Chapter IV. The Fall Of Antwerp
The storm which was to burst over Antwerp the following night was gathering fast when we arrived on Tuesday morning. Army motor-trucks loaded with dismantled aeroplanes, and the less essential impedimenta screamed through the streets bound away from, not toward, the front. The Queen, that afternoon, was seen in the Hotel St. Antoine receiving the good-bys of various friends. Consuls suddenly locked their doors and fled. And the cannon rumbling along the eastern horizon as they had rumbled, nearer and nearer, for a fortnight, were now beyond the outer line of forts and within striking distance of the town. That night, an hour or two after midnight, in my hotel by the water-front, I awoke to the steady clatter of hoofs on cobblestones and the rumble of wheels. I went to the window, on the narrow side street, black as all streets had been in Antwerp since the night that the Zeppelin threw its first bombs, and looked out. It was a moonlight night, clear and cold, and there along the Quai St. Michael, at the end of the street, was an army in retreat. They were Belgians, battered and worn out with their unbroken weeks of hopeless fighting; cavalrymen on their tired horses, artillerymen, heads sunk on their chests, drowsing on their lurching caissons; the patient little foot-soldiers, rifles slung across their shoulders, scuffling along in their heavy overcoats.
In the dark shadow of the tall old houses a few people came out and stood there watching silently, and, as one felt, in a sort of despair. All night long men were marching by - and in London they were still reading that it was but a "demonstration" the Germans were engaged in - down the quay and across the pontoon bridge - the only way over the Scheldt - over to the Tete-de-Flandres and the road to Ghent. They were strung along the street next morning, boots mud-covered, mud-stained, intrenching shovels hanging to their belts, faces unshaven for weeks, just as they had come from the trenches; yet still patient and cheerful, with that unshakable Flemish good cheer. Perhaps, after all, it was not a retreat; they might be swinging round to the south and St. Nicholas to attack the German flank...
But before they had crossed, another army, a civilian army, flowed down on and over the quay. For a week people had been leaving Antwerp, now the general flight began. From villages to the east and southeast, from the city itself, people came pouring down. In wagons drawn by huge Belgian draft-horses, in carts pulled by the captivating Belgian work dogs, panting mightily and digging their paws into the slippery cobbles; on foot, leading little children and carrying babies and dolls and canaries and great bundles of clothes and household things wrapped in sheets, they surged toward that one narrow bridge and the crowded ferry-boats. I saw one old woman, gray-haired and tanned like an Indian squaw with work in the fields, yet with a fine, well-made face, pushing a groaning wheelbarrow. A strap went from the handles over her shoulders, and, stopping now and then to ask the news, she would slip off this harness, gossip for a time, then push on again. That afternoon under my window there was a tall wagon, a sort of hay wagon, in which there were twenty-two little tow-headed children, none more than eight or ten and several almost babies in arms. By the side of the wagon a man, evidently father of some of them, stood buttering the end of a huge round loaf of bread and cutting off slice after slice, which the older children broke and distributed to the little ones. Two cows were tied to the back of the wagon and the man's wife squatted there milking them. All along the quay and in the streets leading into it were people like this - harmless, helpless, hard-working people, going they knew not where. The entrance to the bridge was soon choked. One went away and returned an hour later and found the same people waiting almost in the same spot, and, with that wonderful calm and patience of theirs, feeding their children or giving a little of their precious hay to the horses, quietly waiting their turn while the cannon which had driven them from their homes kept on thundering behind them.
That afternoon I walked up-town through the shuttered, silent streets - silent but for that incessant rumbling in the southeast and the occasional honking flight of some military automobile - to two of the hospitals. In one, a British hospital on the Boulevard Leopold, the doctor in charge was absent for the moment, and there was no one to answer my offer of occasional help if an outsider could be of use. As I sat waiting a tall, brisk Englishwoman, in nurse's uniform, came up and asked what I wanted. I told her.
"Oh," she said, and in her crisp, English voice, without further ado, "will you help me with a leg?"
She led the way into her ward, and there we contrived between us to bandage and slip a board and pillow under a fractured thigh. Between whispers of "Courage! Courage!" to the Belgian soldier, she said that she was the wife of a British general and had two sons in the army, and a third - "Poor boy!" she murmured, more to him than to me - on one of the ships in the North Sea. I arranged to come back next morning to help with the lifting, and went on to another hospital in the Rue Nerviens, to find that little English lady who crossed with me in the Ostend boat in August on the way to her sister's hospital in Antwerp.
Here in the quiet wards she had been working while the Germans swept down on Paris and were rolled back again, and while the little nation which she and her sister loved so well was being clubbed to its knees.