The entrance of the German army into Brussels has lost the human quality. It was lost as soon as the three soldiers who led the army bicycled into the Boulevard du Régent and asked the way to the Gare du Nord. When they passed, the human note passed with them. What came after them, and 24 hours later is still coming, is not men marching, but a force of nature like a tidal wave, an avalanche or a river flooding its banks. At this minute it is rolling through Brussels as the swollen waters of the Conemaugh Valley swept through Johnstown.
At the sight of the first few regiments of the enemy we were thrilled with interest. After they had passed for three hours in one unbroken steel-grey column we were bored. But when hour after hour passed and there was no halt, no breathing time, no open spaces in the ranks, the thing became uncanny, inhuman. You returned to watch it, fascinated. It held the mystery and menace of fog rolling toward you across the sea.
The grey of the uniforms worn by both officers and men helped this air of mystery. Only the sharpest eye could detect among the thousands that passed the slightest difference. All moved under a cloak of invisibility. Only after the most numerous and severe tests, with all materials and combinations of colour that give forth no colour, could this grey have been discovered. That it was selected to clothe and disguise the German when he fights is typical of the German Staff in striving for efficiency to leave nothing to chance, to neglect no detail.
In pictures: First World War
In pictures: First World War
1/30 Victoria station, London
1914: A soldier saying goodbye to a loved one in the rain at Victoria station, London, as he leaves for the front
2/30 Trafalgar Square, London
1914: In Trafalgar Square, London street urchins dressed as soldiers with paper hats and canes as guns stand to attention watched by a small crowd. Behind them is a notice declaring ' The Need for Fighting Men is Urgent'
3/30 Marylebone Grammar School, London
1914: Two men conscripted to the British Army undergoing a medical check-up at Marylebone Grammar School, London
4/30 Victoria station, London
1914: Two soldiers on the concourse at Victoria station, London, about to leave for the front line. They are carrying parcels full of food and other provisions
5/30 British Army
1914: A group of new recruits in training for service in the British Army during World War I
6/30 Aisne, France
1914: A lone soldier with a bicycle stands amid the remains of a German motor convoy which lines a country lane after an attack by French field guns in the battle of the Aisne in France
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
7/30 Aisne River, France
1914: German sharpshooters move to a position near the front line, during the fighting near the Aisne River
8/30 German naval zeppelin
1914: The L2, a German naval zeppelin during World War I
1914: French officers dining in style in a trench near the front line
10/30 Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles
1915: Troops landing at Anzac Cove in the Dardanelles during the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War
1915: Soldiers arriving at a station in London to travel home for Christmas
12/30 German Army
1915: A wounded German soldier
13/30 British Army
1915: A wounded British soldier is stretchered back to camp past a carnage-strewn trench, during the World War I
14/30 Brighton Pavilion
1915: Injured Indian soldiers of the British Army at the Brighton Pavilion, converted into a military hospital
15/30 Fort Vaux, France
1916: A German rifleman beside the corpse of a French soldier in a trench at Fort Vaux, France
1916: Private F.E Henningham leaves for service in the British Army during World War I
1916: The British soldier, Drummer Bent, wearing his Victoria Cross
18/30 Somme, France
1916: Gas-masked men of the British Machine Gun Corps with a Vickers machine gun during the first battle of the Somme
19/30 British Army
1916: British soldiers sitting around a lamp in their trench
20/30 Austrian Army
1916: Austrian soldiers in the trenches demonstrating their gas masks
21/30 German Army
1916: Three German soldiers display rats killed in their trench the previous night
22/30 German Army
1916: A German officer leads his men through a cloud of phosphene gas set off by themselves for cover, as they run toward the British trenches
1916: A dog finds a wounded soldier lying under a tree in Austria during World War I
24/30 Royal Air Force
1916: Pilots from the Royal Air Force ready to drop bombs by hand over Germany from their aeroplane, a development as in the first stages of the war planes were thought of only as reconnaissance machines
25/30 WWI aircraft
1916: A group of World War I aircraft flying in formation
26/30 French and British troops
1916: French and British troops in a trench on the Western Front during World War I
27/30 Cross Farm, Shackleton, Surrey
1917: Women war workers, at Cross Farm, Shackleton, Surrey
28/30 American Army in London
1918: American soldiers sightseeing in London from the top of an open-decked omnibus at the end of WW I
29/30 American Army
1918: A US Army cinematographer filming a US Nieuport 28 biplane taking off during the summer counter-offensive
30/30 American Army
1918: An American cinematographer sets up his camera in a water-filled trench
After you have seen this service uniform under conditions entirely opposite you are convinced that for the German soldier it is his strongest weapon. Even the most expert marksman cannot hit the target unless he can see. It is a grey-green, not the blue-grey of our Confederates. It is the grey of the hour just before daybreak, the grey of unpolished steel, of mist among green trees...
This army has been on active service three weeks, and so far there is not apparently a chin-strap or a horseshoe missing. It came in with the smoke pouring from cookstoves on wheels, and in an hour had set up post office wagons, from which mounted messengers galloped along the line of column distributing letters and at which soldiers posted picture postcards.
The infantry came in files of five, 200 men to each company; the lancers in columns of four, with not a pennant missing. The quick-firing guns and field pieces were one hour at a time in passing, each gun with its caisson and ammunition wagon taking 20 seconds in which to pass.
The men of the infantry sang “Fatherland, My Fatherland”. Between each line of song they took three steps. At times 2,000 men were singing together in absolute rhythm and beat. When the melody gave way, the silence was broken only by the stamp of ironshod boots, and then again the song rose. When the singing ceased, the bands played marches. They were followed by the rumbles of siege guns, the creaking of wheels and of chains clanking against the cobble-stones and the sharp bell-like voices of the bugles.
For seven hours the army passed in such solid column that not once might a taxi-cab or trolley car pass through the city. Like a river of steel it flowed, grey and ghostlike. Then, as dusk came and a thousands of horses’ hoofs and thousands of iron boots continued to tramp forward, they struck tiny sparks from the stones, but the horses and men who beat out the sparks were invisible.
At midnight, pack wagons and siege guns were still passing. At seven this morning I was awakened by the tramp of men and bands playing jauntily. Whether they marched all day or not I do not know; but for 26 hours the grey army rumbled with the mystery of fog and the pertinacity of a steamroller.
First published in the News Chronicle, 23 August 1914
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