XXIII THE FLIGHT TO HOLLAND
THE FLIGHT TO HOLLAND
My furlough soon neared its end; there were only four days left. I remembered a good old friend in a Rhenish town. My plan was made. Without my family noticing it I packed a suit, boots, and all necessities, and told them at home that I was going to visit my friend. To him I revealed my intentions, and he was ready to help me in every possible manner.
My furlough was over. I put on my uniform, and my relations were left in the belief that I was returning to the front. I went, however, to my friend and changed into civilian clothes. I destroyed my uniform and arms, throwing the lot into the river near by. Thus having destroyed all traces, I left and arrived at Cologne after some criss-cross traveling. Thence I journeyed to Duesseldorf and stayed at night at an hotel. I had already overstayed my leave several days. Thousands of thoughts went through my brain. I was fully aware that I would lose my life if everything did not come to pass according to the program. I intended to cross the frontier near Venlo (Holland). I knew, however, that the frontier was closely guarded.
The country round Venlo, the course of the frontier in those parts were unknown to me; in fact, I was a complete stranger. I made another plan. I returned to my friend and told him that it was absolutely necessary for me to get to know the frontier district and to procure a map showing the terrain. I also informed him that I had to get hold of a false identification paper. He gave me a landsturm certificate which was to identify me in case of need. In my note-book I drew the exact course of the frontier from a railway map, and then I departed again.
Dead tired, I reached Crefeld that night by the last train. I could not go on. So I went into the first hotel and hired a room. I wrote the name that was on the false paper into the register and went to sleep. At six o'clock in the morning there was a knock at my door.
"Who is there?
"Yes; the political police."
I opened the door.
"Here lives . . . ? (he mentioned the name in which I had registered).
"Have you any identification papers?"
"If you please," I said, handing him the landsturm certificate.
"Everything in order; pardon me for having disturbed you."
"You're welcome; you're welcome," I hastened to reply, and thought how polite the police was.
That well-known leaden weight fell from my chest, but I had no mind to go to sleep again. Whilst I was dressing I heard him visit all the guests of the hotel. I had not thought of the customary inspection of' strangers in frontier towns. It was a good thing I had been armed for that event.
Without taking breakfast (my appetite had vanished) I went to the depot and risked traveling to Kempten in spite of the great number of policemen that were about. I calculated by the map that the frontier was still some fifteen miles away. I had not much baggage with me, only a small bag, a raincoat and an umbrella. I marched along the country road and in five hours I reached the village of Herongen. To the left of that place was the village of Niederhofen. Everywhere I saw farmers working in the fields. They would have to inform me of how the line of the frontier ran and how it was being watched. In order to procure that information I selected only those people who, to judge by their appearance, were no "great lights of the church."
Without arousing suspicion I got to know that the names of the two places were "Herongen" and "Niederhofen," and that a troop of cuirassiers were quartered at Herongen. The man told me that the soldiers were lodged in the dancing ball of the Schwarz Inn. Presently I met a man who was cutting a hedge. He was a Hollander who went home across the frontier every night; he had a passport. "You are the man for me," I thought to myself, and said aloud, that I had met several Hollanders in that part of the country (he was the first one), and gave him a cigar. I mentioned to him that I had visited an acquaintance in the Schwarz Inn at Herongen.
"Yes," he said; "they are there."
"But my friend had to go on duty, so I am having a look round."
"They have got plenty to do near the frontier."
"Every thirty minutes and oftener a cavalry patrol, and every quarter of an hour an infantry patrol go scouting along the frontier."
"And how does the frontier run?" I queried, offering him a light for his cigar.
He showed me with his hand.
"Here in front of you, then right through the woods, then up there; those high steeples towering over the woods belong to the factories of Venlo."
I knew enough. After a few remarks I left him. All goes according to my program, I thought. But there was a new undertaking before me. I had to venture close enough to the frontier to be able to watch the patrols without being seen by them. That I succeeded in doing during the following night.
I hid in the thick underwood; open country was in front of me. I remained at that spot for three days and nights. It rained and at night it was very chilly, On the evening of the third day I resolved to execute my plan that night.
Regularly every fifteen minutes a patrol of from three to six soldiers arrived. When it had got dark I changed my place for one more to the right, some five hundred yards from the frontier. I said to myself that I would have to venture out as soon as it got a little lighter. In the darkness I could not see anything. It would have to be done in twilight. I had rolled my overcoat into a bundle to avoid making a noise against the trees. I advanced just after a patrol had passed. I went forward slowly and stepped out cautiously without making a noise. Then I walked with ever increasing rapidity. Suddenly a patrol appeared on my right. The frontier was about three hundred yards away from me. The patrol had about two hundred yards to the point of the frontier nearest to me. Victory would fall to the best and swiftest runner. The patrol consisted of five men; they fired several times. That did not bother me. I threw everything away and, summoning all my strength, I made in huge leaps for the frontier which I passed like a whirlwind. I ran past the pointed frontier stone and stopped fifty yards away from it. I was quite out of breath, and an indescribable happy feeling took hold of me. I felt like crying into the world that at last I was free.
I seated myself on the stump of a tree and lit a cigar, quite steadily and slowly; for now I had time. Scarcely fifty yards away, near the frontier stone, was the disappointed patrol. I read on the side of the frontier stone facing me, "Koningrjk der Nederlanden" (Kingdom of the Netherlands). I had to laugh with joy. "Who are you?" one of the German patrol called to me. "The Hollanders have now the right to ask that question; you've got that right no longer, old fellow," I replied. They called me all manner of names, but that did not excite me. I asked them: "Why don't you throw me over my bag which I threw away in the hurry? It contains some washing I took along with me so as to get into a decent country like a decent man."
Attracted by that conversation, a Dutch patrol, a sergeant and three men, came up. The sergeant questioned me, and I told him all. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Be glad that you are here---wij Hollanders weuschen de vrede (we Hollanders wish for peace), and you are welcome here in hospitable Holland."
I had to go with the soldiers to their guard-room and take breakfast with them. Thereupon they showed me the nearest road to Venlo, where I arrived at seven o'clock in the morning. From Venlo I traveled to Rotterdam. I soon obtained a well-paid position and became a man again, a man who could live and not merely exist. Thousands upon thousands of Belgian refugees are living in Holland and are treated as the guests of the people. There are also great numbers of German deserters in Holland, where their number is estimated to be between fifteen and twenty thousand. Those deserters enjoy the full protection of the Dutch authorities.
I would have never thought of leaving that hospitable country with its fairly liberal constitution if the political sky had not been so overclouded in the month of March, 1916.