Chapter IV. The Fall Of Antwerp
Down through that mass of fugitives pushed a London motor-bus ambulance with several wounded British soldiers, one of them sitting upright, supporting with his right hand a left arm, the biceps, bound in a blood-soaked tourniquet, half torn away. They had come in from the trenches, where their comrades were now waiting, with their helpless little rifles, for an enemy, miles away, who lay back at his ease and pounded them with his big guns. I asked them how things were going, and they said not very well. They could only wait until the German aeroplanes had given the range and the trenches became too hot, then fall back, dig themselves in, and play the same game over again.
Following them was a hospital-service motor-car, driven by a Belgian soldier and in charge of a young British officer. It was his present duty to motor from trench to trench across the zone of fire, with the London bus trailing behind, and pick up wounded. It wasn't a particularly pleasant job, he said, jerking his head toward the distant firing, and frankly he wasn't keen about it. We talked for some time, every one talked to every one else in Antwerp that morning, and when he started out again I asked him to give me a lift to the edge of town.
Quickly we raced through the Place de Meir and the deserted streets of the politer part of Antwerp, where, the night before, most of the shells had fallen. We went crackling over broken glass, past gaping cornices and holes in the pavement, five feet across and three feet deep, and once passed a house quietly burning away with none to so much as watch the fire. The city wall, along which are the first line of forts, drew near, then the tunnel passing under it, and we went through without pausing and on down the road to Malines. We were beyond the town now, bowling rapidly out into the flat Belgian country, and, clinging there to the running-board with the October wind blowing quite through a thin flannel suit, it suddenly came over me that things had moved very fast in the last five minutes, and that all at once, in some unexpected fashion, all that elaborate barrier of laissez-passers, sauf-conduits, and so on, had been swept aside, and, quite as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world, I was spinning out to that almost mythical "front."
Front, indeed! It was two fronts. There was an explosion just behind us, a hideous noise overhead, as if the whole zenith had somehow been ripped across like a tightly stretched piece of silk, and a shell from the Belgian fort under which we had just passed went hurtling down long aisles of air - farther - farther - to end in a faint detonation miles away.
Out of sight in front of us, there was an answering thud, and - "Tzee-ee-ee-er-r-r-ong!" - a German shell had gone over us and burst behind the Belgian fort. Under this gigantic antiphony the motor-car raced along, curiously small and irrelevant on that empty country road.
We passed great holes freshly made, neatly blown out of the macadam, then a dead horse. There were plenty of dead horses along the roads in France, but they had been so for days. This one's blood was not yet dry, and the shell that had torn the great rip in its chest must have struck here this morning.
We turned into the avenue of trees leading up to an empty chateau, a field-hospital until a few hours before. Mattresses and bandages littered the deserted room, and an electric chandelier was still burning. The young officer pointed to some trenches in the garden. "I had those dug to put the wounded in in case we had to hold the place," he said. "It was getting pretty hot."
There was nothing here now, however, and, followed by the London bus with its obedient enlisted men doing duty as ambulance orderlies, we motored a mile or so farther on to the nearest trench. It was in an orchard beside a brick farmhouse with a vista in front of barbed-wire entanglement and a carefully cleaned firing field stretching out to a village and trees about half a mile away. They had looked very interesting and difficult, those barbed-wire mazes and suburbs, ruthlessly swept of trees and houses, when I had seen the Belgians preparing for the siege six weeks before, and they were to be of about as much practical use now as pictures on a wall.
There are, it will be recalled, three lines of forts about Antwerp - the inner one, corresponding to the city's wall; a middle one a few miles farther out, where the British now were; and the outer line, which the enemy had already passed. Their artillery was hidden far over behind the horizon trees, and the British marines and naval-reserve men who manned these trenches could only wait there, rifle in hand, for an enemy that would not come, while a captive balloon a mile or two away to the eastward and an aeroplane sailing far overhead gave the ranges, and they waited for the shrapnel to burst. The trenches were hasty affairs, narrow and shoulder-deep, very like trenches for gas or water pipes, and reasonably safe except when a shell burst directly overhead. One had struck that morning just on the inner rim of the trench, blown out one of those crater-like holes, and discharged all its shrapnel backward across the trench and into one of the heavy timbers supporting a bombproof roof. A raincoat hanging to a nail in this timber was literally shot to shreds. "That's where I was standing," said the young lieutenant in command, pointing with a dry smile to a spot not more than a yard from where the shell had burst.