By Gregory Clark, London, June 8, 1940
Writing from London after returning there from France and Belgium, Gregory Clark tells the tragic story of the millions of refugees who have been forced to flee from their native lands, from their homes-into an unknown filled with ever-present horror and peril
Neither Attila the Hun nor Genghis Khan, who mercilessly exterminated all humanity they met in their paths for the same reason that we might exterminate grasshoppers in the west, ever had pleasure of seeing more human tragedy and disaster than we have seen in Belgium and France in the past few weeks.
The tragedy of the refugees was not fully told at its full tide because of the staggering character of other news. The speed of the German mechanized attack and unexpected twists of events stole the spotlight from what was after all a far greater tragedy–the bloody pilgrimage of several millions of people from their native lands, from their kind homes, into an unknown filled with ever present horror and peril. In what used to be called the Great War there also was tragic pilgrimage of Belgians, but at least they fled with the path fairly open before them.
In this awful flight every step of the way was blazing with terror. The path before them was filled with menace. They fled from the one horror in the full knowledge that they were heading into unremitting horror of the millions who took part, and are still taking part in that awful pilgrimage I feel sure I saw nearly 200,000 of them in the seven days I toiled my way from Brussels to the coast ahead of the rapidly advancing enemy. And this article will detail with such detachment as possible to an emotional man the main features of the picture that now must hang on the walls of humanity’s grand gallery along with the tragic murals of Caesar, Attila, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and all the great names of pride.
Like a Forest Fire
But do not console yourselves as you read this in thinking all this is over. It goes on. Where could these rivers of humanity go? Could they just sink into the ground? At the time of writing, the estimate is that 150,000 of them have perished and so sunk into the ground. But poor splendid France has taken them in their millions and is spreading them somehow all over her already crowded campagne. In my time I have heard my fellow countrymen speak critically of the French, saying they were too canny, too parsimonious, too greedy for money. Never again can I be silent before so vicious an opinion. For I have seen France with absolutely wide arms welcoming to her soil these tortured, laboring, penniless millions. Not with canniness, but with generosity sublime from the highest to the lowest, France has to her great military peril welcomed and made safe the path of these refugees. If France is canny about money it is because so many times each century France has to mother another million of the earth’s forsaken. To be so great a mother France must indeed be thrifty.
Many years ago when I was a boy camping on the Muskosh river in the Georgian bay, I saw a great forest fire. I witnessed that never-to-be-forgotten spectacle of the forest’s secret people, the deer, the birds, the squirrels, the fox, the slow, struggling porcupine fleeing before the crackling horror of fire.
When I stood on the road between Tournai and Brussels and watched the full tide of refugee columns I saw the gentle creatures of the wilds once more.
Here before me on the wide highway was an endless throng, in cars, in huge farm wagons, on bicycles, but far the greatest number just on foot, toiling, not fast but with exhaustion already two or three days old in terrible forward-bending agony. In a forest fire creatures do not race, they flee in little exhausted, bewildered spurts. So with these women and children and men in a never ending flood to the number of millions on all roads.
Allies Show Humanity
I first contacted the tragedy at Arras, where I arrived in the war area by train. The advance guard of the refugees were there–the fairly well off, who had good cars and experience of travel to enable them to make time. These were citizens of Holland and Belgium who had already experience of bombing in the larger cities of their native lands. The night I arrived Arras was bombed for the first time. It was set on fire, and hardly had flames started to leap, before out from hotels, private homes, sheds and shelters where they had taken refuge, emerged the tide of refugees to continue their tragic way.
“We cannot remain,” they told me. “We have already been bombed every place we have stopped since we left our homes. We must be on our way.”
“Where to?” I always asked and without one exception to that question the answer was ever the same. They did not know.
From the moment of my arrival until, along with all the rest of the war correspondents, I was marched by the officers in charge of us aboard a ship at Boulogne, already under intense bomb fire, there was no yard of road, no village however tiny, no field that was not filled with this awful tide of humble humanity. You must realize now, of course, that this refugee flood was a German weapon as coldly calculated and as viciously employed as any fifth column. In despatches to The Daily Star I called it the sixth column, and that describes it. The reason for the random bombing of cities and towns was merely to drive out of those places onto the roads again the pilgrim hordes to block and embarrass the roads for French and British armies. With heart in mouth, I watched from day to day for any sign that our armies might face the problem with an almost lawful necessity and drive the refugees from the roads. God be praised, whatever the net results of this first battle may be, both French and British treated these hopeless people with humanity that never lapsed.
Look at Your Canada
So much for argument of the case. Now for the evidence. If these be too cruel throw the paper aside, get to your feet and look out the window at your beloved Canada, and dedicate yourself to it anew. For there are no non-military objectives any more. Your sweetest child is today a military objective of first rank. For if that tender child be blasted before your eyes so rendering you and all who see it helpless, then surely is not that a military objective of greatest importance?
Near Enghien while watching Junker dive bombers methodically and very technically blasting that little town to radiant hell, I stood on the roadside while the refugee throng, hurried by this fury, went bending by. Two children, possibly three and four years old, hand in hand, their heads wobbling on necks so weary were they, struggled along behind their parents. The father pushed a barrow, the mother carried a great sheet bag of treasures. They got ahead of the toddlers following, when one Junker, having dropped its bombs on Enghien, banked around and followed the road, emptying machine-guns into the crowds. Three great Belgian horses drawing a heavy cart stampeded. Nobody had time to reach the children. They were trampled as little moths and crushed under foot.
I came through Tournai in the morning and saw in the sunlit old Belgian town dense mobs of refugees trying to buy bread massed in the park and all along the curbs in family and village groups, while old men went foraging in vain. It was like a fair day. But on every face were terror and exhaustion. Eyes were glazed in the fight with sleep, for sleep was too deadly for a mother with their children lying in attitudes of endless weariness across their laps or clasped in their arms. There could be no sleep in this funeral march of a nation for at any minute out of blue summer sky might come howling death.
Seeing a City Die
On my way back through Tournai five hours later, after witnessing the death and destruction of cities and towns, I found that 29 bombers in precise formation had come over at 4.30 in the afternoon and dropped 200 high-explosive bombs at random into the fair-day-thronged town. No place of military importance had been hit; not the station, not the main road junctions in or around the town, no barracks, no defences. Just the streets, the parks, two churches, a convent. And how many died in that carnage of a summer afternoon has not been known.
With heart shut tight and eyes half closed against the horror, we went through Tournai, its flames rising in four great pillars of smoke for the spectacled professors on high in their planes to note and check. In the streets and alleys and doorways the dead had been already laid aside by the doggedly toiling Belgian police, firemen and emergency crews. In one convent four nuns at prayer were killed and 20 wounded and their mother superior, a princess of Belgium 67 years of age, was marshalling what was left of her Benedictine daughters to flee and join the sleepless army on the road.
In Amiens we arrived to find a city with street cars and traffic and busy shops not unlike a decent residential area of Paris. The following morning bombs were falling, and the city was dying under our eyes, with shops and homes deserted. Amiens, crammed with refugees at nightfall, was by morning light a city of the dead, with all its people and all its refugees joined in that strange, slow toiling flood, that slow stampede if such a thing is imaginable. Near Amiens I saw a car laden on the roof with mattresses packed with family and bags and with a dead child tied on a running board seeking a burial place and an hour’s respite for the last rites. Hundreds of young people had bandaged heads and bodies. Older people injured simply gave up and quit the flight.
I saw a company of Belgian boy scouts on bicycles in scout uniform, three of them with bandaged wounds pull up where a bomb had fallen near the road to render first aid to 10 or 15 people laid out in fields. A scoutmaster about 20, who was superintending work of his refugee scouts, said rather hopelessly to me, “The trouble is these poor souls want to die. We haven’t been able to do much good this past week because the minute they get hit they take it for an excuse to go and die under a hedge. Maybe I will be the same when my turn comes.”
I saw this same scoutmaster in Boulogne later and three of his boys were killed in bombing at Arras while working in the inferno there, rescuing wounded. Three boys I had seen stacking bicycles on the roadside to leap to the help of others.
Use Refugees as Screen
The thing to remember amidst all this of which I only give most terribly sketchy glimpses of what I, one man, was able to see at any tiny given instant at one tiny spot in wide France, is that amidst it all, the British and French armies had to try to organize defence against the on-rushing enemy. All savage tribes shove a screen of prisoners ahead of them in attacking. Nobody who witnessed that first terrible week in Belgium and Northern France can ever be persuaded that the Germans did not use with complete heartlessness the screen of millions of refugees behind which to make their attack.
But do not think of the refugees as having found rest now at last. Millions of them are in France and a haven has to be found for them. Millions with only what they could carry of their earthly goods. Few of them without some member of their little flock lost.
They are members now of that ancient and noble brotherhood embracing all races and all ages of the martyrs of innocent and trampled humanity.
Editor’s Notes: Greg was a war correspondent during World War Two, was a witness to the invasion of Belgium and France, and had to be evacuated back to Britain. This story describes some of his experiences just a week and a half after the fall of Belgium, and weeks before the final fall of France.