establishments men could exchange coupons for items such as fishing rods and pipe cases for themselves and cut-glass dishes and silk stockings for wives or girlfriends.
The police, mistaking Thompson for a spy, took him off the train and strip searched in front of a gathering crowd. Finding nothing, they allowed him to get back on. In London, he found the Russian countess at her hotel. She not only gave him his precious film, she also returned his money and coupons. He sold his work to the World and Daily Mail for $5,000.
He returned to the continent in October, this time landing in Ostend, where he met the American vice-consul. This official introduced him to Powell, who had secured a permit to embed himself with the Belgian army and who had a car he planned to take to Antwerp. Thompson talked his way into accompanying him despite the fact the Belgian army allowed no photographers. After arriving at their destination, Powell offhandedly remarked during a dinner that King Albert resided just a few doors down from their hotel at the Place de Meir. Thompson excused himself and headed there.
Although a guard stood at its entrance, he just passed him by and, once inside, got into a strange argument with a servant in which he spoke in English and the other in French. The first secretary to the minister of foreign affairs came downstairs and asked in English what Thompson wanted. He desired to chronicle German atrocities on film, which would give the Belgians irrefutable proof of this. Ten hours later he met with the king himself and, although a bit shy at first considering only a few years earlier he has shucked corn in Kansas, he told his majesty what he wanted. The king agreed, handed him a laissez-passer—an item that allowed foreign journalists to move freely about the country—and said his people would help in any way possible,
During the siege of Antwerp, Thompson appropriated an abandoned house at 74 rue de Peage and from it hung a large American flag. Several others, including a couple of journalists and the former Dutch vice-consul, stayed with him. Dubbing it “Thompson’s Fort,” he plundered the surrounding neighborhood for supplies. Fellow American journalist Horace Green stopped by and invited everyone to stay at the Queen’s Hotel, which stood along the Scheldt, but the house’s inhabitants decided to stay put. Half an hour after Green’s departure, a white-faced Thompson and the others arrived at the hotel. A shell had destroyed the top two floors of their house and burned the rest down.
Thompson sold his photos and films to a variety of newspapers, including the World, the Chicago Tribune, the Illustrated London News, and the Daily Mail. The owner of the last of these periodicals, Lord Northcliffe, hired Thompson to report from Germany. Northcliffe, whose full name amounted to quite the mouthful—Sir Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe of St. Peter-in-Thanet and Baron Northcliffe of the Isle of Thanet—owned a number of newspapers but loved the Daily Mail the most, a paper he personally edited that had a daily circulation of 900,000 when the war broke out. Despite coming from noble stock and having many titles, he grew up impoverished (at least for an aristocrat), an experience that made him embrace the working class.
Going to Germany would be dangerous for Thompson because the Germans had posted notices to apprehend him out of the mistaken belief the British military had used his photos as a source of intelligence. Northcliffe had the fake Brooklyn newspaper, the Daily Observer, printed up that included an interview with Thompson in which he said nice things about the Germans. At the border, the Germans detained, beat and incarcerated him. When his jailors searched his person and found the clipping from the Daily Observer from his billfold, they let him go, a reprieve that did not last long. A German spy working at the Daily Mail informed his handlers of the deception. While at his hotel, a chambermaid warned Thompson that German authorities had come for him, so he departed by sliding down a fire escape. He promised a local girlfriend he would elope with her in exchange for her obtaining a passport made for him by her brother. Once safely across the border, he told her he did not love her after all.
Next he went to Antwerp. The moment he got off his train, a German lieutenant arrested and took him to the German headquarters at City Hall. There this young officer admitted to having mistaken Thompson for an Englishman. Thompson received an apology. The commanding general asked him to lunch. To this he readily agreed. He told the general and several others at the meal that his wife lived in Ostend and he very much wanted to see her. They would happily motor him there. Knowing this might result in the discovery of his lie, he said he planned to stay in Antwerp for a few days before heading there. The Germans loaned him a motorcycle. Having never rode one before, he learned how to operate it on the fly, making a considerable bit of noise (and annoying the locals) while he figured it out. He went to Malines to retrieve a trunk he had left there during one of his earlier trips. All the villages between it and Brussels were “in ruins” with the dead still lying in fields.
Upon his return to Antwerp, he asked for permission to head to the coast, where he heard fighting had broken out. Refused, he dug out a letter from the vice-consul in Ostend and pretended he needed to deliver it to him as a special American envoy. Still using the motorcycle, he made his way to Bruges, showing his American passport when necessary. In Dixmude, “a quiet little town on the Yser” the Germans had taken, lost to the Belgians, then reoccupied, he convinced a German captain that he had personal permission from the Kaiser to photograph German troops. He embedded with a detachment of soldiers heading north.
He arrived just in time for the Battle of the Yser, itself a small part of what would become known as the Race for the Sea, the last great maneuver of the war on the Western Front before the stalemate. Having lost their opportunity to take Paris in a quick swoop, the Germans now made a desperate attempt to outflank French, Belgian, and British forces by heading around them to the north. To slow them down, King Albert ordered the dike gates opened in Nieuport to flood the lands to the south with seawater so as to create a natural barrier between the Germans and Belgians. The gates stayed open between October 28 to 31.
The Germans countered by opening other dikes. Not only did both sides have to contend with marshy territory, a northern gale had brought with it mist, rain and fog that prevented British battleships from getting close enough to shore to shell German forces along the coast. Across the Yser itself, both sides dug in and began flinging artillery shells at one another at close range. The fighting resulted in untold carnage. One journalist reported, “Nieuport and Dixmude are literally cities of the dead.… Shells have battered down the walls and buildings and all that either the Germans and allies may hold in occupying either post is a pile of shattered[,] crumbling ruins.”
At the coast, Thompson joined the Germans in trenches dug out of the sand into which enemy batteries and British battleships fired. He made himself a sort of cave away from the main line for added protection. At some point the Germans retreated using underground passages without Thompson realizing it. He became lost in the maze of them and did not emerge until night. Trenches along the coast such as these became the northernmost part of a system that would stretch south all the way to the Swiss border. After the Race for the Sea ended, King Albert, never captured, retired to the village of La Panne, one of the few remaining parcels of Belgium soil under his control.