OVER THERE (War Scenes on the Western Front) - Arnold Bennett - ebook

OVER THERE (War Scenes on the Western Front) ebook

Bennett Arnold



This book was written by British writer Arnold Bennett. He lived in France from 1903-1911, and was the first established author to be invited to tour the front for propaganda purposes, spending three weeks in France and Belgium in June 1915 and publishing this account later in the year. He was appointed Director of Propaganda in the Ministry of Information in 1918. Content : The Zone Of Paris On The French Front Ruins At Grips The British Lines The Unique City Enoch Arnold Bennett (1867—1931) was a British novelist, playwright, critic, and essayist whose major works form an important link between the English novel and the mainstream of European realism. He also worked in other fields such as journalism, propaganda and film.

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Arnold Bennett


(War Scenes on the Western Front)

Published by


- Advanced Digital Solutions & High-Quality eBook Formatting -
2017 OK Publishing
ISBN 978-80-272-3164-5

Table of Contents

I The Zone Of Paris
II On The French Front
III Ruins
IV At Grips
V The British Lines
VI The Unique City

I The Zone Of Paris

Table of Contents

From the balcony you look down upon massed and variegated tree- tops as though you were looking down upon a valley forest from a mountain height. Those trees, whose hidden trunks make alleys and squares, are rooted in the history of France. On the dusty gravel of the promenade which runs between the garden and the street a very young man and a girl, tiny figures, are playing with rackets at one of those second-rate ball games beloved by the French petite bourgeoisie. Their jackets and hats are hung on the corner of the fancy wooden case in which an orange-tree is planted. They are certainly perspiring in the heavy heat of the early morning. They are also certainly in love. This lively dalliance is the preliminary to a day's desk-work. It seems ill-chosen, silly, futile. The couple have forgotten, if they ever knew, that they are playing at a terrific and long-drawn moment of crisis in a spot sacred to the finest civilisation.

From the balcony you can see, close by, the Louvre, with its sculptures extending from Jean Goujon to Carpeaux; the Church of St. Clotilde, where Cesar Franck for forty years hid his genius away from popularity; the railway station of the Quai d'Orsay, which first proved that a terminus may excite sensations as fine as those excited by a palace or a temple; the dome of the Invalides; the unique facades, equal to any architecture of modern times, to the north of the Place de la Concorde, where the Ministry of Marine has its home. Nobody who knows Paris, and understands what Paris has meant and still means to humanity, can regard the scene without the most exquisite sentiments of humility, affection, and gratitude. It is impossible to look at the plinths, the mouldings, the carving of the Ministry of Marine and not be thrilled by that supreme expression of national art.

And all this escaped! That is the feeling which one has. All this beauty was menaced with disaster at the hands of beings who comprehended it even less than the simple couple playing ball, beings who have scarcely reached the beginnings of comprehension, and who joined a barbaric ingenuousness to a savage cruelty. It was menaced, but it escaped. Perhaps no city was ever in acuter peril; it escaped by a miracle, but it did escape. It escaped because tens of thousands of soldiers in thousands of taxi- cabs advanced more rapidly than any soldiers could be expected to advance. "The population of Paris has revolted and is hurrying to ask mercy from us!" thought the reconnoitring simpletons in Taubes, when they noted beneath them the incredible processions of taxi- cabs going north. But what they saw was the Sixth Army, whose movement changed the campaign, and perhaps the whole course of history.

"A great misfortune has overtaken us," said a German officer the next day. It was true. Greater than he suspected.

The horror of what might have happened, the splendour of what did happen, mingle in the awed mind as you look over the city from the balcony. The city escaped. And the event seems vaster and more sublime than the mind can bear.

The streets of Paris have now a perpetual aspect of Sunday morning; only the sound of church-bells is lacking. A few of the taxi- cabs have come back; but all the auto-buses without exception are away behind the front. So that the traffic is forced underground, where the railways are manned by women. A horse-bus, dug up out of the past, jogs along the most famous boulevard in the world like a country diligence, with a fat, laughing peasant-woman clinging to its back-step and collecting fare-moneys into the immense pocket of her black apron. Many of the most expensive and unnecessary shops are shut; the others wait with strange meekness for custom. But the provision shops and all the sturdy cheap shops of the poor go on naturally, without any self-consciousness, just as usual. The pavements show chiefly soldiers in a wild, new variety of uniforms, from pale blue to black, imitated and adapted from all sources, and especially from England—and widows and orphans. The number of young girls and women in mourning, in the heavy mourning affected by the Latin race, is enormous. This crape is the sole casualty list permitted by the French War Office. It suffices. Supreme grief is omnipresent; but it is calm, cheerful, smiling. Widows glance at each other with understanding, like initiates of a secret and powerful society.

Never was Paris so disconcertingly odd. And yet never was it more profoundly itself. Between the slow realisation of a monstrous peril escaped and the equally slow realisation of its power to punish, the French spirit, angered and cold, knows at last what the French spirit is. And to watch and share its mood is positively ennobling to the stranger. Paris is revealed under an enchantment, On the surface of the enchantment the pettinesses of daily existence persist queerly.

Two small rooms and a kitchen on a sixth floor. You could put the kitchen, of which the cooking apparatus consists of two gas-rings, in the roots of the orange-tree in the Tuileries gardens. Everything is plain, and stringently tidy; everything is a special item, separately acquired, treasured. I see again a water-colour that I did years ago and had forgotten; it lives, protected by a glazed frame and by the pride of possession. The solitary mistress of this immaculate home is a spinster sempstress in the thirties. She earns three francs a day, and is rich because she does not spend it all, and has never spent it all. Inexpressibly neat, smiling, philosophic, helpful, she has within her a contentious and formidable tiger which two contingencies, and two only, will arouse. The first contingency springs from any threat of marriage. You must not seek a husband for her; she is alone in the world, and she wants to be. The second springs from any attempt to alter her habits, which in her sight are as sacredly immutable as the ritual of an Asiatic pagoda.

Last summer she went to a small town, to which is attached a very large military camp, to help her sister-in-law in the running of a cafe. The excursion was to be partly in the nature of a holiday; but, indefatigable on a chair with a needle, she could not stand for hours on her feet, ministering to a sex of which she knew almost nothing. She had the nostalgia of the Parisian garret. She must go home to her neglected habits. The war was waging. She delayed, from a sense of duty. But at last her habits were irresistible. Officers had said lightly that there was no danger, that the Germans could not possibly reach that small town. Nevertheless, the train that the spinster-sempstress took was the last train to leave. And as the spinster-sempstress departed by the train, so the sister-in-law departed in a pony-cart, with a son and a grandmother in the pony- cart, together with such goods as the cart would hold; and, through staggering adventures, reached safety at Troyes.

"And how did you yourself get on?" I asked the spinster-sempstress.

She answered:

"It was terrible. Ordinarily it is a journey of three or four hours. But that time it lasted three days and two nights. The train was crammed with refugees and with wounded. One was obliged to stand up. One could not move."

"But where did you sleep?"

"I did not sleep. Do I not tell you one was obliged to stand up? I stood up all the first night. The floor was thirty centimetres deep in filth. The second night one had settled down somewhat. I could sit."

"But about eating?"

"I had a little food that I brought with me."

"And drinking?"

"Nothing, till the second day. One could not move. But in the end we arrived. I was broken with fatigue. I was very ill. But I was home. The Boches drank everything in the cafe, everything; but the building was spared—it stood away from the firing. How long do you think the war will last?"

"I'm beginning to think it will last a long time."

"So they say," she murmured, glancing through the window at the prospect of roofs and chimney-cowls. "Provided that it finishes well…"

Except by the look in her eyes, and by the destruction of her once good complexion, it was impossible to divine that this woman's habits had ever been disturbed in the slightest detail. But the gaze and the complexion told the tale.

Next: the Boulevard St. Germain. A majestic flat, heavily and sombrely furnished. The great drawing-room is shut and sheeted with holland. It has been shut for twenty years. The mistress of this home is an aged widow of inflexible will and astounding activity. She gets up at five a.m., and no cook has ever yet satisfied her. The master is her son, a bachelor of fifty. He is paralysed, and always perfectly dressed in the English taste, he passes his life in a wheeled chair. The home is centred in his study, full of books, engravings, a large safe, telephone, theatrophone, newspapers, cigarettes, easy-chairs. When I go in, an old friend, a stockbroker, is there, and "thees" and "thous" abound in the conversation, which runs on investments, the new English loan, banking accounts in London, the rent moratorium in Paris, and the war. It is said that every German is a critic of war. But so is every Frenchman a critic of war. The criticism I now hear is the best spoken criticism, utterly impartial, that I have heard.

"In sum," says the grey-headed stockbroker, "there disengages itself from the totality of the facts an impression, tolerably clear, that all goes very well on the West front."

Which is reassuring. But the old lady, invincible after seven-and-a- half decades spent in the hard acquirement of wisdom, will not be reassured. She is not alarmed, but she will not be reassured. She treats the two men with affectionate malice as children. She knows that "those birds"—that is to say, the Germans—will never be beaten, because they are for ever capable of inventing some new trick.

She will not sit still. A bit of talk, and she runs off with the agility of a girl to survey her household; then returns and cuts into the discussion.

"If you are coming to lunch, Bennett," she says, "come before Monday, because on Monday my cook takes herself away, and as for the new one, I should dare to say nothing. . . . You don't know, Bennett, you don't know, that at a given moment it was impossible to buy salt. I mean, they sold it to you unwillingly, in little screws of paper. It was impossible to get enough. Figure that to yourself, you from London! As for chicory for the morning cafe-au-lait, it existed not. Gold could not buy it."

And again she said, speaking of the fearful days in September 1914:

"What would you? We waited. My little coco is nailed there. He cannot move without a furniture-van filled with things essential to his existence. I did not wish to move. We waited, quite simply. We waited for them to come. They did not come. So much the better That is all."

I have never encountered anything more radically French than the temperament of this aged woman.

Next: the luxury quarter—the establishment of one of those fashionable dressmakers whom you patronise, and whose bills startle all save the most hardened. She is a very handsome woman. She has a husband and two little boys. They are all there. The husband is a retired professional soldier. He has a small and easy post in a civil administration, but his real work is to keep his wife's books. In August he was re-engaged, and ready to lead soldiers under fire in the fortified camp which Gallieni has evolved out of the environs of Paris; but the need passed, and the uniform was laid aside. The two little boys are combed and dressed as only French and American children are combed and dressed, and with a more economical ingenuity than American children. Each has a beautiful purple silk necktie and a beautiful silk handkerchief to match. You may notice that the purple silk is exactly the same purple silk as the lining of their mother's rich mantle hanging over a chair back.

"I had to dismiss my last few work-girls on Saturday," said the dressmaker. It was no longer possible to keep them. "I had seventy, you know. Now—not one. For a time we made considerably less than the rent. Now we make nothing. Nevertheless, some American clients have been very kind."

Her glance went round the empty white salons with their mirrors in sculptured frames. Naught of her stock was left except one or two fragile blouses and a few original drawings.

Said the husband:

"We are eating our resources. I will tell you what this war means to us. It means that we shall have to work seven or eight years longer than we had the intention to work. What would you?"

He lifted his arms and lowered the corners of his mouth. Then he turned again to the military aspect of things, elaborating it.

The soldier in him finished:

"It is necessary, all the same, to admire these cursed Germans."

"Admire them!" said his wife sharply. "I do not appreciate the necessity. When I think of that day and that night we spent at home!" They live in the eastern suburbs of the city. "When I think of that day and that night! The cannon thundering at a distance of ten kilometres!"

"Thirty kilometres, almost thirty, my friend," the husband corrected.

"Ten kilometres. I am sure it was not more than ten kilometres, my friend."

"But see, my little one. It was at Meaux. Forty kilometres to Meaux. We are at thirteen. That makes twenty-seven, at least."

"It sounded like ten."

"That is true."

"It sounded like ten, my dear Arnold. All day, and all night. We could not go to bed. Had one any desire to go to bed? It was anguish. The mere souvenir is anguish."

She kissed her youngest boy, who had long hair.

"Come, come!" the soldier calmed her.

Lastly: an interior dans le monde; a home illustrious in Paris for the richness of its collections—bric-a-brac, fans, porcelain, furniture, modern pictures; the walls frescoed by Pierre Bonnard and his compeers; a black marble balcony with an incomparable view in the very middle of the city. Here several worlds encountered each other: authors, painters, musicians, dilettanti, administrators. The hostess had good-naturedly invited a high official of the Foreign Office, whom I had not seen for many years; she did not say so, but her aim therein was to expedite the arrangements for my pilgrimages in the war-zone. Sundry of my old friends were present. It was wonderful how many had escaped active service, either because they were necessary to central administration, or because they were neutrals, or because they were too old, or because they had been declined on account of physical unfitness, reformes. One or two who might have come failed to do so because they had perished.

Amid the abounding, dazzling confusion of objects which it was a duty to admire, people talked cautiously of the war. With tranquillity and exactness and finality the high official, clad in pale alpaca and yellow boots, explained the secret significance of Yellow Books, White Books, Orange Books, Blue Books. The ultimate issues were never touched. New, yet unprinted, music was played; Schumann, though German enough, was played. Then literature came to the top. A novelist wanted to know what I thought of a book called "The Way of All Flesh," which he had just read. It is singular how that ruthless book makes its way across all frontiers. He also wanted to know about Gissing, a name new to him. And then a voice from the obscurity of the balcony came startlingly to me in the music-room:

"Tell me! Sincerely—do they hate the Germans in England? Do they hate them, veritably? Tell me. I doubt it. I doubt strongly."

I laughed, rather awkwardly, as any Englishman would.

The transient episode was very detrimental to literary talk.

Negotiations for a private visit to the front languished. The thing was arranged right enough, but it seemed impossible to fix a day actually starting. So I went to Meaux. Meaux had stuck in my ears. Meaux was in history and in romances; it is in Dumas. It was burnt by the Normans in the tenth century, and terrific massacres occurred outside its walls in the fourteenth century, massacres in which the English aristocracy took their full share of the killing. Also, in the seventeenth century, Bossuet was Bishop of Meaux. Finally, in the twentieth century, the Germans just got to Meaux, and they got no further. It was, so far as I can make out, the nearest point to Paris which they soiled.