Twenty-seventh of October, 1914:
“At dawn I take advantage of a few moments’ respite to read over the kind wishes which have come from home. What happiness! Soon, however, the illusion leaves me. The situation here is still all confusion; we cannot think of advancing—”
The last sentence is a broken one. For he died.
* * * * *
Morning came and he read his letters from home. They cheered him a little; we can be glad of that, at least. And then he died.
That record is a great human document. It is absolutely genuine. He was starving and cold. As fast as they built a bridge to get back it was destroyed. From three sides he and the others with him were being shelled. He must have known what the inevitable end would be. But he said very little. And then he died.
There were other journels taken from the bodies of other German officers at that terrible battle of the Yser. They speak of it as a “hell”—a place of torment and agony impossible to describe. Some of them I have seen. There is nowhere in the world a more pitiful or tragic or thought-compelling literature than these diaries of German officers thrust forward without hope and waiting for the end.
At six o’clock it was already entirely dark and raining hard. Even in the little town the machine was deep in mud. I got in and we started off again, moving steadily toward the front. Captain F—— had brought with him a box of biscuits, large, square, flaky crackers, which were to be my dinner until some time in the night. He had an electric flash and a map. The roads were horrible; it was impossible to move rapidly. Here and there a sentry’s lantern would show him standing on the edge of a flooded field. The car careened, righted itself and kept on. As the roads became narrower it was impossible to pass another vehicle. The car drew out at crossroads here and there to allow transports to get by.
THE IRON DIVISION
It was bitterly cold, and the dead officer’s diary weighed on my spirit. The two officers in the machine pored over the map; I sat huddled in my corner. I had come a long distance to do the thing I was doing. But my enthusiasm for it had died. I wished I had not heard the diary.
“At dawn I take advantage of a few moments’ respite to read over the kind wishes which have come from home. What happiness!” And then he died.
The car jolted on.
The soldier and the military chauffeur out in front were drenched. The wind hurled the rain at them like bullets. We were getting close to the front. There were shellholes now, great ruts into which the car dropped and pulled out again with a jerk.
Then at last a huddle of dark houses and a sentry’s challenge. The car stopped and we got out. Again there were seas of mud, deeper even than before. I had reached the headquarters of the Third Division of the Belgian Army, commonly known as the Iron Division, so nicknamed for its heroic work in this war.