I have been asked to give some account of my time in France, where I went in December, 1916, to Bar-le-Duc, in Lorraine, and for the first three months worked in a canteen for French soldiers. It was a bitter winter, snow fell constantly, and we used to find a crowd of stamping snow men at the hut door on our arrival at 5.45 a.m. for in those days the French authorities, for some unexplained reason, obliged us to shut the canteen at 2 a.m. Often the gas was frozen as well as the water, the bread, oranges, eggs and even the lemonade in its bottles, and it was a job to keep the counter chipped free of frozen coffee and chocolate.
In March I joined a small group of the French War Victims’ Relief Committee. Bar is only 17 miles from Verdun, and was crowded with refugees from that town, St. Mihiel and the villages round. It is a lovely old place, full of carved houses and narrow streets, but owing to the exceptional over-crowding and insanitary conditions, there was much sickness and distress, and we were kept busy trying to improve matters. Owing to the town’s position on the railways and to its being on the high road to Verdun, we often had air raids, but no one took much notice of them, and if people happened to be out and the “alert” sounded, they just disappeared into the nearest cellar and spent the time discussing the war and each other’s affairs quite pleasantly, until the “contre alert” was heard. But last September the night raids with Gothas began. The weather was wonderful, still hot days followed by nights brilliant with moonlight. On Friday, September 28th, we were awakened by the siren at 2 a.m., and spent most of the night in the cellar. Several houses were destroyed in our street and in other parts of the town. The following Sunday evening, about nine o’clock, the siren sounded. The house we then occupied had cellars, which could only be reached through the garden. Two of us got down in time; the others only as far as the hall, where they took shelter behind some petrol casks! and, to our relief, joined us during a lull. The bombing went on and on, with scarcely a pause. The autoparc was struck and had to be evacuated and the cars came dashing along our street at top speed, followed by Gothas firing their machine-guns. We stopped in the cellar till dawn, dosing a little when the firing slackened, and at one time moving to the inner cellar to avoid gas fumes. The whole corner of the Rue de Cygne was destroyed, and we heard 1.20 people were killed there. Many other houses were burnt out. Or~i3londay the refugees came all through the day to ask for clothes and help to leave the town, or at least that the children and old people might be taken to a place of safety. It was impossible, as we were in the war zone, to telegraph or telephone for help, so on a broiling afternoon I set off on my bicycle to ride 21 kilometers along the tow path of the Rhine-Marne Canal to Termaize, where a number of the F.W.V.R.C. are quartered, to ask for cars. Thirteen started off at once, and brought away about forty children and three old people. Next day was spent in the same way.
We had been invited to spend the night at Lon1gueville, a village three kilometres off. We started at seven. Before we arrived, the moon was up and the German planes over. Soldiers coming from Bar told us the principal bank was on fire, later that the hospital had been struck.
The bombardment went on intermittently all through the night. At six we started to walk back to Bar. We found the Credit Lyonais was indeed a mass of destroyed furniture and smoking ruins. Six houses joining it were burnt out, and five partitions out of six at the hospital were gone. Everywhere were damaged houses, broken masonry, doors blown in, glass and bullets on the pavement. A felled tree lay across the road opposite our house, which had escaped with a few holes in the stone-work and several smashed windows.
All this time the wealthier people were rapidly leaving the town by train and in carts of every kind. The poor people started off every evening to walk with their families to the neighbouring farms, and many slept in the fields. For the old and infirm it was terrible, and something had to be arranged for them. An empty house was found 29 kilometres from Bar, and there I was sent on October 16th with an American youth, our cook and car full of luggage. We arrived to find a ramshackle old place on the edge of the Argonne Forest. It had been empty fifty years, and was a mass of dust and cobwebs, the floors strewn with dirty straw left by the soldiers who had lately been quartered there. I managed to make three rooms more or less habitable and to put up camp beds, while Madame cooked and the American chopped wood. The wind howled dismally through the broken windows, but I was so tired that, in spite of that and the scuffling of rats across the floor and the hooting and snoring of owls in the attic rafters, I slept soundly. In a few days we were ready for our guests, and the house almost unrecognisable, with curtains and furniture, but it was three kilometres from the village and very awkward for supplies, so it was with the utmost relief that we moved in a few weeks to a house in Charmont Village.
Built on the site of a fortified castle, the house is [-shaped, facing South to the garden with wings to East and West, and round it all runs the old moat, whose steep sides this spring were covered with periwinkle, sweet violet, bluebell, primroses and a host of tiny flowers under the hazel and hawthorn trees, and the orchard a mass of peach and plum blossom, against the blue of the distance and the sky. On every hand the ground slopes, except where the road leads along the ridge of the hill to the village street, and on all sides you can see miles of open country, and to the West the forest with its white road dipping and reappearing again as it winds to the valley.
Our household consists of eleven old ladies, the cook and Emile, aged 16, who works in the garden, five white chickens, 25 rabbits and Mimi, the cat. The old ladies are full of courage, and they want every bit. Not one of them is free from anxiety for relations fighting or with the Germans, and we used to lie awake some evenings while the old house rocked to the concussion of guns and pray for those who are so near and in such peril. Aeroplanes fly overhead constantly, and the lorries lumber down the road. If you walk towards Chalon, on clear days you can see the sparkle of the sausage balloons and after dark the star shells lighting the horizon with their brilliance. The village is often full of soldiers “en permission.” The last were Zouaves, husky and coughing from the effects of poison gas, yet full of courage and cheerfulness.
I wish I could introduce you to our guests, to Mademoiselle Le Brun, our aristocrat, with her tales of “Papa, qui etait veterinaire,” Mademoiselle Gervais, with nothing but brave laughter at her own lameness; Grand’mere, in her white mob cap and her bent old body supported on a stick, who insists on going out every fine day in search of weeds for the rabbits, and Madame Clemence, who constituted herself bootblack, and is positively disappointed if one has not collected a good load of Meuse mud for her to remove! All of them love to give advice on the garden, and to sun themselves on the sheltered terrace. Their friendliness and kindness towards each other are wonderful.
All they ask is to be allowed to stop there till that peace may come for which we all long.
J I. ALEXANDER.