5. ALONG THE BATTLE-LINE
A thousand feet up two French aeroplanes hummed slowly west, translucent in the clear morning sunlight. Below and to the left lazy shrapnel burst. The sound of the explosions and the humming of the motors drifted down, minutes later. Our carriages crawled up a hill strewn with villas hidden in new verdure and flowering fruit-trees; and, looking back, we had a last view of Belgrade, the White City, on her headland, and the Austrian shore. Then we plunged into a winding, rutted lane that wandered up beneath trees which met overhead - past low, white peasant houses roofed with heavy Turkish tiles, and fields where women in embroidered leather vests and linen skirts tramped the furrows, leading oxen lent by the army, and followed by soldiers who guided the wooden ploughs. Long strips of homespun linen hung from hedge and fence, bleaching in the sun. Except for the soldiers, the country was destitute of men.
We turned inland, along country roads that were little more than tracks - now one could not use the main road along the Save, for it lay directly under the guns of the Austrian trenches, three hundred yards away across the river. Many times the driver lost the way. We forded rapid mountain streams that washed to the wagon-bed, sank to the hubs in muddy sloughs, crept through winding, deep ravines along the dried beds of torrents, and rattled down steep hills through groves of immense oaks, where droves of half-wild pigs fled squealing before the horses. Once we passed three huge tombstones taller than a man, crowned with the carved turbans that ornament the cenotaphs of the hadjis. Immense scimitars were chiselled at their base. Johnson asked some peasants about them, but they answered 'Heroes,' and shrugged their shoulders. Farther on was a white stone sarcophagus lying in a hollow of the hill - the Roman tomb that once enclosed it had been broken up and carried away by the peasants, perhaps centuries ago. Then the track led through the middle of an ancient village graveyard, its moss-grown Greek crosses leaning crazily among dense brush. Everywhere along the way new crosses of stone, painted with gold, green and red, stood under little roofs; these, Johnson explained, were the memorials of men of the neighbourhood who had died in unknown places and whose bodies had never been found. Trees and grass and flowers rioted over the hills. Last year's fields were jungles of weeds. Houses with doors ajar and gaping windows lay amid untended vines. Sometimes we bumped down the wide street of a silent country village where old men dragged themselves to their doors to see us pass, and children romped with wolfish sheep-dogs in the dust, and groups of women came home from the fields with mattocks on their shoulders. This was the rackia country - where the native plum brandy comes from; immense orchards of prunes and plums sweetened the heavy air.
We stopped at a mehana or village inn to eat the lunch we had brought with us - for in all this country there was not enough food even for the inhabitants. In the dim, cool interior, with its rough wooden tables set on the earthen floor, aged peasants with the simplicity of children took off their hats with grave politeness. 'Dobar dan, gospodine!” they greeted us. 'Good day, sirs! We hope your voyage is pleasant.' The gnarled old proprietor stooped over his earthen oven, making Turkish coffee in brass cups and telling how the Austrians had come.
'A soldier with a rifle and a bayonet came through this door. "I want money," he said; "all you have - quick!" But I answered that I had no money. "You must have money. Are you not an innkeeper?" Still I said I had none; then he thrust at me with his bayonet - here. You see?' He tremblingly lifted his shirt and showed a long gash, yet unhealed.
'Typhus!' Johnson pointed to the fences before the houses on each side of the road. Almost every one was marked with a painted white cross, sometimes two or three. 'Every cross means a case of typhus in the house.' In half a mile I counted more than a hundred. It seemed as if this buoyant, fertile land held nothing but death or the memorials of death.
Late in the afternoon we topped a hill and saw again the wide-spread Save flooding all its valley, and beyond, foothills piling greenly up the Bosnian mountains, range behind range. Here the river made a great bend, and half concealed in the middle of a wooded plain that seemed entirely under water lay red roofs, white swollen towers and thin minarets - Obrenovatz. We drove down the hill and joined the main road, which rose just above the flood level, like a causeway through wastes of water. In the marshes on either side sacred white storks were solemnly fishing. The ground rose a little in a sort of island at the centre of the flooded country; we rattled along the rocky, unpaved street of a white little Serbian town, low houses set in clumps of green, with double windows to keep out the vampires.
They led us with much ceremony to the house of Gaia Matitch, the postmaster, a nervous, slight man with a sweet smile, who welcomed us at his door. His wife stood beside him, fluttered, anxious, and bursting with the importance of entertaining strangers. The entire family waved us before them into their bedroom, which they had ornamented with the whitest linen, the gayest embroideries, and vases full of flowers from the marsh. Two officers from the divisional headquarters stood around racking their brains for things to make us comfortable; a little girl brought plates of apples and preserved plums and candied oranges; soldiers fell on their knees and pulled at our boots, and another stood by the washstand waiting to pour water over our hands; Gaia Matitch himself wandered in and out of the room, a bottle of rackia in his hand, offering us a drink, tidying the chairs and tables, shouting shrill, exasperated orders to the servants.
'We are greatly honoured,' he managed to convey, in a mixture of garbled French, German, and English. In Serbia it is the highest honour for a stranger to visit one's house.'
This beautiful Serbian hospitality to foreigners we experienced many times. Once, I remember we were in a strange town where for weeks no new supplies had come in, and there was no tobacco. We went to a shop to try to find some agarettes.
'Cigarettes!' said the shopkeeper, throwing up his hands. 'Cigarettes are worth double their weight in gold.' He looked at us for a moment. 'Are you strangers?' We said we were. Whereupon, he unlocked an iron safe and handed us each a package of cigarettes. 'The charge is nothing,' he said: 'You are foreigners.'
Our friend Matitch, with the tears standing in his eyes, pointed to two photographs on the wall - one of an old man with a white beard, and the other of a young girl.
'This man is my father,' he said. 'He was seventy-seven years old. When the Austrians took Shabatz they sent him to Buda-Pesth as a prisoner of war, and he is dead there in I hmgary. As for my sister here, they took her also - and since August I have heard nothing. I know not whether she is living or dead.'
Here we first began to hear of Austrian atrocities along the western frontier. We could not believe them at first; but later, at Belgrade, at Shabatz, at Losnitza, they were repeated again and again, by those who escaped, by the families of those who were dead or in prison, by sworn statements and the Austrian official lists of prisoners sent to the Serbian Red Cross. At the taking of the border towns the Austrians herded the civil population together - women, old men, and children - and drove them into Austria-Hungary as prisoners of war. More than seven hundred were so taken from Belgrade, and fifteen hundred from Shabatz alone. The official war-prisoner lists of the Austrian Government read cynically like this: Ion Touphechitch, age 84; Darinka Antitch (woman), age 23, Georg Georgevitch, age 78; Voyslav Petronievitch, age 12; Maria Wenz, age 69. The Austrian officers said they did this because it was a punitive expedition against the Serbs, and not a war!
At the mess we heard that we must travel by night to Shabatz, for the road led along the river bank within range of the enemy's trenches. So after dinner the entire staff accompanied us back to Matitch's. Much sour native wine had been flowing, and we went arm in arm hooting and singing along the village street. When Matitch heard that we were not going to spend the night in his house, he almost wept.
'Please stay!' he cried, grasping our arms. 'Isn't my house good enough for you? Is there anything you lack?'
At length, with a sigh he thrust us into the dining-room. There we sat, saying farewell, while Matitch and Mrs Matitch brought wine and dried salt beef to make us thirsty. A courteous officer inquired from Johnson how one drank a health in French; but all he could get was 'A votre sentir!' which he repeated over and over again. We drank Mrs Matitch's health, at which the good woman was furiously embarrassed. We sang American songs to uproarious applause. Some one stuffed Robinson's pockets full of dried beef, which fell out of his clothes for days afterward. It got along toward midnight, and we ought to have started at ten. Of a sudden Matitch rose to his feet. 'Pobratim!' he shouted, and all the others echoed 'Pobratim!' 'I now make you my porbatim - my blood-brother,' said he, glowing with friendliness. 'It is the old Serbian ceremony. Your arm through mine - so!’
One by one we linked elbows and drank thus, and then threw our arms about each other's necks; and embraced loudly on both cheeks. The company roared and pounded on the table. It was done - and to this day we are pobratim with Gaia Matitch.
At length we were in the carriages; the drivers snapped their whips, and we were off, to shouts of 'S Bogom! Farewell! Laku Noch! Happy night!'
There was a bright moon. As we passed the outskirts of the village, two silent, armed figures on horseback fell in behind the first carriage, riding along with us till the danger zone was passed. Now we pitched and tossed over rocks or wallowed through deep mud; again the horses were splashing in water that rose to the hubs, where the riverflood covered the road. The drivers cracked their whips no more, nor shouted - they cursed the horses in low tones, for we were now within hearing of the Austrian trenches. No sound was heard except the beat of the horses' hoofs and the creaking of the carriage.
The moon sank slowly. The mounted guards vanished as mysteriously as they had come. Still we rocked on. Gently the wide, starry sky paled to dawn, and eastward, over the great mountains of Tser, where the Serbians broke the first invasion, came the white and silver dawn. Under a grassy hill crowned with an enormous white Greek church wrecked by artillery lire, a hundred ox-carts were scattered in the fields, their drivers sleeping wrapped in blankets of vivid colours, or squatting around early fires that painted their faces red. They were bound for Belgrade, a week's crawling journey away, to bring back food for the starving country where we were going.
Over the mountains leaped the sun, hot and blinding, and we rattled into the streets of Shabatz, between endless rows of smashed and gutted and empty houses, before the town was awake.
A café stood open. We made for it, and ordered coffee. Was there anything to eat? We were ravenous. The woman shook her head. 'In Shabatz there is not even bread.'
'Eggs!' we cried.
Johnson lazily threw up his hands. 'My dear sairs! Excuse me. There is no eggs. Thees is war!'
'But I saw hens up the street,' I insisted. Finally Johnson consented to ask the woman.
There are no eggs for sale here,' she replied. 'But since the gospodine are strangers, we will give you some.'
Shabatz had been a rich and important town, metropolis of the wealthiest department in Serbia, Machva, and the centre of a great fruit, wine, wool, and silk trade. It contained twenty-five hundred houses. Some had been destroyed by the guns; twice as many more were wantonly burned, and all of them had been broken into and looted. One walked along miles and miles of streets - every house was gutted. The invaders had taken linen, pictures, children's playthings, furniture - and what was too heavy or cumbersome to move they had wrecked with axes. They had stabled their horses in the bedrooms of fine houses. In private libraries all the books lay scattered in filth on the floor, carefully ripped from their covers. Not simply a few houses had been so treated - every house. It was a terrible thing to see.
At the time of the first invasion many people remained in Shabatz, trusting that they would be safe. But the soldiers were loosed like wild beasts in the city, burning, pillaging, raping. We saw the gutted Hôtel d'Europe, and the blackened and mutilated church where three thousand men, women, and children were penned up together without food or water for four days, and then divided into two groups - one sent hack to Austria as prisoners of war, the other driven ahead of the army as it marched south against the Serbians. This is not unsupported rumour or hysterical accusation, as it is often in France and Belgium; it is a fact proved by a mass of sworn testimony, by hundreds of people who made that terrible march. We talked with several; one a very old woman who had been forced at the point of the bayonet to go on foot before the troops more than thirty-five miles to Valievo. Her shoes had rotted from her feet - for ten miles she walked barefoot over the stony road.
In the Prefecture we went over hundreds of reports, affi-davits, and
photographs, giving names, ages, addresses of the sufferers, and details
of the horrible things the Austrians had done. There was one picture taken
at the village of Lechnitza, showing more than a hundred women and children
chained together, their heads struck off and lying in a separate heap.
A i Kravitza old men, women, and children were tortured and fiendishly
outraged, then butchered. At Yvremovatz fifty people were herded into a
cellar and burned alive. Five undefended towns were razed to the ground
- forty-two villages were sacked, and the greater part of their inhabitants
massacred. The typhus, brought into the country by the Austrian army, still
ran riot through Shabatz and all the region. And here there were no doctors
To be perfectly fair, let me say that everywhere we were told it was the Hungarians, and not the Austrian Germans, who had committed these atrocities - the Hungarians, who have always been enemies of the Serbs, in Croatia as well as here. The Austrians themselves seem to have behaved fairly well; they paid for what they took and did not bother peace-able civilians.
But the Hungarians reverted to their savage ancestors, the Huns. When they retreated from Shabatz, in December, they gathered together in the courtyard of Gachitch's pharmacy three hundred Serbian soldiers taken prisoners in battle, shot them slowly and then broke their necks. Belgium can show no horrors as black as these.... The cold-blooded fiends who committed them gave as an excuse that the townspeople had harboured comitadjis - who, they had been told by their officers, were savage bandits, to be shot on sight. But in all this region there were no comitadjis, nor ever had been. In the country they pretended to believe that the Serbian peasant costume was the comitadji uniform - and since every civilian, man, woman, and child, wore it, they butchered them all. The slaughter of the prisoners of war had no excuse.
In this once flourishing and pleasant city hardly two hundred people now lived, camping miserably in their ruined houses, without enough to eat. We wandered in the hot sun through deserted streets, past the square where once the great market of all northwest Serbia had been held, and the peasants had gathered in their bright dress from hundreds of kilometres of rich mountain valleys and fertile plains. It was market-day. A few miserable women in rags stood mournfully by their baskets of sickly vegetables. And on the steps of the gutted Prefecture sat a young man whose eyes had been stabbed out by Hungarian bayonets. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with ruddy cheeks - dressed in the dazzling homespun linen of the peasant's summer costume, and in his hat he wore yellow dandelions. He played a melancholy tune upon a horse-headed Serbian fiddle and sang:
'I am sad, for I have lost the sight ot the sun and the green fields and the blossoming plum-trees. God's blessing to you who have given me a grosh (four cents). Blessing to all who are about to give -'
The prefect pointed to the broken buildings. 'When the war is finished
we shall make a new Shabatz,' he said. ‘The Kovernment has already ordered
that no one shall repair the old ruined houses. They must be rebuilt entirely
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