School Children of France
THE four compositions given below, taken from the collection of papers written for the examinations for the Diploma in 1915, and reproduced word for word, give a clearer idea than any commentary of the mental qualities of the children of Rheims. I may add that the details given are as exact as possible.
This is how young André Deligny describes the entry of the Germans at Rheims on September 4, 1914.
‘After breakfast, and without asking my parents’ leave, because I knew very well that it would not have been granted, I started out alone to see the Germans, who had just arrived in the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville. In front of the Mayor’s office I saw ten or twelve horses hitched to lamp-posts; some German cavalry were going to and fro on the opposite sidewalk, with their hands behind their backs and looking rather ill at ease. One of the policemen who were holding back the crowd made us fall back, saying that the German Staff was just coming. It was n’t long before they came. A magnificent limousine drove out of rue Colbert. Five officers got out, revolvers in hand, and the car went in under the arch at the left.
‘Suddenly there was a loud report like a clap of thunder. We pricked up our ears, but the policeman reassured us, saying that the Germans were firing blank shots to celebrate the arrival of their staff. In a minute there was a second shot, and a third, and finally a fourth which sounded much louder than the others. At the same time pieces of iron and lumps of lead came tumbling down from the roofs near-by, and the policeman cried, “Sauve qui peut!”
‘I understood then that it was a bombardment. I ran off in a fright; I don’t even know now through what streets I ran, until I came out on Place d’Erlon. The square was deserted; there was nothing to be seen but an abandoned tram-car, without a conductor. At that sight I was more frightened than ever, I ran faster, and during that frantic race I had to lie flat on my stomach several times for fear of the shells. At last I got home: my mother was standing at the door, anxious enough; but I told her I was all right and confessed my disobedience. That bombardment taught me a lesson, and I determined not to go out any more without my parents’ consent. I was made very sad by what I had seen: they were the first atrocities committed by the Germans in Rheims, where they were to commit so many others.’
Young Angélina Menny describes in these words the return of the French to Rheims eight days after September 12, as the result of the Victory of the Marne.
‘The eighth day we had spent under the German yoke had come to an end, as always, in sadness and despair. Suddenly a cannon-shot like a thunderclap made us jump. Two or three more followed, and then the cannon roared without interruption. Hope sprang again: could it be the French returning? After a sleepless night during which we heard the rain and wind and cannon roaring, we were just going home when — oh, a miracle! — we saw in the distance the red trousers. In a few seconds all the streets were hung with flags. We had suffered so terribly to see our city occupied by the enemy and to hear the Boches singing their hymn of victory in every street! How great was our joy to see our defenders once more! We no longer felt our weariness. Everybody ran after them; people embraced them, and laughed, and wept, and acted like madmen. You would have said that a mother had found her child who she thought was lost.
‘ The shops were not large enough for their customers; everybody was offering sweets to our liberators. When they came in front of the Hôtel de Ville, the Mayor received them and saluted them from the steps. Many Germans surrendered in the streets. That will be the happiest day of my life.’
Lecoq Raymond, a pupil, tells in these words of one of the numerous bombardments of which he was a spectator and nearly a victim.
‘Day before yesterday we were just eating breakfast. It was half-past seven when a shell passed over our heads and burst a hundred metres away. We jumped to our feet and listened. The shells were falling now by fours in our quarter and bursting with a tremendous crash. From the house we could hear the noise of falling tiles and beams and all sorts of things. Through the open window — it was a warm morning — we watched the smoke, sometimes white, sometimes gray or reddish, rise in the air, taking strange shapes; and at the same time the fumes of burning powder got into our throats. The hissing noises came fast, one on another. A shell burst 50 metres from our house; a yellowish smoke rose from it, and with a sharp hiss a fragment buried itself in the wall a metre from the window. We hurried down into the cellar and stayed there an hour; then, as the bombardment had stopped, we went up, and resumed our ordinary life.
‘The next day I went out to see what damage had been done: unhappily there was a great deal. As I walked along, I saw the doors of the shops which were still occupied open; people went and came without hurrying, looking at the ruins. A traveling kitchen went through the street with a pleasant smell of soup. Housekeepers were going to and fro, one with a basket on her arm. A nice old man who had not left his house went out to get his newspaper. For my part, I took my school satchel and went off to school, where I tried to work hard so as to obtain the Diploma as a reward of my efforts.’
Last of the four, Georgette Thierrus tells the story of the battle of Thillois, near Rheims, which she saw with her own eyes.
‘In the last ten months many historical events have occurred: one of them happened in my village, and I shall never forget it. Early in September the villages near mine were occupied by the Germans; ours was visited by only a few of the enemy. But on the second, about four o’clock in the afternoon, the invaders appeared, to the number of several thousand. They quartered themselves and passed the night in the houses and lofts and barns. The next morning they started early and dug trenches in the fields. Several officers said to us, “Hide in your cellars or clear out; the French are coming, and we’re going to fight.”
‘We did not believe a word of it; we thought that they meant to pillage our houses. Not at all — what they said was quite true. In fact, at a quarter past two the machine-guns which the Germans had set up in the church tower began to crackle, then the cannon roared loudly; several of the guns were near our houses. The French did not fire on the village, because they wanted to spare the people, but into the near-by fields. They attacked the Germans several times, but were driven back. It was not until four in the afternoon that, victorious at last, they made their way into the village and drove the Germans out with the bayonet. Alas! about two hundred of our soldiers had fallen. The Germans had had losses too, but they made haste to burn their dead. Once more the French had shown their gallantry and courage, for they had been victorious over superior forces.
‘ I think that it was a very beautiful death for my fellow countrymen, sacrificing themselves thus to defend their country, and I wish with all my heart that their souls may enjoy the everlasting happiness they deserve.’
Finally, here are a few extracts from my own journal of life at Rheims, particularly of school-life, during the bombardment.
Rheims, an open city, has been without remission under the enemy’s fire from September 12, 1914, to this day. As the school year does not begin till October, I will say nothing here of what happened in August and September, 1914. However, there is much to be said of life in Rheims during that period, when, in the course of a few days, we passed with confusing rapidity from blind and enthusiastic confidence in victory to fears of invasion, to general panic, to crowded flight from the city, and, finally, to the horrors of German invasion!
We lived much out-of-doors, the weather being superb; the streets were always black with people. During the first days the crowd was especially dense on the Laon bridge, from which could be seen, day and night, the long garlanded convoys which followed one another at intervals of fifteen or twenty minutes, carrying our troops, lighthearted and singing. After that people collected rather on the driveways in front of the railway station where the first prisoners were brought, whom every one wanted to see; and before long — in the night-time — our first wounded.
About August 11 the flood of Belgians fleeing before the enemy and straggling through the Cérès faubourg, gave us our first glimpse of the terrible reality. From that time until early in September, that daily picture grew more and more sombre. After the Belgians of Liége came those of Charleroi; then our ill-fated compatriots from Givet, Mezières, and Rethel, falling back in haste before a foe who drove them like a flock of sheep. And we looked on at the pitiable procession of those poor creatures herding before them their loitering lean cattle; the old creaky wagons with a bale or two of hay on the floor, on which were heaped pell-mell children and old men, kitchen stove and bird-cage, and little family keepsakes, often of the most trivial sort.
Then came the retreat of our army. First the corps of mobilized customs officers marched through the Cérès faubourg in column of fours. Then the dragoons, the hussars, and the rest of the cavalry who had gone to the front with such enthusiasm a fortnight before; they were now to re-form behind Rheims, awaiting the time for falling back again to the Marne, where the ‘great stand’ was to be made, at last.
February 2, 1915. What grievous sights in these streets, for six months under bombardment! The windows of the fine shops, almost all shattered by the explosions, have been replaced, here by a shop-front three fourths of wood, with a pane or two of glass in it; yonder by shutters made entirely of wood, so that the door has to be kept open to light the interior; in other places by unplaned boards or by sheet-iron. On rue de Talleyrand some large panes, badly cracked, have been mended with strips of paper of all colors. On rue des Deux-Anges an instrument-maker’s shop is closed by box-lids with the inscription, which happens to be just where the door used to be, ‘Open on this side.’ Not far away, a tailor’s shop, formerly of great consequence, is indicated by this simple line written in ink with a pointed stick: ‘Auberge, Tailor — Civil and Military.’ A dealer in motor-cycles on rue de l’Étape has gone to even less expense, and, in his haste, has simply scrawled in chalk on the panels of his door, in huge letters: ‘For cyclists’ supplies, apply at the nearest shop.’ On a corner of the same street a saloon-keeper has boarded up his place with the leaves of his table. And on the public monuments, in the squares, pretty nearly everywhere, printed on green paper that attracts the eye, but is torn half across and defaced, appears the detestable German ‘Proclamation,’ informing the people of Rheims that, the enemy forces having taken possession of the ‘city and fortress’ (!), there is nothing for them to do but behave themselves if they do not wish to incur some of the numerous penalties to which they are liable — notably, hanging. Then follows a long, interminable list of hostages.
Do not imagine, however, that the city, although bombarded every day, is a dead city. On rue de Vasles the traffic is active enough between eight and ten o’clock in the morning and after two in the afternoon, for our excellent neighbors, always most methodical, generally shower us with bombs between ten and two. A number of shops are open, and well patronized, too; the ‘civil’ customers, contrary to what one might expect, are as numerous as the military.
Monday, February 22, 1915. Such a fearful night! The weather was superb yesterday (Sunday): bright sunshine, temperature mild, and absolutely calm; all Rheims was out-of-doors. At five minutes to nine in the evening an ominous whistling was heard, followed by an explosion very near; almost immediately there were more whistlings and more explosions, and more and more, without a pause. We all ran hurriedly down to the cellar, where some neighbors soon joined us. We stayed there till twenty minutes past two. Outside the shells went whistling by continuously, in gusts of eight or ten, and those incessant whistlings echoed under the arches of our place of refuge, splitting our ears with the crash.
About eleven o’clock, in a momentary lull, I went up to the attic. I could distinguish four or five huge fires. Ten minutes had not passed when renewed explosions, close at hand, warned me that the shower was not at an end.
When I returned to the cellar the women who had hurried to that shelter and had seated themselves there, as best they could, on chairs and benches and planks, were shivering with cold. Their nervous excitement manifested itself in a different way in each of them. Mademoiselle P——laughed continually — a nervous laugh which it was painful to hear; Mademoiselle C—— talked incessantly, as if to forget herself and to seem self-possessed; and Madame F——, at every near-by explosion, cried out wildly, ‘Still another!’
The shells fell in front and behind, in the canal, in the fields (where often they did not explode), on the neighboring houses (where they made an infernal uproar), in the distance, in the centre of the city, everywhere. Halfpast two, three o’clock came and went, and, numb with cold as well as overcome with fatigue, we went up to bed. But, notwithstanding our overwhelming weariness, how could we sleep after such horrors?
This morning, I am told that no less than 3000 or 4000 shells fell in Rheims during the night. Not a single district was spared, but rue de Vesles was especially unfortunate. There must be many victims in the city. On rue de l’Étape two women were buried in the ruins of their house, and the firemen who, all too few in number, strove vainly all night long to put out the fires, have just started out to liberate those who are imprisoned in the ruins.
Monday, March 29. Still another bad day. Since six in the morning the aeroplanes have been flying in every direction. At a quarter past eleven a Boche plane flew over the Courlancy quarter and dropped five bombs, one on the road to Bizannes, where it killed a woman. Tremendous excitement among the school-children of Courlancy when they heard those tremendous reports. I had the children collected in a small square room in the middle of the building which seems to me more sheltered than the others. A word of encouragement to them all, and the children recovered their cheerful aspect; and, when the aeroplane had passed over, the classes were resumed within a quarter of an hour. The next day not a child was missing; such is the effect that German bombs produce on the children of Rheims!
Sunday, September 19. There is much talk in the city of a proclamation of General Joffre, which is said to have been read to the troops at three o’clock to-day. Some people believe that they can give its exact words. Mademoiselle F—— ‘fortifies’ Madame L——’s class-room with rows of chests filled with linen, with tables piled on each other, with furniture and armchairs, and places a bed on top! The entrance to the cellar is closed with bags filled with stones. I order the linen closets on the first floor to be emptied and the contents taken down to the cellar. We place all the furniture and the piano in the kitchen, which seems to be less exposed. Today there is still less animation in the city, and we can hear a very intense cannonading by our own forces on the eastern front.
January 31, 1916. I have performed to-day one of the most painful duties of my office. To the roaring of the cannon we attended the obsequies of Madame Communal, a young teacher, who died prematurely of a disease that had been undermining her health for several months. At eight in the morning, the whole staff met at the house of death in the Laon faubourg. It was a magnificent day, an ideal time for Taubes and Fokkers. By rues Anquetil, SaintThierry, and Mont d’Arène, the procession wended its way to rue des Trois Fontaines, to the chapel of a private school now become the humble church of the district, the Church of SaintThomas not being in condition to be used. The priest, an aged country curé, began to say Mass. Throughout the service we heard the loud reports of heavy guns; and bursting bombs responded in the Litany. The roar of the instruments of death thus punctuating the funeral ceremony, whose religious tranquillity they disturbed, was tremendously impressive! The little church was full to overflowing; in the front rows was the whole staff of Rheims teachers, who had come from the most distant parts of the city, without thought of the danger, to bring the last testimony of their bereaved sympathy for a colleague for whom they had a special esteem.
And now we are on the way to the North Cemetery, so frequently bombarded and peppered with shells. The custodian was killed there recently before his door, and the number of victims killed by the enemy on the Place de la République near-by is too great to count. The family burial lot is at the far end of the cemetery. The procession moves through endless winding paths, passing among tombs shattered or marred by shells, beside disemboweled graves and felled trees. At last we arrive. In a few words, I review the life of the deceased, all devotion to her duties — her professional qualities; then, a last farewell, and the crowd melts away.
Friday, March 3. At a quarter past eight this morning some one came in hot haste to tell me that a shell fell last night in a room of the school on Place Bétheny, where it demolished everything.
‘What is to be done?’ the principal asked.
‘Close the school immediately.’
I went at once to the school. There was an enormous hole in the front wall, and fragments of the shell made possible its identification as a 150 mm. The classroom was, of course, filled with plaster, the doors twisted, the walls and ceiling riddled with holes. This room had been opened only a month. What good fortune that this accident did not happen during the session! I went to lay the situation before the mayor. I wanted to close the least protected schools for a month, especially those in Place Bétheny and rues du Ruisselet and Anquetil; but the mayor insisted upon keeping them open. How ever, the Bétheny School is to be transferred to the Mumm cellars, the former location of the Joffre School, which will thus be born again.
Wednesday, October 25. Another ‘fine bombardment.’ The shower of bombs was generally distributed and was more severe than we have had for many a long day — nearly a year. In the morning the communiqué announcing the recapture of Douaumont had made everybody happy. About a quarter past two, there were several of the familiar whistling noises followed by the usual explosions, very near the Paris faubourg. And that went on and on until five o’clock. As a measure of prudence I had had the children of the kindergarten taken down into the special room. At three o’clock I went down to see what was going on and sent the two lowest classes to share the protection of the little ones’ shelter. They made much noise, as there were a great many of them; and since we could not hear even the explosions, one teacher stayed in the yard to observe the direction of the firing. There were nearly a hundred and sixty pupils: was not that a target? If ever a shell should fall in these schools!
After half an hour I went up to my own quarters. In the class-room below, the older pupils of the supplementary courses, to whom their teacher was reading one of Molière’s comedies, were bursting with laughter. That is one way of forgetting danger. The bombardment continued. The shells fell every ten or twelve seconds, to the right, to the left, or in front of the schools, but always a short distance away. I gave instructions not to send the children home alone for some time to come; but already many parents had come to fetch their own, despite the great risk they ran in passing through the streets at that time.
And still the whistlings and explosions went on! A quarter past four, half-past four, a quarter to five; almost no pupils are left, and the bombardment seems to be localized at Fléchambault. The last group of children is sent home; as the pupils in the supplementary courses live at some distance, I advise against letting them go until it is once more entirely quiet, and request Mademoiselle Philippe to keep the very last ones until some one calls for them.
At six o’clock the bombardment continues, still in the same direction. It seems that shells have fallen again all over the city. Surely the dead and the 3500 German prisoners of Douaumont are well avenged by their fellow bandits! Who can say how many victims have fallen in this bombardment ‘by way of reprisal ’?
Friday, March 30, 1917. At halfpast two I went to headquarters to confer with the commander of the garrison. Then I sent to each principal a circular prepared with a view of forestalling anything like panic: ‘Please note that the holidays for your school will begin this afternoon at half after four.’ This is only the day before the regular beginning of the Easter holidays. This measure seems to me not only urgent but absolutely necessary.
Thus, on the eve of the last terrible bombardments, in the course of which sixty thousand shells fell on the city, the schools of Rheims, which had been open nearly thirty months, were closed.
Delivered at last from that long and heart-breaking agony, it is not without a satisfaction easy to understand that I reckon up the results secured: it is impossible to doubt that the schools in the cellars have performed a genuine service for the parents and a still greater service for the children, and all without the slightest mishap to lessen the joy which we have found in doing our duty.