Through War Torn Europe: An official trip after WWI told in the words of James Gordon Steese
Number Seven
Friday, August 1st, 1919.
I had never been quite sure whether Ypres is in France or Belgium. The Belgian guards at the frontier settled the point.

Yesterday we went through a most desolate district, where probably the heaviest fighting of the war was conducted over the longest period. We had lunch at Arras, where the most beautiful and distinctive cathedral of all is a total wreck. Then on to the Vimy Ridge.

Lens was a city of 100,000 and nothing remains. But, worst of all, the big mining plants have been completely demolished and the mines flooded. It will require ten years to recover here, whereas the farming districts will be rehabilitated in another year. Already many trench systems have been filled in and the craters leveled off. The wire has been gathered up and piled along the fences. At a distance the piles of wire look like haystacks.

This was great country for the Engineers. The numerous streams and canals required lots of bridges and it was extremely difficult to keep the roads in passable condition.

We have crossed the Hindenburg line several times again. Between La Bassee and Lille, the country was very strongly fortified. Reinforced concrete pill boxes everywhere! Every ruined house was turned into a fort by thickening, the walls and floors with reinforced concrete.

Lille is, or was, as large as Kansas City. It has suffered very little. We stayed at a fine hotel with private bath and lots of hot water. It was my first experience with the high French beds. They were wonderfully soft and quite a change from the Q. M. mattresses on the train. We got excellent food, but no civilized drinks except champagne. No whiskey and the cocktails were atrocious. We also saw a fair vaudeville show. The Cafes close at 11:30, but the streets were practically pitch dark long before that. The streets, early in the evening, were full of people, with lots of movies and street fairs. There were some pretty girls but all had very big feet. All the women walk as though their feet hurt. I suppose because as children, they wear wooden shoes.

Of course we are doing no social stunts and hence do not meet any of the best people.  The hotel was quite crowded, in fact, we are divided among three or four hotels. Our dining room was full of prosperous looking people at dinner, but the girls did not seem at all attractive, or rather they lack the charm of our own people. That, of course, is a matter of nationality.

Today we finished up the Ypres Salient, including the Messines Ridge. This town is entirely gone. All the country round about is dotted with pill boxes and dugouts of reinforced concrete, showing that the Boche never intended to give up this section.

A few miles north of the town is a tank graveyard, where dozens of them lie in various stages of disintegration. All entrances to the towns are provided with tank traps, large heavy blocks, or pillars, of concrete chained together. 

The railroads are all using a miscellaneous collection of French, German, Belgian, and Dutch freight cars. All through France, at least through the devastated region that we have been visiting, about two cars out of three seemed to be German - one of the terms of the Armistice.

We saw Quentin Roosevelt's grave. It occupies an attractive spot on a hill side and was well cared for and covered with flowers. I tried to find Stanley's (Capt. Stanley Wood, British Army, late 2nd Lieut., 7th Us S. Infantry), but could get no information from the British Graves Registration unit here. It was so long ago that all records are in London and it would take a month to get information from the War Office.

Saturday, August 2nd, 1919.
Today the British Navy took charge. We visited the 15 inch gun position from which Dunkirk, 22 miles away, was shelled. We then went on board the "Vindictive" which was sunk to close the entrance to the harbor. After visiting various submarine and port works about town, we had lunch on our train. Then we motored to Zeebrugge, where the real fighting took place and where many sunken ships still block the harbor. Captain Friatt's
ship was being raised. They expect to complete the job tomorrow. All along the coast from Ostend to Zeebrugge is a continuous line of twenty miles of German fortifications like our permanent seacoast forts. The amount of heavy permanent work done by the Boche is amazing. He certainly never intended to give up this country.

Roads in Belgium around Ypres were very poor, but here they are fine. The thrifty Belgians have opened "estaminets" in every ruined town and peddlers pester one everywhere. All signs are in both Flemish and French.

From Zeebrugge we motored to Bruges and then back to Ostend. Bruges is the quaintest and most attractive appearing town we have seen. The main plaza or square is a perfect gem right out of the middle ages. Also, while admiring it, we cut the dust out of our throats with two tall glasses of the nearest approach to beer I have yet found. At Bruges the Germans were building an enormous drydock and a submarine shelter with stalls for sixteen submarines. The roof of the latter is ten feet thick of concrete and steel. A big ocean freighter and a destroyer were blown up side by side in the Canal, a strange sight so far inland.

Sunday, August 3rd, 1919.
Last night four of us had dinner with Captain Evans and three other officers of the British Navy. He is the Commander Evans of the Scott Antarctic Expedition, who took command and did heroic work after Scott was lost. He has twenty-four foreign decorations, but wears only six rows of the more important ones. He has had a very spectacular war record, having spent over 600 nights on his bridge. At 38, he is the youngest Captain in the British Navy and will be an Admiral at 40. His rapid promotion was due to a famous little fight here in the channel, in which, with his two ships, he attacked and destroyed five out of a fleet of six German destroyers. He is very modest and unassuming but awfully good company. He led us a very merry alcoholic chase.

Ostend is a very gay place. We did the Kursaal, Casino, Helder's, several minor cafes. Unfortunately, our train left at 2:15 A.M., so we left as things were getting a bit too lively. "Militaires" are not allowed at the big tables in the Casino, but I picked up 200 francs at a small roulette wheel at Helder's. As Evans knows everyone in the world, we met a lot of nice people, English, French and Belgian, at the dance and concert at the Kursaal, and found them quite like nice people everywhere. I still do not fancy the French women much. All the girls are wonderful dancers. Altogether it was quite a large day.

We are just loafing around Brussels today. Last Sunday we worked just as on any other day. Tomorrow we go out to Waterloo, then to Liege, Cologne, and up the Rhine.

End Notes and Bibliography