Last weekend, my wife and I got in our car and left the city. We drove out of Philadelphia, past the airport, onto the blue route. Our destination was an old used bookstore, a bookstore we hadn’t visited in almost ten years.
We didn’t know exactly where the bookstore was, only that it was on one of many roads leading south from West Chester toward the Delaware border.
For those of you who don’t know the area, it is one of the most beautiful in the country. Lots of rolling hills and heavily forested areas, colonial homes built on old colonial roads, out of wonderful colonial-era quarried rock. Everything was in full-bloom, and the ride provided a sharp contrast to the concrete filth and edgy atmosphere of the city.
Fortunately, we found the bookstore without any trouble. It was located a few miles north of Chadds Ford near the little Brandywine Creek. This is the area where, in 1777, George Washington suffered a bad defeat at the hands of the redcoats.
This put me in a military state of mind, and I began my perusal in the section dedicated to armed conflict. That is where I found a diamond in the rough. Among dozens of out of print memoirs written about the First World War, I discovered a book called Antwerp to Gallipoli: A Year of the War on Many Fronts- and Behind Them by Arthur Ruhl. The book was published in 1916 by the A.L. Burt Company of New York. It was in near mint condition and selling for $14.
As soon as I opened it and began to read the first chapter, I realized that I had stumbled upon something extraordinary. It was not a romantic call to arms, it did not glorify war, or call on the Americans to join the fight. And it was written in a style more akin to David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan than to the war correspondents of the era.
The prose is a little more aristocratic than his later Vietnam-era compatriots, but the feel is the same. His approach is almost existential, and his attention to culture, dress, and language anticipates the later style of social history.
The Germans Are Coming!
The Germans had already entered Brussels, their scouts were reported on the outskirts of Ghent; a little farther now, over behind the horizon wind−mills, and we might at any moment come on them.
For more than a fortnight we had been hurrying eastward, hearing, through cable despatches and wireless, the far−off thunder of that vast gray tide rumbling down to France. The first news had come drifting in, four thousand miles away, to the little Wisconsin lake where I was fishing. A strange herd of us, all drawn in one way or another by the war, had caught the first American ship, the old St. Paul, and, with decks crowded with trunks and mail−bags from half a dozen ships, steamed eastward on the all but empty ocean. There were reservists hurrying to the colors, correspondents, men going to rescue wives and sisters. Some were hit through their pocketbooks, some through their imaginations−− like the young women hoping to be Red Cross nurses, or to help in some way, they weren’t sure how.
One had a steamer chair next mine−−a pale, Broadway tomboy sort of girl in a boyish sailor suit, who looked as if she needed sleep. Without exactly being on the stage, she yet appeared to live on the fringe of it, and combined the slangy freedoms of a chorus girl with a certain quick wisdom and hard sense. It was she who discovered a steerage passenger, on the Liverpool dock, who had lost his wife and was bringing his four little children back to Ireland from Chicago, and, while the other cabin passengers fumed over their luggage, took up a collection for him then and there.
“Listen here!” she would say, grabbing my arm. “I want to tell you something. I’m going to see this thing−−d’you know what I mean?−−for what it’ll do to me−−you know−−for its effect on my mind! I didn’t say anything about it to anybody−−they’d only laugh at me−−d’you know what I mean? They don’t think I’ve got any serious side to me. Now, I don’t mind things−−I mean blood−−you know−−they don’t affect me, and I’ve read about nursing−−I’ve prepared for this! Now, I don’t know how to go about it, but it seems to me that a woman who can−−you know−−go right with `em−−jolly `em along−−might be just what they’d want−−d’you know what I mean?”
One Russian had said good−by to a friend at the dock, he to try to get through this way, the other by the Pacific and Trans−Siberian. The Englishman who shared my stateroom was an advertising man. “I’ve got contracts worth fifty thousand pounds,” he said, “and I don’t suppose they’re worth the paper they’re written on.” There were several Belgians and a quartet of young Frenchmen who played cards every night and gravely drank bottle after bottle of champagne to the glory of France.
Even the Balkans were with us, in the shape of a tall, soldier−like Bulgarian with a heavy mustache and the eyes of a kindly and highly intelligent hawk. He was going back home−−”to fight?”
“Yes, to fight.”
“With Servia?” asked some one politely, with the usual vague American notion of the Balkan states. The Bulgarian’s eyes shone curiously.
“You have a sense of humor!” he said.
This man had done newspaper work in Russia and America, studied at Harvard, and he talked about our politics, theatres, universities, society generally. It was a pity, he said, and the result of the comparative lack of critical spirit in America that Mr. Roosevelt had been a hero so long. There were party papers mechanically printing their praise or blame−−”and then, of course, the New York Evening Post and the Springfield Republican”−−but no general intelligent criticism of ideas for a popular idol to meet and answer. “On the whole, he’s a good influence−−but in place of something better. It isn’t good for a man to stand so long in the bright sunshine.”
That it was impossible for the Mexicans to work out their own salvation he doubted. “I think of Bulgaria−−surely our inheritance of Turkish rule was almost as bad, and of how the nation has responded, and of the intensive culture we had at a time when we were only a name to most western Europeans.” He was but one of those new potentialities which every whisper from the now cloud−wrapped Continent seemed to be opening −−this tall, scholar−fighter from the comic−opera land where Mr. Shaw placed his chocolate soldiers.
In a steamer chair a frail−looking young woman in a white polo coat looked nervously out on the sea. She was Irish and came of a fighting line−−father, uncles, and brothers in army and navy, her husband in command of a British cruiser, scouting the very steamship lane through which we were steaming. Frail−looking, but not frail in spirit−−a fighter born, with Irish keenness and wit, she was ready to prick any balloon in sight. She had chased about the world too long after a fighting family to care much about settling down now. They couldn’t afford to keep a place in England and live somewhere else half the time −−”and, after all, what is there in being a cabbage?” She talked little. “You can learn more about people merely watching them,” and she lay in her steamer chair and watched.
She could tell, merely by looking at them in their civilian’s clothes, which were army and which navy men, which “R.N.s” and which merchant− service men. We spoke of a young lieutenant from an India artillery regiment. “Yes−−’garrison−gunner,'” she said. She was sorry for the German people, but the Kaiser was “quite off his rocker and had to be licked.”
War suddenly reached out for us as we came up to Mersey Bar, and an officer in khaki bellowed from the pilot−boat: “Take down your wireless!” Down it came, and there the ship stayed for the night, while the passengers crowded about a volunteer town−crier who read from the papers that had come aboard, and, in the strange quiet that descends on an anchored steamship, asked each other how true it was that the German military bubble−−a magazine article with that title had been much read on the way over−−had burst. Slowly next morning we crept up the Mersey, past a rusty tramp outward bound, crowded with khaki−clad men. All the shipping was tooting as she swept by, and the men cheering and waving their hats at the land they might never come back to. The regular landing−stages were taken by transports, tracks were held for troop−trains, and it was night before we got down to London, where crowds and buses stormed along as usual and barytone soloists in every music−hall were roaring defiance to the Kaiser and reiterating that Britannia ruled the waves.
Into the fog of war that covered the Continent an army of Englishmen had vanished, none knew where. Out of it came rumors of victories, but as I crossed the Strand that morning on the way to Charing Cross, a newsboy pushed an extra into the cab window−−the Germans were entering Brussels! Yet we fought into the boat train just as if thousands of people weren’t fighting to get away from the very places we hoped to reach. There were two business men in our coupe going to France, an elderly Irish lady, an intransigent Unionist, with black goggles and umbrella, hoping to get through to her invalid brother in Diest, and a bright, sweet−faced little Englishwoman, in nurse’s dark−blue uniform and bonnet, bound for Antwerp, where her sister’s convent had been turned into a hospital. She told about her little east−coast town as we crossed the sunny Channel; we trailed together into the great empty station at Ostend and, after an hour or two, found a few cars getting away, so to speak, of their own accord.
The low checker−board Belgian fields drifted quickly past; then Bruges, with a wounded soldier leaning on the shoulders of two companions; then Ghent. There was a great crowd about the station−−men thrown out of work, men in flat cloth caps smoking pipes−−the town just recovering from the panic of that afternoon. Flags had been hauled down−−the American consul was even asked if he didn’t think it would be safer to take down his flag−−some of the civic guards, fearing they would be shot on sight if the Germans saw them in uniform, tore off their coats and threw them in the canal. Others threw in cartridges, thousands of gallons of gasoline were poured on the ground, and everybody watched the church tower for the red flag which would signal that firing was about to begin. Le Bien Public of Ghent, however, protested stoutly because its mail edition had been refused at the station:
It is not alone on the field of battle that one must be brave. For us civilians real courage consists in doing our ordinary duty up to the last. In Limburg postmen made their rounds while Prussians inundated the region, and peasants went right along with their sowing while down the road troops were falling back from the firing−line. Let us think of our sons sleeping forever down there in the trenches of Haelen and Tirlemont and Aerschot; of those brave artillerymen who, for twenty days, have been waiting in the forts at Liege the help so many times promised from the allies; of our lancers charging into mitrailleuse−fire as if they were in a tournament; let us remember that our heroic little infantrymen, crouched behind a hedge or in a trench, keeping up their fire for ten hours running until their ammunition was exhausted, and forced at last to retire, wounded and worn out, without a chief to take orders from, have had no other thought than that of finding some burgomaster or commissioner of police, in order not to be taken for deserters. Let us think a little of all these brave men and be worthy of them.
There were no music−halls in Belgium and there were posters on the blank walla, even of little villages, reminding bands and hurdy−gurdy players and the proprietors of dance−halls that this was no time for unnecessary noise. There were no soldiers going gayly off to war; the Belgians were coming back from war.
They had been asked to hold out for three days, and they had held for three weeks. All their little country was a battle−field, and Belgium open to the invader. It was too late to get to Brussels, but there was still a train to Antwerp. At Puers soldiers were digging trenches and stringing approaches with barbed wire. The dikes had been opened and part of the country flooded. Farther on we passed the Antwerp forts, then comely suburbs where houses had been torn down and acres of trees and shrubs−− precious, as may be imagined, to a people who line their country roads with elms and lindens like avenues in parks, and build monuments to benevolent−looking old horticulturists−−chopped down and burned. And go, presently, into the old city itself, dull−flaming with the scarlet, gold, and black, of the Belgian flag, and with something that seemed to radiate from the life itself of this hearty, happy people, after all their centuries of trade and war, and good food, and good art−−like their own Rubenses and Van Dycks.
There was no business, not a ship moving in the Scheldt. All who worked at all were helping prepare for the possible siege; those who didn’t crowded the sidewalk cafes, listening to tales from the front, guessing by the aid of maps whither, across the silent, screened southwest, the German avalanche was spreading.
“Treason,” “betrayal,” “savagery,” were on everybody’s lips. For Antwerp, you might say, had been “half German”; many of its rich and influential men were of German origin, although they had lived in Belgium for years. And now the Belgians felt they had lived there as spies, and the seizure of Belgium was an act long and carefully planned. One was told of the finding of rifles in German cellars, marked “Preserves,” of German consuls authorized to give prizes for the most complete inventories of their neighborhoods turned in by amateur spies.
Speaking to one man about the Rubens “Descent from the Cross” still hanging in the cathedral, I suggested that such a place was safe from bombardment. He looked up at the lace−like old tower, whose chimes, jangling down through leaping shafts and jets of Gothic stone, have so long been Antwerp’s voice. “They wouldn’t stop a minute,” he said.
All eastern Belgium was cut off. Brussels, to which people run over for dinner and the theatre, might have been in China. Meanwhile Antwerp seemed safe for the time and I returned to Ghent, got a train next day as far south as Deynze, where the owner of a two−wheeled Belgian cart was induced to take me another thirty kilometres on down to Courtrai. It was rumored that there had been a battle at Courtrai−−it was, at any rate, close to the border and the German right wing and in the general line of their advance.
We rattled along the hard highroad, paved with Belgian blocks, with a well−pounded dirt path at the side for bicycles, between almost uninterrupted rows of low houses and tiny fields in which men and women both were working. Other carts like ours passed by, occasional heavy wagons drawn by one of the handsome Belgian draft−horses, and now and then a small loaded cart, owner perched on top, zipping along behind a jolly Belgian work dog−−pulling as if his soul depended on it and apparently having the time of his life. Every one was busy, not a foot of ground wasted; a more incongruous place into which to force the waste and lawlessness of war it would be hard to imagine.
Past an old chateau, with its lake and pheasant−preserve; along the River Lys, with its miles of flax, soaked in this peculiarly potent water, now drying in countless little cones, like the tents of some vast Lilliputian army, and so at last into Courtrai. It was like hundreds of other quaint old towns along the French and Flemish border, not yet raked by war, but motionless, with workmen idle, young men gone to the front, and nothing for people to do but exchange rumors and wait for the clash to come. I strolled round the old square and through some of the winding streets.
One window was filled with tricolor sashes carrying the phrase: “Long live our dear Belgium! May God preserve her!”
On blank walls was this proclamation in parallel columns of French and Flemish:
Ville De Courtrai Avis Important a la Population Courtraisienne Stad Kortrijk Belangrijk Bericht aan de Kortrijksche Bevolking
I am about to make an appeal to your reason and your sentiments of humanity.
If, in the course of the unjust war which we are now enduring, it happens that French or Belgian troops bring German prisoners to our city, I beseech you to maintain your calm and dignity. These prisoners, wounded or not, I shall take under my protection, became I say that they are not really to blame for acts which they have been ordered to do under threat of cruel punishment.
Yes, I say I shall take them under my protection because my heart bleeds to think that they, too, have left behind those dear to them−−an aged father, an old mother, a wife, children, sisters, or sweethearts whom separation has plunged into deepest anguish. Do not forget when you see these prisoners passing by, I beg of you, and permit yourself to shout at and insult them. Keep, on the contrary, the respectful silence appropriate to thinking men. Fellow citizens, if, in these grave and painful circumstances, you will listen to my advice, if you will recall that it is now thirty years that I have been your burgomaster and during all that time of hard work I have never asked a favor of you, I feel sure that you will obey my request and, on your side, you may be sure that my gratitude will not be wanting.
A. REYNAEKT, Burgomaster.