Furnes is not on the coast, but three miles inland. So we turned sharp to the left toward La Panne, our destination, a small seaside resort in times of peace, but now the capital of Belgium. It was dark now, and the roads were congested with the movements of troops, some going to the trenches, those out of the trenches going back to their billets for twenty-four hours’ rest, and the men who had been on rest moving up as pickets or reserves. Even in the darkness it was easy to tell the rested men from the ones newly relieved. Here were mostly Belgians, and the little Belgian soldier is a cheery soul. He asks very little, is never surly. A little food, a little sleep—on straw, in a stable or a church—and he is happy again. Over and over, as I saw the Belgian Army, I was impressed with its cheerfulness under unparalleled conditions.
Most of them have been fighting since Liege. Of a hundred and fifty thousand men only fifty thousand remain. Their ration is meagre compared with the English and the French, their clothing worn and ragged. They are holding the inundated district between Nieuport and Dixmude, a region of constant struggle for water-soaked trenches, where outposts at the time I was there were being fought for through lakes of icy water filled with barbed wire, where their wounded fall and drown. And yet they are inveterately cheerful. A brave lot, the Belgian soldiers, brave and uncomplaining! It is no wonder that the King of Belgium loves them, and that his eyes are tragic as he looks at them.
La Panne at last, a straggling little town of one street and rows of villas overlooking the sea. La Panne, with the guns of Nieuport constantly in one’s ears, and the low, red flash of them along the sandy beach; with ambulances bringing in their wounded now that night covers their movements; with English gunboats close to the shore and a searchlight playing over the sea. La Panne, with just over the sand dunes the beginning of that long line of trenches that extends south and east and south again, four hundred and fifty miles of death.
It was two weeks and four days since I had left America, and less than thirty hours since I boarded the one-o’clock train at Victoria Station, London. Later on I beat the thirty-hour record twice, once going from the Belgian front to England in six hours, and another time leaving the English lines at Bethune, motoring to Calais, and arriving in my London hotel the same night. Cars go rapidly over the French roads, and the distance, measured by miles, is not great. Measured by difficulties, it is a different story.
“’Twas A famous victory”
La panne, January 25th, 10 P.M.
I am at the Belgian Red Cross hospital to-night. Have had supper and have been given a room on the top floor, facing out over the sea.