The Zeppelins over Paris
By Arthur Bullard
(Special Correspondent of The Outlook in Europe)
[The Outlook, August 18, 1915]
Although I have not been to "the front," I have been "beneath." But it is necessary to begin with a "disgraceful" confession—I slept through the first Zeppelin raid.
Sunday morning, the 21st of March, I woke up at the usual time. But the femme de ménage did riot come for an hour or more. When I reproached her for being late, she became indignant. Indeed, how could a person run the streets of Paris all night and arrive to make coffee at seven? I remarked that it was not becoming for a woman of her age to gad about the town all night.
"Mais, les Zeppelins!"
We glared at each other in hostile distrust. It was impossible to believe, she said, that I had slept through all the "tapage!" Firemen had dashed about giving the alarm. Bugles had blown in the barracks across the way. All the world had run out into the streets. Bombs had dropped. The forts had cannonaded the Zeppelins. I also could not believe that I had slept through all this. She dashed put and bought me a paper.
I could hardly believe my eyes; but all she had said was true. The Zeppelins had been signaled as they, passed over Compiègne. They had reached the western suburbs of Paris a little after midnight and had cut across the northwest corner of the city. Altogether, they had dropped two score bombs, only a few of which fell in the city.
To be sure, the damage done by these air monsters had been insignificant. Many of their bombs did not explode. A number fell in the market gardens about the city and smashed up the glass globes under which lettuce was ripening. A tobacco kiosk on the Ile de la Jatte, not very far from the American Hospital at Neuilly, was blown to bits. The incendiary bombs were a failure. The firemen had no trouble in preventing any serious conflagration. No one was killed, and only a few were enough hurt to be taken to hospitals.
Not much of an affair, but still not the sort of a thing a newspaper man is expected to miss. I had been asleep at the switch.
I had to content myself with reading about it in the papers. The predominant note in most of them was of relief. Paris had expected a Zeppelin raid, and feared that it would be very much worse. The Zeppelins had come at last, and neither their explosive bombs nor their projectiles of scientific arson had proved serious. And there, was in the papers considerable "self-congratulation over the calm with which the citizens had taken the nocturnal disturbance.
Some of the papers complained that the Zeppelins had escaped untouched. The official report said that four Zeppelins had been seen over Compiègne. Only two had reached Paris. But, as far as we knew, all of them had returned safely to their own lines. Why had not our anti-aircraft guns or our aeroplanes brought one of them down? There are always some people who have to grumble, and these chose this for a subject. One of the papers expressed it very well: "Our collection of trophies in the Court of Honor, of Les Invalides is incomplete. We have German flags and field-guns and Minenwerfer and aeroplanes, but we haven't a Zeppelin. Last night, they gave us the opportunity to complete the collection. Our aviators missed the chance. We Parisians want a Zeppelin."
Holiday crowds went out to the Batignolles to see the house which had been wrecked. The only "moral effect" of the raid which I could see was that the evening papers, which gave full details, were bought lie hot cakes. Every newspaper had found some one who had, or claimed to have, seen the Zeppelins. These eye-witnesses agreed on only one detail—it had been a marvelous spectacle. The night had been beautifully clear. The anti-aircraft cannon of the forts had sent up shells which left a trail of fire like sky-rockets. From a purely pyrotechnic point of view, it had been better than the fête nationale. I left strict orders with the concierge to break, in my door and wake me next time there was an "alerte."
Yesterday, the 22d, the spell of fine weather broke and it; began to rain about five. All the aviation experts say that the Zeppelins need clear weather; but about nine o'clock in the evening an appalling racket broke out. How I could have slept through it two nights before I cannot imagine. The motor trucks of the fire department thundered through the streets, honking their horns to split the ear. In all the casernes and military posts of Paris the bugles sounded the "Garde à vous." A hubbub started at once. Windows banged open across the court; the neighbors called greetings to each other and cursed les sales Bosches.
This time I was not going, to miss the show. I grabbed my hat and coat and dashed downstairs. On the sidewalk I was reminded of that tongue-twisting exercise in French liaison which we practiced at school: Quand les pompiers sont arrivés tout etait étient. Two gaslights were still burning down the Rue de la Glacière. But a policeman, running, put them out. It was a dark night; not a star, hardly the faintest glimmer from any window—tout était étient.
It was very weird; not at all like the darkness of a sleeping city. Every one was awake. Cabs were moving about with their lamps out. Now and then the horses' shoes struck dazzling sparks from the streets. On all sides people were talking from window to window.
"Are you coming down into the cellar?"
"No. But I wish they'd go away, so I could light my lamp. I want to sew."
"After all, the sixth story is too high. There is more danger up there. Come down here and I'll make you some coffee."
A joker from near the sky announced in a solemn, formal tone: "All tenants of the sixth floor or higher are invited to coffee with Madame Pataud, entresol, No. 18.
"Ah, non!" Madame Pataud protested. "That is too strong. Pas toute le monde. Only the inhabitants of this house are invited."
The concierge of No. 20, not to be outdone, announced that she would make coffee for all her locataires above the fourth floor.
Out on the Boulevard de Port Royal it seemed a bit lighter. The street is broader, and I suppose also that my eyes were getting accustomed to the gloom. There were a number of people on the sidewalks, and they were not hurrying. It was too dark to see their faces as they passed. Were they really unconcerned, or were they ostentatiously leisurely to hide their fear?
Clack! clack! clack! From up ahead in the darkness came the sound of some one in wooden shoes running towards us. It was a little girl of about ten. A stout bourgeois, who held a great umbrella over an equally stout wife, hailed her. I chanced to be close by, and could see them vaguely in the dark.
"Voyon, petite," he said. "It is not worth the pain to run. Nobody is going to bite you."
The young body stopped indignantly and took up a bellicose position, her arms akimbo.
"Is it," she demanded, haughtily, "that you suppose I run from the dirty Bosches? Species of a pig! I have no fear—no, not at all. It is that I am in a hurry. Maman is sick. I go for the doctor, who has promised to bring her a baby. Therefore I run."
Her sabots clattered on down the boulevard. And from all sides, out of the darkness—from both sidewalks, from six tiers of windows—there broke out a joyous laugh which was a cheer. "It is indeed answered like a grenadier."
"Bonne chance à maman!"
"Run fast, little one. Perhaps the doctor will give you a boy—to carry a gun against les Bosches."
"And to think," the fat bourgeois addressed the living darkness, it is perhaps that they will kill the so brave little one with their cursed bombs from the clouds!"
I made my way to the open place where the Avenue de 1'Observatoire meets the Boulevard Montparnasse. A wide angle of sky is visible there. Perhaps the people I had passed on my way had been caught on the streets by the alarm and were quietly going home, as the Prefect of Police had advised. But the crowd in the space between the Closerie des Lilas and the Bal Bullier were out to see the sights.
And there was nothing to see. The heavy clouds hung low. They could not quite make up their minds to give up their treasure of water—it was only a drizzle of large and infrequent drops. I had left my room too abruptly to think of an umbrella.
The sightseers were of the regular student crowd of the Latin Quarter, only there were very few young men—and they were either in uniform or manifestly unfit for military service.
A policeman came along and urged us to go home. He was a very French policeman. He twirled his little white club and called us "mes enfants." He enjoyed the disrespectful answers of the girls as much as they enjoyed making them. One poorly clad but very vibrant young girl of the Quartier summed up our sentiment: "I would rather die here of a bomb," she said, "than be smothered in a cellar by the 1915 house falling on me. And, besides, I want to see a Zeppelin."
"Yes, it is so," a consumptive-looking girl who works in a laundry by day added. "We French—we are not afraid to die; but we do not retreat. As for me, j'y suis, j'y reste."
The policeman admitted that this was a worthy and patriotic sentiment, but the Prefect had asked all good citizens to go home in case of an alarm.
"To stay here in the street—it is a contravention. And, besides, it rains, and you will catch cold."
This threat was his parting shot at us, and he went across the street to argue with another crowd.
We tried to keep up our spirits, but nothing happened, and a Paris rain will dampen even curiosity. Now that no one was ordering them to, several people decided to go home.
After a long silence a voice called down from a mansard in the Rue d'Assas.
"Eh, là-bas! Do you see anything?"
"Less than nothing. And you—là-haut—do you see anything?
Then suddenly there was a clear note of a bugle. This time it was the "Cease fire!" call. The arc lights on the street spluttered a moment and then flared up, A red motor fire-engine came up the Boul Miche. The grinning pompiers waved their brass helmets at us and shouted, "C'est fini!" We looked at each other rather foolishly—in the glare which hurt our eyes—and went home.
Lights appeared everywhere. But the conversation from window to window was no longer-laughing. People do not face a great danger calmly and merrily without an exercise of will, an expenditure of energy. The nerves of every one in Paris had been taut for a couple of hours. Although the first Zeppelin raid had been a fiasco, there is no estimating the danger. It is possible, to laugh at it, but not to ignore it. Any moment death might fall from the skies—the horrid, whimsical death of mere chance. I do not think any one has much faith in the Prefect's advice about going into the cellar. Even a small weight dropped from a thousand meters will crash through a good many floors. It is "to avoid the excitement of a crowd—the possibility of a mob panic—that the police urge us to stay indoors. Perhaps the worst thing about the danger of the Zeppelins is the realization that there is no individual precaution worth taking. And all Paris had met this strain with a smile—and it had been a false alarm!
I was hardly back in my room and out of my soaked clothes when, about eleven, the alarm was given again—more raucous, more insistent than ever, "Garde à vous! Garde à vous!"
There were fewer people out this time. Only a half-dozen in the square by the Observatoire. And they were not laughing. The man-who-knows-everything was making a little speech. A fleet of twelve Zeppelins had been seen passing over Senlis at ten. A friend of his was secretary to the Prefect, and had received the telephone message. It was now eleven, therefore the enemy must be very near.
"But," objected the consumptive laundress, "why don't we hear the cannon of the forts, as we did before?"
The man-who-knows-everything could think of no explanation, so he became haughty. Very soon we would know he was right; we would hear the motors.
"A Zeppelin," he explained, with condescension, "has four motors of one hundred and forty horse-power. And twelve of them—that is some noise!"
And, as though to prove his point, we did hear the hum of a motor—growing stronger. "There! there!" he said. "Listen! Am I not right?"
A wounded soldier tapped the ground impatiently with his crutch.
"What's the matter with the forts?" he grumbled. "Are they asleep? Why don't they fire?"
We strained our ears and peered up into the dark clouds overhead. The hum of the motor, growing ever louder, became a roar. A great military motor car, its lights out, tore down the Boulevard, passing us at a tremendous pace.
"Voila!" said the gir; "there goes your fleet of twelve Zeppelins." But the man-who-knows-everything had slunk away in the darkness.
It was as silent as it was dark. There was only the patter-patter of the great drops of rain. A hunchbacked student, to cheer us up, began to recite:
"'Il pleure dans mon coeur,
Comme il pluie sur la ville.'"
The crowd listened silently until he came to the line:
"Sans amour et sans haine?"
"Mais, non" a voice interrupted out of the darkness. "J'en ai assez."
And they all agreed that they had plenty of hate in their hearts. One voice after another, there in the dark, told why and how it hated the Germans.
"They are barbarians."M/
"Yes, they are savages. I hate them for that which they did in Belgium."
"And to fly like this over a peaceful city—to massacre women and children—in the night! I have hate because they are cowards."
"And impious. The Cathedral of Rheims."
"And, above all," a quiet, scholarly voice said, "I have hate against the eighty-three intellectuals who signed the infamous manifesto."
"Ah! If only the big sausage would break and fall on Paris." It was a shrill voice. It was not necessary to see the face to know that she was a direct descendant of the women who sang the "Ça ira" at the foot of the guillotine. "Ah, if they would only fall, would would not hang the brutes!"
"À la lanterne!"
"They are even worse than in '70," an older voice said. "Truly, they are capable of anything. Killers of women and children! The refuse!"
"This time it is necessary to finish with them."
"Oui. Cette fois il faut bien en finir."
"Oh! Oh! Regardez, donc. Là bas à Chantilly."
The flaming sword of a searchlight swept up from the Fort of Chantilly. Another shot up from Mont Valeiien. In a moment all the forts about Paris had joined in the hunt. The strongest stream of light came from Vincennes. It was from that side that the enemy seemed to be expected, for there to the east the searchlights were most active.
Some of the lights beat about erratically; others searched the sky methodically. They were helpless against the dense, low-hanging clouds. Any air-ship at a fair height was beyond their reach. Only in a few places were there rifts in the cloud bank, and through these crevices the tongues of light shot up great distances above.
It was a grandiose, gorgeous spectacle, and thrilling. A man-hunt always is. Somewhere in the obscurity there were supposed to be men—men to whom none of us down below wished any good luck. All about Paris in the ring of forts there were high-angle anti-aircraft guns, ready loaded. If once one of those fingers of light fumbling in the clouds caught the glint of aluminum, a storm of shrapnel would be poured at the intruder. The Zeppelins are very big, but very fragile. Any second they might be discovered.
Generally my sympathy goes out to the hunted. But it was not so last night. My sympathy was with the men in the forts who stood tense beside their guns, with the man down there at Vincennes who so nervously, so eagerly, felt at the clouds with his long finger of light.
There is something inexpressibly hateful, insulting, about such an air raid. I do not see how even a German standing down below could have wished luck to those corsairs of the air.
I have always liked the French—the Parisians—but never more than I did last night. Their courage was of too simple a quality to have been put on. It was something which came naturally out of the reality within them.
When my concierge saw me going out, she remonstrated. Had not the Prefect asked all good citizens to stay indoors?
"Yes," I said, "and it was good advice. But I am a newspaper reporter, and I must go out and see what happens."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"It is your métier" she said.
She did not try to dissuade me from doing my day's work on the score of danger. That argument did not occur to her. There were four babies in her bed—two from the fifth floor, one from the sixth, and her own.
"Not much room for you," I said.
"No. But I must stay up and watch the house. It is my métier."
Her husband is off in the trenches in Champagne, where the fighting is furious these days. And it is also necessary for her to be a good citizen.
And even as I admired their fortitude I shared their hate.
After all, it is dirty business, dropping bombs—sudden death and the horror of fire—on a city of women and old men and children.
One can foretell the German communiqué: "A squadron of our air-ships succeed, in the face of grave risks, in dropping forty bombs on the fortified city of Paris." Yes. Paris is fortified. The Germans who were of fighting-age in 1870 remember that only too well. No great city ever put up so heroic a fight behind its walls as Paris did in the last war.
The German legist will make much of the fact that Paris is fortified. There is no explicit international law in regard to war in the air. And the code for sea warfare permits you to bombard military works without warning, if you are in a hurry.
That was their justification for the bombardment of the English coast towns. In back of the bath-houses on the beach there were recruiting stations. These military works were what the Germans were aiming at. It was only hard luck that they missed their mark and killed some babies.
Such reasoning may satisfy the German General Staff, the famous intellectuals, and the German public. But it does not impress this particular neutral.
The men of France—the military force of the nation—are at the front, much closer at hand than Paris. Sneaking over their heads on a dark night and recklessly pouring burning kerosene and high explosives on the city where their wives and children live does not strike one as worthy of even the savage name of war.
The aeroplane raids of the summer before were bad enough—but not so bad. They came in the daytime. And when it is light one can at least pretend to be aiming at something. But to spill bombs haphazard on a darkened city is utterly useless from a military point of view. It is inexcusable outlawry.
So I sat there in the rain watching the searchlights beat the clouds as one beats a covert for pheasants, and wished them luck.
Towards three in the morning the activity of the searchlights died down. My unknown friend at Vincennes was the last to give up the hunt. The bugles began again to blow, "Cessez le feu."
This morning's papers say that Zeppelins were seen from two different observation points traveling rapidly towards Paris. But they turned back before they reached the city. The official explanation is that the weather conditions scared them away. But there is a story afloat that the French aeroplanes got up promptly this time and had something to do with turning them back. There is even a rumor that there was an encounter in the air over Villers-Cotterets, where some bombs fell. Perhaps they bagged one.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald