I had left the Belgian army late in the autumn of 1914, just at the close of that series of heroic actions which began at Liége and ended on the Yser, so that my return, two years later, was in the nature of a home-coming. But it was a home-coming deeply tinged with sadness, for many, oh, so many of the gallant fellows with whom I had campaigned in those stirring days before the trench robbed war of its picturesqueness, were in German prisons or lay in unmarked and forgotten graves before Namur and Antwerp and Termonde. The Belgians that I had left were dirty, dog-tired, and disheartened. They were short of food, short of ammunition, short of everything save valor. The picturesque but impractical uniforms they wore--the green tunics and cherry-colored breeches of the Guides, the towering bearskins of the gendarmes, the shiny leather hats of the Carabinieri--were foul with blood and dirt.
As my car rolled across a canal bridge into that tiny triangle which is all that remains of free Belgium, a trim-looking trooper in khaki stepped from a sentry-box and, holding up an imperative hand, demanded to see my papers. Had it not been for the rosette of red-yellow-and-black enamel on his cap, and the colored regimental facings on his collar, I should have taken him for a British soldier.
"To what regiment do you belong?" I asked him.
"The First Guides, monsieur," he replied, returning my papers and saluting.
The First Guides! What memories the name brought back. How well I remembered the last time that I had seen those gallant riders, the pick and flower of the Belgian army, their comic-opera uniforms yellow with dust, crouching behind the hedgerows on the road to Alost, a pitifully thin screen of them, holding off the Germans while their weary comrades tramped northward into Flanders on the great retreat. It was not easy to make myself believe that this smart, khaki-clad trooper before me belonged to that homeless band of rear-guard fighters who had marked with their dead the line of retreat from the Meuse to the Yser.
It was my first glimpse of the reconstituted Belgian army. In the two years that it has been holding the line on the Yser it has been completely reuniformed, re-equipped, reorganized. The result is a small but complete and highly efficient organism. The Belgian army consists to-day of six infantry and two cavalry divisions--a total of about 120,000 men--with perhaps another 80,000 being drilled in the various training camps at the rear. It has, of course, no great reserves to fall back upon, for the greater part of the nation is imprisoned, but the King and his generals, by unremitting energy, have produced a force which is as well disciplined and as completely equipped as can be found anywhere on the front. When the day comes, as it surely will, when Berlin issues the orders for a general retirement, I shouldn't care to be the Germans who are assigned to the work of holding off the Belgians, for from the men who wear the red-yellow-and-black rosettes they need expect no pity.
Though the shortest of the lines held by the Allies, the Belgian front is, in proportion to the free Belgian population, much the longest. The northernmost sector of the Western Front, beginning at the sea and extending through Nieuport, a distance of only three or four miles, is held by the French; then come the twenty-three miles held by the Belgians, another two or three miles held by the French, and then the British. The Belgians occupy a difficult and extremely uncomfortable position, for these Flemish lowlands were inundated in order to check the German advance, and as a result they are in the midst of a vast swamp, which, in the rainy season, becomes a lake. They are, in fact, fighting under conditions not encountered on any other front save in the Mazurian marshes. During the rainy season the gunners of certain batteries frequently work in water up to their waists. So wet is the soil that dugouts are out of the question, for they instantly become cisterns, so the Belgian engineers have developed a type of above-ground shelter which has concrete walls and a roof of steel rails, on top of which are laid several layers of sand-bags. Though these shelters afford their occupants protection from the fire of small-caliber guns, they are not proof against the heavy projectiles which the Germans periodically rain upon the Belgian trenches. As the soil is so soft and slimy as to be useless for defensive purposes, the trench-walls are for the most part built of sand-bags, which are, however, usually filled with clay, for sand must be brought by incredible exertions from the seashore. I was shown a single short sector on the Yser, where six million bags were used. For the floors of these shelters, as well as for innumerable other purposes, millions of feet of lumber are required, which is taken up to the front over the network of light railways, some of which penetrate to the actual firing-line. If trench-building materials are scarce in Flanders, fuel is scarcer. Every stick of wood and every piece of coal burned on the front has to be brought from great distances and at great expense, so economy in fuel consumption is rigidly enforced. I remember walking through a trench with a Belgian officer one bitterly cold and rainy day last winter. In a corner of the trench a soldier in soaking clothes had piled together a tiny mound of twigs and roots and over the feeble flame was trying to warm his hands, which were blue with cold. To my surprise my companion stopped and spoke to the man quite sharply.
"We can't let one man have a fire all to himself," he explained as he rejoined me. "Wood is too scarce for that. The fire that fellow had would have warmed three or four men and I had to reprimand him for building it." A moment later he added: "The poor devil looked pretty cold, though, didn't he?"
I had been informed by telephone from the Belgian État-Major that a staff-officer would meet me at a certain little frontier town whose name I have forgotten how to spell. After many inquiries and wrong turnings, for in this corner of Belgium the Flemish peasantry understand but little French and no English, my driver succeeded in finding the town, but the officer who was to meet me had not arrived. It was too cold to sit in the car with comfort, so a lieutenant of gendarmerie, the chief of the local Sûrété, invited me to make myself comfortable in his little office. After a time the conversation languished, and, for want of something better to say, I inquired how far it was to Ostend. I was interested in knowing, because during the retreat of the Belgian army in October, 1914, I left two kit-bags filled with perfectly good clothes at the American Consulate in Ostend. They are there still, I suppose, provided the Consulate has not been shelled to pieces by the British monitors or the bags stolen by German soldiers.
"Ostend?" repeated the gendarme. "It isn't over thirty kilometres from here. From the roof of this building, if the weather was fine, you could almost see its church-spires."
He walked across to the window and, pressing his face against the pane, stared out across the fog-hung lowlands. He so stood for some minutes and when he turned I noticed that tears were glistening in his eyes.
"My wife and children are over there in Ostend," he explained, in a voice which he tried pathetically hard to control. "At least, they were there two years ago last August. They had gone there for the summer. I was in Brussels when the Germans crossed the frontier, and I at once joined the army. I have never heard from my family since. It is very hard, monsieur, to be so near them--they are only thirty kilometres away--and not be able to see them or to hear from them, or even be able to learn whether they are well or whether they have enough to eat."
It is a terrible thing, this prison wall within which the Germans have shut up the people of Belgium. How terrible it is one cannot realize until he has known those whose dear ones are confined incommunicado within that prison. I wish I might bring home to you, my friends, just what it means. How would you feel to stand on the banks of the Hudson and look across into New Jersey and know that, though over there, a few miles away, were your homes and those that you hold most dear, you could no more get word to them, or they to you, than if they were in Mars? And how would you feel if you knew that Englewood and Morristown and Plainfield and the Oranges, and a dozen other of the pretty Jersey towns, were but heaps of blackened ruins, that the larger cities were garrisoned by brutal German soldiery and ruled by heartless-German governors, and that thousands of women and girls--perhaps your wife, your daughters among them--had been dragged from their homes and taken God knows where? How would you feel then, Mr. American?
After an hour's wait my officer, profuse in his apologies, arrived in a beautifully appointed limousine, beside which the British staff-car in which I had come looked cheap and very shabby. At the very beginning of the war the Belgian military authorities commandeered every car they could lay their hands on, and though many have been worn out and hundreds were lost during the retreat, they are still rather better supplied with luxurious cars than any of the other armies.
"There will be a moon to-night," said my cicerone, "so before going to La Panne, where quarters have been reserved for you, I shall take you to Furnes. The Grande Place is pure Spanish--it was built in the Duke of Alva's time, you know--and it is very beautiful by moonlight."
The road to Furnes took us through what had been, a few years before, quaint Flemish villages, but German Kultur, aided by the products of Frau Bertha Krupp, had transformed the beautiful sixteenth-century architecture into heaps of brick and stone. And nowhere did I see a church left standing. Whether the Germans shelled the churches because they honestly believed that their towers were used for observation purposes, or from sheer lust for destruction, I do not know. In any event, the churches are gone. In one little shell-torn village my companion pointed out to me the ruins of a church, amid which a company of infantry, going up to the trenches, had camped for the night. Just as the men were falling in at daybreak a German shell of large caliber exploded among them. Sixty-four--I think that was the number--were killed outright or died of their wounds. But not even the dead are permitted to sleep in peace. I saw several churchyards on which German shells had rained so heavily that the corpses had been disinterred, and whitened bones and grinning skulls littered the ploughed-up ground.
Darkness had fallen when we came to Furnes. In passing through the outskirts, we stopped to call on two young women--an Irish girl and a Canadian--who, undismayed by the periodic shell-storms which visit it, have pluckily stayed in the town ever since the battle of the Yser, caring for the few hundred townspeople who remain, nursing the wounded, and even conducting a school for the children. They live in a small bungalow which the military authorities have erected for them on the edge of the town. A few yards from their front door is a bomb-proof, looking exactly like a Kansas cyclone-cellar, in which they find refuge when one of the frequent bombardments begins. We found that the young women were not at home. I was disappointed, because I wanted to tell them how much I admired them.
My companion was quite right in saying that the Grande Place of Furnes by moonlight is worth seeing. It certainly is. The exquisite fifteenth-century buildings which face upon the square have, by some miracle, remained almost undamaged. There were no lights, of course, and the only person in sight was a sentry, on whose bayonet and steel helmet the moonbeams played fitfully. The darkness, the silence, the suggestion of mystery, the ancient buildings with their leaded windows and their carved façades, the steel-capped soldier, all made me feel that I had stepped back five hundred years and was in the Furnes of Inquisition times.
Our visit to Furnes had delayed us, so it was well into the evening before we drew up before the hotel in La Panne, where a room had been reserved for me by the Belgian État-Major. A seaside resort in midwinter is always a peculiarly depressing place, and La Panne was no exception. Though every hotel and villa in the place was chock-a-block with staff-officers, with nurses, and with wounded, the street-lamps were extinguished, not a ray of light escaped from the heavily curtained windows, and, to add to the general sense of melancholy, a cold, raw wind was blowing down from the North Sea and a drizzling rain had set in. Though La Panne is within easy range of the German batteries, which could eliminate it with neatness and despatch, it has, singularly enough, never been bombarded, nor has it been subjected to any serious air raids. This is the more surprising as all the neighboring towns, as well as Dunkirk, a dozen miles beyond, have been repeatedly shelled and bombed. The only explanation of this phenomenon is that the Germans do not wish to kill the Queen of the Belgians--she was Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, remember--who lives with the King at La Panne. It is possible that this may be the correct explanation. I remember that when I was in Brussels during the early days of the German occupation, there occurred a serious collision between Prussian and Bavarian troops, the latter asserting that the ill-mannered North German soldiery had shown some disrespect to a portrait of "unsere Bayerische Prinzessin." Why the Germans should have any consideration for the safety of the Queen after the fashion in which they have treated her country and her people, only a Teutonic intellect could understand. But the exemption which La Panne has thus far enjoyed has not induced its inhabitants to omit any precautions. An ample number of bomb-proofs and dugouts have been constructed, and at night over all the windows are tacked thick black curtains. For they know the Germans.
La Panne is the last town on the Belgian littoral before you reach the French frontier and the last villa in the town is occupied by the King and Queen. It stands amid the sand-dunes, looking out across the Channel toward England. It is just such a square, plastered, eight-room villa as might be rented for the summer months by a family with an income of five thousand a year. The sentries who are on duty at its gates and the mounted gendarmes who constantly patrol its immediate vicinity, are the only signs that it is the residence of royalty. Almost any morning you can see the King and Queen--he tall and soldierly, with all griefs and anxieties which the war has brought him showing in his face; she small and trim and girlishly slender--riding on the hard sands of the beach, or strolling, unaccompanied, amid the dunes. What must it mean to them to know that though over there to the eastward lies Belgium, their Belgium, they cannot ride five miles toward it before they are halted by the German bar; to know that beyond that little river where the trenches run their people are suffering and waiting for help, and that, after nearly three years, they are not a yard nearer to them?
How clearly I remembered the last time that I had seen the Queen. It was in the Hotel St. Antoine, in Antwerp, the night before the flight of the Government and the royal family to Ostend, and less than a week before the fall of the city itself. For days past the grumble of the guns had constantly been growing louder, the streams of wounded had steadily increased; every one knew that the end was almost at hand. It was just before the dinner-hour and the great lobby of the hotel was crowded with officers--Belgian, French, and British--with members of the fugitive Government and Diplomatic Corps, and a few unofficial foreigners like myself. Then, unannounced and unaccompanied, the Queen entered. She had come to say farewell to the invalid wife of the Russian Minister, who was unable to go to the palace. She remained in the Russians' apartments (during the bombardment, a few days later, they were completely wrecked by a German shell) half an hour perhaps. Then she came down the winding stairs, a pathetically girlish figure in the simplest of white suits, leaning on the arm of the gallant old diplomat. Quite automatically the throng in the lobby separated, so as to form an aisle down which she passed. To those of us who were nearest she put out her hand and, bending low, we kissed it. Then the great doors were opened and she passed out into the darkness and the rain--a Queen without a country.
No one comes away from La Panne, at least no one should, without having visited the great hospital founded by Dr. Léon du Page, the famous Belgian surgeon. It started in one of the big tourist hotels facing on the sea, but it has gradually expanded until it now occupies a whole congeries of buildings. It has upward of a thousand beds, but, as the fighting was comparatively light at the time I was there, only about two-thirds of them were occupied. Though the American Ambulance at Neuilly, and some of the hospitals at the British base-camps are larger, Dr. du Page's hospital is the most complete and self-contained that I have seen on any front. To mend the broken men who are brought there no device of medical science has been left untried. There are giant magnets which are used to draw minute steel fragments from the brains of men wounded by shrapnel; there are beds, heated by hundreds of electric lights, for soldiers whose vitality has been dangerously lowered by shock or exhaustion; there is a department of facial surgery where men who have lost their noses or their jaws or even their faces are given new ones. The hospital is, as I have said, self-contained. The operating-tables, the beds, all the furniture, in fact, is made on the premises. It is the only hospital I know of which provides those patients who have lost their legs with artificial limbs. And they are by far the best artificial limbs that I have seen anywhere. Each one is made to order to match the man's remaining limb. They are shaped over plaster casts, according to a system originated by Dr. du Page, in alternate layers of glue and ordinary shavings, and the articulation of the joints almost equals that of nature. As a result the soldiers are sent out into the world provided with legs which are symmetrical, almost unbreakable, amazingly light, and so admirably constructed that the owner rarely requires the assistance of a cane. Another detail for which Dr. du Page has made provision is the manufacture of his own instruments. Before the war the best surgical instruments were made in Germany. There were, so far as Dr. du Page knew, only five first-class instrument-makers in Belgium. Three of these were, he ascertained, in the army, so through the King he obtained their release from military duty. Now they work in a completely equipped shop in the rear of the hospital making the shiny, terrifying instruments which the white-clad surgeons wield with such magical effect.
Should you feel like giving up the theatre this evening, or taking a street-car instead of a taxi, or not opening that bottle of champagne, the money would be very welcome to Dr. du Page and his wounded. Should you feel that that is too much to give, it might be well for you to remember that he has given something, too. He gave his wife. She was returning from America, where she had gone to collect funds to carry on the work of the hospital. She sailed on the Lusitania....
To reach the Belgian firing-line is not easy because, the country being as flat as a ballroom floor, the Germans see and shoot at you. So one needs to be cautious. So dangerous is the terrain in this respect that the ambulances and motor-lorries and ammunition-trains could not get up to the trenches at all had not the Belgians, with great foresight, done wholesale tree-planting. Most people do not number nursery work among the duties of an army, but nowadays it is. From France and England the Belgians imported many saplings, thousands if not tens of thousands of them, and set them out along the roads exposed to German fire, and now their foliage forms a screen behind which troops and transport can move with comparative safety. In places where trees would not grow the roads have been masked for miles with screens made from branches. To have one of these screens between you and the Germans is very comforting.
On our way up to the front we made a détour in order that I might call on a friend, Mrs. A. D. Winterbottom, who, before her marriage to a British officer, was Miss Appleton of Boston. In "Fighting in Flanders" I told about a very brave deed which I saw performed by Mrs. Winterbottom. She was quite angry with me for mentioning it, but because she is an American of whom her countrypeople have every reason to be proud, I am going to tell about it again. It was during the last days of the siege of Antwerp. The Germans had methodically pounded to pieces with their great guns the chain of barrier forts encircling the city. Waelhem was one of the last to fall. When at length the remnant of the garrison evacuated the fort they brought back word that a score of their comrades, too badly wounded to walk, remained within the battered walls. So Mrs. Winterbottom, who had brought over from England her big touring-car and was driving it herself, said quietly that she was going to bring them out. The only way to reach the fort was by a straight and narrow road, a mile long, on which German shells were bursting with great accuracy and frequency. To me and to the Belgian officers who were with me, it looked like a short-cut to the cemetery. But that didn't deter Mrs. Winterbottom. She climbed into her car and threw in the clutch and jammed her foot down on the accelerator, and went tearing down that shell-spattered highway at top speed. She filled her car with wounded men and brought them safely back, and then returned and gathered up the others who were still alive. I have seen few braver deeds.
Mrs. Winterbottom remained with the Belgian army throughout the great retreat into Flanders, and when it settled down into the trench life on the Yser, she was officially attached to a division, with which she has remained ever since, moving when her division moves. She lives in a one-room shack which the soldiers have built her immediately in the rear of the trenches and within range of the enemy's guns. Her only companion is a dog, yet she is as safe as though she were on Beacon Hill, for she is the idol of the soldiers. She has a large recreation tent, like the side-show tent of a circus, but painted green to escape the attention of the German airmen, and in this tent she entertains the men during their brief periods of leave from the trenches. She gives them coffee, cocoa, milk, and biscuits; she provides them with writing materials--I forget how many thousand sheets of paper and envelopes she told me that they used each week; and she keeps them supplied with reading matter. Three times a week she gives "her boys" a phonograph concert in the first-line trenches. You must have experienced the misery and monotony of existence in the trenches to understand what these "concerts" mean to the tired and homesick men. I asked her if there was anything that the people at home could send her, and she replied rather hesitantly (for she is personally bearing the entire expense of this work) that she understood that some small metal phonographs were procurable which could easily be carried about and would not warp from dampness, for the trenches on the Yser are very wet. She also said that she would welcome phonograph records of any description and French books. The last I saw of her she was wading through a sea of mud, in rubber boots and a rubber coat and a sou'wester, to carry her "canned music" to the men on the firing-line. They ought to be very proud of Mrs. Winterbottom back in her own home town.
The Belgian trenches are very much like those on other sectors of the Western Front, except that they are made of sand-bags instead of earth, are muddier and are nearer the enemy, being separated from the German positions, for a considerable distance, only by the Yser, which in places is only forty yards across. In fact, a baseball player could easily sling a stone across the river into Dixmude, or what remains of it, for, like most of the other Flemish towns, it is now only a blackened skeleton. Many cities have been destroyed in the course of this war, but none of them, unless it be Ypres, so nearly approaches complete obliteration as Dixmude. Pompeii is a living, breathing city compared to it. Despite all that has been printed about the devastation in the war zone, I believe that when the war is over and the hordes of curious Americans flock Europeward, they will be stunned by the completeness of the desolation which the Germans have wrought in northeastern France and Belgium.
By far the most interesting day I spent on the Belgian front was not in the trenches but in a long, low, wooden building well to the rear. Over the door was a sign which read: "Section Photographique de l'Armée Belge." Here are brought to be developed and enlarged and scrutinized the hundreds of photographs which are taken daily by Belgian aviators flying over the German lines. In no department of war work has there been greater progress during recent months than in photography by airplane. Every morning at break of dawn scores of Belgian machines--and the same is true all down the Western Front--rise into the air, and for hour after hour swoop and circle over the enemy's lines, taking countless photographs of his positions by means of specially made cameras fitted with telescopic lenses. (The Allied fliers on the Somme took seventeen hundred photographs during a single day.) Most of these photographs are taken at a height of eight thousand to ten thousand feet,[F] though very much lower, of course, when an opportunity presents itself, and always with the camera as nearly vertical as possible. As soon as an aviator has secured a sufficient number of pictures of the locality or object which he has been ordered to photograph, he wings his way back to his own lines, the plates are immediately developed at the headquarters of the Section Photographique or in a dark room on wheels. If the first examination of the negative reveals anything of interest, it is at once enlarged, often to eight times the size of the original. As a result of this remarkable system of aerial espionage, there is nothing of importance which the Germans can long conceal from the Allies. They cannot extend their trench lines by so much as a yard, they cannot construct new positions, they cannot mount a machine-gun without the fact being registered by those eyes which, from dawn to dark, peer down at them from the clouds. At all of the divisional headquarters are large plans of the opposing enemy trenches, which are corrected daily by means of these airplane photographs and by the information collected through the elaborate system of espionage which the Allies maintain behind the German lines. To deceive the aerial observers, each side resorts to all manner of ingenious tricks. To suggest an impending retirement, columns of men are marched down the roads which lead to the rear; trenches which are not intended to be used are dug; and there are, of course, hundreds of dummy guns, some of which actually fire. The officer in command of the Belgian Photographic Section had heard that I was in Dunkirk in May, 1915, when it was shelled by a German naval gun, at a range of twenty-three and one-half miles.[G] So he gave me as a souvenir of the experience a photograph, taken from the air, of the gun emplacement after it had been discovered and bombed by the Allied aviators, and the gun removed to a place of safety. I reproduce the photograph herewith. The numerous white spots all about the emplacement are the craters caused by the bombs which were rained upon it.
Another of these monster guns was so ingeniously concealed in an imitation thicket that for a fortnight or more it defied the efforts of scores of airmen to locate it. Though hundreds of airplane photographs of the country behind the German trenches were brought in and minutely examined, there was nothing about them to suggest the hiding-place of a gun of so large a caliber until some one called attention to the deep ruts left by motor-trucks which had left the highway at a certain point and turned into the innocent-looking patch of woods. Why were the wheel-ruts shown on the plate so black? Because the vehicle must have sunk deep into the soft soil. Why did it sink so deeply? Because it was heavily laden. Laden with what? With large-caliber shells, perhaps. But still it was only a supposition. A few days later, however, it was noticed that at a certain point on the westward edge of that patch of woods there seemed to be a slight discoloration. This discoloration became more pronounced on later photographs which were brought in. Every one in the Section Photographique hazarded a guess as to its cause. At length some one suggested that it looked as though the leaves of the trees had been burned. But what burned them? There was only one answer. The fiery blast from a big gun hidden amid those trees, of course! Acting on that hypothesis, a score of aviators were sent out with orders to pour upon the wood a torrent of high explosive. The next few hours must have been very uncomfortable for the German gun-crew. In any event, the big piece was hauled out of danger under cover of darkness and the bombardments of the towns behind the Belgian lines abruptly ceased.
The Allied air service does not confine its observations to the trenches; it keeps an ever-wakeful eye on all that is in progress in the regions for many miles behind the front. To illustrate how little escapes the eye of the camera, the officer in charge of the Photographic Section showed me a series of photographs which had been taken of a village at the back of Dixmude, a few days previously, from a height of more than a mile. The first picture showed an ordinary Flemish village with its gridiron of streets and buildings. Cutting diagonally across the picture was a straight white streak which I knew to be a road leading into the country. At one point on this road were a number of tiny squares--evidently a row of workmen's cottages. The commandant handed me a powerful magnifying-glass. "Look very closely on that road," he said, "and you will see three specks." I saw them. They were about the size of pin-points.
"Those are three men," he continued. "The man at the right lives in the first of this row of cottages. The man in the middle lives in the fourth house in the row. But the man at the left is a farmer, and lives in this isolated farmhouse out here in the country."
"A very clever guess," I remarked, scepticism showing in my tone, I fear.
"We do not guess in this business," he replied reprovingly. "We know." And he handed me the next photograph, taken a few seconds later. There was no doubt about it; the pin-point of a man at the right had left his two companions and was turning in at the first of the row of cottages. Another photograph was produced. It showed the second man entering the gate of the fourth cottage. And the final picture of the series showed the remaining speck plodding on alone toward his home in the country.
"An officer of some importance is evidently making this house his headquarters," remarked the commandant, indicating another tiny rectangle. "If he wasn't of some importance he wouldn't have a telephone."
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed. "You don't mean to tell me that you can photograph a telephone-wire from a mile in the air?"
"Not quite," he admitted, "but sometimes, if the light happens to be right, we can get photographs of its shadow."
And sure enough, stretching across the ploughed fields, I could see, through the glass, a phantom line, intersected at regular intervals by short and somewhat thicker lines. It was the shadow of a field-telephone and its poles! And the airplane from which that photograph was taken was so high that it must have looked like a mere speck to one on the ground. There's war magic for you.
You will ask, of course, why the Germans don't maintain over the Allied lines a similar system of aerial observation. They do--when the Allies let them. But the Allies now have in commission on the Western Front such an enormous number of aircraft--I think I have said elsewhere the French alone probably have close to seven thousand machines--and they have made such great improvements in their anti-aircraft guns that to-day it is a comparatively rare thing to see a German flier over territory held by the Allies. The moment that a German flier takes the air, half a dozen Allied airmen rise to meet and engage him, and, in the rare event of his being able to elude them and get over the Allied lines, the "Archies," as the anti-aircraft guns are called on the British front, get into noisy action. (Their name, it is said, came from a London music-hall song which was exceedingly popular at the beginning of the war. When the shells from the German A. A. guns burst harmlessly around the British airmen they would hum mockingly the concluding line of the song: "Archibald, certainly not!") Unable to keep their fliers in the air, the Germans are to all intents and purposes blind. They are unable to regulate the fire of their artillery or to direct their infantry attacks; they do not know what damage their shells are doing; and they have no means of learning what is going on behind the enemy's lines. It is obvious, therefore, that to have and keep control of the air is a very, very important thing.
No one who has been in Europe during the past two years can have failed to notice the unpopularity of the Belgians among the French and English. This is regrettable but true. Also it is unjust. When I left Belgium in the late autumn of 1914 the Belgians were looked on as a nation of heroes. They were acclaimed as the saviors of Europe. Nothing was too good for them. The sight of a Belgian uniform in the streets of London or Paris was the signal for a popular ovation. When the red-black-and-yellow banner was displayed on the stage of a music-hall the audience rose en masse. The story of the defense of Liége sent a thrill of admiration round the world. But in the two and a half years that have passed since then there has become noticeable among French and English--particularly among the English--a steadily growing dislike for their Belgian allies; a dislike which has, in certain quarters, grown into a thinly veiled contempt. I have repeatedly heard it asserted that the Belgian has been spoiled by too much charity, that he is lazy and ungrateful and complaining, that he has become a professional pauper, that he has been greatly overrated as a fighter, and that he has had enough of the war and is ready to quit.
The truth of the matter is this: The majority of the Belgians who fled before the advancing Germans belonged to the lower classes; they were for the most part uneducated and lacking in mental discipline. Is it any wonder, then, that they gave way to blind panic when the stories of the barbarities practised by the invaders reached their ears, or that their heads were turned by the hysterical enthusiasm, the lavish hospitality, with which they were received in England? That as a result of being thus lionized, many of these ignorant and mercurial people became fault-finding and overbearing, there is no denying. Nor can it be truthfully gainsaid that, for a year or more after the war began, there hung about the London restaurants and music-halls a number of young Belgians who ought to have been with their army on the firing-line. But, if my memory serves me rightly, I think that I saw quite a number of English youths doing the same thing. Every country has its slackers, and Belgium is no exception. But to attempt to belittle the glorious heroism of the Belgian nation because of a few young slackers or the ingratitude and ill-manners of some ignorant peasants, is an unworthy and despicable thing. The assertion that the Belgians are lacking in courage is as untruthful as it is cruel. Ask the Germans who charged up the fire-swept slopes of Liége--those of them left alive--if the Belgians are cowards. Ask those who saw the fields of Aerschot and Vilvorde and Termonde and Malines strewn with Belgian dead. Go stand for a few days--and nights--beside the Belgians who are holding those mud-filled trenches on the Yser. And remember that the Belgians were fighting while the English were still only talking about it. Nor forget that, had not their heroic resistance given France a breathing-spell in which to complete her tardy mobilization, the Germans would now, in all probability, be in Paris. The truth is that the civilized world owes to the Belgians a debt which it can never repay. We of America are honored to be counted among their Allies.