An American’s Impressions of the War Zone

By Edward A. Filene

[The Outlook, January 20, 1915]

Mr. Filene went to Europe last summer as Vice-president of the International Chambers of Commerce, and was there when the war broke out. He was to arrange for a system of arbitrating commercial disputes between the nations represented in the International Chamber of Commerce movement. This commercial arbitration plan was agreed upon by a thousand delegates who met in Paris in June under the auspices of the French Government, the delegates including men of importance from the various nations, such as the President of the German Reichstag. As Mr. Filene was in Europe when the war broke out, he was determined to take that opportunity to see for himself, if possible, the actual effect of warfare on the people involved. The notes he made, only part of which are here included, represent his impressions jotted down in moving automobiles, on railway trains, in out-of-the-way inns, and actually, in some instances, on the battlefield immediately following the fight. THE EDITORS.

Left at 3:40 with auto; followed a military auto to Aix-la-Chapelle; uneventful trip; at Enpert, on the Belgian border, stopped by sentry in the middle of the road; showed our passes. At Vieserone came the first short, sharp "Halt!" as our auto did not stop quickly enough. Verviers is apparently unchanged, although in some small villages before we reached it many of the houses were in ruins. Verviers lay stretched along a great length; there were many people in the streets; it was apparently a manufacturing town. On the outskirts of the town our chauffeur suddenly informed us that his lights were not working, and that we had better stay in Verviers overnight. But two officers' wives had induced us to offer them' a place by their story that they were seeking their husbands in Brussels, as they had telegraphed that they would be there within two days. These eager young wives clamored to go on, and so, after further consultation with the chauffeur, I decided to do so, although with 'some hesitation. I felt a bit doubtful of the wisdom of going on, as there are numerous stories of people in autos being shot by sentries jumping up suddenly in front, there not being time to stop quickly enough. However, although we were very often challenged and stopped from Verviers on—perhaps eight or ten times—yet in all the dark places the sentries had lanterns, which they swung as a signal to stop. We asked the password of one of the sentries who had examined our papers, and with that password we managed to pass one sentry without showing our papers.

However, the examination by each sentry was very superficial and seemed to consist mostly in examining the seal. From Verviers on we passed villages the houses of which were either entirety or for the most part destroyed, although we also passed some which were unharmed, showing that the Germans made a distinction and did not destroy simply in order to destroy. In almost all cases, the destruction of each house was very complete, only the walls remaining. In one village we did not see a single inhabitant left. At one place on the road I had to get out with my pocket electric light, and found the main road barricaded with barbed wire. The tangles were most effective, stakes having been driven firmly in a maze fashion and the wire fastened in a way most difficult to remove and more difficult or impossible to surmount in a combat. Here we had to take a by-road which led around one of the outer forts of Liège, then on to the main road and finally into Liège. Here we were again, halted a number of times in quick succession by sentries. We found quarters in the Hotel Couronne, a third-rate lodging-house, but apparently moderately clean, with running water. We had to go out to the Grand Hotel for dinner; there we found many German officers. There is no doubt about the military occupation of this city. Sentries are at the street corners and before the important buildings, cannon ready to be used at points of advantage, and the patrols are accompanied by Belgian policemen, so that if any attempt is made to shoot the patrol there will be danger for the policemen. All the inhabitants must be in their houses at 8 P.M., and we were challenged and obliged to show our papers when we came from dinner at 10 P.M. Liège, October 15, 1914.

The morning sun is shining on the white flag on the opposite house, on a woman's face gazing through a curtain, on the three sentinels below at the street corner; and, on the bank of the river opposite, the dog teams are carrying in vegetables. A dog team passes with a sick woman wrapped in a blanket and a little child. We breakfast while the hotel-keeper tells us his story and of his neighbors shot without cause, he firmly believes, on the place in front of the University. He thinks the trouble commenced with German soldiers who had got into a wine-cellar during the day and drank too much. Personally I have never seen a drunken German soldier during my stay in Europe since the war began. Later on a Belgian, although he, too, was full of bitter resentment against the Germans, told me that he had heard, and personally believed it to be true, that some of the Russian students of the University had fired on the Germans. We saw about fifty houses destroyed.

Liège to Brussels, October 15, 1914.

10:30. Stopped by sentries five times already. Little village church tower is shot away—no other damage visible. Long trains of wagons convoyed by soldiers —new intrenchments being built outside of Liège, also wire entanglements. We were refused permission to visit the Liège forts, as they were being rebuilt.

11:25. St. Trond: about fifteen thousand inhabitants. We were stopped and had to get our passes stamped at the headquarters. A few houses destroyed on the outskirts. Just stopped again by sentry. Am getting accustomed to them and talking to them. This sentry said that his company lost five killed and sixteen wounded by franc-tireurs (civilians) near Liège. "Poor things," he said; "they think they die for their country just as we do, but—"

12. Small village outside of Tirlemont literally gutted.

12:20. Tirlemont: interesting; large square cathedral; saw about six houses destroyed. Stopped three hours by sentries and had passes stamped. Bavarian soldier said: ("Beer is dear. We make three pfennigs changing a mark for one and a quarter francs, by military orders. German time replaces Belgian."

12:30. Small villages almost entirely destroyed everywhere though some houses are unharmed. Another village with very few houses destroyed—road barricaded; another sentry stop. Apparently no work except on the fields all along the route.

Brussels, October 15, 1914.

Arrived shortly after 4 P.M., after having passed through Louvain this noon and staying there about two hours. This is the town that has been so constantly cited as evidence of what the Germans have done. I found the center of the town practically destroyed; nearly every house there was gutted, including the fine university library and the cathedral. The latter, however, was not entirely destroyed inside, and workmen were cleaning up the debris. The roof was still there, although it had many solid shot or shrapnel holes. The magnificent Hotel de Ville was apparently unharmed. The Germans say that by actual count only ten per cent of the buildings of the town are destroyed; but while we saw that the workmen's quarter and the university and its surroundings were not destroyed, yet it seemed to me that almost all of the important buildings were gone. The Germans report that the inhabitants murdered nearly two hundred soldiers of the garrison by a preconceived plot, and were, of course, punished. The inhabitants I talked with deny this strongly, although they seem to be thoroughly cowed. The whole impression of the place and other "punished" places along the route was disheartening; yet we met everywhere small groups of natives with bundles of all descriptions trudging back to their former homes.

Brussels, October 16, 1914.

There are no taxis, only a very few cabs. Only one paper appears—a single sheet which the Brussels people say is published by the Germans. "Bread is scarce, a woman told me. She could buy none this morning. All the autos are used by German officers—no private autos are seen. The crowds wander up and down the streets and are kept off the big square at night (in front of the station and Palace Hotel) by the police. Troops of German infantry, artillery, etc., pass. The policemen are still Belgians. This hotel, the Palace, has few, if any quests, except Germans, mostly officers. Coal is scarce—petroleum scarcer; salt also is scarce, I am told. Factories, etc., are not working, lacking raw material, transportation, etc.

Said a Belgian of international fame:

We have been living here in constant terror of our city being destroyed. The Germans have threatened to hold the whole city responsible for the deeds of one or two madmen. The nervous strain is enormous. Since the fall of Antwerp it is better; the Germans now have all Belgium, and some of the danger is less. What Brussels has suffered, not only from a material point; but from a moral point of view, is indescribable: no telephone, no telegraph, no letters, no security from spies, no certainty, even that our homes were safe—no more law-—no possible way of justice by the regular courts. The spirit of the population is splendid—we are all closest friends, we Belgians. The King nominated Vandervelde to be Minister of State at the beginning of the war. He is the leading Socialist, but the people rejoiced. Bread is scarce. The city government fixes the price of bread at 32 centimes a pound, and usually the bakers fix the amount each man may have at 2 1/5 pounds (1 kilogram) and the city government makes up any loss to the bakers. Coal is $10 a ton.

Brussels, October 17, 1914.

Said a leading Belgian to me:

Burgomaster Max met the German troops at the gate. The first German officer said to him:

"Was wollen sie?"

Max answered: "Je ne comprends pas l'Allemand."

The officer then said: "Que desirez-vous?"

Max said: "I want to telegraph your Kaiser, who was the guest of Brussels, and I am sure he will order that the German troops do not march through."

An interview was arranged, and when the Commander of the Army Corps came he stretched out his hand to Max, who refused it, saying, "I cannot take the hand of the enemy of my country." Finally the General said, "I shall sleep in the City Hall."

Max said: "There are plenty of hotels where you can sleep better."

The General said: "I shall sleep here and want six beds brought here."

"Well," said Max, "if you insist, then there will be seven beds, for I shall sleep here also."

In the night a German came to his room, demanding the key of the Gothic room, and Max said:

"I am not the porter, that you should come to me for a key. But I assure you that I am the only Belgian in the City Hall, and my door will remain unlocked."

Max put out placards later denying explicitly and formally what the Germans had posted he had said. The letter-carriers refused to carry any letters after the Germans had taken possession of the post-office.

The hygienic position of our population has never been so good. The working people have had no alcohol since the Germans came, and whole classes who have been overworked have at last had a rest long enough to recuperate. Strikes have been greatly used in Belgium as a protest. They say, "If we are not free we will not work," and the cessation of work in Belgium is in part due to this point of view. Since Antwerp has been taken the people, or at least the leaders, feel that the support of the Belgian army by the people, refusing to work is no longer good. Now they are beginning to think of resuming. The question is how. Metallurgy is the principal industry—machines, etc,—and eighty-five per cent is exported. But all the iron ore must be imported. The sentimental protest is finished and was successful, for it finally really united the Walloon (German) population (Namur, Liège, etc.), with the Flemish (French) population (Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, Malines). Brussels represents both as the capital. We are sure that our nationality is certain for the future. We have suffered together; Germany cannot annex Belgium except superficially. The people are not cowed, are not afraid. Now we will agitate for the moral support of the neutral countries.

We are trying to make sure that—

1. There shall be no admiration for German military deeds. "You shall perhaps win victories, but never glory, after what you have done in Belgium," is what the Belgians say to the Germans.

2. To make the other nations understand that the destruction of Belgium as a nation means the destruction of all small nations. If we are to continue as a nation, what is to be the guarantee of it unless all the nations consider making an international law and an international constitution?

Brussels, October 20, 1914.

The last three days have passed most quickly. They have been filled with conferences with Belgian bankers, business men, scientists, and officials. I have been presenting to all these a plan for meeting the serious dangers that are looming up before all Belgium, and especially Brussels. The country is threatened with famine. Much of the country's food has been destroyed or taken in the war, and, as Belgium has always been obliged to import much of its food, there is a great shortage. Add to this that there are no means of transportation that are not controlled by the Germans in Belgium or by the English on the seas, that the country has no gold left, and no goods to exchange for food, and it is apparent that the situation is difficult beyond words. Moreover, practically all work has ceased throughout the country. There were reasons for this in the destruction caused by the war, and because there is no postal, telegraph, or telephone service available to the public; but, beyond these reasons, the Belgians have often used the general strike to express their dissatisfaction, and now they have been using it—refusing to work—as a means of protest against the Germans, their protest by force of arms having been overcome.

All these things have made a great lack of food supplies, and the ablest and wisest believe that a great famine is threatened. I found that the only work being done to meet the coming famine and the present misery was organized along charity lines. My task has been to try to make clear to the leading men that to depend on charity here or from other nations to feed seven million people until the next harvest was hopeless, and that a loan must be procured in England and the United States of a billion francs. Also that this loan, in order that its bonds should be salable, must be guaranteed safely, but by novel ways, as the national Government was out of Belgium and the country crippled by the Germans. I laid out a scheme by which this can be legally and safely done, and also a tentative plan for the resumption of work, the securing of the German and English guarantees of transportation, inviolability, etc., of food and raw material, and these plans are now being considered by the various groups and committees of leading Belgians who represent the only government that Belgium has, except municipal government. This is a far more dangerous situation than the Paris one was. For if famine comes there is the greatest danger that men made desperate by their own hunger and that of their wives and babies will do hopeless, reckless things against the Germans, who will in turn punish them as they have other Belgian cities and towns. The Germans, I feel sure, do not want to destroy Brussels or any other Belgian cities or villages. But, on the other hand, they undoubtedly feel that they cannot allow the slightest danger that is avoidable to come to their lines of communication in Belgium, and they will punish any attempt against their interests with punishment so severe that fear will prevent any repetition.

Brussels, October 21, 1914.

Have just returned from Antwerp. The American Minister (Brand Whitlock) sent me with the Legation auto, as I was carrying despatches for him. It was a depressing journey. There had been fighting all along the main road we took from Brussels to Antwerp, and the results were sickening in some of the villages —houses, churches, factories, etc., being destroyed in great numbers. The destruction was of different kinds. Some of the buildings were destroyed by solid shot, others by shrapnel, others by fire, and others, which had stood in the way of the artillery, had evidently been razed level to the ground before the battle. In some of the villages many houses stood apparently unharmed. Many of these had white flags still hanging out, but in many of the unharmed houses the doors were smashed in. In Malines the great cathedral was burned, but the greater part of the walls were still standing, showing the effects of the cannonading in many places. A great many of the surrounding houses were destroyed.

In Antwerp we were told that something over twelve hundred shells had been thrown into the city and one thousand houses destroyed. I saw nothing that approached this number of ruins. On the contrary, the city seemed almost intact, with one or two houses every few blocks destroyed by shells. I was told that the number of killed was estimated at anywhere from twenty to sixty people. The bombardment commenced on Wednesday, October 14, and continued Thursday and Friday. My informant, a man holding an official position, told me that he and others had strongly urged the hopelessness of trying to defend the city against bombardment after the outer forts had been captured, and said that he understood and believed that the Belgian King had advised against doing so, but that Churchill had arrived from England and had promised strong English aid if the city could hold out a few days until its arrival. However, sufficient aid did not come in time, nor the heavy English guns, and after the English had lost very heavily and had been slaughtered at the outer fort at Waelhem, they, the English, and the rest of the garrison troops withdrew and the city was surrendered by civilians—that is, by the Mayor and civilians, the Spanish Consul accompanying them.

I got an intimate view of a battlefield, as we saw long lines of intrenchments, some shallow, some deeper, with places for living or dying dug out in the sides. There were many destroyed bridges, and hundreds of trees had been cut down that formerly shaded the main road, an in places whole groves of trees that had apparently interfered with the line of artillery or infantry firing. At the inner defenses barbed-wire entanglements had been erected, and pointed stakes in great numbers, to stop cavalry charges, had been put down. The most pitiful sights were the crowds waiting to get food from the Red Cross in Antwerp, and the great numbers of peasants and workpeople we met on the road returning to their deserted and often ruined homes. Some were on foot, mostly in family groups, young and old women and the children; usually one man and several women and many children in each group. Many of the groups were in horse and donkey and dog carts. The dogs are more commonly used as beasts of burden, and, as a rule, these carts, farm wagons mostly, were filled with household goods, and the old women and children piled on top of the goods.

There seems to be a still greater bitterness and resentment against the Germans in Antwerp than in Brussels, from what I heard and saw in a visit too short to form really valuable judgments. The general bearing of the Germans, however, seemed to me to be firm but conciliatory, in so far as they were trying to make the return home of the peasants possible, and as easy as possible under the conditions prevailing. I was told that the German general told the civilian deputation that came to surrender Antwerp that the Germans were not fond of shooting at civilians, and that to compel them needlessly to bombard Antwerp was a folly on the part of the Belgians.

Brussels, October 22, 1914.

The Germans have posted notices allowing more free intercommunication, and, I believe, are anxious that work shall be resumed and the threatening famine averted. They know, I believe, that if the country goes through a famine this winter arid spring, suffering much from the scarcity of fuel, there will be danger added to danger, and the difficulty of their task of holding Belgium, which is their line of communication with their army and their base of supplies, will be greatly increased. So they are probably willing and anxious to do all they can, but their military necessities limit them in part, and the attitude of the Belgians also.

The outlook here is therefore most threatening for all concerned The people, besides being out of work, are deprived of almost all the usual methods of filling in their time. There are no theaters or concerts, and none of the Brussels newspapers appear since the Germans entered. The Germans have not suppressed them; on the contrary, they have tried to have them published. But the Belgians believe that it is against their interest to have them appear, eager as they are to have some news daily. For, they say, no paper could publish anything except what the German censors would allow, and that would mean things favorable to the German cause. This would have greater influence with the people if published by Belgian papers that people were accustomed to trust. Two papers, each of only one page, do appear daily in French, but the Belgians say that they are German papers created since the occupation and not their papers. The "Kölnische Zeitung" is received here daily and is the most read, but of course the masses of the people cannot read it, as it is printed in German. A Holland paper is also sold, but, as I cannot read it, I can have no opinion of its contents. Occasionally copies of English papers are smuggled in. I know of eight dollars being paid for a copy of the "Times," and I was told as high as forty dollars is paid for a copy. It is a criminal offense to sell it or to bring it in.

Brussels, October 25, 1914.

11 P.M. Have just come from dining with the American Minister. I accompanied Madame Carton de Wiart, the wife of the Belgian Cabinet Minister of Justice, home, as she had come alone, having no longer horses or an auto at her disposal. The American Minister could not send us home in his auto, as he had no gasoline. That is very scarce, and the German authorities, who have practically all there is, allow him only a small quantity each day. It was raining and the effect was weird getting through the almost dark streets. Coal is very scarce and gas is saved. We were continually challenged by sentries out of the gloom, as this quarter is closed to every one without a pass. Madame Carton de Wiart lives in the Palace of the Minister of Justice, her former home, as she refused to take herself and her six children away from the dangers of Belgium because she thought she had no right to escape the suffering the masses of Belgians must undergo, and she did not want her children to come back, after a year or two of exile under pleasant conditions in England, and grow up without knowing what the people have suffered from the horrors of war. Therefore, as the Germans are quartered in the Palace, she is living under exceptional conditions. She told a very touching story of the funeral of the son of a prominent Belgian who was killed in a battle in a town between Brussels and Antwerp. The funeral was held without notice to friends or relatives (although he was buried in his home city, Brussels), and with only three members of the family walking behind the casket, because the family felt that, at a time when such great numbers of Belgians were either being buried in nameless graves or with the cheapest funerals, they ought to make the least possible contrast with the common lot, however able they were to do so. This young soldier's body was dug out of the ruins of a house. He was still grasping his rifle, and his note-book was found on him. He and his comrades had held a forlorn hope at a bridge until orders came to retreat. Whereupon he and a few of the comrades remained fighting from house to house, and meeting the inevitable death. I wish I could reproduce from memory the exact words of these last notes and the father's letter with its mixture of unspeakable sorrow and unspeakable pride. This is a real nation, capable of the greatest sacrifices for its country.

Brussels to The Hague.
October 28, 1914.

8:30 A.M. Just leaving for Holland. I am writing this in an automobile. I would like to have a picture of the situation. In the auto, besides myself (it is a rather small covered auto, with one back seat and two folding seats), are a grandmother and baby, a stylishly dressed attaché of the Spanish Embassy, a big bag of mail, three suit-cases, three bags, and a lot of packages, including milk bottles, etc., for a nine-months-old baby. But I am very glad to get the chance to go along, as otherwise I might have to wait an indefinite time, for yesterday morning orders were given stopping all automobiles except those that obtain a special exemption. This auto runs between Holland and Brussels for the Dutch and United States Legation, and so was able to get through, although we have had some trouble and had to go to the military headquarters at Malines, We rode again through the destroyed or partially destroyed villages and cities between Brussels and Antwerp, and found life beginning again, only very slowly, although the undamaged shops and houses were again open. We passed many refugees coming back again with their household goods on their backs or in hand or donkey carts or carts pulled by dogs, and some by horses, which are very scarce. It was interesting to read inscriptions on some of the undamaged houses, evidently written by the German soldiers. For instance, "Gute Leute" or, again, "A good old woman," or "A very old woman lives, here," or "These are nice people" or "Germans." Others of the saved houses still had a white flag hanging out. We passed the frontier early, without showing any personal papers or having to open our luggage; and, arriving at the depot at Rosendaal, found a crowd there, as the stream of people, which was overwhelming a little while ago, has not yet found its usual level. I was told that fifteen thousand went to Belgium yesterday and eight thousand came back, which makes a crowd in a small depot in a small town.

Brussels to The Hague, October 29, 1914.

Have spent the day calling on the American Minister and others—with no results so far. I am realizing the strain and oppression I have felt under the martial law existing in Belgium by the contrast here. I have a feeling of being reborn, and a still greater longing to get home again. On the physical side I am keenly alive to plenty of food and warmed rooms in the houses, plenty of good horses and carriages and taxis for hire, wagons loaded with products of factories and shops and mines—all of which were missing in Belgium. On the mental and spiritual side I am impressed as never before by seeing the usual, number of smiling, laughing men and women and happy children; by finding in the hotel reading-room, and at the booths newspapers from all the leading countries; by hearing men talk openly and freely of the war; by being able to go into a restaurant or café and sit down without having all my near neighbors look at me furtively and suspiciously and speak still lower than they did before—if that is possible. In short, I am feeling, as never before, what an atmosphere of law and order and justice and liberty means in contrast with militarism, martial law, and force.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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