Paris. September 6th, 1914. The streets were quiet in the diffuse pre-dawn light as Henri left the requisitioned hotel on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais. It was not just the quiet of an early Sunday morning. The half-emptied city held its breath. The afternoon before, the distant booming of the guns had been heard like summer thunder disturbing the hot, humid afternoon. It had put the officers who gathered in the lobby on edge: a day too early. The battle was supposed to begin on the morning of the 6th, not the afternoon of the 5th.
General Joffre’s draft order of the day had been circulated ahead of time among the officers, the words which would be read on the morning of the 6th to soldiers about to go into battle:
“At this moment, the battle on which the salvation of La Patrie depends is about to begin, and the time for retreat is ended. Every effort is to be poured into the attack, to hurl back the enemy from our soil. Any soldiers who find themselves unable to advance further are to hold their positions at any cost and die on the spot rather than retreat.”
Rumor was not slow to confirm the implication of the final line: The retreat is over. He has ordered that any man or officer who abandons his post without orders is to be shot. My God, about time too. The soldiers will fight if only the orders to retreat will stop coming. They want to fight, not give up ever more French soil.
The talk had all been enthusiastic, and yet there was the lurking fear too: There is no more time. There is no more room. If they take Paris…
There were dual notices posted on the neo-classical columns of the Church of Saint-Pierre du Gros Caillou. Whatever the priests might think of their place of worship serving as a public noticeboard, since the Church-and-State law of 1905 the church buildings belonged to the government and some enterprising poster-bearer with his bucket of paste had decided that the smooth round columns were the perfect place to catch the eye of those hurrying in to pray for the preservation of the Republic. The first of these notices, already three days old, was the announcement that the government was abandoning Paris.
“PEOPLE OF FRANCE!” read the bold heading, with the rippling tricolor displayed above. But each succeeding paragraph shrank with shame into smaller type.
“For several weeks relentless battles have engaged our heroic troops and the army of the enemy. The valour of our soldiers has won victories at several points; but in the north the pressure of the German forces has compelled us to fall back.
“This situation has compelled the President of the Republic and the Government to take a painful decision. In order to watch over the national welfare, it is the duty of the public powers to remove themselves temporarily from the city of Paris.”
It continued on into smaller, denser text, promising that the struggle would continue despite all costs, as if by repetition of words such as “resolve” “tenacity” and “victory” it could erase the blow which its message conveyed. The other notice had been pasted up to partly cover these craven rationalizations and its message had the brevity of confidence.
“ARMY OF PARIS, INHABITANTS OF PARIS,
“The members of the Government of the Republic have left Paris to give a fresh impulse to national defence.
“I have been entrusted with the task of defending Paris against the invader.
“That task I will fulfil to the end.
“Commandant of the Army of Paris”
It was not the first time that Henri had seen General Gallieni’s proclamation, but he stopped to read it all the way through. There was a thrill to the short lines which was like the feeling when the whole company stood as a body and practiced the bayonet charge.
“That task I will fulfil to the end,” he repeated, tasting the words. Would the time come for him to stir men’s hearts with such sentiments?
An old woman, her curved back covered with a black knitted shawl despite the already warm morning, scowled at him as she hurried past into the church. The priest had doubtless already started and he was loitering on the steps reading government proclamations which had no right to be posted on a house of worship. And yet, surely this feeling of exultation at the chance to defend France was itself in some sense from God.