Chapter 17 of Christobel. The occupation of Brussels seems to have consolidated with no prospect of ending soon. Life is oppressive and harsh. But at the nursing school, Edith Cavell and Christobel are not entirely taking things lying down . . .
I hope you are enjoying reading my book. If you haven’t done so and would like to begin from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive and read each sucessive post, except Welcome to Britain?, which is a little essay about immigration to Britain, on from there.
Chapter 17: the journal
1st January, 1915
So, a new year begins. We had hoped a few months ago, but it seems a ridiculously naive hope now, that the dawn of 1915 might have signalled the start of something better, more encouraging, of peaceful times with this hellish business over and resolved and enmities put aside. But instead it has settled down into a terrible stalemate, a war of attrition, with the opposing forces dug into squalid trenches, sometimes, according to what we hear on the grapevine, little more than yards apart, stretching all the way from Switzerland to the North Sea coast.
The barbarity of this new form of “industrialised” warfare, with terrible new weapons on both sides, is beyond comprehension, although war is always brutal and cruel of course; always has been. Never “glorious”. I really don’t know how this present hell will ever end. What will become of us? What will become of all the poor people of Europe and the flower of its youth?
Because things are so dire now, Henri and I have finally persuaded Émilie to decamp to stay with Aunt Lottie in Holland, taking Jacques with her, out of harm’s way, while it’s still possible, just about, to leave the country. We fear that soon it will be quite impossible to. So she has seen sense now and agreed, although she says she feels guilty about doing so, fleeing just because she can, whilst most of the oppressed people of Belgium don’t have that option. I understand how she feels, but ultimately I suppose, we all put care for our nearest and dearest first, no matter how much compassion we may feel for suffering humanity. I know that I shall miss my darling little boy dreadfully, but it will be reassuring to know that he’s safe.
And so they: Émilie, Jacques and Francoise the nanny, are going tomorrow, whilst they still are able to. Francoise is sewing a letter from me replying to Mother’s Christmas one inside the hem of one of Émilie’s coats so that it can be posted on from Amsterdam. It’s a good opportunity to get one to the outside world. I shall try to reassure her with carefully chosen words that things are bearable here and she mustn’t worry.
10th January, 1915
Although we hear of continuing terrible slaughter, there are still very few wounded soldiers of any nationality coming to rue de la Culture, because they are being dealt with in field hospitals near the front line. At least there are hardly any genuine ones. There are “pretend” patients in some of the beds wearing bandages (that we craftily soak with blood from operations) and masquerading as civilians, but in reality they are more of the usually fairly able-bodied boys who have been stranded, separated from their units and are trying to escape to Holland and avoid the German prisoner of war camps. We are getting a steady stream of them now. After a few days pretending to be our patients they are sent to “safe houses” in the city to lie low while fake documents etc are prepared for them, after which they are escorted to the Dutch border.
The boys are given strict instructions to stay indoors until their false identities are prepared for them. When this first began some fugitive soldiers were very stupid, going outside, visiting the public houses (while they still had beer to sell), getting drunk, singing in English (as they naturally would), picking fights and generally drawing attention to themselves. Apart from their own danger, they put Belgians at risk. Although even if they’ve been behaving sensibly, once on their way to the border they are still at risk of capture, of course, because the difficulty for them is that very few speak French, so if challenged they have to present their documents but remain firmly silent!
Henri and I are harbouring a few ourselves. It’s a dangerous thing to do, I suppose, but we are very careful. There are two of them at the house at the moment: a Private Hawthorne and a Lance-corporal Steele, who were at what sounds like carnage at Ypres. Having become separated from their units and been picked up and brought here, they both spent a few days at the hospital first. Private Hawthorne did have a genuine wound to his abdomen, although not too serious, which was passed off as an operation wound, so he really did need some nursing care. The other boy was unharmed (at least physically). Both want to escape to Holland and thence England. I think they have had their fill of fighting but I fear that they will have no say in the matter; they will be packed straight off back to Europe to face more horror, poor boys, if they rejoin their regiments.
We are trying to be extra-careful harbouring them. They are under firm orders to remain upstairs at all times, and if anyone comes to the door to quickly go up into the roof, pulling the ladder up after themselves and closing the trapdoor. With so many spies around, you really can’t be too careful. So Henri is very firm with them on that score.
I don’t think these boys (and I do mean boys; Private Hawthorne is only eighteen and Henry Steele is not much more: twenty-two) would be inclined to go out gallivanting and taking risks though. Certainly not Henry, the state he’s in. He’s somewhat shell-shocked; his nerves seem shot to pieces. He has the tremors and a pitiful haunted look in his eyes and it’s difficult to imagine him ever being mentally strong enough to go back to soldiering.
Although, speaking to Billy Hawthorne, it sounds so dreadful that even the most robust character would crumble. The way he describes it, it’s hellish: periods of boredom and inactivity and cold, floundering around ankle-deep in mud, getting trench foot, interspersed with utter terror when they come under bombardment or infantry attack, or when they are commanded over the top into the attack themselves to be cut down by the enemy’s machine gun fire. Yes, it sounds as though it would test the courage and sanity of even the bravest soul.
17th January, 1915
A new edict was issued by the authorities a few days ago. It’s always been the case that all males should be registered, but now they’re saying that all female French, British and Russian nationals should do so too. There were dire warnings of severe penalties for those who don’t, or for sheltering fugitives. It’s yet another tightening of the crushing screw of oppression. Miss Cavell has resolutely refused to register. She maintains that she has no national status, operating as she does under the aegis of the neutral Red Cross.
Well that’s very stubborn and courageous of her, that’s all I can say. Or possibly it’s naive. I don’t think our conquerors consider niceties of international conventions on the humane treatment of wounded soldiers a great deal. They certainly don’t regard our Red Cross hospital as in any way sacrosanct, judging by the way they’re always barging their way in to check that we aren’t harbouring their enemy. I told her that I would register. I want to maintain an impression of being completely law-abiding; give them no cause at all for suspicion. Only in that way can we continue our modest resistance work. She agreed with me; she seems to care little for her own safety and I think she sometimes sails rather close to the wind, but she’s very concerned that her nurses don’t take risks.
Today was the day on which we had to present ourselves for registration, so I went along to the administrative headquarters wearing my Red Cross arm band. Many of the officials there were not military but Belgian civilian civil servants, although they were supervised by German officers of course. This is how it is now: we have a cowed, subservient bureaucracy running the day-to-day affairs of the country as best it can but under the total, harsh control of the occupiers. The young woman who dealt with me after I eventually reached the front of the long queue wore a decidedly embarrassed and reluctant air. Her eyes exhibited only dull defeat. I felt quite sorry for her but understood her position perfectly. She was in no position to refuse to do the bidding of her masters. If she did she would lose her job, which no one can afford to do now, or possibly suffer far worse.
She issued me with an identity card bearing my name, age, nationality and occupation and told me I must not attempt to leave the country but report there every two weeks, which will no doubt involve tedious queuing again. So that’s it; even if I decided to run away now, it isn’t possible. It looks as though Émilie and Jacques got out just in time.
24th January, 1915
Billy Hawthorne and Henry Steele have left us, furnished with false identity papers, bound for the Dutch border, although it will be a potentially hazardous journey for Henry as he’s so mentally unwell. He can’t be easily passed off as a Belgian civilian – a sharp-eyed checkpoint sentry would probably recognise the signs of shell shock immediately and smell a rat – so the guide, Pierre, has constructed a secret compartment for his cart in which he will ride for most of the journey concealed beneath a load of sugar beet. So long as the Germans don’t demand its removal so that they can check underneath, he should be all right. Pierre is a farmer and Billy will masquerade as his dullard tongue-tied labourer. They will travel along the minor country roads and lanes to the border to minimise the likelihood of being checked. Even so, Pierre is taking a risk. He is a brave man, a true son of Belgium.
There’s now another guest at our house, another soldier from the South Lancashire Regiment like the other two were. Edwin Needham is another poor soul who got lightly wounded and separated from his regiment in the chaos of battle and has been kept concealed from the enemy before ending up at rue de la Culture. So now he too awaits false documentation before being taken, hopefully, to Holland and freedom.
We also have a few civilian patients in the hospital: one is a man from the American Legation, which is still functioning diplomatically to some extent, trying to organise food relief for the needy people. America is supposed to be entirely neutral as this stupid European war is no concern of hers, but of course its sympathies lie secretly with the Allied countries. Mr. Johnson is an assistant to the Consul and we have him here because he needed an urgent appendectomy. He’s a nice man and says he empathises with Belgium’s predicament completely. He thinks it’s “plumb crazy”, as he puts it, that a feud between two relatively small European states should have so escalated into a full-blown war. But America has to be seen to be meticulously neutral for diplomatic reasons. Well, I suppose he’s right.
I’ve mentioned to him that I’m keeping a journal, and he’s very interested in that. He says that diaries always make for fascinating social histories – ones with lengthy entries, like I write, anyway – and in the present circumstances it would be a valuable testament when this is all over, both for my own descendents and society as a whole. Perhaps so; I’d never thought of it like that. Fancy: me, humble Christobel Farley, becoming a writer!
I did confess to him that I was getting a little apprehensive about doing it, writing frankly about what’s going on, in case it should fall into the wrong hands. He thought about that, said he quite understood, and then surprised me by offering to hold it for safe keeping at the legation. He said he wouldn’t necessarily expect to be allowed to read it or anything. He would respect my privacy and I should just think of it as using a bank deposit box or something like that. That completely bowled me over, I must admit. But it would certainly give me peace of mind, knowing that my writing was somewhere safe rather than here and liable to be seized at any time. So I thanked him for his kind offer. He said he’d think about the best, safest way of getting my existing diaries and the current one to the legation. There’s a slight frisson of subterfuge about all of this, I must admit. It’s a little like being a spy!
3rd February, 1915
Back from my slightly clandestine meeting with Mr. Johnson – Sam – to hand over some of my writing. It was done with Henri’s full knowledge and approval, obviously. He quite agrees that my journal ought to be held in safe keeping, just to be on the safe side. Sam left hospital sufficiently recovered to complete his convalescence at the legation (where he also lives) two days ago and before he went he suggested that for the first time, I should take all my writing done since the occupation began and possibly for a year or two prior to it, and that in future it might be better to write on individual sheets of paper rather than in a book, so that I can take writing as I complete it rather than have a book waiting to be filled in my possession which could be found. He said that I could also lodge my earlier journals with him if I wished.
So, as today is Sunday and my day off, I took the currently-being-written-in book, which runs from August 1913 up to the present, concealed in my corset, heart slightly in my mouth hoping I wouldn’t be stopped and searched, to the legation. But I got there without incident and asked to see Mr. Shepherd on “urgent business”. He came down from his private living quarters and smiled, amused, when I said I needed to visit the ladies’ toilet to retrieve my dangerous cargo. When I put the book into his hand I told him that he was quite welcome to read my ramblings if he wished, whereupon he looked a little grave and said politely that he was sure they weren’t that, but could one day, when it came to a final reckoning, be a valuable testament. Or if not that, he added, they would be an interesting social record at least. Well, that was very kind of him to say so.
He offered me tea, made in the proper English way, which was a treat as such things are virtually impossible to obtain in Brussels now, and biscuits (likewise). But I suppose representing a rich country which is not involved in the war, the legation is unaffected by the shortages its host nation is suffering. He asked me which part of England I was from, as he’d spent three years living and working there before his present posting and reckoned he knew the country quite well. But when I said Sleaford, Lincolnshire, he just looked blank.
It was a very pleasant visit and I felt a little guilty, as so many of my adoptive fellow countrymen are enjoying no such pleasures now. Before I got up to leave he offered safe-keeping of my other, completed diaries if I wished it, and I took him up on his offer. He suggested not visiting the legation on a regular basis as it might attract suspicion and lead to arrest, so for the next hand-over, next Sunday, of current writing and another book, we are going to meet in the park, outside the public conveniences, so that I can divest myself of my corset’s contents and discreetly hand them over. Yes, it’s all a little like being in a spy novel!