As the French Fell Back on Paris
By G. H. Ferris
(of The London Daily Chronicle)
[The New York Times/Current History, January 23, 1915]
CHATEAU THIERRY, Sunday, Sept. 13.—We first realized yesterday, in a little town of Brie which lies east of Paris, between the Seine and the Marne, how difficult it is to get food in the rear of two successive invasions. As in every other town in the region, all the shops were shut and nearly all the houses. It was only after a long search that we found an inn that could give us luncheon.
There, in a large room with a low-beamed roof and a tiled floor, our stout landlady in blue cotton produced an excellent meal of melon, mutton, macaroni, and good ripe pears. Dogs and cats sprawled around us, and a big bowl of roses spoke of serenities that are now in general eclipse. At a neighboring table a group of peasants, too old for active service, were discussing their grievances.
At a railway crossing just out of town we were blocked by a train of about a dozen big horse trucks and two passenger carriages, carrying wounded and prisoners to Paris from the fighting lines in the north. It had been a gloomy morning, and the rain now fell in torrents. Nevertheless the townsfolk crowded up, and for half an hour managed to conduct a satisfactory combination of profit and pity by supplying big flat loaves, bottles of wine, fruit, cigarettes, and jugs of water to those in the train who had money and some who had none. One very old woman in white, with a little red cross on her forehead, turned up to take advantage of the only opportunity ever likely to fall in her way. A great Turco in fez, blouse, and short, baggy breeches was very active in this commissariat work.
Some of the Frenchmen on board were not wounded seriously enough to prevent their getting down on the roadway; and you may be sure they were not ashamed of their plaster patches and bandaged arms.
There were about 300 German prisoners in the train. We got glimpses of them lying in the straw on the floor in the dark interior of the big trucks. I got on the footboard and looked into the open door of one car. Fifteen men were stretched upon straw, and two soldiers stood guard over them, rifle in hand. They all seemed in a state of extreme exhaustion. Some were asleep, others were eating large chunks of bread.
In the middle of the car a young soldier who spoke French fairly well told me that the German losses during the last three days had been enormous; and then, stopping suddenly, he said: "Would it be possible, Sir, to get a little water for my fellows and myself?"
"Certainly," I replied; and a man belonging to the station, who was passing with a jug, said at once that he would run and get some. The prisoner thanked me and added with a sigh:
"They are very good fellows here."
One jocular French guard had put on a spiked helmet which he was keeping as a trophy, and, so much does the habit make the man, he now looked uncannily like a German himself.
As we passed through the villages to the northeast the contrast between abandoned houses and gardens rioting with the color of roses and dahlias and fruit-laden trees struck us like a blow.
In Gourchamp a number of houses had been burned, and the neighboring fields showed that there had been fighting there; but it was Courtacon which presented the most grievous spectacle. Eighteen of its two dozen houses had been completely destroyed by fire. The walls were partly standing, but the floors and contents of the rooms were completely buried under the debris of roofs that had fallen in. In a little Post Office the telegraphic and telephonic instruments had been smashed. Just opposite is a small building including the office of the Mayor and the village school. The outside of the building and the outhouses were littered with the straw on which the Uhlans had slept. In the Mayor's office the drawers and cupboards had been broken open, and their contents had been scattered with the remnants of meals on the floor.
But it is a scene in a little village school that will longest remain in my memory. The low forms, the master's desk, and the blackboard stand today as they did on July 25, which was no doubt the last day before the Summer vacation, as it was also the last week before the outbreak of the war. On the walls the charts remained which reminded these little ones daily that "Alcohol is the enemy," and had summoned them to follow the path of kindness, justice, and truth. The windows were smashed, broken cartridge cases lay about with wings of birds and other refuse. Near the door I saw chalked up, evidently in German handwriting, "Parti Paris," ("Left for Paris.").
The invaders had sought to burn the place. There was one pile of partly burned straw under the school bookcase, the doors of which had been smashed, while some of the books had been thrown about. They had not even respected a little museum consisting of a few bottles of metal and chemical specimens; and when I turned to leave I perceived written across the blackboard in bold, fine writing, as the lesson of the day, these words: "À chaque jour suffit sa peine," ("Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.").
One of the villagers gave us the following narrative of the experiences of the past week:
"It was last Saturday, Sept. 5, that about 15,000 Uhlans arrived in the village with the intention of marching on Provins on the morrow. They probably learned during the night that the British and French lay in force across their road, and perhaps they may now have received orders to fall back.
"At any rate, early Sunday morning they started to retire, when they met at the entrance to the village a regiment of chasseurs. This was the beginning of fighting which lasted all day. Under the pretext that we had learned of the presence of the French troops and had helped them to prepare a trap, the Germans sacked the whole of the village.
"Naturally there was a panic. All the inhabitants mostly women and children, because since the mobilization there have been only nine men in Courtacon—rushed from their cottages and many of them, lightly clad, fled across the fields and hid themselves in the neighboring woods.
"In several cottages Germans, revolvers in hand, compelled the poor peasants to bring matches and themselves set fire to their homes. In less than an hour the village was like a furnace, the walls toppling down one by one. And all this time the fighting continued. It was a horrible spectacle.
"Several of us were dragged to the edge of the road to be shot, and there we remained for some hours, believing our last day had come. A young village lad of 21 years, who was just going to leave to join the colors, was shot. Then the retreat was sounded, the Germans fled precipitately, and we were saved."
I asked whether the cottages had not been fired by artillery.
"Not a cannon shot fell here," he replied. "All that"—pointing to the ruined huts—"was done by incendiaries." And then he added:
"Last Tuesday two French officers came in automobiles and brought with them a superior German officer whom they had made prisoner. They compelled him to become a witness of the mischief of which his fellow-countrymen had been guilty."
A peasant woman passed, pushing a wheelbarrow containing some half-burned household goods and followed by her two small children.
"Look," she said, "at the brutality of these Germans! My husband has gone to war and I am alone with my two little ones. With great difficulty we had managed to gather our crop, and they set fire to our little farm and burned everything."
Half an hour later we were at La Ferté Gaucher, a small town on the Grand Morin, now first made famous by the fact that it was here that the German flight began after the severe fighting last Monday. The invaders had arrived only on Saturday and had the disagreeable surprise of finding that the river bridges had been broken down by the retreating French. The German commandant informed the municipal officials that if the sum of 60,000 francs ($12,000) was not produced he would burn the town. Then he compelled the people to set about rebuilding the bridge, and they worked day and night at this job under the eyes of soldiers with revolvers and rifles ready to shoot down any shirker.
The relief of these people at the return of the Allies may be imagined. Here, as elsewhere, some houses were burned, but otherwise the damage did not appear to be very serious.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald