From President to Prison/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII
 

THE STAINED ALTAR OF WAR

 

AS soon as I could get about, I went at once to my laboratory in Harbin, where, according to the report of my assistant, an engineer, there was a big accumulation of important work and problems. The Staff of the Army and the Railway Administration had submitted numerous samples of different varieties of coal which had been found by Chinese throughout northern Manchuria. Though I was able to help my engineers and the young chemists with the analysis and other tasks, work was still very fatiguing for me in my weakened condition.

I was keenly absorbed in the news from the front. These first days of the great battle of Liaoyang passed in ominous silence, while the bulletins from General Kuropatkin's headquarters dwelt upon several strategic movements of the army but gave little or no information about the battle itself. In the meantime my Chinese servants told me in secret that the Russians were retreating along the whole front and that the Japanese were working round to the west to cut the railway line in the rear and to capture Harbin. This same day a friend of mine, who had just returned from a hunting expedition in the vicinity of Harbin, told me that he had seen fortifications being prepared not far from the city along the bank of the Sungari and said that it was very evident the Staff was preparing for possible eventualities here, an opinion that tended to confirm the report of my Chinese. Soon disheartening news began to filter through, showing that Kuropatkin and his Staff had withdrawn to Moukden and that the army was in retreat along the whole front. Finally an officiai bulletin appeared and carried the laconic statement that a strategic re-alignment of the army was being made on positions near Moukden. But the real truth could not be concealed and caused a panic among the population, as the news spread through the town. The details, coming later, showed that the Russian losses had amounted to twenty thousand and that, although the Japanese also lost heavily, the Russians had really to sacrifice chosen strategic and fortified positions for an entirely new line. Also the Staff had no suitable hospitals at Moukden, so that the wounded had all to be transported farther north to Harbin.

How well I remember one sad morning! I had left my house early and was making my way across the Place in front of the Cathedral on the way to my laboratory. The sun was just coming up, and the shadows of the night still lingered in the angles of the roofs behind the massive comers of the church and in the hedges and bushes around the Place. No passers-by were visible; one heard no rattlings of the droskies over the protruding stones of the awful pavements of the city. But, as I turned out of the Place, I heard something which brought me to a halt to listen. From somewhere, as though up out of the earth, there was borne in upon me a long wail, full of pain and despair, growing ever more distinct and increasing in volume. I went on, feeling that something terrible, something unforgettable, was about to occur. As I passed beyond the hedges, my eye was struck with long rows of white tents with the Red Cross flag above them, which had come as ghosts during a night when such a mass of wounded had been brought in that the hospitals, numerous as they were, could no longer hold them. It was from these tents that the wail of the wounded rolled out to crush the soul. The white figures of the doctors and the nurses moved silently and swiftly in the soft morning light, at once mysterious and terrible in their white uniforms spotted with blood. At intervals they entered the tents and brought out the dead, placing them on a long, flat wagon and continuing with their gory stretchers down another tented street.

Though many years have passed since that depressing morning, I remember it as though it were but yesterday. It was a field of human torture and despair, sown by the lavish hand of the scarlet spectre of War.

I know that war is an inevitable phenomenon in the physical life of peoples; but it is a phenomenon terrible and crying for revenge unto Heaven. Though I am a man of action and have seen war eye to eye, fighting for causes which I could comprehend and for which I could take the risk of the sacrifice, I cannot help being moved when I see masses of men flung into the jaws of death without this comprehension of, and sympathy with, the purposes of the war, which is often waged for material aims, for Mammon alone, asking from men victims without number and a sea of blood and giving them in return only wounds and crippled bodies for life, too often without the arms with which Nature has provided them to meet their struggle for existence.