Belgium's Plight

By John H. Gade
(Of the American Commission for Relief in Belgium)

[The National Geographic Magazine, May 1917]

Your brothers tell you their sons lie dead. Your heart aches and you try to understand it. You feel it—you think you feel it.

But it is not your son and you have no conception, even though he be one of the nearest in the world to you, of what your brother feels. It is your brother's son who lies dead. In six months, in three months, in one month your own son lies dead. It is for you to bring before this country now what it feels like to have your own son lying dead there.

You are about to issue the S. O. S. call to this country, to save it to a certain extent from ignorance, but also from indifference, and also from carelessness, from selfishness.

I come from northern France, from southern Belgium, from the gallant strongholds in that great district. There firm virtues were the order of the day; stern mercies were before you from hour to hour, and the flames of chivalry still burn in the hearts of men and women. The horizon was dark, and it is difficult to bring it to this country.


When I came ashore, it struck me like a blow in the face. Is it possible this is the same planet on which I have lived; that this is the same world? Have I left the basic reality of things behind for the rudiments of life?

Where do these people get all the things in the shop windows? Why do they look so careless and disinterested instead of so serious and earnest and sober? Where do they get the automobiles, the tires, the boots, the shoes?

No; I have left the real world beyond. The artificialities of life are gone; the conventionalities have been washed away, and here I have come back to where they still look the truth between the eyes.

Every man and every woman was a worker there. I remember one day going through the streets of Brussels. We had recently opened a soup kitchen. We had the pots; we had the pans; we had the kitchen; we had the food; we had everything except the workers.

I walked down the street and saw a couple of servants waiting in front of a building, and I asked, "What is going on inside?" They told me there was a meeting of the noble women of Brussels.

I went inside, and as soon as I entered they recognized me. I said, "I need twenty or more women right away—five to wash the floors, five to ladle soup, five to take away the dishes, five to carry out the garbage, and the remainder to do whatever work there is left."

I had scarcely finished my demand before the response came, almost as quickly as the appeal. There those women have been working for the last eight months, not once a week, but seven days a week. Those are the noble women of Belgium, noble of heart as well as of birth.

You have got to bring home here to our people conditions as they are. You have got to give them the vision. How awful the conditions are no one realizes. I will give you a single picture.


I will take the 18th of November of last year. A week or so before that a placard was placed on the walls telling my capital city of Mons that in seven days all the men of that city who were not clergymen, who were not priests, who did not belong to the city council, would be deported.

At half past five, in the gray of the morning on the 18th of November, they walked out, six thousand two hundred men at Mons, myself and another leading them down the cobblestones of the street and out where the rioting would be less than in the great city, with the soldiers on each side, with bayonets fixed, with the women held back.

The degradation of it! The degradation of it as they walked into this great market square, where the pens were erected, exactly as if they were cattle—all the great, men of that province—the lawyers, the statesmen, the heads of the trades, the men that had made the capital of Hainaut glorious during the last twenty years.

There they were collected; no question of who they were, whether they were busy or what they were doing or what their position in life. "Go to the right! Go to the left! Go to the right!" So they were turned to the one side or the other.

Trains were standing there ready, steaming, to take them to Germany. You saw on the one side the one brother taken, the other brother left. A hasty embrace and they were separated and gone. You had here a man on his knees before a German officer, pleading and begging to take his old father's place; that was all. The father went and the son stayed. They were packed in those trains that were waiting there. You saw the women in hundreds, with bundles in their hands, beseeching to be permitted to approach the trains, to give their men the last that they had in life between themselves and starvation—a small bundle, of clothing to keep them warm on their way to Germany.

You saw women approach with a bundle that had been purchased by the sale of the last of their household effects. Not one was allowed to approach to give her man the warm pair of stockings or the warm jacket so there might be some chance of his reaching there. Off they went!


I returned to Mons that evening. You have sat at the funeral of your dear sons and you have heard the family weep, but you have never sat at the funeral of a city. I went in and I lost courage. I walked the streets of Mons all that evening.

There was not a street, there was not an alley, where the shrieking of women did not deafen your ears.

So they went. Then we saw them come back, too. I read the reports the next day in the paper at Brussels of how Germany had announced to the United States that, in her great mercy, she was taking the idle working men of Belgium in order that they might earn enough in Germany to keep their families provided with plenty of funds back in Belgium. Yes, I read this, and every other edict issued by Germany, and I found no truth in them.

I saw them come back in the cars. We carried the corpses out of the cars; we carried the poor, broken wretches to the hospitals after three weeks of work in Germany.

They took me out to the front and I tried to get through. It was impossible. They did not want me to learn the truth. But I got a man through and back to me, and he told me what they did, what they had done with the men there. They tried to put them in the trenches and make them dig. What had been the result?


Those men, filled with love for their country, refused to work; so they took twelve of the best of them and tied their hands to posts outside of the city and let them hang there for thirty-two hours without nourishment, and then they fainted or died rather than fight against their brothers in the trenches! That is just one of the stories of the courage of those men over there!

I see them again across those terrible swamps, up to their waists in the mire and dirt, shot at with blank cartridges in order to make them sign the contracts so that Germany might publish to the world that they were willing workers; that they had come from Belgium to Germany in order to execute the work they needed so much.

It is for you to bring these scenes before the public. You cannot all fight, but you can bring these scenes before the public and help those who do fight. I will tell you about one man who stood beside me in Valenciennes. He came to me in the early morning and said, "I cannot work any more; I have got to leave."

I said, "You are the captain of your own soul. You know what you are doing."

"Yes," he said, "I have stood this as long as I can; I have got to quit." So he quit and left the work because it was too horrible.

What is the sequel? Today, in these early spring days, he is leading his British soldiers into battle because he preferred to fight rather than to see the German officers opposite him, with his hands tied. He fights the hardest because he is once more approaching that little country which he loves so much.


You are going to make an appeal to this country. You are starting to do so. On behalf of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, six or seven weeks ago, I talked one day in Boston. After the meeting the Bishop of Massachusetts was so. kind as to say he would come to the house where I was going to dine that evening.

You are as well acquainted with the fact as I am that the Bishop of Massachusetts made the most successful appeal to this country ever made in the raising of church pension funds. The task was believed impossible—that task in which he succeeded beyond the sum which even he expected to raise.

He turned to me that evening and his first words were these: "You are going to have the best time of your life appealing to this country for funds. You are going to deal with the most generous people in the world, and you are going to deal with their best impulses."

I have found it to be the case! I approached with hesitancy, with timidity. I am no speaker, least of all one who can make a successful appeal, especially to those I have known best. When I asked for hundreds, I received thousands. When I asked for thousands, I received tens of thousands. It showed me that our people are alive to the fact that now they must give, and give with both hands; that now no longer those who cannot enter the conflict should stand aside and shame their country. I was dumbfounded at the response I received from all sides, from high and from low.


Again and again I appealed in behalf of the children, and some working man in his embarrassment would arise in the throng and finally would bravely say, "Well, I have got five kids of my own, but I can take on another one if you want me to." That was the response from all sides.

I remember one day in particular. When I went to my work that morning a friend said to me, "You look rather discouraged this morning." "Yes," I said, "I see no hope in the situation today." He said, "You will never be discouraged if you will follow the Great Captain the way I do." That was, of course, the response of the Bishop of Massachusetts, given to me in that way.

It seemed an almost impossible, hopeless task to raise these hundreds of thousands of dollars, but he said: "It seems very easy after you have gotten frankly into the hearts of the people, after you have taken them right into your confidence, after you visualize the situation.

"If you can visualize your work, if you can make them see the things in the battlefield, if you can make them feel and give them the vision as you have it, then you will find the response is immediate and glad. It is not only those who have been educated in giving to whom you can successfully appeal, for generosity lies in the human heart, and it is the most blessed thing man can do, to give rather than to receive."


In New York I went to see a man—one of the most influential, one of the wealthiest men of this country—to thank him for the thousands and thousands of dollars he had sent to Belgium. I gave him the figures and showed him the devastated condition of northern France and showed him the shattered fields, without a tree standing, without a fruit tree that will ever bear fruit again.

His reply was the same reply you are going again and again to receive: "What am I going to do? Belgium is closed. How can I help? I would like to help more than I did."

I replied to him, "Here is the Red Cross. It knows this work and how it is being conducted and how it should be done." He then said most promptly, "I have given with one hand before; now I am going to give with two hands!"

That is the reply which will come from all sides in this work we are now undertaking.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury