The Bitter Experience of Lorraine

UPON Lorraine two scourges have swooped down — the scourge of war and the scourge of crime.

War — which France did her utmost to avoid. The proof of these efforts of France to maintain peace is written in more than one of our Lorraine villages. Let none forget this: in the first days of August, 1914, while the situation was strained, all hope of preserving peace was not abandoned; there was electricity in the air; a spark might cause an explosion. The government of the Republic desired to avert that disaster; it ordered that, so long as the irreparable had not happened, our troops should remain in the positions they then occupied, and should at need fall back ten kilometres from our frontier. Our army, quivering with excitement, observed these instructions scrupulously. Meanwhile, German troops made their way into more than one Lorraine commune of this district, and performed acts of war before war was declared. This was the first violation of those ’laws of war’ which the civilized nations had slowly worked out, and which had been reduced to a code in solemn conventions. It proved to be but the prelude.

Many Lorraine communes have been ‘victims of war.’ They found themselves in the midst of the fighting. The tempest rushed headlong upon them. Shells — German or French according to the fluctuations of the battle — rained down upon their houses and annihilated them. There was nothing to be said. It is the stern law of war. The inevitable passed that way. Let us not be angry with the hand that struck; let us exhale our wrath only against the responsible author of the crime, who, intoxicated by his mad dream of worlddomination, let loose the scourge.

But there are ruins of another kind. Gerbeviller, Nomeny, Badonviller, Parux, Nonhigny, Domevre, Crevic — alas! the complete list would be a long one. These towns have not been destroyed by the war; I bear witness that they have been assassinated! There they slew old men, women, and children. I saw the dead bodies.

I shall never forget my sensation of horror, the first time that I succeeded in finding my way into Gerbeviller, at sight of a group of fifteen civilians lying in a meadow on the edge of a stream. They were in three groups of five. The men in each group, as they stood, had evidently drawn close together before dying. The groups were about a yard apart. They had fallen on their backs before a volley, like a section of wall. The clenched hand of one still held an old pipe. Their suspenders had been cut and their trousers had fallen down to their knees. We can but think that the young German warriors were afraid that those old men (for old men they really were) would run away from death. The fifteen martyrs had white hair; they still retained a venerable aspect; their brows reflected an august serenity; through their closed eyes they looked toward heaven, as if to call it to witness.

Nor shall I ever forget the thrill of pride with which I pressed the hand of the Mayor of Badonviller. His wife, with many others, had been shot pointblank, and his house burned with many other houses. The next day the enemy fell back and a French patrol brought in a prisoner. The bodies of the civilian victims had not been buried; the burned houses were still smoking. The prisoner was one of the soldiers who had been guilty of the double crime. He was taken to the Mayor’s office. A crowd surrounded him and threatened him. The mayor intervened, and imposed silence upon all. He did not try to find out whether the man was a murderer, whether he had killed his wife, or burned his house: he was a prisoner and his person must be respected; so he took him under his own protection.

This incident teaches a two-fold lesson: it shows the sort of warfare which the French in Lorraine have had to undergo, and the other totally different sort of warfare which they have waged.

But let us put aside the recollection of these crimes against persons. After the murders (who will ever be able to make a complete list of them?) the — temporary— conqueror burned the houses. They were burned one after another, methodically — I would say scientifically, were I not afraid of dishonoring that noblest of noble terms. There is no possibility of mistake about it: it was not shells that destroyed those houses during the fighting, as the chance of battle decreed: it was the hand of man which brought to the spot the special machines prepared for that purpose. We have found elsewhere in the district a number of these machines for setting fires; they form a part of the regular impedimenta of the German soldiers. There is no possibility of mistake, I say: the crime is not simply attested by the witnesses who still exist; it is signed. Those who, like myself, have had the painful duty of inspecting the devastated communes after their liberation, distinguish at the first glance the houses destroyed by the deliberate incendiarism of the savages from those which were simply subjected to bombardment.

It is like this: these houses have not crumbled, nor are they riddled with holes; the four walls are generally intact, and so are the chimneys, hollow masses of brick adhering to the walls, whose draft quickened the flame. The photograph of a street, taken along its length, would give a false impression of the actual condition of the town: apparently not a building is injured; and yet each house is a mere skeleton, without floors or roof; the walls alone remain, all blackened with smoke inside; not one has been demolished by shells. (The aspect of these villages has naturally changed with time: the winter has passed with its accompaniment of rain and snow; a number of walls have fallen in; others, which had become dangerous, have been pulled down.) If, therefore, bombardment was the cause of the damage, it must have been that the shells fell from the zenith, and only a god could have discharged such a volley. But no, the thing came to pass more simply: the ‘old German God ’ did not send down a vertical rain of shells upon those peaceful little homes; it was the German army that deliberately set fire to them, in obedience to the definite orders of its leaders.

What was the motive of the crime? The pretext we all know. It was everywhere the same. The Germans declared that the civilians fired on them. I stamp upon that false pretence; I declare that in no commune in Lorraine was a civilian guilty of that utterly useless and provocative act. I have described above the conduct of the Mayor of Badonvfiller, and that conduct, which every one hereabouts approved, is evidence enough of how France understands the laws of war. I cannot say whether it was weakness on his part, but I know very well that it was to his honor.

No! They burned as they murdered, without motive, without the shadow of an excuse. They acted with method, under strict discipline, with a very clearly defined object in view. What was the object? No honest man, however far removed from the seat of war, can at this day fail to know, and I have only to mention it. Many masters of German thought have written, in ponderous treatises, that the most efficient method of shortening a war, of making sure of victory and hastening its arrival, is to terrorize the civil population. All German officers do not accept this doctrine, but some of them make it their own, and when the occasion arises, turn it into action. Thus are explained the widely different fates of our Lorraine communes: here, the officer of the old school brought into the task of war the scruples with which to-day all those make it their pride and glory to comply whose minds are unacquainted with the divagations of Kultur; there, the officer who is neither embarrassed nor honored by such scruples applied literally the doctrine of the masters; he played the game of crime to the limit: he burned the houses, he killed the old men, he shot the women and children at random; he did his utmost to terrorize, and sometimes smoked out the poor creatures who had taken refuge in cellars; he gave rein within himself, and, so far as he could, in the hearts of his subordinates, to a sort of epileptic outburst of violence and brutality.

But once again ‘Herr Professor’ took the wrong road. His reckoning went astray. These scenes of terror did not, as he hoped, crush the soul of France. France is very easily moved, but not frightened. You can soften her, lead her away from her duty, and conceal her true interest from her, through arousing her ready emotion by some act, some suggestion, some utopian vision of greatness of heart and love. You can allure her by nobility of conduct. Manifestly, too, you can crush her by brute force, — but you cannot reduce her to helplessness by terror. These crimes have taught us to hate, not to cringe.

Victims of the war or of crime, the devastated communes are numerous in Lorraine. What will become of them, and what has become of their people?

The people, who did not desert their villages until the last extremity, have had various experiences. Those who lived near the boundary of the department and crossed that boundary, have scattered through France — to the Centre and the South, where they have been welcomed like brothers. I have done all that I possibly could do to retain on Lorraine soil the largest possible number; here they are not so uprooted, as it were; they live in a neighborhood to which they are more accustomed; the tie that binds them to the consecrated ground where they were born and where their ancestors repose, the ground which they will make fruitful by their toil of to-morrow, is not broken; they are encompassed by a more active affection; and more, and above all, being near to their villages, they will return to them as soon as it is humanly possible to do so — that is, as soon as the military operations permit, and also, as soon as they can find in the ruined villages a semblance of shelter.

There are still twenty thousand refugees in the department, awaiting the blessed hour of their return to their homes. The majority are in Nancy itself; several thousands of women, children, and old men are quartered in huge barracks. It was in these barracks that the glorious troops of the 20th Corps were in garrison before the war. The heroes marched away; hens and newly hatched chickens took shelter in the eagle’s nest. Our barracks have been transformed into hospital cities. Take the Molitor barrack, with its twenty-five hundred guests. We have set up there twenty schools for children — boys and girls — of less than thirteen years; classes in housekeeping for girls of thirteen to eighteen; trade schools for boys above thirteen; workshops for adults; a church in a shed, a hospital, shower-baths, and so forth.

Go into one of the workshops: our women are working for the army, making bags which, being filled with earth, are used in building parapets in the trenches; their wages are modest, but they know that these bags are essential for the national defense, that bags of earth are the modern bucklers, and the coarse needles fly to and fro in the silence. Look into the housekeeping class: our girls are making dresses from the material we give them; they are learning cooking, mending, domestic economy.

And now take the trade school — say, for example, the carpenter’s shop: our boys, who never held a plane until yesterday, are already making benches, ladders, kitchen buffets, — articles, all of them, the making of which affords an opportunity for them to learn to work, and which will be distributed through the villages when our unhappy people are able to return thither.

Go into our ordinary schools: every one is hard at work, as if, by doing his problem without an error, or his page of writing, he hoped to save his country. Inspect staircases, dining-rooms, bedrooms — everything is scrupulously clean. Here good order, toil, and discipline reign; here, confidence in the destiny of the Fatherland can be felt in the air.

Nancy, an open city, — Nancy, which since the war began has not had within its walls a single gun, a single regiment, a single depot of munitions, — Nancy, which no fortification defends, — was bombarded in September. Being but a few kilometres from the frontier, it is an easy prey for the Zeppelins and Taubes, from which it receives frequent noisy visits. The day is radiantly fine, the air is fresh, a gentle breeze is blowing; Nature gives to man counsels of peace and love. Suddenly a huge sinister bird appears over the city; the guns open fire upon it; it drops a few bombs at random, and hurries away in terror as soon as a French airship appears and gives chase. It has disappeared. Calm is restored. Two or three women and children lie dead in the streets. Silently we bury our dead and every one goes back to work.

And in yonder devastated villages life will begin anew; it is already stirring in some of them. As soon as a village is freed from the German occupation, our Lorrainers rush back to it. In the few houses still standing they crowd together, to be near the fields where they used formerly to raise their fair crops, and where they must raise them again to-morrow. They plough to the roar of the cannon, sometimes amid falling shells.

The rebuilding of the ruined houses presents a serious problem. At the present moment we can think of solving it only partially. Our first care is to repair those houses that are simply wounded: here a roof is replaced, there the holes made by shells are filled up. Alas! the burned houses are not wounded merely — they are dead; the charred and tottering walls must be pulled down, the ruins cleared away, and a new house built on the cleared space. That will be the work of to-morrow. I dare not calculate the money, the material, the labor, the time that it will require! Meanwhile, we must turn our attention to the most urgent needs. We are building temporary shelters, in small houses of brick or fibro-cement, which we assign, in order of priority, to the families of farmers whose return to the commune is necessary for the exploitation of the fields; and among these families, first of all, those — and they are very frequent in Lorraine — in which there are large numbers of children.

Poor creatures! They are happy to find a roof-tree, a home; and yet they are a little like shipwrecked sailors. They have lost everything in the upheaval. They fled from the fire, from the shells that fell like hail, or from the assassins — having no time to take anything with them. They went on foot, by muddy roads, pushing the children’s perambulators before them. Everything in the old ancestral home was destroyed. They found there on their return naught but heaps of stone and ashes. Even where the house was only damaged, the interior was downright chaos; the shell which did not destroy all the walls, penetrated them, and when it burst shattered all the furniture.

We do our best to supply these unfortunates with the essential things, but how scanty the essentials are! Our patched-up houses, our temporary shelters, are bare. The bedding is insufficient, the kitchen outfit rudimentary, and furniture properly so-called almost non-existent. What joy would lighten the poor home if I could carry thither a cradle for the new-born child, or a few pieces of bedding or household articles for the whole family!

But you will not hear a word suggestive of discouragement, weariness, or even impatience. The trial is long and severe; but their souls will be able to endure it, without a moment of weakening, until the end — until the day of liberation. Every one realizes what is at stake in the conflict which is shaking the whole earth, and that it is not, as in so many wars, a simple contest between two nations. The simplest minds feel that if German Imperialism should triumph, not France alone, not Europe alone, but the whole world would be made subject to the most hypocritical, the must brutal, and the most arrogant domination; and that under that new régime all that civilization has won in the domain of thought, of art, and of individual liberty; all that embellishes modern society with grace, elegance, and attractiveness; all that ennobles it in the way of kindliness, respect for conventions, sincerity, truth — all this would be endangered, debased, dishonored.

On the other hand they perceive that if German Imperialism shall be crushed, a new era will begin, and that, in the independence and harmonious diversity of the nations, great and small, delivered from the degrading nightmare of Kultur,Kultur which, not by accident, but by a strictly logical sequence of events, falling lower and lower, descending from one moral backsliding to another, was destined to come at last to the unforgettable crime of the Lusitania, — mankind will resume lightheartedly its upward progress toward the True, the Beautiful, and the Good.

Every one in France, and with peculiar reason in Lorraine, understands this. Never, therefore, in any land, at any time, was the determination to conquer or to die more vigorously formed. And as the struggle to lay the Monster low must necessarily be a long one, as the magnificent efforts of our troops are not enough, as the whole nation must show itself deserving of the Victory, we civilians too are doing our utmost to prove ourselves worthy of our gallant defenders. We have learned from them the value of discipline, of unwavering resistance, of good-humor in danger, of toil in silence. And, like them, we are united in a deep-rooted, sacred union: Bishop and Prefect, priests and laymen, Catholics and Protestants, workmen and masters, Conservatives and Socialists, have clasped hands; they communicate in the same love of the Fatherland and of Civilization, menaced by the barbarians; they have a single heart to suffer, a single soul to hope — a single determination to act.

The ATLANTICdesires its readers to know that funds, in large or small amounts, sent personally to M. MIRMAN,Préfêt du Départment de Meurthe-et-Moselle, Nancy, France, will be immediately applied to the relief of urgent necessities among a population which, during the past year, has endured with extraordinary fortitude peculiar intensity of suffering, and with the French genius for self-help has already made marked progress in rebuilding a civilization laid flat with the ground. Destitution, however, exists in many quarters and pressing need is still general. The ATLANTICis in a position to assure its readers that M. Mirman may he trusted to dispense relief with the discretion and economy that come from long training, and without the delays which are the chronic curse of committees. As Prefect in a highly centralized system of government, M. Mirman is an official of great importance. In corroboration of his record, private and accurate information concerning him comes from sources in which the ATLANTIChas complete confidence. — THE EDITORS.