THE world will be incredulous when it is given the final picture of the complexity and completeness of the Belgian Relief Organization. In all the communes, all the provinces, in the capital, for over two years, groups of Belgians have been shut in their bureaux with figures and plans, matching needs with relief.
There must be bread and clothing for everybody, shelter for the homeless, soup for the hungry, food boxes for prisoners in Germany, milk for babies, special nourishment for the tubercular, orphanages and crèches for the tiny war victims, work for the idle, some means of secours for merchants, artists, teachers and thousands of "ashamed poor"---665,000 idle workmen with their 1,000,000 dependents, 1,250,000 on the soupes, 53,000 babies and 200,000 children under normal health in the cantines---how much of the story can these figures tell?
Yet the efforts of the organization have been so continuous and comprehensive, the C. R. B. has been so steadily bringing to them the vital foodstuffs, and holding for them the guaranty of their freedom to act, that from the committee-rooms it has sometimes seemed as if there were really nothing more to be done for Belgium!
But one has only to spend a few days at the other end, to get quickly disabused of this idea! No amount of organization can truly meet the needs of the seven and a half million people of a small industrial country, suddenly and entirely cut off from all normal contact with the rest of the world. Despite all the food that has been distributed, the resistance of the people has been lowered. Tuberculosis has seized its opportunity, and is making rapid strides. I have visited home after home where a heartbreaking courage was trying to cover up a losing struggle. Over and above all the organized "Relief," there remains an enormous task for just such splendid women as Madame . . .
Madame is the wife of a lawyer, with two sons at the front. As soon as the war broke out she organized a Red Cross center. Then the refugees came pouring into Brussels, and she felt that among them there must be many to whom it would be torture to be crowded into the big relief shelters. She said little, but by the end of August she had managed to squeeze five families in with her own. From the day the Germans abolished the Belgian Red Cross she gave her entire time to helping the homeless who had been in comfortable circumstances before the war to some quiet corner where they might wait its end. There was never any announcement of her work, but the word spread like wildfire---many had to be turned away daily. Then she found a big home on the Boulevard, rather shabby inside, but conveniently arranged for suites of two or even three rooms. Here a considerable number of families might have space for a complete ménage; plenty of light and air, and room to cook and sleep. Before long she was housing ninety-eight, but a few of these were able to re-establish themselves, so when I visited her in September, 1916, there were sixty-five. As her own funds were limited, and fast disappearing, she had in the end to appeal to the "Relief " to subsidize this "Home."
On the first floor she had a little pantry-shop, where each family received the permitted ration of bread, sugar, bacon and other foodstuffs. One day a woman came to her, hungry. She was a widow with two little girls, who, before the war, had earned a good salary in the post-office. Somehow she had managed to exist for two years, but now there was nothing left. She was given charge of the pantry at ten cents a day. I have seen many processions of people descending long stairways. I shall forget them. But I shall never forget this one of the refugees from the upper floors winding down the stairways at the shop hour, with their pathetic plates and bowls ready for the bacon and bread that made living possible. They could, perhaps, add vegetables and fruit, or an egg or two, to the ration to piece out the meal. On the lowest shelf of this miniature shop were a few dozen cans of American corn, which even yet the people have not learned to like. Having been brought up to regard corn in all forms as fit only for cattle and chickens, even disaster can not convince them that it is a proper food for man!
Later we went upstairs to visit some of the apartments. They were bright and clean, with cheery flower-pots on all the window-sills. Every one showed a fine appreciation of what was done for him by making the most of all he had; an attitude quite different from that of many less used to comfort, less intelligent, who neither hesitate to demand charity, nor to complain of what they receive. Each family had a small, practical stove, which served for both cooking and heating.
One family of eight was content in its two rooms. They had had a copper shop and a pension at Dinant; were very comfortably off, when, suddenly, Dinant was struck. All their property was in flames, men were being shot, their own grandmother, eighty-one years old, had her leg broken, and, terror-stricken, they fled with her up and down hill, over rocks and through brush till they reached Namur, and finally arrived at Brussels where they heard of Madame's "Home." The grandmother, whose leg is mended but still crooked, was sitting in front of the red geraniums at a window, knitting socks. She knits one pair a week and receives five cents for each pair from the clothing committee. The young girls help Madame in various ways; the father tries to work in copper, but if he earns fifty cents a week, considers himself lucky. The particular struggle for this family is to get eggs for the grandmother, who can not get along on the bacon and bread. Eggs cost ten cents each. Happily, this is a kind of situation that "special funds" from the United States have often relieved. Everybody was courageous, trying simply to hold on till the terrible war should be ended and he could go back to rebuild something on the ruins of his home.
There was another Dinant menage next door, but a ménage for one. I quickly read this poor woman's story on the walls. On one was tacked a large picture of Dinant, beautiful, smiling, winding along the river, as in July, 1914. Above it was the photograph of her husband, shot in August; on the other wall a handsome son in uniform. He was at the front. She stopt peeling her potatoes to go over again those horrible days. They had been so well off, so happy, father, mother and son. When they saw their city in flames, they were too bewildered, too terror-stricken, to realize what it meant. Her husband left to help restore a bridge ---he did not return. The son hurried to follow his King; she somehow reached Brussels.
There was a fine young chap of about fifteen, whose father had been killed at Manceau sur Sambre. He and his mother had found this haven, but now she was in the hospital undergoing a capital operation. Madame was trying to arrange a special diet for her on her return. They had been in very comfortable circumstances; now everything was gone.
And so it was-the same story, and from all parts of Belgium. They had come from Verviers, Aerschot, Dinant, from Termonde and Ypres---the striking thing was the courage, the gentleness, the fine spirit of all.
This "Home," as I said, has now been subsidized, but along with it Madame still carries on another admirable work entirely on her own responsibility. Some friends help her, but she really lives from day to day! On the ground floor of this same building she has a restaurant, also known only as the word passes from. mouth to mouth, where any one may come for a good dinner at noon. There is no limit to what one may pay, but the charge is a franc, or twenty cents. The majority pay less.
It has quite the atmosphere of one of the little Paris restaurants of the Latin quarter---two adjoining -rooms bright with flowers and colored cloths and gay china, separated from the kitchen only by screens. It is frequented chiefly by artists and teachers, some young girls from the shops, and a few business men. Madame does not go from table to table as the Paris host does, greeting his guests, but they come to her table to shake hands and chat for a minute. They linger over their coffee---there is the general atmosphere of cheer and bien être. And what this means in this time of gloom to the sixty or more who gather there daily!
Young girls of the families of the refugees serve the meals. The cook, herself a refugee, works for twenty francs a month.
I said any one might come, but that is, of course, not exact. Any one may ask to come, but he must prove to Madame that he needs to come. After he explains his situation, she has ways of checking up this information and deciding herself whether the need is a real one. The dinner consists of soup, a meat and vegetable dish, and dessert, with beer or coffee.
I was looking over the meal tickets and noticed that while most of them were unstamped (the one franc ones) a good number had distinguishing marks. Then I learned that if a person was unable to pay a franc for this meal, he might have it for fifteen or even ten cents, and his ticket was stamped accordingly. I found one ticket with no stamp, but with the "o" of "No" blotted out. This might be chance, but after finding a half-dozen or more with this same ink blot, I suspected a meaning. And the explanation revealed the spirit of Madame's work. "Yes," she said, "there is a meaning. There are some so badly off that they can pay nothing; to save them the pain of having to look at, and to have others look at, a stamp registering this misery, I do not stamp their tickets, but, since I must keep count, I blot that little 'o,' which at once suggests 'zero' to me!"
Choosing at random, I found registered for one day in July, 1916:
1 dinner at 1 franc, 10 centimes.
58 dinners at 1 franc.
43 dinners at 75 centimes (15 cents)-.
10 dinners at 50 centimes.
4 dinners at o.
UNQUESTIONABLY the Belgian above all others the Germans would rid themselves of if they could, is Cardinal Mercier. He is the exalted Prince of the Church, but in the hour of decision, he stept swiftly down and, with a ringing call to courage, took his place with the people. Ever since that day he has helped them to stand united, defiant, waiting the day of liberation. Others have been silenced by imprisonment or death, but the greatest power has not dared to lay hands on the Cardinal. He is the voice, not only of the Church, but of Belgium heartening her children.
Malines has her cantines and soupes and ouvroirs, all the branches of secours necessary to a city that was one of the centers of attack; but these are not the most interesting things about Malines. It is above all as the city of the Cardinal that she stands forth in this war. Her "uvre" has been to give moral and spiritual secours, not only to her own people, but to those of every part of Belgium.
Since under the "occupation" the press has naturally been "controlled," this secours has been distributed chiefly through the famous letters of the Cardinal sent to priests to be re-read to their people. We remember the thrill with which the first one was read in America. After the war there will be pilgrimages to the little room where it was printed. I had the privilege of having it shown me by that friend of the Cardinal who was the printer of the first letter, and whose brother was at this time a prisoner in Germany for having printed the second. The room was much as it had been left after the search; books were still disarranged on their shelves, papers and pamphlets heaped in confusion on the. tables. The red seals with which the Germans had closed the keyholes had been broken, but their edges still remained. Standing in the midst of the disarray, remembering that the owner had already been six months in a German prison, and looking out on the shattered façade at the end of the garden, I realized, at least partly, another moment of the war.
This quickening secours, then, is distributed chiefly by letter, but continually by presence and speech in Malines itself, and occasionally in other parts of the country. On the 21st Of July, 1916, the anniversary of the independence of Belgium, all Brussels knew that the Cardinal was coming to celebrate high mass in Sainte Gudule. The mass was to begin at 11 o'clock, but at 9.30 practically every foot of standing-room in the vast cathedral was taken. In the dimness a great sea of people waited patiently, silently, the arrival of their leader. Occasionally a whispered question or rumor flashed along the nave. "He has come!" "He has been prevented!" There was a tacit understanding that there should be no demonstration---the Cardinal himself had ordered it. Every one was trying to control himself, and yet, as the air grew thicker, and others fought their way into the already packed transepts, one felt that anything might happen! Almost every person had a bit of green ribbon (color of hope) or an ivy leaf (symbol of endurance) pinned to his coat. The wearing of the national colors was strictly forbidden, but the national spirit found another way: green swiftly replaced the orange, black and red.
We all knew that this meant trouble for Brussels, and the fact that the shops (which had all been ordered to keep open this holiday) were carrying on a continuous comedy at the expense of the Germans, did not help matters. Their doors were open, to. be sure, but in many, the passage was blocked by the five or six employees who sat in stiff rows with bows of green ribbon in their buttonholes, and indescribable expressions on their faces. In the biggest chocolate shop, the window display was an old pail of dirty water with a slimey rag thrown near it. There was no person inside but the owner, who stood beside the cash register in dramatic and defiant attitude, smoking a pipe. There were crowds in front of the window which displayed large photographs of the King and Queen, draped with the American flag. Another shop had only an enormous green bow in the window. Almost every one took some part in the play. Not a Belgian entered a shop, and if a German was brave enough to, he was usually made the victim of his courage. One was delighted to serve him, but, unfortunately, peaches had advanced to ten francs each, or something of the sort!
Finally, after an hour and a half, a priest made an announcement, which from our distance we misunderstood. We thought he said that the mass would be celebrated, but unfortunately not by Monseigneur, who had been detained. A few of us worked our way, inch by inch, to the transept door, and out into the street. There I found an excited group running around the rear of the cathedral to the sacristy-door, and, when I reached it, I learned the Cardinal had just passed through.
For no particular reason I waited there, and before long the door was partly opened by an acolyte, who was apparently expecting some one. He saw me and agreed that I might enter if I wished, for was I not an American to whom all Belgium is open? So I slipt in and found room to stand just behind the altar screen where all through the celebration I could watch the face of the Cardinal---a face at once keen and tender, strong, fearless, devout: one could read it all there. He was tall, thin, dominating, a heroic figure, in his gorgeous scarlet vestments, officiating at the altar of this beautiful Gothic cathedral.
The congregation remained silent, three or four fainting women were carried out, that was all. Then the Cardinal mounted the pulpit at the further end of the nave to deliver his message, the same message he had been preaching for two years---they must hold themselves courageous, unconquered, with stedfast faith in God and in their final liberation. Tears were in the eyes of many, but there was no crying out.
From the pulpit he came back to the catafalque erected in the middle of the nave for the Belgian soldiers dead in battle. It represented a great raised coffin, simply and beautifully draped with Belgian flags, veiled in crêpe. Tall, flaming candles surrounded it. As the Cardinal approached, the dignitaries of the city, who had been occupying seats of honor below the altar, marched solemnly down and formed a circle about the catafalque. Then the Cardinal read the service for the dead. The dim light of the cathedral, the sea of silent people, the memorial coffin under the flag and lighted by tall candles, the circle of those chosen to represent the city, the sad-faced Cardinal saying the prayers for those who had died in defense of the flag that now covered them---was it strange that as his voice ceased and he moved slowly toward the sacristy-door by which he was to depart, the overwhelming tide of emotion swept barriers, and "Vive le Roi!" "Vive Monseigneur!" echoed once more from these ancient walls! We held our breath. Men were pressing by me whispering, "What shall we do? We have necessity to cry out--after two years, we must cry out!" The Cardinal went straight forward, looking neither to the right nor the left, the tears streaming down his cheeks.
Outside, to pass from the rear of the cathedral to the Archbishop's palace, he was obliged to cross the road. As I turned up this road to go back to the main portal, the crowd came surging down, arms out-thrust, running, waving handkerchiefs and canes, pushing aside the few helpless Belgian police, quite beyond control, and shouting wildly now, "Vive le Roi!" and "Vive Monseigneur!" I was able to struggle free only after the gate had closed on the Cardinal.
This was the day when in times of peace all the populace brought wreaths to the foot of the statue erected in honor of the soldiers who died for the independence of Belgium. The Germans had placed guards in the square and forbidden any one to go near it. So all day long throngs of people, a constant, steady procession marched along the street beyond, each man lifting his hat, women often their green parasols, as soon as they came in view of their statue. All these things, I repeat, did not help Brussels in the matter of the demonstration at the cathedral. And a few days later a posted notice informed her that she had been fined 1,000,000 marks!
But the people had seen their Cardinal---they had received their spiritual secours---he had brought heavenly comfort to their hearts, put new iron in their blood. They had dared to cry just once their loyalty to him and to their King, and they laughed at the 1,000,000 marks!
ONE afternoon I happened by a communal school in another crowded quarter of Brussels, and, tho it was vacation, and I knew the principal had been sadly overworked for two years and ought to be in the country, I decided to knock at the bureau to see if he were in.
I had my answer in the corridor, where rows of unhappy mothers and miserable fathers were waiting to see him. Inside there were more. He was examining a little girl with a very bad eye; and I realized why there could be no vacation for the principal!
As I sat there, I heard the noise of marching in the court below, and when I asked what it was, he opened the window for me to see. There were 720 children between six and fourteen years, gaily tramping round and round under the trees, making their "promenade" before the 4 o'clock "repas scolaire" (school children's repast) which the Relief Organization is now trying to furnish to each of the 1,200,000 children in the free schools of Belgium who may need it---incidentally at an outlay of $2,500,000 a month.
Over 8,500 children in the sixty communal schools of Brussels proper receive this dinner. It is quite distinct from the eleven o'clock meal furnished at the cantines for children below normal health---they may have both---and it is served in the school building. Naturally the schoolteachers are carrying a large share in this stupendous undertaking.
For the children, the "repas" is the great event of the day, and, since the vacation, they gather long before the hour. One sees, too, hundreds of little ones on the sidewalks before the Enfants Débiles dining-rooms, as early as 8 A.M., clutching their precious cards and waiting already for their eleven o'clock potatoes and phosphatine.
This school is also a communal soup center, tho the teachers have nothing to do with the distribution. Every day from 2,500 to 3,000 men and women line up---worn, white enamel pitchers in one hand, cards in the other, to receive the family ration of soup and bread.
As I passed one morning, I saw a little bare-legged girl sitting on a doorstep opposite. Her mother had evidently left her to guard their portion, and she sat huddled up against the tall, battered pitcher full of steaming soup, her little arms tight about four round loaves---which meant many brothers and sisters.
The father was in the trenches. She sat there, a slim, wistful little thing, guarding the soup and bread, the picture of what war means to women and children.
Monsieur was particularly happy because he had just succeeded in sending fifteen children, who very much needed to be built up, to the seacoast for fifteen days. It is his hope to establish homes, in the country so far as possible, which shall be limited to from thirty to forty children.
He has continually to arrange, too, for the care of those who may not be in truth orphans, but who belong to the thousands of wretched little ones set adrift by the war. I saw one little boy who had been found all alone in a most pitiful plight beside a gun, in one of the devastated districts. If his parents are still living, no one has yet succeeded in tracing them.
That morning an old uncle had begged Monsieur to take charge of his nephew and niece; he had not a penny left, they must starve unless something were done for them. Some months before, the father had been wounded at the front, and the mother had foolishly hurried away to try to reach him, leaving the children with her brother. Months had gone by---he had had no word from any one---and now he was quite at the end of his resources. And so it was with case after case. Something must be done!
Besides being the section kitchen and dining-room, this school has become a social center. Every Sunday afternoon the children are invited to gather there to have a good time. They are taught to play games, each is given a bonbon, a simple sweet of some sort---"nothing of the kind to encourage luxury!" They are occupied, happy, and kept off the streets and out of homes made miserable through lack of employment.
We see, then, that "every day" means literally every day, and we realize how arduous is the task of the thousands of devoted' teachers who are standing between the war and those who would otherwise be its victims.
And as they tell us over and over again that the one thing that makes them able to stand is their confidence in the love and sympathy of the United States, we begin to realize our responsibility. It is not only that the wheat and cloth are essential, the encouragement of the presence of even the few (forty to fifty). Americans is the great necessity!
At 8.30 the next morning I visited one of the "Jardins d'Enfants"---schools for children between two and a half and six years of age. There were the teachers already busy in that new department of their work---the war-food department; 460 tiny tots were being given their first meal of the day---a cup of hot cocoa, and, during that month, a little white bread bun. No American can understand what this single piece of white bread means to a French or Belgian child. I am sure that if a tempting course dinner were set at one side, and a slice of white bread at the other, he would not hesitate to choose the bread. It is white bread that they all beg for, tho the brown war bread made from flour milled at 82 per cent. is really very palatable, and superior. to the war bread of other countries.
A sheaf of letters sent from a school in Lille to thank the C. R. B. director for the improved brown (not nearly white) bread gave me my first impression of the all-importance of the color and quality of the bread.
Amélie B. wrote:
"Before May 5, 1915, we had to eat black bread, which we preferred to make into flowers of all sorts as souvenirs of the war! But after that date we have had the good, light bread---so eatable. It is for this we thank you."
"Since we have had the good bread the happiest people are the mothers, who before had to let their "chers petits" suffer from hunger, because their delicate stomachs would not digest the bad, black bread."
"The mothers of little children wept with joy and blest you, as they went to get their good, light bread."
One little girl wrote:
"When on the 5th of May, 1915, maman returned with the new bread, and we all ran to taste it, we found it good. The bread we had been eating long months had been dark and moist. Further, rice had been our daily food. It is without doubt to show your gratitude to the French, who went to drive the English away from you in 1783, that you have thought to soften our suffering. Merci! Merci! Many died because of that bad bread, and many more should have died, had you not come to our aid with the good bread."
Another little girl writes:
"If ever in the future America is in need, France will not forget the good she has done and will reach a hospitable hand to her second country, who has saved her unhappy children. It is you who have made it possible for all mothers to give bread to their children. Without the rice and beans, what would have become of us! You have helped us to have coal and warm clothing against the cold. In the name of all the mothers we thank you, and all the little children send you a great kiss of thanks."
The babies had all finished their cocoa and buns, so I went to the Girls' Technical Training School in the neighborhood. It was having a particularly hard time because of the lack of materials and of opportunity to sell the articles made by the children. But two wonderful women---one the director, the other the art teacher---were courageously fighting to keep things going.
The pupils are largely from poor families. When they were going through the beautiful figures of their gymnasium exercise for me, I saw that the bloomers were mostly made of odds and ends of cloth. The shoes, too, quickly told the tale---all sorts of substitutes for leather, patched woolen shoes or slippers, wooden soles with cloth tops, clogs.
In the room for design I was greeted with most cordial smiles as Madame introduced me as her friend from America, the country which meant hope to them. Then happened swiftly one of the things it is difficult to prevent---the shouting in one breath of "Vive le Roi!" and "Vive l'Amérique!" Who would doubt that a good part of the joy of shouting "Vive l'Amérique" comes from the opportunity it gives them to couple with it the cry of their hearts, "Vive la Belgique!"
By the time we returned to her bureau, Madame trusted me entirely, and explained that this was the center of a kind of "Assistance Discrète" she had established for her girls and their families. She opened several cabinets, and showed me what they had made to help one another. Certain women have been contributing materials---old garments, bits of cloth, trimming for hats, all of which have been employed to extraordinary advantage. What struck me most were the attractive little babies' shirts, made from the upper parts of worn stockings.
Madame opened a paper sack and showed me nine hard-boiled eggs that were to be given to the weaker girls, who most needed extra nourishment that day.
Her most precious possession was a record of the gifts of the pupils and their friends for this "Assistance Discrète." It is a list of contributions of a few centimes, or a franc or two, given as thank offerings for some blessing; oftenest for recovery from illness, or for good news received. It showed, too, that the children had been bringing all the potato peelings from home, to be sold as food for cattle. Sometimes a girl brought as much as twenty-eight centimes (over five cents) worth of peelings. But in May, 1916, the potato peelings stopt---they were not having potatoes at home.
BEFORE the war Madame was very close to the. Queen. She lived in our quarter of Brussels; we became friends. And how generous the friendship between a Belgian and an American can be, only the members of the Commission for Relief truly know! It is swift and complete.
I had been in Brussels five months when she said to me one day:
"My dear, I understand only too well the difficulties of your position---the guaranty you gave on entering. As you know, I have never once suggested that you carry a note for me, or bring a message---tho I have seen you starting in your car behind your blessed little white flag for the city of my daughter and my grandchildren! Nor have I," she laughed, with the swift play so typical of the Belgian mind, "once hinted at a pound of butter or a potato! But lately I have been suffering so many, many fears, that I am tempted just to ask if you think this would be wrong for you---if it would, forget that I asked it: I have a relation who has always been closer to me than a brother---we were brought up together. He is eighty-two now, and, at the beginning of the war, was living near X in Occupied France. He was important in his district, his name is known. Now, if I should merely give you that name, and, when you next see your American delegate from that district, you should speak it, might it not be possible that he would recognize it, and could tell you if my dear, dear M. is suffering, or if he is yet able to care for himself ? Would that be breaking your agreement?"
As she stood there---intelligence, distinction speaking from all her person---fearfully putting this pitiful question, I experienced another of those maddening moments we live through in Belgium. One swiftly doubts one's reason---the situation---everything! The world simply can not be so completely lost as it seems!
Mercifully this would not be breaking any promise; and I begged for the name.
But even then I was rather hopeless that our American would know. In the North of France he must live with his German officer; he is not free to mingle with the French people.
Thursday, conference day, came, when all the little white flags rush in from their provinces, bringing our splendid American men---their faces stern, strained, but with that beautiful light in them that testifies they are giving without measure the best they have to others.
Never will any one, who has experienced it, forget the thrill he felt when he saw those fifteen cars with their forty-two men rushing up, one after the other to 66, rue des Colonies, nor the line of them all day on the curb with their fluttering white flags carrying the red C. R. B.! There were no other cars to be seen. Each person, as he passed, knew that these fifteen white flags meant wheat and life to 10,000,000 people.
As I stood there I heard a band. I looked up the street and saw the German soldiers goose-stepping before their guard mount. This happens every morning, just a square above our offices. The white flags and the goose-step---they pretty much sum up the situation!
I hurried inside, hoping fervently to hear the longed-for answer, as I put the name and my question.
But the name was strange to S., he could tell me nothing, tho he felt sure that by keeping his ears open that week, he might learn something.
How often through those days I thought of these two, caught in this warnight of separation. For two and a half years neither had been able to call across it even the name of the other. And then of the word thrown into the night with hope and prayer!
On the next meeting day, as he hurried toward me, I could see from S.'s face that he had news. "Yes," he said eagerly, "he is still there, he draws his ration---he is not suffering from want, he has enough left to pay for his food. But when he heard that somebody would possibly carry this news to his dearest living relation, he cried: 'Oh! Would it not be possible to do just one thing more! I am eighty-two; I may die before this terrible war is ended. In pity will not somebody tell me before I die if any of my nieces has had a little baby, or if any one of them is going to have a little baby?'
"And now," S. said, "you and I know that if the Relief stops, we've got to find out for that poor old man that there is a baby!"
And I went about it. On Thursday, when he rushed over to me I could call: "Yes, there is one! It's Gabrielle's! A little girl, five months old and doing beautifully!"
"Hurrah!" he shouted, and hurried back to his tons and calories.
It is four months since then, and I do not know if there are any more babies, or if that old gentleman of a distinguished house has had any other than this single connection with the loved ones of this family in over two and a half years.
BELGIUM is succoring her weak children, but she is going deeper than this: she is trying to prevent weak children. All through the country there are cantines where an expectant or young mother without means may receive free a daily dinner, consisting usually of a thick soup, a meat or egg dish with vegetables, a dessert with lactogenized cream, and a measure of milk. Light service, like the peeling of vegetables, is often required in return. The mother may come as early as three months before the birth of her child, and if she is still nursing it, may continue nine months after its birth. About 7,000 mothers are receiving this dinner, and 6,000 more come to the affiliated consultation cantines for advice. Of course, there are always those who can not nurse their children, or who can carry them through but a short period, when the question of pasteurized milk becomes all-important. The "Goutte de Lait" (drop of milk) sections meet this problem by offering the necessary feedings of pure milk. The mother may pay for the bottles, and have them delivered, or she may, if necessitous, receive them free by calling or sending for them.
In Antwerp, where this work has assumed unusual proportions, a big-hearted president of the Belgian Provincial Committee, got permission to purchase 100 cows in Holland and to hold them without danger of requisition. He installed a model dairy on his place, and now gives all the baby cantines pure milk. He is always most anxious to finish his arduous day's work at the bureau, so that he may return to his dairy, examine the milk tests, and review his fine herd. One of his daughters, in addition to hours spent in the cantines, takes the entire responsibility of the management of this dairy. Other towns are less fortunate, and must struggle continually to get the milk they require. There is a beautiful development of the work of a "Goutte de Lait" in Hasselt, in a cantine occupying part of a maternity hospital. There they have an admirable equipment for sterilization and pasteurization. At 7 o'clock in the morning I found the women directors already busy with the preparation of the milk. Each feeding has its separate bottle, and may be kept sealed till the baby receives it. After seven months, white phosphatine, a mixture of the flour of wheat, rice and corn, with salt, sugar and phosphate of lime, is furnished; at fourteen months, cocoa is added, and after two years, soup and bread.
I happened to arrive on the weekly weighing day. One hundred mothers were gathered in a large, cheery room, their babies in their arms, many of them gay in the pretty bonnets the doctor's wife had made for those who had the best records. They passed, a few at a time, into the smaller room where the doctor and his wife examined, weighed, counseled, while two assistants registered important details; the three young nurses generally aided the mothers and their chiefs.
Then I was shown an adjoining room, where, in the corners, there were heaps of little white balls rolled in wax paper. From a distance they looked more than anything else like tiny popcorn balls. What could they mean? I took one in my hand and saw that they meant that the most precious prize that can be offered a Belgian mother to-day is a tiny ball of white lard! With the more ignorant, this prize-system is the swiftest means of opening the way. The doctor laughed as he recounted his struggle with one obstinate woman, who argued stoutly that because the cow is a great, strong creature, while she herself is but small and frail, undoubtedly its milk would be infinitely more strengthening to her child than her own! Where argument failed, the prize convinced. If a mother can nurse her baby but neglects to, she is forced to feed it regularly before some member of the committee. Nurses visit all the homes registered.
The attempt is being made everywhere to induce mothers who are not actually in want, to enroll in these cantines, while paying for their food, that they may have the benefit of the pure milk and the physician's care. The "Relief" is not counting the cost of this fundamental work---the baby cantines are the promise of the future. They are already closely watching the development of 53,000 babies. The educational value alone can not be measured; women who had not the faintest conception of the simplest laws of hygiene are being trained, forced to learn, because their own and their children's food can come to them only from the hand of their teacher. While the war has brought unutterable misery, it has also brought extraordinary opportunity, and Belgium is seizing this opportunity wherever she can.
AND babies must be clothed, as well as fed! I visited one of the Brussels layette centers with the C. R. B. American advisory physician, whose interest in children had brought him at once face to face with what women are doing to save them. We went to a little cantine consisting of a room and anteroom on the ground floor, and, I might add, the sidewalk---for before we reached it we saw the line of hatless mothers with their tiny babies wrapt in shawls in their arms, waiting their turn. This was a depot where they might receive the articles for the lying-in period and clothing for babies under six months of age. We passed through the anteroom, where a number sat nursing their babies (young mothers mostly, and many of them pretty, into the distributing-room.
Here we found three directors very busy at their tables with the record-cards, books and other materials of their organization, and three younger women rapidly sorting out the tiny bibs, slips and sheets heaped high on the counters along the walls. From the miscellaneous piles they produced the neat little layettes---each a complete wardrobe for an expectant or young mother, and comprising 4 squares, 2 swaddling cloths, 3 fichus, 4 brassieres, 2 shirts, 2 bands, 2 pair socks, 2 bonnets, 3 bibs, 1 hooded cloak. The packages for children from three to six months held 3 squares, 2 pantaloons, 2 bibs, 2 fichus, 2 shirts, 2 brassieres, 2 dresses.
As the mothers came in, the babies were carefully weighed and examined, the records added to, through direct, effective questioning--always gentle and encouraging. The young women turned over the needed garments, with advice about their use, chiefly regarding cleanliness. To support this advice, they attempted to have the materials white as far as possible.
When I asked what they most needed, they said, "Cradles, Madame, cradles. We could place fifty a week in this cantine alone, and white materials for sheets and blankets---and oh, hundreds of yards of rubber sheeting or its equivalent!" For very evident reasons, the C. R. B. is not allowed to bring in rubber materials of any kind. Many mothers, as the babies arrive, appeal for beds for the older children and for mattresses for themselves. "We can still get ticking in Brussels if we have the money, but nothing to stuff it with."
Every morning since the beginning of the war these women have been there, on their feet most of the time---sorting, arranging packages of garments, and keeping in their minds and hearts the hundreds of mothers and babies who depend on them. They often visit the homes after cantine hours. Madame smiled as she explained the necessity of a personal investigation of each case. "For, instance," she said, "if at the children's cantine I gave a youngster a pair of shoes simply because he seemed to have none, and without personally proving that he had none, I should undoubtedly have an entire barefoot family the next day!"
It was with this particular kind of work that the Petites Abeilles or "Little Bees" started five years before the war. A group of young women banded together to help children, and organized centers in Brussels for the distribution of needed clothing. Their efforts at once won the enthusiasm of the people. Poets wrote songs to "The Little Bees," the Queen and the adored Princess Marie-Jose were their patronesses---they were probably the most popular organization of their kind in Belgium.
Then the war came, and the mothers quickly took charge. They established a vast home for refugees, where they housed over 5,000. Later they appealed to the Relief Committee to be allowed to develop their work to meet the terrible emergency. Their offer was only too gladly accepted, and one after another cantine for feeding, as well as clothing, was opened in the various sections of the city; where to-day practically all the work for the children is carried on by these wonderful "Little Bees" and their mothers. By July, 1916, their 124 Brussels sections were caring for about 25,000 children, and between 2,500 and 3,000 women were giving a great part of their time to the work. Social barriers disappeared. All classes rallied to the need. Four hundred telephone girls out of work were doing their best, side by side with countesses.
As we were leaving, Madame explained that the woman who founded this particular cantine was a prisoner in Germany. The three beautiful young girls sorting the layettes were the daughters, carrying forward their mother's work. I was to learn that almost invariably at some moment of my visit, the veil would be withdrawn and the tragedy revealed.
TO the world Liége is the symbol of Belgium's courage. During eleven days her forts withheld an overwhelming force, reckless of its size or her own unpreparedness, determined to save the national integrity of Belgium. And well Belgium knew to what point she could count on the brave Liégeois; through all her troubled history, they had been the ardent champions of her freedom.
This beautiful city on the Meuse escaped the ruin visited on other parts of her province. In fact, all the four largest cities of Belgium escaped, in each case a smaller neighboring town, especially picturesque, stands as an example of destruction and warning. Belgians ask if it was not with the obvious intent of cowing the nearby capital, that Dinant was made an example to Namur, Nimy to Mons, Louvain to Brussels? They point out that tho only the ghost of lovely Visée remains, Liége itself has lost but about 100 buildings. After the final inevitable surrender of her forts, the attacking army passed on, leaving her under powerful control. But tho the material damage was small, as the populous center of a great industrial region, this city was one of the first to realize the distress that followed the occupation and isolation of Belgium. One by one her famous firearm factories and glass mills closed their doors, and poured their thousands of workmen into the streets. In many cases the factories were dismantled, the machinery taken to Germany to make munitions. And this was happening all through the province, so that by 1915 it counted 90,000 idle workmen (chômeurs), and in the capital alone, fully 18,000.
Ordinarily (among her 180,000 inhabitants) Liége lists 43,000 skilled workmen; so for her the proportion of idle was almost one-half; with their families they represented but little less than one-quarter of the entire population. The 4,000 employed in the coal mines, which, fortunately, were able to keep open, were the one saving factor in the situation.
The question of chômage, or unemployment, is the most serious the relief organization has had to face. It has been most acute in the two Flanders; but in Antwerp, with its 25,000 idle dock hands, in the highly industrial Hainault, in Namur and Brabant, as well as in Liége, there have been special circumstances developing particular difficulties. Over 665,000 workmen without work, representing millions of dependents, would present, a sufficiently critical problem to a country not at war. One can imagine what it means to a country every square foot of which is controlled by an enemy so hated that the conquered would risk all the evils of continued non-employment rather than have any of its people serve in any way the ends of the invader. Better roads, better railways, mean greater facility for the Germans.
None of the leaders I have talked with have been satisfied with the system evolved, but no one has yet been able to substitute a better.
A scheduled money allowance for the chômeur was quickly adopted, but as a friend from Tournai said, this enabled a man simply to escape complete starvation, but not to live. Three francs a week for the workman, one franc and a half for his wife, fifty centimes for each of his children, or one dollar and ten cents a week for a family of four, just about the war price of one pound of butter or meat!
Obviously the chômeur and his family must draw on the soupes and cantines, and this they do. They form a considerable part of the one and one-quarter millions of the soup-lines. Every province has tried to reduce its number of unemployed by providing a certain amount of work on roads and public utilities. Luxembourg has been conspicuous in this attempt, reclaiming swamps, rebuilding sewer systems and roadways, employing about 10,000 men. In fact, Luxembourg has so far almost avoided a chômeur class.
Throughout the country, too, the clothing and lace committees are furnishing at least partial employment to women. In a lesser way various local relief committees are most ingenious in inventing opportunities to give work. In the face of the whole big problem they often seem insignificant, but every community is heartened by even the smallest attempt to restore industry. I have seen fifty men given the chance to buy their own food by means of a "soles work." All the needy of the village were invited to bring their worn shoes to have a new kind of wooden sole put on for the winter, and the men were paid by the committee for putting them on. In one city the owner of a closed firearm factory has opened a toy works where 100 men and 30 women are kept busy carving little steel boxes and other toys. If these articles could be exported, such establishments would quickly multiply, but every enterprize must halt at the grim barrier.
In Liége I came upon a most picturesque attempt at an individual solution. I had been much interested in Antwerp and Charleroi and other cities, in the "Diner Economique" or "Diner Bourgeois," conducted by philanthropic women. These are big, popular restaurants, where because of a subsidy from the relief committee, and because almost all of the service is contributed, a meal can be served for less than it costs. For a few centimes, about ten cents, usually, one may have a good soup, a plate with meat and vegetables, and sometimes a dessert.
Wonderful Belgian women come day after day, month after month, to serve the thousands that flock to these centers that save them from the soup-lines. If they can add this dinner to their relief ration, they can live. And they are not "accepting charity!" The dining-rooms are always attractive, often bright with flags and flowers, the women are cheery in their service. Priests, children, artists, men and women of every class sit at the tables. Once I saw a poor mother buy one dinner for herself and her two children, and fortunately, too, I saw a swift hand slip extra portions in front of the little ones. There are ten such restaurants in Antwerp (five conducted by the Catholics, and five by the Liberals) that serve on an average over 10,000 dinners a day. The one in Charleroi serves from 400 to 900 daily.
In Liége the work is consolidated. I found the once popular skating-rink turned into a mighty restaurant, gay with American bunting. The skating floor was crowded with tables, the surrounding spectators' space made convenient cloak-rooms, the one-time casual buffet was a kitchen in deadly earnest, supplying dinners to about 4,000 daily.
When I arrived, there was already a line outside; each person had to present a card on entering to prove him a citizen of Liége. If he could, he paid 75 centimes (15 cents) for his dinner. If unable to, by presenting a special card from the Relief Committee, he might receive it for 60, or even 30 centimes---a little more than 5 cents.
Inside the tables were crowded, sixty-five women were hurrying between them and back and forth to the directors who stood at a long counter in front of the kitchen, serving the thousands of portions, of soup, sausage, and a kind of stew of rice and vegetables.
In the kitchen and meat and vegetable rooms there was the constant clamor of sifting, cutting, stirring, of the opening and shutting of ovens. While the sausages of the day were being hurried from the pans, the soup of the morrow was being mixed in the great caldrons; 250 men were hard at work. Somehow they did not look as tho they had been peeling carrots and stirring soup all their lives---there was an inspiring dash in their movements that prevented it seeming habitual.
The superintendent laughed: "Yes," he said, "they are chiefly railroad engineers, conductors, various workmen of the Liége Railroad Company! I myself was an attorney for the road, and I am really more interested in this uvre from the point of view of these men, than because of the general public it helps. Here are 250 men who are giving their best service to their country. In working for others they have escaped the curse of being forced to work for the Germans! The sixty-five women serving the 4,000 were once in the telephone service. They also offered to devote themselves to their fellow-sufferers, and they are so proud, so happy to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with other women in this black hour."
I asked if each worker were given his dinner. "Ah! there was a problem!" he said. "The meals which we furnish for from 30 to 75 centimes, cost us an average of 63 centimes." To supply this to 250 assistants was quite beyond the subsidy allowed the Relief. And yet the workers certainly must be fed. Finally he admitted that he and a group of friends were contributing the money necessary to supply these meals. He added that in the beginning the men were hardly able to give more than two hours' hard work a day, but that after a few months of proper nourishment, their energy was inexhaustible.
On another day I found there were no potatoes, and that the number of meals served had in consequence dropt fully 1,000; 743 at 75 centimes, 820 at 60 centimes, 1,473 at 30 centimes. If there are no potatoes to be had in the city, and they are known to be on the carte of the restaurant, there is not standing-room. Hundreds have to be turned away.
This kind of double uvre is quite the most interesting of all the varied attempts to meet the staggering problem Belgium has daily to face.
I WENT down the road toward Verviers. I stopt at a farmhouse to talk with the farmer about the pitiful ration of the Liége coal miners. They travel many miles underground, and there is no way of getting hot soup to them. His wife gave me a glass of sweet milk. Then we went into the courtyard where he had a great caldron of prune syrup simmering.
The summer had been wet and gray, but September was doing her best to make up for it. Suddenly I heard the soft whirr-whirr of a Zeppelin. I ran out into the road. The farmer left his prunes to join me. We watched the great strange thing gliding through the sunshine. It was flying so low that we could easily distinguish the fins, the gondolas, the propellers. It looked more than anything else like a gigantic, unearthly model for the little Japanese stuffed fishes I had often seen in the toy shops. Its blunt nose seemed shining white, the rest a soft gray. The effect of the soothing whirring and its slow gliding through the air was indescribable; that it could be anything but a gentle messenger of peace was unbelievable. "Ah, Madame," said my companion, "four years ago I saw my first Zeppelin! It seemed a beautiful vision from another world, like something new in my religion. We all stood breathless, praying for the safety of this wonderful new being; praying that the brave men who conducted it might be spared to the world. And to-day, Madame, may it be blown to atoms; if necessary may its men be cut to bits; may they be burned to ashes---anything---anything! With an undying hate I swear it shall be destroyed! Madame, that is what war does to a man! War, Madame, is a horrible thing.
Table of Contents