Frederick Palmer in Germany

By Frederick Palmer

[Everybody's Magazine, January 1915]

Lucky are the neutrals. They are not only out of the war, but they may see the war on all sides. The back of my passport is mottled with the signatures of the officials of different lands. When I entered Germany, the gray- coated, helmeted officer at the frontier, as he ran his eye over the visés, studied the last one at length. This was a French staff officer's passe militaire to go from Calais to Dunkirk. Finally, he returned the passport with a glance that said, in all languages:

"Oh, you Americans!"

He did not like to let me by; but as my country was not at war with his, he could not deny the right of travel to a peaceful citizen whose papers were in order. I was going to Germany as a tourist, as an observer who would not have to commit himself, as one must in Germany by writing pro-German propaganda in order to see about as much of battle as you see of Broadway by looking at the sky-scrapers from a ferry-boat.

At the front you are under the magnetism of the pressure of great masses of trained troops. When I traveled on one of sixty-five French military trains, each bearing a thousand men through Dunkirk in a single day, it seemed to me that the French army was invincible. Trains of reservists in Germany exercised, in turn, the spell of German invincibility. His very effort to get to the front blurs a correspondent's impartiality of observation.

One reason given for keeping correspondents back is that the sights in the trenches are too ghastly for description. Such horrors I had witnessed in Manchuria; but nothing of the reek of battle aftermath ever so gripped me with the meaning and effect of war as what I witnessed in Germany without trying at all to reach an army's headquarters.

I saw a Germany where you could not turn a street corner without meeting a convalescent wounded man in his stained green uniform or a woman who was holding back her tears; where you could not look into a face or a shop-window without feeling that subtle misery which was in the minds of the women stemming their sobs.


The confusion of mind which came from reading partisan English papers and partisan German papers and from the German government's wireless news in America was cleared by what you saw no less than by what you learned in conversation. Errors of impression were corrected. The first of these was about a starving Germany. Food was literally thrust at you from all quarters. Frankfurters were no less plentiful at the railroad stations than in other days. A world in uniform was munching brown bread and raw ham sandwiches despite the exodus of male labor at harvest time. No crops were left in the fields; old men and boys and women, the drudge peasant women dragging carts while the horses were at the front, had brought them all in. They had managed to sow great acreages of wheat, whose green expanses under the somber winter skies gave the only freshness and cheer to the landscape.

Germany has food enough to last for a year. The question is if she has the men. These she will give while she has them—for the Kaiser. Make no mistake about him. Rightly or wrongly, he is the idol of the peasant women who take the place of the horses and of the men who die at his command. His picture is everywhere, always in uniform. Always it is the soldier: the soldier in the peasant's cottage, the soldier looking down at you from the wall of a hotel foyer or a government palace. His face is impressed on the eye of Germany and fills the mind with its strength, its sternness, its alertness. It is a face which says "Forward!" in every line.


The English idea that the Crown-Prince, leading the military party, started the war is ridiculous. He is popular with a certain set. He has more of the bonhomie of comradeship than his father; is fond of a good time and of action, of women's company as well as men's, and of good wine. He takes a sort of mischievous delight in opposing his father, whose serious self-importance excites the son's sense of irresponsible humor. But the war is not of the Crown Prince's brewing.

It is Germany's war; the war of Germany fashioning itself unconsciously in the likeness of the Kaiser. No German in that busy, progressive Germany has worked harder than he. He has led and he has driven. And Germans are deepest in loyalty to the royal idea. His ancestors built the empire; under him Germany has risen to her present power. He personifies Germany. Of his kind, he has been a great king, as old Frederick was, as Louis XIV was. And he is king of the greatest military machine the world has ever known. "Attack!" says his upturned mustache and stern, set mouth.

The German youths I have seen lying wounded in the freight warehouse at Calais and every gallant German on the firing-line are acting out no calculated system of aggression, but the results of his training.

German enterprise had spread over Europe. Germans studied hard, labored hard. They learned foreign languages. By dint of industry they shook foreign competition. The German sees the Englishman as stupid and slow and taking things easy, while he himself plods long hours and is better educated in the mass. He believes in his superiority and therefore in his system. He is fighting for what England fought for when she won her colonies oversea by arms. But he puts it that he is fighting in defense against the enmity of a jealous world which wants to stifle him.

On all sides the neutral American, whose friendship is wanted by every partisan, hears the protest that Germany is not a military but a peaceful nation. By the same token, the French protest that they are still military, while Poincaré's government takes care that no general at the front becomes too much of a popular hero, and that no Bourbon or Napoleonic princes are allowed to serve France. And doesn't the old Spaniard protest that he is really progressive? Yes, the German soldier does believe that he is fighting for peace.

German solidarity is an instinct. Under the pressure of war not only did every one turn patriot, with no thought except country, but the patriotism worked out well in practise. All not only wanted to help, but had their part assigned. Every one's duty was confidence, optimism, invincibility.


"Berlin is perfectly normal. You would hardly know that there was a war," said travelers who came from Germany. A Berlin alight at night and a London darkened for fear of Zeppelins make a contrast that leads to a superficial impression. By day, except for the sight of officers in restaurants and streets and of marching bodies of recruits, London, too, insists on being normal—in face of protests that the nation is in danger. "Wake up, England! This is war! Face the facts!" But so far as I can see, the throngs on the Strand are as great as ever.

The French would not think of business; only of war. Theirs was a pitiful candor. "We know it is life or death for France!" they said, and were willing that all the world should know the truth. After all, when a man sees a bayonet coming at his throat, if he says, "I apprehend there are mosquitoes abroad," he is not always acquitted of posing.

Germany insisted that business must go on as usual. It was heresy for any German civilian to think that the war was affecting him in his daily routine of business or labor.

Men in Wall Street, when they are risking all on a turn of the market, present the same front; and sometimes it does keep stocks from going down. Any one in danger of bankruptcy who expresses a fear of it is bound to bring it on. Germany, with her vast armies, had to think of her economic danger. Every man at home had to face an enemy while the soldiers faced the French, English, and Russians. England says: "What if we should lose?" Germany says: "We are bound to win!" England asks one returning from Germany: "Do you think they will try an invasion and a Zeppelin raid?" Germany says of the English: "We have them scared, eh?"

When I asked the hotel clerk in Berlin if he had a room, he went through the forms of the pressure of business in a convention season. He would look and see. Yes, there was a good one vacant on the second floor. The truth was that the upper floors were entirely unoccupied. So was the main dining-room; but the breakfast-room was given the air of a cozy and confident hostelry. One missed no variety of food except bananas and oranges, which the blockade keeps out. My waiter, a Swede who had taken the place of a young German waiter gone to the front, confessed that business was very bad.

"Why don't you go to London?" I suggested. "They have all the German waiters interned. The biggest hotel is really full, there"—to the disgust of Englishmen who can't wake up their countrymen.

"I think I will!"

An old German waiter who had overheard me, after giving me a "Damn the English!" glance, took him to one side and told him that all the restaurants in London were closed for fear of a Zeppelin raid. He believed it, too; everybody seemed to in Berlin. That old waiter, by the way, had already said to me: "Don't you find Berlin perfectly normal, sir?"


Perfectly normal! Every one you met repeated this. To mention that you had noticed some effects of the war was to bring that look—the look which changed you from a friend to a foe and gave you the peculiar feeling of a rooter on the Yale benches breaking out with an intimation that Harvard was going to win. The rah-rah business prevails throughout the whole nation.

You may criticize England as much as you please in English restaurants, and all you will get is a look which says, "Must be a German-American, that fellow," or possibly an assent to the need of England's waking up. They're that way, the English; it is one of their weaknesses that may keep them from winning the war. But try criticism in Germany and you are encircled with eyes blazing censure. If the American flag which I had in my buttonhole was hidden by my overcoat, the stares I got made me wonder if I had developed horns and a tail. My friend, another American, and myself always had our railway compartment to ourselves. We two might occupy six places, while in another compartment seven Germans occupied the same number.

Never shall I forget the sturdy German woman in trim Red Cross outfit at the station in Hanover. I wanted something to eat, and while the train stopped I saw a row of sandwiches on a table, in front of a row of soup-plates and a bucket of steaming soup. I dived into my change-pocket with a view to buying a sandwich, and then I saw the woman. She looked to me as big as Minerva. Her lips half formed the word "Englischer!" An Englischer trying to buy the food that she was giving free to the Kaiser's soldiers! The look she gave me still burns in the back of my head, where it went sizzling through. From a good Samaritan, with the sweetness of humanity in her eyes, she had turned to a fiery Amazon.

"Perfectly normal," when in the windows of the offices of the two great shipping companies the register board of steamers about to sail for ports in all parts of the world were blank! Perfectly normal, because all shops were open, if empty, and the pavements still intact and the people still had faces, hands, feet, and bodies, and lived by eating and drinking, as they did in time of peace.

I had been in Berlin before and comparisons were possible. There were fewer people by a good many on Friedrichstrasse, the Strand of Berlin, than in antebellum days, and little of the old, busy split in their manner. They moved slowly, as if somewhat tired of pretending that they had a lot to do when they had not.

In one of the great department stores I found five customers on three floors. I was inclined to report the proprietor to the Kaiser: he turned on the lights only when a customer approached a counter. Infinitely important are lights in keeping up a people's spirit. Berlin even tried to start up its night life again—the night life which it had organized as a counter attraction to that of Paris for provincials and foreigners. But there are limits even to German patriotism. Besides, the provincials and foreigners were missing.

On Sunday morning a band—of course a military band—played opposite the silent royal palace. There was only a small gathering, a wistful, sad crowd, I should call it, with the mighty statue of Victory to old William looming out of the mist. On Sunday afternoon and evening the Berliners came out to the cafes for sandwiches and beer—as cheap as ever, by government order. They were not in such numbers as usual, and there was only the semblance of the old gusto in their gastronomic and conversational functions.

Rather drearily they made their way homeward in a drizzle—but with streets normally lighted, while those in hated London were not.


The Royal Opera was open and, of all the amusement places that I saw, the best patronized. The night I went there was a fairly large audience. Germans love music; and music is a great solace. Do you remember that in the panic of 1907 our own opera and musical comedies were all attended? In the great room where the audience goes to eat and chat, the circular promenade went on as usual during the intermission.

There were many officers, all convalescent from wounds. I noticed a dozen Iron Crosses. That imperial reward of bravery is given freely. It is estimated that one man in twenty had it in the Franco-Prussian war. The plan in this war is to follow that precedent; but if this war continues long, the recipients may number one in ten. It is hardly aristocratically exclusive even now, for I saw it on officers and privates by the thousand. Sometimes a score of crosses were allowed to a company for a gallant action. As it was difficult for the commander to choose between men when all had rushed on with courage in a charge, the recipients were selected by drawing lots.

Wounded officers from the front, wounded officers wearing Iron Crosses home from victory, at the opera! Doesn't that rouse in a mind associating romance with war a picture of spirited gaiety? But there was a sort of grim hush in the voices of the promenading groups; the voices of people whose minds are not on what they are saying.

One thing I observed particularly: a change in the Prussian officer, that officer so conscious of his caste, given to making all passers-by turn out for him. Though he wears an Iron Cross, he will now frequently give half the road. He has got the thing he longed for, war. It is not glorious, after all—not glorious, the mud, the blood, the stench, the herding close with his men in the cover of the trenches. He has become a trifle more human; he has found that his men are human.

His wife, his sister, or his mother who walked beside him at the opera promenade teemed rather to want to look at him than so talk. I noticed the same thing in my tours of the mean streets, when mother, wife, or sister leaned on the arm of a returned private. Often they were honestly, silent and holding hands very tightly. For the wounded as soon as well are going back to the front, perhaps never to return.

After they are discharged from the hospital they are given a short furlough to visit their homes, with free railroad travel, free food at the stations. On every tram-car, in every railroad station, you saw these voyagers who bore their scars of battle. When they were young and unmarried, they looked as if they were equal to it again; and when they were older and left wife and children at home, they had the grim resolution of the Kaiser's orders, but desire was not strong. All seemed well cared for. That is the business of a paternal government. Serve and obey, and Germany will win.

And some of the young were boyishly cheerful and proud, as if they had had part in a splendid adventure and wanted another. One showed me his souvenir—a piece of shrapnel jacket, the piece that went into his side. His coat, torn by other pieces, had been sewed, but not too nicely, as he wanted to exhibit the tears.


When I went through one of the great hospitals I had again the sense of the machine-like impersonality of German nationalism. Each wounded man was a human body machine and so treated. There was the monotony of machinery; an absence of the cheeriness of the personal touch which we find in our own hospitals. A German hospital is better disciplined and organized than a French; German ambulances and dressing stations are more thoroughly prepared and smoothly managed, because the loyal, obedient German sinks his individuality in exact response to the command of his superior.

Again and again I was asked the question, "How long do you think the war will last?" Or, "Does England think that it will be a long war?" I had stereotyped my answer with a purpose. I always uttered it with a matter-of-course conviction, with the object of watching the effect on that reasserted bluff about everything being perfectly normal.

"How long will the war last?" asked the superintendent who had shown me over the hospital.

"Three years," I replied.

The superintendent's hands and head went down. "Three years! More and more wounded!" he exclaimed.

I was sorry that I had not made it two months. For a quarter of a minute he was not a cog in the imperial machine of war, but human. So were all the wounded in his hospital human, if one got beneath the crust of martial organization. A quarter of a minute, I say, for accuracy's sake; for he promptly stiffened up. He was a German again—one of the units of a mighty militarism.

"We'll see it through to the end!" he said.


More and more wounded—wounded—wounded by the yard! The lists keep coming in, an endless monotony of Hanses and Fritzes in small type. Sometimes they are a month old. A newspaper man counted how many names an inch averages and then made his totals. But he received a complaint from the censor who had been checking off the figures. He was overrunning by about fifty to the foot! A very exact bureaucracy, the German.

Up to November fifteenth the Germans had lost a million men in killed, wounded and missing. Think of commanding a country to appear perfectly normal with such a weight as that in the hearts of its families! It is requiring a nation of seventy millions to act with the fortitude of the little community of ancient Spartans.

"You must not weep in public," says the Kaiser; and German women do not. But they appear in the streets with eyes red from nights of weeping. Moreover, you must not circulate any rumors of bad news concealed by the government—which is a favorite diversion among Englishmen. The penalty for this is a year in jail.

All the news which the German public gets is the brief official announcements from Grand Headquarters and the daily batch of press matter given out by the Foreign Office. When bad news must be printed there is always some good news to offset it. The report of the Emden's fate, when I was in Berlin, was accompanied by the announcement that twenty-six hundred prisoners had been taken around Dixmude and Ypres. These include some English. The Germans like immensely to hear of prisoners taken, particularly if they are English. They hardly seem to realize that the Allies also have a great many prisoners.


The sharpest contrast of all in war which the neutral may observe is seeing the men of one army which, from the other side, he watched march into battle—armed, confident, disciplined parts of an organization, ready to sweep all before them in a charge—become so many sheep, disarmed, disorganized, rounded up like vagrants in a breadline and surrounded by a fold of barbed wire and sentries.

This was the lot of the nine thousand English, French, and Russians in the "show" German prison camp at Doberitz, near Berlin, which you may visit by official permission. But you may not visit any of the other camps.

On a sandy knoll, fully exposed to the bleak wind, the prisoners sleep on straw ticks inside of big cavalry tents. And they do not wear any nighties, you may be sure. They wear the clothes in which they were captured, unless their government through the American ambassador has provided them with others.

There has been a howdy-do of countercharges by Germans and British about treatment of prisoners. The facts are these, and they should be given in fairness, without prejudice: The British government has sent to British prisoners in Germany thick suits of winter underclothes and socks and coats, while the Germans agreed to furnish two blankets apiece. Most of the prisoners hadn't yet received these blankets when. I was in Berlin. England supplies her prisoners with a full outfit of clothing and blankets and feeds them with the regular British army ration.

On the highest point of the small knoll two field-guns commanded the enclosure at Doberitz.

"I don't believe there is any ammunition for those guns. They are just a reminder to these boys not to try any funny tricks," said the English-speaking German who showed me around. An adventurous spirit had taken him to America, where he had earned his living at various jobs in different parts of the country. He always spoke of the prisoners as "boys;" and if I wished to ask the "boys" any questions, it must be through him.

Many prisoners were on fatigue duty under sentries. They were building roads and leveling ground for the new prison barracks. This was no humiliation. It was a relief. Imagine the monotony of life to these men walking up and down like caged animals, slapping their bodies to keep warm, day in and out, and thinking of home.

At Doberitz the French kept to themselves. They did not sell their blankets, as Tommy Atkins will, in the careless way of the regular soldier. Their blue coats and red trousers were kept neat and clean. They seemed subdued, a little sad and grim. The Russians were good-humored, hearty children. They could stand the hardships better than the others, for their, standard of living at home. is pretty low. Your nostrils told you when you were entering a Russian tent, too. But in all the tents some man was engaged in hunting the persecutors in his underclothes.


Tommy Atkins—well, he was Tommy Atkins. He had not lost his capacity for his cockney joke. To this had Kipling's Soldiers Three descended: to lining up in the morning to receive some oatmeal and coffee, and at noon a bowl of thin cabbage soup and some brown bread, and at night more coffee and bread; and to being herded by German bayonets.

"It's all in the day's work," said Tommy; "and lousy, too!"

But Tommy does not like being shown off when he is a prisoner, while the Russian takes it with a broad grin. One Tommy seated on his straw sack, with a broken briar pipe that had a stem about an inch long between his teeth, was busy knitting a sock.

"Where did you learn to knit?" I asked.

"In India," he answered, without looking up; and I knew that what he wanted to say was: "Move along and look at the next cage."

"Here are the non-commissioned English officers," said my chaperon, as he opened the door of a little, shanty where a dozen men rose to their feet. Head above the group was a giant sergeant, who had a service color on his coat.

"Where did you get that?" I asked. Such questions were allowable, but none that related to the prisoners' treatment.

"South Africa!" he answered proudly.

The small window was darkened by another figure, a big Scotch sergeant. He had turned his back on the visitors. We could just count him out of the Zoo. Hats off to his fine, sensitive soldierly pride!

"Now, these two boys are sons of rich men," said my chaperon, when we were in the cook-house, as he called for two young Russians. "They were serving their first year. They are very good boys, so we let them work here. That's all, boys. Now, this fellow got half blinded by a shell-burst. We let him hang around the cook-house, too, because he can't see very well."

He pointed to a little Frenchman. The picture he made had pathos enough for either Hugo or Daudet. He was huddled up as if to make himself smaller and less in the way, and eating soup, with his nose close to the bowl, from his pitiful weakness of vision. Like some sickly, harmless kitten he was allowed to remain about the premises. Probably he would be like this all his life. And he was young.

"We mean that the boys shall sleep warm this winter," my chaperon explained, as we rode over to see the new wooden houses which were building. Each was to accommodate a hundred men, sleeping like sardines in a tin; but each had a stove, a real stove. If all prisoners were sheltered like this, there could be no complaint; but those who have to remain in the tents on straw ticks might envy any snowbound party of explorers on short rations.


Why, I wondered, should not the nations interchange prisoners? Why should not that stalwart Scot return to fight in the British ranks and some stalwart Prussian return to fight in the German? Why should not that blinded little Frenchman be sent to his home and some equally unfortunate German know the love and care of his family? The answer is that no government except the British tells the number it has lost in prisoners; and some of the Continental governments, at least, fear the effect on its public top much to confess the number it has lost. The business of national morale in a war does not consider heartbreaks.

"Do you think that America will be drawn in, too?" one of the officers of the camp asked.

"No," said my chaperon, who had been in America and thought he knew all about us. "Only the dollar talks in America."

If a talking dollar keeps us out of such a mess as Europe is in, I hope that our silver prima donna may never suffer a vocal breakdown.

At intervals while we were at camp we heard the rattle of rapid-firers and the rifleshots on the drill-ground near by; and in returning to Berlin I passed marching batalions of new volunteers, whose old service blue uniforms—there is not enough green for all—you see in every town and on every road. Some were sturdy—those who had been excused from military service when their time for conscription came because they were an only son or the support of a family. Others wore glasses and looked weakly. They had not passed the physical examination when they were "called up," but were good enough now.

Men, more men! Germany, France, Russia, all the nations have put in more than they had ever expected to need. Some of these volunteers, trained only two or three months, have already been sent to the firing-line. Before the war people wondered how long the world could stand the strain of it financially. Now the question is, how long before no one will be left alive?


The Germans were not wanting to fight France and Russia, but England. The hate of the Red Cross woman in the station at Hanover is the hate of a nation. Crystallized, the attitude toward England is that of disappointed hope. England holds the sea; she joined in the war when Germany wanted her to keep out, In the inner world of rumor you heard it said quite positively that soon Germany would conclude a treaty of peace with Russia, followed by one with France, thus leaving her free to attack England. The wish which was father to the thought spread in waves downward in the social scale of that responsive public. The humorous journals ceased to cartoon the French and the Russians. The French became a chivalrous, brave race—fighting for their country. Germany pitied them. She had no ill-will against Russia. As for the Belgian, German feeling amounts to contempt. He played the fool. He did not recognize power and give it room. Let him take the consequences. Let the British who got him into trouble take care of him. No neutral has yet visited a camp of Belgian prisoners in Germany.

There was no longer any sale for the sheafs of picture post-cards poured forth from the presses at the beginning of the war, delineating the Russian as a barbarian and the Frenchman as a degenerate runt, to whom the German peasant was giving a spanking. Indeed, a glut in the post-card market was plainly discernible. Satirical and humorous post-cards, making the war a mighty winning game for Germany, no longer suited the temper of the people. More victories were needed to bull the postcard market.

The people had started with victory. They had been drilled to the aggressive and to expect victory. Many weeks had passed without good news, while the wounded kept pouring back from the front. The German troops ought to be in Paris and were not; they ought to be in Warsaw and were not—though far out in the peasant cottages, so skilfully written were the official bulletins that the old men and the women thought Germany was still advancing. These simple souls did not know that the days without news had meant retreat from Paris and Warsaw.

The Berliners, being more worldly wise, hearing day after day the shibboleth of "On to Calais" were feeling the strain of the hammering blows at Dixmude and Ypres which were said to be gaining ground, but without ever getting beyond Dixmude and Ypres. There was something sullen in the public attitude, something of repressed and bitter resentment. Indeed, Berlin was finding war no less sad and grim than Paris found it.


But do not mistake this as an indication of any thought of yielding—not to the hated English. Germany must win. More guns were going up to the western front, where she would yet crush through. Hints of an invasion of England were in the air. And von Hindenberg, who had tricked the Russians in East Prussia, would trick them again in Poland. Von Hindenberg, recalled from the retired list, is the hero—not von Moltke, the chief of staff. Von Hindenberg shares honors with the forty-two-centimeter howitzer of the Krupps, who may have other tricks up their sleeves.

The surprise of this monster leads Germans to expect more surprises: guns that will carry across the Straits of Dover; a hundred Zeppelins which can drop bombs that will level a square. Perhaps the staff has all these wonders in store, but it is certainly not taking even neutral correspondents into its confidence. We must wait and see; rather, wait and hear, for waiting and hearing is the business of the press in this war. Germany may win. She may even take London. She is ready to risk much to gain all.


"Communication perfectly normal," I was told when I asked about going to Hamburg, which is like going from New York to Philadelphia. There were three trains a day against a dozen in ordinary times. Hamburg, Germany's doorway to the world, could not keep the goose-step of pretense that everything was perfectly normal. It is a dead city on a harbor which is forested with sailless masts and smokeless funnels. In place of the day's shipping news appears a page of death notices of citizens who have died in battle. Here many English had lived—all who are not under seventeen or over fifty-five, though they were making fifty thousand dollars a year, being interned as prisoners of war.

Here German hatred of England, if not of Englishmen, is bitterest. England and England alone has robbed Hamburg of her trade. England is the cause of the silent streets and forces employers to pay the wages of idle employees, according to law in time of war. Germany has boasted that she had no moratorium, the spirit of patriotism in her businessmen and bankers taking its place by not calling loans or demanding the payment of debts. Splendid, this; yet what if individual necessity should assert itself and creditor should press debtor in sheer desperation? Then the bricks might begin to fall.

When for the last time, near the Dutch frontier, an officer brought me under arrest to his office in the station, demanding if I were an "Englischer," and found my passport all right, I was rather relieved. The restaurant keeper in the station where I had a meal before taking a train to Holland beamed German optimism.

"Paris by Christmas, then England, then Russia!" he said.

"And after that, America?" I suggested.

"No, that is too much," he replied, laughing.

I suspect him of being a diplomatist.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury