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   Chapter 5 AERSCHOT

A Woman's Experience in the Great War By Louise Mack Characters: 7599

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

I think until that day I had always cherished a lurking hope that the Huns were not as black as they were painted.

I had been used to think of the German race, as tinged with a certain golden glamour, because to it belonged the man who wrote the Fifth Symphony; the man who wrote the divine first part of "Faust," and still more that other, whose mocking but sublime laughter would be a fitting accompaniment of the horrors at Aerschot.

Oh, Beethoven, Goethe, Heine! Not even out of respect for your undying genius can I hide the truth about the Germans any longer.

What I have seen, I must believe!

In the pouring rain, wearing a Belgian officer's great-coat, I trudged along through a city that might well have been Pompeii or Herculaneum; it was a city that existed no longer; it was absolutely the shell of a town. The long streets were full of hollow, blackened skeletons of what had once been houses-street upon street of them, and street upon street. The brain reeled before the spectacle. And each of those houses once a home. A place of thought, of rest, of happiness, of work, of love.

All the inhabitants have fled, leaving their lares and penates just as the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum sought to flee when the lava came down on them.

Here a wall stands, there a pillar and a few bricks.

But between the ruins, strange, touching, unbelievable, gleaming from the background, are the scarlet and white of dahlias and roses in the gardens behind, that have somehow miraculously escaped the ruin that has fallen on the solid walls and ceilings and floors so carefully constructed by the brain of man, and so easily ruined by man's brutality.

It is as though the flowers had some miraculous power of self-preservation, some secret unknown to bricks and mortar, some strange magic, that keeps the sweet blossoms laughing and defiant under the Hun's shell-fire. And the red and the pure white of them, and the green, intensify, with a tremendous potency, the black horrors of the town!

In every street I observed always the same thing; hundreds of empty bottles. "Toujours les bouteilles," one of my companions kept saying-a brilliant young Brussels lawyer who was now in this regiment. The other officer was also a Bruxellois, and I was told afterwards that these two had formerly been the "Nuts" of Brussels, the two smartest young men of the town. To see them that day gave little idea of their smartness; they both were black with grime and smoke, with beards that had no right to be there, creeping over their faces, boots caked with mud to the knees, and a general air of having seen activities at very close quarters.

They took me to the church, and there the little old brown-faced sacristan joined us, punctuating our way with groans and sobs of horror.

This is what I see.

Before me stretches a great dim interior lit with little bunches of yellow candles. It is in a way a church. But what has happened to it? What horror has seized upon it, turning it into the most hideous travesty of a church that the world has ever known?

On the high altar stand empty champagne bottles, empty rum bottles, a broken bottle of Bordeaux, and five bottles of beer.

In the confessionals stand empty champagne bottles, empty brandy bottles, empty beer bottles.

In the Holy Water fonts are empty brandy bottles.

Stacks of bottles are under the pews, or on the seats themselves.

Beer, brandy, rum, champagne, bordeaux, burgundy; and again beer, brandy, rum, champagne, bordeaux, burgundy.

Everywhere, everywhere, in whatever part of the church one looks, there are bottles-hundreds of them, thousands of them, perhaps-everywhere, bottles, bottles, bottles.

The sacred marble floors are covered everywhere with piles of straw, and bottles, a

nd heaps of refuse and filth, and horse-dung.

"Mais Madame," cries the burning, trembling voice of the distracted sacristan, "look at this."

And he leads me to the white marble bas-relief of the Madonna.

The Madonna's head has been cut right off!

Then, even as I stand there trying to believe that I am really looking at such nightmares, I feel the little sacristan's fingers trembling on my arm, turning me towards a sight that makes me cold with horror.

They have set fire to the Christ, to the beautiful wood-carving of our Saviour, and burnt the sacred figure all up one side, and on the face and breast.

And as they finished the work I can imagine them, with a hiccup slitting up the priceless brocade on the altar with a bayonet, then turning and slashing at the great old oil paintings on the Cathedral walls, chopping them right out of their frames, but leaving the empty frames there, with a German's sense of humour that will presently make Germany laugh on the wrong side of its face.

A dead pig lies in the little chapel to the right, a dead white pig with a pink snout.

Very still and pathetic is that dead pig, and yet it seems to speak.

It seems to realise the sacrilege of its presence here in God's House.

It seems to say, "Let not the name of pig be given to the Germans. We pigs have done nothing to deserve it."

"And here, Madame, voyez vous! Here the floor is chipped and smashed where they stabled their horses, these barbarians!" says the young Lieutenant on my left.

And now we come to the Gate of Shame.

It is the door of a small praying-room.

Still pinned outside, on the door, is a piece of white paper, with this message in German, "This room is private. Keep away."

And inside?

Inside are women's garments, a pile of them tossed hastily on the floor, torn perhaps from the wearers....

A pile of women's garments!

In silence we stand there. In silence we go out. It is a long time before anyone can speak again, though the little sacristan keeps on moaning to himself.

As we step out of the horrors of that church some German prisoners that have just been brought in, are being marched by.

And then rage overcomes one of the young Lieutenants. White, trembling, beside himself, he rushes forward. He shouts. He raves. He is thinking of that room; they were of Belgium, those girls and women; he is of Belgium too; and he flings his scorn and hatred at the Uhlans marching past, he lashes and whips them with his agony of rage until the cowering prisoners are out of hearing.

The other Lieutenant at last succeeds in silencing him.

"What is the use, mon ami!" he says. "What is the use?"

Perhaps this outburst is reported to headquarters by somebody. For that night at the Officers' Mess, the Captain of the regiment has a few words to say against shewing anger towards prisoners, and very gently and tactfully he says them.

He is a Belgian, and all Belgians are careful to a point that is almost beyond human comprehension in their criticisms of their enemies.

"Let us be careful never to demean ourselves by humiliating prisoners," says the Captain, looking round the long roughly-set table. "You see, my friends, these poor German fellows that we take are not all typical of the crimes that the Germans commit; lots of them are only peasants, or men that would prefer to stay by their own fireside!"

"What about Aerschot and the church?" cry a score of irritated young voices.

The Captain draws his kindly lips together, and attacks his black bread and tinned mackerel.

"Ah," he says, "we must remember they were all drunk!"

And as he utters these words there flash across my mind those old, old words that will never die:

"Forgive them, for they know not what they do."

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