War comes to the Marne valley, September 1914

Going to war as a soldier is one thing.  Having it arrive unbidden in your front yard, especially if you are a woman, is quite another.  American-born Frances Wilson Huard had said good-bye to her husband only a few days before and all she knew of his whereabouts now was that he was somewhere with the French Army.  As for herself, she was responsible for a large chateau a few kilometers northwest of Chateau Thierry, and a small household of three women, four children, several dogs and a number of farm animals.   The war was about to arrive at her doorstep.  Her account of that unwelcome visitor is to be found in her book, My Home in the Field of Honour, published two years later in 1916.  What follows are several excerpts, for which I have provided times and dates.

BJ Omanson

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sunday evening, August 30

That night I was awakened by the low rumbling of heavy carts on the road in front of the chateau.  Fancying that perhaps it was artillery on its way to the front, I put on my dressing gown and went as far as the gate.  There in the pale moonlight I beheld a long stream of carriages and wagons of every description piled high with household goods, and filled with women and children.  The men walked beside the horses to prevent collision, for as far as eye could see, the lamentable cortege extended down the hill.

What did this mean?  “Who are you?” I called to one of the men as they passed.

“Belgians–refugees.”

Refugees!  My mind flew back to descriptions of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, when so many people fled for their lives!  What nonsense!  Were we not in the twentieth century?  Wasn’t there a Peace Palace at The Hague?  My thoughts became muddled.

Opening the gate, I went out and accosted another man.

“Won’t you come in and rest?”

“No, we can’t.  We must make our twenty miles by dawn–and rest during the heat of the day.”

“But why do you leave home?”

“Because the savages burned us out!”

Bah, the man must be dreaming!

I turned back and addressed myself to another:  “What’s your hurry?” I queried

“They’re on our heels!” came the reply.

Surely this one was madder than the other!

A third did not deign to reply, sturdily marching on ahead, his eyes fixed on the road in front of him.

On top of a farm cart half filled with bay I saw the prostrate form of a woman with two others kneeling beside her ministering to her wants.  In the trap that followed was the most sorrowful group of old men and middle-aged women I ever hope to see.  All were sobbing.  Besides them rode two big boys on bicycles.  I stopped one of these.

“What’s the matter with her?” I questioned, pointing to the woman on the cart.

“She’s crazy.”

“?”

“Yes, lost her mind.”

“How, when, where?”

“Two days ago, when we left X.  (Try as I may, I cannot recall the name of the little Belgian town be mentioned.)  She was ill in bed with a fever when the Germans set fire to the place–barely giving us time to hoist her into the cart. Her husband lingered behind to scrape a few belongings together.  In spite of our efforts, she would stand up on the cart, and suddenly we heard an explosion and she saw her house burst into flame.  She fainted.  Outside in the woods we waited an hour, but her husband never came.  Perhaps it’s just as well, for when she woke up her mind was a blank!”

Ye gods!  I rubbed my eyes.  It couldn’t be possible that all this was true!  I was asleep!  It was merely a horrible nightmare.  But no–the carts rolled on in the pale moonlight carrying their heavy burdens of human misery.

It was more than I could stand.  All thought of sleep had vanished, so I went and woke Madame Guix.  We dressed and descended to the kitchen, where with a few smoldering embers, we soon managed to light a good fire.  Water was set to boil and in half an hour’s time we carried out to the bridge two huge pails of hot coffee, a pail of cold water, and one of wine.  No one refused our offerings, and the hearty “God bless you’s” of those kindly souls brought tears to our eyes more than once.

Dawn, Monday, August 31st, found us still at our posts.  I rang the farm bell, assembled my servants, and told them we would abandon all but the most necessary farm work and minister to the wants of the refugees.  By eight o’clock they had peeled and prepared vegetables enough to fill two huge copper pots, and the soup was set to boil.  And still the long line of heavy vehicles followed one another down the road: moving vans, delivery wagons, huge drays, and even little three-wheeled carts drawn by dogs, rolled on towards the south.

When asked where they were going, most of the people replied, “Straight ahead of us, a’ la grace de Dieu.”

Pre-dawn hours, Tuesday, September 1

. . . we were all hard at work when a haggard female face looked in at the kitchen window.

“Is there a doctor here?”

“No,–but–”

The woman burst into tears. Madame Guix and I hurried out into the court.  “My baby–I can’t seem to warm her,” moaned the poor mother.  “She hasn’t eaten anything since yesterday.”  And stretching out her arms, the woman showed us an infant that she had been carrying in her apron.  It was dead.

I had difficulty in overcoming my emotion, but Madame Guix took the poor little corpse into her arms, and I helped the mother to an arm chair in the refectory.  A cup of strong coffee brought back a little color to her wan cheeks and she told us she was from Charleville.  The Taubes had got in their sinister work to good advantage among the civil population but they were merely the forerunners of another and heavier bombardment.  The townspeople had fled in their night clothes.

“Are you alone?”

“Yes–I’m not a native of Charleville.  My husband and I have only been married a year.  He left the second of August and the baby was born the tenth.  She’s only three weeks old.”  No wonder the mother looked haggard–one hundred and fifty miles on foot, with a newborn infant in her arms, fleeing for her life before the barbarous hordes!

I pressed another cup of coffee with a drop of brandy in it upon her.  She looked appealingly at both of us and then drank.

“Was your husband good to you?” asked Madame Guix.

“Ah, yes, Madame.”

“Do you love him well enough to endure another sacrifice like a true wife and mother that you are?”

“Yes.”

And then we told her that her baby bad gone — gone to a brighter Country where war is unknown.  She looked at us in amazement, and burying her head on her arm, sobbed silently but submissively.

“Come, come, you must sleep–and when you are rested we will help you to find room in a cart which will take you towards your parents.”  She cast a long, loving look at her first born, and let herself be led away.

All we could do was to make an official declaration of the death at the town hall. A small linen sheet served as shroud, a clean, flower-lined soap box formed that baby’s coffin, and George and I were the grave diggers and chief mourners, who laid the tiny body at rest in the little vine-grown churchyard. War willed it thus.

Dawn, September 2

At six-thirty the public distribution of soup recommenced.  Who my guests were I have no idea.  There were more than a hundred of them.  That was clear enough from the dishes that were left.  Just as the last round had been served, George came in to say that the village was beginning to get uneasy–people from Neuilly St. Front and Lucy-le-Bocage and Essommes had already passed down the road, and the peasants looked to the chateau for a decision!

I went out to the gate.  Yes, true enough, our neighbors from Lucy (five miles distant) had joined the procession.  Then there was a break, and a lull, such as had not occurred for two days, and in the silence I again recognized the same clattering sound that had caught my ear on the hill top the afternoon before. This time it was much more distinct, but was soon drowned out by the rumbling of heavy wheels on the road.

Surely this time it was artillery!

I wrapped my shawl closer about me and sat down on the low stone wall that borders the moat, while little groups of peasants, unable to sleep, clustered together on the roadside.

Nearer and nearer drew the clanking noise and presently a whole regiment of perambulators, four abreast, swung around the corner into the moonlight.

Domptin!

Domptin, our neighboring village, one mile up the road, had caught the fever and was moving out wholesale, transporting its ill and decrepit, its children and chattels, in heaven knows how many baby carriages!

I had never seen so many in all my life.  The effect was altogether comic, and Madame Guix and I could not resist laughing–much to the dismay of these poor souls who saw little amusement at being obliged to leave home scantily clad in night clothes.

They passed on, without further comment, and the last man had hardly turned the corner when a scream coming from up the road drew us to our feet, and sent us running in that direction.  Almost instantly, the figure of an old white-capped peasant woman appeared in the distance.  She was wringing her hands and crying aloud.  When we were within ear shot, I caught the word, “Uhlans!”

“Uhlans!  Where?”

“Dans le bois de la Mazure!” (A half-mile from Villiers.)

“How do you know?”

“Saw their helmets glittering in the moonlight!”

“What rot!  They’re Frenchmen–dragoons.  You don’t know your own countrymen when you see them!   Did you approach them?”

“No.”

“Then what in the name of common sense sent you flying down here to scare us like that?  You’ve got no business spreading panic broadcast.  If you don’t turn around and scamper home, the way you came, I’ll have you arrested.  Allez!”

My nerves had stood the strain as long as possible.  This false alarm had roused my anger and in a jiffy I could see how thousands of people had been deceived, and were now erring homeless along the roads of France!

“You can do what you like,” I said, turning to the others, “but I’ve had enough of this for one day–I’m going to bed.  Good-night, gentlemen.”

“The chatelaine is going to bed, the chatelaine is going to bed!” “Let all go to bed,” and similar phrases were echoed among the groups and presently we all separated, after many cordial a demain.

The clock in the village church was striking midnight when I finally retired, after calling my greyhounds and Betsy into my room, and assuring myself that they all had on their collars, and that their leashes were hanging on my bed post.

Nini, the little traitor, had evidently told Yvonne of my preparations for departure, and the two girls, whose beds were in the next room to mine, had been unable to close their eyes, for as I blew out my lamp, I could hear their childish voices repeating the rosary:

“Hail Mary full of Grace–the Lord is with Thee…”

* * * * *

I may have slept an hour.  Then I can dimly remember hearing a wild yelp from my dogs, and when I found myself in the middle of my room rubbing my eyes, Yvonne was calling, “Madame!  Madame!” in terrified tones.  My pets were mad with excitement, and the sound of the farm bell was ringing in my ears!

“Silence!” I yelled.

Everything but the bell ceased.

Heedless of my attire, I rushed to a back window and repeated my command.

The bell stopped.

“Who are you that you dare wake us like that!” I scolded.

A boy between eighteen and nineteen let go the rope and stepped beneath the window.  I could see his blond hair in the moonlight.

“Are you Madame Huard?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve come with a message from your husband.”

I grew cold as ice.  Good God, what had happened?   In a bound I was down stairs and had opened the front door.

“Is H. wounded?” I gasped.

“No, Madame.”

I breathed again.

“Where was he when you saw him?”

“On the road between Villers-Cotterets and La Ferte Milon.”

“What’s your message?”

The boy put his hand to his breast pocket and drew forth a slip of paper.  The full moon shining on the white facade of the chateau threw such a brilliant reflection that I recognized a sheet from a sketch book, and could distinguish the following words scribbled in pencil:

“Give bearer fifty francs, then in the name of the love you bear me, evacuate now; go south, not Paris.”   The last words were underscored three or four times.

“What time was it when H. gave you this?”

“Noon or thereabouts.”

“How did you come?  On foot?”

“No, bicycle.”

“But it’s after midnight!”

“I know, but I got lost and had three bad punctures.”

Here were marching orders for fair, and if I intended obeying enough time had already been lost.  To stay in spite of everything was to be responsible for all the young lives that looked to me, for protection.  Could I promise it?  No. Then go it was!

At that same moment and as though to reinforce my decision, the strange clattering noise I had observed growing nearer and nearer during the last two days broke on the night air.

“Hark!” said the boy.  “La mitrailleuse!”

“The machine guns!” I echoed.

“Oui, Madame.”

That sufficed.  “We’ll be leaving in ten minutes.  Go to the kitchen.  I’ll send someone to look after you and we’ll go together.”

All this had transpired in less time than it takes to tell it.  Awakened by the bell, the refugees in the stables came pouring into the courtyard.  A second later, George, lantern in hand, came running towards me.

“Tell Leon to harness Cesar–then go and wake Julie and say that we are leaving in ten minutes.  I expect her, and her family, with their horse, to be ready. The courtyard in ten minutes.  Mind!”

On the landing I met Madame Guix already fully dressed.

“Nous partons,”  was all I said.  She understood and followed me towards Yvonne’s room.

The two children, their teeth chattering, looked towards us in terror.

“Nini, put on the warmest clothes you possess and help Madame Guix to dress Yvonne.  Then go to the kitchen and wait there without moving.”

My own toilet was brief, and five minutes later, lamp in hand, I was pounding on all the doors of the long corridors, fearful lest some one be forgotten and locked in the house.  When I reached the second floor I bethought me of the woman and her two children, and as I advanced I called, “Don’t be frightened. This is merely a warning!”

The poor soul must have been dreaming, for when I touched her door she screamed, and as I opened it and held the lamp over my head, I could see the two little creatures clinging to their mother, who on her knees begged, “Take me, but spare my babies!”

I had some difficulty in reassuring her, but finally succeeded, and left her to go below to the hospital.

At the first alarm, the women who were sleeping there had fled in terror, and when assured that all were gone, for safety’s sake I went up into the vestibule and standing at the foot of’ the stairs, called, “All out!  All out!  I’m closing up and leaving!”

No one answering, I judged that my summons had been obeyed, and so hurried back to my own room to fetch jewels, kodak and pets.  On my way down I opened H.’s wardrobe and grabbed several overcoats, confident that the boys would forget theirs and need them.  In the courtyard I found Julie and her family already perched on the hay-cart, where Yvonne had been hoisted and lay moaning, well covered in a blanket.  Both horses were hitched and my servants waiting orders.  Beside ours, other big drays were being prepared for flight, yet there was no confusion–no loud talking–no lamenting.  I then told the boys to hurry to the farm yard and open all the gates so that the poultry and cows could have free access to the entire estate, which is closed in by a wall.  I was thus certain that though they might feel hungry they, would not die for want of food or water during the short time I intended to be gone.

This done, I went to the kitchen where I found Nini, who had obeyed orders not to move but who had presence of mind enough to lay out bread and jam and wine for the famished youth who had brought the message.

In the lamplight I caught sight of my road maps on the refectory wall, and setting my jewel box on the table I began unpinning and carefully folding them and put them in the pocket of my motor coat.  Almost at the same instant, the lamp flickered and Leon came in to say that all the dogs were found save the beagle hound and three fox terrier puppies, who, frightened by the bell and the commotion, had hidden in the hay lofts.  We went out, and I called and whistled in vain–none of them appeared.

All this had taken more time than I expected.  The wagons full of refugees had disappeared, and we were alone.

“En route!”  I called, climbing into the charette, a big lump rising in my throat.

En route!” called George.

Once again I counted our party to be sure all were there, and then slowly the heavy-laden hay-cart pulled out of the courtyard onto the high road.

The first ten steps that my horse took he limped so painfully that my heart sank in my boots.

What nonsense, this departure!  The poor beast would break down and we’d have to shoot him by the wayside, and other similar cheerful thoughts fled through my brain as we jogged up the narrow village street.

In front of the town hall I halted, first of all to rest my steed, secondly to await George and Leon, who had remained behind to shut the entrance doors and bolt the gate, and finally because I was astonished to see all the windows illuminated.

I Jumped down and approaching one of the panes looked through and saw the entire municipal council seated in a semi-circle, their faces grave with anxiety. Presently the boys, accompanied by H.’s messenger, rode up on their bicycles and handed me the keys.  I entered the room where Mr. Duguey, the schoolmaster and town clerk, greeted me.

“Gentlemen, I’ve come to give you the keys to my estate.  I’ve received a message from my husband begging me to leave at once.”

“Then make haste, Madame, while there is still time.  We are just about to beat the call to arms and warn the population that those who hope to escape must leave at once.  Though we have no official orders to do this we have taken it on ourselves, for we now know for certain that the Uhlans have surrounded the village and are awaiting daylight to take possession.  They are probably bivouacking on the heights in your park.”

Then the old peasant woman had not lied!  Those were really Uhlans she had seen in the bois de la Mazure.  Ye gods, and here I was trying to get away with a lame horse! . . .

Dawn, September 4

. . . Dawn was breaking as we reached the summit and pausing for a moment’s breath, we could see people with bundles hurrying from cottages and farm yards, while the fields seemed dotted with horses and carts that sprang out of the semi-darkness like specters, following one another to the highway.  In less than no time the long caravan had re-formed and was again under way.

We brought up the rear, preceded by five hundred snow-white oxen.  There was no way of’ advancing faster than the cortege.  It was stay in line or lose your place, and as the sun rose over the plains, I was so impressed by the magnificence of our procession that I forgot the real cause of our flight and never for an instant realized that I now formed an intimate part of that column which but a few hours since inspired me with such genuine pity.

As we passed through a small agglomeration of houses that one might hardly call a village, I recognized several familiar faces on the doorsteps, and presently comprehended why Charly was so dark and silent the night before.  It was empty–evacuated–and the greater part of its inhabitants were here on the roadside, preparing to continue their route.

Where were we going?  I think none of us had a very definite idea . . .

Published in: on March 4, 2010 at 2:29 am  Leave a Comment