Keeping School Under Fire

I

WAS I wellor ill-advised to open schools in a city which was almost daily castigated by shells? At the outset this experiment was judged diversely. I reopened certain schools at Rheims because, the city not having been evacuated, there were still many children there. I considered that, so long as there were pupils, even if no more than a hundred, there ought to be schools, not only to enable them to continue their studies, but to protect them against the dangers of the street. This was the twofold result sought, and attained: not only did the bombardments find not a single victim, either among the staff or among the children entrusted to our care, while so many other children were killed in the streets; but also, amazing as it may appear, the teaching yielded abundant fruit.

To secure our ends it was necessary to give the teachers very careful instructions, the execution of which I myself superintended. The most important were the following: —

To the Masters of Schools at the Front

‘The “notice to parents” which accompanies this is to be posted on the door of the school, and must be read to every parent when the pupil is registered. The recesses will be as short as possible (5 to 10 minutes), and there will be no inter-class games. The children must never stand about in groups in front of the school. In case of an alarm they are to be assembled on the lower floors, preferably in the cellar, where they must be kept until the danger has passed. If the bombardment should begin at the hour of dismissal, the children must be kept in school until it has come to an end, whatever the hour. Lastly, I remind the teachers that it is their duty always to set the example of self-possession, and to do their best to reassure both pupils and families, to prevent over-excitement, and forestall anything like a panic. In case anything unusual happens, I must be informed instantly.

It is very important to have a lighted lamp always at the entrance to the cellar; to have the pupils drilled two or three times in going down into the cellar; and never to admit to the classes more pupils than the place can accommodate.

Almost all of these schools were closed and reopened several times under the threat of the German guns, especially during 1915, when the systematic bombardments of the city sometimes raged for several hours. Some of them, which were not more than 1200 to 1500 metres from the enemy lines, demanded a particularly careful oversight. The sessions were held in cellars. These were veritable ‘schools of war,’ and for that reason I called them by the names of our military heroes. Thus we had the ‘Joffre’ and ‘Manoury’ and ‘Dubail’ and ‘Albert I’ schools. The others, which were not so near the enemy as these, but still were within 3000 or 4000 metres, were carried on in the regular buildings.

The underground classes were installed in champagne cellars, that is to say, in immense passages dug in the chalk, whose ramifications were sometimes several kilometres in length. These offered almost absolute security, while indispensable hygienic conditions were complied with: the required number of cubic feet of air-space; sufficient ventilation by means of holes bored at regular intervals in the ceiling and communicating with the outer air; temperature always uniform and high enough (55° to 57°). The furniture and teaching paraphernalia were in all cases supplied by the nearest public school; powerful kerosene lamps — for electricity, and even gas, have been lacking in Rheims for three years — attached to the ceilings by the municipal authorities, furnished the necessary light. Manifestly, this was not all that could be desired, but it was enough to enable the children to work in safety. Although, on visiting these places of refuge in broad daylight, one was at first impressed by the dimness of the light, nevertheless the eye soon became used to it, and the effect was that of an evening in a village school. ‘ Saturday, December 4. — This morning, about a quarter to nine, I had nearly reached the school, when a shell whistled by and fell on the boulevard not far away. I called in all the pupils who were there, and we went down into the school-room. The teachers arrive, then more children in rapid succession, all out of breath; it seems that the shell landed in the centre of the square. The lessons continue nevertheless, although sometimes disturbed by the hissing of shells passing over. About ten o’clock the reports come nearer; I order the writing lesson stopped and collect the children on the staircase. At two o’clock, before dismissing them, I go up to the store-room. What a tumult! Courageous parents come running in to fetch their children, and I learn from them that bombs are falling on the

Would you like some more precise details? Let us take, first, the Joffre School, in the cellars of the German firm of Mumm, which is to-day under sequestration. It is protected by three courses of reinforced cement and a thick ceiling of mortar and earth. Of the immense apartment nine or ten metres wide by forty long in which it is installed, it occupies only a portion about twenty metres in length, and is walled off from the vacant space by a double row of casks piled one on another. Within the school-room the three classes are separated from each other by partitions made of champagne cases, and to prevent dampness and increase the light the walls have been sheathed with straw matting covered with light paper. All these details give the visitor no chance to forget for an instant that he is in a champagne town.

To brighten these catacombs, each mistress decorated her class-room as best she could with the slender material available in a half-destroyed city. On the teacher’s desk were flowers or green plants according to the season; on the walls, excellent engravings of military subjects, with a sheaf of the flags of the Allies; and, directly in front of the pupils, portraits of our great military leaders, with the national standard draped above them. On the floor above, the greater part of the storeroom is used for a cantonment, and the rest as a play-room for the children.

Established in substantially the same way, the Manoury School, down to August, 1916, occupied three immense ‘tunnels,’ four metres below the surface, in the Pommery warehouse; one for the school-room proper, one for recreation, and one for gymnastic exercises. The mistress herself always lived in the cellars, where, indeed, all her pupils and their families had their quarters also, for the enemy lines were so near (1200 metres) that it was impracticable to take pupils from outside. She had contrived an ‘apartment’ for herself in a small passageway not far from the schoolroom, and there she lived for two long years, going out very rarely; a severe experience, from which her health suffered greatly.

The Dubail School was not precisely a ‘cellar’ school, as it was installed in a room at the rear of a basement storeroom, protected by three courses of reinforced cement, and by heaps of dirt piled about it. It was lighted, rather insufficiently, by eight small air-holes, fifty centimetres wide, and had direct access to three cellars, one over the other, the lowest of which was not less than twelve metres below ground. The school consisted of a large room, some sixty metres by twenty, about three and a half metres below the ground level, and separated by a black canvas partition from the cantonment alongside. The four classes occupied each a corner, and, thanks to the excellent discipline, the four teachers did not interfere at all with one another.

After descending the twenty steps of the dark stairway leading to the basement where the boys’ school of Fléchambault is situated, you found yourself in a small room containing some sixteen to eighteen cubic metres, lowstudded and so poorly lighted by a single narrow air-slit, that the children farthest from the opening could barely see to write. In the corner at the right an iron folding-bed served as a desk by day, and by night as a couch for the teacher. This was one of our most unsatisfactory establishments, and I had consented to the choice only because the district was frequently under bombardment, and the regular schoolbuilding had been hit. The most important matter of all was the protection of the children.

The organization of the schools which were carried on in their own buildings had no extraordinary features except that certain of them, as the Anquetil mothers’ school and the mixed schools in the rue du Ruisselet and Place Bétheny, were held in the only rooms available in localities more or less exposed to the bombardment and sometimes half-demolished.

The active life of these swarms of children in close proximity to heaps of ruins, under the constant threat of the German guns, could not fail to create a profound impression on the visitor. As for the children themselves, the situation did not excite them in the least; for a long while they had not given a thought to it, any more than they thought of the danger of going through the streets of Rheims, where they played as soon as school was dismissed.

These schools were so satisfactory to the families of Rheims that we were obliged to take in, not only the children of those who had sought refuge in the cellars, — for whose benefit they were originally opened, — but also pupils from without, who came sometimes from a considerable distance, without thought of the danger. Indeed, the universal indifference to the risk involved — and also, I must say, a relative diminution of the activity of the enemy artillery— led me, at the end of 1915, to open such other schools in the usual quarters, as could still be utilized. The registration of these sixteen schools, which contained thirtysix classes, rose to almost 2000 children, 1500 of whom attended regularly.

II

The ’Journal’ kept by each of the principals will give an idea of the diversified life in these establishments. For example, here are a few extracts from a record kept by Mademoiselle Philippe, who was at the head of the Joffre School.

‘February 19, 1915. — Plainly they are aiming at this quarter in particular. Five persons were killed yesterday afternoon in rue du Champ de Mars close by, which has been so maltreated these last two days. On my way to school I pass great splashes of blood; the wall of the cemetery is spattered with blood and with pieces of human brains! . . . I was somewhat prepared for this ghastly sight. I had braced my nerves in anticipation; but it goes beyond all that I had imagined! Mesdemoiselles Charpentier and Schmidt, my assistants, soon arrived, completely upset by what they had seen. I have given them leave of absence for the afternoon. Madame Labarre and I will look after everything to-day; to-morrow is a day of rest for everybody.

‘24th.—From noon to one o’clock the Laon faubourg was bombarded; Mlles. Charpentier and Schmidt, who live there, cannot come; I keep the classes going, with Madame Labarre’s help.

‘26th. — I have just been through one of the most intensely exciting moments of my life. Just as the children were dismissed, an aeroplane under fire passed over the house. It is a not uncommon incident, but this evening I was restless and nervous. I put on my coat hastily and left the school at a rapid pace. I had hardly reached the cemetery when I heard a lugubrious hissing sound, followed by the boum! crac! that we know so well. I did not even turn my head, but ran across Place du Boulingrin and arrived at my baker’s on rue de Mars all of a tremble. On the way I saw the clerks at Mauroy’s laughing and joking on the street, deeply interested in the gait of a young horse which they were trotting up and down as if death were not hovering close by. I stopped a few moments. I heard nothing more, so I went on. But I had not reached the Hôtel de Ville when another bomb, then another, flew hissing over my head. I thought that it was all up with me! Such a dreadful explosion! A piece of the shell fell so near me that I thought I was hit. I rushed to the Hôtel de Ville, where I recovered myself and was driven back in a cab. ... I am utterly exhausted. [Mademoiselle Philippe lived in the Paris faubourg, three quarters of an hour’s walk from the school.]

‘March 2.—A terrible bombardment during the night. This morning the centre of the city is on fire. No school; there are almost no scholars. I have made up my mind to live in the cellar beside my school.

‘3d.—At half-past eleven I was lunching in the store-room on the first floor, as usual, when I heard a terrific explosion. I went down to the floor below, where a young soldier, surrounded by the employés of the house and several of his comrades, was polishing his shoes as calmly as you please. I learned there that a shell had just fallen on the building, near the concierge’s box. Another explosion, followed by groans and heartrending cries of “Mamma! mamma!” Alas! children have been wounded. Where? It is n’t in our store-room. We rush to the cellar where the school is, but the key has been taken away, and for several minutes — such long minutes! — we wait in an agony of suspense for that key, which cannot be found. And all the time those pitiful cries—“Mamma! mamma!” Through the door I see two soldiers carrying a wounded little girl. . . .

‘Here is the key at last! Soldiers and workmen rush into our class-rooms, while the shells keep raining down. Soon a man arrives with his head and hands bandaged. The poor fellow, who has been temporarily deafened by the explosion, is looking everywhere for his eldest son — whom he will never see again! There are two dead, two fine young men of nineteen, intelligent and fearless, who laughed at the danger. The shell fell in the vat-rooms, bursting a reservoir. The rescuers had to take the dead bodies out of the water, so mutilated that their parents will not be allowed to see them. . . . Two families are cruelly stricken. In one the son is killed, the father, mother, and little daughter (one of my pupils) wounded. In the other, one son killed, the father wounded. I am in the most painful state of anxiety concerning some of my pupils who live in the Bétheny district and may not have had time to reach their homes during the lull. At last, as it has become quiet once more, I start for home in a cab. Certainly I shall move in here to-morrow.

‘4th. — Many fewer pupils: three from outside did not come, although, luckily enough, not one of them was hit; on the other hand, the employés are dazed with fright; the families that live in the building hesitate even to send their children across the courtyard. Yesterday’s experience terrified everybody. The servant who came to put up a bed for me in my own schoolroom was almost killed as he crossed the courtyard. He brought us two huge fragments of a shell that fell near the lantern, without injuring anybody. A sleepless night. I heard innumerable noises, and in the last fortnight my nerves have been put to a severe test.

‘5th. — The staff is complete this morning — Miles. Charpentier and Schmidt also will live in the cellars. Hereafter my school-room is, by turns, kitchen, dining-room, and bed-room. At night they put two beds beside mine, for my two fellow teachers.

‘10th. — We have received, by the kindness of a territorial, a package of chocolate from the school-children of Fouësnant [Finisterrc], accompanied by a very pleasant letter. We distributed it among the children, who were very much pleased. One of them undertakes to reply to their little Breton comrades.

‘16th. — A case of cerebro-spinal meningitis having appeared in the refugees’ quarters, I am closing the school.’ [On the 18th all the refugees had moved out.]

III

The Dubail School was no less severely tried. Not only did more than a hundred shells fall in its immediate neighborhood, but three damaged the building itself, and two actually fell in the school-room, although we had no fatal results to deplore, since the children were got out on time. The first, a 210, fell on March 6, 1915, a Saturday, at five minutes to nine in the morning, when the children and their teachers were assembled in the upper storeroom ready to go down into the schoolroom; and the second on March 27, 1916, just as they were all going down into the cellar. There were also some other happenings not less noteworthy, as appears from the following extracts from the ‘Journal’ of the principal.

‘Monday, February 8, 1915. — This is the opening day of the school, as announced by the only two newspapers still published in Rheims. This morning, some time before the hour fixed, a number of mothers were on hand with their children, in the store-room on the ground floor. The children were of all ages from four to twelve years, and very clean and neat. Some of them had even dressed up as they used to on the opening day. All those little creatures, who bow to the teachers on their arrival with such a radiant air, seem overjoyed to be at school again with their little comrades after such a long holiday. That is a good augury for their future assiduity and work. I have registered some new names, —I am up to seventy-six now, — and the parents have gone away after kissing the little ones they have placed in our charge.

‘We all go down into the cellar. Assisted by my under-teachers, I go through a rapid examination in order to divide the pupils into three classes; and the lessons begin.

‘How impressive it was — that first session in cellars less than two kilometres from the enemy lines, while from time to time shells passed whistling over our heads, to fall some distance beyond, hammering away at the city with a sinister rending crash which we shall never forget! Supplied with copy-books of all sorts and with old books often lacking several pages, all the children set to work with zeal.

‘It was a lovely day. The sparse beams of the winter’s sun which filtered through the ventilators in that part of the room where I was, made a melancholy contrast to the yellowish light of the kerosene lamps set in the dark corners. And during the dictation exercise of the larger children, my thoughts strayed back to our fine school-rooms of the days before the war — so large and so pretty, above all, so healthy, with light and air pouring in in floods. What a change! To think that those ‘bandits,’in order to force their Kultur on us, condemn us to burrow underground thus, with our poor children who cannot help themselves! And I thought: if a shell should fall on the building, what should we do with all these children? How terribly frightened they would be! And I — should I be self-controlled enough to prevent a panic? Yes, I simply must!

‘Meanwhile the little children of the kindergarten stared with wide-open, startled eyes, but kept very quiet on their benches, apparently not at all at home. Thus discipline was easily maintained on that first day of school! Everybody worked with zest; and four hours of teaching pass very quickly. Really one would have thought that they were conscious of the part they had to play, of their duty — those little darlings who seemed to defy the German close by, following the example of their fathers who flout him in the trenches. With such children France cannot perish.

I had this afternoon 106 scholars (63 boys and 43 girls), and I am told there will be more to morrow. All goes well.

Tuesday, July 20. — Children present, 174. This day will remain in memory as one of the most memorable of the dreadful time through which we are passing. For an hour and a half after midday, the district about the Dubail School was subjected to a most violent bombardment by large shells. It had been unusually quiet during the morning. Suddenly, just when we were least expecting it, there came a characteristic caterwauling, followed almost instantly by a tremendous explosion, while the square near by was filled with smoke, and fragments, large and small, of the deadly missiles fell in showers. My neighbor Floquet’s house was hit. There was a general sauve-qui-peut.

Zzz! Another shell bursts thirty metres beyond, in the middle of the square. People hurry back to their homes and I go hastily down to my school-room in the basement. The shells are raining down on all sides, and for one full hour there is a frightful uproar throughout the city. A shell falls on the garden of the school and the last panes of glass in the last ventilator which had any left are shattered; the floor all about us is strewn with bits of glass. Since we are huddled together in the centre of the room no one is hit. At last, about half-past one, all is quiet again; we go out and learn that about fifty shells have fallen within a very short distance. No one was killed, most fortunately; but two persons coming from the bakery with their loaves were struck by fragments; one was severely wounded in the hand.

‘About two o’clock the children begin to arrive, although explicit orders have been given that on days of violent bombardment the sessions are to be suspended. But they know that I am here, and as the bombardment ceased an hour ago, they want to tell me thenews. “Madame, the Floquet bakery is destroyed,” says one. “Leroy’s mamma had a finger cut off,” says another. “They seem to have struck the whole Dieu-Lumière quarter,” adds a third. But there are few victims. The teachers who live near by soon arrive, and we begin the session in spite of all. There are 139 present. “Well, children, I want you now to describe in writing the bombardment we just had.

Tell all that you know, all that you saw or heard, and don’t leave out anything.” This evening I shall have an abundant harvest of information — and of information taken from life.

‘Sunday, July 31. — In order to bring the school-year, filled with such tragic incidents, to a fitting close, it had been decided to hold a private reunion somewhere, in some well-sheltered place. But where? We did not know yet, but in some carefully selected spot, to which all the teachers would be summoned, with delegations of the children, and their parents if they wished to attend. Dr. Langlet, the mayor, and M. Forsant,1 inspector of schools, decided that it should be held at the Dubail School. Up on the higher ground of the third district, if the shells come while we are there, we shall be able to await in a safe place the end of the shower.

‘At half after nine on July 31, the 332d day of the bombardment, every child donned his or her holiday attire; sheafs of flags in the Allies’ colors stood against the pillars and in the corners of the store-room; in the centre were the benches reserved for the delegations from the other schools; and at the entrance an unpretentious platform was arranged for some fifteen distinguished guests. The poilus of the nearest cantonment had turned to, with such hearty good-will, to assist me in making my preparation. Fathers all of them, those good territorials.

‘The official motors arrive and the inspector receives the guests at the entrance to the school. As they start down the wooden staircase leading to the school-room, I give the signal for the first song, and 250 children’s voices manfully strike up the Marseillaise. The whole roomful is on its feet with uncovered heads; it is a most impressive moment, when one reflects that we are not 2000 metres from the Boches! The slow, sweet rhythm of the second stanza, —

Amour sacré de la Patrie, makes a profound impression; and the third, —

Nous entrerons dans la carrière, — brings tears to many eyes. Enthusiastic applause, then, silence. The mayor is on his feet. In words of extreme gravity, throbbing with repressed emotion, Dr. Langlet congratulates the little children on their courage and their application, congratulates also their teachers, men and women, and pays tribute to the memory of those teachers of Rheims, whose names he recalls, who have given their lives for France. In conclusion he expresses his confidence in the destiny of the nation, and the hope that we shall soon see the sacred soil of our country freed from the pollution of the foreign foe.

‘He is vehemently applauded, and the distribution begins. In addition to books, each pupil receives a diploma in recognition of his courageous assiduity. boulevards and the streets near by. That is just where most of our pupils live. What is to be done? I turn over to the parents the children they have come for, but those who are left behind are unhappy: they cry, and want to go home. At last we persuade them to be patient and comfort them as best we can. ‘ Monday, March 27. — The session begins as usual, at half-past eight; I am giving a lesson in oral arithmetic, when all of a sudden my assistants, who have remained above, come rushing down to the stairway, crying, “The bombardment is close by! ” — “ Bring your children down instantly,” is my reply. I am not greatly excited because of the frequency of the bombardments, which very seldom reached the school. But suddenly a terrific noise deafens us: two shells have fallen on a house at the corner of the square, close by. The little ones begin to tremble and cry. Aided by my teachers, I quickly form them in groups — encouraging them the while — in order to take them down into the cellar. We have hardly begun to go down when we hear above our heads a tremendous crash, mingled with the noise of shattered glass. Another shell has fallen on the building, penetrating the first two concrete layers and smashing all the windows. The children who are a little way behind are terrified and begin to shriek; some soldiers who have taken refuge with us take them in their arms and quickly carry them down. The older ones, whom I am leading, remain perfectly calm; they go down quietly. Below we gather them all about us and comfort the most timid. When they see that they are safe, they soon grow quiet. But a few small girls keep on sobbing. I go up to them. “You must n’t cry any more: you’re out of danger now.”But holding me, one by the apron, another by the hand, they say, “Mamma will be killed, madame! there is n’t any cellar in our house.” — “Papa was working in the square, madame! Suppose he did n’t have time to run away?" — “ Don’t be afraid, children,”

‘How slowly the hands move! Halfpast eleven — twelve! We are still waiting for the end of this horrible bombardment; we can’t think of leaving. Half-past twelve — quarter to one. How long shall we be obliged to stay like this? There are a hundred or more children here, of all ages — and there is no way to keep them quiet. The larger ones, very excited, say insistently, “Madame, I want to go home, I ’m too hungry. We’ve seen many worse ones than this, madame,” The little children, too, are overexcited and nervous; I must put an end to it; in any case the bombardment is growing less and less violent. I have the children arranged in groups, according to the streets where they live, and place each teacher in charge of those who live in her neighborhood; I myself take the children from the Barbâtre and the neighboring streets. I tell them all that there will be no afternoon session, and give the following instructions: not on any condition to go along the boulevard; to go as fast as possible through the streets, and if they hear the hissing of a shell to lie flat on the ground. The groups are to start five minutes apart. Our children are calmer now; they understand me, and, in general, they realize the gravity of the situation.

‘I set out with my group. I cannot deny that I am a bit anxious. The children press close to my side, hang on my arms, and stoop over from time to time when the shells whistle in the distance. Luckily, I get rid of them one by one all along the road, and on rue Montlaurent I deliver the last ones at their homes. What a relief!

‘Friday, January 7, 1916. — Present, 255 pupils. To-day the session has been far out of the ordinary course. When they enter the school-room the children’s curiosity is keenly aroused by two large chests. About half-past ten I have the chests opened and take out a number of little blue, green, and yellow bags which are placed on my desk in packages. All eyes question me. The children have seen similar bags hanging from the soldiers’ belts, but surely these can’t be for them! I distribute them among the children, who open them and find in each a pad and a pair of glasses. “Why, yes! that’s just what the soldiers have!” They exchange conjectures and are unanimous in saying that the pad has a very bad smell. “But how can we use the things?” — “Attention! all watch closely. See: I put the pad over my nose and mouth; I pass the strings behind my head, bring them round in front, and tie them tight. Then I put the glasses on over it.”

’After this there is little of the aspect of a school. The pupils laugh frantically and climb on the tables to see me better. I must look very comical for even the teachers have hard work to keep sober. I remove my mask. “It’s your turn now, my dears; come on.” And they go through the performance several times to be able to execute it well and quickly.

I reply, kissing them; “your papa and your mamma won’t be killed; they will be able to reach some safe place. Your mamma will come to fetch you in a moment; it will soon be all over.” My assistants meanwhile are comforting others.

‘Our stay in the cellar lasted two hours. It seemed to us extraordinarily long. So far as most of the children were concerned, it was a surprise; and it ended by amusing them; they would have liked to go upstairs to see what was going on. Some of them talked with the soldiers, who gave them bread which they calmly set about eating. At last, about twenty minutes past two, hearing nothing more, I went to make sure that the danger was at an end. Some parents hurried in to get their children, and thanked us for taking them where they were safe. The pupils quickly came up two by two, each of the older ones leading a little one. I formed them in line, and each of us took charge of a group. Then I dismissed them for the afternoon.

‘Despite the intense emotion we had undergone, we were very happy to have been able to take care of our dear charges. As for our unfortunate quarter, it was in even more deplorable case than ever: not a house uninjured! and I heard it said that there had been several victims.’

The result of the investigations that I made shows that during the thirty months that the schools were open, thirty-seven shells fell upon the school buildings and two of them went through the roof, — luckily while the children were absent, — into the rooms where the sessions were held every day. More than a thousand projectiles of all calibres fell within a space of less than 100 metres from the schools, in which space they killed seventy-six grown persons and eight children who never attended school. Not a single teacher or pupil was wounded.

(Next month the pupils will tell their stories.)

  1. The author of this paper.