Mildred Aldrich.

On the Edge of the War Zone From the Battle of the Marne to the Entrance of the Stars and Stripes online

. (page 4 of 15)
Online LibraryMildred AldrichOn the Edge of the War Zone From the Battle of the Marne to the Entrance of the Stars and Stripes → online text (page 4 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

passed us without stopping.

The air was soft, like an early autumn day, rather than December as
you know it. There was a haze in the air, but behind it the sun shone.
You know what that French haze is, and what it does to the world,
and how, through it, one gets the sort of landscape painters love.
With how many of our pilgrimages together it is associated! We have
looked through it at the walls of Provins, when the lindens were rosy
with the first rising of the sap; we have looked through it at the circular
panorama from the top of the ruined tower of Montlhéry; we have
looked through it across Jean Jacques Rousseau's country, from the
lofty terrace of Montmorency, and from the platform in front of the
prison of Philippe Auguste's unhappy Danish wife, at Etampes,
across the valley of the Juine; and from how many other beautiful
spots, not to forget the view up the Seine from the terrace of the

Sometime, I hope, we shall see these plains of the Marne together.
When we do, I trust it will be on just such another atmospheric day as

As our road wound up the hill over the big paving-stones
characteristic of the environs of all the old towns of France,
everything looked so peaceful, so pretty, so normal, that it was hard
to realize that we were moving towards the front, and were only about
three miles from the point where the German invasion was turned
back almost three months ago to a day, and it was the more difficult
to realize as we have not heard the cannon for days.

A little way out of Meaux, we took a road to the west for Chauconin,
the nearest place to us which was bombarded, and from a point in
the road I looked back across the valley of the Marne, and I saw a
very pretty white town, with red roofs, lying on the hillside. I asked the

"What village is that over there?"

He glanced around and replied: "Quincy."

It was my town. I ought not to have been surprised. Of course I knew
that if I could see Chauconin so clearly from my garden, why,
Chauconin could see me. Only, I had not thought of it.

Amélie and I looked back with great interest. It did look so pretty, and
it is not pretty at all - the least pretty village on this side of the hill.
"Distance" does, indeed, "lend enchantment." When you come to see
me I shall show you Quincy from the other side of the Marne, and
never take you into its streets. Then you'll always remember it as a
fairy town.

It was not until we were entering into Chauconin that we saw the first
signs of war. The approach through the fields, already ploughed, and
planted with winter grain, looked the very last thing to be associated
with war. Once inside the little village - we always speak of it as "le
petit Chauconin " - we found destruction enough. One whole street of
houses was literally gutted. The walls stand, but the roofs are off and
doors and windows gone, while the shells seem burned out. The
destruction of the big farms seems to have been pretty complete.
There they stood, long walls of rubble and plaster, breeched; ends of
farm buildings gone; and many only a heap of rubbish. The surprising
thing to me was to see here a house destroyed, and, almost beside it,
one not even touched. That seemed to prove that the struggle here
was not a long one, and that a comparatively small number of shells
had reached it.

Neufmortier was in about the same condition. It was a sad sight, but
not at all ugly. Ruins seem to "go" with the French atmosphere and
background. It all looked quite natural, and I had to make an effort to
shake myself into a becoming frame of mind. If you had been with me
I should have asked you to pinch me, and remind me that "all this is
not yet ancient history," and that a little sentimentality would have
become me. But Amélie would never have understood me.

It was not until we were driving east again to approach Penchard that
a full realization of it came to me. Penchard crowns the hill just in the
centre of the line which I see from the garden. It was one of the towns
bombarded on the evening of September 5, and, so far as I can
guess, the destruction was done by the French guns which drove the
Germans out that night.

They say the Germans slept there the night of September 4, and
were driven out the next day by the French soixante-quinze, which
trotted through Chauconin into Penchard by the road we had just
come over.

I enclose you a carte postale of a battery passing behind the apse of
the village church, just as a guarantee of good faith.

But all signs of the horrors of those days have been obliterated.
Penchard is the town in which the Germans exercised their taste for
wilful nastiness, of which I wrote you weeks ago. It is a pretty little
village, beautifully situated, commanding the slopes to the Marne on
one side, and the wide plains of Barcy and Chambry on the other. It is
prosperous looking, the home of sturdy farmers and the small
rentiers. It has an air of humble thrift, with now and then a pretty
garden, and here and there suggestions of a certain degree of
greater prosperity, an air which, in France, often conceals
unexpected wealth.

You need not look the places up unless you have a big map. No
guide-book ever honored them.

From Penchard we ran a little out to the west at the foot of the hill, on
top of which stand the white walls of Montyon, from which, on
September 5, we had seen the first smoke of battle.

I am sure that I wrote some weeks ago how puzzled I was when I
read Joffre's famous ordre du jour, at the beginning of the Marne
offensive, to find that it was dated September 6, whereas we had
seen the battle begin on the 5th. Here I found what I presume to be
the explanation, which proves that the offensive along the rest of the
line on the 6th had been a continuation simply of what we saw that
Saturday afternoon.

At the foot of the hill crowned by the walls of Montyon lies Villeroy -
today the objective point for patriotic pilgrimages. There, on the 5th of
September, the 276th Regiment was preparing its soup for lunch,
when, suddenly, from the trees on the heights, German shells fell
amongst them, and food was forgotten, while the French at St.
Soupplet on the other side of the hill, as well as those at Villeroy,
suddenly found themselves in the thick of a fight - the battle we saw.

They told me at Villeroy that many of the men in the regiments
engaged were from this region, and here the civilians dropped their
work in the fields and snatched up guns which the dead or wounded
soldiers let fall and entered the fight beside their uniformed neighbors.
I give you that picturesque and likely detail for what it is worth.

At the foot of the hill between Montyon and Villeroy lies the tomb in
which two hundred of the men who fell here are buried together.
Among them is Charles Péguy, the poet, who wore a lieutenant's
stripes, and was referred to by his companions on that day as "un
glorieux fou dans sa bravoure." This long tomb, with its crosses and
flags and flowers, was the scene on All Soul's Day of the
commemorative ceremony in honor of the victory, and marks not only
the beginning of the battle, but the beginning of its triumph.

From this point we drove back to the east, almost along the line of
battle, to the hillside hamlet of Barcy, the saddest scene of desolation
on this end of the great fight.

It was a humble little village, grouped around a dear old church, with a
graceful square tower supporting a spire. The little church faced a
small square, from which the principal street runs down the hill to the
open country across which the French "push" advanced. No house
on this street escaped. Some of them are absolutely destroyed. The
church is a mere shell. Its tower is pierced with huge holes. Its bell
lies, a wreck, on the floor beneath its tower. The roof has fallen in, a
heaped-up mass of débris in the nave beneath. Its windows are
gone, and there are gaping wounds in its side walls. Oddly enough,
the Chemin de la Croix is intact, and some of the peasants look on
that as a miracle, in spite of the fact that the High Altar is buried under
a mass of tiles and plaster.

The doors being gone, one could look in, over the temporary barrier,
to the wreck inside, and by putting a donation into the contribution
box for the restauration fund it was possible to enter - at one's own
risk - by a side door. It was hardly worth while, as one could see no
more than was visible from the doorways, and it looked as if at any
minute the whole edifice would crumble. However, Amélie wanted to
go inside, and so we did.

We entered through the mairie, which is at one side, into a small
courtyard, where the school children were playing under the propped-
up walls as gaily as if there had never been a bombardment.

The mairie had fared little better than the church, and the
schoolroom, which has its home in it, had a temporary roofing, the
upper part being wrecked.

The best idea that I got of the destruction was, however, from a
house almost opposite the church. It was only a shell, its walls alone
standing. As its windows and doors had been blown out, we could
look in from the street to the interior of what had evidently been a
comfortable country house. It was now like an uncovered box, in the
centre of which there was a conical shaped heap of ashes as high as
the top of the fireplace. We could see where the stairs had been, but
its entire contents had been burned down to a heap of ashes - burned
as thoroughly as wood in a fireplace. I could not have believed in
such absolute destruction if I had not seen it.

While we were gazing at the wreck I noticed an old woman leaning
against the wall and watching us. Out of her weather-beaten, time-
furrowed old face looked a pair of dark eyes, red-rimmed and blurred
with much weeping. She was rubbing her distorted old hands
together nervously as she watched us. It was inevitable that I should
get into conversation with her, and discover that this wreck had been,
for years, her home, that she had lived there all alone, and that
everything she had in the world - her furniture, her clothing, and her
savings - had been burned in the house.

You can hardly understand that unless you know these people. They
keep their savings hidden. It is the well-known old story of the French
stocking which paid the war indemnity of 1870. They have no
confidence in banks. The State is the only one they will lend to, and
the fact is one of the secrets of French success.

If you knew these people as I do, you would understand that an old
woman of that peasant type, ignorant of the meaning of war, would
hardly be likely to leave her house, no matter how many times she
was ordered out, until shells began to fall about her. Even then, as
she was rather deaf, she probably did not realize what was
happening, and went into the street in such fear that she left
everything behind her.

From Barcy we drove out into the plain, and took the direction of
Chambry, following the line of the great and decisive fight of
September 6 and 7.

We rolled slowly across the beautiful undulating country of grain and
beet fields. We had not gone far when, right at the edge of the road,
we came upon an isolated mound, with a rude cross at its head, and
a tiny tricolore at its foot - the first French grave on the plain.

We motioned the chauffeur to stop, and we went on, on foot.

First the graves were scattered, for the boys lie buried just where they
fell - cradled in the bosom of the mother country that nourished them,
and for whose safety they laid down their lives. As we advanced they
became more numerous, until we reached a point where, as far as
we could see, in every direction, floated the little tricolore flags, like
fine flowers in the landscape. They made tiny spots against the far-off
horizon line, and groups like beds of flowers in the foreground, and
we knew that, behind the skyline, there were more.

Here and there was a haystack with one grave beside it, and again
there would be one, usually partly burned, almost encircled with the
tiny flags which said: "Here sleep the heroes."

It was a disturbing and a thrilling sight. I give you my word, as I stood
there, I envied them. It seemed to me a fine thing to lie out there in
the open, in the soil of the fields their simple death has made holy,
the duty well done, the dread over, each one just where he fell
defending his mother-land, enshrined forever in the loving memory of
the land he had saved, in graves to be watered for years, not only by
the tears of those near and dear to them, but by those of the heirs to
their glory - the children of the coming generation of free France.

You may know a finer way to go. I do not. Surely, since Death is, it is
better than dying of old age between clean sheets. Near the end of
the route we came to the little walled cemetery of Chambry, the scene
of one of the most desperate struggles of the 6th and 7th of
September. You know what the humble village burying-grounds are
like. Its wall is about six feet high, of plaster and stone, with an
entrance on the road to the village. To the west and northwest the
walls are on the top of a bank, high above the crossroads. I do not
know the position of the pursuing French army. The chauffeur who
drove us could not enlighten us. As near as I could guess, from the
condition of the walls, I imagine that the French artillery must have
been in the direction of Penchard, on the wooded hills.

The walls are pierced with gun holes, about three feet apart, and
those on the west and southwest are breeched by cannon and shell-
fire. Here, after the position had been several times stormed by
artillery, the Zouaves made one of the most brilliant bayonet charges
of the day, dashing up the steep banks and through the breeched
walls. Opposite the gate is another steep bank where can still be
seen the improvised gun positions of the French when they pushed
the retreat across the plain.

The cemetery is filled with new graves against the wall, for many of
the officers are buried here - nearly all of the regiment of Zouaves,
which was almost wiped out in the charge before the position was
finally carried, - it was taken and lost several times.

From here we turned east again towards Vareddes, along a fine road
lined with enormous old trees, one of the handsomest roads of the
department. Many of these huge trees have been snapped off by
shells as neatly as if they were mere twigs. Along the road, here and
there, were isolated graves.

Vareddes had a tragic experience. The population was shockingly
abused by the Germans. Its aged priest and many other old men
were carried away, and many were shot, and the town badiy

We had intended to go through Vareddes to the heights beyond,
where the heroes of the 133d, 246th, 289th, and of the regiment
which began the battle at Villeroy - the 276th - are buried. But the
weather had changed, and a cold drizzle began to fall, and I saw no
use in going on in a closed car, so we turned back to Meaux.

It was still light when we reached Meaux, so we gave a look at the old
mills - and put up a paean of praise that they were not damaged
beyond repair - on our way to the station.

As we came back to Esbly I strained my eyes to look across to the hill
on which my house stands, - I could just see it as we crawled across
the bridge at the Iles-lès-Villenoy, - and felt again the miracle of the
battle which swept so near to us.

In my innermost heart I had a queer sensation of the absurdity of my
relation to life. Fate so often shakes its fist in my face, only to
withhold the blow within a millimetre of my nose. Perhaps I am
being schooled to meet it yet.

I brought back one fixed impression - how quickly Time had laid its
healing hand on this one battlefield. I don't know what will be the
effect out there where the terrible trench war is going on. But here,
where the fighting turned, never to return - at least we believe it never
will - it has left no ugly traces. The fields are cleaned, the roads are
repaired. Rain has fallen on ruins and washed off all the marks of
smoke. Even on the road to Vareddes the thrifty French have already
carried away and fagotted the wrecked trees, and already the huge,
broken trunks are being uprooted, cut into proper length, and piled
neatly by the roadside to be seasoned before being carted away.
There was nothing raw about the scene anywhere. The villages were
sad, because so silent and empty.

I had done my best to get a tragic impression. I had not got it. I had
brought back instead an impression heroic, uplifting, altogether

By the time you come over, and I lead you out on that pilgrimage, it
will be even more beautiful. But, alas, I am afraid that day is a long
way off.


December 30, 1914

I would wish above all things, if some fairy gave me the chance, to be
a hibernating animal this year, during which the weather has almost
called an armistice along our front, locked from the Swiss border to
the sea.

There is but one consolation, and that is that, costly and terrible as
have been the first four months of the war, three of the great aims of
the German strategy have been buried too deep ever to be dug up -
their hope of a short war is gone; they did not get to Paris, and now
know that they never will; they did not, and never can get to Calais,
and, in spite of their remarkable feats, and their mighty strength, in
the face of those three facts even their arrogance cannot write
"victory" against their arms.

I have to confess that I am almost as cold as the boys out there in the
rain and the mud. I have managed to get a little coal - or what is called
coal this year. It is really charbon de forge - a lot of damp, black dust
with a few big lumps in it, which burns with a heavy, smelly, yellow
smoke. In normal times one would never dignify it by the name of
coal, but today we are thankful to get it, and pay for it as if it were
gold. It will only burn in the kitchen stove, and every time we put any
on the fire, my house, seen from the garden, appears like some sort
of a factory. Please, therefore, imagine me living in the kitchen. You
know the size of a compact French kitchen. It is rather close quarters
for a lady of large ideas.

The temperature of the rest of the house is down almost to zero.
Luckily it is not a cold winter, but it is very damp, as it rains
continually. I have an armchair there, a footstool, and use the kitchen
table as a desk; and even then, to keep fairly warm, I almost sit on
top of the stove, and I do now and then put my feet in the oven.

I assure you that going to bed is a ceremony. Amélie comes and puts
two hot bricks in the foot of the bed. I undress in the kitchen, put on
felt shoes, and a big wrap, and, with my hotwater bottle in one hand
and a book in the other, I make a dash for the arctic regions, and
Amélie tidies up the kitchen, locks the doors behind her, and takes
the keys away with her.

I am cosy and comfy in bed, and I stay there until Amélie has built the
fire and got the house in order in the morning.

My getting up beats the lever de Marie Antoinette in some of its
details, though she was accustomed to it, and probably minded less
than I do. I am not really complaining, you know. But you want to
know about my life - so from that you can imagine it. I shall get
acclimated, of course. I know that.

I was in Paris for Christmas - not because I wanted to go, but because
the few friends I have left there felt that I needed a change, and
clinched the matter by thinking that they needed me. Besides I
wanted to get packages to the English boys who were here in
September, and it was easier to do it from Paris than from here.

While I was waiting for the train at Esbly I had a conversation with a
woman who chanced to sit beside me on a bench on the quai, which
seemed to me significant.

Today everyone talks to everyone. All the barriers seem to be down.
We were both reading the morning paper, and so, naturally, got to
talking. I happened to have an English paper, in which there was a
brief account of the wonderful dash made by the Royal Scots at Petit
Bois and the Gordon Highlanders at Maeselsyeed Spur, under cover
of the French and British artillery, early in the month, and I translated
it for her. It is a moral duty to let the French people get a glimpse of
the wonderful fighting quality of the boys under the Union Jack.

In the course of the conversation she said, what was self-evident,
"You are not French?" I told her that I was an American. Then she
asked me if I had any children, and received a negative reply.

She sighed, and volunteered that she was a widow with an only son
who was "out there," and added: "We are all of us French women of
a certain class so stupid when we are young. I adore children. But I
thought I could only afford to have one, as I wanted to do so much for
him. Now if I lose that one, what have I to live for? I am not the sort of
woman who can marry again. My boy is a brave boy. If he dies he will
die like a brave man, and not begrudge the life he gives for his
country. I am a French mother and must offer him as becomes his
mother. But it was silly of me to have but this one. I know, now that it
is too late, that I could have done as well, and it may be better, with
several, for I have seen the possibilities demonstrated among my
friends who have three or four."

Of course I did not say that the more she had, the more she might
have had to lose, because I thought that if, in the face of a disaster
like this, French women were thinking such thoughts - and if one
does, hundreds may - it might be significant.

I had a proof of this while in Paris. I went to a house where I have
been a visitor for years to get some news of a friend who had an
apartment there. I opened the door to the concierge's loge to put my
question. I stopped short. In the window, at the back of the half dark
room, sat the concierge, whom I had known for nearly twenty years, a
brave, intelligent, fragile woman. She was sitting there in her black
frock, gently rocking herself backward and forward in her chair. I did
not need to put a question. One knows in these days what the
unaccustomed black dress means, and I knew that the one son I had
seen grow from childhood, for whom she and the father had
sacrificed everything that he might be educated, for whom they had
pinched and saved - was gone.

I said the few words one can say - I could not have told five minutes
later what they were - and her only reply was like the speech of the
woman of another class that I had met at Esbly.

"I had but the one. That was my folly. Now I have nothing - and I have
a long time to live alone."

It would have been easy to weep with her, but they don't weep. I have
never seen fewer tears in a great calamity. I have read in
newspapers sent me from the States tales of women in hysterics, of
women fainting as they bade their men goodbye. I have never seen
any of it. Something must be wrong with my vision, or my lines must
have fallen in brave places. I can only speak of what I see and hear,
and tears and hysterics do not come under my observation.

I did not do anything interesting in Paris. It was cold and grey and
sad. I got my packages off to the front. They went through quickly,
especially those sent by the English branch post-office, near the
Etoile, and when I got home, I found the letters of thanks from the
boys awaiting me. Among them was one from the little corporal who
had pulled down my flags in September, who wrote in the name of
the C company, Yorkshire Light Infantry, and at the end of the letter
he said: "I am sorry to tell you that Captain Simpson is dead. He was
killed leading his company in a charge, and all his men grieved for

That gave me a deep pang. I remembered his stern, bronzed, but
kindly face, which lighted up so with a smile, as he sat with me at tea
on that memorable Wednesday afternoon, and of all that he did so
simply to relieve the strain on our nerves that trying day. I know
nothing about him - who he was - what he had for family - he was just a
brave, kindly, human being, who had met me for a few hours, passed
on - and passed out. He is only one of thousands, but he is the one
whose sympathetic voice I had heard and who, in all the hurry and
fatigue of those hard days, had had time to stop and console us here,
and whom I had hoped to see again; and I grieved with his men for

I could not write last week. I had no heart to send the usual greetings

1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryMildred AldrichOn the Edge of the War Zone From the Battle of the Marne to the Entrance of the Stars and Stripes → online text (page 4 of 15)