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Spies and Refugees

Published: March 10, 2015

"The Secret Agent Has as Many Willing Volunteers as He Feels Like Enrolling."

“The Secret Agent Has as Many Willing Volunteers as He Feels Like Enrolling.”

A war correspondent’s job is never easy. But it would have been particularly hard for journalists in 1915 who were prevented from getting anywhere near the combat zone of World War I.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that Post WWI correspondents had little material to work with: panicked refugee recollections and facts handed out and censored by government officials. Reports were reduced to speculations on the war’s progress and theories of how the conflict was affecting the Europeans.

In this week’s report from inside Imperial Germany, Irvin S. Cobb — still unable to get near the fighting — reported that the war had turned the world upside down for the people of France, Belgium, and Germany:

Yesterday, as a free agent and a responsible being, you might go where you pleased in your home town; within the walls of your home you might order your own life to suit your own whims. Today, if you attempt to cross a certain street, a strange man in a strange uniform will shoot you dead. … Mails are suspended; ordinary means of communication are interrupted or annulled outright; shops are closed or else they pass into the hands of the military authorities. … Trade is destroyed; credit is something that was, but is not any more.

Germans no longer turned to stare at the ambulances filled with wounded soldiers. Belgian children, ragged and starved, played house on the ruins of their bombed-out homes. French peasant women dug “the mildewing remnants of their crops out of the ground literally within the fighting zone, with shells bursting over them.” The people of continental Europe, Cobb believed, were born with the knowledge of how to get on with during war.

Cobb, however, was not adjusting to the wartime life. He groused about the disrupted mail, the unreliable trains, and the fact that he couldn’t go anywhere in Germany without prior permission from unresponsive army officials. Nor did he appreciate being constantly spied on in his hotels:

Brother Peeping Tom watches you through his peephole. You wind your watch, and he makes a mental note of it. You slip your toothbrush into a celluloid case, and a spasm of horrid fear clutches at his heartstrings. … A bone toothbrush handle might very well contain a hollow space, and any hollow space might very well contain cipher messages. …

For days now — ever since you landed in this town — he has been carrying a key to your room and has been entering your room in your absence, and prying through your papers, through your clothing, through everything that you own. The chambermaid who makes your bed knows of his presence and his business under that roof; the barber who shaves you knows all about it … the frock-coated manager downstairs in the office knows it.

Despite his complaints, Cobb had been luckier than most reporters. He had actually toured a little of the front lines and been permitted to remain in Germany. But the government’s control over the news kept him from getting a clear impression of how the war was going.

Yet, he was an observant writer who could spot significant details in the chaos. His reports of the war’s impact on the people contained anecdotes, brief conversations, or poignant scenes, like this one capturing the plight of Belgian refugees:

I observed, as I skirted Holland on my way back to England, how the refugees, having no papers at all and no way of spreading the word, were writing on the sides of all the buildings along the Dutch frontier their own names, and with these the names of their own people from whom they were separated, in the poor hope that the lost ones, coming that way, might read the message and follow on.

Indeed, almost the last memory I now preserve of the Belgian refugees has for its background a little cowshed in a little Dutch town, a mile or two over the border from Belgium.

It is almost dark and it is drizzling rain. An old, old man — he must be nearly 80 — stands in the drip from the eaves. The shoulders of his Sunday-best coat are slick and luminous with wetness, and all his earthly possessions lie at his feet — a black umbrella, and a bundle tied up in a red tablecloth.

In his right hand he holds a piece of chalk and in his left he holds matches. With one hand he scratches a match and with the chalk in the other he writes over and over again on the side of that little cowshed his name and the name of his old wife, from whom he is separated, probably forever.

Our train pulls out and we leave him there, striking another sputtering match into a tiny spark and writing his wife’s name again on the cowshed wall.

I do not think I shall ever forget him, though he was but one of the smallest and least considerable byproducts of this miserable industry called civilized warfare.


Step into 1915 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post March 6, 1915 issue.

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  • Elisha

    Hey, just wanted to let you know — I tried the link to read the whole article, and got an error message (ya’ll’s amusing “It looks like this page got carried away). I’d love to read it, though!