“Besides, this town and all the towns between here and Brussels are being secretly flooded with papers printed in French telling the people that we have been beaten everywhere to the south, and that the Allies are but a few miles away; and that if they will rise in numbers and destroy the garrisons re-enforcements will arrive the next morning to hold the district against us.
“If they do rise it will be Louvain all over again. We shall burn Liege and kill all who are suspected of being in league against our troops. Assuredly many innocent ones will suffer then with the guilty; but what else can we do? We are living above a seething volcano.”
Certainly, though, never did volcano seethe more quietly.
The garrison commander would not hear of our visiting any of the wrecked Belgian fortresses on the wooded heights behind the city. As a reason for his refusal he said that explosives in the buried magazines were beginning to go off, making it highly dangerous for spectators to venture near them. However, he had no objection to our going to a certain specified point within the zone of supposed safety. With a noncommissioned officer to guide us we climbed up a miry footpath to the crest of a low hill; and from a distance of perhaps a hundred yards we looked across at what was left of Fort Loncin, one of the principal defenses.
I am wrong there. We did not look at what was left of Fort Loncin. Literally nothing was left of it. As a fort it was gone, obliterated, wiped out, vanished. It had been of a triangular shape. It was of no shape now. We found it difficult to believe that the work of human hands had wrought destruction so utter and overwhelming. Where masonry walls had been was a vast junk heap; where stout magazines had been bedded down in hard concrete was a crater; where strong barracks had stood was a jumbled, shuffled nothingness.
Standing there on the shell-torn hilltop, looking across to where the Krupp surprise wrote its own testimonials at its first time of using, in characters so deadly and devastating, I found myself somehow thinking of that foolish nursery tale wherein it is recited that a pig built himself a house of straw, and the wolf came; and he huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down. The noncommissioned officer told us an unknown number of the defenders, running probably into the hundreds, had been buried so deeply beneath the ruins of the fort in the last hours of the fighting that the Germans had been unable to recover the bodies. Even as he spoke a puff of wind brought to our nostrils a smell which, once a man gets it into his nose, he will never get the memory of it out again so long as he has a nose. Being sufficiently sick, we departed thence.