Through War Torn Europe: An official trip after WWI told in the words of James Gordon Steese
Number Eight
Monday, August 4th, 1919.
We have had two days at Brussels and vicinity, making side trips to Louvain and Waterloo. Brussels is a beautiful city, with a park or Bois more beautiful than the Bois de Boulogne at Paris. We have motored all over the country. Everywhere prosperity reigns and crops are magnificent, the finest agricultural country I have ever seen. Judging from external appearances, the devastation of Belgium has been much exaggerated. Another confirmatory sign is the fact that ever since crossing the frontier from France, we have been deluged with official pamphlets and propaganda of all kinds. Actually, the fields are full of fat cattle and rich harvests, and the streets are full of happy people patronizing the theatres and cafes. The big places close at 1:00 A. M., but dozens of others keep going till daylight. There are lots of beggars, but they all, even the children, wear shoes and stockings though it is midsummer, which convinces us that begging is a trade and not an indication of real distress. The difference between Brussels and Ostend in Belgium, and Lille in France, cannot help but strike one very forcibly. Except immediately around Ypres, there has been little devastation in Belgium. The indemnities demanded by the Germans apparently were quite easily met from surplus funds on hand. The Belgians have always been the bankers of the world; their grasping landlords and small shopkeepers have been remarked by all visitors before the War. I have no means of knowing, of course how serious the looting of the factories has been, but I am growing very skeptical of the whole Belgian Epic. Brussels has about 900,000 people and they all seemed to be on the streets on Sunday and again tonight.

Louvain was a great disappointment, from an "atrocity" standpoint. The Library, part of the Cathedral, and several hundred lesser buildings were destroyed, but most of them have been rebuilt. The very beautiful and striking looking Hotel de Ville, standing in an exposed position on the min plaza, was untouched. Its pictures and statuary were intact. For a town of 40,000 Louvain, considering only its military offense, got off easily, except for the all aged atrocities. Some 400 people were killed. Of course, the fact that it was not in the War Zone and was deliberately damaged as a punishment gives a different moral aspect to the affair, aside from the material considerations.

Tuesday, August 5th, 1919.
Saw "Faust" by a good company Sunday night and a vaudeville show last night. The trip to Waterloo was most interesting. On the way we passed a sort of country club where an archery competition was one. The targets were on the top of a tall pole, were of different sizes, and the prizes varied with the difficulty of the targets. It seems to be quite a national sport. Some of the bows were very elaborate.

I have not yet seen any women hitched to carts, but dogs are used in great numbers. The French get lots of work out of their women. Everywhere they were in the fields as late as nine o'clock in the evening. Lots of Fords here, mostly new ones. Some of the civilians have good cars. In France we saw no civilian cars of a later vintage than 1914. The military, of course, have good cars and trucks everywhere.

So far we have been traveling on a rising curve, so to speak. Everything seems finer and more wonderful than the preceding. I am giving you only a few random impressions, some half-baked, some quite naive, just as they occur to me. A little more reflection and a digested comparison of the various places would, no doubt, eliminate many of my superlatives, but would also destroy their freshness. I have the rest of my 45 years for that. I am trying, however, not to give any misstatements of fact; the opinions are my own, based on whatever opportunities I am having of seeing things and talking to everyone I meet on every conceivable subject.

While I have traveled a great deal from Alaska to Cape Horn, this whole civilization and concentrated life over here is now to me. Also, we are seeing it under unusual circumstances. So I am taking it as it comes with an open mind and not as a blase, travel-weary, bored tourist, such as is the attitude of so many four-flushing travelers.

This morning our train moved to Liege, about two hours running time. We motored all over town and out to one of the demolished detached forts; then back to the train for lunch. I am snatching a few minutes to write this while the junior members of the party are having lunch at the "second table". This afternoon we motor out to Spa, the famous resort where the German General Headquarters were maintained.

Liege is a small edition of Brussels. The streets are full of people. Fakirs, peddlers, and beggars pester one on all sides. All sorts of county fair attractions (swings, shooting galleries, picture shows, contortionists, freaks, fortune tellers, wild animals, etc.) line one of the principal boulevards just as in Brussels, a sort of permanent carnival.

Wednesday, August 6th, 1919.
Just a line while waiting for the train to pull out after four hours here. It is becoming increasingly difficult to write letters. It is impossible while moving and even our evenings, since we are out of the devastated regions, are now spent sightseeing.

The ride to Spa was very beautiful. The three rivers joining at Liege all have broad fertile valleys surrounded by high hills. Our view was particularly fine, almost like the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania as one sees it from the Black Diamond Express going to Buffalo. It was not so extensive, however, as the view of Epernay and the Valley of the Marne from the hills on the north as we motored in from Reims.

It has not rained in ten days and the sun has shone at intervals. I left my trench coat off going to Spa. There are quite elaborate baths and a casino. Most interesting, however, was the Kaiser's Headquarters, with its underground retreat in reinforced concrete. One entrance was concealed in a mass of shrubbery in the garden, the other led into the house through the coal cellar, General Hindenburg also had a big house here. So did the German G.H.Q.

On the way back we passed the ruins of an old castle dating back to the Dark Ages and now completely gone except for a few broken walls. The finest example of the pre-Vauban fortifications that we have seen was at Coucy-le-Chateau, north of Soissons, still in excellent repair.

Thursday, August 7th, 1919.
We had time in Cologne only for a drive around the town, lunch, a visit to the Cathedral, and a stroll around looking at the shops. Everything imaginable was offered for sale. Some of the prices looked pretty high, especially for imported goods, until one recollected that the mark is now down to about 7 cents or less than 30% of par. It buys, however, almost as much as ever. Germany seems very well off and the people are busy at work. We could get no meat for lunch, however, as we had no meat tickets, but, as sausage and a number of other combination foods are not classed as meats. We did fairly well.

The Rhine is the first real river we have seen. In France, anything in the shape of a ditch is a river whether it has water in it or not. This was strikingly illustrated by an incident in the Chateau Thierry operations. After forcing the crossing of the Marne, one of our divisions was stopped by the line of the River Ourcq and sent back for help. The Engineer Officer who went up to reconnoitre in the dark crossed the river without noticing it and was five miles into the enemy's lines before he ran into some outposts, backed up, and found the river flowed under the road through a two plank culvert.

There are many castles of all periods along the Rhine, as you know. This looks more and more like the Europe that we have always read so much about.

Last night the Engineers here gave the field officers of our party a banquet at the Coblenzhof. It was a very fine party, until I had to make a speech. The cars have just arrived to take us up to Ehrenbreitstein.

End Notes and Bibliography