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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 10-1

We return to Philomene for Chapter 10. This chapter will have three installments total. The next one will be posted by Monday night.

Chateau Ducloux, France. August 19th, 1914. With Henri gone, it seemed more important than ever to maintain the morning routine. Philomene arrived at the breakfast table at exactly eight o’clock, made her cup of white coffee -- half coffee, half cream, with a generous spoonful of sugar -- and sat down opposite her father. Now, though, she left her book of devotions in her room, and as soon as she sat down gave her attention to the papers.

What is the news? Have you heard anything? These had replaced all other forms of greeting. Wives and mothers waited for word of their sons. Those over fifty could remember the disastrous days in 1870 when Louis-Napoleon had been surrounded and forced to surrender at Sedan, the next major city to the north up the rail line.

She turned first to the copy of Le Temps, which she still thought of as Henri’s. Was he able to get hold of a newspaper in Paris with his regiment? Was he perhaps reading the same words right now? “Bulletin of the Day,” read the headline of the first column, the small type underneath laying out the successes of the Serbs and Montenegrins against Austria-Hungary along the Drina and the Saba. Russia. Romania. Hungary. News of distant war, but nothing that could tell her what was happening to Henri or of their own safety. She began to skim over the closely spaced columns.

On the sixteenth day of mobilization, the official communique assures us that the situation is good and the progress methodical in Lorraine and Alsace…. The Belgians today push new offensives against the Germans…. Our soldiers and their leaders are full of resolute confidence and patriotic faith….

And yet the only items which spoke clearly about events seemed to be within France. Villages bombarded outside Nancy. A mother and her child shot by heartless German soldiers in Belfort. She set Le Temps aside and took up La Croix, but there the lead headline was “Confidence!” and readers were assured that although the Germans might succeed at certain places, God did not want a nation of such savagery to be rewarded with dominion over France.

“I don’t know if there is no news to be had, or if there is bad news and the papers do not want to report it,” she said, pushing away the news sheet.

“They may not know either,” Louis replied. “The local paper prints some soldiers’ letters. No one we know, but do you want to see?”

Philomene shook her head and instead flipped the front page of La Croix over and glanced at the inside stories. “These stories about the Belgian refugees are terrible. What would we take if we had to leave with only what we could carry?”

Louis shrugged. “What good does running away do? In 1870 I watched the Germans march through town through that window,” he pointed. The morning breeze moved the curtains, and the most threatening thing on the street was Madame Legros bringing a cart full of farm vegetables to the grocer.

“God preserve us. Surely it won’t come to that here?” But as she said the words, she could imagine standing at those same windows, holding her children close to her, watching the savage Germans in their spiked helmets tramp through the street. Wouldn’t it be better to pile the family valuables in a cart and get as far away as possible, rather than face the depredations of a conquering army? The newspaper account of the woman and her child being shot returned to her mind and she could now imagine that child being Pascal. “They must be better prepared than in 1870. Surely the Germans won’t make it this far,” she said, looking to her father some kind of reassurance. If only Henri were were. He would be able to tell her whether there was real danger, and if so how to meet it.

Louis was shaking his head slowly. “I was nineteen years old. Stood staring out that window thinking that if I were a real man I would be fighting the Germans. Pere must have known what was in my mind. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘If you do anything to try to fight those soldiers I’ll horsewhip you myself.’ There was a boy on one of the farms who took a shot at them and they hanged him in the square.”

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