lifting their enemy out. All look of fight goes out of their faces, as they raise him just as gently, just as tenderly as they have raised their own wounded man a few moments ago, and carry him on to their Red Cross ship, just as carefully and pitifully.

"Quick! Quick!" A War-Correspondent hastens up. "There's not a minute to lose. The Kaiser has given orders that all English War-Correspondents will be shot on sight. The Germans will be here any minute. They will cut the telegraph wires, stop the boats, and shoot everyone connected with a newspaper."

The prospect finally drives us, with a panic-stricken crowd, on to the boat. And so, exactly six hours after we landed, we rush back again to England. Among the crowd are Italians, Belgians, British and a couple of Americans. An old Franciscan priest sits down, and philosophically tucks into a hearty lunch. Belgian priests crouch about in attitudes of great depression.

Poor priests!

They know how the Germans treat priests in this well-named "Holy War!"

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