'Among the Ruins'
from the book by the same title
by Spanish Correspondent Gomez Carrillo, 1915
Translated by Florence Simmonds

A Neutral Correspondent Visits the Marne Battlefields

French zouaves in makeshift trenches - original color photo from 1914


Publisher's Note

SENOR GOMEZ CARRILLO, a favoured Spanish war correspondent, was among the first to visit those beautiful parts of France recovered from the Germans since the Battle of the Marne. He describes with convincing fidelity what he saw "Among the Ruins," and his volume will be read with interest by all who care to know what the traces were like which the German hordes who invaded France left behind them, and how their infamies inspired our allies to almost superhuman efforts.


portrait of senor Carrillo
see also: A Spanish Impression of the British Front


a lonely grave on the battlefield - original color photo from 1914


From Paris to Esternay

November 15, 1914

Our visions of war begin at the very gates of Paris, before the glacis of the fortifications. These regions, but a few months ago studded with boisterous little cheap restaurants sacred to popular romance, are now converted into entrenched camps. The gabelou (a slang term for an exciseman) who only looked into the baskets of those who were entering the city, has been replaced by a severe sentinel, who carefully examines the baskets of those who are leaving it. On every hand the great chestnuts, razed to the level of the ground, check the progress of carriages. Lines of barbed wire entangled among the leafless branches form a fantastic vegetation of grey spines. At every strategic point, parapets of wood and iron offer shelter to sharpshooters, and here and there some huge apparatus of steel bristling with spear-heads presents an impenetrable front to possible cavalry attack. All this is now but a memory of those dark days when the German cavalry seemed to be rushing down upon Paris like an avalanche.

The officer who is to accompany us in our excursion to the battle- fields contemplates the Parisian defences with a smile in which I detect a touch of irony, and even, perhaps, of regret. How glorious a struggle on this legendary spot, under these sacred walls, would have been! According to some military writers, General Joffre proposed to make Paris the tomb of William II's army. His modern military spirit would not have shrunk from purchasing victory at the price of sacrifices, the very thought of which filled us worshippers of the city with horror.

If it should be necessary to fight on the Boulevards, said a Minister at the end of August, on the Boulevards we will fight!

Happily Saint Geneviève was there on her ancient terrace, as we see her in Puvis de Chavannes' fresco, to repeat the miracle that turned back the hosts of Attila. As of old, the barbarians of to-day fled from the outskirts of Lutetia before they had even caught sight of her church-towers. Certain strategists profess themselves unable to explain the military reasons for the German tactics of September 5, 1914. They do not know the secrets of the saints who watch over the city in their stone niches. The soldier who is our guide, a charming cavalry captain, who seems to have stepped out of one of Raffet's prints, describes with sober eloquence the operations which determined the defeat of the first German army on the third day of the Battle of the Marne.

"In a few hours," he says, "we shall arrive at the plain near Provins, where the advance of von Bulow and von Kluck was checked."

The military motor-car which is taking us to the theatre of yesterday's tragedy, and will afterwards take us to that of to-day's, glides along the admirable road, driven by an artillery-man. The quiet plains of the Ile-de-France stretch away on either side in gentle undulations. Nothing in the picture before our eyes speaks of violence, cruelty, and death. Everything indeed under the autumn sky and among the golden foliage breathes the sweetness of life. Sometimes we might almost be in a park, so richly has the humble hand of toil adorned the landscape. The trees are grouped into harmonious bouquets. The most modest walls are wreathed with ivy. Before the poorest hovels the last flowers of the year open their corollas with a melancholy grace.

It was the season of sowing, and we were struck by the absence from the scene of the robust sower, the figure which in the old allegories seems to typify the energy of the fertile earth. Only old men and women now guide the plough; all who can carry a gun are fighting in the distant trenches.

In the villages, too, the streets are empty, and only wrinkled or feminine faces look out from the windows to see us pass.

"Wait until we come to the districts which were occupied by the Germans," says our guide, and looking at his watch, he adds: "We shall very soon be there."

We speed through several villages without stopping. In each a tiny church uplifts its old stone belfry in the darkening space. The farms, with their grey walls and heavy square towers, look like castles. Infinite calm, absolute quietude breathe from the humble cottages. Forgetting what we have read as to the recent sufferings of the whole region, we feel the sweet tranquillity of French village life stealing over us. How far we are from Paris--and how far, how very far from war!

But suddenly the car pulls up.

"Now," says our captain, "we are going to walk a bit. Here about Esternay, we shall have a great deal to see."

And, indeed, hardly have we taken a few steps when we are surprised by the most melancholy sight. One after another, ruined dwellings make their appearance. At first we see only dismantled walls, heaps of rubbish, burnt roofs. The general view is lamentable. But the details are even more so. Through the huge cracks in the façades the drama of each rustic home presents itself with sinister distinctness. Furniture and personal belongings, kitchen utensils, agricultural implements, all the treasures of the house are heaped together in fantastic confusion. We see that the invasion surprised these unhappy people as the lava-torrent of Vesuvius surprised the inhabitants of Pompeii. On one kitchen stove a saucepan full of stale bread shows that at the tragic moment the peasant was preparing his soup. A little farther, near a charred wooden stool, a doll lies with outstretched arms. An old cloak still hangs from a nail, spared by the fire that has consumed the dwelling. The caprice of the flames is more evident here than in those vast Canadian forests, where a few pines always remain intact after a forest fire. Sometimes the most fragile thing in some poor home is the one that has survived: a picture on the wall, a branch of palm over a bed, a flower on the chimney-piece.

Where are the people now who were cultivating these fields yesterday? Where is the man of the cloak? the little girl of the doll?

At a street-corner, before the ashes of a farm, we meet the only beings who are still living, phantomlike, among the ruins. They are two little old women with livid faces, gazing in silence at what no longer exists.

"The others," says one of them, "have disappeared. Some are dead... the rest... God knows where they are."

Then she goes on to tell us in long drawn sentences of her companion, the other old woman, who was rich, had six cows, a fine new house, a well-stocked poultry-yard, and a young son.

"The day the Germans arrived," she murmured, they occupied everything. . . . They did nothing to me . . they only drove me out of my house . . . but she . . . she had hidden in the cellar with her boy; they dragged her out brutally and tied her to an apple-tree. They said she was rich, that she must show them the place where she had hidden her money. . . . The poor thing had spent it all building her new house. ... At last they unbound her, then they tied her son up and shot him. . . . He was eighteen, he might have served as a soldier.

He was left there dead, his head hanging over on his breast, against that tree. . . . The Germans laughed to see him transformed into a scarecrow. ... I asked them to let us bury him, but they would not. . . . For two days we saw him thus, until the moment when we began to hear the cannon in the direction of Esternay. . . . Then the Germans came out of our houses. . . . It was along this road that the first fled. A shell burst in this yard. ... In the evening some cyclists arrived in haste, and took from a cart several cans of petroleum with which they began to set everything on fire. . . ."

While the little old woman was talking the other stood motionless, as if the story had nothing to do with her misfortunes. Not a muscle of her face moved. Her eyes were dry, and on her lips was something that I can only liken to a dead smile.

"She has not regained her power of speech since then," added her companion.

We, too, were incapable of speech. There were seven of us, and all of us in our way through the world had seen great tragedies and great griefs; we had all heard cries of rage and cries of agony; we are all professionally steeled against painful impressions. . . . Yet, in the presence of this humble grief we felt an anguish that made our eyelids quiver.

The captain who was conducting our caravan was the first to master his emotion, and he reminded us that the evening was far advanced.

"We must go," he cried.

Silently we came back to the place where we were to spend the night, without having seen the battle-field of the Marne from the heights which dominate one of the most important strategic points. The image of the desolate village haunted us. The damp landscape intersected with marshes which the twilight rays tinged with red, suggested blood. From time to time we saw on the crest of some hill the towers of a castle. Shadows began to steal over the woods of ancient oaks.

"It is cold," said one of our companions, wrapping himself in his goatskin coat.

We all felt the cold, cold in our bodies, a deeper cold in our souls.


a ruined farm - original color photo from 1914


The Germans at Montmirail

November 17

Nestling cosily in its veil of ivy, Montmirail does not seem to retain a very bitter recollection of the five days the Prussians spent within its walls. Nothing here recalls the horrors of the innumerable neighbouring villages where the traces of fire and pillage are visible. Passing along the streets in every direction we see neither broken windows nor sorrowful faces. The people go about quietly, as if nothing had ever interrupted the busy monotony of their lives. Customers are drinking their apéritifs lazily in the cafés, and the shops are full of purchasers.

"Is it market day?" I ask a seller of postcards.

He looks at me without taking in the meaning of my question.

"It is just a day like any other day," he says at last.

In my ignorance of provincial mysteries I did not know that Montmirail, despite its small population, is a veritable town. This is evident from the shop windows full of elegant objects. And then there are the new streets, which are reductions of those of Paris. But the great speciality which no one should forget, and which makes the citizens of Sezanne and La Ferté Champenoise pale with envy, is the possession of three railway stations. For Montmirail has three railway stations, just as Rome has seven hills.

"At which of the stations did you arrive?" This is the first question you are asked here.

Vain and gentle little town, which seems to have been created to preserve nothing of tragedies but a picturesque remembrance and a reflection of glory.

Here, close by, a granite column, crowned by an eagle which was once golden, bears this inscription: "Montmirail, February 11, 1814." And History, when she recounts the last stages of the Napoleonic legend, never forgets the illustrious name of the place: "Champaubert, Nesles, Château-Thierry, Vauchamps, Montmirail." And this though every one knows that a century ago the inhabitants of Montmirail never saw a single Cossack lance nor a single Prussian helmet. The battle was fought at a comparative distance, on the western plain, beneath the poplars wreathed with mistletoe.

In September of this ill-omened year the field of action was more extensive. The Germans occupied the plains towards the north and the French the southern villages. For several days a hail of fire passed over the town without touching it. Full of terror, the inhabitants gazed at the flight of shells which fell and burst a hundred feet off to left and right. Trembling, they waited for the catastrophe to draw nearer and overwhelm them. But no doubt there is a god who watches over towns that possess three stations, and Montmirail was saved from bombardment.

It was saved, too, from pillage and arson. The army corps which occupied it for four days forbore, by some unexpected caprice, from shooting or robbing the population, and only outraged one woman.

"The Mayor will tell us what he knows," said the captain of our little band of journalists.

Before we interviewed the Mayor the host of the old inn where we lunched related his personal adventures, half smiling, half indignant. The Germans entered his inn on the evening of the 5th. They were all officers. But apparently none of them belonged to the haughty Junker caste of Berlin, for, laying aside their swords, they went straight to the kitchen, to prepare a magnificent feast with their own aristocratic hands.

Well-informed as to the products of the district, they asked for fresh pork, fowls, potatoes, carrots, and butter. When the table was laid, one of them went down to the cellar and brought up two baskets of carefully chosen bottles.

"My old Chambertin," murmured the innkeeper sadly, "they drank it all. . . . Then they asked me for twenty bottles of champagne, and as there were only ten or twelve of them, I brought up six. Then the youngest, speaking in perfect French, told me that to punish me for my niggardliness, he should now demand thirty bottles. I told them to go and help themselves, and they needed no pressing. Each of them took two or three bottles. Of course, in an hour or so, they were all perfectly drunk. Some were singing, some laughing, others were asleep on the table. Presently a horseman arrived with a letter for the one who seemed to be in command. He read it and then called me to show them their bedrooms. When we came to mine, in which were all my possessions, they asked who slept there, and when I said that I did, they told me not to be afraid, that they would not take it from me. As they retired the young man who spoke French called out:

"We will pay you in good German gold."

The host smiled as he recalled the scene, adding in conclusion :

"Of course, they paid me nothing, either for this first night or for the other days they spent devouring my good food."

And it was good food indeed. As in all the old inns of this wonderful country, which has made gluttony an exquisite virtue, the food is good and the drinks even better at the Montmirail hostelry. Goethe, during his campaign in France, complained that his stomach, accustomed to the heavy sausages of Erfurt, could not digest the dishes of Champagne. The Germans of to-day, more refined in this respect at least, do honour to the enemy's cookery with an appetite that depresses the cooks. In the invaded territory we are now exploring, there is no well-stocked house which does not bear witness to German gluttony. Before setting to work to loot and ravish, shoot and burn, his Imperial Majesty's officers light the kitchen fires and visit the cellars. And what appetites these lusty warriors have!

"If it did not make one so angry," said our host, "it would be a pleasure to see how they gorge."

Germanophobes though we are, we all imitate them in this respect. The cellars of the inn still contain excellent wine, and pigs and chickens still abound in the market of the town. A Scandinavian colleague on my right eats like two Uhlans. Forgetful for a moment of the pictures of desolation we have seen on the way, we appreciate the comfort of the warm room, the generous Burgundy, the succulent food. To salve our consciences, we talk of the smiling aspect of the town, the well-being of the inhabitants, the wealth of the district. Sarti, the correspondent of the Roman Tribuna, proposes to treat us to a glass or two of champagne.

"No," says the captain; "champagne is forbidden until we have won a decisive victory."

Burgundy, on the other hand, is allowed, as are also coffee and liqueurs.

"And no doubt our readers are imagining us in the trenches, dying of cold and hunger!" murmurs the editor of the Journal de Genève.

"There is a time for everything," replies our guide.

Hereupon the Mayor arrives. He is an old man with a snow-white moustache, dressed in mourning, very courteous and very cold. He greets us with a bow, and disregarding the chair we offer him, he begins to speak, weighing his words as if he were attending an important meeting of his municipal council. We are to him, he explains, the incarnation of universal opinion. We are History. We are the supreme tribunal of the nations.

"For my part," he begins, "I cannot complain of our enemies on the same grounds as many of my colleagues. The conduct of the Germans at Montmirail was decent enough, compared with their behaviour in several neighbouring towns. What was the reason of this? Some think it was due in part to my personal attitude, to the fact that I had not abandoned my post. But I think we must also take into account the fact that there was a distinguished general here, some say von Kluck, others von Biilow. I cannot say which, though I saw him several times. What I do remember is that he was a man about sixty, with a pleasant face and a white moustache. The day the troops entered the town this general came to the Mairie and assured me that the lives and goods of the inhabitants would be respected, on condition that the population refrained from attacking his troops. How could we have attacked them when all our able- bodied men are with the army? He recognized the force of this argument and reassured me very courteously, repeating that we had nothing to fear. We then spoke of provisions.

He required ten thousand rations of bread a day. In normal times we have many important bakeries here; but at the moment only two were working. "It doesn't matter, you must carry out my orders," he replied. And starting to walk, he desired me to show him the flour stores and the mills of the neighbourhood. When we saw that there was no lack of corn, I promised him that I would beg the well-disposed among the inhabitants to make bread. On the following day the ten thousand rations were ready. The general and his staff took up their quarters at the Château de La Rochefoucauld, at the exit of the town. The troops were billeted in private houses and public buildings. It would be untrue to say that they did not abuse the hospitality of their hosts. There is scarcely a house which was not bereft of some object carried off as a souvenir by these gentlemen. But as to tragic occurrences I may say that we had only one to complain of."

The Mayor paused for a moment, doubtful as to whether he should describe the incident or not.

"It is a delicate matter," he murmured.

We all insisted, and the captain induced him to satisfy our curiosity by assuring him that if the story was one which ought not to be published we would keep it secret.

"It has been said," continued the Mayor, at last, "and I myself read this in Le Temps, that at Montmirail a German violated a little girl in the presence of her parents and had the whole family shot afterwards. This is not true. On September 7, about 10 o'clock in the evening, some of the inhabitants came in haste to fetch me. I had heard shots, and I was just about to go out and see what had happened. Some people I met pointed out a house in which two officers were quartered. When I entered, a horrible scene met my eyes. One of the officers was in his nightshirt, and quite drunk; the other was standing beside him, dressed in his uniform, and holding a revolver in his hand. On the ground, in a pool of blood, lay the two women of the house, a mother and daughter. What had happened here? The Germans, who could not speak French, could not explain; but we all reconstructed the drama in the only logical manner, taking into account the character of the victims, very honourable and worthy people. The drunken man had, no doubt, attempted to outrage th? younger woman, and her mother had come to her help. At the noise of the dispute the second officer had intervened in the German fashion, which is neither gentle nor delicate. Of course, I went at once to the castle to inform the general of the crime, and he promised that the guilty-person should be brought to account. As a fact, the murderers remained quietly in the house of their victims until the whole 10th Army Corps beat a hasty retreat, leaving their wounded behind them, and carrying off our vehicles, filled with stolen goods."

The Mayor, still cold and precise, added:

"And that is all, gentlemen."

He bowed and took his leave, advising us to pay a visit to the Château de La Rochefoucauld.

Rising proudly upon the highest part of the promontory of Montmirail, the ancient seignorial dwelling dominates the dreary plain. Not a village, not a farm, not even one of those lonely hermitages so frequent in the district, is visible in the wide expanse over which the eye travels from the vantage ground. Montmirail is, as it were, lost in a desert, among the reedy marshlands and the strips of arid soil which the people of Champagne call pouilleux. The landscape, nevertheless, is not devoid of charm or of grandeur. The plains undulate in harmonious lines, and merge into the blue distance an immense way off. Our captain, always obsessed by ideas of strategy, points out with what science Louvois chose this site in order to command the military roads from the high terrace where we stand. I, for my part, prefer to gaze at the walls, fissured, not by shells, but by time, and the moss-grown towers that rise into space, still eloquent of the great centuries of France. We go up to the first floor by a magnificent staircase without meeting anyone. The rooms, which might lodge a king and all his court, are abandoned. In the interminable corridors, hung with crimson damask, there is not a piece of furniture, not a suit of armour. Our footsteps echo in the void, evoking the shadows of those who once filled this "Alcazar" with song and laughter. In an angle of the first floor there is a hole in the wall, made by a French shell.

"It was that shell which put von Buelow to flight," says our guide.

Through the gap we see the plain in all its melancholy extent.

"It was down there that they fled," he adds.

And following the gesture of his arm we seem to see the hurried march of the hordes, which after dreaming, drunk with pride, of the conquest of Paris, had to beat a retreat in disorder, leaving in these tragic plains the newly dug graves of their best soldiers, lighted by the glare of burning villages.


the villages of Penchard and Neufmontiers - original color photo from 1914


The Recollections of a Little Town

November 20

This village, so un-village like in normal times, with its little slate- roofed houses and its suburban - looking gardens, seems to have been transformed as if by some miracle. It is evident that something has happened in the selfish soul of its rich, happy, and presumptuous population; that something has roused it from its perpetual siesta of modest well-being; that something has made it realize that there is more in life than petty trading and small municipal passions. In its principal street the inhabitants no longer move about with a slightly grotesque gravity, and its open spaces have lost the dull tranquillity which repelled us when in holiday time we used to come, not to seek traces of invading Germans, but to admire the landscapes popularized by Servin and Granier on the banks of the Grand Morin. Oh! that Grand Morin! I remember how, when I saw it for the first time, I wondered what the Petit Morin must be like. For indeed the famous river that waters the district and enriches and embellishes it is hardly more than a brook. One of our companions, a long-legged Yankee, declared that he could jump across it.

William II's troops were not of his opinion, it seems, for when they were checked by the bridge the French artillery had blown up, they had to spend some time looking for another bridge, in default of the classic ford.

It was down there, at Madame X--'s villa, say those nearest to us.

All the inhabitants are ranged around us, full of curiosity. All are talking to us. All want to know what we have come to do. All look respectfully at the light uniform of the captain who has us in charge. Ten or twelve compete for the honour of answering us each time we ask the most trivial question of any one of them. The whole population seems eager to give its impressions of the tragedy. Even the children escape from the doors of the shops and come smiling to find out what we are doing and seeing.

We make our way to the property through which the invaders passed on their advance towards Paris. A white-haired lady, dressed like an eighteenth-century portrait, receives us with dignified curtseys. At the end of her garden a rustic bridge connects the two banks of the river.

It was over that, she tells us.

Then she recalls what she remembers. The day the Germans occupied the place, a general presented himself at her door, and very courteously asked permission for his soldiers to cross the bridge. What could the good lady do but bow to the will of the conqueror?

"I leave my house to you," she said, preparing to come out of it.

But the general begged her not to put herself out, assuring her that all they wanted was to cross the bridge.

"I myself will superintend the crossing," he declared.

He then ordered two chairs to be set under an apple-tree, and offered one to the lady.

The troops began to defile, stiff and martial. For hours and hours, regiments marched through the village.

"Look at them, what admirable fellows they are," murmured the chief. "They have been fighting for days together, and they look as if they were going to a review. Not one complains of fatigue. . . . The French. . . ."

The lady remarked with great dignity that her son was a French officer.

"They are brave officers, the French," said the general. "Brave, elegant, capable of the most daring deeds. But modern warfare is not what they think it. All France is under the delusion that we are still in the times of Napoleon. What is needed now is a virile, orderly, and disciplined people. We Germans are such a people. In France, riches and prosperity have destroyed the national virtues. The women refuse to bear children, and the men prefer amusement to self-sacrifice. It is a degenerate country. When we annex it to our Empire we will restore its ancient strength by crossing its race with ours. If they understood their own interests the French would hail our victory as a saving event. If they had been left to go on as they were doing, they would have fallen into complete decadence in consequence of their party divisions, their lack of moral sense, and their hatred of religion."

"I believe," cried the old lady.

"Yes," replied the German, "women of a certain age still retain their religious faith. It is the new generations which are corrupt. Paris acts like a gangrene upon the nation. In a week's time, when we shall enter Paris, we shall at once set about purifying it and re-establishing social order. Our Emperor has a sacred mission to fulfil: it is for him to save this distracted and effeminate race. . . . Political and religious strife has made France weak. . . ."

When the last troops had defiled, the general rose, and, still courteous, took leave of the owner of the precious bridge, promising to send her a souvenir from Paris.

The next day the Battle of the Marne began, and for four days the little town listened to the roar of cannon. The Germans entrenched in the neighbourhood tried in vain to advance towards the south, in the direction of Paris. Every hour processions of wounded men passed along the streets. The ammunition wagons at the farms were emptied with incredible rapidity, officers on horseback passed to and fro in every direction. The people complained of the robberies and brutality of the soldiers quartered in the houses.

"It was terrible," said the good lady. "And then?" we asked.

"One evening about this time the same general presented himself at my door again. He was barely recognizable. Very roughly, and without any greeting to me, he ordered the iron gate of the garden to be thrown open. . . . Four sentries were stationed on the stairs, and compelled us to take refuge on the first floor. At the farther end of the bridge a battery was placed. The troops, formerly so martial, began to cross the river and to evacuate the village with very unheroic haste. The officers uttered cries, urging the men on, and when one of them seemed incapable of going faster they beat him with the flat of their swords. The general, standing on the same spot where we had conversed before, was scouring the neighbouring plains through his field-glasses. In three hours all that remained of the enemy's army was on the other side of the Grand Morin. The last to leave was the general, accompanied by his aides-de-camp and his four sentries."

The lady smiled, cast down her eyes, and ended thus:

"I longed to ask him if he had forgotten to bring the souvenir from Paris he had promised me."


fields in the vicinity of Meaux - original color photo from 1914


Round About the Battle of Meaux

November 22

On learning that it was here, at Meaux, that the Germans came nearest to realizing their dream of taking possession of Paris, I have to make a geographical effort not to contradict my guide. True, before a map, one sees that the capital of France is only forty kilometres off, which, in our giddy days, means about half an hour in a motor-car. But who thinks of maps before these aged walls and in this venerable provincial atmosphere? Giving ourselves up to our impressions, we really felt much farther from the Boulevards than when we were at Bordeaux.

The cathedral shows its time-worn front in a silent square; the most ancient mills of France rest their grey walls on a mediaeval bridge; there is something about the market which recalls the old-world halles of Flanders; the Promenade des Trinitaires is like a cloister-garden; the narrow streets are peopled with dreams and shadows.

And if the setting is old and remote, the life that is lived in it is still more so. Take a seat at the door of any café, on any day, and you will feel as if you were looking at an old engraving. The citizens walk sedately to the various local fairs, while their wives and daughters make their way to church at the summons of the bells. There are no open doors, no flower-decked windows, no frivolous casements. Gravely and sedately the little town lives its little life without emotions and without temptations. The railway that passes through its station only stops to take in sacks of corn. The inhabitants as a rule prefer to use their traditional spring-carts to go to Château-Thierry, Lagny, La Ferté-Gaucher, or Coulommiers. As to Paris, it is a journey, as I have just been told by a miller who has not been to the capital since the Exhibition. On Saturdays the buyers go to the market to do business. Each carries a bag full of silver coins, and pays cash; the wine-shops are full of sturdy villagers who drink to seal their verbal contracts; the open spaces are blocked by horses; the young girls appear on the balconies to look at the young men of the neighbourhood; the aristocratic element repairs to the cathedral and kneels before the tomb of Bossuet. Wine causes songs to float upon the evening air, and at eight o'clock, when night falls, everything relapses into its gentle age-long calm.

Even the Germans could hardly wake the town from its dream with the thunder of their cannon. A dozen Uhlans arrived on September 3 in the cathedral square without having met a soul. Where were Monseigneur Marbeau's 20,000 parishioners? No doubt the majority of them had taken flight southward in their spring-carts. But the rest? After a long search, the Prussian captain found an open boot-shop, bought a pair of boots, asked if the bridge was intact, and then went off followed by his men. The next day the battle began in the outskirts.

A friend who had been here two months ago, and who was now accompanying me in my excursion among the grave-strewn fields, led me along the cold and misty highway, towards the ravaged villages.

"If you could have seen all this after the battle!" he exclaimed. "I was obliged to leave my motor near Crégy, because the road was blocked with corpses. ... I could never have imagined such a sight. It was horrible to see the poor soldiers, in impossible attitudes, their lifeless bodies still convulsed by the last contortions of their death-agony. I had to stride across them. Look over there, at that spot beneath the tree. There was a German there with his mouth open, showing his teeth as if to bite me, with a look of rage and hate that struck terror to the soul. Others, on the contrary, seemed to have died with pardon in their hearts, so gentle and peaceful were their features. . . . And the wounds! Holy Mother! ... There are shells which seem to mutilate men with an elaboration worthy of Mirbeau's Chinese torturers."

My friend ceased and gazed silently at the plains around us. Meaux with its towers lay below us, tranquil as ever. Of all the shells which burst hereabouts, only two or three struck it. Her cathedral and her mills are intact. This is because of the protection of St. Stephen, say little old women in black. The population of the neighbourhood suffered more; they probably had no saint to protect them. The batteries which were placed to the right of the spot where we were standing swept the whole region.

"They were up there," says my friend, showing me a piece of rising ground on the east, between two small woods of slender, quivering trees.

The whole plain was, in fact, under a hail of fire for a week.

We stopped at Chauconin, which I remembered as a gay and smiling little spot on the banks of the Butel, more interested in the price of its cheeses than in international politics. "It was in this village," wrote Arthur Young in the eighteenth century, "that I felt the real beauty of rural life in France." Now, alas, but a tragic memory survives of all that seemed destined to live on under the chestnuts, "a haunt of ancient peace." The little grey houses are in ruins; the Virgilian farms burnt to the ground; the quiet streets deserted. On the walls still standing, the flames have left their black traces and the Virginian creepers twist their charred and leafless limbs.

The same picture of desolation meets the eye at every turn on the road we are slowly travelling. . . . Here a farm in ruins, farther on a blackened chalet, on the horizon a truncated tower. . . . The inhabitants have not even the solace of cursing the enemies of their country as the authors of all this desolation. The French shells were no less cruel than the German shells. This is war! War, which has scattered tombs over plains covered yesterday with flowers; war, which has emptied the mills once so proud of their wealth; war, which has depopulated the poultry-yards in which the Gallic cock sang his eternal hymn to the sun! ...

Of Barcy, another rustic gem with its slender belfry and clematis- covered walls, nothing is left but a heap of stones dominated by the shattered spire of the church.

"It was at Monthyon," said my friend, "that I experienced the greatest anguish of my life. If we take this road we shall arrive at once, passing through the battle-field the whole way. . . . The Germans passed along there. . . ."

Graves, pathetic rustic graves, mark the fighting line in this valley. Each row of crosses indicates a trench. The little tricolour flags flutter in the cold wind as if making despairing signs to us. Here and there we come to a deep hole or a fallen tree. They are the marks left by shells. The side roads, which are very animated in normal times, are deserted. Even the flocks, one of the chief sources of wealth in Brie, have migrated to plains less ravaged by machine-guns. War has transformed what was an orchard into a burial ground.


"It was here," cried my friend, when we arrived at the entrance to Monthyon, " here, the cradle of the great philanthropist yearly commemorated by the French Academy; here. . . . It was evening, two days after the German retreat and at the height of the summer. . . . The heat was unbearable, and I had just come up the incline on foot. ... I would have given anything for a glass of water that was not Marne water, Marne water tinged with blood. . . . Suddenly, however, my thirst was slaked. . . . I saw nothing, neither shadows nor animals, nothing but empty space. . . . But from the street opposite came a sort of suffocating blast, something that seized me by the throat, filled my mouth with a bitter taste, and impregnated my whole face. . . . Never have I experienced such acute physical anguish."

"And what was it?"

"It was the stench of death."

My friend paused to draw a deep breath, still under the obsession of his past sensations.

"The stench of death," he repeated, "a horrible smell, at once brutal and subtle, something sharp and vicious, a breath that seemed to me almost palpable, a damp, thick, black exhalation. . . . Yes, black. . . . And I saw it coming towards me through space, and enveloping me, always seeking my face, and making a sort of spiral round my body."

Another silence.

Presently, turning to the road by which we had come, he murmured:

"Let us go. ... There is still a smell of death here."

We retraced our footsteps in silence, always among the graves. A cold, clear air, wafting the scent of dry hay, filled our lungs. The poor warriors are no longer rotting on the ground; they are sleeping in deep furrows. The yellow leaves rustle lightly in the tree-tops. In the distance the pale yellow sun touches with gold the clouds that float playfully across his disc. There is a melancholy peace in the landscape, suggestive of piety, calm, and kindliness. But my companion continues, fetching long breaths, as if to expel the last of the gruesome emanations that still torment him :

"And to think that at this moment there are many places, many, many places, in Flanders, in Austria, in Alsace, in Prussia, in Serbia, where other men are smelling what I smelt that evening."

When we arrived at Vareddes, still in the midst of graves and ruins, an old man came to meet us and begged in the name of God for alms for the poor of the neighbourhood. All are now poor, and all help each other. If the Curé were still with them, he would be the one to beg. But the Germans have carried him off, no one knows where, with other householders who could not or would not collect the sum that was demanded of them. The old man shows us a paper printed at Geneva, in which the names of these unfortunates, sixteen in all, are given. Four of them were shot at Coulombs. Others have written to the Red Cross Society from Erfurt. There are five, the Curé among them, of whom there are no tidings. "If only you could find out where they are!" The villager, no doubt, took us for persons of importance because of my friend's generosity.

"We, too, were rich," he said, "some more, some less; we had our gardens, our cows, our savings. . . . Now we have nothing. . . . We gave them all we had, to induce them not to burn our village. . . . When they went, they left us nothing but their wounded who could not walk, and instead of treating them as they deserved, we nursed them until an ambulance came from Meaux and took them away. The poor wretches were pitiable to behold when they were left behind; they were crying, thinking we should take our revenge on them. . . . The gentlefolks at the Château sent us things for them . . . though they had not much cause to be grateful to the Germans. . . . Fortunately they were not here during the invasion. The officers, who knew the district well, asked us if the owners of Gué had gone, and when we said yes, they were furious. . . . Just go and see how they left the Château. . . . They smashed everything. Everything . . . the fine tapestries that had come down from ancestors, the splendid furniture, the pictures that were brought from Paris every year, were all destroyed. They took the billiard table out into the park and used it for a target. It was terrible! ... When our people came back they found the table laid. The Germans had been about to have a meal, and they had brought up the best bottles from the cellar. ... A shell sent them off in haste and fasting. . . ."

The old man pointed to the north, to the spot where the Château de Gué stands, in the village of Congis. Then, looking towards the street of Vareddes, where we were, he concluded:

"After all, we haven't so much to complain of, in comparison with other places near here, where there is nothing left but ruins. Here, thank God, there was no fire. . . . The invaders only sacked the houses and carried off some of the inhabitants. . . ."

And, indeed, in the overwhelming misery of the invaded districts, those who have only suffered pillage consider themselves happy when they think of those who have lost all, even life itself, in the flames or under the shells.

Meaux, which seemed so melancholy to us a few hours before, presents itself to us as a very happy spot when we return to it in the evening. Its houses are intact and its inhabitants are not begging their bread. The ancient millstones are still grinding corn in its mills. The shops are open, and in the cafés people are discussing the latest news from Verdun, Ypres, and Reims. The housewives we meet returning from the Ave Maria have not the pinched, terror-stricken faces of the poor women who live among the ruins of the neighbourhood. The Germans who passed through one morning have left nothing but a memory, and no one fears to see them return. The provincial calm is unbroken. The city has resumed its life in the august shade of its Gothic towers, far, far from Paris, and also very far from the plains where other battles are raging. Only the venerable bridge, blown up by dynamite, still speaks of horror. But the town says resignedly: "This is war."


the chateau de Mondement - original color photo from 1914


The Ruins and Horrors of Senlis

November 25.

We are making our way towards Senlis through the defiles of the Forest of Ermenonville. The dry leaves spread a carpet under the trees which the wind ripples now and again. There are mysterious murmurs in the air, and a sigh seems to breathe through the foliage. What shall we find of the delightful town that we saw so often in happier days, dreaming its homesick dreams in the shadow of the old cathedral? ... To me, more than to the rest, this dread is full of infinite sadness. My companions merely recall spring wanderings on the banks of the Nonette, and cheerful rustic luncheons in the pleasant Valois gardens. But I have something of my life in this region of airy groves and slender spires and murmuring springs. Ah! Senlis, with thy white meadow gleaming through the thickets of the forest, Senlis of my bygone holidays, warm, sweet, idyllic Senlis, full of discreet smiles and indulgences. . . . God knows if anything will be left of all I loved there twenty years ago. Perhaps I shall find only ruins on the site of that hospitable inn on whose walls painters now famous portrayed their Muses in straw hats years ago. In a single day the city which centuries had overlaid with the shades of eternity was transformed into a heap of ruins. The views Parisian papers have been publishing for the last three months showing the ravages committed by the flames, and the significant title, "The French Louvain " printed below, make me fear heartrending visions of hatred and desolation. However, nothing could be less tragic of aspect than this district where the most graceful images mingle with the most exquisite memories. Even now, in spite of winter, willows and poplars retain the melancholy grace which made Jean Jacques Rousseau say, when he was dwelling at a hermitage near Ermenonville: "There is nothing so lovable as Nature." For here, indeed, solitude is "lovable," with its narrow valleys amidst the forest density, its quiet lilied pools, its frolic streams playing at hide-and-seek beneath the ferns. The fairies Gérard de Nerval met at evening, when he came to calm his nerves in this region, still lurk in the parks of the country- houses we see in the distance. Far below us we see the lordly mansion of M. de Girardin, visited by royal philosophers of the eighteenth century. Famous villages, sung by poets, pass successively under our eyes: Chaalis, Montlognon, Borest. . . . The little house of the author of "Emile" must be in one of the neighbouring thickets, so propitious to those who came in quest of poetry.

But, unhappily, this is not what we are seeking at present. The days of quaint meditation in the track of the lonely wanderer have passed away, and our vehicles, very unlike that which brought Madame Roland to Ermenonville, dash along impetuously that we may arrive at Senlis this same morning.

The forest has already disappeared.

In the middle of what the inhabitants of the Ile-de-France call "the desert," a desert of white sand studded with green oases, the towers of the cathedral rise before us.

We have arrived.

At the inn, where we draw up at the entrance to the town, an old review containing a fine historic study by Jacques Boulanger enables us to reconstruct in a moment what perhaps no longer exists. "We must wander under the ancient trees of courtyards and through the streets which have preserved their picturesque names, Rue Rouge- Maille, Rue du Heaume, Rue du Chat-Héret, Rue du Puits - Saint - Sanctin, the Rue aux Fromages, or the Rue aux Pigeons-Blancs. Was it not beneath this ivy-clad wall with its ancient milestones that Des Grieux paced, lamenting Manon? Did not M. de La Guéritaude lodge in this rich mansion with the sumptuous doorway? Here and there in a garden, at the corner of a street, in a cellar, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance reappear: here is the Hôtel-Dieu of Gallande and its lofty hall, the Inn of the Trois Pots with its carved sign, its angel, its milestones, its lofty façade of brick with stone string- courses; here is the fifteenth century--gargoyles and windows with flamboyant mullions; here the sixteenth--lintels with armorial bearings, pilastered walls, medallions. At the Carrefour de la Licorne which, thank God, has not been re-christened Place Jules-Ferry or Gambetta, an old sign displays three scholars arguing with a monkey, who holds a jug and offers them a beaker; farther on, the rampart still dominates the Fosse-aux-Anes, where the Leaguers made a breach in 1589; farther still, a red stump of the Roman wall seems to be hiding the blood of its wounds under the ivy; and suddenly, at a turn in the street, the spire of Notre Dame springs into view, adorning the sky like a flower born of the city."

We saw from afar that this spire was still intact, dominating the city. As at Reims, the enemy's cannon refrained from the sacrilege of destroying the airy architecture of the towers. But as at Reims, the roof of the sanctuary was set on fire.

The municipal officer who receives us tells with legal coldness what happened at the beginning of September. The tragic circumstances which placed a portion of communal power in his hands do not seem to have disturbed his provincial calm. The scarf he wears is still stained with blood, and traces of the terrible scenes enacted in his office are still visible. He, however, receives us as if we had come to ask him for a marriage certificate or a surveyor's valuation. And, to tell the truth, his simple, austere, and sober official dignity, far from shocking, pleases us. We feel at once that we shall not be told fantastic stories like those of some the pre-prandial customers at the inn poured forth to us:

"Ah! gentlemen," said these worthy citizens, "if you could have seen the horrors that took place here."

And interrupting each other every moment, they spoke of old women burnt alive, of little girls mutilated, of men buried in the courtyards of their houses, of priests strung up by the heels in the midst of their blazing churches.

The councillor expresses himself sedately as follows:

"After the battle of Crépy-en-Valois, when the English troops entrusted with the defence of this district retired southwards, the town understood that it could offer no resistance, and began to make arrangements for surrender. The Mayor, M. Odent, an upright and vigorous old man, in whom all had perfect confidence, was the first to resign himself to the painful sacrifice, without uttering useless lamentations. When a German colonel entered the town, M. Odent went out to meet him; he declared that the population, which was much reduced at the time, because of the exodus of the richer element, would refrain from all hostile action against the conquerors. The colonel, a rough Prussian, asked if he had published a notice enjoining his fellow-citizens to abstain from all dangerous manifestations. As all the printing works were closed, such a notice had not been printed. At this moment shots were heard in the neighbourhood. 'The inhabitants are firing on our men,' cried the Prussian, and, seizing his revolver, he added, threatening the official with it: 'If you move I will kill you.' Hereupon a Saxon patrol began to march through the streets, seeking the notable citizens to take them as hostages; and as they did not know the people, they arrested all they met in an absurd manner, poor workmen and rich tradesmen alike. Three citizens who tried to hide in a tavern when they saw the Germans were at once shot as suspicious characters. The women, hearing what was going on, closed their windows and hid in the cellars or garrets. An officer who had been sent out of the town to see where the shots had come from, came back in a few minutes saying that there had been an encounter between an English rearguard and a German advance guard. 'Never mind,' said the colonel, 'I consider this an act provoked by the inhabitants, and I hold the town responsible. The Mayor and the hostages will be sent at once to headquarters.' This order was carried out. More than twenty of our citizens, bound elbow to elbow, were marched to Chamant, preceded by our poor M. Odent. What happened there would be incredible if I had not heard it from those who survived the ordeal. An officer forced all the prisoners to lie down in the mud, and after hearing the report sent him by the colonel, gave orders to shoot a few of them on the spot. Another officer intervened, saying it would be better only to shoot the Mayor. On hearing these words, the Mayor rose and declared that he was quite ready to die, his one request being that they should spare the other hostages, who had done no wrong. The officer who had proposed his death approached him and shot him dead with a revolver; then, by order of the general, five others were executed. The survivors remained lying on the ground by the corpses of their comrades, until at nightfall they were released. The next day the Germans entered Senlis, and began to sack the houses. An army doctor, who was billeted on the arch-priest of the Cathedral, told the worthy abbé that his chief had determined to treat Senlis as they had treated Louvain. 'The pretext,' he said, 'is that the inhabitants fired on our soldiers; but the real object is to make an example, and terrorize the invaded districts.' The arch-priest hastened to the Hôtel du Nord, where the general was lodged, and offered his own life to save his parishioners from the horrors of fire. The officer to whom he spoke jeered at him, and advised him to go to his church and pray for the souls of Joffre and Poincaré. The truth is that most of these Germans were drunk. Not content with what they found in the cellars of the town, they sent to the Château de Chamant, famous for its stocks of old liqueurs, and got over a thousand bottles of old cognac. As to champagne, the number of cases they took from the shops is simply incalculable. The officers went themselves to fetch these, and made the owners carry them to their quarters, generally giving them a kick or two as sole payment. The rank and file were content to loot the taverns. Close by here, in the Rue de Paris, there was a rich owner of a wine-shop, in whose house a group of Germans established themselves for two days, to eat and drink their fill. When there was nothing left, the drunkards flew into a rage; they killed the master, an unfortunate man called Simon, and wounded his servant, one Vaner. At another wine-shop, a sergeant rode in on horseback and struck his head. When his comrades saw him covered with blood, they fired at the mirrors, and tried to kill the owner of the shop, but fortunately he was able to escape. But the most terrible day was that on which they had to clear out of the town at the approach of our victorious troops. They set fire methodically to the houses where they had been quartered. You will see for yourselves what horrors. And mingled with these horrors, as is always the case, there was something grotesque."

"On September 3, about eight o'clock in the evening, some soldiers who were passing along the Rue Apport-au-Pain singing, imagined they saw some men lurking in the workroom of M. Durand, a tailor, ready to attack them. 'Go into the shop and hold up your hands,' they cried. The mysterious men never stirred. Then the soldiers began to fire, but the more they fired the more stoutly the men stood their ground. At last a sergeant approached, sword in hand, and saw that his adversaries were merely the tailor's dummies. . . . There was a general laugh . . . but, alas! to avenge themselves for this irony of fate, the Germans set fire to the shop and killed the tailor. . . . The Press of the whole world has reported these murders, especially that of the Mayor. On the other hand, I have never seen the slightest allusion to the unhappy beings who perished as living ramparts for the Germans. When they entered the town the German soldiers seized every one they met on the road, and made them march in front of them, so that they might be killed by the bullets of the French garrison. The secretary of the Red Cross Society and the superintendent of the Hospital of Saint Vincent were also used as shields, in spite of their armlets, to enable the Germans to fire whilst sheltering behind them. . . . All these worthy people perished, there is no doubt. . . . Only one was able to get away, a publican named Bleuze, who was two whole hours between the German and French bullets. This device of parangons which no other civilized nation ventures to adopt in these days, is a good indication of that relapse into barbarism which marks Germany's conduct of war. . . . Drinking, looting, and burning are the elements of their campaign. ... In their frenzy they spare neither churches, convents, nor homes."

"The first night, a party of Prussian officers, after clanking their swords along the deserted streets, knocked at the door of the Convent of Saint Joseph. The Superior came to receive them in person, and, with perfect calm and dignity, refused to allow them to enter as they proposed. 'Pretty nuns,' they cried, 'pretty little saints!' and roared with laughter. Finally, seeing they would not be allowed to enter, they said they would go away if they could have a few bottles of champagne. 'There is no champagne here,' replied the Mother. 'Yes, yes, there is... in France there is always champagne, even in the convents. . . .' Suddenly there was a sound of galloping hoofs in the street. One of the officers went to the door and muttered: 'The general.' Then they begged the nun to close the door and hide them, as they would be punished if the general found them there. 'When he has passed we will go away without asking for anything,' they promised. The Mother Superior closed the door, and ten minutes later, when the street was silent again, she opened it to let them go away. But, in spite of their promise, they said they would not go without the champagne. The Superior gave them the bottles of quinine wine they keep in the infirmary, and thus induced them to take their departure. ' They were drunk,' said the holy woman by way of excusing them. It is true. They were all drunk, always drunk. . . . You shall see for yourselves what their drunkenness means. . . ."

We saw indeed. As at Reims, at Arras, and at Soissons, at every step in sweet Senlis there are traces of fire. Whole streets are now mere tracks of desolation. Everything became the prey of the flames: the noble buildings which preserved the memory of the glorious days of the bishopric, the admirable monuments whose emblazoned walls were the pride of the whole district, all that was splendid, and with it all that was humble, the little houses built with the fruits of years of patient economy, the almost rustic shops of the poorer quarters, everything, in short, which was within range of their incendiary bombs. But here the spectacle is even more dreadful than in other cities, for it is at once obvious that man rather than cannon, has been the destructive agent; that not war, but the frenzy of the barbarous horde is to blame. The army doctor told the arch-priest the truth. The Prussian generals had determined to leave an example in the plains of the Ile-de-France, no insignificant example like Courtacon; they decreed the mutilation of the beautiful ancient city, dear to the soul of the poet.

Ah! Senlis, fair Senlis, grey and peaceful, thou who in the midst of thy leafy groves, in the stately shade of thy mediaeval towers, seemedst like some Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, how little didst thou dream twenty years ago, when I was learning within thy girdle of ivy-clad stone my first lessons in melancholy, that one tragic evening the voice of the cannon would wake thee with a wild alarm. In thine endless reverie thou hadst many yearning dreams, but never any nightmare of war's alarms. Thou livedst in thy sumptuous past rather than in thy modest present; thou livedst drowsily, always cherishing forgotten images, always murmuring names that have lost their significance, and in thy desire not to be disturbed by the noise of trains passing through thine outskirts, carrying the fever of Paris into more active regions, thou madest thy bells sing unceasingly the delusive psalm of bygone splendours. Life seemed to have condemned thee to the slowest and gentlest of deaths. Thou, who still calledst thyself an episcopal city, hadst not even a bishop. Thou hadst only thine infinite peace, perfumed by the roses of thy deserted pleasances, only thine emblazoned walls. . . . But what harm did this mournful grace do to the world? What could life gain by breaking in upon thy dream?

As we left the town, one of my companions murmured, as if to palliate what he had seen:

"The necessities of modern warfare are terrible."

It would be truer to say horrible.

Mercifully, the forest still exists, intact, peaceful, and happy. Cottages sending up a smoke not . of arson, speak of the happy life of the fields, as. peaceful now as in the most distant centuries.

A wholesome, penetrating scent of damp earth rises from the thickets, amidst the rustling of dead leaves we stir and disperse. Old woodmen pass slowly, and seeing the rapidity of our motors, they stop and look after us, as if wondering why men can want to go so fast. In the evening calm something of Rousseau's spirit seems still to linger among the branches, preaching peace, kindness, love, and fraternity. Near Villemetrie, some very ancient ruins suggest a halt. Here, too, the memory of a war still lingers, of a far distant war.

"King Philip-Augustus," says the chronicle, "built this abbey to commemorate the Battle of Bouvines." And before the immense ramparts harmoniously destroyed, not by flame but by time, the chivalrous figure of the great Capet appears as if to show how different war was in those centuries which knew neither shells nor melinite nor repeating rifles, when kings fought like soldiers. On August 27, 1214, Philip-Augustus, sitting on the rim of a fountain, was quietly dipping his bread in a pitcher of wine, when Robert La Truie announced to him that the Emperor of Germany, Otho IV, was approaching with his allies, the Flemings and the English. "They won't let me eat in peace," cried the king as he sprang to the saddle. And he added, smiling: "They shall pay me for this, by the help of Messire Saint-Denis."

Shortly afterwards the battle began. The Germans, when they saw the King of France at the head of his knights, bore down upon him, lance in rest. "The good King," writes Guillaume le Breton, "brandished his sword to right and left, and always advancing through his enemies, he overthrew those who were surrounding him in great numbers, and went on, cleaving a way before him, and seeking Otho, until one man, more daring than the rest, severed the meshes of his cuirass between his breast and his head. The point of the sword, wielded by a vigorous hand, penetrated so far that it grazed the skin, and the King, wishing to pull it out, recoiled, but he was unsuccessful in his attempt, and measured his length on the ground. Stretched out in a place unworthy of his lineage, he had no rest, for the horses bruised him and the barbarians harassed him. His natural strength, however, enabled him to rise and mount his horse again, with the help of his followers. Hereupon Otho arrived on the scene, followed by his fiery Germans. Philip-Augustus put spurs to his steed, and, full of rage, threw himself upon the infantry that had unhorsed him. Robert La Truie wounded the Emperor's charger, and it rolled over with its rider. Gerard von Horstmar sprang to the ground, and offered his horse to Otho. Oh, noble German knight, all honour to him who thus sacrificed himself to save his master! Otho took flight, and behind him, that his shame might be less, the Saxons also fled. The King of France made the Count of Flanders, the Count of Boulogne, and the Earl of Salisbury prisoners, and carried them to Paris, where he was received in the manner befitting a great conqueror."

This page, recalled now, in the very plains where the troops of the Emperor, the heir to the crown of Otho, have passed, leaving no chivalrous traces, is even more depressing than the ruins of Senlis, because the memory of those distant days suggests a ruin more disastrous than that of towns: the irreparable ruin of souls which can no longer show generosity in the midst of tragedy, as in the days of our forefathers.


ruins of the chateau de Mondement


The Germans at Coulommiers

November 27

To those who come from Meaux, Vareddes, or Barcy, Coulommiers seems an exceptionally lucky town in the midst of the tragic plains of the Marne. The Germans passed through it, the Germans lodged in these houses, the Germans established their batteries in these regions. And yet there is nowhere the slightest trace of violence. Every one is at work, smiling and peaceful. In the streets the women are talking of fairs, the price of cheese, the weather, while their children play on the footpath. In bygone days, it seems, the castle and the fortifications gave the village a sombre and sinister character. All that remains of these ancient defences are ruins gracefully draped in ivy. Its very church, once a fine one, which might have evoked memories of the days when the soldiers of the League committed so many excesses, is a mere shadow of what it was; its tower is mutilated, its walls are crumbling. What indeed is the past to the positive and practical villagers of the twentieth century?

Milking their famous cows and cultivating their rich gardens, they live neither envied nor envious, and even at the most tragic moments they boast of having better luck than their neighbours.

"The Germans?" they exclaim when they are questioned. "Yes . . . they stayed here a few days."

But no one makes the desperate gestures we noted in other places. No one laments, no one utters loud complaints.

Why, indeed, should they complain? When the English who had charge of the district saw the enemy advancing, they might have tried to resist, and then the storm of shells would have fallen on the roofs. Happily, the English went off, saying, "We will come back, never fear." And the German troops entered without firing a shot; instead of making themselves unpleasant they established themselves quietly in the places allotted them by the Mayor.

The innkeeper who serves our luncheon in the Place du Marché is a perfect type of the amiable provincial, talkative, obsequious, and jovial. Gulping down a glass of wine at our invitation, he relates his experience of a month ago with ingenuous humour. To have seen von Kluck, already almost a legendary figure, and Prince Eitel Friedrich, son of the Emperor, is not given to every mortal. Here at this corner they passed twice on foot, followed by a brilliant escort. And how haughtily they carried themselves, from the old general to the youngest sub-lieutenant! It cannot be denied that these warriors have a lofty bearing, nor does our host attempt to deny it. No, indeed! Tall of stature, with gleaming helmets and clanking swords, they marched as if on parade. When the private soldiers saw them they became motionless as stone statues, holding their breath. The women came to the windows to see them pass.

"But," I asked, recalling the ungallant or over-gallant stories we had heard elsewhere, "were not the women afraid of such terrible men?" The innkeeper laughed:

"Why, they came out and danced the polka with them here in the market-place!"

Then, more discreetly, he corrected himself: "I mean the light women, of course." Honestly, when I heard this I was greatly relieved. The thought that William II's soldiers had everywhere behaved like a horde of barbarians was a real grief to me. Yesterday, after a sad pilgrimage to the battle-field of Champaubert, when we were trying to forget the monotonous horrors of actual warfare by evoking Napoleon's epic campaigns, our cicerone brought us up near the Chateau de Baye. The crosses planted thickly over the plain showed that the struggle had been very fierce just here. At every turn we came upon a burnt farm. The picture, indeed, was the same we had looked upon for a long time past in that fair and hapless region, where one of the most tremendous conflicts of the age was waged last September. But it was neither graves nor ruined farms that our guide wished to show us, but the Chateau itself. There was nothing strange in the exterior. Its high walls rose intact, dominating the seignorial park. On the other hand, in the interior all was desolation. The antique furniture, relics of past generations, was lying in disorder about the galleries. The glass cases were broken open. Empty bottles lay in heaps on the stained carpets.

"Madame la Baronne has given orders that nothing is to be put in order yet," said the woman in charge.

And taking us into an empty room, she showed us the following letter, written by the Baronne de Baye to the Temps two months ago :

"Breaking open all the numerous glass cases in a gallery 45 metres long, the Kronprinz stole everything, weapons, priceless jewels, medals, precious vases, chased gold cups, and all the superb presents given by the Tsar to M. de Baye as mementoes of his missions to Russia. From the Museum of 1812 he stole admirable icons, sketches, and miniatures, etc. He carried away those things which have a value above all others, souvenirs. He had the best of the furniture and pictures packed up, selecting them with a taste and knowledge astonishing in such a Vandal, but in his precipitate retreat he had to leave the last cases behind him. Our old servants, who remained staunchly at their posts, were weeping. Something of their souls was being carried off into Germany. God did not give the Imperial housebreaker time to murder them in the chapel, which he had not time to burn."

"Did you see the Crown Prince?" we asked the housekeeper.

"I was not here at the time," she replied.

"But those who were here, did they see him, did they speak to him, how did they know it was he?"

"Among those who occupied the Chateau for five days there was a young officer, tall, slender, and excitable, whom all the others treated with marked respect."

This was all the caretaker could tell us. And in spite of the zest with which she made us read her mistress's letter once more, she was not able to convince us. A young, aristocratic officer is not necessarily the heir to a throne. In the great moral agitation caused by invasion, the people of the district are obsessed by the most illustrious names. In all the villages and in all the towns, the men and women imagined they had recognized famous marshals. The shadows of von Kluck and von Bulow are in the humblest corners. "I saw them," say the people. And they proceed to sketch the portraits of blond warriors, proud, arrogant, and brilliant. As to the Kronprinz, whom all the world accuses of being the true author of the war, he is to be found in a hundred places at once on the same day. "He was there with his Staff," murmur the peasants of Vitry-le- Francois, showing a formidably entrenched cavern in which the fragments of a field battery are still to be seen. "It was here he stayed," cry the citizens of almost every town, pointing out the most imposing house in the principal square. Circumstances excuse all these fantastic ideas among the populace. But it seems to me very surprising that an Ambassadress, a great lady, a distinguished woman who has been received at European Courts, should assume, when her servants tell her of a young fair officer whom other Germans treat with respect, that this was the Imperial Prince. In normal times Parisians would smile at such innocence or such irresponsibility. Nowadays the Crown Prince has thought it essential to his honour to give the Baronne de Baye an answer in the course of a conversation with an American journalist. "I am not a burglar," he said. Of course his word cannot be doubted for a moment. The housebreaker was another young officer whom the servants of the Chateau took for the heir to the throne because of his suite. Whoever he may have been, the traces of his pillage are there to testify against him. And whoever he may have been, his conduct saddens those who would fain find a noble soul in the warrior.

The painful impressions of the Chateau de Baye are pleasantly dissipated at Coulommiers. True, the newspapers spoke of thousands of bottles taken from cellars without the permission of their owners. But this was nothing. Goethe himself, in his reminiscences of the campaign in France, admits that at Somme-Tourbe he was unable to resist the temptation of looting in a cellar filled with generous wines, thus imitating the soldiers of the Duke of Weimar. What is really terrible and almost incredible is the methodical mania for killing and destroying of which the invaders were accused in a great many towns. Of this fury happily no trace is to be found at Coulommiers.

Our cheery innkeeper has nothing but praise for those who were his customers for three days.

"At this very table," he said, "an army doctor used to take his meals; he spoke French perfectly, and kept on telling me how miserable it made him to see all the horrors of war. He was an excellent fellow, very delicate looking, with gentle eyes. When I asked him how his countrymen could set fire to towns, he replied that war is a horrible thing, and that all men are savages when they fight. According to him, traces of the horrors we committed at an earlier period are still to be seen in Germany, in the Palatinate. I saw the campaign of 1870, however, and I do not remember the Prussians behaving then as they have behaved now in Belgium."

The innkeeper smiled slyly, and looking at us with a knowing air, he added:

"You know, the papers tell dreadful lies. For instance, they said that here at Coulommiers we had been exposed to the fury of the enemy. What will they say next? The woman who takes care of the house where General von Kluck lodged complains of having been insulted. Well, do you know what the insult was? It was this: the general, hearing that the woman had two sons in the army, sent for her and told her that as soon as William II was proclaimed Emperor of France, he would take her two sons under his protection, and obtain commissions for them in the German army. If I had been in her place, I would have made fun of him to his face and thanked him. Raillery is the best method with the Boches. Forty soldiers came here who tried to be insolent at first. One of them, seeing me eating a piece of meat, came to my table, and asked for it. I paid no attention to him. He showed me his sword, and I told him I, too, had had one in my youth, in 1870, and that I had made good use of it in Alsace. However, as my man began to be rather troublesome, I went out and called an officer who was crossing the market-place. If you could have seen what happened! The officer came in and applied a sound kick to the posterior of the swashbuckler, who at once ran out of the house. All the others became as gentle as lambs. My friend the army doctor told me that I must close at nine o'clock or I should be fined. At nine o'clock I clapped my hands and all the Germans went off after paying me religiously with French money. For it is not true that they didn't pay.”

The tobacconist declares that they took all his best cigars and never gave him a farthing. “So much the worse for those who don't know how to take care of themselves. As for me, they owed me nothing when they left. At the hour when the general's band came to play in the market-place, the soldiers did not dare to come in here, because the officers were sitting outside listening to the waltzes. They are in terror of their officers, poor devils! Seeing that I talked to a captain just as I would to the humblest private, they would stand gaping at me in astonishment. 'In France,' I said, 'a general is just the same as any other man; we are not slaves.' They all questioned me about Paris, asking if they would be well received there, if it was true that all the boulevards were full of gay cafes, and that all the women were pretty. When they found a post-card with a view of the Champs Elysées or the Place de l'Opéra, they looked at it thoughtfully and put it away among their papers as a relic, thinking, no doubt, that in a few day's time they would be able to send it to their sweethearts from the Place de la Concorde. I was laughing to myself, for I was sure they would never get to the capital, But, of course, I said nothing. The doctor had advised me not to enter into unnecessary discussions. Ah ! that good doctor! God knows what has become of him. When our victorious troops were approaching and von Kluck went off in his motor-car in a hurry, the doctor came to see me, and said, trembling, that things were going badly, very badly. He sat down there, and in a minute he swallowed a whole bottle of wine to the last drop. 'Badly, very badly,' he repeated. Soldiers were passing between the carriages, and horsemen were galloping to and fro, carrying orders. The officers were shouting. We heard the roar of cannon in the distance. All of a sudden we saw a battery taking up a position at the cross-roads, here at the corner of the street, not at all to my satisfaction, I can tell you. But a quarter of an hour later a sergeant came and spoke to the artilleryman. The battery was at once removed. Only the doctor remained, still murmuring: 'Badly, badly.' I felt sorry for him, thinking our soldiers might arrive any moment, and I advised him to fly. You should have seen his face when he went away and saw that the square was empty."

"But the other inhabitants of Coulommiers," we asked. "Do you think their memories of the occupation are as painless as yours?"

The innkeeper seemed to reflect.

"The others," he murmured. "Well, I don't know. You can see the town for yourselves. Not a pane of glass missing."

It was true ; neither a pane of glass nor a smile. Always affable and always animated, Coulommiers continues her life, a rich, busy, and gay little town. The young girls come to the windows to see us pass, and the goatskin motoring coats we have put on to cross the frozen plain make them smile with gentle irony. In the half-ruined tower of the church, a bell makes its youthful, very youthful, voice heard, vainly calling the faithful, who assuredly prefer to stay at home, meditating on mysteries less profound and more positive than those of religion.

My companions, who are looking only for the traces of shells and for memorial crosses in the neighbourhood of the Marne, feel a kind of disillusionment in this place where nothing dramatic happened, and where there was neither fire, nor blood, nor terror. "All this is not very interesting," they seem to say as they look at the uninjured streets. But I, on the other hand, feel so happy that I could almost believe my soul to have been inoculated with something of the innkeeper's jovial soul. A town which has seen dread war at such close quarters, which has been invaded and redeemed, and where not a single drop of blood was shed—this is indeed unprecedented and admirable. Thrice blessed Coulommiers!


ruined farms and villages - original color photo from 1914


The Fields of Ruin About the Marne

November 30

For a whole week we have been going over the region in which the vast tragedy of the Marne took place, and everywhere we meet with the same surprising spectacle ; a spectacle of desolation, mourning, and misery, mitigated by the incurable smile of the French race. Sublime French nation, which still has strength to smile even in the most agonizing days of its history, when the invader still treads its soil, when the flames he has kindled are still devouring its treasures, and its fields are still strewn with corpses. A promise of victory illuminating the soul of the country has sufficed to make all, men and women, old folks and children, forget their sufferings and open their hearts to hope.

"Now," say the peasants of Brie and Champagne, after describing all they went through three months ago, "now there is no danger of their coming back again."

And this thought consoles, encourages, calms, and fires them. Even avarice, the great fault, or perhaps the great quality, of those who water the earth with the sweat of their brows, disappears in the present upheaval. All they have they offer, so that the struggle may be continued, and final victory assured. They have given their sons, and this is a good deal. They have given their corn and their horses, which is more. If a difficult day should come, they would give their old tarnished silver pieces that they have kept from generation to generation, hidden in some corner of their cottages, safe from temptation and greed. The great white oxen of Pierre Dupont's song are no longer the most precious treasures of these people. Above these, the selfish individual possession, rises France, sacred France, whose blood is flowing.

A little while ago we stopped at Allemant to see from the heights the immense marshes in which the Prussian Guard perished so pitiably and so heroically. Captain Vallotte, our learned and courteous cicerone, explains the manoeuvre which enabled the French troops to hold the German rush towards Paris at this point, thanks to their artillery. For five days the little village was swept by a hurricane of shot and shell. In the plain, right away to the horizon, rustic crosses mark the graves of those who are resting in eternal sleep, after giving their lives for Emperor or Republic. Gradually, as in the other places we have visited, the children of the neighbourhood come up, a little uneasy at first, and surround us. The oldest of the group, a boy of ten with large clear eyes, and a girl a little younger, pretty as a wild flower, point out the emplacements formerly occupied by the cannon.

"And where were you," we ask, "while the battle was going on?"

"Hidden in the cellar," they say.

"So you could not see anything."

"Oh! yes, we did," murmured the little girl. And the boy, looking slyly at us, added: "When maman was asleep, we went out to look at the firing. It was like lightning and thunder, but much worse."

"What did you do for food?"

"We had plenty of everything, because we had not given anything to the soldiers, then. Now it is different."

There is not a village now that does not freely offer the little it has to the men who are fighting. The admirable wave of fraternity that in the higher political spheres has converted the most divided of nations into a band of brothers, manifests itself in the most touching forms in the modest existence of the people. The rifle and the bayonet no longer inspire any fear among the poor. In the meanest homes, on the hearth that comforts the labourer, the best places are kept for the piou-pious, that they may dry their red trousers as they gaily tell stories that would have made the listeners tremble with fear a few months ago, and now seem to them ordinary, almost insignificant events. The bravery and love of martial adventure which a half-century of peace seemed to have stifled in the hearts of the people, awake once more at the sound of the cannon, with all the charming inconsequence and all the good-humoured generosity of epic days. How true is Gustave Le Bon's theory that all races, in spite of their apparent transformations, are essentially unchanged throughout the ages! At a farm this morning an old peasant showed us the bullet-marks on the tree-trunks. Bent and wrinkled, he seemed incapable not only of vigorous effort, but even of physical endurance. And his hands trembled as he felt for the holes in the bark of the apple-trees. His voice quavered and he spoke haltingly.

"As I do not see very well," he said, "I did not distinguish five Uhlans who had posted themselves under those black poplars, and I wondered where the devil the bullets could be coming from. My old wife, who is very timid, thought they would come through the door and kill us both. Every shot rang through the garden and made the poor soul shiver with terror. I said to her, 'You mustn't be so frightened, old woman. You know I was in the thick of the firing, too, in 1870, and nothing happened to me. Everything is in the hands of our Lord Jesus Christ.' But she could not take her eyes from the window, and she asked me if the door was well fastened. 'I will go and see,' I said, and I went out there. Scarcely had I set foot in the garden when, bang ! I felt a blow in my side! At first I did not realize what had happened. I thought some one had thrown a stone at me. Then I felt something warm and saw I was all wet. Well, thank God, it is only a scratch, I thought. It was a bullet that had gone right through me here, at the waist. When one is old one doesn't want to die. It is not like the young ones, who don't know what the world is. And then my old woman has no one but me, now that our son is gone. 'It's nothing,' I told her; 'don't be frightened. I'm just going to see after the fowls.' And I went off to the house of my chum, Felix, at the back here, and there they nursed me. I was in bed a week ... and now I am all right again."

"Did you suffer much?" we asked.

"No," he replied; "the Germans couldn't kill one of the old 1870 lot; if they come back here I'll soon send them about their business."

And then in a firm voice he added:

"But they won't come back, after the race they've had to get away."

Everywhere we found that the peasants looked upon the retreat of the Marne as a shameful rout for the Germans. In vain do the officers who pass through explain to them, with the noble candour of the cultivated Frenchman, that it was not a rout, still less a flight, but a hurried retreat after five days of disastrous but honourable fighting. The masses do not understand these subtleties. Having seen the troops of von Kluck and von Billow retiring in disorder, their uniforms plastered with mud, their faces tense with terror, all their carts and wagons crowded with wounded, they feel that there is no doubt about the matter.

"If you had seen them when they were confident that they would get to Paris, how haughtily they marched out, and then how they came back, running like hares, looking round every minute, you would have laughed at the change in them," said our interlocutors.

The saddest part of all this, however, is that all these visions of herosim and joy vanish when one sees the ruins heaped up along the highways, and listens to the stories told by the poor women in mourning who have sought refuge in the towns; when one lingers in the fields thick set with crosses, or notes the fragments of bridges on the river banks. Ah! how different is war seen from afar with its grandeur, its splendour, its theatrical beauty, its stirring trumpet calls, from war at close quarters with its miseries, its atrocities, its flames, its heartrending deeds, its dead, rotting in deserted trenches. Even now we have just had a horrible sensation on one of the battle-grounds of the Marne. Captain Vallotte was pointing out the ingenious arrangement of some trenches which are still open, in which soldiers, hiding to fire, had cut little benches to sit on. As we approached a small wood, in which a few crosses marked the graves of those who had fallen gloriously, we saw two huge dogs run off. Mr. Jessen, the Danish correspondent, who has seen much of modern warfare, said:

"In Manchuria and in the Balkans, everywhere I have seen these same famished dogs looking for corpses to devour them."

And the crows! The whole country is covered with dusky flocks ! Behind the armies here, as in India, the birds of death hover in endless flights, waiting for their gruesome feast, and croaking to celebrate the absurd folly of man.

The captain calls our attention to the pious care with which the French people dig and adorn the tombs of its heroes to guard against profanation. At every turn of the road, among the great wounded trees, improvised graveyards stretch away as far as the eye can reach. On every grave there is a cross, an inscription, a bunch of wild flowers. The peasants have collected the soldiers' red kepis and hung them on the crosses. Here and there a little tricolour flag flaps in the cold winter wind. From a distance the burial-ground looks like a field of poppies. And they are all alike ; all have the same look of icy desolation. What was yesterday a granary of life is to-day a charnel-house. In their religious respect for death, the peasants do not sow the seed where they see the crosses. Accepting the loss of corn next year, they bow their heads and pray in silence.

What a sinister peace reigns in what was once an orchard ! We, too, breathe a prayer on this sacred ground. On those of this land and of the land beyond, on all those who fought and fell, on the poor little soldiers who perished under these skies some evening like this, and will never see their homes again, Our Father, which art in Heaven, have mercy! And if the great tragedy which defaces Thine handiwork provokes Thy wrath, visit it not on them, who offered the holocaust of their lives on the altars of an ideal, but call to account those who armed their innocent hands! . . .

Ah! after all, perhaps the dead are not the most to be pitied! The sons of these regions who will return some day victorious will find nothing of the villages that they left. These villages have become mere heaps of ruins. The churches where their mothers prayed for them have fallen to the ground. No one knows what has become of their parents, their friends, their betrothed, or even if they are still alive. War has passed like a torrent over the rich lle-de-France. For hours, for whole days, we have beheld the scene of desolation. Here there is nothing at all left ; the wind has carried away the very ashes; and yet there was once a happy village on this spot: Courtacon.

Down there a tottering tower overhangs a heap of ruins; not a roof has been spared, not a wall has remained intact: this was Ribecourt. A little farther the river carries off in its current the remnants of another village, like the flotsam of a wreck. And below, in this dismal valley, what do we see?

It is Champguyon, blackened, gutted, tattered, looking like the worn-out scenery of a theatre, Champguyon, which used to be considered a sylvan Paradise, hapless Champguyon, beloved of painters. What grief we feel at the sight of it! But we must not linger among its charred farmsteads. There is no time to weep over each ruin. There are so many!

Poligny, less wretched than its neighbours, for a few of its houses are still intact; Charleville on Marne, with its dismantled church; Oyes, deserted, black and dead; Creil, Choisy-au-Bac, Sommesous, peaceful Le Recoude, where not a single shot was fired, but which the Prussians burnt house by house and farm by farm, with roars of laughter; La Villeneuve with its beautiful church, only the blackened walls of which remain; Chatillon-sur-Morin, a nest of poets and painters, a little idyllic corner embowered in vines, where, alas! even the vines have been burnt ; Borest, near Senlis, tragic Borest, which looks as if it had been overturned and shattered by an earthquake; Reuves; Berverie; Esternay, demolished from end to end, as if in fulfilment of some Biblical malediction; Chauconin; Senlis; Barcy, enchanting Barcy, whose church was a gem, and is now but a tower pierced by projectiles; the Chateau of Mondément, where the Prince Imperial stayed for two days, and which now looks more like a farm abandoned after a catastrophe than a lordly mansion; the ancient Abbey of Saint-Gond, the ashes of which are still smoking.

It is impossible to move without encountering a ruin.

We pause for a moment in the middle of a garden, to see through a window what had happened inside a sumptuous villa. The flames apparently did not reach it. We notice a piano, the varnish of which still glistens, and a glass case, only the glasses of which are missing. The most heterogeneous objects, however, lie shattered on the ground ; dishes, vases, statuettes, silks, dresses, watering-pots, travelling trunks, books, saucepans. What criminal hands can have dealt thus ruthlessly with the nest of this rich family?

The answer is always the same: The Germans.

But is it possible that a great nation which has given scholars, poets, and legislators to the world, should have come in the fury of contest to outvie the hordes of remote centuries in futile barbarity? Is it conceivable that men who study at Heidelberg, print at Leipzig, invent at Berlin, and trade at Hamburg, men of gentle manners, who are touched by the woes of "Werther," and tremble as they listen to "Parsifal," should fall into the most odious excesses of bestiality?

No, I will not believe it. I wish not to believe it.

And yet the dark, mute witnesses stand there in the plains of the Marne, showing the marks of flame, pillage, and cruelty. And if the autumn rains had not washed away the pools of blood!

When we emerge from the fields of ruins and penetrate into the places that were not burnt, the smile on the faces around us seems to me almost criminal. To smile in the face of all this mourning! Yet it is not for lack of feeling. When they recall the horrors they have undergone, there is not a face that is not convulsed. The vision of murdered peasants will never be effaced from their minds. But there is something among the inhabitants of Brie and the Oise akin to what one sees among shipwrecked persons who, after losing all they possess, manage to save their lives. And there is also what Rudyard Kipling calls "the invincible shield of France," her smile, which is not a sign of weakness, but of strength, the smile which hides great griefs and incites to great deeds, the smile of Voltaire when he destroys, of Bayard when he dies, of Renan when he suffers. Sublime people, how little they know you who, contemplating you among your ruins, do not realize that your smile is the divine flower of true heroism.


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