Paris Under Fire

by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant | May 4, 1918

MARCH 9th: Last night we had our second big air raid. As soon as the sharp sound of the explosions had died away—before the French cannonading had stopped and well before the berloque announced the end—I stuck my head out of my window. Utter blackness, blackness impenetrable, blackness that denied the very possibility of light, yet through it, on the street below, was already traveling something warm and vibrant and human: the Paris crowd. It was as if a river, obstructed for a moment, had found its normal course again. The murmur was slightly subdued, confused, but eddies of easy laughter, voices, disputing as to where the last bomb fell, floated up to me.

This morning I found myself before the yawning ruins of a six-story house, in the company of several thousand Parisians. A quiet, middle aged working woman who surged up against me suddenly broke out: “Eh bien, moi, Madame, I was tired of the war. I had had enough of it. I wanted peace. But now—now, all I want is to be a man!” 

 

March 11th: The “Gothas” again. An interesting progression: I spent the first raid in the street, the second in my room, the third in the cellar. The Swiss head-waiter, shrieking “à la cave, à la cave!” had turned out all the lights before I got downstairs, and dived before me into subterranean regions that date from an ancient convent. 

In the first cave the sports of the hotel were already uncorking champagne; in the second, a Spanish scene, a card table with one flickering candle, a lady in black evening dress and three swarthy masculine faces; in the fourth, the cowards, maids and valets of every nationality, gloomily whispering; in the last, brightly lighted with electricity, the beau monde, trying to look as if it were their custom to spend the night entombed in a seven-foot vault lined with dusty bottles of old wine.

Mr. Blank, of the American Red Cross, protected by Mrs. Blank, had all his valuable papers under his Louis XV chair, and was making notes for his stenographer. The other males, though British officers, were less Olympian; in the tilt of their expressionless heads against the unyielding stone walls, one divined a secret grievance: wives had decreed this ignominy. Moreover, the red-haired refugee from Rumania, with her Bowery accent, her three-year-old boy and her sixteen-year-old French nurse, took up a great deal of room. So did Mrs. de Peyster’s Russian wolf-hound. His mistress, with her pearls about her neck and her diamonds in her wrist bag, summoned M. le Directeur to demand a carpet for the next occasion—the earth floor was unsuited to pets as well as to satin slippers. Mrs. Thompson, in her green swather, also found it impossible to make her Chow comfortable. He had to yield his gilt chair to Miss Ames, who had slipped a fur coat over a gorgeous dressing-gown that belied her uniform hat; she had come from her canteen at the front, where they were bombed every night, for a quiet night in Paris. The prettiest of last season’s débutantes put up with a pathetic little stool.

Boom-m-m-m-m––––

“Oh, do you suppose that was the Grand Palais? I wish we could hear more, don’t you? The only thing that I don’t like about this cellar is that it muffles everything.”

Couchez, Chow! Couchez tout à fait! Mrs. de Peyster, do you mind keeping your dog the other side? Tout à fait, Chow! I am a little nervous—not about bombs. This is such a small room for a fight. I don’t mean on your lap. We do love to treat them like children, don’t we?” 

“How discouraging! I had heard today from somebody who really knows that things were better in Washington. Oh no, my dear; it was a Major who told me. Well, anyhow, Baker is in this raid—I hope he heard that one...”

“What does that waiter want, snooping around?”

“They have sent him to see that we don’t take any wine. Ten bottles disappeared last time.”

“John, John! Did you see where my husband went?”

“Yes, they say it was a German General in British uniform who ordered them back...”

“Waiter, please go up and get me a glass—I want some mineral water—and while you are there, just ask the concierge whether it was the Grand Palais or the Chambre des Deputés...You don’t think I ought to ask him to go up? But you know as well as I do, that man is a German spy—if any of his old bombs drop in our court...”

Four hours of this by the clock. How different is the quality of our heroism from what our American families imagine.

 

Easter Sunday: I think back with difficulty to the time when cave-dwelling was farcical, when shells were unknown: yet it is only ten days that Paris has been a city of the front. By night the silence is intense—more profound than one opposed it ever could be in a great city. It is this breathless hush—not the shells—that brings the dreadful battle close to millions of anguished hearts.

But the day has been hard, and one drops asleep at last. Suddenly, corkscrewing into one’s unquiet dream, the siren; then the French guns—another alerts. The cellar? Ca manque de charm, as the stolid chambermaid says. One decides for bed, after making sure that shutters are tight closed (against shrapnel), windows wide open (against shock), and coat, shoes, passport, money, electric lamp at hand. After one hour, two hours, three hours of unpleasant noise—the bells! Blessed bells, sober bells—nobody who has not heard them tolling peace, tolling sleep, through these solemn nights, knows the fortitude of the soul of France.

An early evening alerte is worth seeing in the Metro. The current is cut off at the first signal; the trains stop and disgorge their passengers who mingle with the populace that flows down from above—mostly working-class families bringing their unfinished dinners with them; dangling their legs over the platform, they proceed to finish them, passing the bread and bottle from hand to hand. The crowd is not light-hearted, as it was in early March; it no longer stops to bring mattresses and phonographs; it is less inclined to sing as it walks the weary way home through the tunnels to Montrouge or Montmartre, and when the signal comes it makes straight for bed, indifferent to the immediate interest of ruins. 

Yet this Parisian people is more than ever the warm, realistic, indomitable force I felt it on the dark night of the second raid. Shells do not disperse it, they cause it to collect, collect in charity to succor the victims; in curiosity to examine the hole; in scorn to note how small it is, how quickly it can be stopped up, and what wealth it has wasted for the Boche. The architect in charge of one of the Paris districts went one morning to a house where a shell was supposed to have fallen. The concierge at first knew nothing, but on exploring on his own account, he found a smashed roof. “That!” she said, “who would have thought of reporting that?” Woe to the provincial arrival who innocently asks the passer-by whether tramways are running. Instantly he has the crowd against him. Are we not fighting for justice and liberty? Why ask défaitiste questions? Of course, everything is as usual.

And this is fact, not bravado. To be sure, the statues and fountains muffle themselves deeper in sandbags every day. A new art has grown up—window decorations made of strips of paper pasted across plate glass. The Rue de la Paix goes in for diamond patterns, the neighborhood of the Institut inclines to the classic, and cubism—strangely colored—flourishes on the Champs-Elysées. Delightful yellow balloons, whose cords we understand are to entangle in the tails of the swooping German planes, float in the evening sky. Streets, subways, restaurants, shops are full of people. Taxis circulate, and pedestrians, who are learning, as citizens of the front always do, to know the paths least loved by shells. Nowhere—this is the admirable thing—not even in the stations crowded with invalids, children, old people and family pets, does one see on human faces the shadow of fear. Tense faces, sad faces, absent faces; the liberated regions are no more, and the poor “evacuated,” leaving a new set of homes and sprouting lettuces, are again crossing trainloads of soldiers, soldiers who even now, after the Yser, after Verdun, after the Somme, go towards the battle signing; shouting to the refugees: “Don’t give up, don’t worry—on les aura, on les aura!” It is not for themselves that the “evacuated” weep then. The blood of France is again pouring out unstinted.

Meanwhile, it is Easter Sunday. The horse chestnuts show their spiky whiteness overhead. Italian anemones, mimosa, roses, daffodils, violets, lilacs—all the buoyant and exquisite flowers of spring are blooming along fine gray walls, and color vistas that never looked more nobly detached and immaculate. Mass was celebrated in the churches this morning in spite of Good Friday’s disaster, and this afternoon we had a chance in the Bois, in the Champs-Elysées, among the strolling crowds, to note that by no means all the children of the rich had been sent to the country. Here they are, with their streamered, costumed bones and their toy balloons that float above them like little red and green souls, mocking and challenging the forces of destruction. At decent intervals a crash—but bombardment is a sort of thunder shower, and lightning often strikes amiss. After the first day and a half of it, more than a week ago, an officer of the Red Cross went out to get his lunch. Paris had just traversed one rather disquieting moment—a moment of mystery; ordered to its cellars in broad daylight, it could not, in spite of periodic explosions, discern a single “Gotha” in the empyrean or hear a single French defensive shot. But news of the long-range gun was now abroad; already the realistic reaction had set in; already the boulevards were in movement, and the old woman who sells newspapers at the kiosk opposite the Madeleine was in her place. 

“Good morning, Madame. I haven’t heard that famous gun of yours for at least half an hour—have you?”

Que voulez-vous, Monsieur! Faut qu’il déjeune!—It has to have its lunch!”

In this spirit does the ancient people of Paris, which has known many another embattled hour, hold its section of the line of fire.

This article appeared in the May 4, 1918 issue of the magazine.

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