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A Woman's Experience in the Great War By Louise Mack Characters: 9879

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

When I look back on those days, the most pathetic thing about it all seems to me the absolute security in which we imagined ourselves dwelling.

The King and Queen were in their Palace, that tall simple flat-fronted grey house in the middle of the town. Often one saw the King, seated in an open motor car coming in and out of the town, or striding quickly into the Palace. Tall and fair, his appearance always seemed to me to undergo an extraordinary change from the face as shewn in photographs. It was because in real life those beautiful wide blue eyes of his, mirrors of truth and simple courage, were covered with glasses.

And "la petite Reine," equally beloved, was very often to be seen too, driving backwards and forwards to the hospitals, the only visits she ever paid.

All theatres were closed, all concerts, all cinemas. All the galleries were shut. Never a note of song or music was to be heard anywhere. To open a piano at one's hotel would have been a crime.

And yet, that immense crowd gathered together in Antwerp for safety, Ambassadors, Ministers and their wives and families, Consuls, échevins, merchants, stockbrokers, peasants, were anything but gloomy. A peculiar tide of life flowed in and out through that vast cityful of people. It was life, vibrant with expectation, thrilling with hope and fear, without a moment's loneliness. They walked about the shady avenues. They sat at their cafés, they talked, they sipped their coffee, or their "Elixir d'Anvers" and then they went home to bed. After seven the streets were empty, the cafés shut, the day's life ended.

Never a doubt crossed our minds that the Germans could possibly get through those endless fortifications surrounding Antwerp on all sides.

Getting about was incredibly difficult. In fact, without a car, one could see nothing, and there were no cars to be had, the War Office had taken them all over. In despair I went to Sir Frederick Greville, the English Ambassador, and after certain formalities and inquiries, Sir Frederick very kindly went himself to the War Office, saw Count Chabeau on my behalf, and arranged for my getting a car.

Many a dewy morning, while the sun was low in the East, I have started out and driven along the road to Ghent, or to Liège, or to Malines, and looking from the car I observed those endless forests of wire, and the mined waters whose bridges one drove over so slowly, so softly, in such fear and trembling. And then, set deep in the great fortified hillsides, the mouths of innumerable cannon pointed at one; and here and there great reflectors were placed against the dull earth-works to shew when the enemy's aircraft appeared in the skies. Nothing seemed wanting to make those fortifications complete and successful. It was heart-breaking to see the magnificent old chateaux and the beautiful little houses being ruthlessly cut down, razed to the earth to make clear ground in all directions for the defence-works. The stumps of the trees used to look to me like the ruins of some ancient city, for even they represented the avenues of real streets and roads, and the black, empty places behind them were the homes that had been demolished in this overwhelming attempt to keep at least one city of Belgium safe and secure from the marauding Huns.

Afterwards, when all was over, when Antwerp had fallen, I passed through the fortifications for the last time on my way to Holland. And oh, the sadness of it! There were the wire entanglements, untouched, unaltered! The great reflectors still mirrored the sunlight and the stars. The demolition of the chateaux and house had been all in vain. On this side there had been little fighting, they had got in on the other side.

Every five minutes one's car would be held up by sentinels who rushed forward with poised bayonets, demanding the password for the day.

That always seemed to me like a bit of medi?val history.

"Arrêtez!" cried the sentinels, on either side the road, lifting their rifles as they spoke.

Of course we came to a stop immediately.

Then the chauffeur would lean far out, and whisper in a hoarse, low voice, the password, which varied with an incessant variety. Sometimes it would be "Ostend" or "Termond" or "Demain" or "General" or "Bruxelles" or "Belgique," or whatever the War Office chose to make it. Then the sentinel would nod. "Good," he would say, and on we would go.

The motor car lent me by the Belgian War Office, was driven by an excitable old Belgian, who loved nothing better than to get into a dangerous spot. His favourite saying, when we got near shell-fire, and one asked him if he were frightened, was: "One can only die once." And the louder the shells, the quicker he drove towards them; and I used to love the way his old eyes flashed, and I loved too the keenly disappointed look that crept over his face when the sentinels refused to let him go any nearer the danger line, and we

had to creep ignominiously back to safety.

"Does not your master ever go towards the fighting?" I asked him.

"Non, madame," he answered sadly, "Mon general, he is the PAPA of the Commissariat! He does not go near the fighting. He only looks after the eating."

We left Antwerp one morning about nine o'clock, and sped outwards through the fortifications, being stopped every ten minutes as usual by the sentinels and asked to show our papers. On we ran along the white tree-lined roads through exquisite green country. The roads were crowded constantly with soldiers coming and going, and in all the villages we found the Headquarters of one or other Division of the Belgian Army, making life and bustle indescribable in the flagged old streets, and around the steps of the quaint medi?val Town Halls and Cathedrals.

A Friendly Chat.

We had gone a long way when we were brought to a standstill at a little place called Heyst-op den Berg, where the sentinels leaned into our car and had a long friendly chat with us.

"You cannot go any further," they said. "The Germans are in the next town ahead; they are only a few kilometres away."

"What town is it?" I asked.

"Aerschot," they replied.

"That is on the way to Louvain, is it not?" I asked. "I have been trying for a long time to get to Louvain!"

"You can never get to Louvain, Madam," the sentinels told me smilingly. "Between here and Louvain lies the bulk of the German Army."

Just then, a chasseur, mounted on a beautiful fiery little brown Ardennes horse, came galloping along, shouting as he passed, "The Germans have been turned out of Aerschot; we have driven them out, les sales cochons!"

He jumped off his horse, gave the reins to a soldier and leapt into a train that was standing at the station.

A sudden inspiration flashed into my head. Without a word I jumped out of the motor car, ran through the station, and got into that train just as it was moving off, leaving my old Belgian to look after the car.

Next moment I found myself being carried along through unknown regions, and as I looked from the windows I soon discovered that I had entered now into the very heart of German ruin and pillage and destructiveness. Pangs of horror attacked me at the sight of those blackened roofless houses, standing lonely and deserted among green, thriving fields. I saw one little farm after another reduced to a heap of blackened ashes, with some lonely animals gazing terrifiedly into space. Sometimes just one wall would be standing of what was once a home, sometimes only the front of the house had been blown out by shells, and you could see right inside,-see the rooms spread out before you like a panorama, see the children's toys and frocks lying about, and the pots and pans, even the remains of dinner still on the table, and all the homely little things that made you feel so intensely the difference between this chill, deathly desolation and the happy domestic life that had gone on in such peaceful streams before the Huns set their faces Belgium-wards.

Mile after mile the train passed through these ravaged areas, and I stood at the window with misty eyes and quickened breath? looking up and down the lonely roads, and over the deserted fields where never a soul was to be seen, and in my mind's eye, I could follow those peasants, fleeing, fleeing, ever fleeing from one village to another, from one town to another, hunted and followed by the cruel menace of War which they, poor innocent ones, had done so little to deserve.

The only comfort was to think of them getting safely across to England, and as I looked at those little black and ruined homes, I could follow the refugees in their flight and see them streaming out of the trains at Victoria and Charing Cross, and being taken to warm, comfortable homes and clothed and fed by gentle-voiced English people. And then, waking perhaps in the depths of the night to find themselves in a strange land, how their thoughts would fly, with what awful yearning, back to those little blackened homes, back to the memories of the cow and the horse and the faithful dogs, and the corn in the meadows, and the purple cabbages uncut and the apples ungarnered! Yes, I could see it all, and my heart ached as it had never ached before.

When I roused myself from these sad thoughts, I looked about me and discovered that I was in a train full of nothing but soldiers and priests. I sat very still in my corner. I asked no questions, and spoke to no one. I knew by instinct that this train was going to take me to a place that I never should have arrived at otherwise, and I was right. The train took me to Aerschot, and I may say now that only one other War-Correspondent arrived there.

Alighting at the station at Aerschot, I looked about me, scarcely believing that what I saw was real.

The railway station appeared to have fallen victim to an earthquake.

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