'Trip from a Hilltop Village
on the Marne to Paris'
by Mildred Aldrich
from her book 'The Peak of the Load' 1918


Fleeing the German Offensive in 1918



Villa Victor Hugo, Paris, June 1, 1918

Well, here we are, in practically the same situation as on that memorable September day in 1914, when Amélie and I made our rush to Paris, to return the same night and find the British army at the gate, at the end of that tragic two weeks' retreat from Mons.

This is what happened.

The cordial welcome that my neighbours gave the refugees who arrived Thursday on the hilltop braced them up and consoled them at the end of their two days' pilgrimage in the heat and dust, and their calm and courage braced us all up. But alas ! the bad news of Friday morning spoiled all that. When I went into the garden after my coffee, I found them in the road at the gate, with their heads over a newspaper examining a map of the front. I was not especially surprised when the leader came into the garden a little later, and said:

"Well, Madame, although you were all so kind as to urge us last night to rest here to-day and not go on until to-morrow, we have decided that it is hardly wise. We are leaving at once, and making for Melun. The roads are crowded now, and it seems to us most unsafe here. We hope to reach Melun during the night."

Two hours later they were gone.

Not long after, while I was sitting in the garden, listening to the confused noises from the moving trains of refugees on the road, and trying to make up my mind calmly what it was wisest to do, Amélie came out, and began to argue the matter with me. To my surprise I found that her mind was fixed on having me go to Paris at least, and wait there for the turn of the tide — for turn it must. I don't really know why it must, but I feel that it will. All her arguments did not seem sound, but some of them were wise enough.

She argued that every one had gone but the farmers and peasants; that the situation was different from that of 1914; that then I belonged to the most powerful of the neutral countries, whereas to-day I belonged to the most hated of Germany's enemies; that even if we were not invaded we risked being bombarded; that in case of a bombardment they could all live in the subterranean passages, and not mind it too much, but that it would be unnecessarily uncomfortable for me; that I could still get to Paris with a trunk, but in case of a hurried evacuation later I would have to go without clothes — and finally, as a crowning argument, she said, "We all want you to go, and we shall feel less anxious when you are in a safer place."

I heard her out, but I was doing some pretty tall thinking. One thing was certain — I had to have money. Wasn't history repeating itself? It was already taking three and sometimes four days to get a letter into Paris, and almost as many to get one out. That meant that it would take nearly a week to get money by mail, and communications might be cut at any minute. Besides, Amélie was quite right on one point, — it might be prudent for me to have a trunk in Paris, so that, in case we were ordered out, I could at least find clean clothes at the end of my voyage.

Finally I cut the argument short.

"All right, Amélie," I said. "I'll go up to Paris. But I shall come right back as soon as I get some money, see how things really are in Paris, and leave my trunk."

"Good," said Amélie, jumping up. "Pack the trunk at once. There is a train at five. I'll harness in an hour. That will give you time enough, and we must allow for the crowd on the road."

I protested that the next morning would do, but she insisted that it was possible that the next morning I might not be able to get away. I didn't believe it, but, in the end, I took the five o'clock train — that was day before yesterday, the day on which I last wrote to you.

We started away silently, except that I assured every one who came out to say good bye to me that there was no good bye, as I was coming back, surely no later than Monday. But as we drove across the Chemin Madame I was surprised to find that Amélie was crying, a thing she rarely does. When I leaned forward to smile into her face she quite broke down.

"You must not try to come back. None of us want you to. It is too dangerous. After this is all over we can find one another again. We will do all that we can to save your house and all your things."

"Nonsense," I replied, "of course I am coming back ! You are to go to Couilly to fetch me at two o'clock on Sunday, and, in case I am not there, at the same hour Monday, when I shall surely be there. In the meantime, if I can telegraph, I will. Do you understand?"

"I understand that you are coming if you can get back."

"Fudge," I replied, but I knew that I was taking that chance, so I hurriedly gave her certain instructions in case our hill was evacuated ; emptied what money I had on me into her lap; carefully wrote out a couple of addresses, in and out of Paris, where she could reach me; arranged what was to be done about all the beasties in case worse came to worst, and the one consolation I felt was that in case Amélie was right and I wrong about the situation I could certainly serve them better by going than staying. If a bombardment drove them down into the caves I should be an embarrassment to them. If military orders drove them into the roads, why there were a horse and donkey and two covered wagons, and again they would be more at ease without me, while outside the zone I could help them better than inside, and prepare a refuge for them.

But as I stood on the steps at the station watching Amélie drive away I knew that she was still crying — her mind made up for the worst. I simply refused to consider that it could happen. I was not gay. Who could be ? You never saw such a sight as the gare was. The refugees who had arrived thus far on foot, with their pitiful bags and parcels, were being taken on by the railroad. Hundreds of women and children from Couilly and St. Germain and Quincy were flying, taking beds and all sorts of boxes and bundles with them. It was 1914 all over again, only a hundred times sadder. At Esbly, where we changed cars, it was even worse.

The train from Meaux was over an hour and a half late. The platform was piled with boxes and bundles, trunks and baby-carriages loaded with parcels, baskets and rolled-up bedding. The crowd was as sad- looking as the baggage — women leading children and dogs, carrying bundles of all sorts, and string-bags in which shoes and bread were conspicuous. There were birds in cages, and cats crying in baskets. The sight did not tend to make anyone gay.

It was a strangely silent crowd that stood during that hour and a half of weary waiting while train after train of rolling stock from up the line was hurried towards Paris, and train after train of military material was rushed through to Meaux. When the train, which should have come at twenty minutes to six, finally pulled in at almost half-past seven it seemed to me that I was back at that day in 1914, — over forty-five months ago.

If the trip to town had not had some encouraging moments I am afraid that I might have arrived in Paris in a mood not far removed from that in which I had left Amélie at Huiry.

The crowd in the packed compartment, in which I found a place, was interesting. There was a family from Nancy, which had been stopping at Meaux, there was an infirmière from the big military hospital, Val de Grace, and people flying from Meaux, and the principal topic of conversation was, quite naturally, the "boys from the States."

The greatest anxiety of every one but the nurse was that the delay of the train would force them to remain over night in bombarded Paris.

We should have been in Paris before seven o'clock. We got there at ten minutes to nine.

All along the line we had been side-tracked or held up to let long military trains have the right of way — trains packed with poilus — those closed cars marked "hommes, 40, chevaux, 8;" you remember them? — with men sitting in the open doors, their feet hanging out, all smoking and laughing, trains camouflé with splashes of green and dirt-coloured paint; trucks on which were mounted all sorts of cannon, their noses in the air, trains of ammunition wagons, trains of trucks carrying huge gas-tanks with all sorts of cautionary directions in huge letters, and, finally, as we drew out of Vaires and stopped, we came alongside of the first train blindé and the first tanks I had ever seen. The huge armoured train — camouflé, of course — consisted of four enormous cars, and each had its lower car for the gunners. On the lower roofs sat the men, singing and laughing— most of them in their shirt-sleeves — extraordinary for French boys — and each car had its mascot. On one was a white lamb, with a ribbon about his neck. On one was a monkey. On one was a white poodle, who looked as if he had just had a bath. On the fourth was a bird in a cage.

Somehow all this bucked me up tremendously. Every one was hanging out of the car windows. There was a hearty exchange of courtesies. There was no sign of anything but high faith and cheery good humour on the faces of any of these men, who, inside a very few hours, would probably be in the thick of it. I drew a long breath as I thought to myself, "Well, the French are not all dead yet. With spirit like this they ought to be able to stem the tide."

The scene at the station in Paris beggared all description. Never since the war began have I seen anything like it. The baggage was piled, pell-mell, on the platforms. It had been apparently many days since there had been any empty space in the baggage rooms. One had to pick one's way through it to find an exit. I found an old porter who knew me to carry my bag, and gave him a receipt for my trunk. He shook his head and advised me not to try to get it that night, as it would surely be hours before I could .find it, and by that time it would be impossible to get a cab, as it would be dark, and cabs do not care to make long trips after dark, when a Gotha attack is an almost nightly occurrence. There seemed to be nothing else to do, although, as I looked about, I saw no reason why anyone could not help himself to a good-looking small trunk like mine and walk off with it.

When we got outside there was no cab in sight, and a crowd waiting. So the old man told me to stay right where I was — not budge, no matter what happened, even if he should be ten minutes. So there I stood fixed in the twilight, watching the scene. Now and then a taxi- auto would come in through the gate. Instantly twenty people would rush to meet it. It was a real case of short distance sprinting and no favour.

But that did not interest me as much as the big camions of the American Red Cross which have done most of the rescue work during this evacuation. The refugees who arrive at this station, after they have been fed and cleaned, are carried by these big camions to the stations on the lines going out to the south and west. It was exciting for Parisians to see these great open camions, with sturdy American lads in their sombreros, in their shirt-sleeves, — with the sleeves rolled to the elbows at that, — standing braced on widespread feet, with their arms folded, as the autos bumped over the pavements.

It was not ten, but twenty, minutes before my old porter finally came back, riding on the running-board of a taxi. I was glad to see him, I can tell you. It was already dark. It was ten o'clock when I reached my destination, and I had left home at four, and had had no dinner — not that this is very important in these days.

I had not even got through talking when the alerte sounded. But this is getting to be a common occurrence, so that it would not be worth recording, if it had not been a rather unusual raid. It was quarter to eleven when the first gun fired, and fifty-five minutes later came the berloque. But while the "all clear" was being bugled in the streets there came a second alerte, and for a few minutes the sirène and the B-flat bugle did a duet, and I assure you it was comic. People who had started from the abris said the whole thing was very funny — the bugler lowered his bugle, — the fireman began tooting his horn, — people who had come out of the cellars ran back — anyway, here are more points for the future makers of farce-comedy.

After it was all over we stood for a while on the balcony listening to the church bells ringing out the message "all clear" in the suburbs. It sounded so pretty. It is a pity that so alluring a sound in the night should be associated with anything so sinister. On our hill, the alerte is given by tolling the bells. I don't enjoy that. We have no "all clear" signal. We know when the forts stop firing that it is over.

As soon as I had my trunk in Paris I wanted to go right home again. I found real comfort in the fact that if I were driven out of my home I should have at least a change of shoes — they are so costly just now — seventy-five francs a pair for shoes that in the old days cost twenty-five. But since I was in town it seemed wise to look the situation over carefully and provide for possibilities. One thing was certain — if I were actually forced out by military operations, with which neither fear nor my own wishes had anything to do, why then Paris would be no place to stay.

There is not in my mind the smallest chance of Paris ever being taken or besieged. But there is a chance that, if the Germans pass Compiègne, they can mount the guns which bombarded Antwerp, and still pound Dunkirk, and Paris may, for a few days, be seriously bombarded. In case of that possibility becoming a fact, I imagine that few of us foreigners would be allowed to stay in Paris, and I have spent all day to-day, which is Sunday, arranging for that eventuality,— that is to say, all except what has been spent writing you this long letter.


Celebrating the 4th of July in Paris

American Independance Day celebrations in Paris in 1918 and 1917


July 12, 1918

The next day I went up to Paris to pass the Fourth, as I wrote you I should. Before I left I made sure that our two communes and Huiry itself had American flags, and left Amélie to fling the Stars and Stripes to the French breezes over the gate here and under the bedroom windows, and on the road side of her house. That is all the fête there will be here, but it is enough.

The Fourth was a lovely day. Every one had anticipated, and even the papers had not hesitated to say, that it was more than likely that the Boches would consider the national fête-day of the States, to be gloriously celebrated in the streets of the French capital, as a legitimate opportunity to bring into play again their long-distance cannon. But the Kaiser, if he expected that possibility would keep anyone from going into the streets to see the boys from the States march down the Champs-Elysées, had another disappointment.

We had no desire to hear the discourses nor to see the statesmen sitting in the official tribunes — the former we could read later, and the latter were an old story. We had instead a desire to see the crowd in the street and the movement and watch the reception of the troops at various points of the short march from Washington's monument at the head of the newly christened Avenue President Wilson to the Strasbourg monument on the Place de la Concorde.

The streets in the vicinity of the line of march were crowded, and everywhere, even in the quiet and deserted streets of the other quarters, were the American flags. There was no shop too small to show one. Bonnes on the way to market had the Stars and Stripes on their market baskets. Every taxi-cab was decorated with the flag, and so was every decrepit old sapin. It floated on the tram-cars and the omnibuses, it hung out of almost every window, and at the entrance of the big apartment houses, already closed but for the presence of the concierge. Crippled soldiers distributed tiny flags on all the streets. We took ours, two steps from the door, from a one-legged chasseur Alpin, who ran about on his peg as lively as a cricket, and as gay — only twenty-two he told me, three years' service stripes on his sleeve, and a croix de guerre and médaille militaire on his breast, and he laughed in my face when I looked grave as he pinned a flag on me, and remarked, "Don't you mind, I'm not done with them yet;" and away he hopped across the street to pin an American flag on some one else.

We took a cab and drove along the line looking, from our higher elevation, over the heads of the crowds behind each barrier, as no one could approach without a ticket to within a block in any direction of the grandstand— there was only one. My object was to see the cortège passing down the Champs-Elysées from the Rond Point to the Place de la Concorde. So we drove to the Avenue Gabriel, and, close to the garden entrance to the Presidential residence we got out and walked across the garden between the Ambassadeurs and the Alcazar, now given up to the American work for the aid of the French wounded. You remember just the place, for I know we went there to dine together ten years ago. You remember? We sat at a table in the balcony just opposite the stage, and had what you called "the best table d'hôte dinner for the price" you had ever eaten, and watched a good variety show — or at least I did. I remember that you were more interested in the women walking about in the couloirs, and the wonderful clothes. Alas ! those days are gone.



On arriving near the Avenue some one helped me mount on to a bench, where, over the heads of the throng massed at the curb, I could look up and down the Avenue, with an American aviator, in a Liberty machine, doing stunts over my head just above the tree-tops, and I assure you I had my heart in my mouth most of the time.

The crowd that packed the line of march was almost as picturesque as the procession. As far as the French went it was, of course, largely women, children, and white-haired men, with a sprinkling of poilus on leave, convalescent soldiers — the crippled soldiers had a reserved stand near the head of the route — and a great number of English and American men in khaki — the Red Cross and Y. M. C. A. units, the commissary men, who have their headquarters in the Avenue, and a sprinkling of uniforms of all the nations in arms. The shouts and cheers went up in waves as the cortège started far away, but in the Avenue itself only began when the head of the line appeared preceded by the band.

Then the cries of "Vivent les Américains," "Vivent nos Alliés" were cut with the "Hip, hip, hurrah!" of the Americans, and it culminated when the division of the Marines, in their battle-stained uniforms, their soiled but trim knapsacks on their backs, and their battered "tin hats" (the boys who cleared the Bois de Belleau), came into sight. I thought then that the kind of crowd which was gathered that day could not make any more noise than they made for the Americans, who, with their guns on their shoulders, marched as steadily as veterans, though their faces were the faces of boys. But I was mistaken, for, with a fine spirit that I loved, they had justly reserved their most ardent acclamations for their own war-worn troops, and the shouts of "Vivent nos poilus" "Vive la France" were as near hysterical as anything I have seen in France since the war began. I saw women laughing and crying at the same time, and only able to wave their hands in greeting.

After it was all over, we found our taxi again and drove back up the Avenue. It looked so gay, with the crowds laughing and chatting and flowers everywhere. Paris had needed to see its armies and cheer the boys from the front. It did them more visible good than all the heroic talk can ever do. I know it did me.

I had loved seeing so many of our boys, not only in the procession, but the crowd in the street. I love seeing — good soldiers as they are proving themselves — how little they stand on ceremony in private life. The officers nod to one another instead of saluting. A common soldier or a corporal says "Hulloa, old man," to his lieutenant, with whom he probably went to school. Even in public an officer will sometimes stand uncovered as he talks in the street to a girl friend. It is only something so solemn as the passing of the colours that brings the American boy erect, his heels together, his shoulders squared, his hand at just the proper angle of salute, and when it is over, he slaps his hand on his leg in real regimental fashion — and limbers up to the characteristic American slouch again.

I remarked to an American officer one day, as he lifted his hat to greet me, that he was most unmilitary, and his reply was: "Hell! We American soldiers are only camoufléd civilians;" and that is terribly true, added to which they have not worn a uniform long enough to be unconscious in playing the rôle of a soldier.

In spite of all the expectations of an attack of some sort, the big cannon made no sign, and there was no air raid that night.

I came back on the sixth, which was last Saturday.


4th of July in Paris - from an American magazine


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