- the War Illustrated 9th September, 1916
- 'How I Got into Rheims
- during the Bombardment'
- by Julius M. Price from
- Artist-Correspondent of the "Illustrated London News"
True Tales of the War by Famous Correspondents
a photo of Rheims during the initial bombardment
MR. JULIUS MENDES PRICE has crowded adventure into his life since he became attached to the "Illustrated London News" as war-artist and correspondent. For journalistic purposes he enlisted as a trooper in Methuen's Horse ln the Bechuanaland Campaign of 1884-85, and served with the regiment till it was disbanded. Later he went with the Exploration Expedition to open up the Nordenskiold route to the interior of Siberia, and afterwards travelled alone across Mongolia and the Gobi Desert to Peking. He was with the Greek Army in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, and with the Russian Army in Manchuria in 1904-5- There was thus little for him to learn when he went to France for his paper in the present war, and his thrilling yet amusing story, written specially for the War Illustrated, shows once again that in daring and resource, and in power of graphic writing, he retains to the full his position in the first rank of war-correspondents.
During the early weeks of the war the life of a correspondent in France was the scarcely worth living as for unexplained reasons the war authorities were one .and all determined he should see as little as possible of what was going on, with the result that unless he was content to fool away time in Paris, waiting for permission to go to the front, lie might as well have returned to London forthwith.
After a very short time this irksome and apparently needless restraint got on my nerves. At the Ministeres des Affaires Etrangeres, where a "Press Bureau" had been established, the officials were courtesy personified, but you soon realised that this was but a polite method of putting you off.
So at last I determined to kick over the traces, and decided - if I may be forgiven the "bull" to take French leave as I couldn't get it, and was so far successful that I managed to leave Paris, get into the war zone, and remain there four months.
It was not, however, easy sailing by any means - for with me the bump of inquisitiveness is strongly developed, and as a result I was continually getting into hot water somewhere. I forget for the moment how many times exactly during those four months I was arrested for being in places where I was not welcome ; I believe it. was six in all. But anyhow, of one thing I am certain as I recall them to mind now, that every one of them was worth all the risks entailed.
There is an element of adventure which imparts additional zest to the knowledge that you have no right to be where you are, wherever that may be. In my particular case, the fact of my intimately knowing France and its customs, and speaking French as easily as English, gave me the opportunity of wandering far afield and enabled me also to make friends everywhere.
The Friendly French
There is no more cheery companion in the world than the average Frenchman, and if he takes to you, you have in him a real friend. I was particularly fortunate in this respect during my wanderings, and met a lot of good fellows who went out of their way to be of service to me. . In this connection I recall what was perhaps one of the most thrilling adventures I had while at the French front. Hitherto I have refrained from narrating it for fear of getting anyone into trouble, but as it occurred as far back as September 1914, I feel that there can be no harm in relating it now.
I was in Epernay shortly after the Battle of the Marne, and was trying my utmost, to get a permit to go to Rheims, which was then in the throes of the bombardment - but without success. In the meantime, I had made friends with an officer of the train des equipages (motor-transport convoy), that. went every day with stores from Epernay to a distributing depot a few miles from Rheims. He genially offered to give me a run out there in his car any day if I could get permission to go with him.
The Commandant d'Armes, after some demur, consented to my having a laisser passer, which allowed me to go to several places along the line - amongst others the destination of the transport convoy. I ventured to hint that while he was about it Rheirns might be included, since it was only a few miles farther on - but to no effect. If I could get permission from the " privante " (i.e., the gendarmerie) to go there, well and good, but so far as h. was concerned he could not give it to me. My transport friend was as good as his word. On seeing my laisser passer he agreed to take me with him the following day.
Humour in a Motor-Wagon
The convoy left Epernay every morning at seven o'clock, and I was advised not to bring any bulky luggage, as the car was only a small one. As I only had my rucksak with me, this did not trouble me. When I turned up, my friend informed me that he regretted he would riot be able to go with me, so he would put me on the leading wagon, which was driven by the sergeant in temporary command of the convoy.
It was a bit of a disappointment, after looking forward to a jaunt in a luxurious car, the more especially as I should be with men I did not know at all; but there was no help for it, and no time to lose, as punctuality was strictly observed, So up I climbed oil to the box scat -and off we went.
The convoy consisted of every description of motor-wagons and some Paris motor-omnibuses - about a dozen in all - packed full up with army stores, forage, etc. There were three soldiers, including the chauffeur to each car, so it made a pretty tight squeeze, as I soon realised. But my companions had a keen sense of humour and treated my being with them as quite a good joke ; in fact, we were speedily on the best of terms.
It was a dull, grey, autumnal morning, with a sharpish wind that cut through one like a knife, and was, moreover, very cramped and uncomfortable on the unsheltered seat of the wagon. I was wearing breeches and gaiters and a Norfolk jacket, with only a light "Burberry" waterproof as overcoat, so before we had gone very far I was chilled to the very bone. Almost needless to mention, my companions were wearing their heavy army greatcoats.
A few miles along the road we stopped for some reason or another, and I profited by it to endeavour to make myself a bit more comfortable. The sergeant stowed my rucksak under the seat, and kindly got a man to fetch a blanket to go over my knees. 1
Suddenly it seemed to occur to him that my waterproof was not very warm, and he insisted on my getting into a spare greatcoat that was in the wagon. It was very big for me, and came well down below my knees, and thus hid my breeches.
The greatcoat of the French soldier is practically his entire uniform, as he always wears it summer and winter. I could only guess the transformation in my appearance by the laughter it produced. "He only wants a kepi to look a typical reserviste," someone remarked.
"Then lend me one," said I, "and I shall not look. out of place on the wagon." This was agreed to nem. con. In a few moments a cap was found that fitted me, and that fortunately, like the greatcoat, had no regimental number on it. Quite a bit of luck, in fact. I pulled the cap well down over my eyes, turned up the collar of the coat, and felt, that my best friend would have failed to recognise me.
As I clambered back to my seat the, thought flashed through my mind what a mad thing I was doing, and that there would be the very devil to pay if I were caught masquerading like this; but the thrill of the adventure and the humour of the situation soon made me feel at my ease again, and as we passed several officers I took the cue from my companions and, to their great amusement, saluted as they did.
"Where is it you want to get to ?" asked the sergeant, suddenly; as though an idea had struck him.
"Rhems," I replied, "if the gendarmes will let me."
"You need not trouble about that," he remarked. "I will drive you on there after I have got rid of my cargo. I don't suppose we shall be very long unloading, and then I am free for a few hours."
"It won't get you into any trouble, taking me there ?" I asked, for I did not want to take advantage of his good nature.
Not in the least," he replied. I want to get a few .things one can't buy in Epernay, and it will be an excuse to try and get them in Rheims. And at the same time we can have an aperitif together if there is a café left." So it was arranged that I should remain in the wagon while it was being unloaded.
I felt I should be showing nervousness if I made any objection, besides which we were now quite close to our destination, and I had no chance to alter my mind and get out of the uniform, even if I had wanted to.
The distributing depot was a sort of junction where several big roads converged, and it would have been impossible to picture a more animated scene of military activity. Officers and men of apparently every branch of the French Army were there; military vehicles of every description were drawn up awaiting our arrival.
"I shall have to leave you for a little while," said the sergeant as he pulled up. "But you just stay where you are, and no one will take any notice of you." And without giving me time to reply, he jumped down and disappeared in the throng of soldiers. Meanwhile, his companion had hurried off to the back of the wagon and started unfastening the flaps. So I. was left quite alone.
As may be imagined, I felt anything but comfortable.
I realised now the risk I was running, for round about I could see several gendarmes, and it was not difficult to imagine what would happen if they " spotted'; me. A military officer might: perhaps look upon my escapade as a joke, but a gendarme sergeant would have no such sense of humour. I had already had experience of his views of "duty" and the mere thought of getting into his clutches again made a cold shiver run down my back. The French gendarme is conscientiousness personified, and he is hard as several bricks.
Since no one seemed to take any particular notice of me, I lit a cigarette and assumed as nonchalant an air as possible.
A little incident however occurred which even, now makes me shudder when I recall it - for I was within. an ace of being discovered.
Within an Ace of Discovery
A load of empty sacks had just been dumped on the ground in front of me. Then a big empty " camion " drew up alongside. At this moment an excitable captain of dragoons, who was evidently hustling around looking for something to find fault with, noticed a soldier standing idly by my wagon, with his hands in his pockets.
`What are you doing there ? " bawled the officer.
"Nothing for the moment, mon capitaine," was the reply.
"How nothing ? Then set to work and do something. Pick up horse dung - anything-but, N- de Dieux, don't stand there doing nothing! " Then suddenly espying the heap of empty sacks, to my consternation he called out to me : Where are these sacks to go - in this camion ? indicating the one that had just drawn up.
I could not risk a complicated reply, in case my accent might betray me, so without the slightest hesitation I saluted smartly and replied, Oui, mon capitaine !"
To my relief he took no more notice of me, but in less time almost than it takes to relate, he had got the soldier hard at work piling the sacks in the van. In a few minutes it was loaded up.
En route !" the officer called out to the chauffeur, and off went the wagon with the sacks. Where they got to, heaven only knows perhaps they are still travelling.
Meanwhile, the distribution of stores had been proceeding rapidly, and the various regimental wagons were starting on their return journeys with their loads. The throng was thinning out. The day's routine of our convoy was ended.
At last the sergeant turned up. "Well, they haven't shot you ?" he exclaimed jocularly, as he accepted a cigarette I offered him. "How have you got on ? No one took any notice of you ? I told you they wouldn't. I'm sorry I was away so long, but there was a lot to see to."
I told him the incident of the sacks, whereupon he gave a long whistle, and then roared with laughter, at the dénouement. He evidently thought it a capital joke. And now for Rheims and our apéritif I"
It was a run of about eight miles, and once past the depot we seemed to leave the military zone for the time being. It was a delightful country road, typically French, and for the first mile or so, had it not been for the distant booming of big guns, one might almost have forgotten the war. But a turn in the road brought it back in all its reality.
One saw the Cathedral of Rheims. standing out in sharp silhouette against the sky. All around were significant columns of smoke - the bombardment of the city was continuing with unabated fury.
The guard at the Porte de Paris took no notice whatever of us. No doubt hundreds of military transport wagons passed through the gates every day.
The sergeant knew his way to the café where I had been told I could get lodgings, and drove through an unfrequented lane, where he pulled up and advised me to get into civilian attire again. The sense of relief I experienced when I had got out of the regimentals can be better imagined than described. I felt I would not have gone through the adventure again for a pension.
- left : the bombardment of Rheims
- from a French penny novelette of 'la Collection Patrie'
- right : portrait of the author Julius Price
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