Read Chapter III of The Log of a Noncombatant, free online book, by Horace Green, on


Up to the day that Luther and I went through the Belgian trenches near Alost and got into the hands of the German outposts north of Brussels, we had not seen nearly as much fighting as we wished. We had looked upon the ear-marks and horrible results of battles; had heard guns, smelt the blood and ether of wounded, and seen the ruins over which had rolled the wave of battle. We knew that ahead of us there had been much fighting in the Sempst-Alost-Vilvorde-Tirlemont region. The Germans at that moment, if not actually advancing toward Antwerp, were skirmishing and making feints in every direction, with the ultimate disposition of their forces carefully concealed. Of course, we had no official permission to be at the front with either army; in fact, up to that point we had received nothing but official threats on the subject of what would happen to us in case we went ahead. But as no one did more than threaten, we kept on going, since we preferred that mode of procedure to sitting around in Paris or Berlin on the chance of one of those “personally conducted” tours of inspection, whose purpose is to show the correspondent everything except actual fighting. It was our hope during that early part of the war to see as much as possible of the German army, realizing that, if captured, we should undoubtedly be sent either backward or forward along the German line of communication in conquered Belgium. Once within the German outposts we pleaded like Brer Rabbit not to be thrown into the German brier patch. So of course we landed in it. After a few days in Brussels they shipped us Eastward to Aix-la-Chapelle by way of Lou-vain, Tirlemont, and Liege.

It was two days after the second bombardment of Termonde at 7 A.M., to be exact that Luther and I started from Ghent for Brussels in a military automobile, the property of the Belgian Government, and again loaned for the occasion to Julius Van Hee, American Vice-Consul, then Acting Consul at Ghent. We carried with us a United States Government mail pouch, a packet of mail from Dr. Henry van Dyke, at The Hague, addressed to Brand Whitlock, the American Minister at Brussels, and another packet of mail from Henry W. Diederick, United States Consul-General at Antwerp. Mr. Van Hee hoped to obtain from the German authorities in Brussels some smallpox vaccine to take back to Ghent, where a smallpox epidemic was feared.

Once out of the town limits of Ghent we bowled along at top speed, with the American colors trembling fore and aft and impressive-looking signs pasted on windshield and side-flaps. The autumn rains descended heavily upon us, drenching everything except the carefully protected mail bags.

Six miles southeast of Ghent, we ran into a regiment of Belgian infantry moving back from the direction of Brussels, and farther on a squad of cavalry and some more cavalry outposts; then two companies of bicycle patrol, the men with their heads bent over the handlebars, Mausers slung over their shoulders, pedaling heavily through the mud and slush of a cold September storm. A few mitrailleuses, known as the Minerva type, and mounted on armored motor-cars, were trained on the ravine through which the road dipped a thousand yards ahead of us. They had sighted the German outposts on the crest of a hill opposite us about three quarters of a mile away. In a very poor kind of trench, hastily constructed in the beet-fields, and little more than body deep, the men lay on their bellies in the mud, nervously fingering their muskets and adjusting the sights. A third company of bicycle scouts were ordered to advance for the purpose of drawing fire.

I doubt if that particular body of men had ever before been under fire. Never was the fear of death more plainly written on human face. All of the men went ahead without flinching or failing, but the muscles of their jaws were knotted, their faces were the color of chalk, and one or two dismounted for a moment, subject to the physical effects of fear. I have seen men tremble before important physical contests: Jeffries, stepping into the prize ring at Reno, Nevada, ready for the beating of his life and the loss of reputation. I have seen murderers condemned to death. Charles Becker, as I watched him taking his death sentence that evening in the Criminal Courts Building, did not give one the same uncanny feeling as this handful of Belgian scouts pedaling out to meet the German fire. I do not intend to say the Belgians were not brave men, for this was an isolated instance. And indeed there was something gruesome about that little company offered for the slaughter, simply for the purpose of locating the German batteries. The men understood the meaning of the order and appreciated the odds against them.

The mitrailleuses pointed down the road we were headed on, and the Belgian gun-captain told us they were going to clean things up as soon as their own scouts drew fire and the first Teuton helmet appeared above the crest. Naturally we were ordered back. Had we continued on this road we should have been between the Belgian fire behind and the German fire in front, for the Germans would undoubtedly have mistaken us for a scouting party in an armored car. As it was, Luther jumped to the wheel and insisted on seeing the thing through. We went ahead for about half a mile. I told him that if the shrapnel began to burst too close he would find me tucked safely underneath the car examining the gasoline tanks or in the nearest farmhouse cellar, and I believe he would have. But nothing came close to us on that occasion. My real “baptism” was reserved for another day, because Van Hee suddenly wrenched the wheel from Luther and turned our machine down a side road. It was a case of out of the firing line into the frying-pan, for the side road led us into a trap from which there was no turning back the territory patrolled by the burly pickets of the Ninth German Army Corps, forming part of the Kaiser’s army of occupation in Brussels.

Out of earshot, and certainly out of sight of that skirmish, we were speeding at a great rate along a level, lonely road flanked by beet-fields and long lines of graceful elms that shook hands overhead, when:

Halt! Wohin? Wo gehen sie?” rang suddenly out of the darkness as two figures jumped from behind a farmhouse and leveled their rifles at us. I shall always remember that sharp command as the cold, gray muzzles followed us like a sportsman covering a bevy of quail. Our fat Belgian chauffeur, violinist in times of peace, and posing that day as an American, one of those men who look as if they would bleed water if you pricked them with a bayonet, needed no second warning. Running the German gauntlet was not precisely his hobby. Down went the emergency brake and the car jolted to a sudden halt.

A bristle-whiskered German giant under a canvas-covered helmet stuck his head through the flaps, and for more than ten minutes he and another sentinel searched our knapsacks and credentials and inspected the Government mail pouches which we carried. The sentries were far from satisfied. We said little at first, realizing, nevertheless, that we had run between the opposing trenches and up to the German outposts without actually drawing fire. That, at least, was something of a comfort.

Then, as if the answer was the price of admission, the big one asked us if we had seen many British soldiers around Antwerp and Ghent. We had previously decided that the answer to such talk was, “None of your business.” But the fellow’s bayonet was infernally bright and sharp and his countenance like ice. It wasn’t only the equinoctial rain that made us shiver.

While I was trying to limber up my German vocabulary he passed us along to his Ober-leutenant in the hut along the roadside. The Ober-Ieutenant was grave. He said we must report to army headquarters in Brussels, and that under no circumstances should we be allowed to return within the Belgian lines. In this way began our eight days’ confinement within the lines of the German Army of the North under General von Boehn.

Just as we had been warned repeatedly, so we discovered in reality that to cross between two opposing lines was no joking matter. Bad enough, particularly in the early days of the war, to a correspondent without permission at the front. To work up from the rear (if you had permission) was at least according to the rules of the game. But to cross between hostile armies that was the one forbidden act. The fact that we were with an American Consul was not sufficient. Three days later Van Hee was allowed to return, but the remainder of the party, that is to say, Willard Luther and myself, were given a free trip into German territory and incidentally more than a week’s chance to study the German army from within.

Those next eight days Luther and I spent as willing and, on the whole, decently treated captives within the lines of the German Army of the North, talking freely with cultivated officers and grimy men of the ranks, and in this way learning much of the German war machine, the opinions of the officers and the men at their command. It would be interesting to tell how in Brussels we dodged from War Office to cafe, from cafe to consulate, from consulate back to War Office, and later were worried and watched and suspected; how we were shipped back across the German border on a combination Red Cross and ammunition train; how we were locked for much of the night in a half-mile tunnel of the northern Vosges Mountains, and there, in the groping darkness of our box-car prison, shared the soldier’s biscuit and his bottle, so coming to know the Kaiser’s private as a companion and not as the barbarian his enemies paint him.

The day after we got inside the German lines we went before Major Heinrich Bayer, at that time military commandant in Brussels in the absence of General von der Goltz. Jostling through the street and jamming the courtyard of the War Office was a crowd of a thousand persons mothers, children, whole families begging for relief or permission to leave the city limits; German subjects trying to get passes, officials and employees of the civil administration taking orders from the military authorities. A relay of aides, orderlies, and secretaries led us from courtyard to corridor and from corridor to staff headquarters and into the Holy of Holies the office of the commandant.

Grim, stern, but courteous throughout the interview, the major paced the floor beside his desk. He seemed anxious enough to be rid of the “crazy Americans” who had wandered through the Belgian and German lines, not altogether satisfied with their integrity, yet not wishing to take a hostile attitude. I asked him when he thought the war would be over. At the moment the German major, Vice-Consul Van Hee, and I were the only persons in the room.

“I do not know,” he said, as if thinking aloud; “I really do not know. America is the only country that has not fired on us yet, but all the rest ” Then he added thoughtfully, “Perhaps it is better that you go. But you cannot return to Ghent or Antwerp; you must go back to Germany.” He stopped as if he had gone too far, and then sharply commanded the orderly to remove us. Forty-eight hours later Mr. Van Hee got his release. To Luther and myself was given a curious sort of pass, beset with limitations, which at times caused us royal treatment and as often proved a fatal baggage tag. I have always believed a joker lay hidden somewhere in that document. It started with a flattering description of our status (as given by ourselves), but below it directed us to be taken into Aix-la-Chapelle, Germany, and under no circumstances to be returned within the Belgian lines. We had seen a great deal too much for that. In spite of our protestations of good faith and promises to keep dark what we had seen, the military authorities considered us much safer under German guard. We were to be taken on the southern route by way of Namur. To drive home the importance of obeying this order we were reminded of the regulation, printed in French and posted throughout the city, “that whosoever passed the city limits or approached the fighting line without military permit, or on the pretense of having such a permit, or whosoever deviated from the route laid down would be shot ‘sur champ.’” That same evening, however, army orders declared that the Namur route was closed. We got a second War Office pass sending us to Aix by way of Louvain, Tirlemont, and Liege. Armed with these we went down to an old Major Bock von W--, in charge of transportation at Schaerbeek, on the outskirts of the city.

I showed him the passes and said with a painful attempt at levity, “Major, we can’t obey both of these, so we ’re going to get shot either way we go. If it is all the same to you I would rather die on your route.” To my great relief the old fellow laid back his gray head and emitted a series of long, loud Teuton laughs. He was the first German I had heard laugh and it did me good. I knew we were safe. On the understanding that the business was strictly confidential and that no other citizens or suspects were to know of it, he gave us a permit for the military trains. It had been the intention of the War Office to pack us under guard with the herds on one of those Government refugee trains. But to live and sleep with the soldiers as we were now to do, to see their marches, to absorb their uninformed and boastful talk, to study their guns, munitions, and equipment, was better than our highest hopes.

“You have to do a lot of quick transporting?” I asked before saying good-bye to Major von W--.

“Yes,” was the answer. “They ’re at us from all sides. Some of the men we are now transporting have been under fire in two countries, and now they will see service in a third.” He knew that I had come from Ghent and from Antwerp, which the Germans were about to bombard, yet, to his credit, it should be said that he did not ask for information of Belgian activities. Similarly, although the soldiers, as a rule, and one man high in the civil government of Brussels, asked what was going on in Antwerp, it was noticeable that German officers recognized the obligations of neutrality.

Of how we left Brussels and of the first part of the eastward trip, I am going to quote from the jottings in the log-book, which was written up at some length after we left Aix-la-Chapelle:

“Early on the morning of the 22d, I went up to Consul Watts’s office to get the mail pouch I had promised him to carry. Luther and I then boarded a trolley car going northwest past the Gare du Nord and on to Schaerbeek, a junction on the outskirts of Brussels. Although the Major Bayer passes, with von W--’s counter-signature, got us as far as Schaerbeek, we were challenged by the guards at the railroad station. The stations were watched with the most astounding precaution. Of course there was no such thing as a ticket; once inside the gate you could jump a troop train, ammunition car, or blow up the track if you felt like it. Wherefore they guarded the stations carefully.

“At the gates had a terrible pow-wow with an officious Bavarian who called himself the Officer-of-the-Day. I played all my best German cards, including Count von Bemstorffs letter. At the end of half an hour our pig-headed officer shipped us back to Brussels. We returned to von W--, then in Brussels, who vised our pass with a note to the effect that although we were civilians, exceptional circumstances demanded our hurried return to Aix by military train.

“When we eventually got into the Schaerbeek station we had two hours to wait. Walked up and down the tracks or sat on the platform, keeping an eye on everything that was going on. Luther says I spent most of my time trying not to look like an Englishman. Occasionally, when we spoke a word of English, some officer would shoot us a 42 cm. glance and demand our papers. We were undoubtedly marked figures, because in the first place no civilians were allowed along the railway line, especially foreigners.

“Watched several westbound loads go by until about two o’clock, when they made up a combination train consisting of Red Cross coaches and empty freight trucks going back to Aix for fresh loads of men and ammunition. Aix is the great distributing center for the line of communication into northern Belgium. Most of the open cars were empty, barring occasional gun carriages on the way home for repairs; in the closed freight cars lay a few wounded first line men, a half a dozen male nurses, and some privates on furlough. Speaking of nurses, I haven’t so far at least-seen a woman nurse nearer the scene of action than a base hospital, i.e., one of the big hospitals in Antwerp, Brussels, or Ghent. Luther and I, closely followed by the two guards that had trailed us from the time we had got inside the station, climbed into a freight car, apparently used as a box stall on the out trip, and bare except for a pile of damp straw in one corner. Interminable journey. Most of the time we stood on sidings waiting for the outbound traffic. Made fair time to Louvain, i.e., an hour and a half, and stayed there two hours, for which I was thankful, as it gave me a chance to look around. Interviewed soldiers, citizens, and a Jesuit priest, of which more later. One hour more to Tirlemont. Then seven hours to Liege, where we arrived at 2 A.M., were smothered for two hours in that tunnel, and took six and three quarters hours more from Liege to Verviers a distance of less than fifteen miles! It was another five hours to Aix.

“Saw tremendous troop movements along Brussels-Louvain-Verviers line of communication. During the first day thirty-five troop and transport trains went past us, moving towards the western frontier, the larger part to strengthen the German attack on Antwerp, which we had not long left behind us, others to discharge their loads as near as possible to Lille, Tournai, and Mons. The average train was twenty cars long, making about seven hundred carloads, with two hundred or more in each car, giving a total of more than 140,000 fighting men. We stopped counting at the end of the first day.

“After we left Louvain I got out occasionally and stretched my legs along the tracks, but Luther, not being able to talk German, stuck pretty close to his diggings. Had a great time at a little town called Neerwinden, where we stayed about half an hour. A crowd of soldiers from our train joined a group cooking supper in the moonlight at one of the soup kitchens along the tracks. They fed me lukewarm stew and slabs of rye bread, then went on singing and arguing without paying much attention to me. One bald-headed, stocky private told the crowd the news that von Hindenburg had captured Warsaw. Later a crowd of big brutes, apparently pretty drunk, swaggered down and clapped me on the back with a ‘Who are you, my friend?’

“‘Amerikaner,’ I explained, not thinking it necessary to mention the war correspondent part. They set up a cheer, clapped me on the back, and finally lifted me to their shoulders for a triumphal ride up and down the railroad ties, all the time yelling out ’Amerikaner! Hurrah! Amerikaner!’

“A few hundred years seemed the night we spent locked in that box-car prison. A five-days’ equinoctial storm had given way to the coldest day of the autumn: our car, raw and dank as a dungeon, joggled along endlessly until afternoon gave way to evening and evening to chilly night. Hour after hour we looked out upon the rolling fields and burnt farmhouses along the path where General von Emmich’s army had passed. As the moon crawled up over the rain-bathed foothills of the Ourthe Mountains, the temperature dropped far below the freezing point. For ages we lay awake braced against the cold. The soldier next me, who had been through the fight at Maubeuge, coughed throughout the night a hollow, retching cough. “Tuberculosis,” the Red Cross doctor told me, although the fellow had got through his army tests all right.

Between two and four in the morning we stuck in the middle of a tunnel of the northern Vosges Mountains, two hundred feet, perhaps, beneath the surface of the ground. The sliding door on the left side of our car was locked: on the other side jagged walls, dripping wet to the touch, jutted so close that a thin man couldn’t have walked between them and the car. Everywhere pitch blackness, the blackness of the tomb. The consumptive soldier pulled a candle from his kit, balanced it in the straw, and over it warmed his hands. If that candle had toppled over in the straw we wouldn’t have had a rat’s chance in the fire. It was impossible to get out of our car or to communicate with another except by tapping. The fellows in the next car must have been considerably frightened, for after about an hour they began yelling and pounding at the walls. All you could hear was a roaring sound that caromed against the walls of the cavern. Smoke from the engine drifted back to choke us. It hit the consumptive worst. The poor fellow began blowing and coughing, then rolled feebly on his back and gasped. During the worst of the smoke one of the soldiers in the next car set up a rollicking song, and others followed his example. We could hear the clank of beer bottles as they finished, the echoes of the song reverberating loudly, then faintly, then louder again up and down the length of that interminable vault. A draught of air cleared the smoke away and it didn’t bother us again. At four in the morning we steamed out of the tunnel into the open. A little after that I must have dozed off, for I woke with a start when the consumptive stumbled over me.

“There you are,” he said, throwing a bundle beside me; “I thought you’d need it.”

Noticing, when he lit his pipe at dawn, that we had no army blankets and were pretty nearly frozen, this “barbarian” had jumped out of the car in the Liege freight yards, had run a quarter of a mile to the nearest army kitchen depot, and had stolen for us a couple of heaping blankets’ full of warm, dry straw.

It was impossible to believe that these men had committed the atrocities reported at Termonde and Roosbeek, at Malines and Louvain. At close range it was easy to see that the prevalent conception of the “barbarians” was the purest kind of rot the picture created and fostered by the Allied press, of a vicious and besotted beast with natural brutality accentuated by alcoholic rage. With such men as individuals it seemed to us that neutral observers could have no quarrel. To the Kaiser’s privates who have been fighting for a cause they do not thoroughly understand, was due, we thought, the greatest respect; to the officers, too, who understand what they are doing and are game in the face of odds; and most of all to the suffering German people. But to the German war machine, we reflected, was due a terrible punishment the lesson it must learn not only for Germany’s enlightenment, but for the sake of civilization and humanity.