The Man Who Won the War

ONCE to every writer there comes the perfect story, straight from life. But the great fault of most true stories is their improbability: it is far simpler to imagine a convincing plot than to borrow one from actual facts. Neither the official records of the Belgian War Office in Brussels nor the British Admiralty Archives in London contain the whole proof of what I am about to tell. The sole legal evidence, I can assure you, is buried in a small stone urn on the coast of Flanders, and in the embittered heart of an exiled Englishman.

I

Late on a winter evening in 1927, I was returning to England after a holiday spent with friends in Cologne. The Brussels Express was running far behind time, and I remember how it sped down the dark Ruhr Valley toward the Belgian border as if frightened by the red flares from the steel furnaces. It was January and bitter cold. The windows sweated in rivulets, between the frost and the overheated train.

At Düren I descended to the platform for a breath of the wet night air. When I returned to my compartment the only other occupant was awake, filling his pipe and glancing absently at the station.

‘What place is this, please?‘ he asked in German.

‘Düren, I believe,’ I replied in English, and smiled.

‘I say, are you British?’ he exclaimed with mild interest, halting the match midway to his face.

‘No, American.’

‘Oh,’ he murmured, and turned back to his pipe.

The train pulled slowly through the town, across the Ruhr bridge and the black river jeweled with the lights of barges. Suddenly in the north the sky flamed red again, throwing a weird infernal glow over the dreary plain and the mountainous slag heaps.

‘Looks like Hell, doesn’t it?’

‘Hell?’ The Englishman laughed shortly. ‘Aye, they turn out a rather good grade of Hell here. One of the best.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Steel!’ he barked, removing the briar and pointing with its stem. ‘Steel for guns and shells!’ And then quietly, as if to himself, ‘Oh, the fools, the bloody fools! Did n’t they get enough of it last time?’

This outburst from one whose countrymen are usually so taciturn and reserved alarmed me at first. But it also awakened my senses, drugged by the stale air and a desire to sleep. I began to study my companion with new interest.

He was perhaps fifty years old, tall, his powerful body contradicted by a face which bore the marks of many illnesses. The effect was that of an oak tree whose death had begun in the topmost branches. But his gray eyes were keen and friendly. He wore a dark flannel suit, brown brogues, and blue shirt, that uniform of the Englishman abroad. His luggage consisted of one battered suitcase and a square, paperwrapped parcel, lying beside him on the seat. From the bitter tone of his remark about the war, together with his general bearing, I put him down as an ex-officer.

‘Do you think the Germans are arming again?’ I asked in surprise. It was exciting news then, since I had seen only poor people trying desperately to be happy around their Christmas trees.

‘They can never forget,’ he nodded. ‘Like the Irish, they are a fighting people. Ten years, twenty — they can wait. Only, God help us when they are ready again.’

‘But the League of Nations would stop them,’ I protested with all the fierce idealism of youth.

‘Ah yes,’ he smiled indulgently, ‘the League. I forgot. No, make no mistake about it, son; not even that clever Yankee invention will help us then. Nor your dollars and men, I’m afraid.’

‘That’s true enough,’ I agreed. ‘We won’t be so easily dragged in again. This “winning the war" has turned out to be a pretty expensive party for us.’

‘Oh?‘ he inquired. ‘So it was America who won the war, eh? That’s most interesting. I’ve often wondered where the credit belonged, really.’

It was an old trap into which I had fallen before. Now I stepped cautiously around it, and then decided to grab the bait out of curiosity concerning the man himself.

‘We-ll,’ I gazed innocently at the rack above his head, ‘if we did n’t win the war, who did?’

When, after a short silence, I lowered my eyes, it was to observe the tall Englishman looking at me puzzledly, as if trying to determine my seriousness. Then his deeply lined face softened with an oddly tragic humor as he turned to the square package at his side.

‘Do you really want to know?’ he asked quietly, at length.

‘Of course,’ I replied. ‘I imagine your guess would be better than mine.’

‘I’m not guessing at all.’ He looked up quickly, ‘I did. I won the war.’

There followed a rather embarrassing pause. Obviously the fellow was a megalomaniac, I hoped of the harmless variety. ‘Oh, so you’re the man?’ I smiled. ‘Well, my congratulations.’

He waved my words aside. ‘You’re thinking I’m quite mad, I dare say.’ He watched me with narrowed eyes, leaning forward slightly in his seat.

‘Oh, not at all,’ I insisted, now definitely alarmed at the serious intensity in his wide gray eyes,

‘It doesn’t matter.’ He sat back, observing the distant lights of Aachen slide past us in the dark. ‘Only one man ever really believed me, anyway. Poor devil, I only wish he might have doubted it, too.’

‘But you misunderstand,’ I replied. ‘I have n’t said that I doubted you. I should like very much indeed to hear about it.’

He turned his head slowly and for a long while looked at me, through me, his eyes drilling down into the years.

‘Well, why not?’ he asked himself aloud. ‘It would be rather appropriate just now, and after to-morrow’s job I dare say I shan’t ever feel like telling it again.’

At this moment the conductor, a pompous little Prussian with gimlet moustaches, opened the door of our compartment, bowed, and informed us with gruff pride that our baggage would be inspected by the customs office in Brussels, as the Express did not stop at the border. We should arrive in an hour and a quarter, he replied to the Englishman’s question, and with another stiff bow he withdrew.

‘Time enough,’ my companion murmured; and then, ‘My name is Roger Bradman.’ I introduced myself. We shook hands.

II

‘ Of course you’ve never heard of me,’ he began. ‘Nor of the Bradman Spy Case, back in 1913. All that would be before your time.’

It was. But I had read of the famous case in Dr. Spingard’s book. ‘Wasn’t that the incident that nearly caused war between Germany and England? Are you that Bradman?’

‘Yes,’ he nodded, ‘I am. The Naval Intelligence had sent me to Berlin to get the plans of the Heligoland forts. Well, I got them — and then they got me. Stupid error, of course, but there I was, caught red-handed.

‘Then the fun began. They didn’t care particularly about shooting me. They would have, quickly enough, but we were n’t at war. But the Kaiser jumped at the chance to pin a bit of incriminating evidence on Great Britain. They were all fairly certain that I was a British officer, but they could n’t prove it. We had taken care of that.

‘All the same, my arrest created a terrific shindy. Every brass hat in the German army must have had a go at me, and all their newspapers were howling for my head. Oh, they put the fear of God into me, right enough; but finally, through some major miracle which I’ve never been able to figure out, they let me go.

‘Naturally England had disowned me from the start. Never heard of me. Refused me permission to return and all that. You see it was the only way she could save her face — and my neck. It’s the usual treatment when a spy is caught.

‘So for a year I simply knocked about the Continent, avoiding my fellow countrymen. Once in every two months I received my expenses from one of the Queen’s messengers. A cushy job for me, but a trifle wearing on the nerves.

‘Then in August of ’14, when the lid finally blew off, orders came through for me to return at once to London, and I was given command of the Firedrake, a scouting destroyer attached to Admiral Hood’s battle force on North Sea patrol.’

At this point the Englishman paused and reached across for my newspaper, which he spread flat upon his knees. Then with a pencil he sketched a rough map of the Belgian coast, marking Ostende and Nieuport and the crooked course of the Yser River.

‘Have a look at this,’ he suggested. ‘It may give you a clearer picture of what happened that night.

‘As you remember,’ he pointed with his pencil, ‘ Germany attacked France from three directions, southward through the Vosges, in the centre along the Marne, and a third army under von Kluck smashed through Belgium. Their plan was to converge upon Paris in a series of swift flanking movements. This would compel the French army to switch its centre of mobilization, and in attempting to re-form its lines the French might conceivably be thrown into such confusion and disorder that a gigantic victory, a Sedan on a colossal scale, might be won by the Germans. Paris could be taken later, at their leisure.

‘And they came jolly near to doing it, too! You see, after grabbing Antwerp they pushed along to capture the coast towns, Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne. This would have cut off England’s best line of communication and also turned the Allied flank. That would have finished the war then and there.

‘Meanwhile, they had shoved the little Belgian army almost into the Channel. Retreating clay after day, hammered to pieces by the heavy guns, unable to care for their dead and wounded, the Belgians were at the frayed end of their rope. They were praying for the British to come to their rescue, but Haig was having his own trouble on their right.

‘On the night of the twenty-eighth of October the two armies were within half a mile of each other, with the Belgian left flank ending in the sand dunes of the North Sea at a point a mile below Nieuport. The men were completely done in, standing asleep in their trenches. The Yser, which flowed behind the lines, had swollen with the fall rains until the whole Flanders plain was a waste of bottomless mud.

‘As you can readily see, it was a hopeless situation. King Albert knew that the Germans would attack again at daybreak, though they too were worn out from the long chase across Belgium and had outdistanced their supply trains. Albert knew with grim certainty that his exhausted forces would never be able to withstand the attack,

‘Shortly before midnight on the twenty-eighth, the Belgian King ordered a council of his staff. When the men gathered they could scarcely bring themselves to look into each other’s eyes. None of them believed there was any possible way out. They knew, too, that it would mean the certain end of the war when the Germans broke through, for there would be nothing between them and Paris. If the French dropped back to cover their flank the Crown Prince and von Hindenburg would smash through, throwing the Allied forces into a complete rout.

‘The Belgian officers discussed this problem from every conceivable angle, but could find no satisfactory solution.

Finally a Colonel of Dragoons offered this last desperate suggestion.

‘He proposed that they send a small patrol of picked men down to the beach on their extreme left; attempt there to overcome the German sentries and then to signal to sea, in hopes that some part of the British fleet, cruising in the darkness, would spot the signals and come to their rescue, either by landing men or else by drawing within range so that their heavy guns might bombard the German lines.

‘This suggestion was immediately accepted as a last resort, but with little real hope of its success.

‘Eight men, including two officers, were chosen for the expedition. They traversed the shallow trench until it became lost in the sand dunes, and from there they crept eastward toward the enemy lines, ready with their bayonets for what they hoped would be a short and silent action. The night was pitch-black, with a low storm-sky blotting out the stars. The Belgians were afraid of passing the sentries in the dark, so they spread out to tenyard intervals and moved slowly up the beach.’

III

Here Bradman paused again, this time to pick up the square box resting beside him on the seat. His large powerful fist closed over it until the veins stood out like earthworms in contrast to the bloodless knuckles.

‘They found the sentry?’ I prompted eagerly.

‘Yes, they found him,’ Bradman continued grimly, ‘asleep! A boy of twenty or so, haggard with weariness, seated on a driftwood log, his rifle clutched between his knees. He had taken off his boots to bury his aching feet in the cool sand, and his trousers were rolled up above his knees.

‘One of the officers slugged him with the butt of a revolver. They tied him up with belts and carried him into the dunes, after leaving his spiked helmet with one of their men who stayed at the post and later captured the relief sentry.

‘Then the Belgians searched about until they discovered a spot shielded from sight of the German lines by high sandhills. Here they started a fire with driftwood and oil. After they had it blazing well they threw handfuls of gunpowder upon it at half-minute intervals, making a sort of recurrent-flare beacon.

‘Now this,’ Bradman hesitated and smiled, ‘is where I enter the story.

‘That night of the twenty-eighth the Firedrake and the Myrmidon were passing up the Belgian coast on our way to join the main fleet. Following Beatty’s show in the Bight there was the expectation of a general action in the air, and we were bringing up extra shells, torpedoes, and a few cases of Scotch whiskey. That is, we thought it was Scotch whiskey when we loaded the crates at Plymouth. The boxes were labeled “Cameron Highlander,” the name of a popular brand. But on our first night out one of my men, in checking the stores, discovered that the cases in fact contained uniforms intended for the regiment of 1st Cameron Highlanders, somewhere in France! There were a hundred and eighty complete uniforms, kilts, Glengarries, and all. Oh, there were hundreds of mistakes more ridiculous than that made in those days, and we considered it lucky that the matter was more humorous than tragic.

‘I was on the bridge at about one in the morning of the twenty-ninth when one of our lookouts spotted the fire on shore. I watched the flares for a long while through my night glasses, but as they were not in code I could make neither head nor tail of them. There were no lighthouses along this stretch of coast, nor any town. We thought we knew the approximate extent of the German advance, but none of us believed they had pushed this far.

‘Now we had orders to offer any possible assistance to the land forces, but this was supposed to mean only that our monitors such as the Mersey and the Severn might be called upon. Such private investigations as this were, of course, strictly forbidden. Nevertheless, I found myself developing a most persistent curiosity about this light where no light should be. Call it a hunch if you like. At any rate I ordered the ship dropped to half speed and swung in closer. I watched the flares again, but again could deduce nothing. One thing was obvious, however: someone was signaling to sea.

‘I ordered the Myrmidon to continue at reduced speed along her course, and said that we would pick her up again toward daybreak. Then I dropped anchor, lowered a small launch, and together with a dozen sailors, all of us heavily armed, landed on the coast at a point less than a mile below the light. You see, for all I knew this signal might very well have been a ruse of the Germans, and my suspicions were becoming greater by the minute.

‘We advanced cautiously up the beach until we were within a hundred yards of the fire. Here I split our force and we closed in upon them from three sides. At thirty yards or so I was able to make out the Belgian uniforms and challenged them in French.

‘Jove! You’ve never seen such amazement on any men’s faces in your life! When they saw us walk into the circle of firelight they rushed forward like so many lost children and threw their arms about us, weeping for joy.

‘It must have been fully five minutes before any of them was able to talk coherently, or slowly enough for me to understand. Over and over they kept repeating men, guns, and pointed out to sea. Finally I pulled one of the officers aside and learned something of their desperate situation. In the light from my hand torch the fellow knelt upon the sand and sketched the battle lines. He made clear the strategic position of the enemy, waiting for morning to push through the thin Belgian line. Then he drew a small circle below and to the left. “Paris,” he said simply, and looked up at me.

‘I explained to him that British destroyers of the Firedrake class carried a crew of only a himdred men, and that our light guns had n’t the range necessary for offshore bombardment.

‘ At this bad news the Belgian major fell silent. He stared at me almost reproachfully for a second and then spoke quietly to his men. Exactly what he said I do not know, for he spoke in Flemish, but I could fairly well guess.

‘I looked away, I dare say to avoid the anguish in the poor chap’s eyes, and saw the German sentry lying crumpled on the sand. He had recovered consciousness, but they had gagged him with a muddy puttee and his eyes rolled up at the light as wide with fear and pain as those of a child who has been stuck in a dark closet. In fact he looked very much like a little boy, with his trousers rolled up and his bare legs stretched out on the sand.

‘I stared at his knees for a moment, trying to remember something, and then suddenly I recalled the eight cases of Cameron Highlander uniforms in the hold of the Firedrake! Why not turn them over to the Belgians? A company dressed in the bright Scottish kilts, by risking to display themselves in the early morning light, might alarm the battle-weary troops of von Kluck into thinking that the British had rushed up a picked division in support of the Belgians. It was a long chance, a psychological trick, that might possibly work. Also I could spare them a crate or two of Lewis guns. It was a terrifically long shot at best, but we were in no position to weigh the odds, and we should have to work fast.

‘I rushed back to the major and described my plan. He listened dully at first, like a man in whom all hope is dead, but his head lifted slowly as I talked, and before I had finished he leapt to his feet, clutched my arm and cried: “Yes, yes! It might work. It is at least something!

‘"Then bring up several ambulances or ammunition trucks,” I directed, “as close to the beach as you can get. We can carry the crates to them across the sand.”

‘The Belgian major called to the younger officer, described the plan in a staccato sentence, and sent him hurrying back to their lines with four of the men. Then he ran back with us to the launch, wading into the surf with the sailors to shove us off. I left him my torch to guide us in landing.

‘Back on the ship, I roused out the entire crew to give a hand with the crates of uniforms. We lowered two lifeboats and roped them in tandem behind the launch. Then we ferried the boxes ashore, the whole lot of them. Meanwhile the Belgians had detailed two companies to meet us at the beach and change uniforms there in order to save time. We broke open the crates with bayonets and assembled the complete uniforms in orderly piles on the sand. It was a sight I shall never forget — a hundred and eighty men changing their clothes around that fire, laughing at the bright red and yellow kilts and putting on the caps backwards so that the ribbons fell over their gray, muddied faces. We assembled the Lewis guns and piled them into a truck.

’The job was finished just about an hour before dawm. We put out the fire, tossed the two German sentries into an ambulance, and waited until the last, kilted figure had disappeared into the dunes. Then we hurried back to the Firedrake, hauled the boats aboard, and headed out to sea just as the first faint streaks of morning appeared in the east.

’It had been a damned close thing,’ Bradman mused, rubbing the bowl of his briar against his nose. ‘ Too close for comfort. It’s a tricky piece of coast there off Nieuport, all sand bars and cross-currents. Besides, the tide had gone out on us, and before we cleared the last shoals we heard the first German guns beginning their barrage. The final day of the first battle of Flanders had begun —’

‘When they stopped them by opening the dikes of the Yser.’ I recalled after so many years a headline which had once inflamed a boy’s mind.

The Englishman nodded. ‘That’s how they have put it into the history books, no doubt. But it was really the kilts that did it — they and a few machine guns.

‘The Belgian machine-gunners piled the enemy three-deep as they came across the marshes. Thousands were drowned in the rivers and canals. Next to Verdun and Gallipoli, it was probably the ghastliest slaughter of the war. All day it went on like that, with wave aft er wave of the enemy melting away, the men dropping out of sight beneath the water as they fell. Once or twice the gunners held their fire until the Germans were near enough to see the British uniforms.

‘By late afternoon the marshes were literally paved with dead, and still the enemy floundered in their company-front formations. But the heart had gone out of the attack when they saw that they were confronted by what they believed to be fresh troops in the uniforms of a crack Scottish regiment. At last, just before dark, the Belgians opened the lower dikes of the Yser, and the battle was over. From that hour until the end of the war the Germans never came a foot farther through Flanders, and the Allies’ left flank was saved.’

IV

Bradman smiled and spread his hands palms upward upon his knees as if the story had ended.

‘But Good Lord, man,’I exclaimed, ‘go on!’

He shrugged and looked away. ‘What more is there to tell? I never knew the outcome of it myself until many years later. Then it was too late.’

‘How do you mean — too late?’

‘When I reported to the fleet with the crates missing there was the devil to pay. The mistake about loading uniforms was put down as a deliberate scheme on my part. The Admiral’s staff thought I had turned the stuff over to the Germans. They clapped me in irons and sent me back to England under arrest for treason. Even the sailors who had landed with me on the beach admitted at my court-martial at Hull that the men to whom we had given the Scottish uniforms might possibly have been Germans. A telegram was sent off to the Belgian Headquarters, but for some reason in the confusion there was never any answer. This was proof enough for my judges; and while they could actually prove nothing, neither could I. They stripped me of my command and rank and handed me over to a prison camp for the duration of the war.’

‘ You never told anyone about this ? ’ I asked, incredulously. ‘No one ever knew?’

‘Yes, there was someone else who knew,’ he replied. ‘One man, the only man who ever believed me,’— and the friendly smile crept back into his eyes, — ‘unless you do.’

Bradman turned back a cuff to glance at his watch, and then peered out at the fog-dimmed lights of a town.

The Express clattered over the points of a siding and passed the station at unchecked speed, the lights soon dropping away in the distance.

‘I don’t know why I should care a linker’s damn whether you believe me or not,’ he remarked, ‘but I do, oddly enough. Perhaps you have wondered why I fasten on you, an absolute stranger, to tell this to, but you may find some explanation in the end of my story. I say, how much time have we left ?’

‘That was Louvain we just passed,’ I replied. ‘We’ve a good quarter hour yet.’

‘At any rate I shan’t be long,’ he continued, slipping the cord which bound the square package in his lap.

‘After the Armistice I had to get out of England. I changed my name and crossed over to Canada. But my story, or rather their story about me, somehow always caught up with me. Ottawa, Vancouver, Melbourne, Freemantle, even far back in the Australian bush country, sooner or later some ex-navy man would turn up who recognized me and I would have to move on.

‘Then three years ago, when I was returning to Europe on a freighter from Matadi, it suddenly occurred to me, while we were passing that same bit of coast where I had taken the Firedrake, that it had been just ten years ago, almost to the day, since my expensive little party on the beach. I can’t explain it, but I had a feeling of overpowering curiosity to go back there and see the place again. ‘’The criminal returning to the scene of his crime,” I dare say. Whatever it was, I went.

‘ We docked at Antwerp on the morning of the twenty-ninth and by evening I was in Nieuport. I put up at the village hotel, where there was but one other guest, a quiet German, a bit younger than myself. His name was Bechtel — Gunnar Bechtel. We met at dinner, the proprietor of the hotel, his wife, Bechtel, and I sitting all together at the same table.

‘ We were a long time over the meal and it must have been close to midnight before the proprietor and his wife left for bed. Bechtel and I sat on for a while to finish the wine. Then he arose, bowed his apologies, and withdrew — also, as I imagined, to bed.

‘ I finished my pipe, then wandered out into the hall, unlatched the front door, and strolled along the cobbled streets toward the sea. There was enough of a moon to guide me through the dunes and soon I was on the beach. I faced west, remembering how the village had been above us to the east on that other night, and walked slowly along the hard sand, thinking of all that had happened in the years since.

‘Suddenly from the corner of my eye I caught sight of a man seated upon a log. It gave me quite a start. Just as I was about to walk on, my eyes still guardedly upon him, I recognized that it was Bechtel, my fellow lodger at the hotel. I laughed and called out to him in relief.

‘ We sat there for quite a time, smoking and talking, and finally he asked me in his politely abrupt way what might have brought me to Nieuport in October.

‘I told him this story, exactly as I have told it to you. I remember when I had finished I felt a bit embarrassed, as if I had talked too much; so I wound up by saying half jokingly, “So you see, Herr Bechtel, I am the original man who won the war,” and then stood up to go.

‘The German rose too, and laid his hand gently on my arm. “Do you know who I am, my friend ? ” he asked me quietly.

‘I shook my head.

‘“I am the man who lost the war,” he replied, looking me squarely in the eyes. “I am the sentry they found asleep.”

‘It was true. Bechtel was the lad they had caught napping that night, whose bare muddy knees had given me the idea of the kilts.

‘For ten years his “sin,” as he called it, had been gnawing at his conscience, driving him nearly mad; and he had hoped in his simple peasant way that by returning to the scene of his disgrace he might conquer the feeling. Since the end of the war he had watched all the horrors of revolution, the starvation of his people, the acres of war dead, the millions of widows and orphans, and he had seen all these things as his monstrous crime against the Fatherland. For Bechtel knew clearly, just as I knew, that if only he had been awake that night the battle of Flanders would have been quite another story, and the German army would unquestionably have been in Paris by Christmas.

‘We stood there on that strip of sand in the moonlight, looking at each other, “the man who won the war” and “the man who lost it.” There was nothing to say, nothing at all. We turned and walked slowly back along the beach, I suppose the two loneliest men on earth. . . .‘

The Englishman spoke in a voice scarcely above a whisper, as a man talks to himself. His eyes returned from the window to the square box and an expression of infinite weariness settled over his features.

In the early morning the Waterloo Road was dark but for the lanterns swinging at the crossings, dim and misty in the rain; and the squat black barges of the Willebroeck Canal were huddled like beetles for comfort from the cold. Far away the lights of Brussels flickered through a leafless grove.

‘Where is he now? Have you seen him since?’ I asked, moved by curiosity as well as by a desire to say something kind.

‘No,’ replied Bradman. ‘I never saw him afterwards. Once each year we wrote. He worked in an iron foundry near Dortmund. A week ago he wrote to me from a hospital there, saying that there was something he wanted me to do for him. There’ll be a little dirt in a box, he wrote, and he asked me to bury it for him on the beach near Nieuport.

‘That is where I am going now,’ said Bradman, ‘and this is the box.’

Tenderly he removed the brown paper from the package on his knees, disclosing a small stone urn. He held it so that I might read the simple inscription : GUNNAR BECHTEL.