Edith Wharton.

Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort online

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Produced by Charles Aldarondo. HTML version by Al Haines.








(AUGUST, 1914 - FEBUARY, 1915)



On the 30th of July, 1914, motoring north from Poitiers, we had
lunched somewhere by the roadside under apple-trees on the edge of a
field. Other fields stretched away on our right and left to a border
of woodland and a village steeple. All around was noonday quiet, and
the sober disciplined landscape which the traveller's memory is apt
to evoke as distinctively French. Sometimes, even to accustomed
eyes, these ruled-off fields and compact grey villages seem merely
flat and tame; at other moments the sensitive imagination sees in
every thrifty sod and even furrow the ceaseless vigilant attachment
of generations faithful to the soil. The particular bit of landscape
before us spoke in all its lines of that attachment. The air seemed
full of the long murmur of human effort, the rhythm of oft-repeated
tasks, the serenity of the scene smiled away the war rumours which
had hung on us since morning.

All day the sky had been banked with thunder-clouds, but by the time
we reached Chartres, toward four o'clock, they had rolled away under
the horizon, and the town was so saturated with sunlight that to
pass into the cathedral was like entering the dense obscurity of a
church in Spain. At first all detail was imperceptible; we were in a
hollow night. Then, as the shadows gradually thinned and gathered
themselves up into pier and vault and ribbing, there burst out of
them great sheets and showers of colour. Framed by such depths of
darkness, and steeped in a blaze of mid-summer sun, the familiar
windows seemed singularly remote and yet overpoweringly vivid. Now
they widened into dark-shored pools splashed with sunset, now
glittered and menaced like the shields of fighting angels. Some were
cataracts of sapphires, others roses dropped from a saint's tunic,
others great carven platters strewn with heavenly regalia, others
the sails of galleons bound for the Purple Islands; and in the
western wall the scattered fires of the rose-window hung like a
constellation in an African night. When one dropped one's eyes form
these ethereal harmonies, the dark masses of masonry below them, all
veiled and muffled in a mist pricked by a few altar lights, seemed
to symbolize the life on earth, with its shadows, its heavy
distances and its little islands of illusion. All that a great
cathedral can be, all the meanings it can express, all the
tranquilizing power it can breathe upon the soul, all the richness
of detail it can fuse into a large utterance of strength and beauty,
the cathedral of Chartres gave us in that perfect hour.

It was sunset when we reached the gates of Paris. Under the heights
of St. Cloud and Suresnes the reaches of the Seine trembled with the
blue-pink lustre of an early Monet. The Bois lay about us in the
stillness of a holiday evening, and the lawns of Bagatelle were as
fresh as June. Below the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysees sloped
downward in a sun-powdered haze to the mist of fountains and the
ethereal obelisk; and the currents of summer life ebbed and flowed
with a normal beat under the trees of the radiating avenues. The
great city, so made for peace and art and all humanest graces,
seemed to lie by her river-side like a princess guarded by the
watchful giant of the Eiffel Tower.

The next day the air was thundery with rumours. Nobody believed
them, everybody repeated them. War? Of course there couldn't be war!
The Cabinets, like naughty children, were again dangling their feet
over the edge; but the whole incalculable weight of things-as-they-were,
of the daily necessary business of living, continued calmly and
convincingly to assert itself against the bandying of diplomatic
words. Paris went on steadily about her mid-summer business of
feeding, dressing, and amusing the great army of tourists who were
the only invaders she had seen for nearly half a century.

All the while, every one knew that other work was going on also. The
whole fabric of the country's seemingly undisturbed routine was
threaded with noiseless invisible currents of preparation, the sense
of them was in the calm air as the sense of changing weather is in
the balminess of a perfect afternoon. Paris counted the minutes till
the evening papers came.

They said little or nothing except what every one was already
declaring all over the country. "We don't want war - _mais it faut
que cela finisse!_" "This kind of thing has got to stop": that was
the only phase one heard. If diplomacy could still arrest the war,
so much the better: no one in France wanted it. All who spent the
first days of August in Paris will testify to the agreement of
feeling on that point. But if war had to come, the country, and
every heart in it, was ready.

At the dressmaker's, the next morning, the tired fitters were
preparing to leave for their usual holiday. They looked pale and
anxious - decidedly, there was a new weight of apprehension in the
air. And in the rue Royale, at the corner of the Place de la
Concorde, a few people had stopped to look at a little strip of
white paper against the wall of the Ministere de la Marine. "General
mobilization" they read - and an armed nation knows what that means.
But the group about the paper was small and quiet. Passers by read
the notice and went on. There were no cheers, no gesticulations: the
dramatic sense of the race had already told them that the event was
too great to be dramatized. Like a monstrous landslide it had fallen
across the path of an orderly laborious nation, disrupting its
routine, annihilating its industries, rending families apart, and
burying under a heap of senseless ruin the patiently and painfully
wrought machinery of civilization...

That evening, in a restaurant of the rue Royale, we sat at a table
in one of the open windows, abreast with the street, and saw the
strange new crowds stream by. In an instant we were being shown what
mobilization was - a huge break in the normal flow of traffic, like
the sudden rupture of a dyke. The street was flooded by the torrent
of people sweeping past us to the various railway stations. All were
on foot, and carrying their luggage; for since dawn every cab and
taxi and motor - omnibus had disappeared. The War Office had thrown
out its drag-net and caught them all in. The crowd that passed our
window was chiefly composed of conscripts, the _mobilisables_ of the
first day, who were on the way to the station accompanied by their
families and friends; but among them were little clusters of
bewildered tourists, labouring along with bags and bundles, and
watching their luggage pushed before them on hand-carts - puzzled
inarticulate waifs caught in the cross-tides racing to a maelstrom.

In the restaurant, the befrogged and red-coated band poured out
patriotic music, and the intervals between the courses that so few
waiters were left to serve were broken by the ever-recurring
obligation to stand up for the Marseillaise, to stand up for God
Save the King, to stand up for the Russian National Anthem, to stand
up again for the Marseillaise. "_Et dire que ce sont des Hongrois
qui jouent tout cela!"_ a humourist remarked from the pavement.

As the evening wore on and the crowd about our window thickened, the
loiterers outside began to join in the war-songs. "_Allons, debout!_
" - and the loyal round begins again. "La chanson du depart" is a
frequent demand; and the chorus of spectators chimes in roundly. A
sort of quiet humour was the note of the street. Down the rue
Royale, toward the Madeleine, the bands of other restaurants were
attracting other throngs, and martial refrains were strung along the
Boulevard like its garlands of arc-lights. It was a night of singing
and acclamations, not boisterous, but gallant and determined. It was
Paris _badauderie_ at its best.

Meanwhile, beyond the fringe of idlers the steady stream of
conscripts still poured along. Wives and families trudged beside
them, carrying all kinds of odd improvised bags and bundles. The
impression disengaging itself from all this superficial confusion
was that of a cheerful steadiness of spirit. The faces ceaselessly
streaming by were serious but not sad; nor was there any air of
bewilderment - the stare of driven cattle. All these lads and young
men seemed to know what they were about and why they were about it.
The youngest of them looked suddenly grown up and responsible; they
understood their stake in the job, and accepted it.

The next day the army of midsummer travel was immobilized to let the
other army move. No more wild rushes to the station, no more bribing
of concierges, vain quests for invisible cabs, haggard hours of
waiting in the queue at Cook's. No train stirred except to carry
soldiers, and the civilians who had not bribed and jammed their way
into a cranny of the thronged carriages leaving the first night
could only creep back through the hot streets to their hotel and
wait. Back they went, disappointed yet half-relieved, to the
resounding emptiness of porterless halls, waiterless restaurants,
motionless lifts: to the queer disjointed life of fashionable hotels
suddenly reduced to the intimacies and make-shift of a Latin
Quarter _pension._ Meanwhile it was strange to watch the gradual
paralysis of the city. As the motors, taxis, cabs and vans had
vanished from the streets, so the lively little steamers had left
the Seine. The canal-boats too were gone, or lay motionless: loading
and unloading had ceased. Every great architectural opening framed
an emptiness; all the endless avenues stretched away to desert
distances. In the parks and gardens no one raked the paths or
trimmed the borders. The fountains slept in their basins, the
worried sparrows fluttered unfed, and vague dogs, shaken out of
their daily habits, roamed unquietly, looking for familiar eyes.
Paris, so intensely conscious yet so strangely entranced, seemed to
have had _curare_ injected into all her veins.

The next day - the 2nd of August - from the terrace of the Hotel
de Crillon one looked down on a first faint stir of returning life.
Now and then a taxi-cab or a private motor crossed the Place de la
Concorde, carrying soldiers to the stations. Other conscripts, in
detachments, tramped by on foot with bags and banners. One
detachment stopped before the black-veiled statue of Strasbourg and
laid a garland at her feet. In ordinary times this demonstration
would at once have attracted a crowd; but at the very moment when it
might have been expected to provoke a patriotic outburst it excited
no more attention than if one of the soldiers had turned aside to
give a penny to a beggar. The people crossing the square did not
even stop to look. The meaning of this apparent indifference was
obvious. When an armed nation mobilizes, everybody is busy, and busy
in a definite and pressing way. It is not only the fighters that
mobilize: those who stay behind must do the same. For each French
household, for each individual man or woman in France, war means a
complete reorganization of life. The detachment of conscripts,
unnoticed, paid their tribute to the Cause and passed on...

Looked back on from these sterner months those early days in Paris,
in their setting of grave architecture and summer skies, wear the
light of the ideal and the abstract. The sudden flaming up of
national life, the abeyance of every small and mean preoccupation,
cleared the moral air as the streets had been cleared, and made the
spectator feel as though he were reading a great poem on War rather
than facing its realities.

Something of this sense of exaltation seemed to penetrate the
throngs who streamed up and down the Boulevards till late into the
night. All wheeled traffic had ceased, except that of the rare
taxi-cabs impressed to carry conscripts to the stations; and the
middle of the Boulevards was as thronged with foot-passengers as an
Italian market-place on a Sunday morning. The vast tide swayed up
and down at a slow pace, breaking now and then to make room for one
of the volunteer "legions" which were forming at every corner:
Italian, Roumanian, South American, North American, each headed by
its national flag and hailed with cheering as it passed. But even
the cheers were sober: Paris was not to be shaken out of her
self-imposed serenity. One felt something nobly conscious and
voluntary in the mood of this quiet multitude. Yet it was a mixed
throng, made up of every class, from the scum of the Exterior
Boulevards to the cream of the fashionable restaurants. These
people, only two days ago, had been leading a thousand different
lives, in indifference or in antagonism to each other, as alien as
enemies across a frontier: now workers and idlers, thieves, beggars,
saints, poets, drabs and sharpers, genuine people and showy shams,
were all bumping up against each other in an instinctive community
of emotion. The "people," luckily, predominated; the faces of
workers look best in such a crowd, and there were thousands of them,
each illuminated and singled out by its magnesium-flash of passion.

I remember especially the steady-browed faces of the women; and also
the small but significant fact that every one of them had remembered
to bring her dog. The biggest of these amiable companions had to
take their chance of seeing what they could through the forest of
human legs; but every one that was portable was snugly lodged in the
bend of an elbow, and from this safe perch scores and scores of
small serious muzzles, blunt or sharp, smooth or woolly, brown or
grey or white or black or brindled, looked out on the scene with the
quiet awareness of the Paris dog. It was certainly a good sign that
they had not been forgotten that night.


WE had been shown, impressively, what it was to live through a
mobilization; now we were to learn that mobilization is only one of
the concomitants of martial law, and that martial law is not
comfortable to live under - at least till one gets used to it.

At first its main purpose, to the neutral civilian, seemed certainly
to be the wayward pleasure of complicating his life; and in that
line it excelled in the last refinements of ingenuity. Instructions
began to shower on us after the lull of the first days: instructions
as to what to do, and what not to do, in order to make our presence
tolerable and our persons secure. In the first place, foreigners
could not remain in France without satisfying the authorities as to
their nationality and antecedents; and to do this necessitated
repeated ineffective visits to chanceries, consulates and police
stations, each too densely thronged with flustered applicants to
permit the entrance of one more. Between these vain pilgrimages, the
traveller impatient to leave had to toil on foot to distant railway
stations, from which he returned baffled by vague answers and
disheartened by the declaration that tickets, when achievable, must
also be _vises_ by the police. There was a moment when it seemed
that ones inmost thoughts had to have that unobtainable _visa_ - to
obtain which, more fruitless hours must be lived on grimy stairways
between perspiring layers of fellow-aliens. Meanwhile one's money
was probable running short, and one must cable or telegraph for
more. Ah - but cables and telegrams must be _vises_ too - and even
when they were, one got no guarantee that they would be sent! Then
one could not use code addresses, and the ridiculous number of words
contained in a New York address seemed to multiply as the francs in
one's pockets diminished. And when the cable was finally dispatched
it was either lost on the way, or reached its destination only to
call forth, after anxious days, the disheartening response:
"Impossible at present. Making every effort." It is fair to add
that, tedious and even irritating as many of these transactions
were, they were greatly eased by the sudden uniform good-nature of
the French functionary, who, for the first time, probably, in the
long tradition of his line, broke through its fundamental rule and
was kind.

Luckily, too, these incessant comings and goings involved much
walking of the beautiful idle summer streets, which grew idler and
more beautiful each day. Never had such blue-grey softness of
afternoon brooded over Paris, such sunsets turned the heights of the
Trocadero into Dido's Carthage, never, above all, so rich a moon
ripened through such perfect evenings. The Seine itself had no small
share in this mysterious increase of the city's beauty. Released
from all traffic, its hurried ripples smoothed themselves into long
silken reaches in which quays and monuments at last saw their
unbroken images. At night the fire-fly lights of the boats had
vanished, and the reflections of the street lamps were lengthened
into streamers of red and gold and purple that slept on the calm
current like fluted water-weeds. Then the moon rose and took
possession of the city, purifying it of all accidents, calming and
enlarging it and giving it back its ideal lines of strength and
repose. There was something strangely moving in this new Paris of
the August evenings, so exposed yet so serene, as though her very
beauty shielded her.

So, gradually, we fell into the habit of living under martial law.
After the first days of flustered adjustment the personal
inconveniences were so few that one felt almost ashamed of their not
being more, of not being called on to contribute some greater
sacrifice of comfort to the Cause. Within the first week over two
thirds of the shops had closed - the greater number bearing on their
shuttered windows the notice "Pour cause de mobilisation," which
showed that the "patron" and staff were at the front. But enough
remained open to satisfy every ordinary want, and the closing of the
others served to prove how much one could do without. Provisions
were as cheap and plentiful as ever, though for a while it was
easier to buy food than to have it cooked. The restaurants were
closing rapidly, and one often had to wander a long way for a meal,
and wait a longer time to get it. A few hotels still carried on a
halting life, galvanized by an occasional inrush of travel from
Belgium and Germany; but most of them had closed or were being
hastily transformed into hospitals.

The signs over these hotel doors first disturbed the dreaming
harmony of Paris. In a night, as it seemed, the whole city was hung
with Red Crosses. Every other building showed the red and white band
across its front, with "Ouvroir" or "Hopital" beneath; there
was something sinister in these preparations for horrors in which
one could not yet believe, in the making of bandages for limbs yet
sound and whole, the spreading of pillows for heads yet carried
high. But insist as they would on the woe to come, these warning
signs did not deeply stir the trance of Paris. The first days of the
war were full of a kind of unrealizing confidence, not boastful or
fatuous, yet as different as possible from the clear-headed tenacity
of purpose that the experience of the next few months was to
develop. It is hard to evoke, without seeming to exaggerate it, that
the mood of early August: the assurance, the balance, the kind of
smiling fatalism with which Paris moved to her task. It is not
impossible that the beauty of the season and the silence of the city
may have helped to produce this mood. War, the shrieking fury, had
announced herself by a great wave of stillness. Never was desert
hush more complete: the silence of a street is always so much deeper
than the silence of wood or field.

The heaviness of the August air intensified this impression of
suspended life. The days were dumb enough; but at night the hush
became acute. In the quarter I inhabit, always deserted in summer,
the shuttered streets were mute as catacombs, and the faintest
pin-prick of noise seemed to tear a rent in a black pall of silence.
I could hear the tired tap of a lame hoof half a mile away, and the
tread of the policeman guarding the Embassy across the street beat
against the pavement like a series of detonations. Even the
variegated noises of the city's waking-up had ceased. If any
sweepers, scavengers or rag-pickers still plied their trades they
did it as secretly as ghosts. I remember one morning being roused
out of a deep sleep by a sudden explosion of noise in my room. I sat
up with a start, and found I had been waked by a low-voiced exchange
of "Bonjours" in the street...

Another fact that kept the reality of war from Paris was the curious
absence of troops in the streets. After the first rush of conscripts
hurrying to their military bases it might have been imagined that
the reign of peace had set in. While smaller cities were swarming
with soldiers no glitter of arms was reflected in the empty avenues
of the capital, no military music sounded through them. Paris
scorned all show of war, and fed the patriotism of her children on
the mere sight of her beauty. It was enough.

Even when the news of the first ephemeral successes in Alsace began
to come in, the Parisians did not swerve from their even gait. The
newsboys did all the shouting - and even theirs was presently
silenced by decree. It seemed as though it had been unanimously,
instinctively decided that the Paris of 1914 should in no respect
resemble the Paris of 1870, and as though this resolution had passed
at birth into the blood of millions born since that fatal date, and
ignorant of its bitter lesson. The unanimity of self-restraint was
the notable characteristic of this people suddenly plunged into an
unsought and unexpected war. At first their steadiness of spirit
might have passed for the bewilderment of a generation born and bred
in peace, which did not yet understand what war implied. But it is
precisely on such a mood that easy triumphs might have been supposed
to have the most disturbing effect. It was the crowd in the street
that shouted "A Berlin!" in 1870; now the crowd in the street
continued to mind its own business, in spite of showers of extras
and too-sanguine bulletins.

I remember the morning when our butcher's boy brought the news that
the first German flag had been hung out on the balcony of the
Ministry of War. Now I thought, the Latin will boil over! And I
wanted to be there to see. I hurried down the quiet rue de
Martignac, turned the corner of the Place Sainte Clotilde, and came
on an orderly crowd filling the street before the Ministry of War.
The crowd was so orderly that the few pacific gestures of the police
easily cleared a way for passing cabs, and for the military motors
perpetually dashing up. It was composed of all classes, and there
were many family groups, with little boys straddling their mothers'
shoulders, or lifted up by the policemen when they were too heavy
for their mothers. It is safe to say that there was hardly a man or
woman of that crowd who had not a soldier at the front; and there
before them hung the enemy's first flag - a splendid silk flag, white
and black and crimson, and embroidered in gold. It was the flag of
an Alsatian regiment - a regiment of Prussianized Alsace. It
symbolized all they most abhorred in the whole abhorrent job that
lay ahead of them; it symbolized also their finest ardour and their
noblest hate, and the reason why, if every other reason failed,
France could never lay down arms till the last of such flags was
low. And there they stood and looked at it, not dully or
uncomprehendingly, but consciously, advisedly, and in silence; as if
already foreseeing all it would cost to keep that flag and add to it
others like it; forseeing the cost and accepting it. There seemed to
be men's hearts even in the children of that crowd, and in the
mothers whose weak arms held them up. So they gazed and went on, and
made way for others like them, who gazed in their turn and went on
too. All day the crowd renewed itself, and it was always the same
crowd, intent and understanding and silent, who looked steadily at
the flag, and knew what its being there meant. That, in August, was
the look of Paris.



FEBRUARY dusk on the Seine. The boats are plying again, but they
stop at nightfall, and the river is inky-smooth, with the same long
weed-like reflections as in August. Only the reflections are fewer
and paler; bright lights are muffled everywhere. The line of the

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Online LibraryEdith WhartonFighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort → online text (page 1 of 9)