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Wars_Back_Fire

THE SATURDAY EVENING POST March 6,1915 ONE Sunday afternoon, when the war was less than three months old, I went to the largest cemetery of a certain small German city. The cemetery was a Catholic cemetery and the city was a city of Rhenish Prussia. The place literally crawled with black dots: women in black; men in black, with crape armbands on their sleeves; children in black—but particularly women. On a week day there were astonishingly few persons, considering everything, to be seen wearing mourning on the streets of that town. At first this made me wonder, see- ing that in the first of the fighting round Liege, immediately following the invasion of Belgium, a regiment drawn from this same community had been shot to bits. And now, on this Sunday afternoon, I marveled more; for here were hundreds of people, plainly drawn from all classes of society—most funereal figures, all of them—who sat among the graves or solemnly promenaded in the narrow aisles between them. The thing seemed uncanny. So I sought for the cause and learned it. Very soon after the war began the people of Germany were asked, semiofficially, to refrain from displaying the signs of immediate grief for those of their kinspeople who had fallen. It was said, with some color of authority, that the Kaiser dreaded the effect on the popular mind of so many black-robed men and women in public places. Indeed, I believe all the papers of the empire printed statements to that effect. And the people, as a rule, obeyed the wishes of their ruler; or, rather, they respected his wishes. When you consider how dearly the average Continental loves to put on mourning for his or her dead, you understand that this general acquiescence in a suggestion from the Throne was not the least of the personal sacrifices these Germans have made. During the week days I did not meet abroad a dozen individuals wearing new mourning; so far as I might judge by their looks, those who did wear mourning were men and women who had been wearing it before the war began. But the people of this town could not entirely cure themselves of the habit of generations. A custom that is centuries old gets into the blood and becomes a part of the inheritor of the custom. So, as we guessed for ourselves— my companions and I—and as we subsequently confirmed by private inquiry, every woman, or nearly every woman, who had suffered a loss privately procured for herself the heaviest and thickest mourning she could find. When Sunday came she put it on; and if she had children she put black on them too; and, since her dead most likely lay buried in a trench fifty or a hundred miles away in Belgium or in France, she went to the spot where the dead of others lay. You see, lacking the physical nearness of her own dead son or brother or husband, she craved the poor companionship of even the stranger dead. There was manifest in her a yearning that was morbid; and yet it was very pitiable too. And so all the afternoon through she would gloom among the tombs. The Resiliency of Human Nature WHEN we saw how very many of these women haunted the cemetery we came, better than ever before, to a realization of the terrific toll of mortality the war was exacting from the populace of at least one of the countries engaged in it. But on Monday morning those selfsame women, in colored garments now and with composed faces, would be going about their ordinary duties and about the extraordinary duties which fell now on their shoulders by reason of the fact that, in nine cases out of ten, their menfolk, whether living or already dead, were at the front. I am citing this detail at the outset of this article because it serves, rather fitly I think, to illustrate the principal point I hope to make. It shows how absolutely the lives of a people—the German people in this instance—may be transformed out of all normal conditions by the supremely great and overwhelming circumstance of war. In a previous article I said that, in my humble judgment, people themselves are not changed by war; mentally, I believe, they remain almost exactly what they were before. Twenty-four hours after the war hurricane has rolled over them, you find them magically readjusting themselves to conditions that are almost as strange to them as though they had been moved to another planet. The resilience of human beings on the rebound—once they have grasped the necessity of rebounding, if they care to go on living at all—has been to me one of the most astonishing things I have witnessed in Europe. Not only the people themselves but all the surroundings amid which they exist are twisted and smashed. It is as though the world had been turneetinside out in an hour or a day, and as though the dwellers on it were walking about heed downward and feet upward. The startling thing is that, figuratively speaking, they do just this. What was ERVEN S. CSCAE3 3 proper and ordained yesterday is quite impossible to-day. 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. To-day, if you attempt to cross a certain street, a strange man in a strange uniform will shoot you dead. Very well, then; you either refrain from crossing the line or he does shoot you. In any event, once you and your neighbors have grown accustomed to the prospect of being shot dead on short notice—as you do grow accustomed to it within a space of time to be measured by the round of the clock—things go on as if they had been going on so for months and years. By to-morrow, at the latest, the impossibilities of to-day have become the conventional—I came very near saying the commonplace—and there you are! Our own people here at home, who have not had war at their own doorsteps for half a century, and who think of the present war in Europe in terms of battles and mortality tables and hospital reports, and the rest of it, do not, I am sure, sense the scope and effect of warfare as it is reflected in the small, everyday affairs of existence. Yet it is there, if you but look for it, that it shows itself forth most frankly and most brutally. Take, for example, the small and simple proposition of a short railroad journey in any of the Continental countries involved in this war—that is to say, it would have been a small and simple proposition once on a time. Now it is not. Let us assume, for the sake of making the instance typical of wartime conditions, that the journey you wish to take begins near the border of the country in question, where, because of the danger, real or fancied, of spying and smuggling and clandestine transportation of contrabands, the military regulations are especially strict and exacting. War's Tangles of Red Tape EVEN months ago, or such a matter, the procedure you SSEVEN would have been simplicity itself. In your room at your hotel you packed your hand bag; then you notified the gorgeous functionary who used to gladden and glorify the front entrance of every European hotel to call a taxicab or a carriage for you. While this was being done the head waiter or his assistant brought you your bill and you paid it. A nameless functionary in a red coat and a long apron—anyhow, I never learned his title by its proper name—carried your belongings downstairs and bestowed them in the cab. In the cab you rode to the station, where a porter relieved you of your traps and put them in a railroad carriage for you, you having first purchased your ticket. Entering your compartment, you made yourself as comfortable as possible until you reached your destination, when, having surrendered your ticket to an official at the inner gate of the station, you passed out into the open, followed by another handy porter bearing your baggage. Then you got into another cab and drove to another hotel—and that was all there was to it. In other words, you took an ordinary railroad journey in an ordinary fashion. You wanted to go somewhere and you got up and went, without delay or confusion. It was nothing out of your life, or in your life either. Now, then, move the date forward sixty or ninety days: You are in your room in your hotel, folding your belongings and packing them into valises. In the room adjoining yours is a secret-service agent who would give his right eye to be able to convince his superiors of his zeal and his sagacity by ferreting out a spy. Incidentally he has that right eye glued at this moment to a secret peephole in the panel of the door between the two rooms, and he is studying— and suspecting—every movement you make. Your passport is regular; your other papers seem to be orthodox; your actions bear all outward semblance of innocence and honesty; you appear in all respects to be exactly what you really are—a reputable citizen of a country with which his country has no present quarrel. Nevertheless, he has been dogging you for days. Every night probably he has been making minute reports of your conversation and your actions and your general bearing to a man higher in the detective arm of the military force, who is every whit as anxious as the underling to make a showing of efficiency. The capture of a traitor or a spy means promotion for both. It may mean the added honor that is so dear to the bosom of small-fry officialdom all over Europe—a trumpery decoration to wear on that proudly puffed bosom. It is sufficient for the sleuth's purposes that you are an alien and that you speak the same language his country's enemies speak. Accordingly 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—he should have tested that toothbrush handle for a secret joint and whidden air chamber before now. A bone toothbrush handle might very well contain a hollow space, and any hollow space might very well contain cipher messages. At the thought doubts beset his earnest mind. Putting the situation slangily, you might say that bone is calling to bone. 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 lignumvita faced youth who cleans the boots you leave outside your door at night knows it; the frock-coated manager downstairs in the office knows it. Indeed, for that matter, all of them are his more or less willing confederates and accomplices; for if you should turn out to be other than what you purport to be they may share in the glory of the capture, and in any event will have rendered a service to the state. So the secret agent, with his highly transparent methods of espionage and his elaborately clumsy devices for winning your confidence and betraying you into damaging conversational admissions, has had the aid of as many willing volunteers as he feels like enrolling. You finish packing and you ring for the head waiter. The head waiter does not come. Yesterday he answered the call to the colors as a reserve. To-day he is wearing a uniform. This time next week he may be dead. In his stead comes an inefficient assistant. An eager ear is at the keyhole now, listening, instead of a greedy eye; whatsoever remarks you make touching on the accuracy of the account for services rendered will have due attention on the other side of that door panel. A substitute porter—the regular porter being afield with his regiment—carries your bags downstairs for you. However, no automobile is waiting for you; there is no automobile. Every able-bodied automobile has been commandeered for military purposes. Very well, then; you will take a carriage. Orders, Formalities and Obstacles THERE are no carriages to be had—at least, there is no carriage to be had for you. All the available carriages have this morning been taken over by the local commandant for the transferring of wounded officers from the railroad stations to the hospitals; and by " hospitals " is meant all the schoolhouses, all the clubs, all the gymnasiums and all the public buildings not already devoted to other military purposes. You are moved to inquire when a carriage may be secured. Who can tell? Perhaps in an hour; perhaps in a week. For a fee a human pack animal consents to transport your traps by back-and-leg power to the station. You precede him afoot. To reach the station you must pass, in its immediate vicinity, at least two armed sentries, who scrutinize you curiously. At the door is another man in uniform and also armed—a noncommissioned officer. He inquires as to your purposes. You tell him; in a Continental country that is in a state of war it is never wise to question the right of anyone to question you. You tell him you are wishful of taking a thirty-mile trip to an interior town in the same province. Ah! quite so; but . have you the proper credentials that will enable youmayhap— to board the train? You show your passports; your other papers; your receipted hotel bill; your letters of introduction from high functionaries of your own land, addressed, broadly and generously, "To Whom it May Concern." These documents are brave with seals, some of them, and furnished, moreover, with the corrugations of the official stamps of State Departments and Plenipotentiaries Extraordinary. Yet, by sight of them, even by sight of engraved spread-eagles and rich red blobs of processed beeswax, the noncom is not to be abashed one jot or tittle. He may not know what a jot is, or a tittle either—I am sure I do not—but he is not to be budged. As one might be moved to say, in his own racial vernacular, there is nothing doing—absolutely, so far as that noncom is concerned. To pass him, as he laboriously explains, you must have a special pass from the adjutant of the local commandant. It is an order. It is a new order superseding all other orders. There appears to you to be no earthly reason for it; and you so state, as forcefully as your command of his tongue will permit you to state it. The noncom shrugs.


Wars_Back_Fire
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