Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Eyewitness: France Marches to War, August 1914

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Reported by Correspondent Phillip Gibbs


I went down to the East frontier on the first day of mobilization. It was in the evening when I went to take the train from the Gare de l'Est. The station was filled with a seething crowd of civilians and soldiers, struggling to get to the booking-offices, vainly seeking information as to the times of departure to distant towns of France. The railway officials were bewildered and could give no certain information. The line was under military control. Many trains had been suppressed and the others had no fixed time-table. I could only guess at the purpose animating the individuals in these crowds. Many of them, perhaps, were provincials, caught in Paris by the declaration of war and desperately anxious to get back to their homes before the lines were utterly choked by troop trains. Others belonged to neutral countries and were trying to escape across the frontier before the gates were closed. One of the "neutrals" spoke to me—in German, which was a dangerous tongue in Paris. He was a Swiss who had come to Paris on business for a few days, leaving his wife in a village near Basel. It was of his wife that he kept talking.  "Ach, mein armes Weib! Sie hat Angst fur mich."


The platform was now thronged with young men, many of them being officers in a variety of brand-new uniforms, but most of them still in civilian clothes as they had left their workshops or their homes to obey the mobilization orders to join their military depots. The young medical officer who had been speaking to me withdrew himself from his wife's arm to answer some questions addressed to him by an old colonel in his own branch of service. The lady turned to me and spoke in a curiously intimate way, as though we were old friends.

"Have you begun to realize what it means? I feel that I ought to weep because my husband is leaving me. We have two little children. But there are no tears higher than my heart. It seems as though he were just going away for a week-end—and yet he may never come back to us. Perhaps to-morrow I shall weep."


As our train passed through France on its way to Nancy, we heard and saw the tumult of a nation arming itself for war and pouring down to its frontiers to meet the enemy. All through the night, as we passed through towns and villages and under railway bridges, the song of the Marseillaise rose up to the carriage windows and then wailed away  like a sad plaint as our engine shrieked and raced on. At the sound of the national hymn one of the officers in my carriage always opened his eyes and lifted his head, which had been drooping forward on his chest, and listened with a look of puzzled surprise, as though he could not realize even yet that France was at war and that he was on his way to the front. But the other officers slept; and the silent man, whose quiet dignity and sadness had impressed me, smiled a little in his sleep now and then and murmured a word or two, among which I seemed to hear a woman's name.

In the dawn and pallid sunlight of the morning I saw the soldiers of France assembling. They came across the bridges with glinting rifles, and the blue coats and red trousers of the infantry made them look in the distance like tin soldiers from a children's play box. But there were battalions of them close to the railway lines, waiting at level crossings, and with stacked arms on the platforms, so that I could look into their eyes and watch their faces. They were fine young men, with a certain hardness and keenness of profile which promised well for France. There was no shouting among them, no patriotic demonstrations, no excitability. They stood waiting for their trains in a quiet, patient way, chatting among themselves, smiling, smoking cigarettes, like soldiers on their way to sham fights in the ordinary summer maneuvers. The town and village folk, who crowded about them and leaned over the gates at the level crossings to watch our train, were more
demonstrative. They waved hands to us and cried out "Bonne chance!" and the boys and girls chanted the Marseillaise again in shrill voices. At every station where we halted, and we never let one of them go by without a stop, some of the girls came along the platform with baskets of fruit, of which they made free gifts to our trainload of men. Sometimes they took payment in kisses, quite simply and without any bashfulness, lifting their faces to the lips of bronzed young men who thrust their képis back and leaned out of the carriage windows.


"Come back safe and sound, my little one," said a girl. "Fight well for France!"

"I do not hope to come back," said a soldier, "but I shall die fighting."

The fields were swept with the golden light of the sun, and the heavy foliage of the trees sang through every note of green. The white roads of France stretched away straight between the fields and the hills, with endless lines of poplars as their sentinels, and in clouds of grayish dust rising like smoke the regiments marched with a steady tramp. Gun carriages moved slowly down the roads in a glare of sun which sparkled upon the steel tubes of the field artillery and made a silver bar of every wheel-spoke. I heard the creak of the wheels and the rattle of the limber and the shouts of the drivers to their teams; and I thrilled a little every time we passed one of these batteries because I knew that in a day or two these machines, which were being carried along the highways of France, would be wreathed with smoke denser than the dust about them now, while they vomited forth shells at the unseen enemy whose guns would answer with the roar of death.


Guns and men, horses and wagons, interminable convoys of munitions, great armies on the march, trainloads of soldiers on all the branch lines, soldiers bivouacked in the roadways and in market places, long processions of young civilians carrying bundles to military depots where they would change their clothes and all their way of life—these pictures of preparation for war flashed through the carriage windows into my brain, mile after mile, through the country of France, until sometimes I closed my eyes to shut out the glare and glitter of this kaleidoscope, the blood-red color of all those French trousers tramping through the dust, the lurid blue of all those soldiers' overcoats, the sparkle of all those gun-wheels. What does it all mean, this surging tide of armed men? What would it mean in a day or two, when another tide of men had swept up against it, with a roar of conflict, striving to overwhelm this France and to swamp over its barriers in waves of blood? How senseless it seemed that those mild-eyed fellows outside my carriage windows, chatting with the girls while we waited for the signals to fall, should be on their way to kill other mild-eyed men, who perhaps away in Germany were kissing other girls, for gifts of fruit and flowers.


3 comments:

  1. Fascinating! Similar scenes from all over Europe, especially from Vienna, can be found in Frederick Morton's Thunder at Twilight, which explores how all Europe waited for the war, indeed, desired the war. Joyous crowds of women and girls wished young men who were willingly heading to the front well, and good deaths! The popular joy at the declaration of war was especially noticeable in Vienna, the capital city of the latest sick man of Europe. At last, Austria was acting like a great power and doing something. Years of decline and shame were being erased by the Austrian gunboats on the Danube, shelling Belgrade.

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