I WAS present at the battle of Malines with my friend, M. Emile Vandervelde, Secretary of State, and Mr. Powell, correspondent of the New York World. I was the only British war correspondent to witness the two days’ engagement, from the inspiring forward march on the first day until the no less impressive retreat on the second day.
Although the battle of Malines cannot be compared in point of numbers with such titanic struggles as the battle of Mons, although it cannot be compared in importance with the defence of Liége, it will rank in military history as one of the most characteristic achievements of the Belgian campaign. And although the Belgian army had ultimately to fall back on Antwerp, the main object of the Belgian advance movement was attained.
That object was not to recapture Brussels from the enemy. As we stated before, with admirable self-sacrifice the Belgians from the beginning subordinated their own national interests to the general plan of the Allied armies. One aim was to clear the approaches to Antwerp and to prevent the Germans from bringing up their heavy siege artillery and establishing themselves on the main road between Louvain and Waelhem, the most southern fort of Antwerp. But the chief object of the Belgian advance was to co-operate from the north with the advance of the Allied armies from the south and to relieve the pressure of the German attack and to divert from the main German army at least two, and perhaps three, army corps.
When the Belgians took the offensive on Tuesday morning the Germans were in possession of Malines and their outposts were only from nine to ten miles from Antwerp. When we arrived on Tuesday afternoon we found the town or Malines frantic with joy at being delivered from the German hordes. Everywhere the population was acclaiming the Belgian soldiers. We had expected that the town would have suffered heavily from a two days’ previous bombardment. As a matter of fact, there were only a few houses destroyed. The stained-glass of the cathedral was slightly damaged.
It was left to a later bombardment to destroy the venerable seat of the Archbishop-Primate, the Canterbury of Belgium.
On Tuesday afternoon the Belgians advanced as far as Eppeghem, near Vilvorde. On the way we passed the soldiers of the 3rd Division, the heroes of the siege of Liége. After a week’s well-earned rest they were again eager to take part in the fray. On our arrival the battle had already begun. About 130,000 men were en-gaged, 50,000 Belgians and 80,000 Germans the 1st, 4th, and 6th Belgian Divisions and two German army corps. Before the vigorous attack of the Belgian cavalry and infantry the Germans steadily retired, burning everything as they re-treated. Everywhere we saw the smoke of burning villages. We heard of the usual atrocities, which have now almost become inseparable from German military operations. I myself saw in the main street of the village of Sempst amongst the crumbling ruins of burning houses the bodies of a farmer and of his son horribly mutilated and punctured by German lances. In the neighbourhood of the farmhouse we were able to rescue six ladies, who were trans-ported in our motor to Malines.
All through the afternoon the Belgians fought with magnificent élan. There can be no doubt that if the Belgian attack had been supported by the Allied armies Brussels would have been retaken. But the Belgian ranks gradually thinned and could not be replaced. There were no reserves to draw upon. On the other hand, the enemy had considerable reinforcements, and the Belgians had consequently to sleep on their positions.
It must have been a short sleep and a restless night for the harassed Belgian troops. The battle was resumed with dawn at 4.30 A.M. From the high bank of the railway line from Brussels to Antwerp we could survey the whole of the battlefield. We could see at once that the second day would not turn out so favourably for the Belgians as the first. The Germans, with their heavy reinforcements, were able to take the offensive all along the line, and early in the morning all their batteries were brought into play. From one o’clock until four P.M. shrapnel burst like hailstones around us. Nor was it possible for the Belgian cavalry and infantry to make an enveloping movement, as the enemy had an overwhelming superiority in numbers. In the meantime the Belgian General Staff had received the bad news of a severe check to the Allies. In the course of the morning the General Staff of the 1st Division at village of X were informed that the offensive of the Allies, on which the Belgians had counted, could not take place, and that the Belgians were left to their own resources. It was felt that it would be a criminal waste of life to sacrifice the brave Belgian troops to an attack which could not be followed up, all the more so as the main object of the Belgian strategical movement had been attained. The retreat was decided on.
My friend M. Vandervelde, and Mr. Powell, of the New York World, remained with me to the end. We had a few lively moments. M. Vandervelde, with a Belgian journalist, had been left in charge of the motor on the road to cover our retreat. Mr. Powell and myself climbed the high bank of the railway to see the Germans emerge from the arches of three railway viaducts. Whilst with our field-glasses we were on the look-out for the Uhlans, we were suddenly distracted by cries of distress from our Belgian companions. Carabinier cyclists were flying past and shouting that the Uhlans were only 50o yards away from us. It is hardly necessary to add that we lost no time in leaving the railway bank.
We passed over the battlefield of yesterday, and in every direction we stumbled across the bodies of dead soldiers and carcasses of dead horses and cattle. We noticed that all the German corpses were in their stockings. A gravedigger explained to us that the German boots were so excellent that the first care of the Belgian soldier was to help himself to the boots of the enemy. On every side we saw the wreckage of the battlefield, unused cartridges, blood-soiled uniforms and headgear, fragments of bombshells, and German postcards without number which were not to be sent to their destination.
The Belgians retreated in admirable order, if a strategic movement, which falls back upon its main line after the object of the movement has been achieved, can be called a retreat. The soldiers were in excellent spirits, although sobered after the heavy fighting of the last two days and sorely disappointed at being stopped on their march to Brussels. My colleague, Mr. Powell, was amazed at the morale of But while the Belgian army itself moved in wonderful order, there moved also another column towards Antwerp which was a scene of wild confusion. We were fated to see on one and the same day all the pomp and circumstance, all the tragic grandeur, but also all the hideous horror of war. Tens of thousands of refugees were flying to Antwerp under the protection of the troops, a mass of distracted humanity, dazed and haggard men, women, and children of all classes, many of the children and old women huddled into carts. I saw one grandmother with a baby in her arms trundled in a wheelbarrow by a boy. Malines, which in the morning we had found full of animation, by five o’clock in the afternoon had become a melancholy desert. The population had fled in a panic. Even thus every Belgian city and village for the last three weeks had become a desert at the mere intimation of the approach of the German hordes.