- 'Trips from a Hilltop Village'
- 'on the Marne to Paris'
- in August and September 1914
- by Mildred Aldrich
- from her book 'a Hilltop on the Marne' 1915
A View from the Countryside
enthusiastic reservists in Paris
a First Trip in August
I went up to Paris on the 19th (August), and had to stay over one night. The trip up was long and tedious, but interesting. There were soldiers everywhere. It amused me almost to tears to see the guards all along the line. We hear so much of the wonderful equipment of the German army. Germany has been spending fortunes for years on its equipment. French taxpayers have kicked for years against spending public moneys on war preparations. The guards all along the railroad were not a jot better got up than those in our little commune. There they stand all along the track in their patched trousers and blouses and sabots, with a band round the left arm, a broken soldier cap, and a gun on the shoulder. Luckily the uniform and shaved head do not make the soldier.
Just before we reached Chelles we saw the first signs of actual war preparations, as there we ran inside the wire entanglements that protect the approach to the outer fortifications at Paris, and at Pantin we saw the first concentration of trains - miles and miles of made-up trains all carrying the Red Cross on their doors, and line after line of trucks with gray ammunition wagons, and cannons. We were being constantly held up to let trainloads of soldiers and horses pass. In the station we saw a long train being made up of men going to some point on the line to join their regiments. It was a crowd of men who looked the lower laboring class. They were in their working clothes, many of them almost in rags, each carrying in a bundle, or a twine bag, his few belongings, and some of them with a loaf of bread under the arm. It looked as little martial as possible but for the stern look in the eyes of even the commonest of them. I waited on the platform to see the train pull out. There was no one to see these men off. They all seemed to realize. I hope they did. I remembered the remark of the woman regarding her husband when she saw him go: "After all, I am only his wife. France is his mother"; and I hoped these poor men, to whom Fate seemed not to have been very kind, had at least that thought in the back of their minds.
I found Paris quiet, and every one calm - that is to say, every one but the foreigners, struggling like people in a panic to escape. In spite of the sad news - Brussels occupied Thursday, Namur fallen Monday - there is no sign of discouragement, and no sign of defeat. If it were not for the excitement around the steamship offices the city would be almost as still as death. But all the foreigners, caught here by the unexpectedness of the war, seemed to be fighting to get off by the same train and the same day to catch the first ship, and they seemed to have little realization that, first of all, France must move her troops and war material. I heard it said - it may not be true - that some of the consular officers were to blame for this, and that there was a rumor abroad among foreigners that Paris was sure to be invested, and that foreigners had been advised to get out, so that there should be as few people inside the fortifications as possible. This rumor, however, was prevalent only among foreigners. No French people that I saw seemed to have any such feeling. Apart from the excitement which prevailed in the vicinity of the steamship offices and banks the city had a deserted look. The Paris that you knew exists no longer. Compared with it this Paris is a dead city. Almost every shop is closed, and must be until the great number of men gone to the front can be replaced in some way. There are streets in which every closed front bears, under a paper flag pasted on shutter or door, a sign saying, "Closed on account of the mobilization"; or, "All the men with the colors."
There are almost no men in the streets. There are no busses or tramways, and cabs and automobiles are rare. Some branches of the underground are running at certain hours, and the irregular service must continue until women, and men unfit for military service, replace the men so suddenly called to the flag, and that will take time, especially as so many of the organizers as well as conductors and engineers have gone. It is the same with the big shops. However, that is not important. No one is in the humor to buy anything except food.
It took me a long time to get about. I had to walk everywhere and my friends live a long way apart, and I am a miserable walker. I found it impossible to get back that night, so I took refuge with one of my friends who is sailing on Saturday. Every one seems to be sailing on that day, and most of them don't seem to care much how they get away - "ameliorated steerage," as they call it, seems to be the fate of many of them. I can assure you that I was glad enough to get back the next day. Silent as it is here, it is no more so than Paris, and not nearly so sad, for the change is not so great. Paris is no longer our Paris, lovely as it still is.
a French troop train riding through thecountryside
A Second Trip in September
The next morning - that was September 2 - I woke just before daylight. There was a continual rumble in the air. At first I thought it was the passing of more refugies on the road. I threw open my blinds, and then realized that the noise was in the other direction - from the route nationale. I listened. I said to myself, "If that is not artillery, then I never heard any."
Sure enough, when Amelie came to get breakfast, she announced that the English soldiers were at the Demi-Lune. The infantry was camped there, and the artillery had descended to Couilly and was mounting the hill on the other side of the Morin - between us and Paris.
I said a sort of "Hm," and told her to ask Pere to harness at once. As we had no idea of the hours of the trains, or even if there were any, it was best to get to Esbly as early as possible. It was nine o'clock when we arrived, to find that there should be a train at half past. The station was full. I hunted up the chef de gare, and asked him if I could be sure of being able to return if I went up to Paris.
He looked at me in perfect amazement.
"You want to come back?" he asked.
"Sure," I replied.
"You can," he answered, "if you take a train about four o'clock. That may be the last."
I very nearly said, "Jiminy-cricket!"
The train ran into the station on time, but you never saw such a sight. It was packed as the Brookline street-cars used to be on the days of a baseball game. Men were absolutely hanging on the roof; women were packed on the steps that led up to the imperials to the third-class coaches. It was a perilous-looking sight. I opened a dozen coaches - all packed, standing room as well as seats, which is ordinarily against the law. I was about to give it up when a man said to me, "Madame, there are some coaches at the rear that look as if they were empty."
I made a dash down the long platform, yanked open a door, and was about to ask if I might get in, when I saw that the coach was full of wounded soldiers in khaki, lying about on the floor as well as the seats. I was so shocked that if the station master, who had run after me, had not caught me I should have fallen backward.
"Sh! madame," he whispered, "I'll find you a place," and in another moment I found myself, with Amelie, in a compartment where there were already eight women, a young man, two children, and heaps of hand-luggage - bundles in sheets, twine bags just bulging, paper parcels, and valises. Almost as soon as we were in, the train pulled slowly out of the station.
I learned from the women that Meaux was being evacuated. No one was remaining but the soldiers in the barracks and the archbishop. They had been ordered out by the army the night before, and the railroad was taking them free. They were escaping with what they could carry in bundles, as they could take no baggage. Their calm was remarkable-not a complaint from any one. They were of all classes, but the barriers were down.
The young man had come from farther up the line-a newspaper chap, who had given me his seat, and was sitting on a bundle. I asked him if he knew where the Germans were, and he replied that on this wing they were at Compiegne, that the center was advancing on Coulommier, but he did not know where the Crown Prince's division was.
I was glad I had made the effort to get to town, for this began to look as if they might succeed in arriving before the circle of steel that surrounds Paris, and God knows what good that seventy-five miles of fortifications will be against the long-range cannon that battered down Liege. I had only one wish - to get back to my hut on the hill; I did not seem to want anything else.
Just before the train ran into Lagny - our first stop - I was surprised to see British soldiers washing their horses in the river, so I was not surprised to find the station full of men in khaki. They were sleeping on the benches along the wall, and standing about, in groups. As to many of the French on the train this was their first sight of the men in khaki, and as there were Scotch there in their kilts, there was a good deal of excitement.
The train made a long stop in the effort to put more people into the already overcrowded coaches. I leaned forward, wishing to get some news, and the funny thing was that I could not think how to speak to those boys in English. You may think that an affectation. It wasn't. Finally I desperately sang out: -
You should have seen them dash for the window. I suppose that their native tongue sounded good to them so far from home.
"Where did you come from?" I asked.
"From up yonder - a place called La Fere," one of them replied.
"What regiment?" I asked.
"Any one else here speak English?" he questioned, running his eyes along the faces thrust out of the windows.
I told him no one did.
"Well," he said, "we are all that is left of the North Irish Horse and a regiment of Scotch Borderers."
"What are you doing here?"
"Retreating - and waiting for orders. How far are we from Paris?"
I told him about seventeen miles. He sighed, and remarked that he thought they were nearer, and as the train started I had the idea in the back of my head that these boys actually expected to retreat inside the fortifications. La! la!
Instead of the half-hour the train usually takes to get up from here to Paris, we were two hours.
I found Paris much more normal than when I was there two weeks ago, though still quite unlike itself; every one perfectly calm and no one with the slightest suspicion that the battle line was so near - hardly more than ten miles beyond the outer forts. I transacted my business quickly - saw only one person, which was wiser than I knew then, and caught the four o'clock train back - we were almost the only passengers.
Back to Introduction
Back to Index