THE cereal and fat reserves are divided between Rotterdam, the mills, warehouses and moving lighters in Belgium and Northern France, so that one can never see the dramatic heaping up in one place of the grain that is to feed 10,000,000 for six days, or months. But the greater part of the clothing reserves are held in the one city of Brussels. Their housing furnishes another of the bewildering contrasts wrought by the war; what was two years ago a huge, thrilling Hippodrome is now filled with the silent ranks of bolts of cotton and flannel. And not far away, the once popular skating-rink is piled to the ceiling with finished garments; stage boxes, galleries, dressing-rooms., stairways---all are heaped with cases and stacked with racks. The ceiling is the only part of the edifice still visible; along the rear wall, for instance, runs a big sign, "Garments for Babies," and they mount to the skylights. Stocks are accumulating in both. these buildings and other sub-centers during the summer, and in the autumn the work of distribution against the approaching winter begins, October 1st registering the high-water mark of assets. At that time there were three and a half million pieces, yards and pairs, on the shelves of the Hippodrome, and already hundreds of thousands of garments assembled in the skating-rink.
The Rink is not more than a few yards and minutes from the Hippodrome, but a bolt of flannel may travel many miles and occupy several weeks in going from one to the other. That journey explains the marvelous development of the clothing organization. One may go even further, and trace the cloth from the donor in America, to the recipient in Mons or Tournai! In fact, I once thought I recognized a finished blouse, as plaid flannel contributed in San Francisco.. I may have been mistaken, but I let my mind follow that flannel from the hand of the little schoolteacher on the Pacific, to the unhappy mother in Tournai!
For when the C. R. B. sent out a call for new clothing materials in January, 1916, somehow it reached a weather-beaten school-house on a lonely stretch of coast 30 miles south of San Francisco. The teacher hurriedly got together some wool, and began showing her eight pupils (they happened all to be boys), how to knit caps for other boys of their own size. Their few families gathered what they could, and on her first free Saturday, the teacher started in an open buggy in the rain for the C. R. B. Bureau in San Francisco. This meant 30 miles over wretched roads, up hill and down, with her precious box. When we opened it we found eight knitted caps, one small sack of rice, one pair of fur-lined gloves, a bag of beans, a lady's belt, plaid flannel for a blouse, and 40 cents for eight five-cent stamps for the letters the boys hoped to receive in answer to those they had carefully tucked inside the caps. They did not know that our orders were to remove all writing from all gifts, tho once in a while a line did slip in. I saw a touching example of what these slips meant when I was leaving Brussels. A group of women came to me to say, "Madame, we hear you are going to California---is it true? And, if you are, may we not send a message of just a single word by you? Will you not tell Margery Marshall, of Saratoga, that the pretty dress she sent over a year ago, made a little girl, oh, so happy! She has waited all these long months hoping to find a way to thank Margery---and we want to thank Margery. Will you tell her?"
These offerings then were freighted to New York with the month's contributions, and there consigned to a C. R. B. ship, starting for Rotterdam. In. Rotterdam they were unloaded into the enormous C. R. B. clothing warehouse, a corrugated zinc structure as big as a city block. After the examinations, valuings and listings, they were reloaded on to one of the C. R. B. barges that ply the canals constantly, and finally deposited for the Comité National in the Hippodrome at Brussels. There the women's work began---in fact, to one woman especially is due the credit for the completeness of the organization of this clothing department.
On a certain day the flannel for the blouse was piled into a big gray truck and hauled across the city to one of the most interesting places in Brussels. This is at once the central workroom for the capital, and the pattern and model department for all Belgium. Madame ... has 500 women and men working continually, to prepare the bundles of cut garments that go out to the sub-sections and homes in Brussels. If the seamstresses have children they may receive one bundle of sewing a week; if not, but one in a fortnight. In the ouvroir itself the work is divided between shifts who are allowed to come for a fortnight each. This is, of course, the great sorrow of the committees. If only there were enough work to give all the time to those whose sole appeal is that they be allowed to earn their soup and bread! But every hour's work encourages somebody, and the opportunities are distributed just as widely as possible. In this way about 25,000 are reached in Greater Brussels alone.
The business of preparing these little packages of cut-out blouses and trousers and bibs is amazing. The placing of patterns to save cloth in the cutting is the first consideration; the counting off of the buttons, tapes, hooks and necessary furnishings for millions of garments---can we conceive the tediousness of this task? Instructions must be carefully marked on a card that is tied across the top of the completed bundle, everything being made as simple for the sewer as possible. They travel from one counter to another, from one room to the next, even up and down stairs, before compact, neat and complete, they are finally registered and ready to go to the waiting women, who will make them into the skirts or baby slips or men's shirts or suits that the relief committees will distribute.
That is the Brussels side of the work; the national side appears in the pattern and model department. Madame has developed this to an extraordinary degree. Here dozens of people are bending over counters, folding, measuring, cutting heavy brown paper into shapes for every particular article that is to be given to every particular man, baby and woman in Belgium. There are patterns for children of every age, and for grownups, of every width and length---hundreds of patterns for all the workrooms in all the provinces. Then there are sample picture-charts showing how the patterns must be placed for the most advantageous cutting. Along with every type of pattern goes one finished model for exhibition in the workroom. In the models the women may see just how the little bundles that started originally from the Hippodrome should look, when they are shipped back as garments to the Rink.
ONE CORNER OF THE BRUSSELS HIPPODROME, NOW A CENTRAL CLOTHING SUPPLY STATION
And it was for one of these models for a blouse that the school-teacher's plaid was used! As sample blouse it traveled from the Brussels pattern center to an ouvroir in the Southern Hainaut: it hung in a workroom in Mons! After hundreds of blouses had been copied from it and distributed in the province, the pattern department decided to change the blouse model, and the old one was sent back to Brussels to the skating-rink, to be apportioned again, as it happened, to the relief committee in Tournai, which knew the need of the mother who wore it the day I saw her! Too much system, you will say. But there should be no such criticism until one has seen with his own eyes several millions depending entirely on a relief organization for covering (blankets and shoes, too, are a necessary part of the aid given), and realize the terrible obligations to divide the work among as many as possible of the thousands of unemployed, the necessity of a high standard of work, and of justice in division among the nine provinces.
The scraps from the floors of the ouvroirs are carefully hoarded in sacks, in the hope that the Germans may grant the committee the right to use a factory to re-weave them into some rough materials in the absence of cotton and wool. Some of these cuttings are at present being used as filling for quilts.
The constant contributions of time and service at the strictly business ends---in the warehouses, or depots like the Hippodrome, or the skating-rink---seem more generous than all others. In these places the committees are shut away from that daily contact with misery that evokes a quick response. The business there has settled down to a matter of lists and accounts: one must work with a far-vision for inspiration. It is quite a different matter in the actual ouvroir, where grateful women come all day and sew, and are sometimes allowed to keep their little children beside them. There you have their stories and know their suffering; you are able, also, to teach them, while they sew, how to care for their bodies and their homes, even to sing, and all the while you realize that the very garments they are putting together are to go to others even more unhappy---these are the places where service has its swift and rich rewards! I have visited just such blessed workrooms in Namur and Charleroi and Mons, in Antwerp and Dinant, in fact in dozens of cities up and down the length of Belgium. If they could be gaily flagged as they should be, we should see all the country dotted with these centers of hope. And we should know that they meant that thousands of women in Belgium are being given at least a few days' work every month.
BEFORE the war the big music-hall in Antwerp offered a gay and diverting program. Every night thousands drifted in to laugh and smoke ---drawn by the human desire for happiness. Here they were care-free, irresponsible; tragedy was forgotten.
To-day it is still a music-hall. As Madame opened the door-from the floor, from the galleries, from every part of the vast place floated a wonderful solemn music---1,200 girls were singing a Flemish folk-song that might have been a prayer. We looked on a sea of golden and brown heads bending over sewing tables. Noble women had rescued them from the wreckage of war---within the shelter of this music-hall they were working for their lives, singing for their souls!
And all the time they were preparing the sewing and embroidery materials for 3,300 others working at home. In other words, this was one of the blessed ouvroirs or workrooms of Belgium.
Off at the left a few tailors were cutting men's garments. High on the stage, crowded with packing-cases, sat the committee of men who give all their. time to measuring the goods, registering the income and output of materials and finished garments. On the stage, too, was an extraordinary exhibit. Three forms presented three of the quaintest silk dresses imaginable, elaborately trimmed with ribbons and velvets and laces, and all designed for women of dainty figure. I laughed and then rather flushed, as I remembered the stories of the white satin slippers and chiffon ball gowns that had been included in our clothing offering of 1914---I murmured something of apology, and referred to the advance the Commission had made in 1915, when it had sent out the appeal for new materials only.
But Madame protested: "Oh," she said, "these are here in honor! And we know that somebody once loved these dainty dresses, and for that reason gave them to us. We love your old clothes! Our only sadness is that we can not have them any more. One old dress to be made over gives work for days and days, while the new materials can be put together in one or two. What will become of all my girls now that I shall have no more of your old clothes to furnish them? How shall they earn their 3 francs (60 cents) a week? At best we can allow each but eight days' work out of fifteen, and only one person from each family may have this chance.
"But these three dresses we shall not touch!" And she smiled as she looked again at her exhibit.
Here the whole attitude toward the clothing is from the point of view, not of the protection it gives, but of the employment it offers. Without this employment, without the daily devotion of the wonderful women who have built up this astonishing organization, thousands of other women must have been on the streets---with no opportunity (except the dread, ever present one) through these two years to earn a franc, with nothing but the soup-lines to depend on for bread. Of course, there is always dire need for the finished garments. They are turned over as fast as they can be to the various other committees that care for the destitute. Between February, 1915, and May, 1916, articles valued at over 2,000,000 francs were given out in this way through this ouvroir alone.
THE ANTWERP MUSIC-HALL, NOW A SEWING ROOM
Here hundreds of women are being saved, by being furnished the opportunity to work two weeks in each month, on an average wage of sixty cents a week.
But one could endure cold---anything is better than the moral degradation following long periods of non-employment. So it is not of the garments, but of the 9,500,000 francs dispensed as wages, that these women think. The work must go on. "See," Madame said, "'what we do with the veriest scraps!" A young woman was putting together an attractive baby quilt. She had four pieces of an old coat, large enough to make the top and lining, and inside she was stitching literally dozens of little scraps of light woolen materials. Another was making children's shoes out of bits of carpet and wool.
In one whole section the girls do nothing but embroider our American flour sacks. Artists draw designs to represent the gratitude of Belgium to the United States. The one on the easel as we passed through, represented the lion and the cock of Belgium guarding the crown of the king, while the sun----the great American eagle rises in the East. The sacks that are not sent to America as gifts are sold in Belgium as souvenirs. Each sack has its value before being worked. Many of them---especially in the north of France---have been made into men's shirts, and tiny babies' shirts and slips.
Before July, 1916, in the Charleroi ouvroir, over 30,000 sacks had been made into 15,000 shirts at a Cost of 25 centimes per sack, and a sewing price of 30 centimes each.
Each Monday the women may work on their own garments, and on Tuesday all the poor of the city bring their clothing to be patched or darned. A shoe section, too, does what it can for old shoes. Such shoes and such remnants of socks and of shirts as we saw! But the more difficult the job, the happier the committee!
During the week, courses are given in the principles of dressmaking and design. In the evening there are classes for history, geography, literature, writing, and very special attention is given to hygiene, which is taught by means of the best modern slides. These things are splendid, and with the three francs a week wages, spell self-respect, courage, progress all along the line. The committee has always been able to secure the money for the wages, but they can not possibly furnish the materials ---sufficient new ones they could never have.
They are living from day to day on the hope that the C. R. B. may be able to make an exception for the Antwerp ouvroir, and appeal once more for her precious necessity---"old clothes!" This the C. R. B. may be able to do---but will England feel equally free to make an exception to her ruling that since the Germans have taken the wool from the Belgian sheep, no clothing of any kind can be sent in?
As I was leaving, a thrilling thing happened. Picture this sea of golden and brown heads low over the heaped tables very square foot of pit, galleries and entry packed, lengths of cotton and flannel flung in confusion over all the balconies and from the royal box like war banners---and then suddenly see a man making his way through the crowded packing-cases on the stage to the footlights! He was the favorite baritone of this one-time concert hall, and he has come (as he does twice a week) to stand in the midst of the packing-cases behind his accustomed footlights to sing to this audience driven in by disaster, and to teach them the beautiful Flemish folk-songs. They sing as they work. For several minutes neither Madame nor I spoke. Then she smiled swiftly and said: "Yes, it is sadly beautiful---and you know, incidentally, it prevents much idle chatter!"
A FULL account of the struggle of the lace-workers would take us straight to the heart of the tragedy of Belgium. At present it can only be intimated. The women who are back of this struggle represent a fine intelligence, a most fervent patriotism and most unswerving devotion to their people and their country.
Before the war, her laces were the particular pride of Belgium. Flanders produced, beside the finest linen, the most exquisite lace known. The Queen took this industry under her especial patronage and tried in every way to better the condition of the workers, and to raise the standard of the output. We need to remember that when war broke out, 50,000 women were supporting themselves, and often their families, through this work; we need to remember the suddenness with which the steel ring was thrown about Belgium---all import of thread, all export of lace, at once and entirely cut off. In a few weeks, in a few days, thousands of women were without hope of earning their bread---at least in the only way hitherto open to them. The number grew with desperate swiftness. And we need most of all to remember that the chief lace centers were in the zone under direct military rule.
Women like Madame ... grappled with this situation, trying to save their workers (most of them young girls) from the dread alternative, trying by one means and another to give them heart, and hoping always that America could make a way for them, till finally that hope was realized---the C. R. B. had gained the permission of England to bring in a certain amount of thread, and to take out a corresponding amount of lace for sale in France and England, or elsewhere.
A fever of effort followed. Everywhere those who had been trying to keep the groups of lace-workers alive were given thread. They organized centers for the control of the output. The thread must be weighed as it was given out, and paid for by the worker as a guaranty that it would not be sold to some one else; the weight of the lace turned in must tally. Much thought must be put in the selection of designs, into the choice of articles to be made---things that would interest the people of England and France and America.
Certain parts and kinds of these laces are made in certain districts only. I am told that the very fine Malines lace, made now only in a restricted area, will not be found much longer. All these separate parts must be brought to the central depot to be made into tea-cloths and doilies and other articles for export. The finest and most necessary laces and the linen for the cloths are made in or about Bruges and Courtrai and in other towns in Flanders, in what is known as the "Étape," or zone of military preparation, with which it is almost impossible to communicate.
THE SUPPLEMENTARY MEAL THE RELIEF COMMITTEE IS NOW TRYING TO GIVE TO THE 1,250,000 SCHOOL CHILDREN
The C. R. B. is made absolutely responsible to England that no lace will be sold in the open market in the occupied territory (altho it was allowed to be sold in October and November, 1915, at exhibitions in several of the large cities of Belgium), and that all of it be exported. If it is not sold, it must be held at Rotterdam.
One can imagine the meaning of the first export of lace to those whose hearts were in this work. It was not only that they saw the lace-workers kept alive, but they saw their country reunited with the outside world. Her beautiful laces were going to those who would buy them eagerly, her market would be kept open.
Of necessity, the work became strongly centralized. The Brussels bureau, where three noble women especially were giving literally every day of their time and every particle of their energy and talent, became the official headquarters, and 45,000 lace-workers were employed under orders sent out by this central committee. Every day they came to plan, to design, to direct. They were handling thousands of articles, and hundreds of thousands of francs. They carefully examined every yard sent in, rejecting any piece below the standard, encouraging excellence in every possible way. Never in recent times have there been such beautiful laces made, and they are being sold at about half what was asked before the war. Many of the designs are copies of the best ancient models, other lovely ones turn on the present situation, having for motive the roses of the Queen, the arms of the provinces, the animals of the Allies.
Madame ... made an unforgettable picture-tall, golden-haired, exquisite, arranging and re-arranging the insets for her cloths and cushions-and recounting, as she set her patterns, the steps in the struggle for the lace-workers. There had been dangers, some were in prison. As I listened I felt the fire within must consume her. I understood why there were women in prison, why martyrdom was always a near and real possibility.
There were always discouragements of one kind or another. At the bureau, one day, Madame's eyes were red when she came downstairs. She had just had to turn off a group of workers; there was no thread to give them. At best, in order that all may be helped a little, no one person may work more than 30 hours a week, nor receive more than 3 francs (or 60 cents) a week as wages!
But on the whole the lace committees are overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunities they have had. Up to November, 1916, they have dispensed 6,000,000 francs in wages. They have given two weeks' work a month to, 45,000 women, 25,000 of whom are skilled, 10,000 of average ability, and 10,000 beginners. There will be a deficit when the war is over. "But what of that?" they say, "if only we can keep on! On the Great Day we shall give back to the Queen her chosen industry, fully three years ahead of where she left it. She will find all the standards raised, her women better trained and equipped to care for themselves, and to re-establish Belgium as the lace-maker of the world."
It has been extremely difficult for the C. R. B. to handle the lace in the United States. Its great value necessitates much more machinery and time than could be spared from the all-important ravitaillement duty. The orders from England and France are much easier to take care of. On one happy day Paquin wrote for all the Point de Paris and Valenciennes they could supply. Certain friends in London and New York are every now and then sending in individual requests. On a red-letter day the Queen of Roumania ordered, through her Legation, three very beautiful table-cloths, and quantities of other fine laces. And it is the hope of the committee that the number of these friends will grow. Needless to say, hardly a C. R. B. representative leaves Belgium without taking with him some example of this exquisite work, a testimony to others of the splendid devotion of the women of these lace committees.
I WAS reminded again to-day of how constant work must be the only thing that makes living possible to many of these women. We were at lunch, when suddenly the roar of the German guns cut across our talk. We rushed into the street, where a gesticulating crowd had already located the five Allied aeroplanes high above us. Little white clouds dotted the sky all about them --- puff of white smoke that marked the bursting shrapnel. Tho the guns seemed to be firing just behind our house, we believed we were quite out of danger. However, Marie ran to us quite white and with her hands over her ears. "Oh, Madame!" she cried, "the shrapnel is bursting all about the kitchen!" She had experienced it. She had told me once that her sister had died of fright three days after the war began, and I realized now that she probably had. Our picturesque Léon slipt over to assure me that this was not a real attack, but just a visit to give us hope on the second anniversary of the beginning of the war, to tell us the Allies were thinking of us, and that we should soon be delivered. Without doubt they would drop a message of some sort.
I thought of our United States Minister and his proximity to the Luxembourg railroad station. He had several times smilingly exprest concern over that proximity.
I remembered, too, the swift answer of Monsieur ... who lives opposite the railroad station at Mons. Bombs had just been dropt on this station---one had fallen in front of his house, and when I asked if he and his wife would not consider moving he replied, "Madame, our two sons are in the trenches---should we not be ashamed to think of this as danger?"
All the while the aeroplanes were circling and the guns were booming. Then suddenly one of the aviators made a sensational drop to within a few hundred meters of the Molenbeek Station., threw his bombs, and before the guns could right themselves, regained his altitude---and all five were off, marvelously escaping the puffs of white before and behind them.
This was thrilling, till suddenly flashed the sickening realization of what it really meant. The man behind the gun was doing his utmost to kill the man in the machine. It was horrible---horrible to us.
But to Belgian wives and mothers what must it have been? As they looked up they cried: "Is that my boy ---my husband, who has come back to his home this way? After two years, is he there? My God, can they reach him?" The only answer was the roar of the guns, the bursting shrapnel---and they covered their eyes.
I visited Madame ..., whose only son is in the flying corps, at her toy factory the following day, and realized what the experience had cost her. Her comment, however, was, "Well, now I believe I am steeled for the next."
Madame is accomplishing one of the finest pieces of work being done in Belgium to-day. Before the war she had a considerable reputation as a painter in water colors. As suddenly as it came, she found her home emptied of sons, brothers, nephews, and she went through the common experience of trying to construct something from the chaos of those tragic days. Her first thought was of what must be done for the little nephews and nieces who were left. They must be kept happy as well as alive. And she wondered if she could not turn her painting to use in making toys for them. Often before the war when sketching in Flanders she had looked at the quaint old villages, full of beauty in color and line, and felt that each was a jewel in itself and ought, somehow, to be preserved as a whole. And suddenly she decided to try and reproduce them in toy form for children. She drew beautiful designs of the villages of Furnes and Dixmude, loving ones of churches that had already been destroyed. She secured wood, began carving her houses, trees, furniture---then arranged her villages, drawing. the patterns for the children to build from. Needless to say the nieces and nephews were enchanted; and she worked ahead on other villages for other children.
Not very long after this she visited the Queen's ambulance in the palace at Brussels, and as she talked with the wounded Belgian soldiers, the thought of the hopeless future of the mutilated ones tormented her. It suddenly flashed over her that they might be given hope, if they could be taught to make her beloved toys. She was allowed to bring in models---the soldiers were interested at once---the authorities gave her permission to teach them.
Later she secured a building in Brussels---her sister-in-law and others of her family came to help. They wisely laid in a good supply of beechwood in advance, got their paints and other materials ready, and began to work with a handful of soldiers. She soon needed machines for cutting the wood, and then found that no matter how thoroughly healed, a man who has been terribly wounded, the equilibrium of whose body had been destroyed by the loss of an arm or leg, or both, could not soon be trusted with a dangerous machine---and she had to engage a few expert workmen for this department. Girls begged to be taken in, and she added nine to her fifty soldiers---one of them a pretty, black-haired refugee from the north of France. The thick book with all the addresses of applicants for work who have had to be refused, is a mute evidence of the saddest part of this whole situation ---the lack of work for those who beg to be kept off the soup-lines.
The fortunate ones are paid by piecework, but always the directors try to arrange that each man shall be able to earn about 2 1/2 francs a day.
Madame is not merely accomplishing a present palliative, but aiming at making men self-respecting, useful members of the State for their own and their country's good.
THE following day, I visited another kind of toy factory.
Madame . . ., who had lost her only son early in the war, works probably in the most inconvenient building in Brussels, which she has free of charge. She works there all day long, every day, furnishing employment for between 30 and 40 girls, who would otherwise have to be on the soupes. I went from one room to another, where they were busily constructing dolls, and animals, and all sorts of fascinating toys out of bits of cotton and woolen materials --- cheap, salable toys.
This is one of the things that we must remember if we wish properly to appreciate the work the women are doing---most of it is being carried on in buildings that we should consider almost impossible---no elevators; everywhere the necessity of climbing long flights of stairs; no convenient sanitary arrangements---but nothing discourages them.
Madame began by making bouncing balls in the Belgian colors, stuffed with a kind of moss. They cost only a few centimes, and sold as fast as she could make them. When the order came that they were no longer to be made in these colors, she ripped up those she had on hand, and began new ones, omitting the black. The balls must go on. Another day all the stuffing for her balls was requisitioned. She rushed out, up and down, street after street, seeking a substitute, and by night the little storeroom was filled with a kind of dry grass ---and the balls could go on.
The day of my first visit there were 6 of the 32 girls absent because of illness. Madame said she usually had that large a percentage out because of intestinal troubles of one sort or another. They get desperately tired of their monotonous food, and whenever they can scrape together a few extra pennies, they go to one of the few chocolate shops still open and make themselves ill.
Here, too, they are looking to America. If only they could get their toys to our markets, they could take in many who are suffering for want of work---and one feels that America would be delighted with every toy.
It is Madame herself who designs them. She is trying always to get something new, striking. In the C. R. B. office one day I noticed a representative off in a corner, busy with his pencil, and found him struggling to represent some sort of balancing bird---a suggestion for Madame.
She makes these lovely toys from the veriest scraps of cloth, old paper, straw, with pebbles picked up from the roads for weights.
In the beginning she knew nothing at all about such work, nor did any one of the young girls she was trying to help. But such a spirit experiments! She ground newspapers in a meat-grinder to try to evolve some kind of papier-mâché. She learned her processes by producing things with her own hands, and then taught each woman as she employed her. Thus she, too, is not only keeping her corps from the present soup-line, but preparing a body of trained workers for the future. The shops in Brussels sell these toys---a few have reached as far as Holland.
Everywhere in Belgium one is imprest with the facility in the handling of color, of clay or wood. There is the most unusual feeling for decorative effect; the tiniest children in the schools show a striking aptitude for design and modeling, and an astonishing sense of rhythm. One is constantly struck by this; it is a delight to hear a group of three-year-olds carrying an intricate song without accompaniment, as they go through the figures of a dance.
AT last I met the little Madame---all nerve, energy---a flame flashing from one plant under her charge to the next. I had seen her whirling by in a car, one of the two Belgian women allowed a limited pass. I had heard how she presided over councils of men, as well as of women; that she had won the admiration of all. With her it is not a question of how many hours she spends; she gives literally every hour of her time. It was especially of her work for the mutilated victims of the war that we talked this morning. She took me to the park at Woulwe, where she has 180 men being trained in various trades.
Ten months ago she decided that one of the most important things Belgium had to accomplish was to save its mutilated for themselves and the State. The whole problem of the unemployment brought on by the war was terrific. In April, 1916, over 67:2,000 workmen were idle. But the mutilated soldiers formed the most heartbreaking part of this problem. They must at once be taught trades that would fill their days and make them self-supporting in the future.
First of all, their surroundings must be cheerful and healthy; no cramped buildings in the city, and yet something easily accessible from Brussels. She told me how she searched the environs until she came upon an old, apparently deserted villa at Woulwe with beautiful spacious grounds, orchard and vegetable garden. She quickly sought out the owner and appealed to him to turn his property over to the "Mutilés." In three days a letter told her the request was granted, and within a few hours an architect was at work on the plans. He developed a cottage system with everything on one floor, sleeping-rooms, workrooms , unlimited fresh air and light; the most modern sanitary equipment; and for the workrooms, every practical arrangement possible. There is a gymnasium with a resident physician directing the work. His duty is one of the most difficult; it is not easy to convince the men of the value of all the bothersome exercises he prescribes. The restoration of the equilibrium of their broken bodies is to them often a vague end. At first some even try to escape using the artificial arms and legs provided them.
The cottages are grouped about the garden, under the trees, connected by easy little paths for the lame and the blind. The old villa holds the office, the dining-room, and a big, airy pavilion, where the men may gather for a weekly entertainment, cards or music. A bowling alley has been converted into the quaintest little chapel imaginable, with the Virgin Mary and the statues of the King and Queen in very close company, and back of them a splendid Belgian flag. Besides the regular gatherings, the men hold special services here for their comrades dead on the Field of Honor.
One by one new cottages are being built; more trades are being taught. Electricity and book-binding have been added recently, and the course for chauffeurs. The greater number of the men work in the shoe shops, where there is one workroom for the Walloons and another for the Flemings; but the scarcity of leather greatly hinders this important department. In certain sections they are already using machinery manufactured by the men themselves. And it must be kept in mind all the time that these men before the war were almost without exception in the fields.
Madame told us that the most cheerful workmen are the blind, who seemed, however, most to be pitied, as they sat there weaving their baskets and chair seats. She said that often during their weekly entertainments the entire company would be thrown into spasms of laughter by the sudden meowing of cats or cackling of hens in their midst. These were the tricks of the blind men, who were as gay as children.
The atelier is truly a joyous place, set in a garden tended by the soldiers, and inside flooded with light. The walls are covered with models and designs. Some of the men were busy with patterns for lace and embroidery. Others were modeling. A legless soldier, in the trenches only a month ago, was already handling his clay with pleasure and skill. But the most remarkable work was that of a man who had lost his right arm. Before the war, like the others, he had been a "cultivateur," never conscious of a talent that under the encouragement of a good teacher was developing astonishingly. With the pencil in his left hand, he produced designs of leaves, flowers and animals of great beauty.
One of the strangest, saddest sights, in the world is the workroom for artificial limbs. Here men who have lost their own arms and legs sit constructing arms and legs for their comrades who are to lose theirs on the battlefield. A soldier who had his right arm and all but two fingers of his left hand shot away, was filing, hammering, and shaping an artificial arm. A man with half of each forearm gone was able, by means of a simple leather appliance, to make thirty-five brushes a day. Here they were making, too, the gymnasium apparatus for the muscular exercises which help to restore the equilibrium of their own bodies.
After visiting all the workshops, we went to one of the cheery cottage dormitories. It was noon-time now, and the men, deciding that we were apt to pass that way, had quickly decorated the front porch with the flags of the Allies, daringly binding our American flag with them! Then with a yellow sand they had written on the darker earth in front of the cottage: "To the Welcome Ones---the Brave Allies"(again they had included us!) "we offer the gratitude of their soldiers!"
ONE morning in Antwerp I saw women with string bags filled with all sorts of small packages, some with larger boxes in their arms, hurrying toward a door over which was the sign "Le Petit Paquet"---the Little Package. In the hallway many others were trying to decipher various posted notices. One black-haired woman, empty bag in hand, was going through the list marked "Kinds and quantities of food allowed in 'Le Petit Paquet' for our soldiers, prisoners in Germany."
This, then told the story---husbands and sons were in prison---wives and mothers were here! The posted notices, the organizations within achieved by 24 devoted women---the mountains of little brown packages each carefully addrest, approved for contents and weight, and ready for shipment---these connected the two sad extremes.
This morning the receiving-room was crowded, as it is every morning, I am told. The directors had been standing back of the long counters since 7:30, women of every class pressing along the front, depositing their precious offerings.
Each prisoner is allowed a monthly 500-gram parcel-post package, and a 10-pound box, which may contain, beside food, tobacco and clothing. The permitted articles include cocoa, chocolate and coffee; tinned fish and vegetables and soups; powdered milk and jam. Soap may be sent with the clothing. One mother had arranged her parcels in a pair of wooden sabots which she hoped to have passed.
Such a rush of unwrapping, weighing, re-wrapping. There seemed hardly a moment for breathing, and yet somehow there was time to listen to stories, to answer questions, give courage to hundreds who found in these rooms their closest connection with their loved ones. .One could see that they were loath to go---they would have liked to stay and watch the final wrapping and registering---to actually see their tokens to the train!
On this day there was a special gift box from Cardinal Mercier for every prisoner from the province. Antwerp has 6,000 prisoners in Germany, and through the offerings of relatives or friends, or of the city itself when these fail, each one receives a permitted gift.
One sees at a glance what an enormous task the bookkeeping alone entails---record of contents, addresses of senders, distribution, registering of received packages, and numberless other entries. And each month the instructions are changing, which renders the work still more arduous.
And one is astonished over and over again at the amount of sheer physical energy women are putting into their service. Belgium has some 40,000 prisoners in Germany. In Brussels and other cities other women are repeating what the directors in Antwerp, were doing that morning.
THERE are seven rooms in Brussels, each with a long table in the middle, and with rows upon rows of green wooden boxes (about the size of a macaroni box) on shelf-racks against walls. The racks, too, are painted the color of hope---the green which after the war might well deserve a place with the red, orange and black, for having so greatly comforted the people when all display of their national colors was supprest. Each box has a hook in front from which hangs a paste board card, marked with a number; it hangs there if the box is full, when empty it is filed.
The first morning I happened in on one of these sections, I found a director and three pretty young girls feverishly busy with hundreds and hundreds of little paper bags. There were as many green boxes as the table would hold, a ranged before them, with scales at either end. They were running back and forth from the pantry with a bowl or an apronful of something, and then weighing and pouring into the bags tiny portions of beans and chicory, salt and sugar, bacon and other things. They weighed and poured as fast as they could and with almost joyous satisfaction tucked the little bags one after another into the boxes. Then they dove into the big vegetable baskets at one end of the room, and each box was made gay with a lettuce or cauliflower. For some there were bottles of milk, or a few precious potatoes or eggs. If the egg chest had been gold, it could hardly have been more treasured. For a moment it seemed the war must be a horrible dream. This was really the day before Christmas! There were even a few red apples---as a special surprize, some one had contributed two kilos that day. Since they were obviously far short of enough to furnish one for each box, the directors decided to tuck one into the box for each mother whom they knew to have a little boy or girl. Box after box took its place on the shelves until finally, by two o'clock, all gaps were filled, and a curious wall-garden grew half-way up to the ceiling. It might well have been Christmas, but actually this scene had been repeated two days a week, week in and week out, for over two and a half years, and nobody stops to question how many long months it must continue.
Some time before the last box was on its shelf, the first woman with a string bag on her arm arrived. She was carefully drest, intelligent-looking, a woman of about fifty. Later I found that before the war she had a comfortable home, with servants and a motor-car. She slipt quietly along the racks till she found the card with her number, took her box from the Shelf and transferred the tiny sacks and the two eggs to her string bag. Then she placed the little packet of empty bags and string she was returning on the table, and, after answering a few questions about her two children, went slowly downstairs. None but the Committee, or equally unfortunate ones who came as she did, need know she had been there. This was Wednesday; she could come again on Friday. Other women came, and, as the first, each could go to her box without asking, and find the precious packages---mere mouthfuls as they seemed to me!
I thought I smelled soup, and followed Madame ... to a little side room where I saw chairs and a white-covered table. Her cook was just depositing a big can of thick soup which she had been preparing at home, and which Madame had ordered brought to the center each distribution day. Any one who wishes may slip into this room on her way out, sit at a dainty table, and drink a bowl of hot soup.
By half-past two the place was filled. Dozens of women were busy with their bags and boxes, while half a dozen directors were tidying up, storing strings and sacks, filing cards, washing utensils; there was a most heartening atmosphere of busyness and cheerfulness. And all the while one group was telling its story to the other and receiving the comfort warm hearts could give. I overheard the promise of a bed to one, or coal to another, and over and over again the "Yes, I understand; I, too, am without news." From all the husbands and sons at the front no word! These women met on the ground of their common suffering. One of the saddest of all sad things happened that afternoon, when a mother, on seeing the lovely "unnecessary" apple, burst into tears. For so long, so long, her little Marie had had nothing but the ration prescribed to keep her from starving. This mother broke down as she dropt the red apple into her bag.
These were all people who had been well-off, even comfortable, but whose funds either suddenly, at the beginning, or gradually through the two terrible years, had been exhausted. Mostly their men were in the trenches; there were children or old people to care for; they had done their utmost, but at last were forced to accept help. I wondered how these few pitiful little bags could make any difference. The slice of unsmoked bacon was neither so broad nor so thick as the palm of my hand, and yet that was to be their meat and butter for three days! In this distribution center it seemed absolutely nothing, but when I visited the homes later I saw it was a great deal.
In Brussels there were in October, 1916, no less than 5,000 "Pauvres Honteux" or "Ashamed Poor" (there must be many more now) being helped through the seven sections of this "Assistance Discrète," each of which carries the same beautiful motto, "Donne, et tais-toi, "Give, and be silent." At the very beginning of the war a great-hearted woman saw where the chief danger of misery lay. The relief organizations would naturally first look after the wounded, the homeless, the very poor. Those who were accustomed to accept charity would make the earliest demands. But what about those whose business was slowly being ruined, whose reserves were small? What about school-teachers, artists, and other members of professional classes? And widows living on securities invested abroad, or children of gentle upbringing, whose fathers had gone to the front expecting to return in three or four months? She saw many of them starving rather than go on the soup-lines
She had a vision of true mutual aid. Each person who had should become the sister of her who had not. There should be a sharing of individual with individual. She did not think of green boxes or sections, but of person linked with person in the spirit of Fraternity. But the number of the desperate grew too rapidly, her first idea of direct individual help had to be abandoned, and one after another distribution centers were organized. An investigator was put in charge of each center who reported personally on all the cases that were brought in, either directly or indirectly to the committee. The Relief Committee granted a subsidy of 10,000 francs a month, which, ,one sees at a glance, can not nearly cover the need. So day after day the directors of each section canvass their districts for money and food, and by dint of an untiring devotion raise the monthly 10,000 to about 28,000 francs. But, unfortunately, every day more of war means wretched ones forced to the wall, and this sum is always far from meeting the distress. We have only to divide the 30,000 francs by the 5,000 on the lists, to see what, at best, each family may receive.
I went with Mademoiselle ..., an investigator, to visit one of these families. A charming old gentleman received us. I should say he was about seventy-three. He had been ill, and was most cheerful over what he called his "recovery," tho to us he still looked far from well. The drawing-room was comfortable, spotlessly clean; there was no fire. We talked of his children, both of whom were married; one son was in Italy, another in Russia---the war had cut off all word or help from both, He himself had been a successful engineer in his day, but he had not saved much , his illness and two years of war had eaten up everything. He was interested in Mexico and in the Panama Canal, and we chatted on until Mademoiselle felt we must go. As we were shaking hands, she opened her black velvet bag and took out an egg which she laughingly left on the table as her visiting card. She did it perfectly, and he laughed back cheerily, "After the war, my dear, I shall certainly find the hen that will lay your golden eggs!" Outside, I still could hardly pull myself together---one egg as a precious gift to a dignified old gentleman-engineer! Could it be possible? "But," explained Mademoiselle, "if I had not given him that egg, he would not have any egg!" Eggs were costing about ten cents each. "Of course, we never even discuss meat," she added; "but he has been quite ill, and he must have an egg at least every two or three days!"
The woman we visited next did not have a comfortable home, but a single room. She had been for many years a governess in a family in Eastern Belgium, but just before the war both she and the family had invested their money in a savings concern which had gone to pieces, and from that day she had been making the fight to keep her head above water. She had come to Brussels, was succeeding fairly well, when she was taken ill. She had had an operation, but after months there was still an open wound, and she could drag herself about only with great difficulty. I found that Mademoiselle takes her to the hospital, a matter of hours, three times a week for treatment, and, besides that, visits her in her room. As we were talking, a niece, also unfortunately without funds, came in to polish the stove and dust a bit. Mademoiselle reported that she was pretty sure of being able to bring some stockings to knit on her next visit. These would bring five cents a pair. And, as we left, she gave another egg, and this time a tiny package of cocoa, too. I discovered that every morsel this governess has to eat comes to her from Mademoiselle. And yet I have never been in a room where there was greater courage and cheerfulness.
So it was as we went from square to square. In some homes there were children with no father; in others, grandfathers with neither children nor grandchildren; and between them, people well enough, young enough, but simply ruined by the war. Mademoiselle was going back to spend the night with an old lady we had visited the week before, and had found reading Anatole France. She had felt she must make her last testament, and looking at her we agreed. That week she had received word that her only son, who was also her only kin, had been killed in the trenches three months before.
Of course, every city has its hundreds of unfortunates; there must be everywhere some form of "Assistance Discrète," but most of those on the lists of this war-time organization would in peace time be the ones to give, rather than receive, and their number is increasing pitifully as month follows month.
Every one permitted to be in Belgium for any length of time marvels at the incredible, unbreakable spirit of its people. They meet every new order of the military authorities with a laugh; when they have to give up their motor-cars, they ride on bicycles; when all bicycle tires are requisitioned, they walk cheerfully; if the city is fined 1,000,000 marks, the laconic comment is: "It was worth it!" All the news is censored, so they manufacture and circulate cheerful news---nothing ever breaks through their smiling, defiant solidarity. One thing only in secret I have heard them admit, and that is the anguish of their complete separation from their loved ones at the front. Mothers and wives of every other nation may have messages; they, never.
The thing that has bound them thus together and buoyed them up is just this enveloping, inter-penetrating atmosphere of mutual aid, so beautifully exprest every day through the work of the "Assistance Discrète." It was this vision of Fraternity in its widest sense that gave it birth, and every day the women of Belgium are making that vision a blessed reality.
MR. HOOVER'S visits to Brussels are crowded with conferences, endless complications to be straightened out, figures and reports to be accepted or rejected---with all the unimaginable difficulties incident to the relief of an occupied territory.
Responsible on the one hand to England, on the other to Germany, dependent always on the continued active support of his own countrymen and on the efficiency and integrity of the local relief organization, he fights his way literally inch by inch and hour by hour to bring in bread for the Belgian mother and her child.
1,622 CHILDREN, MADE SUB-NORMAL BY THE WAR, WAITING FOR THEIR DINNER
It is easy to conceive of such service if the giver is in close touch with the mother and her need, but when he must be cut off from her---locked up with the grind, the disillusionment, the staggering obstacles, this unbroken devotion through the days and nights of more than two years, becomes one of the finest expressions of altruism the world has seen.
The two years have left their mark-to strangers he must seem silent, grim, but every C. R. B. man knows what this covers.
On one visit I persuaded him to take an hour from the bureau to go with me to one of the cantines for sub-normal children. He stood silently as the 1,600 little boys and girls came crowding in, slipping in their places at the long, narrow tables that cut across the great dining-rooms, and, when I looked up at him, his eyes had filled with tears. He watched Madame and her husband, a physician, going from one child to another, examining their throats, or their eyes, taking them out to the little clinic for weighing, carrying the youngest in their arms, while the dozen white-uniformed young women hurrying up and down the long rows were ladling the potato-stew and the rice dessert.
Then suddenly a black-shawled woman, evidently in deep distress, rushed up the stairs, and by us to Madame, to pour out her trouble. She was crying---she had run to the cantine as a child to its mother, for comfort. Her little eight-year-old Marie, who had, only a week ago, been chosen as the loveliest child of the 1,600 to present the bouquet to the Minister's wife, and who, this very morning, had seemed well and happy, was lying at home dead of convulsions. The cantine had been the second home of her precious one for over two years---where, but there, should she flee in her sorrow?
I turned toward Mr. Hoover, and he spoke these true words: "The women of Belgium have become the Mother of Belgium. In this room is the Relief of Belgium!"
THE Rotterdam canals were choked with barges, weighted with freight; heavy trucks rattled down the streets, a whistle shrieked, telegraph wires hummed, motors flashed by---men were moving quickly, grouping themselves freely at corners; life-vivid, outspoken, free---crowded upon me, filling my eyes and ears. With a swift tremor of physical fear I huddled back in my seat. After eight months I was afraid of this thing!
And "Inside" I had thought I realized the whole of the cruel numbness. Slowly I had felt it closing in about me, closing down upon me, shutting me in with them ---with terrors and anguish, with human souls that at any moment a hand might reach in to toss---where?
I CAN think of no more beautiful, final tribute to the women of Belgium than that carried in their own words---words of tragedy, but words of widest vision and understanding and generosity, sent in farewell to us:
"Oh, you who are going back in that free country of the United States, tell to all our sufferings, our distress; tell them again and again our cries of alarm, which come from our opprest and agonized hearts! You have lived and felt what we are living and feeling; we have understood that, higher than charity which gives, you brought us charity which understands and consoles! Your souls have bowed down over ours, our eyes with anxiety are looking in your friendly eyes. Over the big ocean our wishes follow you. Oh, might you there remember the little Belgium! The life which palpitates in her grateful heart---she owes it to you! You are our hope, our anchor! Help us! Do not abandon the work of charity you have undertaken!
"Our endless gratitude goes to you, and from father to children, in the hovel and in the palace, we shall repeat your great heart, your high idealism, your touching charity!"
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