- from 'The War Illustrated', 25th May, 1918.
- 'Carrying On at the Old Hotel'
- by the Editor
Little Journeys to the Great War
the 'Old Hotel' as seen by the 'War Illustrated's' sketch artist
I shall not tell you its name, common and uninspiring though that name is, as it may be well not to particularise while the Old Hotel still remains within range, of the Boche field-guns. It is an old-fashioned French hostelry, and the Old Hotel is a title that will not only serve for it, but for many another in the war zone.
In my little journeys to and from the battle-front it was my good fortune to see something of the wonderful fortitude of the French civilians who have clung to their native places and their old vocations with a devotion, a determination, which no Hunnish frightfulness has been able to shake. Big guns can reduce cathedrals to dust-heaps, but courage, more beautiful than any cathedral, defies both shell and bomb. In all that land of war and terror there is nothing more inspiring, more informed with the spirit of hope, than this "carrying on" of the humble civilian workers: the brave, calm women and the elder men. Their courage is not less fine than that of the bravest of those whose duty is to fight, rifle or grenade in hand.
Nay, in some ways it is finer. To go about the ordinary domestic tasks of the day with enemy guns thundering two or three miles distant, and shells bursting in the streets near by, the constant fear of being "gassed," and never to know the satisfaction of giving as good as you may get, calls for a spirit of resignation that is rarer than the courage to meet violence with violence. Above all, to remain in the very focal point of instant dangers, when one could honourably elude these by flight, is surely the nth degree of bravery.
One of Many
There are many hundreds of French and Belgian women who have done this through these long nightmare years. The gallant men who have looked serenely into the bright eyes of danger, and gone forth exultantly to embrace death in their soldierly duty, our poets have celebrated in noble and enduring song, but the women who have stayed and worked in the stricken towns along the fringes of the. battle-front, for whom no V.C.'s or M.C.'s are apportioned, need a Shakespeare, a genius of the imperishable word, fitly to sing their praises.
What calls for the poet's best must, not be essayed in pedestrian prose. Here I seek no more than to present a truthful picture of "things seen" at the Old Hotel. Its simple facts have more of eloquence than any thoughts or words of mine could impart.
Now, you must know that before the war the Old Hotel was in no particular different from a thousand hotels in France. If you had gone there for déjeuner you would have found the salle a manger, with its one long, white-clothed table in the centre, and perhaps a dozen smaller ones ranged by the walls, the chairs slightly rickety, ready for the daily customers, some of the "regulars" already seated with serviettes tucked deeply like babies' bibs into their collars, breaking chunks from the long loaves in the heaped baskets, and nibbling bits of crust while waiting for their soup. There would be bottles of white and red wine on every table, for the menu bore the words vin compris, and only if your taste scorned the common wine would you require to spend a few shillings on a bottle of vintage. There would be a sprinkling of officers as the room filled up, and a number of professional men who lunched and dined there every day, economically paying by monthly contract.
Coming of the Terror
The women of the house, perhaps to the number of half a dozen, looking less like servants than relatives or friends of the landlord, would be busying with the soup plates, chatting in the friendliest way to the guests, or reporting special wine orders to a matronly lady in black, dressed with just a touch more than the others of "madame" in her style, who sits at a high desk in every real French hotel to look after the cash, to keep check on the vintage wines and liqueurs, and to make the guests the happier for her friendly survey.
An old French hotel restaurant, such as you can find in Soho even now, such as I have found in many distant parts of the world and given thanks for the finding.
But came the Terror. Soldiers by the scores of thousands, guns by the hundreds, tramped and clattered through the busy town where the Old Hotel had so long welcomed its clientele. Not many weeks afterwards the broken remnants of these gallant regiments streamed back again, the German hordes pressing, and then were enacted the pitiful scenes of flight, when the trembling citizens gathered a few of the things they treasured and hastened from their threatened hearths. But they at the Old Hotel were the servants of all who needed rest or refreshment, and, busier than ever since the stirring days of 1870, they outstayed their fleeing townsfolk until the Huns had come and all thought of going was useless. Happily the tide ebbed soon, and in a week or two the wave of invasion had spent itself, while the victors of the Marne came back and rescued the good folk of the Old Hotel and other similar houses of refection from the invaders.
Holding On Through All
Then began a time even more terrible. For the Hun had withdrawn only a matter of a few miles and there dug earthworks he was to occupy for years, from which, indeed, he has still to be ejected. His guns were cunningly placed arid ranged with precision on the unhappy town. The great church and then the. town-hall were reduced to heaps of shapeless stones. There was no street in which the buds of Krupps did not burst into blossom and yield their frightful fruit.
Yet the town filled with soldiers, men of France, at first, then men of our island races, and despite the daily shelling and the nightly bombing it became a teeming centre of war activities. The crackle of rifle fire, when the wind blew that way, was heard from the trenches, the staccato stuttering of the machine-guns was as familiar in the outer suburbs as the rattle of the milk-carts in the days of peace. Overhead, British airmen flew in squadrons to cross the enemy lines, and when the flying Hun could nerve himself to the attack there were aerial battles, and there ''rained a ghastly dew."
Walking the shattered streets of this French town to-day one may feel a little shiver of apprehension, as the shells still come over at unexpected moments, and the abounding evidence of their destructive power makes a potent appeal to the imagination. In the heart of the town stands the Old Hotel, and there brave Madame la Patronne and her faithful women helpers still hold on. Angles of the roof have been blown off in the upper floors, bed-rooms stand open to the sun and rain, their windows and outer walls cut away, wardrobes and bedsteads smashed to fragments. It is reckoned that no fewer than eighty shells have struck the building. Yet it stands, and downstairs those women are maintaining the reputation of the house for good meals, though comfortable bed- rooms are no longer a feature.
In the salle a manger astonishingly little damage has been done Many of the window- panes are gone, a mirror or two shattered, but Madame still sits at her high desk and the calm women still bring the soups and stews, and air a newly-acquired knowledge of English, for their "regulars" now are British officers.
"They Also Serve -----"
Sitting at déjeuner in that dining-room it is difficult to realise that the upper two stories of the house are percés au jour in a hundred jagged holes, where many a shell has come in through the outer wall, pierced the wardrobes and old four-poster beds of several rooms and gone out at the other side. But many another has exploded on the roof or against a gable, and what a shower of bricks and mortar must have accompanied its bursting. Strange, too, that several of the bed-rooms upstairs are quite intact, and might be slept in if the appearance of the others were less "unhealthy."
The servant lass who waited upon us might never have heard of war, to judge by her demeanour, her modest smile, her characteristic neatness of dress, yet she and the others who still so deftly served the tables, had known the terrors of war as intimately as any of their soldier guests, and continued to share their risks for the comfort of those who had come from afar to help in freeing their land from the spoiler. The praise of these splendid women of France is indeed beyond the scope of any mere observer's pen, and until a new Shakespeare shall celebrate them, what so worthy as the master poet's own "powerful rhyme" ?
When wasteful war shall statues overturn, And broil roots out the work of masonry, Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn The living record of your memory. Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room, Even in the eyes of all posterity That wear this world out to the ending doom.
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