Chapter IV. The Fall Of Antwerp
Hurrying across town, I passed, not far from the Hotel St. Antoine, a blazing four-story building. The cathedral was not touched, and indeed, in spite of the noise and terror, the material damage was comparatively slight. Soldiers were clearing the quay and setting a guard directly in front of our hotel - one of the few places in Antwerp that night where one could get so much as a crust of bread - and behind drawn curtains we made what cheer we could. There were two American photographers and a correspondent who had spent the night before in the cellar of a house, the upper story of which had been wrecked by a shell; a British intelligence officer, with the most bewildering way of hopping back and forth between a brown civilian suit and a spick-and-span new uniform; and several Belgian families hoping to get a boat down-stream in the morning.
We sat round the great fire in the hall, above which the architect, building for happier times, had had the bad grace to place a skylight, and discussed the time and means of getting away. The intelligence officer, not wishing to be made a prisoner, was for getting a boat of some sort at the first crack of dawn, and the photographers, who had had the roof blown off over their heads, heartily agreed with him. I did not like to leave without at least a glimpse of those spiked helmets nor to desert my friends in the Rue Nerviens, and yet there was the likelihood, if one remained, of being marooned indefinitely in the midst of the conquering army.
Meanwhile the flight of shells continued, a dozen or more fires could be seen from the upper windows of the hotel, and billows of red flame from the burning petrol-tanks rolled up the southern sky. It had been what might be called a rather full day, and the wail of approaching projectiles began to get on one's nerves. One started at the slamming of a door, took every dull thump for a distant explosion; and when we finally turned in I carried the mattress from my room, which faced the south, over to the other side of the building, and laid it on the floor beside another man's bed. Before a shell could reach me it would have to traverse at least three partitions and possibly him as well.
After midnight the bombardment quieted, but shells continued to visit us from time to time all night. All night the Belgians were retreating across the pontoon bridge, and once - it must have been about two or three o'clock - I heard a sound which meant that all was over. It was the crisp tramp - different from the Belgian shuffle - of British soldiers, and up from the street came an English voice, "Best foot forward, boys!" and a little farther on: "Look alive, men; they've just picked up our range!"
I went to the window and watched them tramp by - the same men we had seen that morning. The petrol fire was still flaming across the south, a steamer of some sort was burning at her wharf beside the bridge - Napoleon's veterans retreating from Moscow could scarcely have left behind a more complete picture of war than did those young recruits.
Morning came dragging up out of that dreadful night, smoky, damp, and chill. It was almost a London fog that lay over the abandoned town. I had just packed up and was walking through one of the upper halls when there was a crash that shook the whole building, the sound of falling glass, and out in the river a geyser of water shot up, timbers and boards flew from the bridge, and there were dozens of smaller splashes as if from a shower of shot. I thought that the hotel was hit at last and that the Germans, having let civilians escape over the bridge, were turning everything loose, determined to make an end of the business. It was, as a matter of fact, the Belgians blowing up the bridge to cover their retreat. In any case it seemed useless to stay longer, and within an hour, on a tug jammed with the last refugees, we were starting down-stream.
Behind us, up the river, a vast curtain of lead-colored smoke from the petrol-tanks had climbed up the sky and spread out mushroomwise, as smoke and ashes sometimes spread out from a volcano. This smoke, merging with the fog and the smoke from the Antwerp fires, seemed to cover the whole sky. And under that sullen mantle the dark flames of the petrol still glowed; to the right, as we looked back, was the blazing skeleton of the ship, and on the left Antwerp itself, the rich, old, beautiful, comfortable city, all but hidden, and now and then sending forth the boom of an exploding shell like a groan.
A large empty German steamer, the Gneisenau, marooned here since the war, came swinging slowly out into the river, pushed by two or three nervous little tugs - to be sunk there, apparently, in midstream. From the pontoon bridge, which stubbornly refused to yield, came explosion after explosion, and up and down the river fires sprang up, and there were other explosions, as the crushed Belgians, in a sort of rage of devastation, became their own destroyers.