- 'Visiting the Battlefields of the Marne
- in December 1914'
- by MIldred Aldrich
- from her book 'On the Edge of the War-Zone' 1917
An American Lady Makes a Trip to the Battlefield and Graves
a French soldier's grave in an open field - original color photograph
December 5, 1914
Yesterday Amélie and I took advantage of it to make a pilgrimage across the Marne, to decorate the graves on the battlefield at Chambry. Crowds went out on All Soul's Day, but I never like doing anything, even making a pilgrimage, in a crowd.
You can realize how near it is, and what an easy trip it will be in normal times, when I tell you that we left Esbly for Meaux at half past one--only ten minutes by train--and were back in the station at Meaux at quarter to four, and had visited Monthyon, Villeroy, Neufmontier, Penchard, Chauconin, Barcy, Chambry, and Vareddes.
The authorities are not very anxious to have people go out there. Yet nothing to prevent is really done. It only takes a little diplomacy. If I had gone to ask for a passport, nine chances out of ten it would have been refused me. I happened to know that the wife of the big livery-stable man at Meaux, an energetic--and, incidentally, a handsome--woman, who took over- the business when her husband joined his regiment, had a couple of automobiles, and would furnish me with all the necessary papers. They are not taxi-cabs, but handsome touring-cars. Her chauffeur carries the proper papers. It seemed to me a very loose arrangement, from a military point of view, even although I was assured that she did not send out anyone she did not know. However, I decided to take advantage of it.
While we were waiting at the garage for the car to be got out, and the chauffeur to change his coat, I had a chance to talk with a man who had not left Meaux during the battle, and I learned that there were several important families who had remained with the Archbishop and aided him to organize matters for saving the city, if possible, and protect the property of those who had fled, and that the measures which those sixty citizens, with Archbishop Marbeau at their head, took for the safety of the poor, the care for the wounded and dead, is already one of the proudest documents in the annals of the historic town.
But never mind all these things, which the guides will recite for you, I imagine, when you come over to make the grand tour of Fighting France, for on these plains about Meaux you will have to start your pilgrimage.
I confess that my heart beat a little too rapidly when, as we ran out of Meaux, and took the route départmentale of Senlis, a soldier stepped to the middle of the road and held up his gun--baionette au canon.
Were we after all going to be turned back? I had the guilty knowledge that there was no reason why we should not be. I tried to look magnificently unconcerned as I leaned forward to smile at the soldier. I might have spared myself the effort. He never even glanced inside the car. The examination of the papers was the most cursory thing imaginable--a mere formality. The chauffeur simply held his stamped paper towards the guard. The guard merely glanced at it, lifted his gun, motioned us to proceed--and we proceeded.
It may amuse you to know that we never even showed the paper again. We did meet two gendarmes on bicycles, but they nodded and passed us without stopping.
The air was soft, like an early autumn day, rather than December as you know it. There was a haze in the air, but behind it the sun shone. You know what that French haze is, and what it does to the world, and how, through it, one gets the sort of landscape painters love. With how many of our pilgrimages together it is associated! We have looked through it at the walls of Provins, when the lindens were rosy with the first rising of the sap; we have looked through it at the circular panorama from the top of the ruined tower of Montlhéry; we have looked through it across Jean Jacques Rousseau's country, from the lofty terrace of Montmorency, and from the platform in front of the prison of Philippe Auguste's unhappy Danish wife, at Etampes, across the valley of the Juine; and from how many other beautiful spots, not to forget the view up the Seine from the terrace of the Tuileries.
Sometime, I hope, we shall see these plains of the Marne together. When we do, I trust it will be on just such another atmospheric day as yesterday.
As our road wound up the hill over the big paving-stones characteristic of the environs of all the old towns of France, everything looked so peaceful, so pretty, so normal, that it was hard to realize that we were moving towards the front, and were only about three miles from the point where the German invasion was turned back almost three months ago to a day, and it was the more difficult to realize as we have not heard the cannon for days.
A little way out of Meaux, we took a road to the west for Chauconin, the nearest place to us which was bombarded, and from a point in the road I looked back across the valley of the Marne, and I saw a very pretty white town, with red roofs, lying on the hillside. I asked the chauffeur :
"What village is that over there?"
He glanced around and replied: "Quincy."
It was my town. I ought not to have been surprised. Of course I knew that if I could see Chauconin so clearly from my garden, why, Chauconin could see me. Only, I had not thought of it.
Amélie and I looked back with great interest. It did look so pretty, and it is not pretty at all--the least pretty village on this side of the hill. "Distance" does, indeed, "lend enchantment." When you come to see me I shall show you Quincy from the other side of the Marne, and never take you into its streets. Then you'll always remember it as a fairy town.
a view of the countryside and a grave near Chauconin-Neufmontiers - original color photograph
It was not until we were entering into Chauconin that we saw the first signs of war. The approach through the fields, already ploughed, and planted with winter grain, looked the very last thing to be associated with war. Once inside the little village--we always speak of it as "le petit Chauconin "--we found destruction enough. One whole street of houses was literally gutted. The walls stand, but the roofs are off and doors and windows gone, while the shells seem burned out. The destruction of the big farms seems to have been pretty complete. There they stood, long walls of rubble and plaster, breeched; ends of farm buildings gone; and many only a heap of rubbish. The surprising thing to me was to see here a house destroyed, and, almost beside it, one not even touched. That seemed to prove that the struggle here was not a long one, and that a comparatively small number of shells had reached it.
Neufmortier was in about the same condition. It was a sad sight, but not at all ugly. Ruins seem to "go" with the French atmosphere and background. It all looked quite natural, and I had to make an effort to shake myself into a becoming frame of mind. If you had been with me I should have asked you to pinch me, and remind me that "all this is not yet ancient history," and that a little sentimentality would have become me. But Amélie would never have understood me.
It was not until we were driving east again to approach Penchard that a full realization of it came to me. Penchard crowns the hill just in the centre of the line which I see from the garden. It was one of the towns bombarded on the evening of September 5, and, so far as I can guess, the destruction was done by the French guns which drove the Germans out that night.
They say the Germans slept there the night of September 4, and were driven out the next day by the French soixante-quinze, which trotted through Chauconin into Penchard by the road we had just come over.
I enclose you a carte postale of a battery passing behind the apse of the village church, just as a guarantee of good faith.
But all signs of the horrors of those days have been obliterated. Penchard is the town in which the Germans exercised their taste for wilful nastiness, of which I wrote you weeks ago. It is a pretty little village, beautifully situated, commanding the slopes to the Marne on one side, and the wide plains of Barcy and Chambry on the other. It is prosperous looking, the home of sturdy farmers and the small rentiers. It has an air of humble thrift, with now and then a pretty garden, and here and there suggestions of a certain degree of greater prosperity, an air which, in France, often conceals unexpected wealth.
You need not look the places up unless you have a big map. No guide-book ever honored them.
From Penchard we ran a little out to the west at the foot of the hill, on top of which stand the white walls of Montyon, from which, on September 5, we had seen the first smoke of battle.
I am sure that I wrote some weeks ago how puzzled I was when I read Joffre's famous ordre du jour, at the beginning of the Marne offensive, to find that it was dated September 6, whereas we had seen the battle begin on the 5th. Here I found what I presume to be the explanation, which proves that the offensive along the rest of the line on the 6th had been a continuation simply of what we saw that Saturday afternoon.
At the foot of the hill crowned by the walls of Montyon lies Villeroy--today the objective point for patriotic pilgrimages. There, on the 5th of September, the 276th Regiment was preparing its soup for lunch, when, suddenly, from the trees on the heights, German shells fell amongst them, and food was forgotten, while the French at St. Soupplet on the other side of the hill, as well as those at Villeroy, suddenly found themselves in the thick of a fight--the battle we saw.
They told me at Villeroy that many of the men in the regiments engaged were from this region, and here the civilians dropped their work in the fields and snatched up guns which the dead or wounded soldiers let fall and entered the fight beside their uniformed neighbors. I give you that picturesque and likely detail for what it is worth.
- a post-war monument built over the tomb mentioned below
- photo from 2005
At the foot of the hill between Montyon and Villeroy lies the tomb in which two hundred of the men who fell here are buried together. Among them is Charles Péguy, the poet, who wore a lieutenant's stripes, and was referred to by his companions on that day as "un glorieux fou dans sa bravoure." This long tomb, with its crosses and flags and flowers, was the scene on All Soul's Day of the commemorative ceremony in honor of the victory, and marks not only the beginning of the battle, but the beginning of its triumph.
hastily dug French trenches around the village of Barcy - original color photograph
From this point we drove back to the east, almost along the line of battle, to the hillside hamlet of Barcy, the saddest scene of desolation on this end of the great fight.
It was a humble little village, grouped around a dear old church, with a graceful square tower supporting a spire. The little church faced a small square, from which the principal street runs down the hill to the open country across which the French "push" advanced. No house on this street escaped. Some of them are absolutely destroyed. The church is a mere shell. Its tower is pierced with huge holes. Its bell lies, a wreck, on the floor beneath its tower. The roof has fallen in, a heaped-up mass of débris in the nave beneath. Its windows are gone, and there are gaping wounds in its side walls. Oddly enough, the Chemin de la Croix is intact, and some of the peasants look on that as a miracle, in spite of the fact that the High Altar is buried under a mass of tiles and plaster.
The doors being gone, one could look in, over the temporary barrier, to the wreck inside, and by putting a donation into the contribution box for the restauration fund it was possible to enter--at one's own risk--by a side door. It was hardly worth while, as one could see no more than was visible from the doorways, and it looked as if at any minute the whole edifice would crumble. However, Amélie wanted to go inside, and so we did.
We entered through the mairie, which is at one side, into a small courtyard, where the school children were playing under the propped-up walls as gaily as if there had never been a bombardment.
The mairie had fared little better than the church, and the schoolroom, which has its home in it, had a temporary roofing, the upper part being wrecked.
The best idea that I got of the destruction was, however, from a house almost opposite the church. It was only a shell, its walls alone standing. As its windows and doors had been blown out, we could look in from the street to the interior of what had evidently been a comfortable country house. It was now like an uncovered box, in the centre of which there was a conical shaped heap of ashes as high as the top of the fireplace. We could see where the stairs had been, but its entire contents had been burned down to a heap of ashes--burned as thoroughly as wood in a fireplace. I could not have believed in such absolute destruction if I had not seen it.
While we were gazing at the wreck I noticed an old woman leaning against the wall and watching us. Out of her weather-beaten, time-furrowed old face looked a pair of dark eyes, red-rimmed and blurred with much weeping. She was rubbing her distorted old hands together nervously as she watched us. It was inevitable that I should get into conversation with her, and discover that this wreck had been, for years, her home, that she had lived there all alone, and that everything she had in the world--her furniture, her clothing, and her savings--had been burned in the house.
You can hardly understand that unless you know these people. They keep their savings hidden. It is the well-known old story of the French stocking which paid the war indemnity of 1870. They have no confidence in banks. The State is the only one they will lend to, and the fact is one of the secrets of French success.
If you knew these people as I do, you would understand that an old woman of that peasant type, ignorant of the meaning of war, would hardly be likely to leave her house, no matter how many times she was ordered out, until shells began to fall about her. Even then, as she was rather deaf, she probably did not realize what was happening, and went into the street in such fear that she left everything behind her.
From Barcy we drove out into the plain, and took the direction of Chambry, following the line of the great and decisive fight of September 6 and 7.
We rolled slowly across the beautiful undulating country of grain and beet fields. We had not gone far when, right at the edge of the road, we came upon an isolated mound, with a rude cross at its head, and a tiny tricolore at its foot--the first French grave on the plain.
We motioned the chauffeur to stop, and we went on, on foot.
First the graves were scattered, for the boys lie buried just where they fell--cradled in the bosom of the mother country that nourished them, and for whose safety they laid down their lives. As we advanced they became more numerous, until we reached a point where, as far as we could see, in every direction, floated the little tricolore flags, like fine flowers in the landscape. They made tiny spots against the far-off horizon line, and groups like beds of flowers in the foreground, and we knew that, behind the skyline, there were more.
Here and there was a haystack with one grave beside it, and again there would be one, usually partly burned, almost encircled with the tiny flags which said: "Here sleep the heroes."
It was a disturbing and a thrilling sight. I give you my word, as I stood there, I envied them. It seemed to me a fine thing to lie out there in the open, in the soil of the fields their simple death has made holy, the duty well done, the dread over, each one just where he fell defending his mother-land, enshrined forever in the loving memory of the land he had saved, in graves to be watered for years, not only by the tears of those near and dear to them, but by those of the heirs to their glory--the children of the coming generation of free France.
You may know a finer way to go. I do not. Surely, since Death is, it is better than dying of old age between clean sheets. Near the end of the route we came to the little walled cemetery of Chambry, the scene of one of the most desperate struggles of the 6th and 7th of September. You know what the humble village burying-grounds are like. Its wall is about six feet high, of plaster and stone, with an entrance on the road to the village. To the west and northwest the walls are on the top of a bank, high above the crossroads. I do not know the position of the pursuing French army. The chauffeur who drove us could not enlighten us. As near as I could guess, from the condition of the walls, I imagine that the French artillery must have been in the direction of Penchard, on the wooded hills.
The walls are pierced with gun holes, about three feet apart, and those on the west and southwest are breeched by cannon and shell-fire. Here, after the position had been several times stormed by artillery, the Zouaves made one of the most brilliant bayonet charges of the day, dashing up the steep banks and through the breeched walls. Opposite the gate is another steep bank where can still be seen the improvised gun positions of the French when they pushed the retreat across the plain.
The cemetery is filled with new graves against the wall, for many of the officers are buried here--nearly all of the regiment of Zouaves, which was almost wiped out in the charge before the position was finally carried,--it was taken and lost several times.
From here we turned east again towards Vareddes, along a fine road lined with enormous old trees, one of the handsomest roads of the department. Many of these huge trees have been snapped off by shells as neatly as if they were mere twigs. Along the road, here and there, were isolated graves.
Vareddes had a tragic experience. The population was shockingly abused by the Germans. Its aged priest and many other old men were carried away, and many were shot, and the town badiy damaged.
We had intended to go through Vareddes to the heights beyond, where the heroes of the 133d, 246th, 289th, and of the regiment which began the battle at Villeroy--the 276th--are buried. But the weather had changed, and a cold drizzle began to fall, and I saw no use in going on in a closed car, so we turned back to Meaux.
It was still light when we reached Meaux, so we gave a look at the old mills--and put up a paean of praise that they were not damaged beyond repair--on our way to the station.
As we came back to Esbly I strained my eyes to look across to the hill on which my house stands,--I could just see it as we crawled across the bridge at the Iles-lès-Villenoy,--and felt again the miracle of the battle which swept so near to us.
In my innermost heart I had a queer sensation of the absurdity of my relation to life. Fate so often shakes its fist in my face, only to withhold the blow within a millimetre of my nose. Perhaps I am being schooled to meet it yet.
I brought back one fixed impression--how quickly Time had laid its healing hand on this one battlefield. I don't know what will be the effect out there where the terrible trench war is going on. But here, where the fighting turned, never to return--at least we believe it never will--it has left no ugly traces. The fields are cleaned, the roads are repaired. Rain has fallen on ruins and washed off all the marks of smoke. Even on the road to Vareddes the thrifty French have already carried away and fagotted the wrecked trees, and already the huge, broken trunks are being uprooted, cut into proper length, and piled neatly by the roadside to be seasoned before being carted away. There was nothing raw about the scene anywhere. The villages were sad, because so silent and empty.
I had done my best to get a tragic impression. I had not got it. I had brought back instead an impression heroic, uplifting, altogether inspiring.
By the time you come over, and I lead you out on that pilgrimage, it will be even more beautiful. But, alas, I am afraid that day is a long way off.
a temporary cemetary in a French village
a year later in September 1915 - a commemorative ceremony
Back to Index