Having helped to wash up - the young surgeons fell into queue before the washtubs - I went out into the courtyard again. Horses were stabled there, guarded by a man who read a book by the rays of an old lantern, which was a little oasis of light in this desert of darkness. The horses were listening. Every now and then they jerked their heads up in a frightened way. From a few miles away came the boom of great guns, and the black sky quivered with tremulous bars of light as shell after shell burst somewhere over the heads of men waiting for death. With one of the doctors, two of the nurses, and a man who led the way, I climbed up to a high room in the convent roof. Through a dormer window we looked out across the flat country beyond Furnes and saw, a few miles away, the lines of battle. Some village was burning there, a steady torch under a heavy cloud of smoke made rosy and beautiful as a great flower over the scarlet flames. Shells were bursting with bouquets of light and then scattered stars into the sky. Short, sharp stabs revealed a Belgian battery, and very clearly we could hear the roll of field guns, followed by enormous concussions of heavy artillery.
"There will be work to do to-morrow !" said one of the nurses. Work came before it was expected in the morning Quite early some Belgian ambulances came up to the great gate of the convent loaded with wounded. A few beds were made ready for them and they were brought in by the stretcher-bearers and dressers. Some of them could stagger in alone, with the help of a strong arm, but others were at the point of death as they lay rigid on their stretchers, wet with blood. For the first time I felt the weight of a man who lies unconscious, and strained my stomach as I helped to carry these poor Belgian soldiers. And for the first time I had round my neck the arm of a man who finds each footstep a torturing effort, and who after a pace or two halts and groans, and loses the strength of his legs, so that all his weight hangs upon that clinging arm. Several times I nearly let these soldiers fall, so great was the burden weighing down my shoulders. It was only by a kind of prayer that I could hold them up and guide them to the great room where stretchers were laid out for lack of beds.
At last, after many discussions and many halts, we received our orders. We were asked to get into the town of Dixmude, where there were many wounded.
I think I may say that none of us quite guessed what was in store for us. At least I did not guess that we had been asked to go into the open mouth of Death. I had only a vague idea that Dixmude would be just a little worse than the place at which we now halted for final instructions as to the geography of the town.
We took it, bumping over the high débris, and then swept round into the square. It was a spacious place, with the Town Hall at one side of it, or what was left of the Town Hall. There was only the splendid shell of it left, sufficient for us to see the skeleton of a noble building which had once been the pride of Flemish craftsmen. Even as we turned towards it parts of it were falling upon the ruins already on the ground. I saw a great pillar lean forward and then topple down. A mass of masonry crashed down from the portico. Some still, dark forms lay among the fallen stones. They were dead soldiers. I hardly glanced at them, for we were in search of living men. The cars were brought to a halt outside the building and we all climbed down. I lighted a cigarette, and I noticed two of the other men fumble for matches for the same purpose. We wanted something to steady us.
Nobody answered the question. The wounded men with us were very quiet. I thought they were dead. There was only the incessant cannonade and the crashing of buildings. Mitrailleuses were at work now spitting out bullets. It was a worse sound than the shells. It seemed more deadly in its rattle. I stared back behind the car and saw the other ambulance in our wake. I did not see the motor-car. Along the country road the fields were still being ploughed by shell, which burst over our heads. We came to a halt again at the place where the soldiers were crouched under the cottage walls. There were few walls now, and inside some of the remaining cottages many wounded men. Their own comrades were giving them first aid, and wiping the blood out of their eyes. We managed to take some of these on board. They were less quiet than the others we had, and groaned in a heartrending way.
At the gate of the convent were some Belgian ambulances which had come from another part of the front with their wounded. I helped to carry one of them in, and strained my shoulders with the weight of the stretcher. Another wounded man put his arm round my neck, and then, with a dreadful cry, collapsed, so that I had to hold him in a strong grip. A third man, horribly smashed about the head, walked almost unaided into the operating-room. Gleeson and I led him. with just a touch on his arm. Next morning he lay dead on a little pile of straw in a quiet corner of the courtyard.
It was hardly less than that. For several hours after our departure from Dixinude he had remained in that inferno. He had missed us when he went down into the cellars to haul out another wounded man, forgetting that he had given us the order to start. There he had remained with the buildings crashing all around him until the. enemy's fire had died down a little. He succeeded in rescuing his wounded, for whom he found room in a Belgian ambulance outside the town, and walked back along the road to Furnes. So we gripped his hands and were thankful for his escape.
But there was no time for conversation about war and the effects of war upon the souls of men. The German guns were beginning to speak again, and unless we made haste we might not rescue the wounded men.
One of the soldiers pointed to a house which had a tavern sign above it.
"They've been taken inside." he said. " I helped to carry them." We dodged the litter in the roadway, where, to my amazement, two old ladies were searching in the rubbish-heaps for the relies of their houses. They had stayed in Dixmude during this terrible bombardment, hidden in some cellar, and now had emerged, in their respectable black gowns, to see what damage had been done. They seemed to be looking for something in particular - some little object not easy to find among these heaps of calcined stones and twisted bars of iron. One old woman shook her head sadly as though to say, "Dear me, I can't see it anywhere." I wondered if they were looking for some family photograph or for some child's cinders. It might have been one or the other, for many of these Belgian peasants had reached a point of tragedy when death is of no more importance than any trivial loss. The earth and sky had opened, swallowing up all their little world in a devilish destruction. They had lost the proportions of everyday life in the madness of things.
1 helped to pack up one of the ambulances and went back to Furnes sitting next to the driver, but twisted round so that I could hold one of the stretcher poles which wanted to jolt out of its strap so that the man lying with a dead weight on the canvas would come down with a smash upon the body of the man beneath.
Not so quickly. But when we came out of the burnt streets towards the level crossing of the railway it seemed best to go quickly. Shells were falling in the fields quite close to us. One of them dug a deep hole in the road twenty yards ,ahead of us. Another burst close behind. Instinctively I yearned for speed. I wanted to rush along that road and get beyond the range of fire. But the driver in the blue jersey, hearing that awful cry behind him, slowed down and crawled along.
He went slower still, at a funeral pace, and looking back into the ambulance said " Ca y est, mon vieux. . . . Bon courage
Afterwards, this very gallant gentleman was wounded himself, and lay in one of the ambulances which he had often led towards adventure, with a jagged piece of steel in his leg, and two bones rasping together at every jolt. But when he was lifted up, he stifled a groan and gave his old cheerful cry of "Ca y est !”
The Belgians were still holding their last remaining ground-it did not amount to more than a few fields and villages between the French frontier and Dixmude - with a gallant resistance which belongs without question to the heroic things of history. During these late days in October, still fighting almost alone, for there were. no British soldiers to help them and only a few French batteries with two regiments of French marines, they regained some of their soil and beat back the enemy from positions to which it had advanced. In spite of the most formidable attacks made by the German troops along the coastline between Westende and Ostende, and in a crescent sweeping round Dixmude for about thirty kilometres, those Belgian soldiers, tired out by months of fighting with decimated regiments and with but the poor remnant of a disorganized army, not only stood firm, but inflicted heavy losses upon the enemy and captured four hundred prisoners. For a few hours the Germans succeeded in crossing the Yser, threatening a general advance upon the Belgian line. Before Nieuport their trenches were only fifty metres away from those of the Belgians, and on the night of October 22 they charged eight times with the bayonet in order to force their way through.
Then would follow a silence or a whispering of stretcher-bearers, telling their adventures to a girl in khaki breeches, standing with one hand in her jacket pocket, and with the little flare of a cigarette glowing upon her cheek and hair.
"Hot ? . I should think it was ! But we picked the men up and crossed the bridge all right. . . . The shells were falling on every side of us. . . . I was pretty scared, you bet. . . . It's a bit too thick, you know ! "
"Je ne veux pas mourir I " said one of them. "O ma pauvre femme I Je ne veux pas mourir.”
I thought over these words as I put my hands under the warm body and helped to lift its weight on to the stretcher. Yes, some of the shell wounds were rather big. One could hardly sew a man together again with bits of cotton. . . . It was only afterwards, when I had helped to put the stretcher in a separate room on the other side of the courtyard, that a curious trembling took possession of me for a moment. . . . The horror of it all I . . . Were the virtues which were supposed to come from war, "the binding strength of nations," "the cleansing of corruption," all the falsities of men who make excuses for this monstrous crime, worth the price that was being paid in pain and tears and death ? It is only the people who sit at home who write these things. When one is in the midst of war false heroics are blown out of one's soul by all its din and tumult of human agony. One learns that courage itself exists, in most cases, as the pride in the heart of men very much afraid - a pride which makes them hide their fear. They do not become more virtuous in war, but only reveal the virtue that is in them. The most heroic courage which came into the courtyard at Furnes was not that of the stretcher-bearers who went out under fire, but that of the doctors and nurses who tended the wounded, toiling ceaselessly in the muck of blood, amidst all those sights and sounds. My spirit bowed before them as I watched them at work. I was proud if I could carry soup to any of them when they came into the refectory for a hurried meal, or if I could wash a plate clean so that they might fill it with a piece of meat from the kitchen stew. I would have cleaned their boots for them if it had been worth while cleaning boots to tramp the filthy yard.
He told me that he had never seen such wounds or imagined them, and as for the conditions in which he worked -he raised his hands and laughed at the awfulness of them, because it is best to laugh when there is no remedy. There was a scarcity of dressings, of instruments, of sterilizers. The place was so crowded that there was hardly room to turn, and wounded men poured in so fast that it was nothing but hacking and sewing.
The wooden gates opened to let in another ambulance full of Belgian wounded, and the young surgeon nodded to me with a smile.
And yet there was laughter in the convent where so many men lay wounded. It was only by gaiety and the quick capture of any jest that those doctors and nurses and ambulance girls could keep their nerves steady. So in the refectory, when they sat down for a meal, there was an endless fire of raillery, and the blue-eyed boy with the blond hair used to crow like Peter Pan and speak a wonderful mixture of French and English, and play the jester gallantly. There would be processions of plate-bearers to the kitchen next door, where a splendid Englishwoman - one of those fine square-faced, brown-eyed, cheerful souls - had been toiling all day in the heat of oven and stoves to cook enough food for fifty-five hungry people who could not wait for their meals. There was a scramble between two doctors for the last potatoes, and a duel between one of them and myself in the slicing up of roast beef or boiled mutton, and amorous advances to the lady cook for a tit-bit in the baking-pan. There never was such - kitchen, and a County Council inspector would have reported on it in lurid terms. The sink was used as a wash-place by surgeons, chauffeurs, and stretcher-bearers. Nurses would come through with bloody rags from the ward, which was only an open door away. Lightly wounded men, covered with Yser mud, would sit at a side table, eating the remnants of other people's meals. Above the sizzling of sausages and the clatter of plates one could hear the moaning of the wounded and the incessant monologue of the fever-stricken. And yet it is curious I look back upon that convent kitchen as a place of gaiety, holding many memories of comradeship, and as a little sanctuary from the misery of war. I was a scullion in it, at odd hours of the day and night when I was not following the ambulance wagons to the field, or helping to clean the courtyard or doing queer little jobs which some one had to do. "I want you to dig a hole and help me to bury an arm," said one of the nurses. " Do you mind? "
For some time, as I paced up and down the promenade, there was no answer to the mighty voices of the naval guns firing from some British warships lying along the coast.
"Who are you ?"' I asked. There seemed something uncanny in this little figure coming out of the wild night.
I gave him an outline of the affair which had caused the Belgian headquarters staff to shift from Furnes, and though it was, I fancy, slightly over-coloured, he was very much obliged. So, gloriously, I drove back to the beer-tavern with the fifty-five army rations which were enough to feed fifty-five starving people for a week, and was received with cheers. That night, conscious of good deeds, I laid down in the straw of a school-house which had been turned into a barracks, and by the light of several candle-ends, scribbled a long dispatch, which became a very short one when the British censor had worked his will with it.