Read CHAPTER XV - “CARRY ON!” of The Day of Wrath A Story of 1914, free online book, by Louis Tracy, on ReadCentral.com.

After a few delightful days in London, Dalroy walked down Whitehall one fine morning to call at the War Office for orders.  Irene went with him.  He expected to be packed off to France that very evening, so the two meant making the utmost of the fast-speeding hours.  The Intelligence Department had assimilated all the information Dalroy could give, had found it good, and had complimented him.  As a Bengal Lancer, whose regiment was presumably in India, he would probably be attached to some cavalry unit of the Expeditionary Force; from being an hunted outlaw, with a price on his head, he would be quietly absorbed by the military machine.  Very smart he looked in his khaki and brown leather; Irene, who one short week earlier deemed sabots en cuir the height of luxury, was dressed de rigueur for luncheon at the Savoy.

Many eyes followed them as they crossed Trafalgar Square and dodged the traffic flowing around the base of King Charles’s statue.  An alert recruiting-sergeant, clinching the argument, pointed out the tall, well-groomed officer to a lanky youth whose soul was almost afire with martial decision.

“There y’are,” he said, with emphatic thumb-jerk, “that’s wot the British army will make of you in a couple of months.  An’ just twig the sort o’ girl you can sort out of the bunch.  Cock yer eye at that, will you?”

Thus, all unconsciously, Irene started the great adventure for one of Kitchener’s first half-million.

She was not kept waiting many minutes in an ante-room.  Dalroy reappeared, smiling mysteriously, yet, as Irene quickly saw, not quite so content with life as when he entered those magic portals, wherein a man wrestles with an algebraical formula before he finds the department he wants.

“Well,” she inquired, “having picked your brains, are they going to court-martial you for being absent without leave?”

“I cross to-night,” he said, leading her toward the Horse Guards’ Parade.  “It’s Belgium, not France.  I’m on the staff.  My appointment will appear in the gazette to-morrow.  That’s fine, but I’d rather ”

Irene stopped, almost in the middle of the road.

“And you’ll wear a cap with a red band and a golden lion, and those ducky little red tabs on the collar!  Come at once, and buy them!  I refuse to lunch with you otherwise.”

“A man must not wear the staff insignia until he is gazetted,” he reminded her.

“Oh!” She was pathetically disappointed.

“But, in my case,” he went on, “I am specifically ordered to travel in staff uniform, so, as I leave London at seven o’clock ”

“You can certainly lunch in all your glory,” she vowed.  “There’s an empty taxi!”

Of course, it was pleasant to be on the staff, and thus become even more admired by Irene, if there is a degree surpassing that which is already superlative; but the fly in the ointment of Dalroy’s new career lay in the fact that the battle of the Aisne was just beginning, and every British heart throbbed with the hope that the Teuton hordes might be chased back to the frontier as speedily as they had rushed on Paris.  Dalroy himself, an experienced soldier, though he had watched those grim columns pouring through the valley of the Meuse, yielded momentarily to the vision splendid.  He longed to be there, taking part in the drive.  Instead, he was being sent to Belgium, some shrewd head in the War Office having decided that his linguistic powers, joined to a recent first-hand knowledge of local conditions, would be far more profitably employed in Flanders than as a squadron leader in France.

Thus, when that day of mellow autumn had sped all too swiftly, and he had said his last good-bye to Irene, it was to Dover he went, being ferried thence to Ostend in a destroyer.

In those early weeks of the war all England was agog with the belief that Antwerp would prove a rankling thorn in the ribs of the Germans, while men in high places cherished the delusion that a flank attack was possible along the Ostend-Bruges-Brussels line.

But Dalroy was an eminently sane person.  Two hours of clear thinking in the train re-established his poise.  When the Lieutenant-Commander in charge of the destroyer took him below in mid-Channel for a smoke and a drink, and the talk turned on strategy, the soldier dispelled an alluring mirage with a breath of common sense.

“The scheme is nothing short of rank lunacy,” he said.  “We haven’t the men, France can spare none of hers, and Belgium must be crushed when the big battalions meet.  Germany has at least three millions in the field already.  Paris has been saved by a miracle.  By some other miracle we may check the on-rush in France, but, if we start dividing our forces, even Heaven won’t help us.”

“Surely you’ll admit that we should strengthen the defence of Antwerp?” argued the sailor.

“I think it impracticable.  Liege only held out until the new siege howitzers arrived.  Namur fell at once.  Why should we expect Antwerp to be impregnable?”

The navy deemed the army pessimistic, but, exactly a month later, the Lieutenant-Commander remembered that conversation, and remarked to a friend that about the middle of September he took to Ostend “a chap on the Staff who seemed to know a bit.”

It is now a matter of historical fact when Von Kluck and Sir John French began their famous race to the north, the Belgian army only escaped from Antwerp by the skin of its teeth.  The city itself was occupied by the Germans on October 9th, Bruges was entered on the 13th, Von Bessler’s army reached the coast on the 15th, and the British and Belgians were attacked on the line of the Yser next day.

Thus, fate decreed that Dalroy should witness the beginning and the end of Germany’s shameless outrage on a peaceful and peace-loving country.  On August 2nd, 1914, King Albert ruled over the most prosperous and contented small kingdom in Europe.  Within eleven weeks he had become, as Emile Cammaerts finely puts it, “lord of a hundred fields and a few spires.”

Though Dalroy should live far beyond the alloted span of man’s life, he will never forget the strain, the misery, the sheer hopelessness of the second month he spent in Belgium.  The climax came when he found himself literally overwhelmed by the host of refugees, wounded men, and scattered military units which sought succour in, and, as the iron ring of Kultur drew close, transport from Ostend.

With the retreat of the Belgian army towards Dunkirk, and the return to England of such portion of the ill-fated Naval Division as was not interned in Holland, his military duties ceased.  In his own and the country’s interests he ought to have made certain of a berth on the last passenger steamer to leave Ostend for England.  He, at least, could have done so, though there were sixty thousand frenzied people crowding the quays, and hundreds, if not thousands, of comparatively wealthy men offering fabulous sums for the use of any type of vessel which would take them and their families to safety.

But, at the eleventh hour, Dalroy heard that a British Red Cross Hospital party, which had extricated itself from the clutch of the mailed fist, was even then en route from Bruges to Ostend by way of Zeebrugge.  Knowing they would be in dire need of help, he resolved to stay, though his action was quixotic, since no mercy would be shown him if he fell into the hands of the Germans.  He took one precaution, therefore.  Some service rendered to a tradesman had enabled him to buy a reliable and speedy motor bicycle, on which, as a last resource, he might scurry to Dunkirk.  His field service baggage was reposing in a small hotel near the harbour.  For all he can tell, it is reposing there yet; he never saw it again after he leaped into the saddle of the Ariel, and sped through the cobbled streets which led to the north road along the coast.  The hour was then about six o’clock on the evening of October 13th.

A Belgian staff officer had assured him that the Germans could not possibly occupy Ostend until late next day.  The Belgian army, though hopelessly outnumbered, had never been either disorganised nor outmanoeuvred.  The retreat to the Yser, if swift, was orderly, and the rearguard could be trusted to follow its time-table.

Hence, before it was dark, Dalroy determined to cover the sixteen miles to Zeebrugge.  The Hospital, which was convoying British and Belgian wounded, would travel thence by the quaint steam-tramway which links up the towns on the littoral.  It might experience almost insuperable difficulties at Zeebrugge or Ostend, and he was one of the few aware of the actual time-limit at disposal, while a field hospital bereft of transport is a peculiarly impotent organisation.

Road and rail ran almost parallel among the sand dunes.  At various crossings he could ascertain whether or not any train had passed recently in the direction of Ostend, thus making assurance doubly sure, though the station-master at the town terminus was positive that the next tram would not arrive until half-past seven.  Dalroy meant intercepting that tram at Blankenberge.

Naturally, the train was late in reaching the latter place, but the only practicable course was to wait there, rather than risk missing it.  A crowd of terrified people gathered around the calm-eyed, quiet-mannered Briton, and appealed for advice.  Poor creatures! they imposed a cruel dilemma.  On the one hand, it was monstrous to send a whole community flying for their lives along the Ostend road; on the other, he had witnessed the fate of Vise and Huy.  Yet, by remaining in their homes, they had some prospect of life and ultimate liberty, while their lot would be far worse the instant they were plunged into the panic and miseries of Ostend.  So he comforted the unhappy folk as best he might, though his heart was wrung with pity at sight of the common faith in the Red Cross brassard.  Men, women, and children wore the badge indiscriminately.  They regarded it as a shield against the Uhlan’s lance!  Most fortunately for that strip of Belgium, the policy of “frightfulness” was moderated once the country was overrun.  So far as local occurrences have been permitted to become known, the coast towns have been spared the fate of those in the interior.

To Dalroy’s great relief, the incoming tram from Zeebrugge brought the British hospital.  There were four doctors, eight nurses, and fifty-three wounded men, including a sergeant and ten privates of the Gordon Highlanders, who, like Bates, Smithy, and the rest, had scrambled across Belgium after Mons.

The train offered an extraordinary spectacle.  Soldiers and civilians were packed in it and on it.  Men and women sat precariously on the roofs of the ramshackle carriages, stood on the buffers and couplings, or clung to door-handles.  Not even foothold was to be had for love or money on that train at Blankenberge.

Dalroy, who dared not let go his machine, contrived to get a word with the Medical Officer in charge.

As ever, the Briton made light of past troubles.

“We’ve had the time of our lives!” was the cheery comment.  “After Mons we were left in a field hospital with a mixed crowd of British, French, and Germans.  Of course, we looked after all alike, and that saved our bacon, because even a German general had to try and behave decently when he found a thousand of his own men in our care.  So he sent us to Brussels with a safe conduct, and from Brussels we were allowed to make for Ostend had to leg it, though, the last twenty miles to the Belgian outposts.  Then we refitted, and started for Bruges, where we’ve been at work in a convent for five weeks.  The remnant of the Belgian army passed through Bruges yesterday and the day before, so we cleared out all possible cases, and started away with the crocks early this morning.  At the last minute we were hustled a bit by a Taube dropping bombs on the station.  One bomb took from us a van-load of kit.  We haven’t a thing except the stretchers and what we’re wearing.”

“I’ll ride on now, and meet you at Ostend,” said Dalroy.  He had not the heart to damp the spirits of the party by telling of the chaos awaiting them.  Sufficient for the next hour would be the evil thereof.

“I say, it’s awfully good of you to take all this trouble,” said the doctor.

“I’ve lost my job with the departure of our troops, so I had to find something to do,” smiled the other.

A fleet of Belgian armoured cars cleared a road through the stream of fugitives, and Dalroy kept close in rear, so he made a fast return journey.  Dashing past the town station, near which the steam-tram would disgorge its freight, he headed straight for the Gare Maritime.  It was now dusk, but he saw at once that the crowd besieging the entrance was denser and more frantic than ever, though the last steamer whose departure was announced officially had left early in the day.

He ascertained from a helpless policeman that the rumour had gone round of a vessel coming in; the sullen, apathetic multitude, waiting there for it knew not what chance of rescue, had suddenly become dangerous.

“The American Consul, who has worked hard all day, has had to give it up,” added the man.  “He is closing his office.”

Just then a harbour official, minus his cap, and with coat badly torn during a violent passage through the mob, strode by, breathless but hurried.

Dalroy recognised him, having had much business with the port authorities during the preceding week.

“Is it true that a steamer is in sight?” he asked.

“Monsieur, what am I to say?” and the accompanying gesture was eloquent.  “It is only a little cargo boat, an English coaster.  If she nears the quay there will be a riot, and perhaps thousands of lives lost.  The harbour-master has sent me to ask the mayor if he should not signal her to anchor outside until daylight.”

Prompt decision and steadfast action were Dalroy’s chief qualities.  If luck favoured him he might set his own project on foot before the mayor’s messenger burked it by a civic order.  He thanked the man and rode off.

Happily the tram came from Blankenberge without undue delay.  He had only dismounted when the engine clanked into the station square.  Already his soldier’s eye had noted that the Gordons and some of the Belgian soldiers had retained their rifles and bayonets.

“Get your crowd into motion at once,” he said to the doctor, as soon as the latter alighted.  “Nothing you have gone through during the last two months will equal the excitement of the next quarter of an hour.  But, if your cripples can fix bayonets and show a bold front, we have a fighting chance no more.  And unless we leave Ostend before to-morrow morning it’ll be a German prison for you and a firing party for me.”

Men who have smelt war and death, not once but many times, do not hesitate and argue when a staff officer talks in that strain.

With an almost marvellous rapidity the members of the mission and the wounded able to walk were formed up, stretchers were lifted, and the march began.  Dalroy and the doctor headed the procession with the Gordons, and the mere appearance of a Highlander enforces awe in any part of Europe.

Dalroy explained matters as they went, and impressed on the escort the absolute necessity of showing a determined front.  On nearing the packed mass of people clamouring outside the Gare Maritime he vociferated some sharp orders, the rifles came from the “slope” to the “ready,” and those on the outskirts of the throng saw a number of war-stained kilties advancing on them with threatening mien.

By some magic a way was opened out.  The vanguard knew exactly how to act, and faced about when the main gates were reached.  Here there was a hitch, but a threat to fire a volley through the bars was effectual, and the whole party got through, though even the hardened doctors looked grave when they heard the wail of anguish that went up from the multitude without as the gates clashed against further ingress.

Of course, as might be expected, there were hundreds of influential people, both British subjects and Belgians, already inside.  To them Dalroy gave no immediate heed.  Merely requesting the doctor to keep his contingent together and distinct, he sought the harbour-master.

No orders had been received as yet from the mayor, and the incoming steamer, quite a small craft, was already in the channel.

The harbour-master, a decent fellow, whose sole anxiety was to act for the best, readily agreed to Dalroy’s plan, so the vessel, whose skipper had actually brought her to Ostend that evening “on spec,” as he put it, was moored at a distance of some ten feet from the quay.

“How many people can you carry?” was Dalroy’s first question to the captain.

“Well, sir,” came the surprising answer, “we’re licensed by the Board of Trade to carry forty-five passengers in summer, but, in a pinch like this, I’ll try and stow away two hundred!”

After that there was no hitch.  A gangway was fixed in position, the armed guard were disposed around it, and the doctors and Dalroy, with a representative of the burgomaster who arrived later, constituted themselves a committee of selection.  The hospital staff and their patients were placed on board first.  Wounded soldiers picked up in Ostend itself were given the next claim.  Then British subjects, and, finally, Belgian refugees, were admitted.

It was a long and tedious yet almost heart-breaking business, but the order of priority established a method whereby claims might be tested with some show of equity.  At last, at some hour, none knew or cared exactly when, the steamer forged slowly out into the channel, backed, and swung, amid the shrieks and lamentations of the thousands who were left to the tender mercies of Kultur.

In addition to her crew, she carried 739 passengers, mostly wounded soldiers, women, and children!

There was no room to lie down, save in the space rigidly preserved for the stretcher cases.  The decks, the cabins, the holds, were packed tight with a living freight.  Surely never before has vessel put to sea so loaded with human beings.

The captain decided not to attempt the crossing by night and lay to till morning.  The ship’s boats returned to the quay, and brought off some food and water.

Meanwhile, leaders of sections were chosen, the people were instructed as to the danger of lurching, and ropes were arranged so that any unexpected movement of the hull might be counteracted.

At eight o’clock next morning the engines were started; at ten o’clock that night the ship was berthed at Dover.  By the mercy of Providence the sea remained smooth all day, though the mid-channel tidal swell caused dangerous and anxious moments.  Of course, there were mine-fields to be avoided, and strong tides to be cheated, but, allowing for these hindrances, the trip occupied fourteen hours, whereas the Belgian mail-packets employed on the same journey used to adhere steadily to a schedule of three hours and three-quarters!

On the way, death took his dread toll among the wounded, but to nothing like the extent that might well have been feared.  The bringing of that great company of people from the horrors of the German occupation of Belgium to the safe harbourage of the United Kingdom was a magnificent achievement, worthy of high place in the crowded and glorious annals of British seamanship.

So Irene and her true knight met once more, only to part again after three blissful days.  This time, Dalroy went to France, and took his place in the fighting line.  He endured the drudgery of that first winter in the trenches, shared in the gain and loss of Neuve Chapelle, earned his majority, and seemed to lead a charmed life until a high explosive shell burst a little too close during the second day at Loos.

He was borne off the field as one nearly dead.  But his wounds were slight, and he had only been stunned by the concussion.  By the time this diagnosis was confirmed, however, he was at home and enjoying six weeks’ leave.

Nothing very remarkable would have happened if the Earl of Glastonbury, an elderly but most observant peer, had not created a rare commotion one day at luncheon.

Dalroy was up in town after a few days’ rest at his uncle’s vicarage in the Midlands; he and the younger members of the household were planning a round of theatres and suchlike dissipations, when the Earl said quietly: 

“You people seem to be singularly devoid of original ideas.  George Alexander, Charlie Hawtrey, and the latest revue star provide a sure and certain refuge for every country cousin who comes to London for a fortnight’s mild dissipation.”

“What do you suggest, dad?” demanded Irene.

“Why not have a war wedding?”

“Oh, let’s!” cried the flapper sister ecstatically.

Dalroy swallowed whole some article of food, and Irene blushed scarlet.  But “father” had said the thing, and “mother” had smiled, so Dalroy, whose wildest dreams hitherto had dwelt on marriage at the close of the war as a remote possibility, bestirred himself like a good soldier-man, rushing all fences at top speed.

The brother in the Guards secured five days’ leave, a wounded but exceedingly good-looking Bengal Lancer was empanelled as “best man” (to the joy and torment of the flapper, who pined during a whole week after his departure), and, almost before they well knew what was happening, Dalroy and his bride found themselves speeding toward Devon in a fine car on their honeymoon.

“And why not?” growled the Earl, striving to comfort his wife when she wept a little at the thought that her beautiful daughter, her eldest-born, would henceforth have a nest of her own.  “Dash it all, Mollie, they’ll only be young once, and this rotten war looks like lasting a decade!  Had we searched the British Isles we couldn’t have found a better mate for our girl.  He’s just the sort of chap who will worship Irene all his life, and he has in him the makings of a future commander-in-chief, or I’m a Dutchman!”

As his lordship is certainly not a Dutchman, but unmistakably English, aristocratic, and county, it is permissible to hope that his prophecy may be fulfilled.  Let us hope, too, if Dalroy ever leads the armed manhood of Britain, it will be a cohort formed to render aggressive war impossible.  That, at least, is no idle dream.  It should be the sure and only outcome of the world’s greatest agony.