- from Harpers Weekly February 26, 1916
- 'How Paris Gets the News'
- by Henry G. Dodge
Making Sense of the Censors
the entrance to the censor's bureau in Paris during the war
"Artillery actions in the Vosges and in Artois. Comparative calm on the rest of the front."
Not very detailed news, but there have been many days since the war began when Paris has received no more than this. Sometimes, when the infantry have been active, it is a little longer, with more detail, but one never sees the big type, the three- column-wide stories or the scare heads of the American journals. Just a frame with the words, "Official communiqué, th day of the war" and the few terse sentences issued by the Chief Censor. It is meager, but you know, at least, that it is true. When the censorship was established at the beginning of the war, M. Messimy, the then Minister of War, in a letter to Arthur Meyer, the editor of Le Gaulois, gave assurance that though the official bulletin "might not be all the news, it would be invariably true news," and there has never been a moment since then when the confidence of the Parisian in the ministry's reports has been shaken.
We, in America, who are surfeited with war-news, who skim over detailed stories from all the theatres of war, at our breakfast table, can hardly realize how eagerly Paris awaits and devours her daily crust. In the American papers the official report is tucked away on an inside page and few of us trouble to read it. We get too much news. In Paris it is practically the only fresh news of the campaign on the western front. The man in the street reads it, and it alone, and then throws his paper away.
The communiqué is issued at three o'clock in the afternoon and in the evening. The afternoon news is posted in front of all newspaper offices and public buildings and in the windows of many restaurants and stores and it is always surrounded by an interested though undemonstrative crowd. Later you buy your Intransigeant or la Presse, and, at a marble-topped table in some sidewalk cafe, you read and digest the news again and perhaps discuss it with your neighbor at the next table. And often, "Nothing to report," will provoke quite as lively a discussion as the taking of a trench or the destruction of a Zeppelin.
It is the open sesame to conversation for the homegoing crowd in the late afternoon. The guard in the subway looks at the front page over your shoulder as he punches your ticket, and comments upon the news. The handsome old lady in the tobacco shop, where you stop every evening for your package of Marylands, no longer volunteers the time honored formula as to the vagaries of Parisian weather, but says instead,
"Always the same thing, this beast of a communiqué n'est-ce pas, monsieur? These stupid duels of artillery put us no nearer to Berlin."
And the soldier on his furlough who borrows your paper in the cafe, though he shrugs his shoulders at the statement that there has been no infantry action, is nevertheless resigned, if not optimistic.
"What would you, monsieur, these devils of Boches are underground like rabbits. But wait a little. Our Papa Joffre knows which way the wind blows. We shall see."
Even the cabby, the sphinx-like, occasionally unbends to the extent of inquiring for the news, and if you know the species, you will realize that this is interest indeed. It takes an accident to draw from him, in ordinary times, more than a gruff "Bien, monsieur."
The communiqué is not always the dull, prosaic story of artillery duels and grenade- throwing. There have been big days in Parisdays whose news will never be forgotten. There was the day of miracles in September, 1914, when the Franco- British troops, after their dogged retreat from Mons almost to the gates of Paris, took up the offensive and began that gigantic struggle which we know as the Battle of the Marne. The report of that day's work was meager, but it recorded the halting of the German advance. Can you imagine how a city which had prepared for a siege, and perhaps a sacking, would receive the brief report that it had been saved?
There was the dark day in January, 1915the Kaiser's birthdaywhen the Germans, after a four months' deadlock along the Aisne, crossed the river again near Soissons, and, though they left thousands upon the frozen ground, won back a part of what they had lost in September. That day's news gave Paris a bit to think about.
The best news that Paris has heard since the Battle of the Marne, she heard this autumn when Joffre decided to try the strength of the German line in Artois and Champagne. On Saturday night, September 25th, I dined with several newspaper men at Hubin's, a little restaurant patronized largely by journalists. The talk was all of the imminent offensive. For days the French artillery had been pounding away, over the heads of the infantry waiting in their trenches, at the enemy's position beyond the barren No-Man's Land that lay between the lines. All Paris knew that the infantry was only waiting the word,that all this artillery preparation had but one object, the paving the way for an advance. And though the afternoon's bulletin had been almost barren of newsjust the old story of continual bombardmentyet every man of the little group at Hubin's felt that we were on the eve of a great piece of news, the news for which Paris is always eageran attack a la baionette by their adored infantry.
All day rumors had been creeping in from no one . knows where,unofficial news that gained strength as it ran,that the advance had been made and that the German first line positions had been taken by storm. These rumors had been on everyone's lips when the meager three o'clock news had been read, and we at dinner discussed them, certain, with the superstitious certainty of a "hunch," that the big news would be out that night.
A little before ten we started for the Ministère de l'lnstruction Publique in the rue de Grenelle across the river, where the Chief Censor has his offices, and where all official news is first given out to the press.
The streets were almost dark after we crossed the river, for we were not far from the Eiffel Tower and the Military School, and few lights are permitted in the neighborhood of military structures. The entrance to the ministry was quite dark as we came up to itso dark that we almost walked into a carriage that was waiting at the curband we picked our way under the archway and through the vaulted passage into the wide stone-paved court, where at last one little light burned, over the doorway leading into the Censor's offices. The court was full of automobiles,official cars of one sort or another, with their khaki-clad soldier-chauffeurs negligently rolling cigarettes as they waited for Colonel This or Senator That, who were conferring with Mr. Somebody Else in some inner room of the ministry.
The courtyard of every public building in Paris has always, in these days, its quota of waiting staff cars. Where they are going, whence they have come, and on what mission, one never knows, and the cabalistic lettering on their hoods makes you none the wiser, but somehow they always give one a feeling of security. Things are being accomplished. Things are being done quietly and quickly. The car is waiting. An officer hurries out from some doorway, and without a glance to the right or left takes his place. The chauffeur cranks up, springs to his seat and the huge gray car glides through a dingy archway into the crowded boulevard. To the Ministry of War? To the Elysée? To Havre? To the front, perhaps? What does it matter? Things are being done, and the army is on the job.
In the stone porch, under the single light, were the rear guard of the assembled correspondents, and the hallway inside was packed with them, waiting for the opening of the swinging doors that led into the room from which all France learned the news of her armies.
It was as cosmopolitan a crowd as you would meet in a Sabbath day's journey. There were, besides the representatives of all the Paris papers, a most heterogeneous assortment of newspaper men from almost every neutral and allied European country,Russian, English, Italian, Spanish, Swiss, Swedish, American. All the prominent news agencies were represented, several New York papers, and the most prominent French provincial dailies. And every man was earnestly saying the same thing to his neighbor in all gradations of good or bad French, the scholarly, impeccable French of the Parisian, the broad, labored French accent that means a Britisher the world over, and the sibilant, exotic-sounding French of the Spaniard. "I dined tonight with the Chef du Cabinet of the Minister of . . . and he assured me . . ." or, "The Embassy told me this afternoon that," . . . or, "Colonel X said to me unofficially not an hour ago, that" . . . And all the "tips" were the samethe advance had begun.
There came the throbbing drum of a motor, as a big gray limousine swung into the courtyard. The Chief Censor stepped out and walked hurriedly through another door into the building. The talking ceased and the crowd expectantly turned their faces towards the mysterious leather doorsofficial-looking, swinging doors, flanked on either side by red-braided, white-belted gendarmes.
For a moment no one moved, and then the doors were thrown open and we filed silently into the antechamber of the Chief Censor's office and took our places, standing, around the great, green, cloth-covered table. The door of an inner room opened noiselessly and closed again behind someone who held a sheaf of typewritten sheets in his hand.
"Gentlemen, the communiqué is published," was all he said, but his smile told us far more. The sheets were passed around and the news was out. There had been no anti-climax in our day of waiting. The British troops had successfully attacked Loos and Hulloch and gained a footing in the enemy's trenches at several points. The French in Champagne had stormed the German front between the Aisne and the Suippe and had occupied their first line trenches along the whole front attacked! And at the end of the page were the heartening words, "Our progress continues."
After days of ceaseless artillery preparation Papa Joffre had let loose his infantry and had found that the Germans were not invincible. The news was brief, but it was what Paris had been waiting for. The next two days told us more of detail, of prisoners, of guns captured, of further progress, and second and third line trenches taken, but it was enough for Paris to know that night that the long expected attack was succeeding.
The news was too good and too important for any display of excitement among the newspaper men. The suspense of the days was over; the news was out; the expected had happened. For them, that was the important point. They hurried into the street with their reports in their hands and dispersed to their offices, already planning the form of the morning article. With the foreign correspondents, I ran to the Central Telegraph Bureau, where the dispatches were sent to New York, London, Rome and every corner of the globe. All telegraphic messages sent out of France must bear the visé of the police, or the stamp of a ministerial or administrative military official, but as our typewritten sheets already bore the stamp of the Ministry of War when they were distributed, it was only necessary to write an address at the top, a signature at the bottom and push them through the wicket, like ordinary telegrams.
The press had the news, but I had yet to see it received by the people. After leaving the telegraph office, a few of us stopped at a moving picture theatre on the boulevard, just in time for the last film of the evening. As the lights came up at the end, and before we could leave our seats, a man appeared on the little stage and held up his hand. He was holding a sheet of paper, and every man and woman in the house knew instinctively what was coming. Then, in a breathless silence, we heard for a second time the few concise, glorious paragraphs that told of one of France's great days. At the closing words, "Our progress continues," a storm of hand-clapping and "bravos" burst forth from pit and gallery. There was no hysteria, no shouting, no ebullition of that proverbial Latin frenzy which, before this war, we were too ready to associate with a French crowd. There was just genuine, proud, heartfelt applause. Voices from all over the house were calling, "La Marseillaise!" "La Marseillaise!" and when the poor, improvised wartime orchestra struck up the opening bars of that miracle of songs, the house stood to a man, and sang it as I have never heard it sung before, in victory or in defeat. Then they filed quietly out into the street. "Good news," said every man to his neighbor, and there was much hand shaking and smiling. And in every face you could see that the unshaken confidence of France in her army, and the unspeakable loyalty of the fathers and mothers and wives of those at the front had received but an added spur and a new encouragement.
Perhaps the lack of hysterical excitement was only natural. Perhaps they were thinking of the awful cost of good news such as this. An offensive always costs dearly, and maybe many in that theatre crowd had lost sons or husbands in Papa Joffre's experiment that day.
That is how Paris receives her good newswith a splendid confidence, a sane and beautiful enthusiasm, and a deep realization of the price she is paying for it. Next to being good losers, which the French have shown themselves to be, there is nothing so admirable as to be good winners.
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