From Calais to La Panne is fifty miles. Calais is under military law. It is difficult to enter, almost impossible to leave in the direction in which I wished to go. But here again the Belgian Red Cross achieved the impossible. I was taken before the authorities, sharply questioned, and in the end a pink slip was passed over to the official of the Red Cross who was to take me to the front. I wish I could have secured that pink slip, if only because of its apparent fragility and its astounding wearing qualities. All told, between Calais and La Panne it was inspected—texture, weight and reading matter, front and reverse sides, upside down and under glass—by some several hundred sentries, officials and petty highwaymen. It suffered everything but attack by bayonet. I found myself repeating that way to madness of Mark Twain’s:
Punch, brothers, punch with care,
Punch in the presence of the passenjaire,
A pink trip slip for a five-cent fare—
and so on.
Northeast then, in an open grey car with “Belgian Red Cross” on each side of the machine. Northeast in a bitter wind, into a desolate and almost empty country of flat fields, canals and roads bordered by endless rows of trees bent forward like marching men. Northeast through Gravelines, once celebrated of the Armada and now a manufacturing city. It is curious to think that a part of the Armada went ashore at Gravelines, and that, by the shifting of the English Channel, it is now two miles inland and connected with the sea by a ship canal. Northeast still, to Dunkirk.
From Calais to Gravelines there had been few signs of war—an occasional grey lorry laden with supplies for the front; great ambulances, also grey, and with a red cross on the top as a warning to aeroplanes; now and then an armoured car. At Gravelines the country took on a more forbidding appearance. Trenches flanked the roads, which were partly closed here and there by overlapping earthworks, so that the car must turn sharply to the left and then to the right to get through. At night the passage is closed by barbed wire. In one place a bridge was closed by a steel rope, which a sentry lowered after another operation on the pink slip.
The landscape grew more desolate as the daylight began to fade, more desolate and more warlike. There were platforms for lookouts here and there in the trees, prepared during the early days of the war before the German advance was checked. And there were barbed-wire entanglements in the fields. I had always thought of a barbed-wire entanglement as probably breast high. It was surprising to see them only from eighteen inches to two feet in height. It was odd, too, to think that most of the barbed wire had been made in America. Barbed wire is playing a tremendous part in this war. The English say that the Boers originated this use for it in the South African War. Certainly much tragedy and an occasional bit of grim humour attach to its present use.