- 'Impressions of Paris and the Marne'
- by Harold Ashton,
- from his book 'First from the Front' 1915
French soldirs guarding Paris during the early days of the war
Rush, scramble, scurry; the Boat Express, jammed with soldiers and their kit Folkestone packed with a flower garden of gay, rich fugitives taking the air under crimson and blue sunshades ; at the harbour, bayonets gleaming in the hot sunshine; the steam siren of the Channel packet screaming, and at the gangway a charming lady whom I know, her face grey and her voice urgent imploring.
"Boulogne ?" says she. "For heaven's sake do not attempt to go there ! My husband has just returned with terrible tales! The Germans.
Ah ! these terrible tales ! Moonshine, surely : for when I get to Boulogne in the evening glow, all is quiet; gay bathers are laughing and rollicking along the Plage; the little gendarmes with their absurd-looking "red flannel" trousers are lounging about with nothing apparently to do ; and at the station a pleasant official smiles and says, "A Paris, M'sieur ? Oui, certainement! The train is going almost at this moment. En voiture, M'sieur ! These tales of alarm are just tales of alarm. They mean nothing pouf ! A pleasant journey, M'sieur ! "
A pleasant journey ! For the time, perhaps, yes ! The Countess X-----and her husband are my fellow passengers. We engage in a game of three-handed bridge; we gamble riotously to pass the time, for my pockets are abulge with hundred-franc notes to carry me through the siege of Paris and I do not care. Siege, forsooth ! The nearer we get to the Gay City, the more ridiculous this tale of investment becomes.
"Pray, join us at déjeuner at Maxim's to-morrow," says the Countess.
"I shall be delighted------"
The train stops with a sudden jerk, as French trains always do. The gold-topped scent- bottle of the Countess falls with a crash upon the floor. We are at some wayside station. The door swings open. Clamour, clamour, clamour upon the platform! A wild surge of people civilians and soldiery. A French officer staggers into our carriage. His face is bloody and bandaged. Two of his finger-nails are torn away. Upon his heels come others, fear stamped upon their faces. A young peasant woman with a tiny baby at her breast is the last to be squeezed into our compartment. I surrender my seat. "Merci, M'sieur! " The baby stares, owl-eyed, upon us all. Silently the mother weeps.
The Countess gathers up the cards. "We will continue our game at a time more opportune," says she.
Dawn. At Gournay station. Another battering, clamouring crowd of fugitives. Out of a tumble of grey cloud the sun climbs, angry, with a bloated face: not our own mild, sweet September sun of placid England, surely, but some bibulous, reckless relation, intemperately roaming heaven.....
England, the dear homeland, seems thousands of miles away. Is it conceivable that only a few hours ago I was in the quiet little garden in Maida Vale, in a deck-chair and dreaming over Denys ? I pinch myself ; but the dream, if dream it be, remains. War is beating her wings all around me. I climb, stiffly, out of the carriage and mingle with the medley. Line upon line of troop trains crowd the junction. Horse-boxes interminable, each box labelled "Hommes 48 ; chevaux 8," and scored in chalk upon the woodwork rough jests of war, caricatures of the Kaiser in all manner of ridiculous poses, and ever the inscription "A Berlin, a Berlin !" Soldiers and horses rammed in together amid the straw; the men hot, sweating, dusty, but cheerful enough. These men and I are sworn brothers in next to no time. My arm is sore with the tremendous handshaking I have to go through ; all my cigarettes have long since vanished. Slowly the troop trains move out of the junction, in a wreath of blue, caporal cigarette-smoke. The French army smokes my good health "Bon voyage, and a safe return" as it moves off to war. A Berlin !
Six hours, at least, to wait at Gournay whilst the soldiers are shoved through, to fling themselves, ardent and throbbing, around their beloved capital. This is not good enough for me ; so I bow au revoir over the jewelled hand of the Countess, her gold-topped cut- glass and her diamond studded bridge marker, and set off "A Paris !" by another way by road. A long detour southward; roads astream with fugitives, the white dust rolling, rolling; all quick progress barred; no food, no drink, the bibulous sun now mad drunk, fuming overhead. All the world upside down and demented.....
Strange, what little turns and twists our fancy takes in times of sore stress. What was I thinking of in this dreary, dusty plod citywards. The wounds of war ? A fair city trembling behind the thud of alien siege-guns ? The bloody-faced French officer with the torn finger-nails ? No! I was working out in my mind again and again the play of that last bridge hand with the Countess X------in the Paris train. A battery of French artillery swung splendidly by in a fantastic whirl of dust. A few short hours ago I should have been thrilled and stirred at the sight of it. But now so speedily does one's mind and body merge into the prevailing atmosphere I moved out of the way of the grinding wheels half unconsciously.
"Ah ! I've got it at last! If only I had finessed the knave of spades------!"
Next evening. Still outside Paris; but northward this time and close to Chantilly, the famous racing headquarters of French sport. A wayside inn the Tavern of the Cochon d'or. Everything quiet, peaceful, dreamy, beautiful. Bonny hostess. A meal for the very gods up in Olympus. Delicious soup ; a rare omelette ; bifteak (actually!); patisserie melting in the mouth; vin rouge; coffee; cognac; tobacco.
Madame : "Is it true, monsieur, all this we hear of the war, and the danger to Paris ; the bombs of Le Boche------? "
Myself : "True ? Well, there are tales, madame; I am beginning much to doubt them; but anyway, here you are safe !"
Madame : "Assuredly, m'sieur ; nothing ever happens here Rien rien ! Ennui is our daily fare! If you are going to Paris, and should be at any time near the Rue du Havre, I have a brother, m'sieur. ... A thousand thanks ! Bon jour !"
I turn down the lane. The arrow-head on the signpost points to Paris so many kilometers. By moonrise, I shall be there: an easy, pleasant journey. . . . Why, I wonder, cannot they cook and serve in England such delicious meals as the one I am now digesting ?
At the next cross-roads the sudden clatter of many feet; whips cracking, voices shouting. Another cavalcade : the strangest I have yet seen. A pony-chaise, drawn by a perplexed thoroughbred three-year-old. In it a man and a woman; behind, all manner of lares et penates loaded up; still further behind, a string of racehorses swaddled in their rungs and pack-saddled with other household goods. I stop the driver and ask him he is a square-faced Yorkshireman what in the world is up !
"Oop? " says he, and his tired eyes seem to smoulder through the grime on his face. "Oop? The devil's oop; and there's ragin' tearin' hell goin' on a few miles away !"
A man of few words, this Yorkshire trainer ; but he crams a whole volume into them. Uhlans raiding Chantilly. Bridge blown up with a roar that set all the horses screaming and kicking. Drawing-room window smashed to smithereens. Stables raided out beyond the town. Two-year-olds collared for light cavalry work "Dom'd lot o' good they'll be for that job ! " Aery-o-plane overhead marking the clear road. Yorkshire trainer and missus, with their treasures wrapped up in a horse-rug, shove La Princesse into the shafts of the chaise and do a quit double-quick. Germans (the raiding patrols scouting for a clear run to Paris) close behind. Mile further along the road a handful of English Tommies hiding in the ditch with two or three machine-guns screened behind the nettles and the keck.
"Hi! " says one brown-faced Tommy to the trainer. "You English ?"
"Ai! " replies the Yorkshireman. "And who are the blighters comin' on behind French ?"
"No ; Germans !"
"By------! " says Tommy. "Out of the way, and let's have a smack at the s. Out you get sharp !"
Out they get sharp ; and in another minute they hear the withering cackle of the maxims, " like ten hundred thousand bloomin' tin cans being rattled with pokers " screams of torn horses cries of mutilated men; and over all the triumphant psean of Tommy "Give 'em hell, boys ! Give the blighters what for !" They get "what for" the blighters. Those who can, turn tail and tear off. Others are floundering and writhing in the dust now turned into a horrible mess of red mud. The Taube aeroplane, with a flick of its nasty fishtail, soars away into the sunset. The situation is saved.
- Paris preparing for a siege
- CHAPTER VI
- An Army Marching to War
Paris at last. Not the old gay, jubilant Paris of my fond and frivolous memories, but a city trying hard to smile and looking very dejected over it. It is evening. The gaiety of the boulevards is turned down to a mere glimmer. Streets beyond are dark; houses shuttered, lights out; every shop closed and sad-faced concierges squatting on their doorstep. I lose my way in these once familiar streets; but presently find a friend who pilots me back to the boulevards. By this time the night is black overhead, pierced with millions upon millions of twinkling diamonds. Athwart the sky, with measured rhythm, the silver sword of the great searchlight on the Eiffel tower flashes its blade high over the quiet city searching, searching heaven for the roaming night-hawks of the investing hosts of Germany massed somewhere and nearer than most of the citizens dream beyond the city walls.
My friend quiet, lazy, fat, and well-filled with the good things of this world takes me by the arm. "Come, mon ami," says he, "we will dine together on the meagre siege rations at the Brasserie Universelle. There you shall tell me the news. In Paris we have no news no news of the war, anyway. We might as well be in Birmingham or Bedford. You are a traveller arrived from the world of moving things. You will be welcome !"
At the Brasserie I meet the same familiar crowd, all babbling over the trifling boulevard news of the day. They ask me, as a voyager of war, the news from the battlefields. I tell them briefly for I am utterly weary the little tale of my Yorkshire trainer, the raiding ride of the Uhlans down the white road beyond Chantilly, and the murdersome business of the English Tommies in the ditch with their rattling machine guns.
"Chantilly ?" murmurs my fat friend. "Pouf it's all a fairy tale you're telling us. It's no good trying to pull our legs in that way."
They all laugh and won't believe a word. And, after all, why worry ? The hors d'oeuvres in that snug little room upstairs are as good and as abundant as ever they were.
Paris again next day, and the next. Quieter than ever. No bomb-dropping aeroplanes ; no thudding of machine guns; no Uhlans dashing along the Place de l'Opera; no excitement; no theatres ; nothing to drink after 9 p.m.; Paris tucked up and asleep in bed at ten fancy that! This is no place for me ! I am off again to look for War.
crowds in paris gazing at a passing Taube aeroplane
It is far more difficult to get out of Paris than to get into it. They are cutting down the trees in the Bois de Boulogne, carrying them out beyond the barriers to screen the newly-dug trenches. The gates are sentinelled. A yellow pass from the Minister of War, now in safe retreat in far away, sunny Bordeaux, is luckily for me the open sesame to the locked and guarded portals. A mile out I am stopped by the flicker of a too-familiar bayonet. So I must try another way. How and by what means never mind. I am away at last, beyond the sentinels and the trenches screened with the drooping boughs from the Bois, tearing along the white, smooth roads north-westward to the realms where excitement reigns. Peace still peace ; the summer sun flaming overhead ; the apples ripening in the long avenues ; cattle browsing in the fields; peasants singing about their daily business. No mutter of war ; not even a fish-tailed Taube cruising amid the clouds. The day advances; the long, white roads stream past. Presently I am in the cool, green aisles of the outskirts of the Foret de Crecy. Peacefuller and quieter than ever ! Cock pheasants, gorgeous in their early autumn plumage, race along the roadside, keeping pace with my automobile until, with a half-human laugh, they dart into the undergrowth. We swing round into another glade. By magic, the scene is suddenly changed. I run, full tilt, into the French Army miles and miles of it, moving along the forest road with never a sound beyond the rumble of the heavy wheels of the artillery, and now and again the clink of scabbard upon stirrup iron.
You at home who read this may perhaps like to know what it is to see an army marching to war. There is little thrill in it; no visible excitement, no clamour of bands, no waving of banners, no singing. The men save their breath to cool their pugnacious porridge. Their eyes are not ablaze; they do not hurry they just simply lope along, at the easiest possible pace, slack-shouldered, smoking, and uncannily silent. But, somehow, there is a look in their eyes that is unfathomable. What visions do they see ahead ? Each man has his own, but it is neither a vision of fear, nor of regret, nor of anything troublous you may be sure of that! Just a dream, with a little flash now and then of the peaceable homestead left far behind; the wife, the sweetheart, the child, maybe and at the back of it all the throb to be home again with this dreadful war over and done with.
The thunder clouds roll up. The storm bursts. Down comes the rain, torrent upon torrent of drenching thunder shower. Silently, silently, they grope through the rain, these men of the Western Army. The cavalry horses, led in pairs with saddle and bridle stowed away in the rear (to ease their burden until the call comes to dash into it), are most dejected and downcast, with the rain running in small rivers over their hocks, their manes dripping, and their skins ashine.
The guns are mackintoshed and swaddled as jealously as if they were tender young ladies braving a trip through April showers. Then comes the endless string of wagons packed with stores and food and ammunition motor vans, lorries, motor buses with the tops shaved off, taxicabs ticking off fortunes of twopences which will never be collected and, anon, a steam engine bearing the famous agricultural men of Aveling and Porter, lugging along an astonishing circus of things. This sudden glimpse of Sanger in a wilderness of war makes me smile, in spite of myself. Indeed, the whole procession reminds me of a circus jogging along contentedly, as I have seen it many a time, from town to town between fair and fair.
To-morrow, next week any time apparently would do for this strange conglomeration of mankind, animals, and machinery to get there. Yet, everything is timed to the minute. Festina lente "hasten slowly" is the signal motto of every moving army : hasten slowly until you get to the fighting front, and then------
- CHAPTER VII
- The Piteous Pilgrimage
On the way to Gournay a shining, splendid morning, with all the preliminary bustle of war around me I halt on the roadside, back my car to the shade of a cool linden tree, open my pack of stores, and have a light agreeable luncheon: sardines, crisp, crusty bread, a slab of delicious Brie cheese, a stick of Plasmon chocolate, and a tin cup of blazing hot coffee from my companionable thermos flask (a friend, so often in need, that never leaves me). We sit by the roadside, chauffeur and I, the only civilians, apparently, in all this strange alluring world of soldiers, soldiers, soldiers soldiers and guns and gear and horses and consider the situation. We have maps of the road, but no news of the war at all. All we know is that in some wonderful way the huge, terrible juggernaut of the Prussian hordes has been checked at last in its terrific swoop upon Paris ; that all around the city guardian troops are pouring in to quell the invader, that miles upon miles of trenches are being flung up, the too-daring Uhlans " finding a way," like Sentimental Tommy, through the romantic glades of Chantilly, driven back, and that the Prussian, gripped at last, is grinding his teeth, and fighting desperate and bloody rearguard actions amid the leafy roads leading down to the valley of the Marne.
Where to venture next I had not the slightest idea. The French officer who presently rode up to ask my business (he was excessively polite and nice) was just as mucfi in the dark as I.
"What do you think------? " I asked. The captain shrugged and spread out his white hands.
"Monsieur," said he, "the soldier is not allowed to think. When he is at war he is a man no longer : he is a machine just a little, little cog in the wheel of affairs. And he is quite content to be that. He simply obeys. He has no anxieties, no trouble of any kind. I have none ; the men you see marching and riding by along this dusty road have none. So, bonjour, m'sieur, and a pleasant journey wherever you may be bound ! "
He salutes gravely, and rides on.
I turn to my chauffeur. "Well, my friend, and what is your idea of the situation ?"
Max takes in a huge draught of caporal tobacco-smoke, blows it out through his nose. "M'sieur," says he, "the chauffeur who is engaged by his patron at two francs a kilometre is not paid to think. He is a machine, m'sieur a little, little cog in the great wheel. ..."
I cannot help laughing at the dog.
Well, well, so be it! Here is the map; we will try the line on the north of Paris. Gournay, at any rate, is accessible.
At a wayside station I said good-bye to Max and near dawn next morning I was at Gournay in a wonderful silver blaze of moonlight a night of amazing peacefulness and calm. The train I was in was bound for Beauvais, but at Gournay it was held up by a long string of Belgian engines coming in from that sad and shattered country.
"You can go no farther," said the station-master. "Beauvais is impossible !" So we all got out there were not many of us and herded together on the platform, with no idea where we were going next or how we were going to get there. There were a few soldiers with us, and the good citizens of Gournay formed a circle around us, bared their heads, and sang with tremendous gusto the "Marseillaise." Next, a halting verse of what I was able to recognize as "God Save the King," and then a sudden silence.
"Boom boom boom !" the guns were thudding northward over the mist which lay in this lovely Normandy valley like a fairy shroud. For three nights now friends and foes have been fighting in the moonshine. . . . I asked the stationmaster where the noise of this battle came from. He said Crevecoeur. There and at Conty and at Breteuil the extreme left of the Allies was holding the line, and had been holding it for several days. At Beauvais, too, desperate things were happening, or were just about to happen.
I spent the night on a bench in the little station hotel. The small boy who served my supper of most excellent chicken and red wine asked me wonderingly where I was going. I said I wished to see the gallant French fighting at Beauvais. But how to get there ? Not a train, not a cab, not a bicycle, not a motor, and the way nearly thirty miles------
"Not an auto ?" said the lad brightly. "Well, m'sieu, I believe there is one. An auto, m'sieur, with four wheels, even if only one cylinder out of three will work, is a treasure now. The soldiers come and borrow that treasure and redeem it later when the war is over, at good interest. The auto I tell you of is nearly broken in half, but it can go like fury if I can only find Jules for you. Jules and the auto are both in hiding- But there is a way. Go to sleep, m'sieur, and at seven in the morning mad Jules may be here ! Bon soir, m'sieur."
And, to my astonishment, at seven in the morning, there was mad Jules at the door and the nearly broken-in-half car and all and two cans of spirit to feed it. Champagne the very finest dry champagne is cheaper than petrol hereabouts in these days. But it had to be done.
Jules, with whiskers sticking all out over his face like black pins in a pincushion, drove like a sheer madman. His name was appropriate enough. We whirled along through the streaming sunshine over the white, dusty roads at fifty miles an hour, free enough, and with all the way to ourselves for a time.
But, swinging to the north, we suddenly ran into bands of retreating pilgrims making their way to the coast. They came along the selfsame road which saw the retreat of the fugitives in 1870.
It was a striking picture. They were nearly all women and children and boys boys too young to fight for their country. A few old men, bent and gnarled with the toil of a life- time, were with them here and there, but the women were doing all the work of the cavalcades. Here came wagon after wagon, some drawn by gentle, uncomplaining bullocks, and others by teams of four, and sometimes six, horses, yoked by huge, heavy chains.
The wagons were carpeted abundantly with straw and wheat wheat swept wholesale from the fields by the way. On the straw lay and rolled and tossed the babies, amidships. Forward, the mothers wielded their heavy whips, urging the sweating cattle on. Aft were stowed and stacked the household gods pots and pans, clocks, pictures, perambulators, chairs, cots, chests of drawers everything and anything, in fact.
Crates of fowls were swung under some of the wagons very astonished looking birds, most of them falling over one another as the vehicle lurched, flapping their wings, squawking and quarrelling among themselves. Strange it is how the long-forgotten fancies come back to one at such times. I was reminded by these bewildered birds of the nursery story, absolutely forgotten since early childhood, of Henny Penny and Cocky Locky. Mistress Hen meets Master Cocky in a strutting adventure along the dusty road :
"Where are you going, Henny Penny?"
"I'm going to tell the King the sky is falling."
"May I go with you, Henny Penny?"
"Oh, yes, Cocky Locky."
One old granny sat up, prim and proper, in her favourite chair, which was lashed firmly amidships in one wagon. She swayed a bit as the lumbering conveyance jolted along, but she was fairly comfortable, screening the sun from her long solemn face with a huge gingham umbrella. Across the valley the guns began to thud; the old lady just jumped a little that's all. She was getting used to this sort of thing.
Anon, there would be a halt by the roadside, with the teams drawn up out of the way of the passing show,, and little parties of fugitives grouped under the trees and picnicking. Plenty of bread and cheese, sweet Normandy butter rolled coolly in a cabbage-leaf, red wine (always red wine !), and perhaps now and again a new-laid egg found in the straw at the bottom of the basket-crate under the wagon.
And so this procession passed on in amazing motley. Nobody seemed to be actually scared, though they could hear the growl of the distant artillery. They were taking their time in their journey absolutely unaware that the Germans were very near them. They picnicked and bivouacked and slept on the roadside and now and then some of them sang. ... I shall never forget the sight as long as I live.
- CHAPTER VIII
- Beauvais the Bold
Jules steered us by these patient, sun-baked pilgrims with great care, wagged his whiskers, and waved his unoccupied hand cheerily to them as we sped.
We ran into Beauvais at breakfast-time. As we entered the town at one end, the French garrison, which had been occupying it for the past ten days, left it at the other. The cavalry, looking very smart and trim, clattered gaily over the cobbled streets, by the beautiful cathedral; the artillery rumbled off, gun after gun, into the open country, and by ten there was not a single soldier in the town.
The population wrung their hands and ran clamouring to the Mayor, asking what they were to do. What was the meaning of this retreat, the withdrawing of those invincible guns, which had been hauled at so much cost of vigour to the green heights above the town overlooking the valley, through which the Germans were expected hourly ? Nobody knew. There was some significant meaning in it. Eh ?
"Keep calm, everybody !" cried his worship, and issued a proclamation forthwith, declaring that everything was all right, that tranquillity existed, and would exist, and that business must be carried on as usual. Forthwith everybody bolted and barred his windows, and then poured into the streets.
Gallant, brave, beautiful Beauvais. In the turmoil of desperate things, just as she was near six hundred years ago, when Charles the Bold besieged her, ungarrisoned (as she was to-day) with an army of 80,000 Bur-gundians ! In 1472 the citizens boldly closed their gates and maintained an obstinate resistance until succour arrived from Paris. The women then played chief part in the defence of their darling city ; they guarded the walls and shared all the perils of the men. Jeanne Hachette, a fair fearless lass, whose statue still stands in the Market Square, appeared upon the breach at the moment of the fiercest assaults, seized a Burgundian standard which a soldier was endeavouring to plant on the walls and hurling the bearer to the bottom, bore it off in triumph to the town. This was on October 14,1472, and every year on the Sunday nearest to that date a gay procession marches through the town to commemorate the event.
When I rode into the town, with all its fit men away at the war, the garrison fled, and the raiding Germans near at hand, this thrilling history was within an ace of repeating itself. The city was calm courageous drums were rolling at the street corners, the women thronged (the Beauvais maids are fair and fearless still, though centuries have passed) and all listened, heartened and cheered, to the proclamation of the Mayor bidding the citizens keep good courage. "Open your shops, your houses, your cafes, citizens ! All's well! "
And as the little drum rattled its bold music, eight regiments of cavalry rode away hard for Crevecoeur and Breteuil, where the line was still being held. I found that the railway through Saint Omer-en-Chausse'e and onward to Albarcourt was in the occupation of the French. Due west of Formerie the road was clear, and the glad tidings came through that our left was fighting hard to fall back steadily on a plan long ago conceived, to the banks of the Oise.
That fine stand is now history. It marked, on our western wing, the turning point of the war.
"I do remember an apothecary. ..." Before I leave Beauvais I must tell you the story of Monsieur X-------- the little chemist who lives in the street of the Golden Moon. There is an old proverb which reads, "The apothecary's mortar spoils the luter's music." Here is a proof of it.
Monsieur X does a lot of district doctoring in the pauses between rolling pills and dispensing draughts. He is a rotund little man with a red, plump face, and a button nose upon the knob of which rests securely the bridge of a huge pair of spectacles. Behind the lenses a pair of childish blue eyes stare innocently. But he is adept at his art. His is a prosperous business, and he has a motor-car. He was out bravely enough, on one of the days when the hosts of Midian were prowling round and round the country, and came suddenly upon an English soldier sitting at the roadside nursing a wounded foot.
"You'd better look out, governor ! " said Tommy, after the good-natured little pharmacist had banged him up and hoisted him into his car, "there's a couple of them------Yewlans about here. So, unless you want to lose your car, hop it, matey, hop it !"
The apothecary was somewhat puzzled at the phraseology of his newly-found friend and patient; but he understood the drift of it, particularly as at that very moment they saw the raiders two of them riding easily through the trees down by the river, scarcely a mile away. So pharmacist and fighting man performed a judicious turning movement swiftly into the town, told the tale there, jammed a hood on to the car with a couple of men with rifles under it, and "hopped" back again, the plump little pharmacist driving slowly with sublime and splendid innocence, with the afternoon sun flashing heliograph messages from the lenses of the large gold spectacles.
Presently they came upon the Uhlans, who held up the automobile with their usual fierce high and mightiness, and declaring that they had lost their way, demanded to be shown the direction, or------!
They spoke perfect French. They leaned over the saddle-bows of their swift horses; they produced their maps slung from their shoulders in neat leather cases with mica fronts. Which way had the French patrols gone ? Surely they had been here or hereabouts yesterday------?
The cavalry, the guns------?
The plucky pill-roller, without more ado, suddenly dropped his steering-wheel, produced an antiquated weapon from behind his seat and blew a hole, big enough to put your two fists through, into one of the horses. There followed a fierce, but harmless volley from behind the tilt, and a minute later two astonished and furious Uhlans were riding together as prisoners on their one surviving charger toward the peaceful capital of the department of L'Oise.
They were immured in a fine old stone mansion under the shadow of the cathedral, and there remained on show until an ambulance lorry arrived in the city and carried them safely southward to Paris.
Between the two large coloured bottles in the chemist's window to-day stands a relic of that exciting afternoon a Uhlan's spiked helmet, and underneath it written neatly in M. X-------'s own hand, a prescription label bearing the words :
A mort les Boches !
As for Monsieur X-------- himself, he was promised a prominent place in the great procession of October 14 or thereabouts. You may be sure he had it.
a map showing the Paris fortifications
- CHAPTER IX
- The Retreat of the Epicures
I have returned, by force of circumstances, to the Gay City for a time, anyway. Paris is bearing up. Most of the shops and very many of the houses are closed and shuttered. The rich man has packed up his traps, and with his men-servants and maidservants, his oxen and his asses, the wife of his bosom and the children that are his, has slipped away either southward whither the Government has sped, or to the more pacific watering-places on the south coast of England.
The siege of Paris is bound to come, so I am assured by the babbling boulevarders whom I find still squatting in their favourite niches outside cafe and brasserie, like cathedral saints : more, perhaps, like gargoyles. ... It will not be a starvation business, like the historic investment of '70. It will be speedy and astonishing, and no doubt disturbing. The patriotic citizens who are staying to see it through declare with all their hearts and souls that if the Germans do ride in under the mask of their great guns Paris may surrender herself but she will do it street by street, inch by inch, and die gloriously in the doing. But I don't think it will really be anything like that. We shall see.
Meanwhile, it is a dreadfully upsetting fact that you can't get a good dinner now at the Café" ------f world-famous for its- choice fare.
Many Parisians notorious in the city for the gods they make of their stomachs have been staying behind, simply because there is no place in the world so completely, so sumptuously satisfying as the Cafe ------. The food yesterday was well, suspicious. To-day some of it was"really bad. The panic of the gourmands began. It spread along the Avenue de l'Ope'ra, it clamoured across the broad boulevards, and it died away in the booking-hall of the gloomy station of St. Lazare, where many fat gentlemen with handbags were bidding good-bye to the gay city for ever, with first-class single tickets for London.
We laughed at them as they waddled off.
There is still some comedy left in this gigantic drama. If there were not, it would be unbearable. So we go back to the cafe after seeing our gloomy-avised Falstaffs away and proceed to drown their sorrows and float ours in foaming beakers of café au lait.
I am indeed sorry, messieurs," says the tall garcon, as he bows before us, " but there is no more milk to-day. Even the cows are fighting for us. . . . If messieurs will be content with tinned milk . . ."
The comedy carries on most engagingly, and the second act opens with Alphonse producing from under his apron a case of Monsieur Nestle, which he brandishes triumphantly with one hand. With the other he flourishes a sardine-tin opener.
"Ah !" says he, jabbing furiously at the tin, "if this were only the neck of Wilhelm . . . ! "
Before the dinner-knell rings out the balcony of this particular cafe fills up with a dirty, bedraggled, tired-eyed lot of men who, like the armies beyond the city, are "resting" for the week-end. Fleet Street in Paris ! Here we all are again, back from the tumultuous torrent of war from Lille, St. Quentin, Amiens, Beauvais, from Breteuil and Crevecceur, Pontoise, and Compie'gne, and other places on the map which are making fresh history.
Here we all are, hustled and harassed left-wingers flung from pillar to post, tossed from Uhlan to Chasseur, and back again. No use for war correspondents in this war ! The army of the Allies French and British alike but particularly British is rounding us up and heading us off with threats of imprisonment, fines, confiscation of kit and motor- car. Some of us (how impossible it all seems here in semi-careless Paris !) have actually looked down, flinching or not, according to our kidney, the cold steel of a rifle barrel. Others have been collared by Uhlans and kicked ruthlessly out of the way. We don't brag about it : we have to grin and bear it. Not a man jack of us but has lost most of his baggage. Not a man with a whole sock to his foot or a clean collar to his neck. That extraordinary thing called the journalistic instinct has brought us all back to Paris for a brief spell, and the chance of a bath and a shave.
The bath costs half-a-crown ; the shave two francs. I have them both regardless. I buy a new hat a trifle too friskily Parisian for my fancy a new pair of boots, and then as I wander lazily across the Place de la Concorde I suddenly remember the countess in the train, the three-handed bridge gamble, and the invitation to dine at Maxim's. So I cross the Place and make my way to that palace of delights.
The blinds are down, the shutters clamped across the windows. The house is as grimly deserted and lone as the House of Usher.
Ah, la pauvre Comtessef
- CHAPTER X
- The Corporal of the Foreign Legion
He swung into the café a fine tall young soldier, stiff-shouldered, erect; his dark eyes afire.
"Jean !" he called, beckoning the fat garcon who was slithering along with a tray full of aperitifs.
"Jean ! the usual."
"Monsieur," replied the waiter. " But I do not know------" Then suddenly the light of recognition dawned. "Tiens! It is not possible. But but, it is! Monsieur a soldier! Wonderful! The usual ? Oui, monsieur, certainement! It shall be produced instantly !"
This was the Café Nepolitan, where the authors, the journalists, the poets (alas, 'tis a sad time for Parisian rhymes and epigrams now !) foregather every evening, each in his own seat, reserved absolutely for him and him alone. But the other day this new soldier was one of them a poet, a dreamer, an avid socialist. The call had come swiftly ; for the honour and flag of France this young man with the fine eyes had dashed his dreams and his rhymes aside to button the blue coat across his swelling breast. He has cut his silken hair ? the last sacrifice; but he bears even that bravely. He sits by my side in the cafe; his breath is hot with battle, though his limbs are sore with unaccustomed battering against the hard, strong things of the bellicose world.
"I am a raw hand," says he "a new boy ; not only raw-handed, but raw-armed, raw- legged, raw-shouldered. But I am settling down as a machine of war, and it is magnificent. I love it! Mon ami, I love it !"
Great tales has this flame-eyed, big, eloquent boy to tell of the fighting around and about the forest of Compiegne.
The splendid incidents of this furious business were the feats of the British cavalry General Chetwode's Brigade who did the most amazing things in a thunder-and- lightning hand-to-hand encounter with the German cavalry.
Twice the Scots Greys and the 9th Lancers rode smack through their opponents in a dash the dare-devilry of which was superb. They rode through them, smashed their line, and then turned and rode through them safe home again. Their casualties were few, but the trademark they left upon the enemy will never be forgotten. It demoralized them absolutely.
The British soldier (says my friend, carrying on his tale between great gulps of red wine for he has only half an hour to spare before he is back to the front) is plunging along beautifully, confident in his gallant heart that this swinging back towards the Oise and towards the Seine is all part of a very carefully worked-out scheme. Tommy has his grumbles, of course ; and the worst of all is the fact that he can't get any hot food to eat. It is all cold tack and cold tack and the clamorous stomach of the British soldier do not exactly agree. Otherwise, he is all right, and still chanting with great vigour the Tipperary song.
Tommy has the utmost contempt for the German infantry's fire. "The Germans can't shoot for nuts ! " says he. "He doesn't fire from the shoulder, like the English and French do, but from the hip. He never aims, he never picks out his man, but empties his cartridges clip after clip at wild and furious random. Again the French and English officers lead their men into battle with reckless bravery. That accounts for the heavy casualties among them. And two furious hours of this week's fighting has left a bigger mark upon them, so it is said, than the whole period of the Boer War. They don't care. The heavier the trademark, the more the glory.
"The German officers' method of military stage management is altogether different from ours. Most of the time he is behind his men, driving them forward as a drover drives his cattle, but with infinitely more callousness and more cruelty. His sword is in his right hand; his revolver in his left. And he is constantly using both.
"Already have I seen scores of German prisoners," says my young socialist with an expressive shrug of his broad shoulders. "When they are captured they fall upon their knees, they fling off their helmets, their tear off their tunics, they bare their breasts, they grovel, and then they toss their arms to heaven jabbering, jabbering, jabbering all the time in- a piteous frenzy. It is a miserable sight. They expect to be killed straight away : they are amazed to find that no bullet, no bayonet comes their way."
"Tommy," says this tall young Frenchman, as he carries on his tale, with a flash half of amusement wholly of love, " Tommy goes into battle singing strange ribald songs which we cannot understand something about' Tip, Tip, Tip, Tiperairé."
"He gets into trouble for this. His officer tells him to save his breath for other things. ' Do not shout so,' demands he. 'It makes you thirsty, hoarse and thirsty, and water is not plentiful just now ! Taisez vous !'
"But " and there was another smile from the light blue eye "Tommy says he cannot help it. If he cannot shout and if he cannot sing he declares he will will what do you call it ? explode !
"And when he is hit he does not cry and he does not twinge. He just says ' Blast!' and if the wound is a small one he gets the man next to him to tie a tourniquet around it and settles down to fighting once more.
"And now," cries my soldier friend, patting his corporal's stripe lovingly, and rounding off his refreshers with a big brandy and soda "And now, I must be away. To be a soldier is more than magnificent: it is sublime ! One has no cares and no worries. One sinks one's individuality absolutely, and becomes nothing but a cypher a number, with nothing to do but to obey the order that comes, whatever it may be. I am No. 59. I am no longer a complicated box of tricks that has to think, to argue, to ponder whether it may be wiser to do this or to do that. I am told to go I go. I am told to sleep I sleep, flinging my already sore body (for, mon ami, I am a very raw recruit) upon the stony ground. But when I go, I go gladly; when I sleep, I sleep so soundly under the stars that sleep is a new and a wonderful mystery to me.
"Ah ! to be a soldier, my dear fellow, is the most splendid rest cure in existence : the certain panacea for neurasthenia! So, my friend, au revoir ! I go back, and with joy, to my rest cure under the hot sun and under the gleaming stars ! "
He sprang up. He saluted, and turned and marched with a proud step out of the café.
Well there's a little picture for you, you boys at home you footballers, you cricketers, you philanderers who lounge about town, buy your war editions regularly as they come out, and then join other loungers at some favourite bar.
Come out here, you lads with health and strength and spirit, come out and see or hear what Tommy is doing, how he is doing it, and with what a merry heart he jumps into the yawning trenches. His magnificent spirit would whip some responsive chord in you, and spur you on to dreams of glory. You couldn't help it, in spite of yourself !
And if you cannot come out and fight if you are too flabby for that then stay at home. But exchange your yard measure for the straight blue steel of the rifle ; stay at home and learn to guard your girl instead of making eyes at her !
If you do come out and fight, and you're laid out early in the game with the splinter of a shell or the rip of a slim little steel bullet, we'll look after you as we are looking after your brother now, behind the firing line. Here is a snapshot one of many that still linger in my memory of a little scene on the coast, far away from the battle of guns, the scream of horses, and the thundering of charge upon cavalry-charge. An ambulance van is wheeled gently on to the quay. The quiet, quick-handed men with the red cross blazing on their arms they are French doctors, these lift the cool brown tilt of the vehicle, and peep inside. "Anglais," says one, and makes a brief note in his leather- bound book.
They lift Tommy out, lying straight and stiff on his stretcher like a dead man Tommy scarred and battered, with a strange beard sprouting over his grey face, but his eyes eager still though he can't sing.
"Any news of the scrappin' ? " says he. "Are our beggars still hanging on ?"
We tell him what little we know. It is reassuring, and for these small mercies he is wonderfully thankful.
He smiles faintly ; the wagon tilt falls back into its place; another huge, bearded Red Cross officer, with hands gentle as a woman's, smooths our battered friend's sweating forehead.
"Doucement, doucement I" he says ; and tenderly oh, so tenderly Tommy is carried over the gangway to the waiting ship.
The sea is quiet and still; everything seems tuned to suit the needs of this wounded soldier being sent home again to England.
private motor vehicules prohibited inside Paris city limits
- CHAPTER XI
- The Fettered City
Early on the morning of September 8 a new order was issued from the Minister of War changing all regulations regarding the passage of motor-cars out of Paris. Regulations nobbling war correspondents were getting more and more strict. The automobile I had was allowed as far as the gates of Paris thus far, and no farther. Double and treble lines of sentries barred the way. I drove through the Bois de Boulogne, or rather, by the outside edge of it. The gates leading into the wood were closed. It was full of sheep and cattle browsing on the grass. These quiet beasts were being guarded by sentries with drawn bayonets more carefully, perhaps, than even the inhabitants themselves. Mutton and beef would for all we know be worth their weight in gold presently.
Just outside the gates of the city the French engineers, the trench diggers, the foresters, the gardeners from the Bois, assisted by a bustling army of willing helpers, were working like niggers at the defences. The peaceful Bois had been ravished of its greenery to supply cover for the troops beyond the gates, and the gates themselves were double guarded with heavy baulks of timber, pierced shoulder high with little arrow-slits for the convenience of the riflemen. The ramparts were being strengthened ; here, there and everywhere trenches were being dug. Across the way, the Seine from bank to bank was one wide huddle of gaily painted barges hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. They too, like the Bois, were full to overflowing with food for a beleaguered city : food for mankind and fodder for horses; barges stacked with bales of hay and bags of oats. More barges still were moving slowly along the fairway. They carried another kind of food thousands of tins of petrol to feed the strings of automobiles, taxicabs, Red Cross vans and provision lorries which were being rushed out, line upon line of them, to the fighting front. Such a vast commissariat was indeed heartening. It was " hastening slowly," like the army I have previously told you of, to places beyond the city where it was most needed. The Army Service Corps was doing its work splendidly. Here was fuel for this vast engine of war fuel and to spare for many a long day.
On my way back to try another road out of the perplexing maze of Paris I saw engineers with their magic gear at work among the girders and traceries of the Eiffel Tower. They were slinging up quick-firing guns and clamping them down upon the balcony high over head, where in times of piping peace the Parisian lingered over his coffee and his bock. At the dizzy tower top the wireless was humming with the news of the war going on among the hills and valleys beyond the expectant city. But the wizard lady of the air was no gossiper. She was talking, truly, but with finger upon her lip.
I found that it was possible to get out of Paris by train. The Germans had been flung back from their encroachment upon the further suburbs, and hour after hour as they sped northward, so mile after mile the railway line of L'Ouest was reopened, and trains were set running to the very edge of the war. This was good news indeed. Every train as it left the city was packed with people, some of them excursionists spurred by the spirit of adventure, well fortified with luncheon-baskets and bottles of wine, touring out for the day for a breath of fresh air and a peep, maybe, of the scarred roads and shattered houses which only a few hours before had marked the Prussian rout. Rout, for the time, most certainly it was.
At Noisy-le-Sec, a wide junction for the lines of the west, I found train upon train of soldiers and horses moving out, with no loss of time, to the country. Though it was blazing hot the soldiers were all in good heart, merry and jesting as they went to war. The bulk of them were shoved off in horse-boxes, sitting among the straw with their red legs dangling over the line, smoking the eternal cigarette, singing, chaffing, eating the sweets that the girls they had left behind them had flung to them as a parting offer, and all jolly as sandboys. The horses stowed away behind them gazed out dreamily upon the unusual scene with their heads over the heads of the soldiers. As these trains moved out others steamed in full of men wounded lightly in the fierce affray beyond Lagny, and among the wooded hills and dales, in the historic hinterland of Crecy.
In one of these trains I saw the first batch of German prisoners being brought to Paris They were Prussian officers, six of them, immured in a horse-box and guarded strictly under fixed bayonets. They looked woe-begone, scared and miserable. They were bare- headed. Their faces were ashen grey. Three of them wore spectacles, behind the glasses of which absolute terror blinked. I really believe they expected to be shot in the next half hour or so. They were taken out of their horse-box and ushered into an out- building, where they were placed behind an iron grille and left for a time on show. Admission to this temporary menagerie was a great privilege, but all those who were allowed in made no demonstration of any kind against these pallid young men in their torn grey tunics with the shoulder-straps wrenched away, and every means of identification of their regiment destroyed. They were neither groaned at, hissed, nor spat upon, as had been the fate, so we were told, of French and English prisoners : they were treated with the utmost deference as honourable prisoners of war.
The "Red General" at War
There was fighting in the Forest of Crecy, so I set off next day to look for it. This was hallowed ground where the Black Prince won his spurs, and French and English fought not as brothers, as they are fighting now, but as deadly foes. Nearly six hundred years ago the grey goose quill sang through the green sward ; to-day the thirteen-pounder was making very different music.
In my wanderings around the outskirts of the forest I came across as I have already told you three lost British soldiers. Wherever you go, hereabouts, you are bound to run into little parties of these strayed sheep, never a one of them having the remotest idea of where he is his kit gone, his regiment lost or scattered, but himself a Merry Andrew of war a troubadour trusting to sheer luck to pull him through.
Of such a kidney were my three the three Manchesters, utterly, absolutely, and most cheerfully lost, apparently for ever. I found them squatting on a tree trunk, playing chuck- halfpenny (or rather chuck-centime) into an upturned German helmet. They had been fighting hard for four weeks, and their tales were rich and rare, and most gloriously confused.
"We've been padding the hoof for years and years and years and donkey's years," said one of them. "Our 'earts are all right, but our 'oofs are as raw as steaks------"
Well, I managed to find them a boat a sort of mixture of Thames wherry and Norfolk fishing punt and, taking turns at the sculls, we voyaged along the river, with no more adventure than an occasional conflict with a dead horse, safely to Lagny. We sat up and gasped at Lagny. It is a biggish town, built half on one side of the river (here twenty feet deep) and half on the other, and joined up by a massive steel bridge. The town was now completely split in two by the hatchet of dynamite.
The British cavalry had ridden through the day before on a hot Uhlan chase. They had left a handful of Engineers behind to blow up the bridge. "If we can't go forward, then we can't come back," said they, cheerfully enough. "Up with the bridge, boys good-bye !" They clattered off in a whirl of dust.
"Bang!" the bridge was shattered to smithereens, and so were the roof, the chimneys, and windows of the Hotel du Pont de Fer on one side of the river and the neat little millinery establishment of Mdlle. Renee on the other. The inhabitants, crowding at a respectable distance on either bank, looked on aghast. Five minutes later came through the order from headquarters :
It is not necessary to blow up bridge, enemy well on the run.
Hard lines for Lagny ! But war is war, and bridges do not count in such times. Besides, the news was good news ; the enemy was on the run; and bridges, like breeches, can be repaired.
I left Lagny to take care of itself, to join itself together at its leisure ; and further un- eventful journeying brought me unchallenged and quite comfortably into the restful valley of the Grand Morin. Farther and farther eastward I rode, until at last, in the full blaze of noon, I saw ahead the white dust whirling at the end of a ribbon of road, and a string of London General buses ripping along, stacked inside and out with "yards" of good wholesome French bread, bales of cheeses, quantities of cabbages, and various other masses of comforting stuff.
Dust and dirt and battle bruises had played havoc with most of these vehicles, and daubs of brown paint, slapped on anyhow, had taken the shine out of them, but I saw one of them with "No. 58" still proudly flaunting overhead, and greeted it as an old friend which had, no doubt, carried me in pre-mobilization days to my own door in Maida Vale. Its blushing glory had departed. It was no longer the proud and shining Red General. Its top hamper, seats and all, had been ripped off, its windows had vanished, and their place had been taken by sheets of that perforated zinc with which meat safes are covered. There were no advertisements visible, but the brass bell still remained over the driver's head, and the string of it dangled behind. The conductor had vanished with the advertisements.
The sensation was extraordinary. Surely it was a dream, and I pinched myself hard. The dream stayed; more buses swung and jolted by. And next, a detachment of French cavalry riding with loose rein, with the long tails of their splendid horses flicking a good- bye-for-the-present message to the city far behind, all speeding north-east, where, under a black sullen cloud, trembling with heaven's artillery, tumult of another kind raged.
We were not retreating this time. Somewhere beyond the cloud, pierced now and again with livid streaks of flame, the German right was rolling back.
A French officer of Cuirassiers rode up, spied my civilian garb, and wanted to know my business there. I pulled out from my grimy shirt a small library of passports, permis de séjour, and other vised documents, and the officer laughed merrily and shook hands.
"Anglais !" said he. "Ha ! Come along. It's all right. We have turned them ; we are at last chasing them. This is our first stage to Berlin !" Off he rode like a whirlwind. He was glad and jolly, and so were the French Tommies as they swung along, burnt black as cinders, their tongues hanging out, their beards powdered with L.G.O.C. dust, but their hearts aflame.
I learnt from these soldiers that since the day before the German right had been driven five and twenty miles up the valley of the Marne, and that it was still retreating. And watching that significant cloud ahead one could see it plainly enough.
Just beyond one of the picturesque little villages where they make the succulent Brie cheeses when they're not fighting for the glory of France, I ran across a little camp of ten nigger-faced British soldiers. They were Royal Horse Artillery boys all that remained of a hundred of them, fifty horse artillery and fifty field artillery drivers, whose job since they left Southampton with 500 battery horses was to supply remounts for the gunners. The other ninety have vanished, but the remaining ten, under the fathering of a freckled, mutton-fisted sergeant, were cheery enough. Days and days ago they had lost all their kit, they had got nothing except the clothes they stood up in, and they hadn't seen a saddle since they left port in the Bay of Biscay, where they landed their horses.
"For weeks," said the sergeant, "we've been riding barebacked, with a couple of horses each to look after, like a blooming tournament show at Olympia. We've had a dickens of a time and no glory just bunging in spare battery horses when others have been shot. Hot work ? By gum! Blazing hot, and not a weapon among the lot of us, save our pocket-knives and the rifles we pick up.
"We're off to Longchamps to pick up some more gee-gees. Have you any idea of the road there ? We don't know where we are. This might be Timbuctoo, for all we know !"
Having seen the horse gunners or all that was left of them on their way to Longchamps, and taking the Maida Vale omnibus dust for a guide, I moved on into the Marne Valley. A combined rush of French and British cavalry had smashed into a patrol of German cavalry, and had utterly demolished them on the outskirts of the small wood just beyond ------.
Here a battery of our own Royal Horse Artillery, with half their men and half their horses gone, did splendid work screened by a few forest trees they had cut down.
A hundred yards ahead a small stream flowed, and beyond that the German artillery was posted. A big thunderstorm was rolling up, and in the gloom of it the artillery duel went on.
The gunners were directed and the range found for them by a Blériot aeroplane, which circled round high overhead, out of the range of rifle fire. As soon as the range is once found these guns can go ahead with no further trouble, for the recoil is worked on a buffer system and the wheels do not move an inch. On the other hand, the German field guns opposed to our crowd here were all fitted with the old spade contraption, which necessitated continual re-lighting and much loss of time. Their shooting was good whenever they found the range, but it was not a patch on ours, and just as the thunderstorm burst we had them either smashed up or on the run absolutely demoralized.
In this fight, the fight of the thunderstorm, we captured a number of prisoners, horse and foot. They were tired and done, and they admitted that they had not the stomach to face the charges of the British cavalry.
The storm which burst at the tail end of this fight in the Marne Valley was a sousing drencher. Both French and English soldiers stripped off their tunics and shirts and absolutely revelled in a glorious shower-bath. Many of the men stood stark naked in the downpour. A most amazing sight they looked black as niggers from the rim of their hats to the rim of their collars, and the rest of them snow white in comparison.
This was the finest refresher they had had since the start of the war this and the glad, the glorious news that the Germans were retreating up the valley, and following the snake-like meanderings of the placid Marne. But theirs was no meander. It was a tumultuous retreat; and our soldiers, slamming on their clothes over their wet skins, were after them in next to no time, hot foot and all aglow.
I was told en route many tales of German brutality to the wounded. By the lych-gate of a little church in the village of St. Just, a party of Uhlans came across a Belgian soldier with his left arm very nearly shot away. He was lying exhausted by the roadside, spent with pain and loss of blood.
Instead of succouring him the German soldiers taunted him and then bayonetted him six times in the shoulders and the side. Then they rode off, leaving him for dead, but he managed to crawl along the road for a mile, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Here he was found by half-a-dozen wandering soldiers, who bandaged him up with strips from their own shirts and carried him to safety. A draught of red wine pulled him round, and to-day he is still alive to tell the tale !
I believe that these plucky, tough little Belgians can stand anything. They are not men of flesh and blood they are amazing stalwarts of steel.
- CHAPTER XIII
- The Beckoning Hand
Miles and miles and miles of desolation! Wherever one moves in this war-swept valley of the Marne, only a few days ago so peaceful and so beautiful, one meets with the same piteous sight Nature, like Niobe, all tears, wringing her hands at the mad and merciless deeds of her children.
The country here is very like my own native valley of the Ouse, in Huntingdonshire, the sky is a serene blue, flecked with fleeces of tender white cloud. In the water meadows the cattle all that is left of them still stand knee-deep in the lush grass ; the evening breeze still makes music in the willows which bend over the stream with their silver leaves tinkling ; but all the birds have vanished gone, Heaven knows where, out of this shattering tumult.
Under the serene blue of a summer sky an uncanny silence reigns. The world is holding her breath, shocked, terrified !
The writhing flame has sped over this sweet country, leaving it seared and scorched. The slow waters of the Marne are no longer blue with Heaven's soft reflection on a summer day, but livid and dreadfully malodorous with the swollen bodies of dead horses, hundreds and hundreds of them aye, and of men too. In a quiet bend of the river, where the water runs clear in the shallows, the tall reeds lean over and, in the morning breeze, seem to whisper affrightedly one to another. In the shadow of them, half buried in the mud and ooze, a dead horse lies, saddled and bridled, with a gaping, jagged wound in its throat. It is a cavalry horse : horse and rider are still here, comrades in death, as they were only yesterday brothers in life, dashing full tilt to death or glory on the wings of the morning. The stirrup-leather is stretched out tight. The foot of the rider is still in it, jammed hard and fast a slim, small, elegant little foot, high booted, carefully laced. . . . Deeper still in the water, as the sun strikes upon it, I can recognize the smart uniform of the Chasseur the gentleman-rider of the Guard.
I have neither the heart nor the pen to tell of these ghastly scenes.
A blind man could follow the track of this battle-storm easily enough. And I have floundered along it until I am sick. The fire is still smouldering over the shallow graves of the dead the brave dead, entombed so hurriedly that one sees here and there in these gruesome cemeteries a brown hand thrust through the shovelled earth as if beckoning ; the hump of a shoulder, tunic, and shoulder-strap torn away. ... It is dreadful. Think of it, if you can ! For over a hundred miles behind the battle-line these burying grounds mark the scenes of carnage.
- CHAPTER XIV
- A Human Document
One warm, thirsty afternoon found me wandering aimlessly along the empty, dusty "High Street" of the small village of Crecy-en-Brie. Most of the houses here, as in other villages round about, were shuttered and desolate. The street was littered with rubbish. Half- starved woe-begone cats lay in the sun, sleeping in pitiable attitude of dejection. Presently an English Tommy, a hefty curly-headed chap, with his forage cap stuck jauntily on the back of his head, came along out of an alley-way carrying a French baby on his broad shoulder talking British nonsense to the wide-eyed brat.
"HuUo !" said he, "You're British ! Glory Hallelujah ! Come to the Green Dragon that's the English for the bloomin' pub down the street the only place in this God-forsaken hole where you can get a tiddley; and that nothing but rum. But not so bad !"
He piloted me to the Dragon Vert, and there, squatting on a bench in the little sanded bar-parlour, we found six other khaki fighting men of the Fourth Ammunition Column, Third Section, Royal Field Artillery. They had a camp of spare battery horses out amid the trees at the other end of the village ; they had wandered aimlessly across the country from the coast with what they called their "spare-parts."
"Rotten business," said my friend, when he had set the baby down at the Green Dragon's hospitable door, and told it to toddle home. Rotten business. All graft and no glory."
"No fighting ?" I asked.
"Lord, yes; any amount. Hot as blazes too. But we had a dam'd sight too much to do in looking after our 'orses to be able to enjoy the scrappin' properly. Our attention was took off the business. Our string of thorobreds thorobreds, I don't think took colic, and took it bad. And what with looking after their stummicks, pore beggars, and writin' up my diary which I'd promised the missus faithful I'd do, I've had no time for anything else, so to speak. He unbuttoned the flap of the breast pocket in his tunic and pulled out a penny washing-book.
"If you'd like to cast your optic through it, sir, you're welcome."
I not only cast my optic through it; I found it a document so human that I craved Driver Thatcher's permission to copy it out.
"There ain't time, sir. There's stacks and stacks of it Gawd knows the time it took me to write it all out. But I'll read it to you, if you like, so as you can get the hang of it. I've got to go and water the 'orses in half an hour. . . ."
So he read it out, word for word, with all the pride of authorship shining in his honest, smudgy face. Here it is. I would not alter a line or word of it for worlds. It tells, with sublime nonchalance, of the worries and troubles of Driver Thatcher, Royal Field Artillery, during that tantalizing time when his string of spare-parts took the colic. That was all he cared about. Hell was thundering about his ears, shells were screaming, death riding riot. Driver Thatcher brushes all that away with impatience. How to stop that dam'd colic, that's the thing that matters.
"Troops moving toward France. Well, we started off from Hendon....., to entrain at Park Royal, and we got to Southampton about two o'clock next morning. Got horses on board all right, though the friskiest of them kicked a lot. . . . Got to Havre safe. Good passage and quick. My little lot camped in a village outside the town. Nice little house us four had, but the back premises was rather stinky. They mostly are in this country. Food good rabbit and potatoes and plenty of beer, not our English sort, but the colour of cyder. Us four enjoyed ourselves with the family, and had a good time, and left ten o'clock next day well filled up.
"Our objective was a place called Compiegne, on the Oise. We marched off from Ham Somme about seven o'clock on the 25th; left three dead horses lying on the road. We got through all right, watering our horses on the way from pumps and taps at private houses. The people were awful kind, giving us quantities of pears, and filling our water- bottles with beer. That was all right. Our welcome was splendid everywhere. The people in the houses came out and cheered and gave us plain chocolate, fruit, and beer, and several other items.
"At Compiegne we got into touch with the Germans. Very hot work. All our guns in action all round, and the people of the villages flocking in a pannick towards Paris. It made us feel downhearted what we saw here.
"We marched from Compiegne about eleven o'clock on the 30th, which was Sunday. Our way was through a pretty little village, where the people tore down the heavy laden branches of the damson trees and sent us off munching the fruit and very cheerful. The way was hard. Terrible steep hills, which knocked our older and weaker horses. Collick (colic) broke out among them, too, and that was bad. We lost a good many and had to leave them dead or dying alongside of the road.
"We got within six hours of Paris when the Germans surprised us and drove us back. We skooted quick and dodged them in the dark until one o'clock in the morning, when we lay on the roadside, men and horses together fagged out. Slept until 5 a.m. and then marched on again, still retreating. Hot as hell it was. Nothing to eat or drink. Plenty of tea, but nothing to boil it with. At last we got some dry biscuits and some tins of marmalade. Bill Thompson, whose teeth were bad, went near mad with toothache after the jam. But toothache is better than starvation, anyway.
"We marched through Ralentir and Pierrefonds. (Note. Though Mr. Thatcher is very careful to note down names and dates, it is not to be wondered at that he occasionally makes little slips, due more, perhaps, to ignorance of the puzzling French language than anything else. 'Ralentir,' which he mentions here is, of course, no town at all; signposts bearing that word are to be met with along most of the main roads. 'Ralentir' is a warning to motorists that there is danger ahead. It means, literally, 'go slow.') Food on the way apples and water. Now we make our way through the woods toward the ferry. No dead horses, thank God, to-day. I hope we have checked that------collick, but my horse fell into a ditch going through the wood and could not get out for over an hour. I couldn't go for help, because the Germans had got the range of the place and their shells were ripping overhead like blazes. '
"Poor old Dick (the horse), he was that fagged out by the long march. At last I got him out and went on, and by luck managed to pick up my pals.
"The woods were twenty-three miles long. We thought we should never get out they seemed everlasting. It was night and moonshine when we at last got to Satiness Satuern (?). We are all stoney broke, having had no money since we left Southampton, which seems years and years.
"At 4 a.m. next morning we got to Reary and right into the middle of it, with our tired horses and us tireder still nothing to eat and dry as bones. The Germans were lambing in at us with their artillery, and poor old Dick got blowed up. I thank God I wasn't on him just then.
"Half the horses of L Battery, Royal Artillery, got smashed, and we had to bung in our poor old tired ones to fill up. Only a few gunners were left, but they stood by firing on still and singing 'Onwards, Christian Soldiers.' Then the Germans charged, and our gunners did a bunk, but not before they had drove spikes into the guns so as to make them useless to the enemy. They said they guessed they would get them back in a day or two, and if they did they could repair them easy enough. The Germans don't know these tricks, and we can do them down any time.
"September 1. The battle still going on very fierce. . . . (No more is said about the fight, for 'collick' among the horses has again broken out, and our gallant driver is much more troubled about that, and the job he has in stopping it, than the actual fighting.)
"September 2. More fighting and worser than ever. I don't believe we shall ever get to Paris. . . . Now we come to Montagny, and fighting all the time. Rabbitts and apples to eat gallore, but still no money, and no good if we had, because we carn't spend it. We've got nothing to smoke, so we are not 'alf happy, I don't think ! We have also captured a lot of German horses, mostly officers' chargers, which have galloped into our lines. I supposes the officers are corpses. I stopped one, and found a yellow packet of French cigars in one of the saddlebags. It wasn't half all right, I tell you.
"September 3. We progressed this day four miles in twelve hours. Took the wrong road, and had to crawl about the woods on our stummoks like snakes to dodge the German snipers. We had one rifle between four of us, and took it in turns to have goes. We shot one blighter and took another prisoner. They was both half starved and covered with soars. Then the rifle jammed and we had nothing to defend ourselves with.
"At last we found the main body again. They wanted more horses, and we were just bringing them up and putting them to the guns when a German areyplane came over us and flue round pretty low. The troops tried to fetch him down, and some bullets went through the wings, but then he got too high. We were still letting go at him from the low trees where we was laying when we suddenly found out his game. He got up higher and dropped a bomb in the middle of us, but it exploded very weak and nobody was hurt.
"Next day we started on a night march, and got to Lagny. Thorigny, and camped outside the town, where the people fed us on rabbits again. I said I was sick of rabbits, and me and Bill Thompson walked acrost to a farm-house and borrowed three chickens, which we cooked. It was fine. They wasn't tuff as you might expect, because Bill knowed the dodge. If you kill a chicken and cook it straight away before it is cold, it is as tender as anythink. Bill knows a lot of dodges like that, and he is a usefull chap to be with on the march. At Lagny Thorigny we heard good news and found that the guns of the L Battery had been taken back from the Germans by the Thirty-second Brigade Royal Field Artillery.
"Outside Lagny there was more fierce fighting twenty miles of it and the Germans were shot down like birds. We got in another hot corner, and managed to get out just in time, after mending the L Battery guns, which had been spiked by our chaps two minutes before the Germans collared them. We had just left our camp and some wagons there, when the German shells fell into it and blew it all to bits.
"September 3 (continued). Firing is still going on, but it is not so fierce, though scouts have come in and told us there are 10,000 Germans round us this day. To-night I got two ounces of Navy Cut. It was prime.
"September 4. We marched from camp at 5.30 P.M. and kept on marching until three in the morning. . . .
"September 8. We are marching on further away from Paris. We shall never get there, I guess. And no more will the Germans if me and Bill knows anythink.
"September 11. Marching to Crecy. Passing hundreds of bodies lying about like rotten sheep. We are behind the main army now, but can hear the guns going.
"September 12. In the village of Crecy.
Plenty of food and houses to sleep into. Here we have got to stay until further orders. Collick still very bad. But the rum at the publick house very good. I hope it will last our time."
Here, for the time, I will leave Driver Thatcher, of the Royal Field Artillery, and Bill Thompson, that crafty borrower of chickens, and the rest of these careless wanderers of war, who love their horses beyond all things, and do not care a jot for screaming shell and battering shrapnel so long as their "spare-parts" are snug and safe and well out of the way of the racket.
We shake hands on the well-worn doorstep of the Green Dragon; Mr. Thatcher carefully buttons the flap of his pocket over his precious washing-book.
"Cheer-o !" says he.
- CHAPTER XV
- The Battle of the Walking Wood
The way along which I set out for the Forest of Crecy was trampled flat by the passage of hastening soldiery. Here had the artillery thundered by leaving hoof marks by the hundred and thousand, and horses dead and dying in all manner of horrible attitudes. There is scant time for mercy toward these poor dumb beasts. The sight of the wounded ones strikes a pang to my heart. They lie there by the roadside under the flaming, pitiless eye of the sun, their necks stretched out, their nostrils bloody. One poor thing raises its head as I pass, and the look in its sad, sad eyes haunts me in my sleep still. "For mercy's sake," it seems to say, "put me out of my misery....."
The road was scored deep by the wheels of the heavy guns ; the flotsam and jetsam of war lay thick around. A peasant showed the way to the forest, and when at last I struck it, lo ! it was a forest no longer, but an amazing scatterment of tree trunks.
"Ah, the beautiful forest! " said my guide. " It is beautiful no longer. Its music is mute ; the birds will no longer sing in its groves. The forest of Crecy has been guillotined !"
The ravished trees stood there stiff and stark, decapitated and still (one could almost imagine) bleeding at the neck: What had happened was this :
A few days back the French and English, in overwhelming numbers, had poured in from Lagny in the great ensemble toward the Marne to reinforce the flanking skirmishes that were already going on. Ahead were the Germans, in ever-increasing hordes, stiffening their battalions, bringing up their guns, rallying their cavalry, for a forlorn hope to carry the Marne and to hurl themselves into Paris. To turn this we were, luckily enough, in time.
One of the smaller woods to the south-east of Crecy was already held by the enemy. But although the wood was coyer for a time for them it also was confusion most confounding. In the night our patrols, greatly daring, smelt them out and carried back news of their whereabouts to the cavalry on one side and the infantry on the other.
Incautiously enough, the Germans were moving about the Bois with stable lanterns to guide them, unaware that trouble was so near. And that did for them. Suddenly they found their twinkling glow-worms a mark for a foe of whose proximity they were blissfully unaware.
They were smitten woefully, hip and thigh. A midnight hailstorm from our maxims suddenly screamed through the sleeping trees. The rifle fire, too, was excellent. Our men don't blaze away at random at an invisible target nowadays.
Next morning scores of lanterns were picked up in the wood with their glasses shattered and their reservoirs pierced.
A yelling, hallooing cavalry charge finally cleared this tragic little wood. Our losses were slight, but the Germans suffered severely.
Twenty of the prisoners who had been taken in this melee were herded together in a clearing. Their rifles were not taken away from them, but stacked near by. In a rash moment they got the idea into their heads that they were but loosely guarded.
They made a combined rush for their rifles....
They will never make another.
Now back to the forest of Crecy for a moment. When I saw it on the day of my visit, and found what had happened and heard the story afresh told with many a twang of rich Lancashire humour from the lips of three lost British soldiers whom I met there the book of my memory opened at the tragedy of Macbeth, and I read again, and with a peculiar relish, the moving act of Dunsinane.
The day before, I was scuttling along in a sort of tearing nightmare in the wake of Maida Vale motor-buses "Pickford's Light Horse" tooting along with tucker for our fighters, shedding their supplies, and easing up behind the firing line what time the R.A.M.C. were converting them with extraordinary speed and completeness into swift and comfortable ambulance vans for the wounded, to carry them back behind the lines out of harm's way. Up above, among the wreathing clouds, our Blériots and our steadier Nestors of the air, the biplanes, were hawking heaven and telling our gunners by quick, sure signals where to plant their shells. This was the new strategy marking the plunging moments of Armageddon.
A few hours pass. A curtain of thunderstorm is drawn black and menacing over the scene ; the aeroplanes have vanished ; the motor-buses have swung off westward with the wounded, and we are flung back across the centuries to schemes and scenes of mediaeval warfare. The forest of Crecy is the wood of Birnam. Maybe from the tower of some still-standing chateau a modern Macbeth looks out with startled eyes from under his black helmet to see the trees of Crecy walking !
This is how it was done ; done in the morning mist which shrouded trenches and trees and made dim spectres of the flitting soldiery. French and British alike swarms of them set about the wood with axes and knives and saws, and even sabres, and had a wide area of it down in next to no time. Line after line of infantry, each man armed with a thickly-foliaged branch, moved forward in close order towards the enemy, whilst behind, amid the lopped tree trunks, our artillery fixed themselves with their machine- guns and the very business-like 13-pounders to cover the "wood" as it moved forward all a rustle.
The attack which followed rapid, fierce, and as bold as anything that has been done in this huge campaign won all the success it merited. It came off trumps.
The mysterious, slow moving wood soon showed that there was more than umbrage in the texture of it. It snarled flame and spat bullets, whilst overhead the shells of the French and British artillery sped screaming to their mark.
But one incident nearly upset the whole show. Just under the ridge of a hill to the right of the forest large quantities of our own ammunition were piled ready for sudden service and (apparently) well screened and out of harm's way. The on-coming French cavalry, making a detour for purposes of their own, struck the hill and rode along it for some distance. For a few minutes, and a few minutes only, they showed themselves on the sky-line. In the bright sunshine there was no mistaking the vivid scarlet of the breeches stripe against the green background, and the flash of the white, long-tailed stallions they are so fond of riding, and they were spotted at once by the German artillery.
The Kaiser's batteries the pick of the bunch were here lost no time in finding the range.
Presently the shells began to drop thick and fast over the ridge, falling so near to our precious ammunition as to make the situation remarkably unpleasant. But the British soldier was up to that, as he is up to everything in this campaign.
Little parties of our boys swarmed up the hill, stripped to the waist, and set about lugging the great heavy boxes out of the way of disaster and explosion.
My soldiers three (they are Manchester men) were in this, and they tell me that it was the hottest, the flamingest corner they ever had been in. They came through it unscathed so did our ammunition. But it was more by good luck than anything else.
By evening the enemy had been repulsed, the Maine was clear of them, and the fight was rolling farther and farther away east of the French capital.
burned buildings in Senlis
- CHAPTER XVI
- The Sack of Senlis
The cry of the chase is alluring, fascinating, irresistible ! Hounds full pelt after the Prussian fox ; scent breast-high, and a dazzling morning of sunshine to hunt in !
Out of Paris on the pearly dawn a straggler perhaps in the chase, but not so very far behind. The road is long and straight through a mighty avenue of tall trees. Here and there hailstorms of shrapnel have torn the branches to tatters and leaves lie thick along the road. There are graves, too, by the roadside marking the shock, at various vantage- points, of yesterday's tumult. These graves are common objects of the countryside, no more to be remarked than molehills. Here and there, where the highway forks to right or left, there is a pile of turf four or five feet high, and strengthened by hastily hewn logs of wood, and behind it a sort of prehistoric dwelling, roughly thatched and with just a rabbit- hole for a doorway. Out of this hermitage a sentry leaps waving his long thin bayonet.
"Your business, m'sieur !"
I show my pass, the soldier shakes hands, and off I go again under the tall trees, in the tallest of which I have time to observe out of the corner of my eye a snug little nest three battle-roosters, perched high in the umbrage, their red legs dangling from the bough, their bayonets blinking in the sunlight.
And then, for a full hour, there is no sign of war anywhere, but perfect peace : miles of apple-trees along the roadside, laden with fruit ripening rosily in the sun ; a sweet little stream trickling along merrily, women at work in the fields, singing; a milkmaid sitting at her business under the lee of a lazy red cow; a pretty farmhouse in the background with a cock, gaily plumaged, strutting in the yard and lording it over the obedient hens indeed all the delightful rural ingredients for the House that Jack Built!
Then, swiftly, a swing in the road, a dip downward, the flash of a tall white chateau mirrored in the lake under the trees, a rustic bridge spanning the stream, and suddenly we are among the outskirts of a town. There is an acrid smell of burning in the air. An old peasant woman, her apron loaded with bread, meets us, and we ask what town is this.
"It is no town at all, m'sieurs," she replies drearily, " though yesterday it was. It is a ruin the ruin of Senlis. The Germans ah!" (she spits upon the ground) "the Germans were here until yesterday here for three days, burning, pillaging, ravishing, rioting. Then, in the afternoon, there was an alarm, a wild fight in the smoking streets, and they fled with their craven tails between their legs ! A wonderful fight, sirs ! Go into the town and you will hear more of it! "
The town smelt like a twitch-fire on an autumn evening. It was an amazing, terrifying ruin. Every house but one in the two main streets, the Faubourg St. Martin and the Rue de la Republique, was burnt out, every roof tumbled in, the windows gaping and black and still smoking ; coarse jests scribbled in chalk on the scorched walls, with caricatures coarser still to illustrate them; litter of broken bottles, crockery ware, furniture, shattered pictures, cradles, clocks, ironmongery, bolsters, bedsteads, clothing burnt and blood-stained ; litter indescribable ! The one house in the principal street to remain untouched was the Hotel du Grand Cerf, the leading hotel of the town : why it escaped was because the German officers chose it as their headquarters during their stay. The hotel was still open I entered. In the wide hall I met the landlady a tall handsome woman with black hair and eyes and a tongue eloquent of the tragedy she had just passed through.
"Have you anything to eat ?" I asked, for I was hungry.
"Nothing, m'sieur, but six small tin? Of sardines and three bottles of champagne. The sardines were left behind by the Germans. The champagne is all that remains of nearly two thousand bottles in our cellars. I hid six bottles under the counter. ..."
There was bread and there was butter too, and a trifle of Gruyere cheese. The simple meal was spread in the large deserted dining-hall, and the landlady, as she attended upon my dejeuner, told me her tale.
"Three days ago," said she, "the German soldiers rode into Senlis. Soldiers ? They wore uniforms of grey, and spiked, black helmets, and carried guns; but they were not soldiers. They were roysterers Bacchanals, m'sieur. Half of them, I declare, were already drunk. Two officers went to the chateau of the mayor, dragged him out, and declared that as they entered the town a young man had fired upon them. There was only one penalty for that. The mayor was brought out and placed against the wall of his house together with two of our principal citizens, M. Simond and M. Barbere, and the three of them, brave, unflinching, noble the three of them were shot dead ! I witnessed it, m'sieur, from this very window by which you are sitting ! There is the wall; you can see it by just turning your head. Those splashes on the plaster, those bruises, are the marks made by the bullets.
"The officer in charge of the firing party called to some of the citizens standing trembling by. He pointed to the corpses of the mayor and M. Simond and M. Barbere. He spurned them with his boot. ' Take this offal away and bury it,1 said he. And it was done."
The landlady opened another tin of sardines, placed them on the table, and went on with her story.
"Then followed other things. The Prussian officers and some of their men marched to the cathedral and from it they brought all the candles, all the tapers, they could find. Then they formed a regiment of the inhabitants. 'Now march,' said they, 'along the streets of the town, open all the windows and doors of your houses.' This they did, wondering what it might mean. 'And now,' said their cruel masters, 'turn again and march again this time to the fields beyond the town. Bring hay from the haystacks, bring the ripe corn from the cornfields each an armful, as much as you can carry.'
"This again they did. And coming back into the town, they were commanded to pile the hay and the corn within their houses. This was done with great care so that not a house in the main street of Senlis was missed. The citizens were marched along in military order; behind them marched the Germans with the candles and the tapers from the cathedral now lighted. They marched along with candle in one hand and a bottle of champagne my champagne, m'sieur ! in the other, and as the hay and the corn were distributed into the houses they tossed the flaming candles one by one into the open windows until presently the town, our beloved town, was a hell of furious flame. . . ."
" ... There is still some coffee left, m'sieur; but, alas, no cognac. I will make the coffee and then you shall hear the rest of the story. ..."
"The officers and many of the demons were with them billeted themselves upon this hotel. They wrote their names in the visitors' book here it is : I have kept it a: a relic of their raid they made me get out all my best sheets, prepare the rooms, boil gallons of water for hot baths, and serve the best meals at my command. They raided the cellars below and brought in from them eighteen hundred and twenty bottles of champagne. They ate and they drank; they made beasts of themselves. . . . One of the officers surprised my little daughter on the stairway. ' You are too young-----' he said. But I desire a memento of this pleasant visit. What hangs upon the little silver chain you are wearing at your throat ?'
"It was a medallion of the Virgin. The Prussian tore it away from the shrinking child and fastened it round his own gross throat.' This he said and he spoke French well enough, as did many of them 'will be a memory to me of Senlis Senlis and a pretty maid ! '
"In the afternoon of the Thursday, which was yesterday, the tables were turned. A whirlwind of soldiers came into the town avenging angels. The little Zouaves dashed in, in taxicabs, hundreds and hundreds of them; three in the cab and one on the roof; they dashed in and drove the Germans out. It was a fierce fight and bloody, but soon over. Beyond the town there was carnage. In a farm scarcely a mile away, two hundred and fifty Germans are lying dead. In the next village there are two hundred more alive, and prisoners in another form, guarded only by two wounded French soldiers and three English. Five to two hundred, m'sieur ! But the five are brave men. The two hundred are pigs drunken pigs !"
- burned buildings in Senlis
- German sentries in the town
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