The Belgian Wilderness
THERE are other towns somewhere in France besides those from which come the horrible tales of the trenches — the trenches, those long open graves in which the men stand waiting for red and screaming death by machines. These other towns are in what we of the Commission call the North of France, meaning that part of France now, and for a year past, occupied by the German forces. For the Commission for the Relief of Belgium does all the relief work in occupied France as well as in occupied Belgium.
In one of these towns I have been living. It is a small gray town on the bank of a winding stream that comes south swiftly through the high, forested Ardennes hills and then slows down to quieter reaches in the flatter land below. A single small round hill stands over the river and town, with a summer house, a searchlight, and an anti-aircraft gun on it. I was awakened unusually early some mornings by the gun’s banging away at a reconnoitring French flyer. I remember one morning especially. I had not been in the place long, and so came out of bed with particular celerity when the gun began. From the window I could see the little hill across our garden and the river. It was a beautiful morning with the sun just risen, and high over the hill I saw the aeroplane lazily circling about, while the observer, I suppose, made his notes. The white planes glistened like silver in the sunlight, and as one after another of the little white puffs opened under and around the machine and blew slowly out into soft woolly white cloudlets, the whole thing was a fascinating picture. But when I remembered that from each soft puff three hundred shrapnel bullets whizzed out in search of their mark, the picture became more sombre. The puffs opened closer to the lazy great bird and it began to dip up and down to vitiate the range. And soon after, with a final audacious circling directly over the hill, it drifted away to the west — to my real relief.
Our small gray town is of no distinction, that is, distinction of position or beauty of architecture or of industrial enterprise. But, after all, it is distinguished above many others of more native interest by being now the Great Headquarters of all the German armies of the West. Each army of the several that occupy the North of France has its own headquarters, some town that is the scene of enormous activity and bustle. Each of these towns has its many soldiers, its piles of stores and munitions, its incessant coming and going of trainloads of new men for the front, and of relics of other men for the base hospitals.
But the Great Headquarters is not like this. It is quiet. The loudest sounds there come from the playing of children in the streets. In the larger buildings of the town sit many officers over maps and dispatches. Telephones and telegraph instruments, stenographers, messengers, all the bustle of busy but quiet offices, are there. The General Staff, the General Quartermaster’s group, the General Intendant’s department, scores, aye, hundreds, of officers, play here the war game for Germany on the chessboard whose squares are bits of Europe.
The small gray town is another headquarters, too; it is the great headquarters of all relief work that goes on in the North of France. Here lives, by permission and arrangement with the German staff, the American head of the neutral relief work — he and one other American who is the local head of the district including a hundred and fifty thousand people around the town. They live in a large comfortless house, and with them two German staff officers as official protectors and friendly jailers. And they, too, are part of the neutral relief work, for no man can live with it and not become part of it. It is too appealing, too gripping.
We had seven orderlies and two chauffeurs, for we are provided with two swift gray military motors for our incessant inspecting. One of the orderlies is named cook, and he cooks, in a way. Another was a barber before he became corporal, which was convenient. And another blacked my shoes and beat my clothes in the garden with a rouch stick and turned on the water full flow in our improvised bath at a given hour each morning, so that I had to get up promptly to turn it off before it flooded the whole house.
Quite four nights of each seven in the week there were other staff officers in to dinner, and we debated such trifles as German Militarismus, the hate of the world for Germany, American munitions for the Allies, submarining and Zeppelining, the Kaiser, the German people.
We were not all of one mind. ‘Now all keep still,’ demands my officer, the Hauptmann Graf W., ‘and my American will tell us just what the Americans mean by German Militarismus.’
They all kept still for the first ten words and then all broke out together.
‘No, we.shall tell you what it is. Organization and obedience — nothing more, nothing less. It is that that makes Germany great. And it is that that you must come to if you would be a great nation.’
I protested that I thought we are already a great nation.
‘Well, then,’they answered, ‘if you would continue great. Otherwise you will smash. Democracy, bah! license, lawlessness, disruption. Organize, obey, — or smash.’ And they believe it.
The North of France comprises now two and a quarter million people. There were three million before the coming in of the Germans, but the withdrawal, before the occupation, of practically all men of military age, and of others who would not remain behind the German lines, reduced the number by three quarters of a million. It is a population chiefly of women and children, and old and infirm men, a particularly helpless and needy people, and one that depends almost wholly on the relief they are now getting. In the Great Headquarters town almost exactly one half the population is on the daily breadand soup-lines — six thousand out of twelve. And this is a peculiarly favored town, for the Kaiser has the pleasant fancy of relieving the place in which he lives when he visits the West Front from many of the hardships of an occupied place.
We divide the North of France for ravitaillement purposes into six districts corresponding, not with the original French political subdivisions, but with the necessities caused by the occupation of the region by the different German armies, each with a large autonomy of its own as regards the administration of the territory occupied by it, and the control of the people living in this territory. Each district has a Commission headquarters with an American in charge, sometimes with a ‘second man’ or assistant, and a German officer assigned to be his very constant companion. These officers are selected, not for fighting vigor, but for diplomatic and business capacity and for a speaking knowledge of French and English. They all have become immensely interested in the relief work and take an active part in it. They are all as vociferous as the American délégués in their demands to Commission headquarters, that in times of general shortage of supplies ‘ our people,’ meaning the French civil population of the district, shall get their ‘fair share,’ always meaning more than their fair share. They struggle with the army authorities for special privileges for ‘their people.’ They even get suspected by the rigorous fighting type of officer of being pro-French! It is all very fine, and shows that human sympathy exists even in — others than ourselves.
One day my officer and I were driving down the Meuse valley in all the panoply of our military motor, which means two loaded guns sticking up at right and left of the soldier chauffeur and the orderly by his side, and a loaded Browning in each of the tonneau side-flaps. The Meuse gorge in summer is beautiful and restful — if the motor was not. We turned up a smaller, narrower, lovely side valley, the Haute Semois, which is to the Meuse rather as the Moselle to the Rhine. We were making for a village that had reported some distribution troubles because of a too active but too incompetent mayor. (We had to remove this mayor later! The military system has its advantages.) At a tiny estaminet by the stream side where we stopped to drink grenadine, if there was any, I fell into the usual food conversation with the motherly woman in charge. Did she get enough food and was it of good quality? Well, she had two daughters and two boys in the house. The husband was fighting in the French army; the oldest son had been fighting in it, but was now a soldier prisoner somewhere in Germany. She had not heard from him. She had been told, however, the name of the prison camp. She took care of the two little girls and two little boys, and kept open, more for sentiment than for advantage, the husband’s little estaminet. It was hard work — but that was the least thing to worry about. As to the food, the bread was enough to live on — she showed a big loaf — and the rice and peas and beans and bacon, if scanty, were good. But there simply was n’t enough salt. She could n’t cook her things. She made the bacon help out, but could there not some way be enough salt?
My officer looked hard at me. I explained that under our system — he understands system — I could not possibly order more salt for her alone, but — I could order more salt for the entire village; and I would. Then her share would be a larger amount. Then I looked hard at my officer. What about getting news of the soldier son? The officer could do no less than promise. He did, and he made his promise good. This was the only house we stopped at that day. We were afraid to know too much about any more. That is one of the sad parts of it. We are doing wonderfully for them all together, but there is so terribly much to be done for them each separately.
It is an anomalous position that our little group of Americans holds here, behind, but very close to, the fighting lines. We are, of course, potential spies, for either side. And where there are so many real spies a potential spy, even if he comes with guaranties of honesty and on acquaintance proves himself a man of honor and a rigorous neutral in all his expressions and behavior, must be treated, in some degree, as an unproved but possible spy. Military exigency and the military system demand it. And so it is uncomfortable for us, and wearing. There is a tension in the life there that gets on the nerves.
But we are treated also as gentlemen, and we have a freedom of movement and of association with the French population, observed movement and association though it be, that is extraordinary. The Germans can’t like having us there, but they like us. At least this is the rule. And the French people rely, not only on us for food, but on our very presence for sympathy and confidence. With no authority, not even that of the neutral diplomat in a warring or occupied country, we have, nevertheless, a peculiarly large authority. Part of it is, of course, the very tangible possession of the man who controls the food, — what kinds and how much each one shall have.
The Germans watch us, but so do the English. When I was in England on a flying trip to arrange for renewed leaves of absence from Oxford of three or four of our Rhodes scholars, Mr. Hoover, the ‘big chief’ of the Commission, the originator, the organizer, the constant stimulus and inspiration for us all and for the helping world outside, found in arranging for the return of one of these men who had come across the Channel to visit his college, that the English Intelligence Service had a record of each of us. And later I found that General von Bissing’s government in Belgium had even fuller dossiers for us — special recognitions of somewhat equivocal compliment.
Although all the food for the French comes through the Commission, none of it is provided by the charity of the outside world. The money for its purchase comes entirely from French sources, from a group of banks in Paris. We have a monthly credit of about twentytwo and a half million francs with which we buy rice from Rangoon, maize from Argentina, wheat, dried peas and beans, bacon, lard, and condensed milk from America. We contribute our great buying and shipping organization, our distributing services, and our arrangement with the Allied governments and the Germans which permits us to import by way of Rotterdam and through Belgium into North France the needed food. It is distributed with the aid, of course, of innumerable French district, regional, and communal committees — there are 1882 communal committees alone — on the basis of a carefully worked-out ration, balanced as to proteins, fats, and starch, that has a foodvalue of about 1800 calories a day — enough to live on, even if not to do violent work on. This is the ration: flour 250 grammes (making 325 grammes of bread), rice 40 grammes, dried peas and beans 20 grammes, bacon and lard 30 grammes, coffee and chicory 20 grammes, salt 10 grammes, sugar 10 grammes. It costs almost exactly 10 francs a month, which for two and a quarter million people amounts to our monthly twenty-two and a half million francs. Of course the people, or most of them, find a way to add something to this ration, especially in the summer, when they can grow some fresh vegetables and have some eggs and chickens and a little fresh meat. And we add some condensed milk and some other tinned things when we can. But there are whole communes, especially some nearest the fighting lines, which live solely on the ration. We distribute food to communes within cannon-shot of the lines. For example, we were feeding Loos until it was wiped out in the English offensive and German counter-attacks last September.
We hear all day long the sullen rumble of the cannon; we see all day long the slow Red Cross trains moving, as if tired and worn by their suffering freight, across the flat country; we catch glimpses in the sky of silver reflections from the white wings of the scouting aeroplanes. From a little hill near the front we can look across the German and French lines and see the towers of Rheims. Between us and them, men are killing each other, and being shelled out of holes as one smokes out wild beasts. But we have nothing to do with all that. Just beyond the hill is a little village of children, women, and old men. There has come from them some trivial complaint about the quality of the bread that the village baker makes from the flour from America. Is the trouble with the flour or with the baker? We have simply come to find out and fix it. The people are not starving and will not be as long — but only as long — as flour comes to them regularly across an ocean, through a mine-strewn channel, along many canals, then in a railway car, and finally in a cart, from some mysterious source, by some unknown means. Evidently some strange Americans have something to do with it. Only, the bread ought to be better. No, we have nothing to do with cannon, trenches, or aeroplanes. We have to do with the other side of war.
The ravitaillement of the North of France occupies just one fourth of the Commission’s activities. The rest is Belgium.
Immediately after Belgium was occupied by the German forces in August, 1914, it became a country isolated, as regards all trade-relations, from the rest of the world. The military activities and diplomatic decisions of the belligerents touching Belgium may be discussed, their wisdom, fairness, and humaneness questioned, but the outstanding fact that demanded immediate consideration by feeling people the world over, was the actuality of the isolation and its certain swift consequences.
The complete commercial isolation of a land, its encircling by a steel ring that permits no import of foods or raw materials for industry or commodities for commerce, and no export of manufactures or money or exchange even, may or may not mean swift catastrophe to the country. It depends on the degree of the country’s self-sustainingness. It would not mean ruin to us. It has not spelled speedy catastrophe to Germany. But to a highly industrialized land like Belgium, whose imports and exports are, in normal times, greater per capita than those of any other country, whose annual production of bread-grains equals but one-fourth of its annual bread-consumption, whose self-sustaining agricultural class is but one-sixth of its total population, such an isolation means swift catastrophe and horror. The steel ring means starvation to the people inside of it.
This was so obvious to every one in Belgium, that in only a few weeks after the occupation efforts were made to begin the rescuing of the people from the starvation that was staring them in the face. An American mining engineer resident in Brussels, certain prominent business men of Brussels, and the Spanish and American ministers to Belgium, were the active promoters of these efforts. An appeal was made to London, and the interest of men of influence there enlisted, among them another American mining engineer of proved great financial and organizing capacity, tremendous personal vigor and philanthropic spirit. This was Herbert Clark Hoover, born in Iowa, but a product, as regards environment and education through boyhood to early manhood, of California. Despite great diplomatic and financial difficulties, a hole in the steel ring was effected by mutual agreement of the belligerents, and a neutral organization was established and financed for the purpose of obtaining the food necessary to keep Belgium from starving, and of carrying it into the country and there distributing it exclusively and equally to the civil population. This organization has come to be known as the Commission for Relief in Belgium. It is a purely philanthropic and strictly neutral organization, established on sound business bases. The soundness of its business methods and its true philanthropy are made impressively apparent in the fact that its overhead expenses for obtaining, the world over, and distributing to seven million people in Belgium and two and a quarter million in the North of France, $80,000,000 worth of food-stuffs (up to December 1, 1915) have been seven-tenths of one per cent. Its books and papers are audited by the greatest auditing firm in London. Its reports of finance and method are open to the world.
This phenomenally low expense account is made possible by the volunteer character of its neutral personnel, the benevolent coöperation of great purchasing firms, of railway and shipping companies, of government telegraph lines, the free use of Dutch and Belgian and French canals, and the active volunteer service of thousands of patriotic Belgian and French men and women.
It has enlisted the benevolence of the world. Its gift ships of food and clothing have come across all the oceans. Its charity in money and commodities from the world outside Belgium has reached now the sum of twenty-two million dollars. Belgian charity has been greater even than this. The Commission itself has made a profit of over twenty million francs on food sold to the Belgians who can pay, which has gone, every franc of it, to feed Belgians who cannot pay. It is, even one who is connected with it may be pardoned for saying, a great and conspicuous exhibition and achievement of philanthropy in the midst of the greatest exhibition and horror of misanthropy that our world has known. Its work and the superb Red Cross work are the great ameliorating conditions in a time of universal human disaster.
This is no place, nor is it yet the time, to attempt, even most concisely, a survey of the Commission’s activities and methods. But just at this time one cannot touch this subject without giving swiftly two or three answers to questions that come to us constantly from America — which has done so splendidly for this international charity, but can and should do much more. These questions are entitled to be plainly answered.
The first of these questions is, does Belgium still need outside aid? has not time ameliorated the economic situation of this land? The answer is implied in the statement that the military and diplomatic situation to-day is the same as that of a year ago. The steel ring is still there, as impregnable as ever. Save for the single hole in it, which is the Commission’s hole and through which only Commission foods and clothing can enter, there is no other break in Belgium’s commercial isolation from the world. Through this hole can pass no imports of raw materials for Belgium’s factories, nor out of it pass any product of her manufacture. Just certain fixed quantities of certain agreed-to food-stuffs and clothing can pass through it. This was the condition when the Commission began its work, this is the condition to-day; this will remain the condition apparently as long as the war lasts, or the military conditions affecting Belgium remain unchanged. Time instead of bettering conditions tends to make them worse, in that with time the original stocks of traders, the means and credit of Belgian men of wealth, the clothing and shoes in the houses of the people become used up. The Belgians, like the French in the North of France, are not starving — because the Commission is bringing enough food to them to keep them alive. But that bringing must be constant, must be regular. One hundred and twenty-five thousand tons of food-stuffs must reach Rotterdam each month, and from Rotterdam be conveyed by canal boats, railway wagons, and carts to all the thousands of communes of Belgium and North France. To-day more than one million Belgians are on the soupand bread-lines — two hundred thousand in Brussels alone. Over a half million Belgian factory workmen are idle and without income save that from charity; they represent, with their families, a destitute population of two million. Nearly three million persons in Belgium are dependent either partly or wholly on charity It is a condition of reality; and their constant relief is the condition of reality that the neutral Commission for Relief in Belgium and the Belgian Comité Nationals de Secours et d’ Alimentation face to-day. The work must go on in the same measure that it has gone on. The Belgians are not starving, because they are being fed. They will not starve — so long as they continue to be fed.
Another question is, do the Germans take any of the food imported by the Commission? The answer is simply a plain and positive NO. I declare this of personal knowledge. The German general government of Belgium and the general staff of the armies of the West gave guaranties to the Spanish and American ministers in Brussels and to the Commission that none of the food imported by the Commission would be requisitioned, or its distribution interfered with in any way by the Germans. And these guaranties have been rigidly lived up to. To see that they are so lived up to is one of our principal functions. To the Allied governments that is what we are here for. The very few complaints that we have had of the attempt on the part of some uninformed soldier or group of soldiers to take any of the Commission food have, upon our referring them to the German authorities, been promptly investigated and any real infraction punished and the food returned. Our elaborate system of weighing and tabulating, reporting, following up, sealing and placarding all canal boats, railway wagons, carts, and storehouses, our constant personal inspection and the active aid of our thousands of Belgian coworkers constitute an effective check against diversion of the food. Perhaps all this is not needed, for even more effective, probably, are the precise orders of the German authorities. The German soldiers obey orders.
Accepting this answer, there are still those who ask: But even if the Germans take none of your food, and even if they leave to the Belgians the whole of their native bread-grains crop as they do, — the whole crop of last year, amounting to one-fourth of the wheat necessary for this year’s bread, is practically in our hands for equable distribution, — does not this provisioning of Belgium through the Commission give a military advantage to the Germans by relieving them of the responsibility or necessity of feeding the people?
Without touching the moot point of whether the Germans would or could feed these nine million people in Belgium and France, or touching the diplomatic complexities of this matter of responsibility, or even the matter of humanity involved in the manner of feeding, which has its own title to consideration, I shall merely say that it may well be believed that the governments of England and France have just as vividly before them as has any selfappointed war-strategist in America the question of military advantage or disadvantage in connection with this importation of food, and that the whole Commission work is carried on with the full permission and approval of the English and French governments. Also we may imagine the English people as a whole to be as seriously concerned with this question as the American people are. Well, the English people to-day are giving more money to carry on the work than the American people. These seem to me to be answers enough to any man who thinks twice.
The rice from Rangoon, the maize from Argentina, and the wheat and bacon from North America come to Rotterdam in cargo ships carrying about five thousand tons each. It is no small fleet. We must have one ship coming into port for almost every week-day of the month. These ships are gayly — and seriously — decorated with the Commission’s long pennants and masthead balls and great signs along the sides, that every war boat and submarine and hydroplane may recognize them at long range. They have laissez-passers for all seas, but they must take their chances with floating mines — we have lost three this way. And there has been at least one case of a near-sighted submarine. The Germans will make this good in time.
In Rotterdam the cargoes are transshipped from the great boats of the ocean to the little ones of the Dutch canals. To Ghent, Antwerp, and Brussels we can send canal boats of seven and eight hundred tons; to all the other and farther distributing centres we must use smaller ones, three to five hundred tons. We have the free use of the Dutch, Belgian, and French canals, and our fleet of lighters constantly traversing these ways runs up to nearly two hundred. They leave Rotterdam sealed and placarded with the Commission’s potent labels that make sacrosanct all that is under them. The boats have their exact contents registered and telegraphed on to destination. They must arrive at destination with seals unbroken, and their contents discharged must tally with contents charged.
But the canals, numerous as they are and ramifying the land as widely as they do, cannot carry our food to all our centres. Railway wagons and horse-drawm carts do the rest. They too are sealed where possible, and placarded always; as are, again, the provincial, cantonal, and communal magazines and canteens wherein the food-stuffs find final storage and from which they pass directly to the hands and mouths of the people.
I have swept the food from the wheatfields of America to the bread-lines of Belgium as if with one great breath. It really comes by a myriad puffs; which are a myriad details of business and a myriad human incidents. The breadlines themselves show a host of human touches, such a host of aspects of suffering, of helping, of humiliated, of desperate, of deceiving, of noble humanity as any Balzac could ask to have under his eyes. The soup of Brussels is made in a great central kitchen, in enormous cauldrons filled with giants’ rations of vegetables and meats, by chefs of Brussels in high white cap, long spotless apron, and the proverbial goatee and pointed moustaches of a proper French cook. Carted swiftly to the soupand bread-line centres it finds there the restless waiting human lines that are the complement of the Glory of War.
The breadand soup-lines are only a part of the secours of Belgium. There are no small children in these lines, or only those brought along by mothers who have no one at home with whom to leave them. But there are many, many small children in Belgium who must be cared for, and they are. A beautiful Belgian organization, Les Petites Abeilles, has been taken under the protection and given the material assistance of the Commission, and these ’little bees,’ a noble group of Belgian women and girls, are caring for thousands of helpless children; the sick and infirm ones are given special attention.
There are Belgians, as there are Americans, who would starve rather than go on the soup-lines. Even on the lines this one puts down five centimes and that one ten, on the table in front of the man with the long list. There is in any society a class of persons to whom a catastrophe such as has fallen on Belgium comes with particular bitterness: persons who have never had charity although they have never been too far away from the danger line of need. Special provision has been made in Belgium for these pauvres honteux.
In a splendid hôtel in Brussels, that of the Comtesse d’U., some four hundred persons, cleanly dressed, gather once a day to sit down in dining-rooms, salons, and bedrooms, for a ‘square meal’ for which they pay four cents each. This meal has cost the countess and her friends eight cents. In addition she gives her beautiful house and her own devoted service, as her group of friends give theirs. This is but one of many such houses in Brussels and the other cities of Belgium. The people cared for are little shopkeepers, the struggling professional men, artists, musicians, who are never rich, but are always in normal times self-supporting and more than self-respecting.
But there are so many artists in Belgium, and they are so particularly likely to suffer unseen, that a special department of relief for artists by small gifts and small loans has been established. And there are special departments for doctors and pharmacists, for destitute foreigners, for help in rehabilitating churches and for the clergy, for maternity hospitals, for the feebleminded, and so on. And a very special attention has been given the needs of the lace-workers. Nearly fifty thousand women and girls maintained themselves in Belgium’s famous lace-making industry. An attempt is being made to keep this industry from being wholly interrupted. A special arrangement for import of a certain amount of the needed materials and the export of small quantities of the made lace has been effected. Part-time work has been provided for a considerable number of the lace-workers, and these women and girls have thus been kept partly selfsupporting, and have been held back from joining the weaker-minded ones who, in their extremity, have taken to the streets.
Another attempt to give some work to many thousand women, and some men, has been made in connection with the collecting in America, Canada, and England, and distributing in Belgium, of great quantities of clothing. Much of this clothing was old, and much of it sadly in need of repair. There was established in connection with the distribution centres a number of ouvroirs for the overhauling, repairing, and often complete making over of the clothing. These workrooms have given parttime employment to many thousands of tailors, seamstresses, and non-professional workers. One of the most impressive sights in Brussels to-day is the ‘Pole Nord,’ a great circus and variety hall, which is the headquarters establishment of the clothing charity. The recent appeal of the Commission to the world for clothes and shoes for Belgium and North France has called especially for cloth, rather than clothing, the making up of which will help the people, not only by clothing them more suitably, but by giving to many an amount of paid-for labor that will take them from the dolorous and humiliating soup-lines.
The Belgians are incorrigible optimists. They have little news from the outside of how things are going with the war, so they make up their own news. And it is always good news. It keeps them brave; it keeps them, perhaps I may say without indiscretion, irreconcilable. They are also a people who resent interference with their personal liberty. It may again approach indiscretion, but I cannot help saying that the German authorities of the general government of Belgium do not seem to understand this, or, if they do, they do not act wisely on their understanding. With whatever good intentions the authorities make their many and precise regulations, with whatever well-considered attention to details and industry of governing they post their almost daily proclamations of Verboten or Verordnung, these only result in a constant irritation of the Belgian population. Fleming and Walloon alike resent any too intimate ordering of their daily life. And they are audacious even to reckless daring in showing their objection. They seize every opportunity of feast day or anniversary for ‘ demonstrating’ in one way or another. When they might not any longer, by order, flag Brussels with the Belgian colors on every excuse, they flagged it with the American colors. And when that was no longer permissible, they dressed themselves in black and flocked to the churches for special masses. If the shops of a certain unruly street are to be closed by order at seven in the evening, they close their shops at noon. Or when next time the order says that shops closed before the appointed time will remain closed indefinitely, they seize on the wording of the order, which says ‘shall remain closed from seven till the end of the day,’ to open them all at midnight!
Their daring carries them further, much further. How far, the all-too-frequent posted placards of military trials and condemnations to prison constantly reveal. There are even, of course, the few terrible notices of the death penalty and its execution. There is always the working of the underground telegraph. Military information, maps, the spies themselves, steadily pass the carefully guarded border. Even the terrible wire fences with their highvoltage electrical currents which barricade Belgium from Holland, and Holland from Belgium, are crossed over and over again. The current postage for letters across the border is said to be two francs. That may be taken as the financial measure of the lettercarrier’s chances. He probably carries more than one letter at a time.
I was driving once with my German officer in the North of France near the Belgian border. A French aeroplane passed high over our heads. The officer reached for his field-glasses and scanned it for a long time. As he put his glasses down he called my attention to a pretty green spot, a little flat field, on the summit of a low hill not far away. As he pointed to it, he said, ‘There is where the last one landed.’ His story was that it was quite too usual for a daring aeroplane to swoop down somewhere in the country, well away from a garrisoned town, in North France or Belgium, and leave the observer, who scuttles away into hiding while the pilot shoots up again and back to the west. The observer, if not caught at once, is usually safe when once in the care of the country or nearby village people. He is a trained military observer, and usually one already as a native well acquainted with the land. He gathers the information needed, and then has to work his way out across the border, some way. Not all, probably not many, get out. Sometimes he brings a little cage of French carrier pigeons, and whether he ever gets back or not, he trusts to his messengers to carry back their precious little rolls of paper tied to a leg. But some of the German soldiers are provided with shot-guns instead of rifles and their enemy is — the carrier pigeon. One night at the Great Headquarters we had a pigeon pie. They told me they were carrier pigeons and that one had had a neat little map of the headquarters village on its leg. Everything worth knowing to an aeroplane ’bomber’ was on that map. They said that our house, the Commission headquarters, was especially indicated—to be let alone. It was a pretty story, anyway.
But I am straying from ‘the other side of war.’ There are many other bits that might be told. Only one shall I add. It is a word of appreciation of the young Americans — I am an old one — who have offered their services and performed their work in a way to bring warmth to the heart and mist to the eyes of a believer in our country and its way of producing men. Most of these helpers—a few more than seventy Americans have been so far in the service — are young college men, a considerable fraction of them being Rhodes scholars from the various Oxford colleges. Trained in college for anything but the specific work of the Commission, they seem to have found a training, that, added to a natural adaptability, honesty, discretion, and initiative, has made them capable actors in the world’s work. Thrown into a situation requiring tact and utmost discretion, loaded with large responsibilities and asked to take care of themselves and important affairs of the Commission under most unusual circumstances, they have done it, almost to a man, with success. They have won the admiration of Belgians and Germans alike. They make one proud of America, and they lend great encouragement to the observer of American educational methods. Viewed in their working, these methods have seemed to many of us very faulty; viewed in their results, so far as young America is a result of education at all, our too easy pessimism is given a proper unsettling. I return to my university chair with a renewed confidence in American educational work.