May Sinclair

Ghent, Belgium

Ghent, Belgium

7 A.M. Got up early and went to Mass in the Cathedral.

Prepared report for British Red Cross. Wrote “Journal of Impressions” from September 25th to September 26th, 11 A.M. It’s slow work. Haven’t got out of Ostend yet!

Fighting at Zele.

[Afternoon.]

Got very near the fighting this time.

Mr. L. (Heaven bless him!) took me out with him in the War Correspondents’ car to see what the Ambulance was doing at Zele, and, incidentally, to look at the bombardment of some evacuated villages near it (I have no desire to see the bombardment of any village that has not been evacuated first). Mr. M. came too, and they brought a Belgian lady with them, a charming and beautiful lady, whose name I forget.

When Mr. L. told me to get up and come with him to Zele, I did get up with an energy and enthusiasm that amazed me; I got up like one who has been summoned at last, after long waiting, to a sure and certain enterprise. I can trust Mr. L. or any War Correspondent who means business, as I cannot (after Antwerp) trust the Commandant. So far, if the Commandant happens upon a bombardment it has been either in the way of duty, or by sheer luck, or both, as at Alost and Termonde, when duty took him to these places, and any bombardment or firing was, as it were, thrown in. He did not go out deliberately to seek it, for its own sake, and find it infallibly, which is the War Correspondent’s way. So that if Mr. L. says there is going to be a bombardment, we shall probably get somewhere nearer to it than thirty kilometres.

We took the main road to Zele. I don’t know whether it was really a continuation of the south-east road that runs under the Hospital windows; anyhow, we left it very soon, striking southwards to the right to find what Mr. L. believed to be a short cut. Thus we never got to Zele at all. We came out on a good straight road that would no doubt have led us there in time, but that we allowed ourselves to be lured by the smoke of the great factory at Schoonard burning away to the south.

For a long time I could not believe that it was smoke we saw and not an enormous cloud blown by the wind across miles of sky. We seemed to run for miles with that terrible banner streaming on our right to the south, apparently in the same place, as far off as ever. East of it, on the sky-line, was a whole fleet of little clouds that hung low over the earth; that rose from it; rose and were never lifted, but as they were shredded away, scattered and vanished, were perpetually renewed. This movement of their death and re-birth had a horrible sinister pulse in it.

Each cloud of this fleet of clouds was the smoke from a burning village.

At last, after an endless flanking pursuit of the great cloud that continued steadily on our right, piling itself on itself and mounting incessantly, we struck into a side lane that seemed to lead straight to the factory on fire. But in this direct advance the cloud eluded us at every turn of the lane. Now it was rising straight in front of us in the south, now it was streaming away somewhere to the west of our track. When we went west it went east. When we went east it went west. And wherever we went we met refugees from the burning villages. They were trudging along slowly, very tired, very miserable, but with no panic and no violent grief. We passed through villages and hamlets, untouched still, but waiting quietly, and a little breathlessly, on the edge of their doom.

At the end of one lane, where it turned straight to the east round the square of a field we came upon a great lake ringed with trees and set in a green place of the most serene and vivid beauty. It seemed incredible that the same hour should bring us to this magic stillness and peace and within sight of the smoke of war and within sound of the guns.

At the next turn we heard them.

We still thought that we could get to Schoonard, to the burning factory, and work back to Zele by a slight round. But at this turn we had lost sight of Schoonard and the great cloud altogether, and found ourselves in a little hamlet Heaven knows where. Only, straight ahead of us, as we looked westwards, we heard the guns. The sound came from somewhere over there and from two quarters; German guns booming away on the south, Belgian [? French] guns answering from the north.

Judging by these sounds and those we heard afterwards, we must have been now on the outer edge of a line of fire stretching west and east and following the course of the Scheldt. The Germans were entrenched behind the river.

In the little hamlet we asked our way of a peasant. As far as we could make out from his mixed French and Flemish, he told us to turn back and take the road we had left where it goes south to the village of Baerlaere. This we did. We gathered that we could get a road through Baerlaere to Schoonard. Failing Schoonard, our way to Zele lay through Baerlaere in the opposite direction.

We set off along a very bad road to Baerlaere.

Coming into Baerlaere, we saw a house with a remarkable roof, a steep-pitched roof of black and white tiles arranged in a sort of chequer-board pattern. I asked Mr. L. if he had ever seen a roof like that in his life and he replied promptly, “Yes; in China.” And that roof—if it was coming into Baerlaere that we saw it—is all that I can remember of Baerlaere. There was, I suppose, the usual church with its steeple where the streets forked and the usual town hall near it, with a flight of steps before the door and a three-cornered classic pediment; and the usual double line of flat-fronted, grey-shuttered houses; I do seem to remember these things as if they had really been there, but you couldn’t see the bottom half of the houses for the troops that were crowded in front of them, or the top half for the shells you tried to see and didn’t. They were sweeping high up over the roofs, making for the entrenchments and the batteries beyond the village.

We had come bang into the middle of an artillery duel. It was going on at a range of about a mile and a half, but all over our heads, so that though we heard it with great intensity, we saw nothing.

There were intervals of a few seconds between the firing. The Belgian [? French] batteries were pounding away on the left quite near (the booming seemed to come from behind the houses at our backs), and the German on the right, farther away.

Now, you may have hated and dreaded the sound of guns all your life, as you hate and dread any immense and violent noise, but there is something about the sound of the first near gun of your first battle that, so far from being hateful or dreadful, or in any way abhorrent to you, will make you smile in spite of yourself with a kind of quiet exultation mixed very oddly with reminiscence so that, though your first impression (by no means disagreeable) is of being “in for it,” your next, after the second and the third gun, is that of having been in for it many times before. The effect on your nerves is now like that of being in a very small sailing-boat in a very big-running sea. You climb wave after high wave, and are not swallowed up as you expected. You wait, between guns, for the boom and the shock of the next, with a passionate anticipation, as you wait for the next wave. And the sound of the gun when it comes is like the exhilarating smack of the wave that you and your boat mean to resist and do resist when it gets you.

You do not think, as you used to think when you sat safe in your little box-like house in St. John’s Wood, how terrible it is that shells should be hurtling through the air and killing men by whole regiments. You do not think at all. Nobody anywhere near you is thinking that sort of thing, or thinking very much at all.

At the sound of the first near gun I found myself looking across the road at a French soldier. We were smiling at each other.

When we tried to get to Schoonard from the west end of the town we were stopped and turned back by the General in command. Not in the least abashed by this contretemps, Mr. L., after some parley with various officers, decided not to go back in ignominious safety by the way we came, but to push on from the east end of the village into the open country through the line of fire that stretched between us and the road to Zele. On our way, while we were about it, he said, we might as well stop and have a look at the Belgian batteries at work—as if he had said we might as well stop at Olympia and have a look at the Motor Show on our way to Richmond.

At this point the unhappy chauffeur, who had not found himself by any means at home in Baerlaere, remarked that he had a wife and family dependent on him.

Mr. L. replied with dignity that he had a wife and family too, and that we all had somebody or something; and that War Correspondents cannot afford to think of their wives and families at these moments.

Mr. M.’s face backed up Mr. L. with an expression of extreme determination.

The little Belgian lady smiled placidly and imperturbably, with an air of being ready to go anywhere where these intrepid Englishmen should see fit to take her.

I felt a little sorry for the chauffeur. He had been out with the War Correspondents several times already, and I hadn’t.

We left him and his car behind us in the village, squeezed very tight against a stable wall that stood between them and the German fire. We four went on a little way beyond the village and turned into a bridle path across the open fields. At the bottom of a field to our left was a small slump of willows; we had heard the Belgian guns firing from that direction a few minutes before. We concluded that the battery was concealed behind the willows. We strolled on like one half of a picnic party that has been divided and is looking innocently for the other half in a likely place. But as we came nearer to the willows we lost our clue. The battery had evidently made up its mind not to fire as long as we were in sight. Like the cloud of smoke from the Schoonard factory, it eluded us successfully. And indeed it is hardly the way of batteries to choose positions where interested War Correspondents can come out and find them.

So we went back to the village, where we found the infantry being drawn up in order and doing something to its rifles. For one thrilling moment I imagined that the Germans were about to leap out of their trenches and rush the village, and that the Belgians [? French] were preparing for a bayonet charge.

“In that case,” I thought, “we shall be very useful in picking up the wounded and carrying them away in that car.”

I never thought of the ugly rush and the horrors after it. It is extraordinary how your mind can put away from it any thought that would make life insupportable.

But no, they were not fixing bayonets. They were not doing anything to their rifles; they were only stacking them.

It was then that you thought of the ugly rush and were glad that, after all, it wouldn’t happen.

You were glad—and yet in spite of that same gladness, there was a little sense of disappointment, unaccountable, unpardonable, and not quite sane.

One of the men showed us a burst shrapnel shell. We examined it with great interest as the kind of thing that would be most likely to hit us on our way from Baerlaere to Zele.

We had been barely half an hour hanging about Baerlaere, but it seemed as if we had wasted a whole afternoon there. At last we started. We were told to drive fast, as the fire might open on us at any minute. We drove very fast. Our road lay through open country flat to the river, with no sort of cover anywhere from the German fire, if it chose to come. About half a mile ahead of us was a small hamlet that had been shelled. Mr. L. told us to duck when we heard the guns. I remember thinking that I particularly didn’t want to be wounded in my right arm, and that as I sat with my right arm resting on the ledge of the car it was somewhat exposed to the German batteries, so I wriggled low down in my seat and tucked my arm well under cover for quite five minutes. But you couldn’t see anything that way, so I popped up again and presently forgot all about my valuable arm in the sheer excitement of the rush through the danger zone. Our car was low on the ground; still, it was high enough and big enough to serve as a mark for the German guns and it fairly gave them the range of the road.

But though the guns had been pounding away before we started, they ceased firing as we went through.

That, however, was sheer luck. And presently it was brought home to me that we were not the only persons involved in the risk of this joyous adventure. Just outside the bombarded hamlet ahead of us we were stopped by some Belgian [? French] soldiers hidden in the cover of a ditch by the roadside, which if it was not a trench might very easily have been one. They were talking in whispers for fear of being overheard by the Germans, who must have been at least a mile off, across the fields on the other side of the river. A mile seemed a pretty safe distance; but Mr. L. said it wouldn’t help us much, considering that the range of their guns was twenty-four miles. The soldiers told us we couldn’t possibly get through to Zele. That was true. The road was blocked—by the ruins of the hamlet—not twenty yards from where we were pulled up. We got out of the car; and while Mr. L. and the Belgian lady conversed with the soldiers, Mr. M. and I walked on to investigate the road.

At the abrupt end of a short row of houses it stopped where it should have turned suddenly, and became a rubbish-heap lying in a waste place.

Just at first I thought we must have gone out of our course somehow and missed the road to Zele. It was difficult to realize that this rubbish-heap lying in a waste place ever had been a road. But for the shell of a house that stood next to it, the last of the row, and the piles of lath and plaster, and the shattered glass on the sidewalk and the blown dust everywhere, it might have passed for the ordinary no-thoroughfare of an abandoned brick-field.

Mr. M. made me keep close under the wall of a barn or something on the other side of the street, the only thing that stood between us and the German batteries. Beyond the barn were the green fields bare to the guns that had shelled this end of the village. At first we hugged our shelter tight, only looking out now and then round the corner of the barn into the open country.

A flat field, a low line of willows at the bottom, and somewhere behind the willows the German batteries. Grey puffs were still curling about the stems and clinging to the tops of the willows. They might have been mist from the river or smoke from the guns we had heard. I hadn’t time to watch them, for suddenly Mr. M. darted from his cover and made an alarming sally into the open field.

He said he wanted to find some pieces of nice hot shell for me.

So I had to run out after Mr. M. and tell him I didn’t want any pieces of hot shell, and pull him back into safety.

All for nothing. Not a gun fired.

We strolled across what was left of the narrow street and looked through the window-frames of a shattered house. It had been a little inn. The roof and walls of the parlour had been wrecked, so had most of the furniture. But on a table against the inner wall a row of clean glasses still stood in their order as the landlord had left them; and not one of them was broken.

I suppose it must have been about time for the guns to begin firing again, for Mr. L. called to us to come back and to look sharp too. So we ran for it. And as we leaped into the car Mr. L. reproved Mr. M. gravely and virtuously for “taking a lady into danger.”

The car rushed back into Baerlaere if anything faster than it had rushed out, Mr. L. sitting bolt upright with an air of great majesty and integrity. I remember thinking that it would never, never do to duck if the shells came, for if we did Mr. L.’s head would stand out like a noble monument and he would be hit as infallibly as any cathedral in Belgium.

It seems that the soldiers were not particularly pleased at our blundering up against their trench in our noisy car, which, they said, might draw down the German fire at any minute on the Belgian lines.

We got into Ghent after dark by the way we came.

[Evening.]

Called at the “Flandria.” Ursula Dearmer and two Belgian nurses have been sent to the convent at Zele to work there to-night.

Mr. —— is here. But you wouldn’t know him. I have just been introduced to him without knowing him. Before the War he was a Quaker, a teetotaller, and a pacifist at any price. And I suppose he wore clothes that conformed more or less to his principles. Now he is wearing the uniform of a British naval officer. He is drinking long whiskies-and-sodas in the restaurant, in the society of Major R. And the Major’s khaki doesn’t give a point to the Quaker’s uniform. As for the Quaker, they say he could give points to any able seaman when it comes to swear words (but this may be sheer affectionate exaggeration). His face and his high, hatchet nose, whatever colour they used to be, are now the colour of copper—not an ordinary, Dutch kettle and coal-scuttle, pacifist, arts-and-crafts copper, but a fine old, truculent, damn-disarmament, Krupp-&-Co., bloody, ammunition copper, and battered by the wars of all the world. He is the commander and the owner of an armoured car, one of the unit of five volunteer armoured cars. I do not know whether he was happy or unhappy when there wasn’t a war. No man, and certainly no Quaker, could possibly be happier than this Quaker is now. He and the Major have been out potting Germans all the afternoon. (They have accounted for nine.) A schoolboy who has hit the mark nine times running with his first toy rifle is not merrier than, if as merry as, these more than mature men with their armoured car. They do not say much, but you gather that it is more fun being a volunteer than a regular; it is to enjoy delight with liberty, the maximum of risk with the minimum of responsibility.

And their armoured car—if it is the one I saw standing to-day in the Place d’Armes—it is, as far as you can make out through its disguises, an ordinary open touring car, with a wooden hoarding (mere matchboard) stuck all round it, the whole painted grey to simulate, armoured painting. Through four holes, fore and aft and on either side of her, their machine-guns rake the horizon. The Major and Mr. —— sit inside, hidden behind the matchboard plating. They scour the country. When they see any Germans they fire and bring them down. It is quite simple. When you inquire how they can regard that old wooden rabbit-hutch as an armoured cover, they reply that their car isn’t for defence, it’s for attack. The Germans have only to see their guns and they’re off. And really it looks like it, since the two are actually here before your eyes, drinking whiskies-and-sodas, and the rest of the armoured car corps are alive somewhere in Ghent.

Dear Major R. and Mr. —— (whom I never met before), unless they read this Journal, which isn’t likely, they will never know how my heart warmed towards them, nor how happy I count myself in being allowed to see them. They showed me how good it is to be alive; how excellent, above all things, to be a man and to be young for ever, and to go out into the most gigantic war in history, sitting in an armoured car which is as a rabbit-hutch for safety, and to have been a pacifist, that is to say a sinner, like Mr. ——, so that on the top of it you feel the whole glamour and glory of conversion. Others may have known the agony and the fear and sordid filth and horror and the waste, but they know nothing but the clean and fiery passion and the contagious ecstasy of war.

If you were to tell Mr. —— about the mystic fascination of the south-east road, the road that leads eventually to Waterloo, he would most certainly understand you, but it is very doubtful whether he would let you venture very far down it. Whereas the Commandant, sooner or later, will.

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