Les Évacuées

By Mary Heaton Voske

[The Outlook; November 10, 1915]

When I was in Germany, I asked an acquaintance, a young man attached to one of the ministries, "When the time comes to talk peace, what is the popular impression as to the demands Germany will make?"

"Very little new territory," he responded, "and great indemnities."

I asked him what Germany understood by but "little territory."

"Oh, merely enough of Belgium to hold Antwerp," said he; "and of course the northern provinces of France, which we now hold."

That seemed to me a fairly large demand, and I said so.

"Too much of the bravest blood of our young men has been shed that Europe should expect that we should ask nothing," said he.

I had heard this theory before; no one can be twenty-four hours in Germany without hearing that "the brave blood of Germany must not have been shed without profit.

"By keeping those northern provinces," I suggested, "Germany is inviting the problem of Alsace-Lorraine over again."

"We have grown in wisdom since Alsace-Lorraine. We may have evolved ways of meeting the problem," and he smiled.

Once in Switzerland, I learned both the answer to his smile and the way in which Germany was meeting this problem by a greater wisdom, and the answer was, The évacuées.

Since the early days of February Germany has been quietly and systematically evacuating the civil population from northern France. Early in February there arrived at Schaffhausen the first wretched five hundred of these disinherited. They came frightened, starving, in rags. Their villages had been destroyed ; they had lost everything. Then they had been sent to Germany, where they had been interned for varying periods of time in camps in Zwickau, Darmstadt, Bayreuth, and various other places. They had been told, when they were first sent out from what remained of their villages and from their shelters in neighboring towns, that they were merely to be sent away from too dangerous proximity to the firing line. They were put into cattle trains only to be interned.

And here, in passing, let me say that these people belong to a group of war victims for whose treatment and convoying no provision was made by any Hague Conference, because such war victims have not existed in previous wars. That is to say, the treatment of civil internes, of hostages, of the évacuées, lies at the mercy of the individual commanders of their several camps or places of detention; there is no precedent for their treatment.

In both France and Germany the civil internes as well as the first groups of évacuées were herded together in overcrowded, unsanitary quarters; in many cases they had no bedding beyond the dirty straw that was first given them, and in this promiscuity the men, women, and children lived; in this promiscuity children were born and old people died. There were some camps where the conditions were decent and humane; there were other camps where not even the ordinary decencies of life could be preserved. When, through the Swiss Government, an exchange of these internes was effected, women and children arrived in such conditions of filth that their very-clothes had to be soaked from them.

After the work of the Bureau of Rapatriement was finished for the civil internes—that is, the civilians of either side who had been living or traveling in France or Germany when the war broke out, and who had been subsequently herded together in these camps—the lamentable exodus of the évacuées began. At first they also were interned, then assembled in the Citadel of Rastatt, where, from all accounts, the conditions were worse than in any other place, and after another wait of six, eight, or ten days they finally were sent on their journey to southern France.

After a time the évacuées were sent, without detention, from France into Germany, from there to Schaffhausen, and so over Switzerland back to France again. From February, there has been a steady stream: first there were five hundred a day, shortly the number was increased to a thousand, and since then a hundred thousand inhabitants of the invaded provinces have been evicted, dispossessed of what remained of their homes, and sent to southern France, a country strange to them in all but language.

Germany gives for its reasons for sending out these people the humane ones of a too great proximity to the firing line for safety and lack of food. If you ask the people in Switzerland their opinion about it, they repeat to you what Germany has said—for the people of Switzerland are faithfully and desperately neutral. You must go to France to hear the other explanation.

When I asked officials in France, "Is there not a political significance to the sending out of all these people?" they replied:

"There is the meaning that Germany is sending us one thousand living letters a day which all read: 'We intend to keep your northern provinces, and we will, deplete your population with such system that those remaining can be easily absorbed by the Germans who shall replace them.' There can be no other meaning to this continual displacement of the inhabitants of the invaded provinces."

At three o'clock every afternoon the German train of the évacuées draws into the little town of Schaffhausen and discharges its freight of the disinherited. They descend in groups—old women and old men, young mothers with their little children, little parties of children everywhere, four, five, even eight in the family—nowhere an able-bodied man; such few as remained behind in the villages had, of course, been interned in Germany. All the others had been mobilized. Nor had any wife or mother known the whereabouts or the fate of her men since the fatal days of mobilization.

They were very quiet as they descended; their faces were gray with anxiety and the fatigue of the long night and day on the train. They were as though overcome by this new and unexpected catastrophe. They had lived through the invasion, through the nameless fear of the perpetual bombardments, had seen their villages in ashes. They had lived with foreign troops quartered upon them. They had shivered and starved through the long winter with no news of their men at the front, with their beloved country in the enemy's hands, and they had painfully and timidly adjusted themselves to the new conditions only from one day to another, to be torn up by the roots. In some cases they had been given forty-eight hours to prepare themselves for their journey. There were some women there still in their sabots, their working aprons, with the marks of labor in the field upon them—they had been given a scant hour to get into the train.

Time and again I heard the phrase repeated: "They drove us out like cattle—why?" "We had been good to them; we asked nothing of them; we had our potatoes planted. Why?" "We slept upon the floor while the soldiers slept in our beds; we didn't complain—it was war. Why did they drive us out?"

They said these things later. At first they stood there speechless, anxiety and suspense on their hopeless faces. They had been allowed to bring with them only the smallest packages. Each family carried with it its few pitiful little bundles of the most necessary things. To these they clung tenaciously, as they had clung tenaciously to their bits of land—the land which was no longer to be theirs.

One of the neat little old women of the type one sees so often in northern France—the apple-cheeked, vigorous old grandmother who directs her family so ably and still does her bit of work in the fields—stood by herself, a little dog in her arms; she was murmuring to herself, "I am thirsty, I am very thirsty;" and as I told her that soon she would have something to eat and drink she huddled the dog in her arms and said to me, with a certain proud defiance:

"Don't touch my little dog, madame; even your soldiers were afraid of him."

It was a lamentable little animal, the little dog that had struck terror to the hearts of Prussian soldiers.

"You are not now in Germany," I told her; "these soldiers are Swiss soldiers."

For a moment she looked as if she could not believe me. Then she said:

"Switzerland? No longer any Germans? After these months we are among friends?" She turned and cried out loudly in her cracked old voice:

"Children, children, we are no longer among the Germans; we are in Switzerland, among friends!"

The news spread down the platform, "No more Germans!" They could talk freely.

Among every group through which one passed, reassuring them, asking them to have patience for a moment, telling mothers who asked for a little water with which to wash their children's faces that all their wants should be attended to shortly, one heard the stories of an invasion.

As I look back on the successive days when I met these train-loads of people, the impression it has left on me is as though a flood had passed over me—a flood of stories, differing only in detail, of terror, of pillage, of destruction, and also of massacre, for in every one of the villages the civil population suffered.

"They shot seventeen in our village, and made us assemble while we saw our men killed." "They said we fired on them, but it was only others of their own regiment coming up. How should we fire? Directly after the mobilization we were required to bring our arms to the Mairie." Our wounded were in the church when they set our village on fire, and they wouldn't let us save them."

Again and again the stories repeated themselves—the flames of a burning town crimson against the sky of night, and a frightened population fleeing in terror. Again and again the stories of the shooting of young men. It was worse when children told you these stories.

"They shot my brother; he was fifteen—they shouldn't have shot him. I saw it from the window. Poom! poom!—they shot. He was running from them, and he fell in the street."

That day and subsequent days they talked about the days of the invasion as though it had been yesterday; those days of fire and blood stood out in their minds so that all the months of suffering and starvation in between seemed as nothing. First came the days of terror and destruction and long months of living among the enemy's soldiers, and then the sudden, violent uprooting.

There were other stories, too; of villages in a cross-fire. "We do not know if it was their bombs or ours which set fire to our towns and killed so many of us."

There were "children there who had seen their parents and family killed by shell fire. There was an old man, the only survivor from the flames, of his dwelling. His family had taken shelter in the cellar, the fire raged above their heads, and he said he had been saved by an unwelcome miracle. They told their stories simply, repetitiously, using the same expressions over and over again, until the meaning of war for such people as these was burned into one's heart.

As one saw successive groups of these people it seemed incredible that one was not in the face of some awful cataclysm of nature. A flood or an earthquake which had affected only a few thousand souls and which had resulted in so much death and such loss would have moved the whole civilized world to pity. Had a scant thousand lost their homes, and because of some impassable flood had had to be sent over Switzerland back to France, the world would have rung with this loss. To-day the fate of the évacuées is, and it will remain, a mere detail in the vaster cataclysm of war. The suffering of the civil population has been vast; the fate of the refugees has been attended with many deaths; The stories of . the pitiful bands of homeless people wandering about the roads of France and Holland or waiting on the quays of Ostend, 'the vaster suffering in the cold of the inhabitants of Poland—all these things are so familiar to us that the fact of some hundreds of thousands of people being driven out of their homes is nothing to tell of. They say in France that the fate of these unfortunates is but an every-day story, part of, the inevitable consequences of war, were it not for its political significance.

As the band of five hundred people were taken out in groups, as they at last realized that they were among friends, the hunted look left their faces, the expression of remoteness—as though in the face of this fresh disaster they had retired into some inner fastness of suffering—became softened.

The young girls of Schaffhausen, dressed in a white linen uniform, a red band with the white cross of Switzerland around their sleeve, took little babies from their tired mothers' arms and carried them. The older women of the welcoming committee got their groups in order to take them to the various places where they would find rest and refreshment.

While these convoys of évacuées are taken through Switzerland under the military authorities, committees of women have been formed in each of the towns where their rains stop. The Mayor of Schaffhausen, M. Spahn, has done a splendid work of organization. There are Red Cross nurses in attendance at the stations and hospital beds waiting for the sick. At present the condition of the trains is much better than it was at first, and the time for the journey has been so greatly lessened that there is much less suffering and illness than at first. There is not a detail that could make this heartrending pilgrimage easier that has not been thought out by the generous women and men of Switzerland.

The first thing that any one would naturally require after so long a journey would be hot coffee and bread, so presently they had the refugees all at wide tables that had been prepared in various parts of the town. By the time they had sat down at the tables and were served with coffee they seemed almost gay.

There remains with me a picture of one mother with two little girls gravely teaching her children table manners. She was as calm and placid as though in her own home. The heavens might fall, one gathered, and yet she would find occasion to teach her children the graces of life. After the long months of military rule it seemed as though their hearts were filled to bursting at the loving-kindness of their Swiss friends.

While the coffee and bread were being disposed of the young girls were bathing one batch of protesting babies after another in great tubs downstairs, and then dressing them from head to foot in clean, new clothes, and bringing them back to delighted mothers. All the very little children are bathed this way and fitted out. new; then the wants of the older people in the matter of clothes are attended to. The coffee finished, they are taken to a building once used for a theater and dancing place, and now transformed into a species of big store—only a free store. On counters are put out all the garments a man or a woman may need—shoes in one place, big velveteen trousers and blouses in another, women's underwear and stockings for women and children on another counter.

Most of these women help themselves at first very sparingly, with delicacy, and have to be urged to outfit themselves completely. The clothes are sent in great car-loads by the French Government, but all the little extra things—scarves, aprons, handkerchiefs, stockings of a better quality, baby clothes, as well as a toy of some sort for each one of the children—these are all supplied by the thoughtful kindness of the Swiss people, and it is no light task to supply a thousand of these daily.

Especially are the layettes attended to, and also there are pillows to support the littlest babies. All proper Swiss and German children spend their first months on a large bed pillow, and, the French Government having neglected these necessary things, the Swiss ladies have furnished them.

There is one woman, whose name I wish I might know, who has furnished over fifty layettes which she has made herself and packed with the exactness of a mathematical puzzle into a little basket. These are for the expectant mothers, and with each of these layettes made with such care, with such love, there is a letter of greeting to the mother and child. Somewhere in Switzerland is a woman who, from the amount of work she has done, cannot cease to yearn over the mothers that must bear children at these times; who must, from the amount of work she has done, have given up every moment of leisure that she has for this work of pure love. Also in the little town of Schaffhausen do all these women give up their leisure; for if the French Government sends the garments, they must unpack them, they must distribute them, supplement them, meet the daily trains, dress the children. Schaffhausen cares for five hundred a day, Zurich for five hundred more; but the train-load at Zurich passes through Schaffhausen at five in the morning, and each, morning finds a group of girls there ready to minister to the women and babies. Each town at which the trains of the évacuées stop finds the faithful group of women with little gifts of fruit, of cooling drinks, and with words of welcome and cheer and friendship—at Berne, Lausanne, and finally at Geneva—whence they must go to Annemasse, where they are finally repatriated.

The whole group of five hundred dine substantially after they receive their clothing, and leave during the evening at half-past eight for their all-night journey to Geneva. They leave with hope dawning again in their hearts, refreshed in soul and body; they leave singing the "Marseillaise" and crying, "Vive la Suisse!" and their friends who see them off cry to them, "Vive la France!"

On the train go with them a trained nurse and a group of women to attend to their wants and the wants of the children through the night. Love, pity, and devotion seem to be an evergreen in the spirits of these Swiss people, not the sporadic and quickly withered blossom it is with most of us.

But, in spite of the new courage born in them, the évacuées question perpetually: "What next for us?" We are going back to France, it is true; but what shall we do once we are there?"

The Swiss woman who was with me as I saw them off summed up the questions that each one of them old enough to think put to themselves:

"Each night as I see the train off," she said, "I must think what will happen to them. They will have no work in France, they will get their allocation from the Government and be quartered with strange people. They are accustomed to work, they love their homes, and now their life is taken from them."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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