Chapter VIII. In The German Trenches At La Bassee
We had come down from Berlin on-one of those excursions which the German General Staff arranges for the military observers and correspondents of neutral countries. You go out, a sort of zoo - our party included four or five Americans, a Greek, an Italian, a diminutive Spaniard, and a tall, preoccupied Swede - under the direction of some hapless officer of the General Staff. For a week, perhaps, you go hurtling through a closely articulated programme almost as personally helpless as a package in a pneumatic tube - night expresses, racing military motors, snap-shots at this and that, down a bewildering vista of long gray capes, heel clickings, stiff bows from the waist, and military salutes. You are under fire one minute, the next shooting through some captured palace or barracks or museum of antiques. At noon the guard is turned out in your honor; at four you are watching distant shell-fire from the Belgian dunes; at eleven, crawling under a down quilt in some French hotel, where the prices of food and wines are fixed by the local German commandant. Everything is done for you - more, of course, than one would wish - the gifted young captain-conductor speaks English one minute, French or Italian the next, gets you up in the morning, to bed at night, past countless sentries and thick-headed guards demanding an Ausweis, contrives never to cease looking as if he had stepped from a band-box, and presently pops you into your hotel in Berlin with the curious feeling of never having been away at all.
It isn't, of course, an ideal way of working - not like putting on a hat and strolling out to war, as one sometimes could do in the early weeks in Belgium and France. The front is a big and rather accidental place, however - you can scarcely touch it anywhere without bringing back something to help complete the civilian's puzzle picture of the war. Our moment came in the German trenches before La Bassee, when, with the English so near that you could have thrown a baseball into their trenches, both sides began to toss dynamite bombs at each other.
We had come across to Cologne on the regular night express, shifted to a military train, and so on through Aix, Louvain, Brussels, and by the next morning's train down to Lille. Armentieres was only eight miles away, Ypres fifteen, and a little way to the south Neuve Chapelle, where the English offensive had first succeeded, then been thrown back only a few days before.
Spring had come over night, the country was green, sparkling with canals and little streams, and the few Belgian peasants left were trying to put it in shape for summer. A few were ploughing with horses, others laboriously going over their fields, foot by foot, with a spade; once we passed half a dozen men dragging a harrow. Every tree in this country, where wood is grown like any other crop, was speckled with white spots where branches had been trimmed away, and below the timber was piled - heavy logs for lumber, smaller ones cut into firewood - the very twigs piled as carefully as so many stacks of celery.
So fresh and neat and clean-swept did it seem .in that soft sunshine that one forgot how empty it was - so empty and repressed that one awoke startled to see three shaggy farm horses galloping off as the train rolled by, kicking up their heels as if they never had heard of war. It seemed frivolous, almost impertinent, and the landsturm officer, leaning in the open window beside me in the passageway, thinking perhaps of his own home across the Rhine, laughed and breathed a deep-chested "Kolossal!" We passed Enghien, Leuze, Tournai, all with that curious look of a run-down clock. On the outskirts of one town, half a dozen little children stopped spinning tops in the road to demand tribute from the train. They were pinched little children, with the worried, prematurely old faces of factory children, and they begged insistently, almost irritably, as if payment was long overdue. Good-natured soldiers tossed them chocolate and sausage and slices of buttered Kriegsbrod, which they took without thanks, still repeating in a curious jumble of German and French, "Pfennig venir! Pfennig - Pfennig - Pfennig venir!"'
Two officers from division headquarters were waiting for us in the station at Lille - one, a tall, easy-going young fellow in black motor-gauntlets, who looked as if he might, a few years before, have rowed on some American college crew; the other, in the officers' gray-blue frock overcoat with fur collar, a softer type, with quick, dark eyes and smile, and the pleasant, slightly languid manners of a young legation secretary.
We had just time to glance at the broken windows in the station roof, the two or three smashed blocks around it, and be hurried to that most empty of places - a modern city hotel without any guests - when three gray military motor-cars, with the imperial double eagle in black on their sides, whirled up. The officers took the lead, our happy family distributed itself in the others, and with cut-outs drumming, a soldier beside each chauffeur blowing a warning, and an occasional gay "Ta-ta ta-ta!" on a silver horn, we whirled out into the open country.