Refugee: The Experience of a War Correspondent

THE fast train was more than two hours late when it reached Rouen. Those waiting for it formed rather a civilian crowd. An English major and several convalescent French soldiers were conspicuous. So was a Frenchman more difficult to explain, clad half in uniform. He was quite young, but the two short gold stripes proclaiming him a second lieutenant glittered on his cap of the new gray model; the rest of his ‘uniform’ consisted of puttees and a mackintosh, although the weather was fine. His face, pale and wasted, had an almost furtive expression about its sunken eyes. Unencumbered by luggage, he jumped into the first available compartment as the train stopped, and, taking out some cigarettes, asked two ladies if he might smoke.

‘Have one? They’re Dutch,’ he said to a man in the corner next to him.

The man looked suspicious, and exchanged glances with his vis-à-vis: both were middle-aged, and of the very middle class.

‘So you went to Holland to get these?’ asked the man, still eyeing the young officer and not accepting the cigarette.

‘Yes; just got back. Taken prisoner and escaped, and was a fugitive for months. Passed through Holland to England. Reached France last night. Thought I should find my wife in Rouen, but it seems she’s in Calais.’

The middle-aged man had meanwhile decided he could afford to smoke in such company, and took one of the cigarettes; so did his vis-à-vis. The young officer went on: —

‘ I’m in any clothes I could get. Managed to secure a cap with the right sort of stripes on it, and some puttees, and then this to hide the rest.’ He opened the mackintosh, and displayed a civilian coat and shirt. ‘Anything rather than be without a uniform. Don’t want to be mistaken for some sort of an embusqué brother, you understand. Rather be thought a spy! That happened to me in Holland. But I ’ve got a passport now — a Belgian passport.’

He took it out, unfolded it, read it to himself, and put it back in his pocket-book.

By this time his manner, even more than his words, had won the sympathy and confidence of those seated near him. There were the two men already mentioned; a little lady who had taken out her knitting and murmured occasional encouragement; and myself. We all listened attentively. Another lady in the far corner, and a tall gentleman evidently her husband — both were in stiff, intense mourning — showed hearty disapproval of the entire performance. From time to time their eyes sought a dust-worn placard overhead: ‘Beware—Be Silent—The Ears of the Enemy are Listening.’

‘You say you escaped from the Germans?’ the little lady prompted.

‘Jumped from the train,’ the second lieutenant continued. ‘I’d been put with other prisoners in a cattle-car. The officer in charge had the doors closed, of course. But as soon as he’d left us, the soldiers on guard began to drink. You rarely find a German soldier without his beer, but you never find him without his schnapps. So they took to drinking schnapps. It was very hot, and the heat and the schnapps together were soon too much for them. They opened the door of our car just a little, to get air to breathe. All this happened at the end of last summer.

‘When I saw that door open, just a little, I knew I might get my chance. They were Landwehr soldiers, and not a bad sort, apart from their drunkenness. Not at all like the non-commissioned officer in charge, who was a brute. The first thing he did with me when I was made prisoner was to kick me. Our captain was taken by a German major who kicked him so very brutally that he was badly injured. If you know what a Prussian officer’s boot is like, you’ll understand. They ought to be put in museums as curiosities, those boots — tiny pointed things!

‘ I watched for my opportunity when the soldiers were very drunk and not noticing me. The train was going at about eighteen or twenty miles an hour. Of course I could n’t see where we were or what obstacles lay before me. I just jumped for the door and leaped out, on the chance of landing somewhere and not being killed. As it happened, I only hurt my knee. Scrambling to my feet, I limped off, to get as far as possible from the railway. When I dared stop, I got my bearings, and started westward.’

‘By the stars?’ murmured the little knitter, romantically.

‘No, by my compass. I’d hidden it in my puttees, and it escaped them when they searched me. They took everything else away, except my money — and oh, yes: they left me my razor. I always wondered why they left that razor. Perhaps as an officer —’

‘ Or in the hope you would get desperate and cut your throat,’ I suggested.

‘Perhaps. I don’t know. Anyway, they left me my razor and my money — one thousand francs. When I started from home, I was preparing to take a hundred francs with me. My wife begged me to take a thousand in case anything happened. I said it would only be lost on the battlefield or in prison, and she must keep as much as possible for herself; one hundred francs was all I could possibly need, and it would be absurd to risk losing more. But you know how women are when they get an idea into their heads; and what’s more, they ’re generally right, in the end. Just to pacify her, I took the thousand francs. Well, if it had n’t been for that money, I should n’t be here now. Do you know how much I have left? Just over one hundred. Nearly nine hundred gone in the course of my wanderings! ’

‘Which started westward, I believe you said,’ I prompted.

‘Yes. I thought our troops might have driven the enemy back so I might reach them, somehow. You see, it was during an attack that I got cut off with one or two other officers and quite a few men.’

‘They did n’t maltreat you seriously?’ I asked.

‘ Only kicked me to make me good. I was still sore from that when I tumbled out of the train, and then I hurt my knee rather badly. I felt as if I did n’t want to go far. Yet I had to go on: and I did n’t dare ask my way, as you can imagine. First thing I did, when daylight came, was to get civilian clothes. Some good people I met would have given them to me, but I insisted on paying five francs. More to buy silence than anything else.

‘Dressed like a peasant, so as to avoid attention if seen, I used to hide during the day and start walking westward when night came. To eat, I depended mainly on what I could find in the fields. Afraid to go about buying food, you see. It’s hard to say, now, how many miles I covered; often I looped back, sometimes on purpose because I scented danger ahead; but then again I would go astray by mistake. Much of the time I was n’t sure whether I was in France or in Belgium. When I had to talk, I did n’t ask questions, and I put on an accent, saying I was a Belgian unfit for the army because of my heart. Looking for a job, I said. The story went all right with the people I spoke to, though they probably knew better, every one of them. Still, I might have met a traitor or a German at any time.'

‘Did you actually see our trenches from the German side?’ asked the little knitter.

‘ Luckily not. My knee got worse and worse, but my general bruises improved as days went by, and then I recovered something of my senses. Even supposing I could capture three or four lines of German trenches from behind, which was n’t really likely, you know, I would have stood a poor chance, marching full into the face of our own trenches, rigged out as I was. That game was no good, so I made up my mind to steer northeast and get out by way of Holland, if I took a year to do it.

‘ On the whole, I managed fairly well. Beet-root, turnips, carrots, anything that grew was good enough for my appetite. Beet-root was the best — that served as dessert. Occasionally I went hungry, but that did n’t matter much. The awful thing was when I had to go thirsty. Beet-root saved me several times from thirst as well as from starvation. I soon grew to look on beetroot as the European bread-and-water tree. The worst came when I got near old battlefields. All ravaged, you know, only grass or weeds. Once in a while I might dig up an untouched tin of preserved stuff belonging to a soldier who’d died near that spot. Not nice to think of; but I do the thinking now.

‘Then, I was hungry. And of course I would be reduced to buying food, at times. Once I bought a sausage; I was carrying it in a bag a peasant had given me, when I came to a deserted house guarded by a lonely little dog. The thinnest thing I ever saw. He must have been for days and days without food. You ought to have seen him eat that sausage! Does me good to remember it. He wanted to follow me, afterwards, and I thought he and I would make a good pair, both homeless and half-starved. So we traveled on together. In a village some kind-looking people asked me to give him to them. He wanted to stay with me, and I’d grown attached to him; but I knew he ought to take a home while he could get it. So I went on alone.’

‘You must have wandered very far and very long!’ sighed the little lady. The clicking of her needles had never ceased.

‘ With an injured knee, too, and rheumatism settling in the joint,’ he said. ‘If I did n’t dare buy food, you can imagine I did n’t dare get medical help! Sleeping out in the open when winter comes, without even a blanket or a sleeping-sack, is n’t particularly good for the constitution.’

‘What were you afraid of?’ I asked. ‘There must be some Belgians left in Belgium — and the Germans can’t be everywhere at once.’

‘If they were anywhere near, I was in danger of being denounced as a soldier; and the natives might have taken me for a spy. When I could n’t help showing myself, I spent whatever money was necessary for hushing people.

Once, in a village where there were German soldiers, a peasant came up to me. He said, “Toi, soldat.” I denied it. He said again, “You’re a soldier,” — still in his dialect. He was rough, and poor-looking; two starving children with him. I decided I must bribe, and bribe high. But money was going fast at this game. I hesitated an instant, calculating what was the utmost I dared give for my life this time. All of a sudden he drew a five-franc piece from his pocket and tried to give it to me. “You’re a soldier! ” he said. “You don’t trust me! I’ll help you!” He spoke in funny, broken French: “Toi, soldat! Toi, pas de confiance en moi! Moi t’aider!” I told him to keep the money for his children; that was n’t what I needed. My life depended on avoiding attention, so if he really wanted to help me, please go away.’

The officer lighted another cigarette, again passing round the package; this time, he included me. After smoking in silence for some moments, he rested his eyes deliberately on each of us. It was a short, sliding glance which always ended far to one side or on the floor.

‘You notice?— Funny! I can’t look a single one of you in the eye,’ he said. ‘Must seem compromising — shady character, and all that. A habit I got into. I knew the only way to avoid attention was by never looking at anybody. But I had to know what was going on about me, and hear what people said. So I practiced never looking straight at anything, and seeing a little out of the corner of my eyes; and when I was compelled to look straight, I’d glide my eyes away as quick as I could. Took a lot of practice before it came naturally. Now, I find it hard to look straight — my eyes slip away of themselves!’

‘ Incidentally, they must have seen a great deal, all the same.’

‘Yes. But remember I had to avoid places where much was occurring. Went to Brussels, though; my knee had to be seen to, I could n’t walk anymore, and that seemed the safest town because the biggest. Besides, at Brussels there’s a hospital run by French civilians. The surgeon who examined me had been my regimental doctor for three years in France! He exclaimed, “Surely—”

‘I whispered, “Yes, but don’t give me away!” ’

He stopped.

‘And then?’ I questioned.

‘Then I got better, and took to the road once more. By that time I’d covered quite a lot of country and got a pretty good idea of the way things were.’ He searched in his pocket and produced a note-book. ‘ I wish I could have taken notes. All this I made up from memory, in Holland. I had destroyed all my own papers, of course, because they would have identified me if the Germans had caught me.’

‘Did you witness any atrocities?’ asked the little knitter in an awed tone.

Somehow, atrocities always seem to fascinate little knitters.

‘I have a good deal of evidence here; they have been exaggerated by reports, you know. But they were real. My regimental doctor, whom I found again at the hospital, as I have told you, had dealt with one horrible case — a baby nine months old, with both hands cut off at the wrist and both feet at the ankle. The mother asked the doctor if it would n’t be better to chloroform it before it grew old enough to know.’

There was a silence. He broke it himself: —

‘Those were n’t the things I wanted to learn. I ’m a soldier, and I was after military things. I got an idea of the difficulties we shall have in following the Germans on their retreat through Belgium, but I know we can do it.

Their forts, their trenches, their defenses and general preparations are wonderful. They are going to blow up the principal towns before evacuating them. In Brussels, the City Hall and the Cathedral and all the other famous monuments have been mined, with the single exception of the King’s palace, because that is used by the Red Cross. This I know for myself. I did n’t get to Antwerp, but I understand they have done the same there.’

He turned the pages of his note-book, while the train rolled on. No one spoke. Presently he began again: —

’I was taken for a spy — but luckily I was safe, then. I managed to slip across the frontier to Holland, and turned up at a Belgian consulate to ask for a passport. I did n’t have a single paper to identify me. But my trouble did n’t come there.

‘The consul said, “What’s your nationality?” I answered, “French.” He said, “Where do you want to go?” I answered, “England.” He said, “What do you want to do there?” “Work,” I said. Then he asked me, answering the question for himself, “Not to be a soldier? No!” That was his formula.

’Several young Belgians came in who had crossed the frontier together, although it’s harder and harder to do. They all wanted to go to England to “work,” and of each one he asked, answering himself, “Not to be a soldier? No!” Being the consul of an allied power, he could give me a passport as a Frenchman; and so he did, though it’s a Belgian passport. That being done without difficulty, I started off feeling as if I was almost home again.

‘But the British consul at Rotterdam was n’t so easy. Asked me a lot of questions, trying to trip me up. Wanted to know if I spoke German — and I do, six words! He finally told me I might leave, but not that day — the next. If he had had me arrested that night, I should n’t have been a bit surprised, for he evidently thought me a spy. But I suppose he could n’t have taken me up in a neutral country, and he had a better scheme. I left next day, quite happy, and found myself the object of particular and not flattering attentions at Folkestone. My description, with a statement of my case, had been sent on in advance!’

‘But you got through all right?’ I questioned.

‘Rather! Or I should n’t be here,’he said simply.

By a happy inspiration, the little knitter asked what I had been about to ask. It came more gracefully from her.

‘How did you get across the frontier to Holland? You forgot to tell us.’

‘No. I did n’t forget.’ He paused and reflected while putting his notebook in his pocket. ‘But that’s one of the things I can’t talk about much. Should n’t like to get any of my Belgian friends into trouble, you understand.’

‘Oh! So they managed it for you?’

‘It began with the father of the starving children. He followed me without my knowing it, and crept up that night as I lay under a bush. I’m not ashamed to say I was frightened when he touched me. Thought myself caught, you know. And it seemed hard, after so many months and efforts! I would n’t have minded being killed in battle, or when jumping from the train, or else being caught and shot within a few weeks. Or at all events I did n’t mind the idea of it. But to be bagged as I slept under a bush, after months and months of tramping and dodging and starving and succeeding at least from one day to the next — I hated the idea of dying then! But he whispered, “Soldat—moi ami!”

‘I recognized his voice and his idiom. He went on to tell me that he would help me to hide for some days and would get in touch with his circle of friends. After I’d been in his cellar for some days, he told me all was ready, and lent me his own passport to go as far as the next town. Meant death for him as well as myself if I’d been caught. I hid again, with the help of new friends, in this town, and went on once more with another borrowed passport. This continued until I reached the proper point near the frontier. It seemed to be a whole system, very perfect, working without a flaw.’

‘ But I thought the frontier was bristling with sentinels and was a maze of wires,’ I ventured.

‘Both terms are mild, considering. But if you’ve practiced skulking in fields and under hedges for a good many months, you may creep very close to a sentinel, and can lie like dead for quite a few hours — knowing you will be dead sure enough if you ’re seen. As for their wires and electricity and the rest, rubber gloves sometimes help. It’s just possible, too, that special points of the frontier must be chosen, because of the nature of their soil. But that’s a problem I shall let you work out for yourself.’

The train halted abruptly. A guard passed by the windows, ordering all passengers to alight. The sedate and reserved lady and gentleman seized upon their bags and escaped, as if fearing to be compromised. The little lady and I got out with the officer. Our other fellow travelers had already left us, at some station.

The passengers, after hesitating in confusion for some minutes, were now streaming out along the road that lay beside the tracks.

‘Why have they stopped us? What are they going to do to us?’ the little lady inquired nervously. She kept close to the officer.

‘Only a collision ahead. Another train has been made up just beyond.'

‘How do you know?’ I asked.

‘Because I’ve learned to see without looking and hear without listening.’

We walked on together for a fair part of a mile. It appeared a collision had blocked one track, and a crane brought to clear the way had been dropped across the other track. The train in waiting already contained the passengers from two other trains. Our officer helped the little lady and several others to get into a compartment before getting in himself; I followed. That we were crowded, none could deny; but nobody complained save an old gentleman in an overcoat, a muffler, a sweater, and wristlets. He was also provided with a foot-warmer, a paperbacked novel, and a paper-cutter. He kept darting furious glances from his corner and grumbled intermittently for hours about people who forced themselves into other people’s compartments.

Conversation was impossible in such an atmosphere. The little lady knitted with her elbows in the stomachs of two neighbors; the officer gazed through the window at the French landscape, and seemed completely happy; while I, squeezed into a sort of concave space where the arm of a seat had been folded up to accommodate me, tried to think and could n’t.

We reached Paris. The little lady shook hands with the officer, soulfully wishing him much more fighting and endless good fortune.

‘May I walk a little way with you?’ I asked him. ‘I have been much interested in all you had to say.’

He laughed.

‘Why, I have merely talked about anything that passed through my mind! After so many months of either silence or discretion, you can’t imagine what it means to be able to turn one’s tongue loose among one’s own people. Even in England I had to be rather careful, you know; could n’t make friends very well, because my papers were n’t exactly conventional, and I did n’t know a soul in the whole country who could identify me. And then my note-book might have looked queer, among strangers.’

’I have been wondering if you would let me see it.’ And I gave him my card by way of recommendation.

‘Oh, impossible!’ he said, taking the card but not looking at it. ’These notes are for my government. And I am afraid I must be hurrying, if I want to make the Calais train to-night to rejoin my wife. I must report at the Ministry first, you see.’

‘In that case I shan’t detain you, Monsieur—’

As I mentioned his name, he stopped short.

‘How do you know my name?’ he demanded, and for the first time glanced at my card.

‘Because,’ I answered, ‘war correspondents, like refugee soldiers, sometimes learn to see without looking and hear without listening; and I fancy that we don’t unfold, like you, our passports in a crowded train when we wish to travel incognito.’