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

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Paris at War

Excerpted from The Soul of the War

by Phillip Gibbs

[In the summer of 1914] Americans in Panama hats sauntered down the Rue de Rivoli, staring in the shop windows at the latest studies of nude women, and at night went in pursuit of adventure to Montmartre, where the orchestras at the Hal Tabarin were still fiddling mad tangos in a competition of shrieking melody and where troops of painted ladies in the Folies Bergères still paraded in the promenade with languorous eyes, through wafts of sickly scent. The little tables were all along the pavements of the boulevards and the terraces were crowded with all those bourgeois Frenchmen and their women who do not move out of Paris even in the dog days but prefer the scenery of their familiar streets to that of Dieppe and Le Touquet.

Then suddenly the thunderbolt fell with its signal of war, and in a few days Paris was changed as though by some wizard's spell. . . A hush fell upon Montmartre, and the musicians in its orchestras packed up their instruments and scurried with scared faces — to Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest. No more boats went up to Sèvres and St. Cloud with crowds of pleasure-seekers.

During the last days of July and the first days of August Paris was stunned by the shock of this menace, which was approaching swiftly and terribly. . .There was no wild outbreak of Jingo fever, no demonstrations of blood-lust against Germany in Paris or any town of France, on that first day of August, when the people waited for the fateful decision which, if it were for war, would call every able-bodied man to the colors and arrest all the activities of a nation's normal life, and demand a dreadful sacrifice in blood and tears. There was only a sense of stupefaction which seemed to numb the intelligence of men so that they could not reason with any show of logic, or speak of this menace without incoherence. . . Beneath this incredulity, this stupefaction, there was among most of the Frenchmen whom I personally encountered a secret dread that France was unready for the great ordeal of war and that its outbreak would find her divided by political parties, inefficient in organization, corrupt in some of her Government departments. The Socialists and Syndicalists who had fought against the three years' service might refuse to march. Only a few months before a deputy had hinted at grave scandals in the provisioning and equipment of the army.

On August 1 there was a run on one of the banks. I passed its doors and saw them besieged by thousands of middle-class men and women drawn up in a long queue waiting very quietly -- with a strange quietude for any crowd in Paris -- to withdraw the savings of a lifetime or the capital of their business houses.

Part of the active army of France was already on the frontiers. Before the first whisper of war had reached the ears of the people, large bodies of troops had been sent to the frontier towns to strengthen the already existing garrisons. But the main army of the nation was pursuing the ordinary pursuits of civil life. To resist the might of Germany, the greatest military Power in Europe, already approaching the frontiers in vast masses of men and machines, France would have to call out all her manhood which had been trained in military service.

The call to arms came without any loud clamor of bugles or orations. Unlike the scenes in the early days of 1870, there were no street processions of civil enthusiasts. No painted beauty of the stage waved the tricolor to the shout of "A Berlin !" No mob orators jumped upon the cafe tables to wave their arms in defiance of the foe and to prophesy swift victories.

The quietness of Paris was astounding, and the first mobilization orders were issued with no more publicity than attends the delivery of a trade circular through the halfpenny post. Yet in hundreds of thousands of houses through France and in all the blocks and tenements of Paris there was a drama of tragic quietude when the cards were delivered to young men in civilian clothes, men who sat at table with old mothers or young wives, or in lowly rooms with some dream to keep them company, or with little women who had spoilt the dream, or fostered it, or with comrades who had gone on great adventures with them between the Quartier Latin and the Mountain of Montmartre.

In the streets of Paris in those first days of the war I saw many scenes of farewell. All day long one saw them, so that at last one watched them without emotion because the pathos of them became monotonous. It was curious how men said good-bye, often, to their wives and children and comrades at a street corner, or in the middle of the boulevards. A hundred times or more I saw one of these conscript soldiers who had put on his uniform again after years of civilian life, turn suddenly to the woman trudging by his side or to a group of people standing round him and say: " 'Adieu' et 'Au revoir' ! "

. . .It was only by the long-drawn kiss upon the lips of the woman who raised a dead white face to him and by the abruptness with which the man broke away and walked off hurriedly until he was lost in the passing crowds that one might know that this was as likely as not the last parting between a man and a woman who had known love together and that each of them had seen the vision of death which would divide them on this side of the grave. The stoicism of the Frenchwomen was wonderful.

That first mobilization lasted for twenty-one days, and every day one seemed to notice the difference in the streets, the gradual thinning of the crowds, the absence of young manhood, the larger pro-portion of women and old fogeys among those who remained. The life of Paris was being drained of its best blood by this vampire, war. In the Latin Quarter most of the students went without any preliminary demonstrations in the Cafe d'Harcourt, or speeches from the table-tops in the cheaper restaurants along the Boul' Miche, where in times of peace any political crisis or intellectual drama produces a flood of fantastic oratory from young gentlemen with black hair, burning eyes, and dirty finger-nails. They had gone away silently, with hasty kisses to little mistresses, who sobbed their hearts out for a night before searching for any lovers who might be left.

Quietly, but effectively, General Gallieni, the military governor of "the entrenched camp of Paris," as it was called, proceeded to place the city under martial law in order to strangle any rebellious spirit which might be lurking in its hiding places. Orders and regulations were issued in a rapid volley fire which left Paris without any of its old life or liberty. The terrasses were withdrawn from the cafés. No longer could the philosophic Parisian . . .watch the drama of the boulevards from the shady side of a marble-topped table. He must sit indoors like an Englishman, in the darkness of his public-house, as though ashamed of drinking in the open. Absinthe was banned by a thunder-stroke from the Invalides, where the Military Governor had established his headquarters, and Parisians who had acquired the absinthe habit trembled in every limb at this judgment which would reduce them to physical and moral wrecks, as creatures of the drug habit suddenly robbed of their nerve-controlling tabloids. It was an edict welcomed by all men of self-control who knew that France had been poisoned by this filthy liquid, but they too became a little pale when all the cafe's of Paris were closed at eight o'clock.

Other edicts followed, or arrived simultaneously like a broadside fired into the life of the city. Public processions "with whatever patriotic motive" were sternly prohibited. "Purveyors of false news, or of news likely to depress the public spirit" would be dealt with by courts-martial and punished with the utmost severity. No musical instruments were to be played after ten o'clock at night, and orchestras were prohibited in all restaurants.

The newspaper censors had put a strangle grip upon the press, not only upon news of war but also upon expressions of opinion. Gustave Hervéé signed his name three days a week to blank columns of extraordinary eloquence. Georges Clemenceau had a series of striking head-lines which had been robbed of all their text. The intellectuals of Paris might not express an opinion save by permission of the military censors, most of whom, strangely enough, had German names.

The civil police under direction of the Military Governor were very busy in Paris during the early days of the war. Throughout the twenty-four hours, and especially in the darkness of night, the streets were patrolled by blue-capped men on bicycles, who rode, four by four, as silently as shadows, through every quarter of the city. They had a startling habit of surrounding any lonely man who might be walking in the late hours and interrogating him as to his nationality, age and business.

One day as I was sitting in the Café Napolitain . . ., I heard shouts and saw a crowd of people rushing towards a motor-car coming down the Boulevard des Italiens. One word was repeated with a long-drawn sibilance: SPY!

The spy was between two agents de police. He was bound with cords and his collar had been torn off, so that his neck was bare, like a man ready for the guillotine. Some-how, the look of the man reminded me in a flash of those old scenes in the French Revolution, when a French aristocrat was taken in a tumbrel through the streets of Paris. He was a young man with a handsome, clear-cut face, and though he was very white except where a trickle of blood ran down his cheek from a gash on his forehead, he smiled disdainfully with a proud curl of the lip. He knew he was going to his death, but he had taken the risk of that when he stayed in Paris for the sake of his country. A German spy! Yes, but a brave man who went rather well to his death through the sunlit streets of Paris, with the angry murmurs of a crowd rising in waves about him.

At all costs Paris was not to learn the truth about the war if there were any unpleasant truths to tell. . .The Government was afraid of Paris, lest it should lose its nerve, and so all trains of wounded were diverted from the capital wandering on long and devious journeys, side-tracked for hours, and if any ambulances came it was at night, when they glided through back streets under cover of darkness, afraid of being seen.

They need not have feared, those Ministers of France. Paris had more courage than some of them, with a greater dignity and finer faith. When the French Ministry fled to Bordeaux without having warned the people that the enemy was at their gates, Paris remained very quiet and gave no sign of wild terror or of panic-stricken rage. There was no political cry or revolutionary outburst. . .It was rare to see a weeping woman. There was no wailing of a people distraught. Sadly those fugitives left the city which had been all the world to them, and the roads to the south were black with their multitudes. . .

After all the soul of Paris did not die, even in those dark days when so many of its inhabitants had gone, and when, for a little while, it seemed a deserted city. Many thousands of citizens remained, enough to make a great population, and although for a day or two they kept for the most part indoors, under the shadow of a fear that at any moment they might hear the first shells come shrieking overhead, or even the clatter of German cavalry, they quickly resumed the daily routine of their lives, as far as it was possible at such a time. The fruit- and vegetable-stalls along the rue St. Honoré were thronged as usual by frugal housewives who do their shopping early, and down by Les Halles, to which I wended my way through the older streets of Paris, to note any change in the price of food, there were the usual scenes of bustling activity among the baskets and the litter of the markets.

There were hard times for the girls who had not been trained to needlework or to the ordinary drudgeries of life, though they toil hard enough in their own professions. To the dancing girls of Montmartre, the singing girls of the cabarets, and the love girls of the streets, Paris with the Germans at its gates was a city of desolation, so cold as they wandered with questing eyes through its loneliness, so cruel to those women of whom it has been very tolerant in days of pleasure. They were unnecessary now to the scheme of things

After the battle of the Marne the old vitality of Paris was gradually restored. The people who had fled by hundreds of thousands dribbled back steadily from England and provincial towns where they had [made] their exile and had been ashamed of their flight. . .The city had been saved. The Germans were in full retreat. The great shadow of fear had been lifted and the joy of a great hope thrilled through the soul of Paris, in spite of all that death la-has, where so many young men were making sacrifices of their lives for France.

Yet though normal life was outwardly resumed (inwardly all things had changed), it was impossible to forget the war or to thrust it away from one's imagination for more than half an hour or so of forgetfulness. Those crowds in the streets contained multitudes of soldiers of all regiments of France, coming and going between the base depots and the long lines of the front. The streets were splashed with the colors of all those uniforms-crimson of Zouaves, azure of chasseurs d'Afrique, the dark blue of gunners, marines. Figures of romance walked down the boulevards and took the sun in the gardens of the Tuileries. . .Senegalese and Turcos with rolling eyes and wreathed smiles sat at the tables in the Café de la Paix, paying extravagantly for their fire-water, and exalted by this luxury of life after the muddy hell of the trenches and the humid climate which made them cough consumptively between their gusts of laughter. . .Outside the Invalides, motor-cars were always arriving at the headquarters of General Gallienni. French staff officers came at full speed, with long shrieks on their motor horns, and little crowds gathered round the ears to question the drivers.

The wounded were allowed at last to come to Paris, and the surgeons who had stood with idle hands found more than enough work to do, and the ladies of France who had put on nurses' dresses walked very softly and swiftly through long wards. . .Into the streets of Paris, therefore, came the convalescents and the lightly wounded, and one-armed or one-legged officers or simple poilus with bandaged heads and hands could he seen in any restaurant among comrades who had not yet received their baptism of fire, had not cried "Touché! after the bursting of a German shell.

The theatres and music-halls of Paris opened one by one in the autumn of the first year of war. Some of the dancing girls and the singing girls found their old places behind the footlights, unless they had coughed their lungs away, or grown too pinched and plain. But for a long time it was impossible to recapture the old spirit of these haunts. . .Paris was half ashamed to go to the Folies Bergères or the Renaissance. . .The old Rabelaisianism was toned down to something like decency and at least the grosser vulgarities of the music-hall stage were banned by common consent.

The little indecencies, the sly allusions, the candor of French comedy remained, and often it was only stupidity which made one laugh. Nothing on earth could have been more ridiculous than the little lady who strutted up and down the stage, in the uniform of a British Tommy, to the song of "Tipperary," which she rendered as a sentimental ballad, with dramatic action. When she lay down on her front buttons and died a dreadful death from German bullets, still singing in a feeble voice : "Good-bye, Piccadilly; farewell, Leicester Square," there were British officers in the boxes who laughed until they wept, to the great astonishment of a French audience, who saw no humor in the exhibition.

I have written many words about the spirit of Paris in war. Yet all these little glimpses I have given reveal only the trivial characteristics of the city. Through all these episodes and outward facts, rising above them to a great height of spirituality, the soul of Paris was a white fire burning with a steady flame. I cannot describe the effect of it upon one 5 senses and imagination. I was only conscious of it, so that again and again, in the midst of the crowded boulevards, or in the dim aisles of Notre Dame, or wandering along the left bank of the Seine, I used to say to myself, silently or aloud: "These people are wonderful! . . . They hold the spirit of an unconquerable race. . . . though Paris suffered with the finer agonies of the sensitive intelligence, it did not lose faith or courage, and found the heart to laugh sometimes, in spite of all its tears.

Sources and Thanks: Tony Langley found this 1915 gem from British war correspondent Phillip Gibbs.


  1. Wonderfully evocative -- thanks for sharing.

  2. There is a really interesting book by reporter Wythe Williams that came out in 1915 called Passed by the Censor. He was in France when war broke out, and his book covers roughly the first 8 or so months of the conflict.

    His experiences in Paris during the run up to the war and the first 6 weeks or so are simply wonderful. This reminded me of that book.