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The Amazing Interlude

Chapter 17
There was a question to settle, and it was for Henri to do it. Two questions indeed. One
was a matter of engineering, and before the bottom fell out of his world Henri had studied
engineering. The second was more serious.
For the first, this thing had happened. Of all the trenches to be held, the Belgians had
undeniably the worst. Properly speaking they were not trenches at all, but shallow gutters
dug a foot or two into the saturated ground and then built man-high with bags of earth or
sand. Here and there they were not dug at all, but were purely shelters, against a railway
embankment, of planks or sandbags, and reinforced by rails from the deserted track
behind which they were hidden.
For this corner of Belgium had been saved by turning it into a shallow lake. By opening
the gates in the dikes the Allies had let in the sea and placed a flood in front of the
advancing enemy. The battle front was a reeking pond. The opposing armies lived like
duck hunters in a swamp. To dig a foot was to encounter water. Machine guns here and
there sat but six inches above the yellow flood. Men lay in pools to fire them. To reach
outposts were narrow paths built first of bags of earth--a life, sometimes for every bag.
And, when this filling was sufficient, on top a path of fascines, bound together in
bundles, made a footway.
For this reason the Belgians approached their trenches not through deep cuts which gave
them shelter but with no other cover than the darkness of night. During the day, they lay
in their shallow dugouts, cut off from any connection with the world behind them. Food,
cooked miles away, came up at night, cold and unappetizing. For water, having exhausted
their canteens, there was nothing but the brackish tide before them, ill- smelling and
reeking of fever. Water carts trundled forward at night, but often they were far too few.
The Belgians, having faced their future through long years of anxiety, had been trained to
fight. In a way they had been trained to fight a losing war, for they could not hope to
defeat their greedy neighbor on the east. But now they found themselves fighting almost
not at all, condemned to inactivity, to being almost passively slaughtered by enemy
artillery, and to living under such conditions as would have sapped the courage of a less
desperate people.
To add to the difficulties, not only did the sea encroach, turning a fertile land into a salt
marsh, but the winter rains, unusually heavy that tragic first winter, and lacking their
usual egress to the sea, spread the flood. There were many places well back of the lines
where fields were flooded, and where roads, sadly needed, lost themselves in unfordable
wallows of mud and water.
Henri then, knowing all this--none better--had his first question to settle, which was this:
As spring advanced the flood had commenced to recede. Time came when, in those