Paris in the early days of the war: August 12, 1914 — (M.E. Clarke)



(see previous post in this series: August 8)

(see also the post by Charles Inman Barnard for August 12)

Wednesday, August 12, 1914.—  Side by side with the waving flags and the gay brave voices singing the ‘Marseillaise’ flows a strong current of pain. How could it be otherwise? All the vigorous manly life of France has been called to the colours, and the women are left, not ‘ to weep and to wring their hands,’ but to do and to think for their families, to give what service they can to their country, and to bear, if God so wills it, the loss of all they hold most dear in the world.

There are no flags to help the women, no military music to cheer them, no splendid entrainement of camaraderie. But just hard dull routine, and the haunting dread of irreparable loss. All the more honour to them for taking up their burden so gaily, with such courage and with such determination to make the best of things. Everywhere the fine spirit of patriotism and self-sacrifice has been noticeable and only in the shadows of their eyes, or in the drawn look about their mouths, have their sufferings been obvious. It has been a revelation in human nature’s possibility for heroic acts to see the French nation mobilise, and the brave attitude of the women will finely second the courageous deeds of the soldiers when the history of the war shall be written.

It is only since general mobilisation was ordered that we, of this generation, have realised the full meaning of conscription. We were accustomed to every man doing his two years (lately it has been three), and every year his twenty-eight or his twenty-one days. We agreed, more or less, that the discipline was good for him; and we thought very little more about it, unless it happened to interfere with any of our own personal plans. But when suddenly every man of one’s acquaintance between the ages of eighteen and forty-eight is called up for service, the matter takes on quite another aspect. We are brought face to face with the fact that ‘service’ may mean death, and that every man in France between those ages is called out to meet it, to take his chance and to take it at once. There is no choice for him or for the women to whom his life is precious. The rich and the poor, the high and the low—they must all go; for the army is a great social leveller and no respecter of persons as far as service goes. You go to lunch with a friend: three sons of the house are prepared to join their regiments—one is a cavalry officer, another is an officer of the line, and the third is a little piou-fiou. The footman has already gone, the chauffeur goes to-morrow, and the concierge is waiting for his orders.

On the way home, you look in at a quiet courtyard where one of the cleverest cabinet-makers in the world practises the art of mending old furniture in the leisurely fashion of all true artist-craftsmen. His sheds are closely shuttered, his tools are put away; for he, too, has gone to the war. In the evening, the maid brings a pair of shoes with: ‘Madame, le cordonnier est parti, ou faut-il que je donne les souliers de Madame a etre raccommodes?’  Where, indeed? For the cobblers, too, must go to the front. With the breakfast-tray in the morning come clumsy pieces of bread instead of crisp and dainty rolls— the bakers are so scarce that the authorities have sent out the order that only pain de menage is to made. The doctors, the lawyers, the leaders of cotillons, the polo players, the tango dancers—they have all gone, or they are on the point of going. The actors, the musicians, the playwrights, the novelists, the journalists—every one who is young enough has joined his regiment, and those who are left behind are the ones who grumble.

The deserted quais.

The deserted quais.

In the streets there are no buses. Some are carrying stores to the front, some are lying idle on the Champ de Mars, waiting for orders to follow. The Metro’ trains are rare and many of the ticket collectors are replaced by women. The trams, what few are still running, also have women conductors. The boulevards, the avenues, and streets show long deserted stretches where ordinarily the traffic is congested; and most of the private motors which still run fly the Tricolour or the Red Cross to show that they are commandeered. Fiacres and taxi-autos are still to be hired, but they are looked upon as luxuries rather than necessities in these days of economy and renunciation, and people who, a week ago, grumbled if they had to walk a quarter of a mile, now cheerfully trot the length of Paris rather than spend five francs on fares.

But of all the changes mobilisation has worked in Paris, none is more noticeable than the change in the manners of the Parisians; and whatever terrors war may bring in the coming days the memory of much that was pleasant during those days of preparation cannot be wiped out. Men are quick and kindly in their help to women and children; women are tender and pitiful towards each other, and from class to class there runs a chord of sympathy which expresses itself in little gestures of courtesy such as we have not seen in Paris for many years.

Every soldier in the army who has passed through Paris since August 2 has experienced the pleasant thrill of brotherhood as he marched through the crowded streets, and incidents grave and gay are not wanting as the days go by and the mobilisation nears completion. Some men receive a shower of flowers from a pretty woman’s hands, others have miniature flags thrust at them by children; and one soldier called to a woman of the people to give him the flag her baby was waving for luck, but the woman called back ‘No, you will bring us a better than that.’  Everywhere it is the same story of gaiety and eagerness for action on the part of the men; and on that of the women, a quiet acceptance of the responsibilities which are being left to them.

All that is simple and childlike in the Frenchman has been uppermost this week, and in nothing does he show these traits more obviously than in his attitude towards religion. It has so often been said that the Frenchman has no religion; but the Frenchman is like most other men, in time of great stress he turns to prayer. In a restaurant one evening, a group of ultra-Bohemian artists were giving a farewell dinner to a camarade who was to join his regiment on the following day, when some one reminded him that his regiment was likely to be one of the first engaged in action. ‘Bah!’ was the quick retort, ‘What do I care? I confessed this morning; so it doesn’t matter what happens now.’ No one of all that little company of dare-devils thought it odd that he should feel like that; moreover, it is a well-known fact that since the mobilisation order came, men have been in hundreds to confess before leaving for the front. ‘Monsieur le Cure must help me with the prayers. I cannot remember much of my Credo, and I have quite forgotten my Confiteor; but that doesn’t matter, does it, M. le Cure?  What I want is to go away with a clean slate.’ Many men have said more or less the same thing, and all have gone to the priest in the same spirit. There is nothing morbid about it, but just a childlike wish to go off with their hearts and souls washed clean, according to the lights and traditions of their race.

Another pretty incident of the mobilisation happened in a cremerie at Montmartre where Willette, the painter, was drinking a bowl of chocolate with the help of a croissant. Quite by chance he heard a little midinette who was sitting near him tell some friends that she had been to have her photograph taken for her future husband to carry with him to the front, and ‘figurez-vous, mon petit, it is a complete failure! J’ai Pair tellement triste, tenement malade, that it will make him unhappy even to look at it, and there is no time to have another done!’ She was so sad about it, so disappointed, and so pretty, that Willette, without a word, whipped out pencil and book and in half an hour produced the most charming portrait the heart of woman could desire, and it has now gone to the front, carefully guarded in the tunic of a little piou-piou whose wit is as keen as the fun of Tommy Atkins is infectious.

Less picturesque incidents of the last two weeks were those which showed us bands of rough men and boys going round the city with hatchets, destroying all property that was marked by a German name, or anything approaching a German name. During some hours a great deal of damage was done, and several people were hurt, but the police dealt summarily with the malefactors, and since all has been calm. As a result of this momentary madness, however, every tradesman in Paris has run up a French flag above his doors and pasted on his shutters a legend to say what he is and where he is: ‘Le patron est Francais et a rejoint son regiment, ainsi que tout son personnel.’ ‘Le patron est a la frontiere et laisse son magasin, sa femme et ses enfants sous la protection des citoyens de Paris.’ Where the name over the shop is obviously German, the owner has put up his naturalisation papers as a proof of its right to be there, and a well-known dressmaker, whose partner was undoubtedly German, ingeniously covered the name-plate with patriotic flags, and put up a notice on the doors to say that the firm was French, and he himself was fighting for his country. A brave mattress-maker wrote on his door: ‘Dormez en paix. Le Matelassier est a la Frontiere.’ Another tradesman politely informed his clients that he was a la frontiere, and regretted that he was unable, therefore, to receive them as usual. Here and there an old legend, dating from times of peace, states confidently that the shop will reopen in September. We doubt it, for each day’s news suggests that a long and painful struggle is before us.

~~~ M.E. Clarke, from her book Paris Waits, 1914 (London: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1915).

Published in: on August 12, 2014 at 12:03 am  Leave a Comment  

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