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.

For the time being they were part of the army - fed, lodged, and transported at the army's expense, and unable to leave without formal military permission. They were supposed to "enlist for the whole war," so to speak, and most of the Austro-Hungarian and German correspondents had so remained - some had even written books there - but observers from neutral countries were permitted to leave when they felt they had seen enough.

Isolated thus in the country, the only mail the military field post, the only telegrams those that passed the military censor, correspondents were as "safe" as in Siberia. They, on the other hand, had the advantage of an established position, of living inexpensively in pleasant surroundings, where their relations with the censor and the army were less those of policemen and of suspicious character than of host and guest. To be welcomed here, after the usual fretful dangling and wire-pulling in War Office anterooms and city hotels - with hills and ruined castles to walk to, a brook rippling under one's bedroom window, and all the time in the world - seemed idyllic enough.

We were quartered in private houses, and as there was one man to a family generally, he was put in the villager's room of honor, with a tall porcelain stove in the corner, a feather bed under him, and another on top. Each man had a soldier servant who looked after boots and luggage, kept him supplied with cigars and cigarettes from the Quartier commissariat - for a paternal government included even tobacco! - and charmed the simple republican heart by whacking his heels together whenever spoken to and flinging back "Jawohl!"

We breakfasted separately, whenever we felt like it, on the rolls with the glass of whipped cream and coffee usual in this part of the world; lunched and dined - officers and correspondents - together. There were soldier waiters who with military precision told how many pieces one might take, and on every table big carafes of Hungarian white wine, drunk generally instead of water. For beer one paid extra.

The commandant and his staff, including a doctor, and the officer guides not on excursions at the moment, sat at the head of the long U-shaped table. Any one who came in or went out after the commandant was seated was supposed to advance a bit into this "U," catch his eye, bow, and receive his returning nod. The silver click of spurs, of course, accompanied this salute when an officer left the room, and the Austro-Hungarian and German correspondents generally snapped their heels together in semi-military fashion. All our goings and comings, indeed, were accompanied by a good deal of manner. People who had seen each other at breakfast shook hands formally half an hour later in the village square, and one bowed and was bowed to and heard the singsong... "'habe die Ehre!" a dozen times a day.

Nagybiesce is in northern Hungary, and the peasants round about were Slovaks - sturdy, solid, blond people with legs the same size all the way down. Many of them still reaped with scythes and thrashed on the barn floor with old-fashioned flails, and one afternoon there was a curious plaintive singing under my window - a party of harvesters, oldish men and brown, barefooted peasant girls, who had finished their work on a neighboring farm, and were crossing our village on their way to their own.

The Quartier naturally stirred things up a good deal in Nagybiesce. There was one week when we could not go into the street without being surrounded by little girls with pencils and cards asking for our "autogram." The candy shop kept by two girl wives whose husbands were at the front did a vast business, and the young women had somebody to talk to all day long. The evening the news came that Warsaw had fallen, candles were lighted in all the windows on the square, and the band with the villagers behind it came to serenade us as we were at dinner. The commandant bowed from the window, but a young Hungarian journalist leaned out and without a moment's hesitation poured forth a torrent for fully fifteen minutes with scarce a pause for breath. I told him that such impromptu oratory seemed marvellous, but he dismissed it as nothing. "I'm politiker!" he explained, with a wave of his hand.

One day a man came into lunch with the news that he was off on the best trip he'd had yet - he was going back to Vienna for his skis, to go down into the Tyrol and work along the glaciers to the battery positions. Another man, a Budapest painter, started off for an indefinite stay with an army corps in Bessarabia. He was to be, indeed, part of the army for the time being, and all his work belonged to the army first. As this is being written a number of painters sent out on similar expeditions have been giving an exhibition in Vienna - portraits and pencil sketches much like those Frederic Remington used to make. Foreigners not intending to remain in Austria-Hungary could not expect such privileges, naturally; but if they were admitted to the Quartier at all they were sent on the ordinary group excursions like the home correspondents themselves. Indeed, the wonder was - in view of the comparative ease with which neutral correspondents drifted about Europe: the naivete, to put it mildly, with which the wildest romances had been printed in American newspapers, that we were permitted to see as much as we did.

When a group started for the front, it left Nagybiesce in its own car, which, except when the itinerary included some large city - Lemberg, for instance - served as a little hotel until they came back again. The car was a clean, second-class coach, of the usual European compartment kind, two men to a compartment, and at night they bunked on the long transverse seats comfortably enough. We took one long trip of a thousand miles or so in this way, taking our own motor, on a separate flat car, and even an orderly servant for each man. Each of these groups was, of course, accompanied by an officer guide - several were detailed at the Quartier for this special duty - whose complex and nerve-racking task it was to answer all questions, make all arrangements, report to each local commandant, pass sentries, and comfortably waft his flock of civilians through the maze of barriers which cover every foot, so to speak, of the region near the front.

The things correspondents were permitted to see differed from those seen on the other fronts less in kind than in quantity. More trips were made, but there is and can be little place for a civilian on a "front," any spot in which, over a strip several miles wide, from the heavy artillery positions of one side to the heavy artillery of the other, may be in absolute quiet one minute and the next the centre of fire. There is no time to bother with civilians during an offensive, and, if a retreat is likely, no commander wishes to have country described which may presently be in the hands of the enemy. Hidden batteries in action, reserves moving up, wounded coming back, fliers, trenches quiet for the moment - this is about as close to actual fighting as the outsider, under ordinary circumstances, can expect to get on any front. The difference in Austria-Hungary was that correspondents saw these things, and the battle-fields and captured cities, not as mere outsiders, picked up from a hotel and presently to be dropped there again, but as, in a sense, a part of the army itself. They had their commandant to report to, their "camp" and "uniform" - the gold-and-black Presse-Quartier arm band - and when they had finished one excursion they returned to headquarters with the reasonable certainty that in another ten days or so they would start out again.