Wednesday 20 February 2019

A Visit to Belgium (1919)


The worthy Editor of "The Witness" has asked me to give some of my experiences of my recent visit to Belgium. I would advise those who meditate having a trip to Belgium to stop at home. There is little to describe. When you have seen one portion of it occupied by the Germans, all the rest is similar. Two of the quaintest old towns, Ypres and Dinant, are a mass of ruins. The former might be described as a scattered pile of bricks and mortar, and was in its time probably the most interesting town as regards architecture in Belgium. Passing in the trains from Courtrai, via Lille, Menin, Armentieres, and Bailleul towards Calais, for many miles it is one vast plain of desolation. You see ruined villages in all directions. Any houses still standing you can see every room in them, as if looking through a birdcage. The great bulk are destroyed by fire. Villages with the bare walls and gables standing up, all roofless. You see the many lines of trenches, all flooded, and the barbed wire defences. In many districts the shell holes are so numerous as almost to touch each other, and all filled with water. In many of these our guns disappeared and were lost. In Courtrai our buyer pointed out one shell hole which I measured, 45 yards in circumference. He stood at the bottom of it to give me an idea of its depth, and it was apparently fully 12 feet deep. One thing remarkable about it was, notwithstanding the great quantity blown out of it, you saw no trace of the earth on the surrounding grass. In Courtrai all the bridges have been blown up and all the houses in the proximity have been destroyed. Also in the country districts the bridges were all destroyed in the retreat by the Germans, and it is surprising how our Engineers have the trains again running on wooden bridges. The power of the bombs employed in destroying the railways is incredible. The ends of the rails are so curved up and standing in the air as if done by a machine. None of the rails appear broken, and the ends are four or five feet apart. Where the bomb lit between the rails, 50 to 60 yards are blown into the adjoining fields as if a new railway was going to be made. At the junction station of Denderleeuw, near Brussels, the havoc wrought there is inconceivable. Some days before the armistice was signed the Germans had the military trains collected there loaded with ammunition, apparently on the road to Germany. Seven of our machines flew over at night, and the destruction wrought could not he well described. You have six or seven acres of twisted iron, remains of engines, waggons, carriages, and rails, heaped up in different masses, and you have no trace of where the railway station stood. The adjoining village, about 400 yards off, all the houses facing the station are much damaged.


All our airmen escaped, but I think the transaction hastened the armistice. The object of my journey was Courtrai. I took sufficient luggage for a two months' stay. Arrived at Boulogne all right. Asked ticket for Bruges at the railway station. Lady clerk told me she could book only to Ghifeld, which all right, although I had not the remotest idea where it was. Arrived at Dunkerque about 9 o'clock p.m. Hotels were all closing. A porter piloted me into the town. There were no lights, and after several applications I found a room in the "Le Chapeau Rouge," which I can recommend. Next day being Christmas Day, having some old friends about 15 miles out in the country, I resolved to go and pay them a visit. I tried to get some sort of a conveyance, trains there were none; ordinary vehicles and motor cars refused. I got into the good graces of two American soldiers, motormen, who were running out provisions to the American contingent located in the village I wished to go to. The man who drove the motor was from "out West," evidently a half-cast Indian. He had a fine, determined, cool sort of expression about the lower jaw. His hobby was, apparently, just to "shave" the vehicles he passed, whether horse-waggons or motor-cars, by just a few inches, and to impress every one with the rate he could make that machine travel. So I could form in idea why "carriages for hire" preferred, remaining in the city. I spent a pleasant day in the American camp, and the hostess who put me up gave an officer and me a Christmas dinner I will long remember with pleasure. In the morning the camp did their best to have me sent back safely in one of their motor forage waggons. From all the officers and men, whether English, American, Australian, or Canadian, I experienced the greatest kindness and attention. I examined all the luggage lying on the platforms at Dunkerque, all apparently waiting for owners to turn up; but no trace of mine. I got a train to Bruges in the afternoon, arriving at Ghifeld Station, the French frontier station, about 9 p.m. There was no platform where the train stopped, and no lights. So I climbed down on to the ground, and there being no lights in the train I tied my pocket handkerchief to the handle of the door of the carriage to enable me to find my seat again. Walking round the front of the train, I got to the station, and found a soldier working the telegraph. I produced my ticket for the luggage. He told me there was no one there to open the depot, and to come in daylight. I explained that this was impossible. He then suggested it had gone on to Adinkerk, the Belgian frontier station. There was nothing to be done. After a wait of an hour, none of the Customs officers turned up, and the train proceeded to the Belgian station. There were no lights here either, and I found a soldier again working the telegraph. With out stopping the instrument, he said "Luggage would be sent on to whatever address was on it." The train waited an hour, and no Customs officers turned up, we proceeded, and arrived in Bruges at 6 am. The engine was much overloaded, and we had to stop often to get up pressure. Bruges station was much wrecked. There were no porters, and all the passengers had to look after themselves. Those who wished got hot coffee free in the third class waiting room. Accommodation in hotels in Bruges was very limited. The town generally is little damaged, except the bridges over the canals, which have been destroyed. There were no trains running to Courtrai; but, through the favour of our banker there, I got a seat on a Government motor lorry. Arrived at Courtrai, the driver asked where he would drop me. I suggested the hotel in the Grand Place. I found the gateway open, so went in, and found no one in it but a few English soldiers just arrived. And they knew nothing about it. I then went to the Town Hall, and I was directed to a house where I could put up. It was partially wrecked by shell fire. A shell had passed through my bedroom, and exploded on the other side of the wall. The windows were all boarded up. The houses on the opposite side of the street were a complete wreck, only portions of the walls standing. The next day a Good Samaritan, a leading surgeon, very kindly offered me accommodation in his house while I remained, for which I felt thankful. I refer to these little trifles to show how disagreeable travelling could be in Belgium at present. I found our stores a complete wreck. They were situated about 100 yards from a bridge the Germans blew up before leaving Courtrai; the roof was much damaged, and the doors and windows blown in. I found a family of refugees living in my house, which was very dirty, and anything of value had disappeared. I told them to be in no hurry out, as I was not likely to be able to occupy it till it was repaired. All the bridges are destroyed in and about Courtrai. The only communication between the two sides of the river is a narrow floating platform, about four feet wide. On the down stream side there is a hand rail to keep you from falling off and being carried off by the stream. If you fall on the "up-steam" side, the platform preserves you from that danger. Occasionally this floating platform or bridge gets overloaded and when the water commences to rise over your boots you hear some very impolite language from the front and rear. The Lye was much flooded; in fact, the whole country is in a bad state from the weighty rains.

Brussels is little changed. No damage done, and business goes on as usual. If you can pay, you can get all you want. Boots cost from £8-£12 per pair. Clothing is dear; I hear £20-£30 for a suit of clothes. Restaurants table d'hote dinners, 30-50frs.; wine, 20-70 frs. per bottle; quarter beefsteak with chipped potatoes, 7frs. All eatable in proportion.


When business gets settled again, Belgium will speedily revive. Belgians are both economical and hard workers, and their new style of Government and franchise will speedily tell on the welfare and prosperity of the country. Some families have been very heavily hit. Families with fixed incomes and those formerly holding good commercial positions are now rendered destitute, not to speak of the horrible barbarities enacted in many Belgian and French towns and villages, with their intense sufferings. At present the outlook in Belgium is very serious. All the factories are more or less injured. None of them are working, and a considerable time must elapse before there is a possibility of much employment. In the building and kindred trades there will be much to be done if the capital is forthcoming to do it. Where it will come from is not decided. The refugee population is now crowding back in thousands, and with the "chaos" that exists, it is difficult to conceive of prospects in the near future. Food is still distributed to those without means; but the finances generally must be at a very low ebb. What concerns us most is, perhaps, flax supplies. As to quantities, there is much "guesswork." There is still considerable flax in the country. Much has been bought up on speculation when the Germans left, and held at speculation prices. The Belgian Government have at present prohibited its export. The Ghent mills are little damaged, and will probably be resuming work at an early date. The French mills have suffered severely. Of sowing flax seed I understand there is a fair supply for their home-sowing, which is understood going to be large.

My home-coming had its little adventures. In Belgium the railways are very short of rolling stock — few engines, carriages, or waggons. The military trains are mostly open waggons, with an odd passenger carriage supposed to be for the officers, without glass in the windows. When travelling, you find out when there is a military train going your way. You climb up as best you can and where you can. Arrived at your destination, you get out the same way. No booking office, nor tickets to check. Riding in an open waggon is less draughty, generally, than the carriage. After much telegraphing, in which I was assisted much by our officers in Courtrai, I found my luggage had been sent to Thielt, with which there is at present no rail communication from Courtrai. I recovered it, however, and took the precaution to leave it behind till my return to Courtrai. I got a military train to Calais at four o'clock a.m. Travelled first to Menin — to secure a good seat. Then by way of Lille, Armentiers, Belluil, to Calais. Discovered the train did not go into Calais, but stopped about three miles out. I had some difficulty getting into town and finding a room. Next morning I found although several steamers going to Dover, they were for military only. So there was no other way except going by Boulogne. Happily I met a military motor car going to headquarters, and passing through Boulogne, about 50 miles off. The chauffeur gave me a lift. I will long remember that ride. Some of the holes in the road looked to be about two feet deep, and I felt if the agent of the Ocean Accidental Life Insurance Company knew I was on that car he would have spent a most uphappy three hours. When I reached London, after visiting several hotels, I spent the night on rather a short couch in a drawing-room of a pension I never visited before, and was very glad to have it. To those meditating a "joy-ride" to Belgium, my advice is — Don't!!


From The Witness, 21 February 1919.
Photo: The Town Square, Arras, France. February, 1919.

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