'The First Days'
from the newspaper dispatches of Philip Gibbs


the Begining and the End


Philip Gibbs was already a well-known British journalist and author upon outbreak of the war in August 1914. He was immediately sent to the continent to cover the hostilities. Arrested upon personal orders of Lord Kitchener at least 4 times, he somehow managed to return time and again, either as a volunteer stretcher-bearer, hospital orderly or as an accredited correspondent with the French armies. He was finally officially accredited as one of 5 British war journalists in uniform by intercession of prime minister Lloyd George. Philip Gibbs spent almost the whole of the war at the front, from where he sent his daily dispatches. While detesting the horrors of modern war, he was a staunch admirer and defender of the common soldier and wrote of their tribulations at the front with heart-felt passion and conviction. After the war he was knighted and continued an acclaimed career as journalist and novelist. He died in 1960.

* see also The Soul of the War / Paris at War 1 / Paris at War 2


from August 1914 editions of 'the War Illustrated'


August 2nd

The call to arms came without any loud clamour of bugles or orations.

The quietness of Paris was astounding, and the first mobilization orders were issued with no more publicity than attends the delivery of a trade circular through the halfpenny post. Yet in hundreds of thousands of houses through France and in all the blocks and tenements of Paris there was a drama of tragic quietude when the cards were delivered to young men in civilian clothes.

Fate had come with that little card summoning each man to join his depot, and tapped him on the shoulder with just a finger touch. It was no more than that - a touch on the shoulder. Yet I know that for many of those young men it seemed a strangle-grip as icy cold as though Death's fingers were already closing round their throats.

In the streets of Paris I saw many scenes of farewell. All day long one saw them, so that at last one watched them without emotion, because the pathos of them became monotonous. It was curious how men said good-bye, often, to their wives and children and comrades at a street corner, or in the middle of the boulevards. A hundred times or more I saw one of these conscript soldiers who had put on his uniform again after years of civilian life, turn suddenly to the woman trudging by his side or to a group of people standing around him and say: "Alors, il faut dire Adieu' et 'Au revoir!"

I went down to the East frontier on the first day of mobilization. It was in the evening when I went to take the train from the Gare de I'Est. The station was filled with a seething crowd of civilians and soldiers, struggling to get to the booking-offices, vainly seeking information as to the times of departure to distant towns of France. The railway officials were bewildered and could give no certain information. The line was under military control. Many trains had been suppressed and the others had no fixed time-table. I could only guess at the purpose animating the individuals in these crowds. Many of them, perhaps, were provincialg, caught in Paris by the declaration of war and desperately anxious to get back to their homes before the lines were utterly choked by troop trains. Others belonged to neutral countries and were trying to escape across the frontier before the gates were closed. One of the "neutrals" spoke to me - in German, which was a dangerous tongue in Paris. He was a Swiss who had come to Paris on business for a few days, leaving his wife in a village near Basle. It was of his wife that he kept talking.

"Ach, mein armes Weib! Sie hat Angst fur mich."

I pitied this little man in a shoddy suit and limp straw hat who had no courage to make enquiries of station officials because he spoke no word of French. I asked on his behalf, and after jostling porters had shrugged their shoulders and said, "Je n'en sais rien!" came back with the certain and doleful news that the last train had left that night for Basle. The little Swiss was standing between his packages with his back to the wall, searching for me with anxious eyes, and when I gave him the bad news tears trickled down his face.

There was nothing he could do that night, however anxious his poor wife might be, but I did not have any further conversation with him, for my bad German had already attracted the notice of the people standing near, and they were glowering at me suspiciously, as though I were a spy.

It was an hour later that I found a train leaving for Nancy, though even then I was assured by railway officials that there was no such train. I had faith, however, in a young French officer who pledged his word to me that I should get to Nancy if I took my place in the carriage before which he stood.

As our train passed through France on its way to Nancy, we heard and saw the tumult of a nation arming itself for war and pouring down to its frontiers to meet the enemy. All through the night, as we passed through towns and villages and under railway bridges, the song of the Marseillaise rose up to the carriage windows and then wailed away like a sad plaint as our engine shrieked and raced on.

In the dawn and pallid sunlight of the morning I saw the soldiers of France assembling. They came across the bridges with glinting rifles, and the blue coats and red trousers of the infantry made them look, in the distance, like tin soldiers from a children's playbox. But there were battalions of them close to the railway lines, waiting at level crossings, and with stacked arms on the platforms, so that I could look into their eyes and watch their faces. They stood waiting for their trains in a quiet, patient way, chatting among themselves, smiling, smoking cigarettes, like soldiers on their way to sham fights in the ordinary summer manoeuvres. The town and village folk who crowded about them and leaned over the gates at the level crossings to watch our train, were more demonstrative. They waved hands to us and cried out "Bonne chance!" and the boys and girls chanted the Marseillaise again in shrill voices. At every station where we halted-and we never let one of them go by without a stop some of the girls came along the platform with baskets of fruit, of which they made free gifts to our trainload of men. Sometimes they took payment in kisses, quite simply and without any bashfulness, lifting their faces to the lips of bronzed young men who thrust their kepis back and leaned out of the carriage windows.

"Come back safe and sound, my little one," said a girl. "Fight well for France!"

"I do not hope to come back," said a soldier, "but I shall die fighting."

The fields were swept with the golden light of the sun, and the heavy foliage of the trees sang through every note of green. The white roads of France stretched away straight between the fields and the hills, with endless lines of poplars as their sentinels, and in clouds of greyish dust, rising like smoke, the regiments marched with a steady tramp. Gun carriages moved slowly down the roads in a glare of sun which sparkled upon the steel tubes of the field artillery and made a silver bar of every wheelspoke. I heard the creak of the wheels and the rattle of the limber and the shouts of the drivers to their teams; and I thrilled a little every time we passed one of these batteries, because I knew that in a day or two these machines, which were being carried along the highways of France, would be wreathed with smoke denser than the dust about them now, while they vomited forth shells at the unseen enemy, whose guns would answer with the roar of death.

Guns and men, horses and wagons, interminable convoys of munitions, great armies on the march, trainloads of soldiers on all the branch lines, soldiers bivouacked in the roadways and in market places,, long processions of young civilians carrying bundles to military depots, where they would change their clothes and all their way of life - these pictures of preparation for war flashed through the carriage windows into my brain, mile after mile, through the country of France, until sometimes I closed my eyes to shut out the glare and glitter of this kaleidoscope, the blood-red colour of all those French trousers tramping through the dust, the lurid blue of all those soldiers' overcoats, the sparkle of all. those gunwheels. What does it all mean, this surging tide of armed men? What would it mean in a day or two, when another tide of men had swept up against it, with a roar of conflict, striving to overwhelm this France and to swamp over its barriers in waves of blood? How senseless it seemed that those mild-eyed fellows outside my carriage windows, chatting with the girls while we waited for the signals to fall, should be on their way to kill other mild-eyed men, who perhaps, away in Germany, were kissing other girls, for gifts of fruit and flowers.


from an August 1914 edition of 'the War Illustrated'


August 15th

They are here. We heard quite suddenly the familiar accents of English Tommies in provincial towns of France, and came unexpectedly upon khaki-clad battalions marching and singing along the country roads. For the first time there rang out in France the ballad which has become by a queer freak the war song of the British Army - It's a long way to Tipperary, learnt with comical accent by French peasants and French girls, who in the first fine thrill of enthusiasm, sang it emotionally as though it were a hymn, holding all their love for England, all their hope for England's help, all their admiration of these boys going to war in France in a sporting spirit as though it were a great game. I went back to Paris for a day when General French arrived, and even now I hear those shouts of "Vive I'Angleterre!" which followed the motor-car in which our General made his triumphant progress. The shopgirls of Paris threw flowers from the windows as the car passed. Dense crowds of citizens thronged the narrow street of Faubourg St. Honoré, and waited patiently for hours outside the Embassy to catch one glimpse of the strong, stem, thoughtful face of the man who had come with his legions to assist France in the great hour of need. They talked to each other about the inflexibility of his character' about the massive jaw, which, they said, would bite off Germany's head. They cheered in the English manner, with a "Heep! heep! hooray!"-when they caught sight for the first time of the khaki uniforms of English officers on the steps of the Ministry of War. The arrival of English troops here was red wine to the hearts of the French people. It seemed to them the great guarantee of victory. "With England marching side by side with us," they said, "we shall soon be in Berlin!"

A train-load of Royal Engineers came into one of the stations where I happened to be waiting.

"Funny lingo, Bill!" said one of the men. "Can't make out a bit of it. But they mean well, I guess!"

So the British Army has come to France, and a strange chapter is being written in the history of the world, contrasting amazingly with former chronicles. English battalions bivouacked by old French houses which had looked down upon scenes of revolution in 1789, and in the shadow of its churches which rang for French victories or tolled for French defeats when Napoleon's generals were fighting English regiments exactly one hundred years ago. In seaport villages and towns, which smell of tar and nets and absinthe and stale wine, I saw horses stabled in every inn-yard; streets were littered with straw, and English soldiers sauntered about within certain strict boundaries, studying picture postcards and giving the "glad eye" to any little French girl who peeped at them through barred windows. Only officers of high rank knew where they were bound. The men, devoid of all curiosity, were satisfied with the general knowledge that they were "on the continong," and well on the way to "have a smack at the Germans." There was the rattle and rumble of English guns down country highways. Long lines of khaki-clad men, like a writhing brown snake when seen from afar, moved slowly along winding roads, through cornfields where the harvest was cut and stacked, or down long avenues of poplars, interminably straight, or through quaint old towns and villages with whitewashed houses and overhanging gables, and high stone steps leading to bams and dormer-chambers.

Before this war is finished, these soldiers of ours, who are singing on their way, in dapper suits of khaki, will be all tattered and torn, with straw tied round their feet, with stubby beards on their chins, with the grime of gunpowder and dust and grease and mud and blood upon their hands and faces.

After these words were written, I came upon a scene which fulfilled them, too quickly. At a French junction there was a shout of command in English, and I saw a body of men in khaki, with Red Cross armlets, run across a platform to an incoming train from the north, with stretchers and drinking bottles. A party of English soldiers had arrived from a battle at a place called Mons. With French passengers from another train, I was kept back by soldiers with fixed bayonets, but through the hedge of steel I saw a number of "Tommies" with bandaged heads and limbs descending from the troop train. Some of them hung limp between their nurses. Their faces, so fresh when I had first seen them on, the way out, had become grey and muddy, and were streaked with blood. Their khaki uniforms were tom and cut. One poor boy moaned pitifully as they carried him away on a stretcher. They were the first fruits of this unnatural harvesting, lopped and maimed by a cruel reaper. I stared at them with a kind of sickness. It came as a queer, silly shock to me then to realize that in this secret war for which I was searching, men were really being smashed and killed, and that out of the mystery of it, out of the distant terror from which great multitudes were fleeing, out of the black shadow creeping across the sunlit hills of France, where the enemy, whom no fugitives had seen, was advancing like a moving tide, there should come thesp English boys, crippled and broken, from an unknown battle. I was able to speak to one of them, wounded only in the hand, but there was no time for more than a question or two and an answer which hardly gave me definite knowledge.

"We got it in the neck! " said the sergeant of the R.F.A. He repeated the words as if they held all truth.

"We got it in the neck!"

"Where?" I asked.

He waved his wounded hand northwards, and said: "Mons."

"Do you mean we were beaten? In retreat ?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"We gave 'em what for. Oh, yes, they had to pay right enough. But they were too much for us. Came on like lice ... swarming ... Couldn't kill enough ... then we got it in the neck ... Lost a good few men ... Gord, I've never seen such work! South Africa? No more than child's play to this 'ere game!"

He gave a queer kind of grin, with no mirth in his eyes, and went away with the other wounded men.

Mons? It was the first I had heard of a battle there. And our men were having a hard time. The enemy were too much for us. Was it a retreat? Perhaps a rout?

It was some time before we heard the guns, but not long before we saw the effects of war, in blood, anguish, and tears.

The enemy was doing frightful damage, with a rapidity and ruthlessness which, after the check at Liege, was a tremendous menace to the Allied armies.

From that day I have been seldom out of sight of this ruin of Belgium. I went into the heart of it, into the welter of blood and wreckage, and stood, expecting death, in the very process of its deadly torture. I walked and talked with Belgian fugitives, and drifted in that stream of exiled people, and watched them in the far places of their flight, where they were encamped in settled hopelessness, asking nothing of the fate which had dealt them such foul blows expecting nothing.

I think it is impossible to convey to those who did not see this exodus of the Belgian people the meaning and misery of it. Even in the midst of it, I had a strange idea at first that it was only a fantasy and that such things do not happen.

On the railway sidings near Calais there was one sight that revealed the defeat of a nation more even than these crowds of refugees. Hundreds of Belgian engines had been rushed over the frontier to France to escape from being used in the enemy's service. These derelict things stood there in long rows with a dismal look of lifelessness and abandonment, and as I looked at them I knew that though the remnants of the Belgian army might be fighting in its last ditch and holding out at Antwerp against the siege guns of the Germans, there could be no hope of prolonged resistance against overwhelming armies. These engines, which should have been used for Belgian transport, for men and food and guns, were out of action, and dead symbols of a nation's ruin.

For the first time, I saw Belgian soldiers in France, and although they were in small number compared with the great army of retreat which, after the fall of Antwerp, I saw marching into Dunkirk, their weariness and listlessness told a We of woe. At first sight there was something comical in the aspect of these top-hatted soldiers. They reminded me of battalions of London cabbies who had ravaged the dustbins for discarded "toppers." Their double-breasted coats had just the cut of those of the ancient jehus who used to sit aloft on decrepit "growlers."

Other bodies of Belgian soldiers wore ludicrous little kepis with immense eye-shades, mostly broken or hanging limp in a dejected way. In times of peace I should have laughed at the look of them. But now there was nothing humorous about these haggard, dirty men from Ghent who had borne the first shock of the German attack. They seemed stupefied for lack of sleep, or dazed after the noise of battle. I asked some of them where they were going, but they shook their heads and answered gloomily: "We don't know. We know nothing, except that our Belgium is destroyed. What is the news?"

There was no news-beyond what one could glean from the incoherent tales of Belgian refugees.

After the struggling tides of fugitive tourists, and overlapping the waves of Belgian refugees, there came new streams of panic-stricken people, and this time they were French. They came from the northern towns-Lille, Roubaix, Tourcoing, Armentieres, and from scores of villages further south which had seemed utterly safe and aloof from hostile armies which, with faith in official communiqu6s issued by the French Ministry of War, we believed to be still checked beyond the French frontier in Belgium. Lille?

Was Lillie threatened by the Kaiser's troops? It had been evacuated? No, that could not be true, unless treachery had been at work. Lille could hold out, surely, at least as long as Liege! Had we not read long articles by the military experts of the French Press describing the strength of that town and the impregnable position of its forts? Yet here were refugees from Lille who had heard the roar of German guns, and brought incredible stories of French troops in retreat, and spoke the name of a French general with bitter scorn, and the old cry of "Nous sommes trahis!"

The refugees from the north were in as pitiable a state as those who had preceded them from Belgium. More pitiable, because when they reached such ports as Calais or Boulogne or Havre, the hotels and lodging houses were overcrowded from attic to cellars, the buffets had been swept clear of food, and committees of relief were already distracted with the overwhelming needs of a Belgian invasion.

The narrow streets - evil with odours brought forth by a hot sun, were filled with surging crowds which became denser as new trains arrived from Calais and Dunkirk and junctions on northern lines. The people carried with them the salvage of their homes, wrapped up in blankets, sheets, towels and bits of ragged paper. Parcels of grotesque shapes, containing copper pots, frying pans, clocks, crockery and all kinds of domestic utensils or treasured ornaments, bulged on the pavements and quaysides, French loaves - the commissariat of these journeys of despair cuddled to their bosoms with the babes. Old grandfathers and grandmothers, who looked as though they had never left their native villages before, came hand in hand, with shaking heads and watery eyes, bewildered by all this turmoil of humanity which had been thrust out, like themselves, from its familiar ways of life. Well- to-do -bourgeois, hot, with frayed nerves, exhausted by an excess of emotion and fatigue, searched for lodgings, anywhere and at any price, jostled by armies of peasants, shaggy-haired, in clumping sabots, with bundles on their backs, who were wandering on the same quest for the sake of the women and children dragging wearily in their wake…I heard a woman cry out words of surrender: "Je n’en peux plus!" She was spent and could go no further, but halted suddenly, dumped down her bundles and her babies and, leaning against a sunbaked wall, thrust the back of a rough hand across her forehead, with a moan of spiritual pain. "Ciel! ... Cest trop! c'est trop!"

All day long these scenes went on, until I could bear them no longer, but went indoors to the room which made me feel a selfish monster because I shared it with only two friends. Boulogne became quiet in the darkness. Perhaps by some miracle all those homeless ones had found a shelter.... I awakened out of a drowsy sleep to hear the tramp of in. numerable feet. A new army of fugitives had come into the town. I heard voices murmuring below my window, arguing, pleading. There was a banging at doors down the street.

"Cest impossible! Il n’y a pas de place! It y a une foule qui dort en plein air. Voyez! voyez!"

The night porter slammed his own door in a rage. Perhaps there was pity in his heart as well as rage, but what can a man do when people demand admittance to an hotel where there are already six people in the bathroom and sixty on the floor of the salon, and stiff bodies wrapped in blankets, like corpses in eternal sleep, lying about in the corridors?

"There are crowds of people sleeping in the open air," he said, and when I leaned out of the window, staring into the darkness of the night, and breathing in the' cool air which had nn autumn touch, I saw dimly on the pavement below huddled figures in the doorways and under the shelter of the eaves. A baby wailed with a thin cry. A woman's voice whimpered just below my window, and a man spoke to her. "C'est la guerre!"

The words came up to me as though to answer the question in my own mind as to why such things should be.


hand-colored versions of original black and white photos

to 'the Last Days' by Philip Gibbs
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