Chapter XIII. A War Correspondents' Village
The press department of the Foreign Office in Vienna duly presented the application to the press bureau of the Ministry of War; the latter conveyed it to the "Kaiserliche und Konigliche Armee-Oberkommando Kriegs-Presse-Quartier," a day's railroad journey nearer the front; the commandant made his recommendation to the chief of the General Staff. The permission itself percolated back to Vienna presently, and early next morning I took the Teschen express.
It was one of those semi-military trains which run into this region behind the front - officers and couriers, civilians with military passes, just before we started a young officer and his orderly saying good-by to their wives. He was one of those amiable, blue-eyed young Austrians who seem a sort of cross between German and French, and the orderly was much such another man, only less neatly made and sensitive, and there were the same differences in their wives and their good-bys.
The orderly saluted his officer, turned, clicked his heels, and saluted his officer's lady before he embraced his solid wife. The latter, rather proud to be in such company, beamed like a stove as the two men looked down from the car steps, but the girlish wife of the captain bit her lips, looked nervously from side to side, winked faster and faster until the tears began to roll down her cheeks. Then the train started, the orderly waving his hand, but the young officer, leaning quickly forward, drew his wife toward him and kissed her on one of the wet eyelids.
We crossed into Hungary, rolled northeastward for five or six hours into the Vag valley, with its green hills and vineyards and ruined castles, and finally came to a little place consisting almost entirely of consonants, in the Tatra foot-hills. Two blond soldiers in blue-gray saluted, took my luggage, showed me to a carriage, and drove to a village about a mile away - a little white village with a factory chimney for the new days, a dingy chateau for the old, and a brook running diagonally across the square, with geese quacking in it and women pounding clothes.
It was mid-afternoon, yet lunch had been kept waiting, and the officer who received me said he was sorry I had bothered to eat on the train. He told me where lodgings had been made ready, and that an orderly would take me there and look after my personal needs. They dined at eight, and at five, if I felt like it, I would probably find some of them in the coffee-house by the chateau. Meanwhile the first thing to do was to take one's cholera vaccination - for no one could go to the Galician front without being geimpft - and just as soon as I could take the second, a week later, we should start for the Russian front. In this fashion were strangers welcomed to the "Presse-Quartier," or rather to that part of it - this little Hungarian village - in which correspondents lived during the intervals of their trips to the front. The Austrians have pleasant manners. Their court is, next to that of Spain, the most formal in Europe, and ordinary life still retains many of the older courtesies. Every time I came into my hotel in Vienna the two little boys at the door jumped up and extended their caps at arm's length; an assistant porter, farther in, did the same; the head porter behind the desk often followed, and occasionally all four executed the manoeuvre at once, so that it was like a musical comedy but for the music.
The ordinary salutation in Vienna, as common as our "hello!" is "I have the honor" (Ich habe die Ehre!). In Hungary - of course one mustn't tell a Hungarian that he is "Austrian" - people tell you that they are your humble servants before they say good morning, and those who really are humble servants not only say "Kiss the hands," but every now and then do it. It was natural, therefore, perhaps, that the Austro-Hungarians should treat war correspondents - often, in these days, supposed to be extinct - not only seriously but with a certain air. They had not only the air but indeed a more elaborate organization than any of the other belligerents.
At the beginning of the war England permitted no correspondents at all at the front. France was less rigid, yet it was months before groups of observers began to be taken to the trenches.
Germany took correspondents to the front from the first, but these excursions came at irregular intervals, and admission to them involved a good deal of competitive wire-pulling between the correspondents themselves. The Austro-Hungarians, on the other hand, prepared from the first for a large number of civilian observers, including news and special writers, photographers, illustrators, and painters, and, to handle them satisfactorily, organized a special department of the army, this Presse-Quartier, once admitted to which - the fakirs and fly-by-nights were supposed to be weeded out by the preliminary red tape - they were assumed to be serious workmen and treated as the army's guests.
The Presse-Quartier was divided into two sections: an executive section, with a commandant responsible for the arrangement of trips to the various fronts, and the general business of censorship and publicity; and an entertainment section, so to speak, also with its commandant, whose business it was to board, lodge, and otherwise look after correspondents when they were not on trips to the front. At the time I visited the Presse-Quartier, the executive section was in Teschen; the correspondents lived in Nagybiesce, two or three hours' railroad journey away.
It was to this village - the most novel part of the scheme - that I had come that afternoon, and here some thirty or forty correspondents were living, writing past adventures, setting forth on new ones, or merely inviting their souls for the moment under a regime which combined the functions of tourists' bureau, rest-cure, and a sort of military club.