To-day there was a fog when we awoke. Almost immediately the Captain gave the word to harness, and five o’clock had not yet struck when we started. The road was cut up into ruts by the artillery which for three days had been passing over it, and we were so shaken on the limbers that we could scarcely breathe.
Luckily the column was advancing at a walking pace.
The fog had collected at the end of the valley. On the right enormous and regularly formed mounds rose like islands out of the sea of mist. I could not take my eyes off their symmetrical curves, as perfect as those of Cybele’s breasts.
Farther on the road straggled across a plain, the ample undulations of which reminded one of the rise and fall of the ocean on days when there is a swell. In every direction it was studded with wheat sheaves, but there were few trees except an occasional group or line of poplars welded together by the fog in an indistinct mass of dark green foliage. Not a sound of battle was to be heard.
On the way we fell in with some baggage-trains and ambulances, and learnt from their drivers that the enemy was still far away.
Nevertheless the country had already been prepared for battle. A farmhouse by the roadside had been fortified, the windows barricaded with mattresses and small trusses of straw, while a few loopholes had been knocked in the garden wall. The fields were furrowed with trenches as far as the edge of a wood, where some abatis had been set up. Earthworks had been thrown up along the sides of the road, and in front were heaped ladders, a couple of harrows, a plough, a roller, and several bundles of straw. Two carts had been placed athwart the road, but they had been pushed one to each side and lay thrown back with their long shafts pointing upwards.
We still rolled on across this desolate country. So similar were its aspects that it almost seemed as if we were not advancing at all.
At last the fog lifted, and, suddenly, before we were able to guess that the end of the dreary scenery was near, a magnificent view opened out before us as if by enchantment. We were on the crest of a hill between two valleys, on one side of which thick woods descended in leafy terraces to the hollow of a narrow dell in which, through a meadow of vivid emerald green, a little black river trickled on its way. The forests surrounding this meadow, as if placed there in order to embellish and enhance its beauty, looked like a magnificent ruff of low-toned olive tints. In front of us, just where the road turned off at an angle, a spur of woodland rose with the forbidding aspect of a fortress. On the right, forming a contrast to the quiet and peaceful little river, a broad valley, with symmetrical slopes lightened here and there by corn standing yellow in the sun, opened out wide and invitingly. The river flowing through it was hardly visible, but the roads, villages, and the railway line were quite distinct. On the one hand lay Velosnes, and on the other Torgny, their white walls and red roofs showing up on the green background of the fields.
There was nothing in the scene to suggest that war was on foot, and gun-shots heard from a distance were no more startling than the noise of carriage wheels.
It was a fine morning, to which the mist, softening the outlines of the landscape, lent additional charm. The narrow S-shaped road we were following plunged into the valley. The horses made efforts to keep back the guns, and especially the ammunition wagons, which were pushing them down the slope. Their shoes slipping with the dislodged stones, they braced their backs ‘and felt their way cautiously.
The river at this point constituted the frontier between France and Belgium. A custom-house official was leaning up against the parapet of the bridge.
One of the men called out to him: “No fine linen or lace to-day, old man!”
And another: “Suppose there’s no duty on melinite, is there?”
The official grinned.
The first Belgian village, Torgny, afforded a contrast to the French hamlets through which we had been passing since dawn. Our villages are tumble-down, dirty, and redolent of manure and misery. Torgny, on the contrary, was clean and bright, the windows of the houses boasting not only curtains but even, sometimes, embroidered shades, while the shutters, doors, and window-joists were painted light green.
On all sides we were greeted with smiles by the placid and open-faced villagers. Through the windows of the cottages we could see red tiled floors, and in the semi-darkness of the interiors the glow of brasswork on stoves and lamps reflected by carefully polished furniture.
Our column halted in the village, the men carefully wedging the wheels of the vehicles to prevent them from backing down the slope. A woman and a fair, slightly built girl were sitting in front of their house, of which the lower half was a mass of wistaria. We asked them where the road led to, and a conversation began in which not only mother and daughter took part, but also the grand-mother, a wizened little woman with a wrinkled face out of which peered a pair of bright brown eyes; she had come out to see what was happening. They talked with a drawling sing-song accent, which nevertheless was in no way disagreeable to our ears.
“Have the Germans come as far as this?”
“Yes, they’ve come, only they didn’t do any harm. . . . They hadn’t the time. Five or six of them came down from the woods up there cavalrymen. But they went back almost at once. Some of the villagers saw them. There were also some French cavalry here, in blue and red uniforms.”
“I suppose so. They are so nice and polite. … At first, as there weren’t many of them, we almost quarrelled as to who should have them. When the Uhlans came out of the woods they saw the French and went in again.”
“And the Belgian soldiers?”
“Not seen any of them,” said the old lady. “But my granddaughter saw some at Arlon last year.”
“Yes,” chimed in the girl, “and they are better dressed than you.”
We prepared to make ourselves comfortable in the chairs which had been brought out for us, and chatted while waiting for the order to
“You ought to be very grateful to us,” said the grandmother. “We stopped them, and they hadn’t reckoned on that! They thought we were sheep and found we were lions yes, lions! They even say so themselves!”
We willingly acquiesced.
In future we shall always be able to count upon the goodwill of the Belgians, for we owe them a debt of gratitude. There is no more solid basis for affection than that which underlies the feelings of a benefactor towards his protege. Nothing is more soothing to the spirit than a sense of superiority and legitimate pride.
There can be no doubt but that the blood so bravely shed for us in Belgium will be productive of more friendship than twenty years of sustained efforts to maintain the French language and culture against the rising tide of Germanisation. And, forty years later, when we meet a Belgian, we may be sure that he will remind us, in his pleasing accent: “Yes, but you know . . . without us in …”
It will be a pleasure to him to recall all that France owes to his glorious little country. More, he will be grateful to us for the debt we owe her.
“Oh, of course it has cost us a lot to defend our neutrality,” said the old woman. “It is awful what the Germans have done in our country. They seem to have a special hatred for the women. There was one down there. . . . We knew her quite well. . . . And they first cut off her breasts . . . and then disembowelled her. . . . And they’ve done that to countless others! Oh! it’s too awful! They must be worse than savages. You must tell your people about it, when you get back about that, and about everything else we’ve had to suffer. But you won’t do the same when you get into Germany, will you?”
She added: “I am very old over seventy and I had never seen war in Belgium.”
The poor old woman spoke almost without anger, but in a trembling voice and with infinite sadness.
We encamped at Torgny. As soon as the horses had been picketed and the oats distributed, Deprez and I hurried to the wistaria windows to ask if we could buy a little milk and some eggs. The old woman was most upset; it seemed that she had already given everything to the Chasseurs. But she sent us a little farther on to the house of one of her daughters who, she said, would milk the cow for us. She added:
“We’ve a good loft here, where you would be quite comfortable and warm in the straw. So come back to sleep in any case.”
We knocked at the door she had pointed out to us a couple of houses farther on, and were received as though we had been expected.
“It’s some artillerymen, mother,” said a young woman, who was nursing a child in her arms. “They want some milk.”
Her mother came out of the next room.
“I’ll go and milk the cow,” said she. “Good evening, messieurs; please sit down; you must be tired.”
Lucas had somehow managed to find some eggs.
“Shall we make you an omelette with bacon?” asked the daughter. “It won’t take long. But do sit down. I’m sure you’ve been standing
about enough to-day!”
Almost immediately the fat began to sizzle in the pan.
At every moment infantrymen and Chasseurs knocked at the door, and the two women distributed the milk from their cow, refusing all payment. When there was no more left they were quite wretched at having to disappoint the men who continually arrived on various
“We’ve given all we had. I’m so sorry!” they said. “We’ve only a small bowl left for the baby. You see, we’ve only one cow!”
A Chasseur brought back a kettle he had borrowed; another asked for the loan of a grid-iron. Never has Frenchman been more warmly welcomed in France.
The fair-haired girl, with whom we had been talking shortly before, came back carrying an earthenware milk-jug in her hand.
“Have you any milk, auntie? There are some soldiers who want a little. They’re ill, some of them.”
“Oh, darling, I’m so sorry! There are only a few drops left for baby!”
“Oh, dear! . . .”
The girl saw us seated at table round the smoking omelette, and smiled at us as though we were old acquaintances. I told her that if I ever returned home I should perhaps write a book about what I had seen in the war.
“And will you please tell me your name, so that I can send you the book as a souvenir to you and your family. You have all been so good to us Frenchmen.”
“My name is Aline, Aline Badureau.”
“What a pretty name Aline”
She prepared to go.
“I hope that you will return home,” she said to me, “so that you can send us your book. But I’m sure you’ll forget. They say that French-men forget very soon.”
I protested vehemently.