Martyrdom Of Belgium

I SPENT five weeks at the Belgian theatre of war as special correspondent of the Daily Chronicle. My nerves are still shattered and my imagination is still haunted, and will be haunted till the end of my days, by the harrowing events which in the course of those five tragic weeks followed each other with such staggering rapidity. I still see before my mind’s eye emerging in a starlit sky the sinister cigar-shaped monster raining bombs on defenceless Antwerp. I see in one house of the same stricken city a chamber of horrors, where every wall was be-spattered with the entrails of women and children, blown up by the Zeppelin shells. I see the dreary processions of ambulance wagons returning from the battle. I see in every town the endless vistas of hospital wards, and I still seem to hear the oppressive stillness of those wards, only broken by the groans of the sufferers. I see in the huge almshouse of Malines, down in the dark catacombs, oozing with moisture, two hundred old men and women awaiting in a frenzy of terror the arrival of the Huns. I see from the high railway bank overlooking the battlefield of Hofstade a hailstorm of shrapnel bursting around us and setting fire to one village after another.

After three hundred and fifty years the memory still survives in the Netherlands of the Spanish Terror.” Henceforth the memory of the German Terror, the ” Furor Teutonicus,” will wipe out even the crimes of Alva and the Spanish Inquisition.

The Belgian campaign has assumed a character of ruthless barbarity unequalled in modern warfare. After sifting all the exaggerations, there remain countless authenticated deeds of inhuman and callous cruelty, and there are only too many obvious reasons explaining those deeds. In the first place, the Germans were taken unawares by the heroic resistance of the little Belgian army ; they vented on the defenceless inhabitants their disappointment at the failure of their plans, and they tried to succeed by terrorization where they had failed by the force of arms. In the second place, the German soldiery, being quartered in the chateaux of the nobility and in the mansions of the well-to-do burghers, and being allowed to sack their well-stocked cellars, gave them-selves over to orgies of drunkenness. In the third place, the Belgian campaign almost from the beginning assumed the character of guerilla warfare, which is the most cruel and relentless form of war. Almost from the beginning the Germans, scattered in small bands and removed from the presence of their superior officers, raided territories denuded of troops, and with impunity sacked and burnt the countryside.

It is quite fitting that the British Press should have emphasized, and should continue to emphasize, the abominable crimes perpetrated by the German soldiery. The destruction of Louvain and Visé, of Malines and Namur, of Dinant and Termonde, was necessary to drive home from what kind of Teutonic culture the world will be saved by the triumph of the Allied arms. At the same time, whilst exposing to the whole world German barbarities, we ought not to divert our attention from two other evils, less sensational perhaps, but of far greater magnitude. I refer to the twin evils of starvation from unemployment and the wholesale exodus of the Belgian people.

Other belligerent nations may suffer from unemployment. In Belgium alone there has been created a whole nation of unemployed. In other countries trade and industry are dislocated. In Belgium they have come to a complete standstill. Out of a population of eight millions, seven millions are under the heel of the invader. Railwaymen are starving, for railways have ceased work. Office clerks are starving, for banks and offices are closed. Public officials are starving, for no salaries can be paid. Journalists and printers are starving, for newspapers and books have ceased to appear. Mill-hands and coal-miners and ironworkers are starving, for mills and coal-mines and ironworks are closed. It is true that the Germans have reopened the gigantic works of Cockerill, and have even offered the Belgian ironworkers an increase of wages of 50 per cent. But I doubt whether the 15,000 ironworkers of Cockerill will be induced by this diabolical bribe to manufacture the German guns which will mow down their Belgian brethren.

The appalling evil of complete commercial and industrial paralysis, culminating in starvation, is still further intensified by the wholesale emigration of the people. This phenomenon of the Belgian refugees is unique in the history of modern warfare. Wherever the German Uhlan has appeared he has created a desert. It is literally true to say that a whole people have taken to the road. Day after day, in every direction, mile after mile, I met those melancholy processions of fugitives of every age, of every class whole families huddled up in carts, old women and infants trundled in wheel-barrows. Because the Germans have reverted to the barbaric stage, the unfortunate Belgians have had to revert to the nomadic stage. But, alas ! there is this difference between the nomadic Belgians and their ancestors, that their ancestors were the shepherds, whilst the Belgians are the sheep driven at the mercy of a relentless foe.

What adds to the tragedy of this exodus of a nation is the fact that those vagrant processions are formed of the most sedentary population in the world. The Flemish peasants are rooted in their native soil. Most of them had never looked beyond the horizon of their village. A sudden cataclysm has driven hundreds of thousands into strange lands homeless and penniless. I doubt whether in human history there has ever been such universal and acute suffering concentrated in so narrow an area, condensed in so short a time. I know full well the sublime meaning and purpose of all this suffering. I know that the Belgian nation will emerge purified and ennobled and redeemed from her awful ordeal. But at what a price has redemption been secured ! And what will be the aftermath of anguish and agony ?

I have tried to give a picture of the present distress of Belgium. So far from being exaggerated, it is only a feeble attempt to describe infinite and unutterable misery. The misery is almost beyond human help. Yet a great deal can be done to alleviate the sufferings of a martyred nation. A great deal has been done already. A great deal more requires to be done. And let us not discriminate in our charity to the British and in our charity to the Belgians. The Belgians have fought, they are still fighting, the battles of Great Britain. If there be priority, let priority be given to those who were first in suffering, and who are suffering most. If the British people and the British Government are not going to help, I ask, who, then, will help ? As long as German occupation lasts there is no Belgian Government to appeal to. Until the Teutonic invader is expelled from Belgian territory the Belgian people are under the sole protection and dependent on the generosity of their British brethren.