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A First World War Soldier

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When the rains had finished, by May, 1916, in the Belgian Congo, General Molitor began to move upon Tanganyika. Soon our motor-boat flotilla and the Belgian launches and seaplanes had swept the lake of German shipping; and the first Belgian force landed and occupied Ujiji, the terminus of the Central Railway.

Then the blood of the Huns in Africa ran cold in their veins, and the fear that the advancing Belgians would wreak vengeance for the crimes of Germany in Belgium and to the Belgian consuls in prison in Tabora, gripped their vitals. Hastily they sent their women and children at all speed east along the line to Tabora, the new Provincial capital, and planned to put up the stiff rearguard actions that should delay the enemy, until the English might take Tabora and save their women from Belgian hands. For the English, those soft-hearted fools, who had already so well treated the women at Wilhelmstal, could be as easily persuaded to exercise their flabby sentimentalism on the women and children in Tabora. So ran the German reasoning.

Slowly and relentlessly the Belgian columns swept eastward along the railway line, closely co-operating with the British force advancing from Mwanza, south-east, toward the capital. But, in Molitor, the German General Wable had met more than his match, and soon, outgeneralled and out-manoeuvred, he had to rally on the last prepared position, west of Tabora. Then, daily, went the German parlementaires under the white flag, that standard the enemy know so well how to use, to the British General praying that he would occupy Tabora while Wable kept the Belgians in check. But the British General was adamant, and would have none of it; and as Wable's shattered forces fled to the bush to march south-east to where Lettow, the ever-vigilant, was keeping watch, the Belgians entered the fair city of Tabora. And here were over five hundred German women and children, clinging to the protection that the Governor's wife should gain for them. For Frau von Schnee was a New Zealand woman, and she might be looked to to persuade the British to restrain the Belgian Askari.

But there was no need. The behaviour of Belgian officers and their native soldiers was as correct and gentlemanly as that of officers should be, and, to their relief and surprise, those white women found the tables turned, and that their enemy could be as chivalrous to them as German soldiers--their own brothers--had been vile to the wretched people of Belgium. There was no nonsense about the Belgian General; stern and just, but very strict, he brought the German population to heel and kept them there. Cap in hand, the German men came to him, and begged to be allowed to work for the conqueror; their carpenters' shops, the blacksmiths' forges were at the service of the high commander. No German on the footpaths; hats raised from obsequious Teuton heads whenever a Belgian officer passes. How the chivalry of Belgium heaped coals of fire upon the German heads! And had the Hun been of such, a fibre as to appreciate the lesson, of what great value we might hope that it would be? But decent treatment never did appeal to the German; he always held that clemency spelt weakness, and the fear of the avenging German Michael. For did not the Emperor's Eagle now float over Paris and Petersburg? That he knew well; for had not High Headquarters told him of the message from the Kaiser by wireless from Nauen, the self-same message that conveyed to Lettow himself the Iron Cross decoration?

The Governor's wife was allowed to retain her palace and servants; but all German women were kept strictly to their houses after six at night. No looting, no riots, no disturbance. And German women began to be piqued at the calm indifference of smart Belgian officers to the favours they might have had. Openly chagrined were the local Hun beauties at such a disregard of their full-blown charms.

"I fear for our women and children in Tabora," said the German doctor to me in Morogoro. "Ach! what will the Belgians do when they hear the tales that are told of our German troops in Belgium? You don't believe these stories of German brutalities, do you?" he said anxiously, conciliatory. But I did, and I told him so. "But you don't know the Belgian Askari; he is cannibal; he is recruited from the pagan tribes in the forest of the Congo, he files his front teeth to a point, and we know he is short of supplies. What is going to happen to German children? It is the truth I tell you," he went on, evidently with very sincere feeling. "You know what became of the 1,500 Kavirondo porters your Government lent to the Belgian General. Where are our prisoners that the Belgians took in Ujiji and along the line? Eaten; all eaten." And he threw up his hands tragically to heaven. "I know you won't believe it, but I swear to you that Rumpel's story is true." Rumpel was Lettow's best intelligence agent. "Our scout was a prisoner with a company of Belgian Askaris, you know, and it was only that the Belgian company commander wanted to get information from him that he was not eaten at once. Haven't you heard the tale that Rumpel tells after his escape? How the senior native officer came to his Belgian commander and complained that they had no food, the villages were empty, not so much as an egg or chicken to be got. Irritably, the Belgian officer shouted that the soldiers knew that no one had food, and they must wait till they got to the next post on the morrow. 'But,' urged the native sergeant softly, 'there are the prisoners.' 'Oh, the prisoners,' said the Belgian officer, relieved by an easy way out of a very difficult situation. 'Well, not more than sixteen, remember that.' And the sergeant went away."

This and countless other lies did the Germans tell us of our Belgian Allies. But how different the truth when it reached us at last along the railway by our troops that came from the northern column to join us at Morogoro. Not a German woman insulted; not one fat German child missing; no occupied house even entered by the Belgian troops, not so much as a chicken stolen from a German compound.

So just, so completely impartial was General Molitor, that he applied to German prisoners, in territory then occupied by him, the very rules and regulations that the German command had laid down for the governing of English and Belgian and other Allied prisoners. Only the vile, the unspeakable regulations, and every ordinance in that printed list of German rules that destroyed the prestige of the white man in the native's eyes, did he omit. If the Germans were indifferent to this one elementary rule of the white race in equatorial Africa--the white man's law that no white man be degraded before a native--then the Belgian would show the Hun how to play the game.

"We must hack our way through," said Bethmann-Hollweg. And we, in Morogoro, were very curious to see what manner of vengeance the Belgians might wreak. Nor would we have blamed them over-much for anything they might have done. I had lived in German prisons with elderly Belgian officers whose wives and grown-up daughters had been left behind in occupied parts of Belgium. We all had shuddered at the stories they told us; nor did we wonder that these unhappy fathers had often gone insane. And when we learnt the truth about Tabora, and knew too, to our disgust, that such un-German clemency was attributed to Belgian fear of the avenging German Michael and not to natural Belgian chivalry, we were furious. What can one do with such a people?

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