By Mary King Waddington
[Scribner's Magazine, July 1918]
You have asked for my impressions of Paris in this extraordinary spring of 1918—Paris bombarded, raided, nervous, hopeful, determined, quiet, gay even, sometimes when the raid is over without too many victims and the long firing-gun sounds fainter, farther off. The streets are full of American soldiers, tall, athletic young figures with bright, eager eyes looking at everything, and so anxious to get into the fight; and since the big raid quantities of fiacres laden with baggage and piled with children being taken away from Paris. All the month of March we had slight "alertes" and articles from the German papers saying that an army of Gothas was soon to pass over Paris and burn the city; that of course they would lose some, but enough would get through to burn the city; also the prophecy of the Curé d'Ars, that Paris would perish by fire but that it would be the end of the war, was reproduced in many of the papers. Some of his prophecies have come true, and people were nervous.
In the daytime, when everybody was busy, one did not get so nervous, but at night when the black curtains were drawn (the tapissiers have made fortunes in Zeppelin curtains) and we were working and reading by one dim lamp, we didn't feel quite so brave. I was licing with Madame de T. just under the Eiffel Tower, and not far from the Ecole Militaire, when the guns gave the alarm-signal before we heard the sinister, "sirne" wailing through the streets; as soon as we heard the guns, we put out all lights and established ourselves in the basement, with our cloaks, papers and jewels in case we should be obliged to seek refuge elsewhere. All the locataires of the house (all women, mistresses and maids) came down to our basement, and one child also came with his mother and such a good English nurse, who talked to him and read him stories by the one little lamp hidden away in a corner so that he should not be afraid. However none of the alarms was very serious until the 11th of March, when we had an awful night, not only the signal-guns, but the guns from the Eiffel Tower, which only fire when the enemy avions are directly over Paris—so we knew they had got through the lines. I must confess to a most tightening feeling about my heart when those guns fired, so near us that it sounded as if they were in the garden, and made the house shake, but strangely enough no windows were broken. We hurried down-stairs, some this time into the cellar under the basement, and the same troop of frightened women came rushing down from all the upper stories. Many people took refuge in the concierge's lodge, and when the door opened we could hear people running to the various abris (shelters). The noise was terrific for a little while—not only our own "feu de barrage" which continued steadily, but the noise, quite different from the steady gun-fire, of falling bombs and crashing buildings. The servants (not ours, they behaved well) were frightened to death, the little Bretonne cook on her knees quite quiet behind a door, saying she would take the first train in the morning out of Paris if she wasn't killed.
The women of the other people, sobbing and hysterical, were making such a noise that we told their mistresses they must calm them, or send them to an abri—there is one just across the street. Bessie was in a terrible state, her head wrapped up in a shawl, screaming every time a shell fell and very often when it didn't. Every noise terrified her. Her sister, with her Italian maid, was on her knees on the stone floor saying her chaplet, and it certainly helped them; I suppose the effort to remember how many beads for each prayer distracted their attention. We had an awful hour, but soon the fixing grew fainter, the shots were at long intervals, and even before the "berloque" sounded J. and I went to the door and out into the wide avenue. It was perfectly dark and empty save for one or two soldiers from the Eiffel Tower. We saw several aeroplanes, ours of course, high up in the sky over the Eiffel Tower and heard the noise of the motors. The soldiers told us it had been a sharp attack, several bombs had fallen, one quite near the Ecole Militaire. While we were talking to them, we heard the welcome call of the firemen dashing full speed through the streets, and the bugles sounding the "berloque." No one will ever forget those bugle-calls—first the "garde à vous" when the alarm is given, and then the longed-for "berloque." We waited to see the people pouring out of the abris, a wonderful collection,-—women half-dressed, with babies in their arms, older children covered with blankets or long cloaks which trailed on the ground, holding on to their mother's skirts—a few men, some with umbrellas, lamps, cushions, and all cheerful and talking. The danger was over for this time, and in the relief of their own escape, they didn't think of the poor victims who had been killed. We had an agitated morning, trying to telephone to our various families, but that was difficult as everybody was doing the same thing—however J. heard from her daughter who had spent the night in the cellar with her two children. She lives just around the corner from the Ministère de la Guerre which was badly damaged—two or three people, one policeman killed. Charlotte too telephoned; she and her boys were all right.
Tuesday.—Went to lunch with Dsse. de B. and, as I said before, impressions depend upon the quarter you live in, and the people you live with. None of them had been frightened. She and her two daughters were dining Monday with some French and British officers in the Ile St. Louis, where there are still some beautiful old-fashioned houses. It was a very pleasant dinner, everybody heard the guns but didn't realize what was going on. The only difference they made was not to come home at 10.30 when the firing was still going on. The officers said they must wait for the "berloque" and they would take them home. They said the streets were quite, full of people pouring out of the abris as they came home, and so dark that locomotion was very difficult. Ctsse. de V., one of the daughters, still has her children here but she is going to send them away. They go down to a friend on the rez-de-chaussée of their house when there is an alarm, and the children think it is "fun" to be waked up in the night and hurried down-stairs. The little one always takes her doll with her.
Friday was the day of the great explosion of the powder-factory near St. Denis. We were lunching with Victoria and the two heavy explosions shook the house. We all thought it was a Gotha with bombs. She rushed for her children, and carried them down to the cellar, but by the time we got down-stairs the panic had ceased. People were walking about in the streets and the soldiers and policemen told us it was no Gotha, but a powder-factory near. One bright-faced little poilu said to me:—"Doesn't madame know the difference of sound?—an explosion doesn't sound at all like a bomb"—"No, madame didn't know"—however, all these accidents and occasional mild alarms keep one nervous.
I went in the afternoon to two of the ouvroirs. At the rue Pierre Charron all the women had taken refuge in the cellars and they had several panes of glass broken. The police had warned them that there might be other explosions in the course of the afternoon. At the rue St. Didier there had been a real panic. There is only a glass roof over the workrooms at Courneuve near St. Denis, and all the women had been sent home. The Relief Work was very efficiently and quickly organized and of course the U. S. Red Cross were almost the first to arrive. Not only men but women did splendid work dragging out people and bodies from under the ruins—of course there were from time to time. We didn't mind them so much early in the evening, about nine o'clock just as we were coming up from the dining-room, still we always went down-stairs, sat in the dark, and wondered if the Tour Eiffel was a safe or dangerous place. There were two opinions—some people thought it most dangerous, as the Germans would certainly want to destroy the wireless telegraph—others that they would not risk it, as they would be certainly brought down by the tower guns.
Saturday the 23d, we had a disagreeable reveil. Heavy cannonading from we didn't know where. The soldiers of the Tour Eiffel, our resource for all information, told us that they are "canons à longue portée" firing from a great distance away, eighty or one hundred kilometres, which seemed impossible. The shots went on all the morning until two in the afternoon, quite regularly with an interval of about twenty minutes; it was most enervant, for at any moment we thought others might begin, and bombard heavily different quarters of Paris. None of us went out, and the few people who came in, mostly fournisseurs, brought all sorts of reports—houses destroyed, people killed, always in the same quarter—also that half Paris was leaving, the gares densely packed with people, not nearly enough trains, the employes nearly crazy. At five o'clock the "berloque" sounded and we went to tea with Mme. S., where we found a good many people—some American officers who would not hear of the possibility of firing from such a distance—no such gun existed, still they could give no explanations, and unfortunately the guns spoke for themselves—there were very few people in the streets, although the firing had stopped. Bessie was very nervous, wanted to go away.
Palm Sunday was an awful day. We had a serious "alerte" in the night, the guns sounded just over our heads and it lasted some time. We felt as if we had hardly got to sleep again when the big cannon began—tremendous shocks shaking the house and at regular intervals, every twenty minutes. I went to early church; there were a great many people, but everybody grave and preoccupied. I telephoned to Cte. De S., where lunch every Sunday, should I come. He lives across the river. He replied promptly—No, he couldn't send me home in his auto, no private ones were allowed, and told me not to go out at all, but that of course I couldn't promise as I had no news of the children. I counted that there was always twenty minutes between the shots, so I got quite ready, and as soon as I heard one I started out. It would only take me fifteen minutes walking quickly to get to the rue de Lutes, across the Alma Bridge and the Trocadero Gardens. As I was crossing the bridge, I met an officer, a general, who looked at me, half stopped, evidently wanted to speak to me, but I didn't know him. However, he stopped me, saying:—
"Permit me, madame, to give you a piece of advice, go indoors, it is not a time for women to be out." He didn't say "at your age," but I think my white hair impressed him. I answered:—"I must go on, mon general, I must go and see my children.'' "It isn't prudent, madame, in what direction?" "Over this bridge and across the Trocadero Gardens." "Still more then I beg you will not continue, there's no shelter of any kind in that quarter, one never knows where the next shot will fall.'' "Thanks very much, but I really must go," and I hurried on to lose no time. I felt he was looking reproachfully after me, but it was nice of the old officer.
I had made my calculation very exactly—just as I got into Charlotte's apartment, another shot fell. I found her very nervous. She and her little boy had taken refuge as usual with the friendly neighbor, but she couldn't get any news of her big boy who was at school at Neuilly until twelve o'clock when the college telephoned, "All boys well." I stayed to lunch with her and the shots gradually died away. After 2.30 there were practically no more. She will go and establish herself in her sister's apartment who has a rez-de-chaussée, and she has pretty much made up her mind to go away. The Easter holidays began on Thursday and she couldn't stay in Paris with the boys always in the house; she couldn't let them go out as long as the bombs were falling and we were having broken nights. About four the "berloque" sounded, and instantly heads appeared at all the windows, people on the balconies; and the firemen in their red car were loudly cheered as they raced down the streets.
Tuesday the 26th.—We decided that Charlotte and the boys must go, Bessie too;, she neither eats nor sleeps, will certainly have a serious illness. We went to the Cte. de S., who is vice-president of the Compagnie d'Orléans, to see if he could reserve places for us. He says the company has its hands full—neither carriages nor men enough—every one is going in the same direction. He gave us a letter for the chef de gare and advised us to go at once: We did go immediately after breakfast, and without his card could not even have got inside the station. There was a long procession of people carrying bags and bundles (no luggage was allowed; only hand-bags), and the police only let them pass through in groups of twenty. We made our way with difficulty to the office of the chef de gare but couldn't get anywhere near it. There also was a crowd of "privilégiés" waiting to speak to him; everybody pushing and talking and trying to get ahead of his neighbor, the men far worse than the women.
One strong, broad-shouldered man not more than forty pushed me so hard that I remonstrated vigorously to which he replied, "Madame, I must pass, I beg of you to make way for me," to which I made no answer but held firmly to my place. "But, madame, it is most urgent, I have a letter for the chef de gare." "We, too, monsieur." "Madame, you must let me pass." "You don't suppose, monsieur, that we two women are going to give you our places; besides, you look to me quite strong and well. Why are you not at the front?"—which remark produced a burst of laughter from the bystanders and the man disappeared.
We waited some time but it was getting late and we thought it better to leave and take our chance the next day. We got our places comparatively easily on Wednesday and as Bessie and her little grandson were going by the same tram, P. R. of the Italian Embassy had a carriage reserved. It was curious to see the baggage that people had. The great majority of passengers were third class, servants—they say almost every cook went out of Paris and various households were seriously inconvenienced, all their servants leaving. One couple, mother and daughter, shopkeepers of a rather superior class, were carrying all their things wrapped up in a pink satin petticoat; an old woman was dragging a heavy mattress down the quai. She was jeered at all along the train (already filled with passengers who had arrived, two or three hours before the hour of starting). No one would let her get in anywhere, one woman called out to her: "Couche-toi, ma vieille, sur ton matelas sur le quai." Poor old woman, I didn't see what became of her, I was so busy seeing my party off.
They were all separated at first, Charlotte and her boys and packages in an empty third-class compartment, the others, Mme. de T. S. and their maids, in a first-class compartment where, there wasn't one vacant seat, and the couloir also packed with people sitting on their valises. It didn't look very comfortable for a six hours journey; they were going to Valençon, Charlotte only to Orleans for the night to go on the next day to Cluis, a village beyond Châteauroux, where her brother-in-law is stationed; but they were so anxious to leave Paris that I think they would have stood all the way. The reserved carriage was finally found, and all the party, together, except Bessie, who sent me word she would stay where she was. She had a very good place in the first-class compartment and had found a charming American officer who would take care of her. I heaved a sigh of relief when the train started. J. and I took up our quiet life again. Her eldest son arrived from the Italian front—a good-looking young fellow, very Italian and very interesting telling of his life in the trenches. War news is bad, the fighting furious. The Germans have advanced quickly and have taken back all the villages they had evacuated about Noyon and Soissons. Bands of refugees are flying before them; poor people, who thought their troubles were over, and who were so pleased and grateful at everything the Americans were doing for them.
Friday night we had tragic news. The big gun had gone on all day, keeping every one's nerves on end. About 4.30 I went into the English church in the rue Auguste Vacquerie; it is always open, was lighted dimly, a few kneeling figures about. There came a violent crash, but in the church I felt safe. So did every one else apparently, no one moved. When I came out I saw a group of frightened women in the street, not knowing where to go. I tried to reassure them, but while we were talking there came another shot which sounded very near. The poor creatures were terribly frightened. I didn't like it either and advised them to go home. I walked very quickly and I must say nervously across the bridge, but heard no more shots. We had settled down to a quiet evening when, about nine o'clock, the concierge appeared with his tragic news. The Church of St. Gervais, just behind the Louvre, had been struck by a shell, during the afternoon service—all one side crushed in—many people killed, and I had felt so secure in the little English church! Probably the heavy shot I heard was the one which struck the church.
There was no alarm Saturday night and the news is better. Germans hesitating a little and their losses tremendous. British too have lost enormously. The big gun still going and everybody that can leaving Paris. It was a melancholy Easter. The women at the ouvroirs behave extremely well—very few have left—one or two volunteers at the head of their rooms, but all the paid workers remain. I was in the big workroom of the rue St. Didier the other day, talking to some of the women, when we heard a very heavy shot, not one woman moved from her place, though all stopped working, and those at the table near me got deadly pale. One young one half got up, saying rather wildly, "Oh, mes enfants, mes enfants, où sont-ils?" The others quieted her and I tried to encourage her—she looked straight at me, saying: "Madame has no little children." "Yes, I have two little grandsons who are in Paris and their mother too is away from them, she is working for the wounded at the rue de la Faisanderie." That seemed to comfort her a little; there has been too much said about "les riches" who could go away and "les pauvres" who couldn't. I went down the room, stopping at all the tables, telling them they must not be afraid, but must go on working. What would become of our wounded men on the battle-field if we women at home didn't do all we could in the hospitals and the workrooms ? They all smiled and nodded, and I heard them saying: "Madame says we must not be frightened, there is no danger." "No," I said, "I didn't say there was no danger; there is always danger when bombs are falling; one never knows where they may fall, but one can always take precautions and find shelter—just now the shells fall far away from this quarter, and we must all lead our normal lives as much as possible and try to be calm and encourage others."
The streets are depressing, so many people have gone, they say nearly a million. It is a good thing in one way, there are so much fewer to feed. We have had one or two more alarms but we take them more easily. The other night J. and I were alone, working and reading as usual, when those awful guns gave the signal. However, we couldn't hear the Eiffel guns, and so didn't go into the basement and sit in the dark. We put our table in one corner and went on with our book, rather a ghastly one—a life of Lucrezia Borgia by Gregoronus, such a description of the Popes of that time and their loves and their crimes and their luxury, and above all such an extraordinary picture of Lucrezia—"la belle dame sainte et chaste"—however, all that we learned in our childhood is contradicted now by the searching critical spirit of these later days. There seems to be a movement of troops. We hear the clairon now often in the early morning and see regiments passing with their full front equipment, their womenkind as usual walking alongside carrying their bags. They all look young, and that is the pitiful side of it. We see so many young soldiers in the streets and hospitals with legs and arms gone, or blind. I think that must be the saddest of all, the eternal darkness. The other afternoon I was standing at the Rond Point des Champs-Elysées, and my attention was attracted to a young soldier, quite blind, leaning on the arm of a woman and evidently not yet used to his want of sight as he knocked against the benches.
The big gun was going at regular intervals, but no one seemed to mind much—some of the men took out their watches and counted the interval between the and saw a long blue line coming into the avenue. The little blind soldier heard it too, and the measured tramp of the feet, and asked the woman with him what it was. Either she didn't or couldn't answer, for he went on, in a voice half-strangled with emotion, "Mais dis-moi, qu'est-ce que c'est. J'entends le clairon, et mes camarades qui marchent—ou sont-ils, que font-ils?" Again there was a pause and the young voice went on:—"Ce sont mes camarades avec qui j'ai si souvent marché." I couldn't stand it, so I went up to him, saying: "Mais oui, mon ami, ce sont tes camarades avec qui tu as si souvent marché, et tu marcheras encore avec eux, et maintenant c'est le drapeau qui passe, et tout le monde salue et tu vas saluer aussi comme les autres"—and the poor fellow drew himself up at attention and saluted, hardly moving until the last sound of the clairon and the tramping feet had passed.
It seems the wounded men in the hospitals are very nervous about the bombardment. Of course they know quite well those brutes never respect the Red Cross and they feel their helplessness in case their place should be struck.
We hate the dark nights, not that we ever go out at night, but if we hear an unusual noise, many people in the streets, or sometimes a very sharp steamboat whistle on the Seine which might be a "sirène," we go to the door to see if anything is going on, but now we hate the bright moonlight nights more, as the avions always choose bright moons for their operations. I am looking about for a house in the country, by the sea if possible, where we could go if the bombardment suddenly should become more violent which everybody seems to expect. Mareuil is out of the question now, even if there were any unoccupied rooms, as it is directly in the firing-line of the big gun, and the other day a shell fell just outside of our garden. If I can get a house, as the American Red Cross wall give me a motor to go away, I shall feel happier about the children. It is no life for them, the poor boys, they have heard cannons enough since the beginning of the war; the big boy at boarding-school at Neuilly got an awful cold being ordered out of his bed, and hurried down to the cellar, half-dressed; with no stockings on. Caroline dined the other night—just from Soissons, where she has been doing relief work until the Red Cross ordered all their women away.
She says bombs were falling freely in the streets of Soissons, and they spent all their nights in the cellar. Paris seemed to her a haven of peace. One certainly gets accustomed to everything. I scarcely heard the big gun at last, much to the indignation of some of my nervous friends. It was a pose, and absurd to say I wasn't afraid. I don't think I am afraid yet of the big gun, it sounds so far off, but I can't answer for the future if Paris should be badly shelled, I am always frightened at the avions, one is so absolutely powerless, but happily for me, and my friends, my nerves don't take the form of screaming or getting hysterical. What I do feel very keenly is the humiliation of having our beautiful city damaged by those brutes, and to think, we can't prevent it. We have got so accustomed to the war look of the Paris streets that the various changes don't strike us. Nannie is with me now and she can't get over the Champs-Elysées. When she has been here before, in perhaps the most beautiful time of the famous avenue, the chestnut-trees in full bloom, all the little booths, goat-carriages and shows crowded with children—handsome equipages filled with pretty, well-dressed women, passing all day long, it seemed to her a unique picture of the. beautiful, gay, pleasure-loving city—and now—absolutely deserted, no children, no shows, no carriages, except military autos and sometimes ambulances "with their melancholy burden—wounded, mutilated soldiers sitting in the sun on the benches, and yet the atmosphere is not sad. The soldiers laugh and talk with the women who pass with the vegetable and flower carts, are very grateful when some lady gives them cigarettes, sometimes a little bunch of flowers. Nannie is doing fine work—has just been close up to the French front starting a canteen, literally under shell-fire. She loves the "poilus," says they respond so instantly to any expression of sympathy. One can't look forward, but I wonder sometimes how it will be after the war is over. Everything must be changed—none of us can ever take up the threads again in the same way.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald