The Great War, I was there - Part 5

something cut deep into the soil, of some vast drain. From where we stood 1 could judge the hours which must pass before we ourselves made junction with it. The day would be growing dark before our united ooze of forlorn mankind could gain the woods next to Eeckeren, whence I could perceive even now a further deadwater of flight stretching to the region which layabout the frontier. "The number of those departing was so great- that I gave no thought to estimating it. If huge crowds had fled the city I might have tried to reckon how many they were. But what I perceived now was not a mere escape or withdrawal of huge crowds. De­parture was universal. Antwerp was alike box which had been opened and its population had fallen out of it. Alexander Powell, the American corre­spondent, who saw the German entry into the abandoned city, describes that extraordinary scene, taken as from legend, with the regiments tramping instep and the bands playing through streets where there was no one left to watch or to listen, and the glass from the broken windows lay on the deserted footways. Another writer at the time declared that only five thousand persons were left in Antwerp. Suppose he ex­aggerated and ten times that remained, what were they out of three hundred thousand ?The composition of the long array of fugitives, in the middle-distance, as I watched, where the outlines could just be distinguished of men and women, of laden vehicles and of animals, gave it the appearance of a nation upon the move. That appear­ance, too, answered to fact. -tile continual shrinking of Belgian *territory because of the advance of the foe had forced the population from town to town, till in Antwerp to its own inhabitants there had come an influx drawn from all the sources of that small but thickly settled land. These were mostly those peasants and humble townsfolk who are their country’s fundamental stock, and all unknowingly hold the recipe of its character. In Antwerp, more than in Brussels, the race had taken refuge. Now it was driven forth again and with its primitive belongings was plodding into exile. No wonder then that the unbroken press before me, wherein old-style chariots and improvised litters and herds were all mingled, made me think of the Israelites and of Exodus. These thoughts soon were chased by my own difficulties of the moment. With the ever-recurring recollection in my mind of the telegram which I must send somehow to London, I tried, with my companions, to progress through the throng about us. This was a scarcely conceivable task. The road on which we were may have been some fifteen yards across, from containing hedges on the right to the track on the left of one of those half-trams, half-trains which run along so many of the high­ways of Belgium. But this space in itself was broken up into a central breadth of pave, hard and irregular to the foot with its innumerable stone- bricks, and two stone-edged paths on either side, three yards or so broad. It was further complicated by trees in the middle of the paths and by the twelve-inch drop from paths to pave. TRUDGING ,SHAM B LING MOB f there had been an ordinary large crowd on this road it would have been excessively fatiguing to slip through it, veering about, changing level all the time, swerving under elbows, cutting in and out, knocking against the kerb or the iron rails—and to goon doing this for miles. But now that the road was filled with the flight, to penetrate it became exhausting in ten minutes, and after as much time I would abandon the effort and would drop into the step- by-step trudge of the throng,* and would jerk, shamble and halt with everyone else, till again I felt equal to pushing through quarter-made gaps, to stumbling between cows and crooking at an angle round tree-trunks, only to be beaten once more by the exertion, to fall into my uneasy socket, and then to begin again and to fail and tore- begin. All the time the afflictions of the route encompassed me. Most of the fugitives paced along sadly, their gaze on the ground or lost in the distance. Here and there were riders, bareback or on rough farm-saddles, limp­ shouldered from their eternal jog, their heads as bent as their horses’. Enormous wagons occupied half the road, bearing twenty, twenty-five, thirty persons pent in a heap, girls huddled listlessly together upon heaps of bedding, aged brown women like shrunk walnuts, buried in shawls, children fitfully asleep, shaken and querulous, and babies crying interminably. There were no cars no car could have stood the rate of progress without its driver going mad and it was a poor people's march. But there were bicycles with shape­less, angular or bloated bundles fixed to them, protruding on either side of the wheels, lolloping insecurely, or 182 else slung and ever slipping and calling for readjustment and some had a little child tied to the saddle, pushed by its patient father on and on, stop and go, stop and go, endlessly. Peram­bulators, too, were filled with children, and with children on whom clothes and linen had been piled because of need of space, or who were a little older and could manage to carry clocks or boxes in their arms. Sons wheeled old fathers along in wheelbarrows, and strongmen were carrying (for how long ?)chairs slung from their shoulders in which daughters or wives, ill or with child, sat gripping the arms of the chair rigidly. Led horses with household goods strapped to their backs or even bearing hen-coops as panniers made their heavy way along. All such issued from the mass of plodders, of men leaning on sticks, of couples arm-linked for support, of families irregularly strung out mixed with whom again was a surf and an undersurf of domestic beasts, clogging every pore of progress bevies of wretched hoof-weary baa-ing sheepdogs barking distractedly bellowing cattle in droves. To their din was joined the exasperating, ceaseless jingle and twang of the bells of city cyclists, who, until towards dark they learned sense or learned hopelessness, were forever making vard-starts, turning a pedal once, ringing violently—as though there were any chance of way being made for them there!—subsiding awkwardly onto one leg, colliding with walkers, or with doys which yelped at the impact. WEE PIN GAS THEY WALKED Come of the legions of dogs dragged little carts others trotted cowed between the wheels of a wagon others were bunched upon its straw-piled top with cats and goats and with three or as many as four generations of a family. Numbers of women cradled cats in their arms, and I walked awhile along­side two who carried between them a sort of laundry-bundle out of the top of which peeped the head of apathetic little wastrel of a pup. The bundle swung back and forth the women cried silently as they walked. A couple of others had a cat, swinging similarly, but in a curtain tied or sewn about it, from which the miaowing cat kept trying to wriggle awav. The awful slowness of movement outwore the soul. Hundreds upon hundreds gave up, flung themselves down by the roadside or formed camps amid the trees by the border, so that the roadway became twice congested and the moving flood was dammed in long delays.
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