To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Historical Novel Location Research in the Age of Google

Jasper Kent has a piece up at Writing Historical Novels about the location research he did for his novels, which are set in set in 19th Century Russia. As you can imagine, this is a topic which I can identify with at the moment, so I was fascinated to read about his process.

Some of the most satisfying compliments I’ve received regarding The Danilov Quintet are along the lines of ‘The city becomes a character in its own right’, – the city in question being either Moscow or Saint Petersburg, depending on which of the five novels is being reviewed.

I’ll let you in on a secret: for the first novel, Twelve, my geographical knowledge was almost entirely derived from the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Moscow. Looking at my copy now, a decade on, there are still folded-down corners marking locations that appear in the novel. It was only when I was putting together the final draft, ready for publication, that I actually visited the city and checked that what I had written stood up to reality. For the most part, it did.

Looking back, the approach has its advantages and its drawbacks. The main benefit is in saving time. It would be fruitless to wander randomly through a city the size of Moscow and expect to find the best locations for a novel. As with any tourism, it helps to have an itinerary and to know what has to be seen and what does not. Moreover, when writing historical fiction, the present-day location can be deceptive – the buildings of a modern city would make it unrecognizable to an inhabitant of centuries ago, even though the street plan may remain the same. Guidebooks can provide detail on the history of a building which only an archaeologist could determine by looking at the structure itself.

[Read the rest]

It was a month or two ago, as a co-worker was talking about going to Europe with her husband later this year, that it suddenly dawned on me: If I saved up a bit, I could go back to Europe and see some of these places that I'm writing about. The one time I was in Europe was back in 1999 as a college student, but it's conceivable that some time next year the kids would be old enough we could leave them with family for most of a week and go see Verdun, the Marne, and the village that I've modeled Chateau Ducloux on. However, in the meantime, my research has been heavily reliant on books. Lots of books. Here's the "active" shelf of books I've consulted within the last chapter or so. There's another larger one in the other room devoted to books that I've already read (or am planning to read) to research past or future chapters.

Since The Great War is a big story with five sets of characters in different parts of Europe, I've relied heavily on the primary and secondary sources that I've read for ideas on incidents, as well as for all the actual history and geography that underlies that story. However, when it comes to sense of place, one of my biggest helps has been Google. Indeed, so much so that it's almost hard for me to imagine writing this project in the pre-Google age.

Sometimes it's the sort of historical details that you almost wouldn't know to look for if you were having to get all your information by picking out specific books. For instance, while researching the first Natalie chapter I was looking for the train stations which had existed in Warsaw in 1900-1914, and trying to find out which one you would likely arrive in if you were coming from Paris. What I discovered is that you basically had to go through Vienna, and with that I found some fascinating detail about how the rail lines were different in Russia, making Warsaw (that part of Poland being in the Russian Empire at that time) the gateway to Russia.

It was just after noon that the train pulled slowly into the Warsaw/Vienna Railway terminus. Passengers surged across the platform. Porters wheeled carts. Paper boys and food sellers called their wares in a babble of Russian, Polish, and German. The Warsaw/Vienna line was still the only standard gauge rail line in Russia, and the massive railway station on the Aleje Jerozolimskie was thus the gateway between Europe and the Russian east.

For reasons that were of interest only to railroad engineers, the railroad tracks that criss-crossed Europe were spaced four feet, eight and a half inches apart, while those of the Russian Empire were an even five feet, like those in far away America. This difference of three and a half inches meant that trains which traveled the rest of Europe could penetrate no further into Russia than Warsaw. Those intent on going beyond must abandon their European train here and take a tram or taxi to the Wileńska Station, whence they could board a broad gauge railway line for St. Petersburg, Kiev, or Moscow.

Thus it was that the railway platform confronting Natalie was one of the busiest in Russia, with the whole commerce between West and East surging across it. Men in tailored suits and women in silk dresses that could have looked equally at home in Paris brushed past peasants traveling in their best clothes, tunics and dresses made colorful with painstaking embroidery. A uniformed Cossack officer strode down the platform, a more plainly uniformed servant followed him with a cart of luggage. Their progress scattered a group of Jewish men with beards and side curls who had paused in the middle of the platform to talk.

And although the Dworzec Wiedeński Station was destroyed during World War II, I was quickly able to find pictures of it online.

In the next chapter, when I needed a Viennese coffee house for Josef to meet his friend Friedrich in, I consulted a period map of Vienna, considered which theater Friedrich's mistress would have been singing in, and then I used Google Maps to search the area for coffee houses until I found the Cafe Sperl which was the right age and style.

When it came to Walter participating in the opening action of the Battle of the Marne, around the French town of Penchard, I used Google Maps and satellite imagery and cross referenced them with the detailed maps I had in my books about the battle. Then I used Google Street View to see what it looked like to approach the town across the fields, and what the church where the artillery set up looked like now.

A few countries in Europe restrict Google Street View for privacy reasons, but where it is available it's an amazing tool for getting a sense of what a particular area looks like. I've used it to "walk" areas of cities and towns and see the architectural style, see the terrain of a battle field, and get a sense for the types of trees that grow in an area.

Then there's Google Translate, which has allowed me to pull up electronic copies of French and German newspapers and do on-the-fly translations of stories so that I can get a sense of what headlines characters would have seen and what sorts of stories were appearing on specific days. (Most of the headlines and stories in Henri and Philomene's newspapers are drawn from real editions of those papers within a day or two of when they appear in the story.) Primary sources that would have required a research library (and a better knowledge of the languages) I can now pull up and read at my computer at one in the morning as I'm writing a chapter.

The electronic world brings an amazing set of tools to the historical novelist's hand. The age of Google has made levels of research easy and quick that would have been fiendishly hard before. All of which, I hope, adds to the sense of place and authenticity for readers.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Chapter 11-1

Chapter 11 is going to have 5 or 6 sections, and focuses on Henri. I'm determined to pick up the pace a bit. The next installment will go up Thursday night.

Paris. August 19th, 1914. The 22nd Company was drawn up on the trampled grass between the Allee de Longchamp and the surrounding trees of the Bois de Boulogne, the large wooded park to the west of the Paris city walls which since mobilization had become both an encampment and training ground. Two weeks after being called up, the men were beginning to show signs of martial precision. The four sections of the company were drawn up into four neat columns, each column five men across. Within each column, three rows of five men formed one squad, with its corporal the leftmost man in the first row as Henri faced them. Two squads formed a demi-section, commanded by a sergeant, with that sergeant prowling up and down next to his two blocks of men, making sure that all was as proper as it could be. Two demi-sections formed a section: sixty riflemen and their officers.

The commanders of the four sections -- his three lieutenants and the first sergeant -- stood quietly behind Henri, awaiting his verdict on their efforts.

“Very good,” he said, turning to them. “Have them fall in by sections. We’ll march down to the hippodrome at the double.”

They hurried to give their commands and one by one the sections stepped out onto the Allee de Longchamp, wheeled to face southwest down the road, and set off at a brisk pace. The maneuver was done with a precision far more creditable than the state of their uniforms would have suggested. Because the 6th Battalion had been left behind as part of Paris’s defense force when the rest of the 104th Infantry Regiment and its reserve counterpart the 304th had been dispatched from Paris to fight in Lorraine, they had been put at the very bottom of every supply list. Although the men all carried rifles and wore their dark blue army overcoats (oppressive in the August heat) half of them were still wearing grey or brown civilian trousers rather than red uniform trousers. The fourth section had not yet been issued blue uniform kepis, some of the men going bareheaded while the rest wore an assortment of workers caps, straw boaters, and dark bowler hats. But they could march. Henri had drilled them every day, and their marching was beginning to be downright soldierly.

The fourth section fell in, and Henri himself fell in next to them, marching alongside Sergeant Leon Carpentier, the company’s First Sergeant and thus the one non-commissioned officer to command a section.

Sergeant Carpentier was one of the handful of regular army non-commissioned officers assigned to the reserve battalion when it was mobilized in order to give the officers and men who had been out of active service for anywhere from one to ten years a bit of polish and order.

“The section is doing much better,” Henri offered. “The drilling shows.”

The sergeant gave a shrug. Then after a moment’s pause he responded, “For two week’s drilling.”

Henri looked over at the sergeant, trying to read his expression, but his eyes were straight forward and his mouth nearly obscured by his heavy, walrus mustache. Carpentier did not seem a talkative man at the best of times, and he followed strictly the view that men, non-commisioned officers, and officers were three distinct classes between whom the less mixing there was the better. One the day the company had been moved into the entrenched camp, he had caught one of the privates using the NCOs’ toilets and had insisted that the entire company be drawn up so that he could bawl at them, “This is the army, and there will be order! Lavatories are for officers. Toilets are for NCOs. Latrines are for men. If any of you forget this again, you’ll be cleaning latrines for a week.”

It seemed likely enough, however, that his taciturnity was also a result of resentment that he had been assigned to the reserve battalion left behind in Paris when the rest of the regiments had shipped out to Lorraine and combat. He was in his mid forties, several years Henri’s senior, and unlike Henri had spent his entire adult life as a professional soldier. To be relegated to drilling reservists behind the lines on the first time that the opportunity of war presented itself in his twenty-five year army career must smart, but it would only be a sign of weakness to allow him to indulge in bitterness publically.

“When we reach the hippodrome, the men are to fall out and have lunch. Then have them clean their rifles and do weapons drill. I’ll be back with the lieutenants at two, and then we will spend the afternoon on combat drill.”

The sergeant nodded crisply. “Yes, sir.”


It was Sous-Lieutenant Vincent Dupuis who knew the 16th Arrondisement well, and who selected the little cafe on the Rue de Passy for their lunch. The son of a banker, he was also the only one who was not alarmed by the prices on the menu when they sat down. Aware that the other two lieutenants had far less money than Lieutenant Dupuis, Henri had suggested moving to a less exclusive nearby cafe, but Lieutenant Dupuis’s offers to treat them all had shamed the other three men into waving off the expense and insisting they didn’t mind at all.

The food was excellent, and so was -- as Lieutenant Dupuis had promised -- the house wine. Although the cafe was crowded they were, for perhaps the first time since Henri had returned to Paris, the only soldiers in the establishment. This seemed to make them an object of curiosity and pride for the other cafe patrons. Two elderly gentlemen in pale grey summer suits repeatedly stole glances in their direction as they discussed their newspapers, and a stately woman in a wide, lace-trimmed hat (with two younger women kept sedately in her wake) stopped to say, “We are all of thinking of you. We think of all our brave soldiers.”

“I wish those two young ones would do more than think of us, eh?” said Lieutenant Dupois once the three women had put up their sun parasols and set off down the street.

“There’s the difference a uniform makes,” replied Lieutenant Gilbert Morel, the commander of First Section now, but in civilian life a lycee math instructor. “Ah, but you’re worse off, Rejol,” he added, addressing Lieutenant Maurice Rejol, the commander of Second Section. “If you were in your usual uniform perhaps those little angels would slip into a confessional with you and tell you all the naughty things they’re up to.”

Lieutenant Rejol, who since his two years service as a reserve officer had become a priest, shrugged but did not reply. Since learning his fellow officer’s peacetime occupation Morel had kept up a steady stream of anti-clerical pinpricks, but while not otherwise taciturn, the priest doggedly refused to rise to the bait of these.

Coffee and sponge cakes arrived, and Henri decided it would be as well to change the topic.

“After lunch I want to start putting the men through fire and movement drill.”

There was a pause. All three lieutenants reached for their coffees, took a sip, and surveyed the others.

“Very well,” said Dupuis. “I’ll be the one to play the fool. What is fire and movement drill, sir?”

“Fire and movement is a tactical method of attack. I wrote a paper on it when I was an active duty officer, based on battlefield accounts from the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War, and it was well received at the École de Guerre. Did you really never practice it?”

Presenting the paper had been a minor triumph, and for a time he had expected to be posted for a full course at the École de Guerre, and then perhaps a chance of joining the General Staff. However, it was at just that time, in the wake of the Dreyfus Affaire, that it became nearly impossible for officers who showed any attachment to the Church to gain advancement. The orders to attend the École de Guerre never came, but instead yet another transfer for garrison duty. With Philomene so desperately unhappy in the military life and far from home, and the way to promotion barred, he had offered his resignation.

Three blank faces looked at him over their coffee cups. Evidently the ideas had gained no more acceptance than their presenter, at least in the 104th Regiment.

“I’ll show you.” Henri selected two sponge cakes and set them a little apart on the white table cloth, then placed his coffee cup opposite them. “The cakes are two infantry squads. The coffee cup is a German unit, dug in behind cover. The squads are ordered to attack the Germans. How do they attack?”

There was a pause before the lieutenants realized that he expected an answer.

Lieutenant Dupuis shrugged, the solution seeming so readily obvious that Henri must be looking for some more subtle answer that he couldn’t guess. “They should fix bayonets and charge, sir. Dominate the battlefield through elan, and the enemy will not have time to respond. Show hesitance and the enemy will pin the attackers down.”

Henri shook his head and the three men looked at each other. Lieutenant Morel offered, “It’s necessary to use combined arms, sir. The field artillery shells the enemy position while the attacking force moves close. Then as soon as the artillery barrage lifts, the infantry charge.”

“Close. The approach you describe is similar, but still not as refined. And what if the artillery regiment is assigned to another part of the division’s line?”


The impatience which welled up in him was unreasonable. These were not bad officers, they had done well during the last two weeks in bringing some order to the company, and they might well prove to be as brave as he could ask if the company saw combat, but clearly the sort of new tactics which had been discussed among the professional officers had never been presented to them. And yet, if those battlefield accounts on which he had based his paper for the École de Guerre were to be trusted, he must bring his reservists to understand these tactics or he would lose a great many of them.

“The key is that a man can only do one thing at a time. If he is running forward in a charge, he is not shooting. A line of infantry in full charge with bayonets fixed may be a daunting sight, but the men charging are not able to shoot effectively. This means that the men they are charging, the defenders, can shoot at them with little fear of being shot themselves. So…” He moved the two sponge cakes towards the coffee cup. “The two squads charge at the same time. The Germans remain behind their cover and pour rifle fire into them.” He picked up one of the sponge cakes, dipped it into the coffee, and ate it. “If the men reach the German lines, they will have the momentum of the attack and may route the enemy, but long before they reach the enemy they suffer severe casualties because they cannot protect themselves from the defenders’ fire.”

Slow nods of understanding from the lieutenants. Rejol was the only one who spoke up. “So, in a sense, the attackers are actually the vulnerable ones, sir, while the defenders are strong?”

“Exactly. And the solution to this is fire and movement tactics.” Henri reached out and took another sponge cake, setting his battle line as before: coffee cup on the left, the two sponge cakes side-by-side facing it. “This squad takes what cover it can, lying prone in firing positions, and shoots any of the Germans who raise a head to shoot. While this squad,” he began to move the second sponge cake across the table cloth towards the coffee, “charges forward. Then, after advancing, say, fifty meters, this squad drops and takes cover. Now they fire on the enemy, forcing them to stay down under cover, while the other squad charges.” He moved the first sponge cake forward this time. “By alternating, they make it too dangerous for the defenders to rise up and shoot at the men who are charging them. The defenders are constantly under fire until the moment then the attackers fall upon them with bayonets.”

Henri picked up the defeated coffee cup and sipped it, leaving the victorious sponge cakes in possession of the field.

Lieutenant Moral was staring at the sponge cakes with knitted brows. “But sir, didn’t that only work because you had one unit of Germans and two of ours? If there had been an equal number of German squads, one of them could have targeted the charging squad while the other shot back at the squad firing on them. There would be too many targets for the one French squad that was shooting.”

“Perhaps. Though don’t think of it too literally. Remember, we’re not speaking of coffee cups and sponge cakes but groups of men. The point is, if one attacking unit provides suppressing fire while the other charges, the defenders will be too busy taking cover to be able to shoot at the attackers effectively. But it’s true, to make any sort of effective attack, we need first to concentrate our forces. If we have no more men than the defenders, we will find it almost impossible to successfully attack, because they will have nothing to do but to shoot at us, and we will need to assign men both to suppressing fire and to charging their positions.”

This seemed to sink in successfully with the younger officers.

“Is there anything more I can get for you, gentlemen?” the waiter asked, appearing at Henri’s shoulder.

“No, we must be going,” said Henri. “May we have the bill?”

“Already paid, sir. A gentleman said that he wished to pay your bill and asked that I convey his gratitude that you are defending France.”

The officers exchanged glances.

“Well then, thank him on behalf of all of us,” said Henri.

“If only we had known,” said Dupuis as they were leaving, “I would have been much freer in selecting the wine.”


The company was drawn up by sections on the polo field, which with the horses requisitioned for army use and the tent city of the entrenched camp just south on the racetrack, now served as a place for maneuvers to be carried out in the open. The men were in battle order -- packs on their backs, bayonets fixed -- and each corporal had inspected the rifles of every man in his squad to assure that they were unloaded, an important precaution in the heavily populated park.

Henri briefly explained the purpose of the exercise to the company. They were to imagine that the Germans were dug in along the tree line two hundred meters ahead. Two sections at a time would practice making an attack against the tree line. First and Second Section had been chosen to go first. Their section and squad commanders would give them the details.

Lieutenants Morel and Rejol each called together their sergeants and corporals

The flat expanse of the polo field offered them a clear area for maneuver. However the wide grassy expanse also provided the perfect area for spectators to gather. A scattering of civilians had stopped their afternoon promenade to watch the soldiers drill. Women with white parasols and men in summer suits and straw boaters were lined up along the path behind the company. Commandant Albert Lefevre, the commander of the battalion, rode up on his chestnut horse and settled a half dozen paces from Henri, the horse occasionally taking a nervous step or two as the commandant stayed in place in to watch the drill.

“What’s the exercise, Fournier?” he asked Henri in an undertone.

“Fire and movement drill, sir,” Henri replied, divided between pride at having been found to be drilling his men in a comparatively advanced tactic and nervousness at having his first foray into advanced tactics come under the commandant’s eye.

“That seems rather advanced for reservists,” Commandant Lefevre replied. As the head of the battalion, he was an active duty officer and a reminder of the path of advancement Henri had given up. Lefevre had in fact been three years behind Henri at the Ecole Polytechnique. Surely he too could have commanded a battalion by now, if not a regiment, if he had not resigned from the professional army and become a reserve officer.

“Dangerous too,” the commandant continued. “The trick with these call-ups is to keep them moving. Let them drop to provide covering fire and you’ll never get them up and moving again.”

“Let us see, sir,” said Henri, with more bravado than he felt.

The lieutenants were returning to him, their NCOs spreading the two sections into assault order. The two demi-sections of each section formed two attack lines, the men in each line three paces apart, with the second line set five paces behind the first. The lines were slightly staggered so that the men in the second line would have a clear line of fire through the gaps in the first line. Forming assault order was a drill the men had followed before, but there was still an embarrassing amount of delay, shouting by the NCOs, and shuffling about as the men who three weeks ago had been going about their lives as factory workers, clerks and shop assistants in Paris prepared to drill for the city’s defense.

Henri glanced up at the commandant, but Lefevre’s expression was politely blank.

“Are you ready, gentlemen?” Henri asked the two lieutenants.

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well. Begin the attack. First Section may lead.”

“Yes, sir!” Morel and Rejol hurried back to their sections at a near run.

Rejol gave the order for Second Section to drop to prone position and and take aim at the tree line. He himself dropped to one knee behind the firing line, his drawn sword in his hand.

Morel drew his own sword and took up his position at the head of the section. “Rifles at the ready!”

The sixty men of First Section lowered their rifles to waist-height, their bayonets pointing forward, steel flashing in the afternoon sun.

“Vive la France!” Lieutenant Morel shouted, and the line of men echoed the shout back with a strength that echoed up and down the polo field, making the blood of all the observers surge with pride and the unique thrill which comes from words and actions in which a crowd becomes one: “Vive la France!


Lieutenant Morel rushed forward, flourishing his sword above him as he ran. The men rushed forward after him, giving out a wordless cheer which seemed to join with and continue his command. Henri found himself gripping his sword hilt tightly and tightening his jaw to prevent himself from letting out a cheer. The two waves of charging men gradually bent and flexed as the men rushed forward, some faster than others, but even so it was an exaltation to see the sixty men rushing forwards as a single battle line. Several of the civilians watching were not so controlled and actively cheered and clapped.

From the line where Second Section lay prone in firing order, he could just hear the clicking of those sixty men working the bolts of their rifles, dry firing steading as if they were pouring fire into the Germans lurking in the tree line, keeping them down.

Then at once it became clear to Henri that the moment was dragging out too long. First Section was already halfway to the tree line. Their line was bunched and ragged now, some men clearly out of breath and falling well behind while others sprinted forward. Lieutenant Morel, fit and also not held back by the weight of an enlisted man’s pack, was still out in front of the whole line, sword held high as he led the charge.

Lieutenant Rejol, sensing that Second Section had missed their cue, rose to his feet with his own sword held aloft and stepped forward, ahead of his section.

“Second Section, at the ready!” he ordered, and the men scrambled eagerly to their feet, rifles held at the ready. “Charge!”

They too rushed forward, Lieutenant Rejol leading the way, and charged after First Section towards the tree line. First Section reached the trees and stopped, those who still had the breath for it letting out a cheer which echoed back across the field. A moment later Second Section joined them, and both units fell to milling about at the edge of the field, a few men even dropping to the ground to rest.

Henri looked over at the commandant again, but the other man’s expression remained carefully neutral.

He turned to the company bugler. “Call them back,” he ordered, striving to keep the anger and disappointment from his voice. The bugler sounded the recall and off by the treeline the men shouldered their rifles and began trudging back.

“It was well thought, Fournier,” said the commandant. “But they are reservists. It’s too much for them, especially since if we’re to see action at all before the war is over it will be within the next few weeks.”

“I believe with time, sir, they can master it. This is only the first time that we have tried this exercise. Give me a day or two.” The words came evenly enough, though he felt like growling threats that there would be no rest until they could produce a less disgraceful performance.

Commandant Lefevre shrugged. “There’s no harm in it. Don’t take it too hard. They’re good men. If they can charge with that spirit in the face of the enemy, nothing can stop them.” He turned his horse and trotted back towards the hippodrome and its tent city. Henri watched him go, wishing that he had chosen some other time to come watch 22nd Company at their drill.

The two lieutenants approached Henri, their demeanor sheepish.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Lieutenant Morel said.

Henri nodded, making sure to give the younger man a smile and hoping that it did not look as forced as it in fact was. “It’s all right. What do you think would have made it go better?”

Morel considered a moment. “There’s such a rush to it, sir. It’s easy to be carried along. And by the time I realized we’d gone too far, it was hard to know how to stop. I think if I picked out ahead of time where it was that we needed to drop and provide supporting fire, it would be all right.”

“That’s a good idea. Form the men up and try it again.”

The two lieutenants nodded and went to organize their sections. Watching the tired movements of the men, Henri reflected that having rushed the distance without pause the first time they might be more open to stopping this time around. Alternatively, if a real German rifle company were firing at them from the tree line, it might be all too easy to get them to take cover.

After a few minutes shouting from the NCOs the two sections were ready to begin and Henri gave the command. Morel raised his sword and ordered the charge. Again the men of his section rushed after him, their bayonets leveled.

Though Henri was gratified the commandant was no longer there watching, the crowd of civilians had grown, and as the men of First Section rushed forward with a cheer there was an answering cheer from the civilians on the footpath. The white parasols of the ladies bobbed in the air as their owners clapped their gloved hands.

After charging fifty meters, Lieutenant Morel shouted, “Suppressing fire!” and dropped to a crouch. His two sergeants and one of the corporals dropped to one knee as well, but the men continued charging.

Seeing Morel drop, Lieutenant Rejol had stood up and given his own cry of, “Charge!” and the Second Section rushed on, once again, behind the first.

Realizing he had been left behind by his section, Morel got back to his feet, and the sergeants began to shout after the men. “Halt! Halt, you idiots!” Second section stopped in a confused mass at the point where Lieutenant Morel was standing, and the two lieutenants turned and walked back toward Henri, their heads low, while the NCOs herded the men of both sections back to the rest of the company.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Lieutenant Morel, his embarrassment so acutely visible that Henri felt the desire to look away, but he made himself meet the younger man’s eyes.

“You picked a spot, and you stuck to it. That was good. What do you think needs to be done in order to make sure the men stop as well.”

Morel shrugged. “More drill I suppose, sir.”

Sergeant Carpentier of Fourth Section joined the group. “I think I have an idea, sir.”

Henri turned to him. “Yes?”

“It’s the civilians, sir. Especially the women. The men have pride. They’re being cheered on as they charge, and they don’t want to be seen dropping to take cover like cowards.”

Henri looked from the sergeant to the two lieutenants and back again. “Well, if so, that’s easily mended. We’ll march them a few kilometers out into farmland and put them through it again.”

The old sergeant nodded. “If you’d like, sir. I can issue ammunition to a few of the other sergeants. We’ll take the enemy’s position and fire a few rounds over their heads when they’re supposed to drop. They’ll dive for cover pretty quickly then, sir, if I know anything about it.”

At this Henri could not prevent of a grin from forming. “I believe I will indulge you, sergeant.”

Read the next installment.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Historical Fiction Survey

I'm plugging away at the next installment, which will be up some time this weekend. In the mean time, I ran into this survey for readers of historical fiction via a WW1 group that I follow. It only takes a few minutes to fill out, and if read historical fiction more widely (or even if you just read The Great War!) you might take a few minutes and fill it out too.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Chapter 10-3

This is the last installment of Chapter 10. I'm doing some business traveling and hoping to have some time for writing once I'm back to my hotel in the evening, so my plan is to have the first installment of Chapter 11, which focuses on Henri, up no later than Saturday.

Chateau Ducloux, France. August 26th, 1914. The morning routine was gone. No newspapers were delivered from the station. Madam Ragot and Emilie did not arrive. Philomene considered going out to pick up breakfast things herself, but when she looked out the window she could see only German soldiers in the street, no townspeople. She cut slices of yesterday’s bread and spread them with jam for the children’s breakfast while Grandpere cranked the coffee grinder so that they could make their morning pot of coffee. Pascal stared at this bread and jam without eating and then returned to his room rather than going out into the garden with his sisters as on a usual morning.

It was just as the two adults were sitting down at the table with their pot of coffee that someone pounded on the front door.

They looked at each other.

“Perhaps it’s only someone needing something from the shop,” said Philomene. Naming some harmless explanation seemed to hold more terrible ones at bay.

“Go wait in the kitchen,” said Louis. “The girls are in the back garden. If something bad happens, you can go out through the kitchen door and take them over the garden wall into the next street.”

“But Pascal. He’s in his room.” She was gripping the spoon with which she had been stirring her coffee, holding it like a dagger as if for protection.

“There’s no time. He’ll hear if something happens, and he’s a grown boy now. Look how he came through yesterday.”


“My child, there’s no time.” Louis was moving towards the door as he heard the pounding again, louder this time. Philomene nodded and left the dining room in the other direction, into the kitchen.

He opened the door. Outside in the street was a young man in an officer’s uniform. The shoulder boards and high collar of his field grey tunic were marked with silver braided rank insignia. A buttoned-down holster of polished brown leather hung at his belt, as did a slim, straight sword in a black leather scabbard.

“Good morning. Are you the owner of the Mertens shop?” asked the officer in surprisingly unaccented French.

Louis could read nothing in his face. “Yes. I am Louis Mertens.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Monsieur Mertens. I am Hauptmann Schrader. When does your shop open today?”

“My shop is closed today.”

“Closed? Now why would the shop be closed? You don’t appear ill. It’s not a holiday. You don’t have one of these signs saying ‘Closed While Owner Serves With Army!’”

“Our town has been invaded. Yesterday one of my grandson’s friends what shot while out playing. People are staying home, afraid for their safety. The store is closed.”

“There are always certain difficulties inherent in occupying a hostile town, but I can assure you now that security is well in hand. You may open the store, and if there is any doubt among the townspeople as to the safety, surely seeing my men shopping will demonstrate to them that it is once again safe for business.”

Louis gripped the edge of the door. If only he could slam it in this imperious man’s face. His French might be unaccented, but his attitude was German to the core. “I do not want to open the shop,” he said, his own voice hardening. “It is closed until further notice.”

“This is all very unfortunate,” said the officer, with perhaps the slightest of smiles lodging in the corner of his mouth. “The fact is, Monsieur Mertens, when you chose to open a shop you took on certain responsibilities to the community, responsibilities which go beyond your wishes. I have men who want to buy things. You have a shop which sells things. You will open your shop by ten o’clock this morning and you will allow Germans soldiers to shop there. Otherwise, I shall have to order it broken open, and then we will administer it ourselves, serving all who wish to shop. That is how it will be, Monsieur Mertens. Make your decision.”

That twitch of a smile was on his face again, and then, with a slight bow and a click of his heels, he turned and left. Louis saw him go down a few doors to the Jobart’s house and begin to pound on that door next. Clearly he was working down the street. As Louis watched, he saw Felix Jobart open the door of his house and a similar conversation begin between the German officer and the pork butcher.

Louis closed the door and turned to rest his back against it. Only now that it was over was it clear to him how much fear had flowed through his veins while he spoke to the German officer. And now he had to decide whether to open the shop.

There was movement in the next room. Philomene cautiously peered around the doorway from the dining room.

“What did they want?”

“They want me to open the shop and allow the soldiers to buy things. Otherwise they break it open and take what they want.”

“What will you do?”

“I don’t know.” To whom would he be selling things? Cigars to the men who had shot Baptiste? Tinned peaches to someone who might kill Henri or one of the other men from the village? And yet, how long would the Germans be here? In 1870 the Germans had occupied for the village for nearly a year. If he refused and they looted the shop, how would he support Philomene and the children if the Germans stayed for months or years?

He knew the answer, though he did not admire himself for it. If he were a soldier, he would charge the enemy with rifle in hand when ordered, but he had been too young in 1870 and he was too old now. No, he was a shopkeeper, and his duty was to take care of the family while Henri fought on the battlefield. If that meant that he must serve Germans, he would.

“Keep the children out of the shop while any of these pigs are in it,” he said. Then he went into the storeroom and got out the broom which the day before had sat idle for the first time in many years. He swept the store, making sure the floor was as spotless as usual. He rolled up the shades in the big plate glass windows, and then he unlocked the door, turning over the sign so that it said “Open”.


“I told them that I’d accept German coins but not bank notes,” Louis said that night, sitting at the bar in Leroy’s. “Gold and silver hold their value, even if they have eagles stamped on them.”

“I sold out of sausages,” Felix Jobart added. “They don’t call them ‘sausage eaters’ for nothing. I think they must have been keeping the soldiers on short rations. They bought everything in sight.”

“For you shopkeepers, the invasion is probably good for business,” growled a landowner. “I’ve got fields of sugar beets that will rot if my laborers aren’t back from the army by fall, and you’re making money selling to the enemy.”

The words were the more offensive because they were not so far from Louis’s own feelings. “My stock was going to the Germans one way or another,” he rationalized. “The officer who came to the door this morning said I had to open up for they’d break the shop open and let the men loot it. It’s a temporary enough windfall. With no trains coming in, there will be nothing to restock the shelves with. We’ll all be wondering where the next thing comes from soon enough.”

The landowner was about to retort when all fell silent at the sight of a German officer standing just inside the door.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said, in French that was formal and heavily accented, the French of the school room. “I am informed that this is one of the town’s primary drinking establishments?”

All eyes were fixed on him, but no one replied. The officer looked around the room, taking in the paneled walls, the hunting trophies. “A very congenial place you have here. I would not object to visiting on my own some time.” He advanced to the bar and pulled a folded paper from his pocket. “Monsieur Leroy?”

The proprietor nodded.

“I have here a requisition for the officer’s mess.” He smoothed the paper out on the bar. “You are requested to provide: twelve bottles of brandy, six bottles of rum, six bottles of gin and six bottles of Scottish whisky.”

Monsieur Leroy quoted him the price.

“This is a requisition, Monsieur,” the officer replied, with what sounded like scorn creeping into his voice. “If individual soldiers or officers wish to visit your establishment, they will pay your price. But this is a need of a the Imperial German Army. It is required of you.”

The men at the bar exchanged silent glances. Monsieur Leroy went into his back room and began to load bottles into a crate.


It was Friday when the posters appeared all over town, large handbills printed in French in Chateau Ducloux’s own print shop, using the clean French typeface which had appeared on the town’s announcements in happier times, not the spidery Gothic capitals which were used on the Germans’ own printing.


Justin Perreau is appointed Mayor of Chateau Ducloux, since the previous incumbent has fled his responsibilities. He will work hand-in-hand with the military commandant Major Dressler

By order of the mayor and commandant:

  1. All firearms are to be surrendered to the military authorities no later than Sunday, August 30th. Possession of a firearm after that date will be considered proof that the owner is an unlawful combatant.
  2. The punishment for unlawful combatants is death.
  3. Communicating with or providing intelligence to the enemies of the German army in any way will be considered spying.
  4. Possession of any of the following will be considered proof of spying: carrier pigeons, radio communication apparatus, signal lamps, coded messages, encoding equipment
  5. Any enemy soldiers behind the lines must surrender themselves to the army as prisoners of war or they will be considered spies.
  6. Any civilians caught sheltering enemy soldiers will be considered spies.
  7. The punishment for spying is death.
  8. Civilians are to comply with any requests for quartering made by German officers. Failure to do so will be punished with fines or imprisonment.

Philomene stood among the crowd reading the poster which had been pasted up on the wall of the Mouret orchard. Others adorned the walls of the town hall and of various buildings around the town, but this one had the virtue of being across the street from the grocers and out of sight of the town hall, outside of which two green-clad German military police were on guard duty. This placement allowed freer conversation.

“What does Perreau mean by going in with these Boche?”

“Boche? Cabbage heads? That’s a good one.”

“I heard it wasn’t Justin’s idea. His mother asked the Boche major to make him mayor.”

“Asked him? there was no asking. They just picked the biggest money bags in the village. I don’t envy him. I heard if there’s trouble he’s the first hostage they throw in jail.”

“Don’t be a fool. Those Perreaus want in with the Germans just the way they want in with any kind of money or power.”

Philomene slipped away from the crowd, the gossip only half heard. Death. It was the repetition of that penalty which was left undiscussed while people argued over Justin Perreau’s complicity. Would people be killed for owning pigeons or sheltering French soldiers from capture when they had been trapped behind the lines? What about her father’s own shotgun and hunting rifle?

Worry made her clasp the envelope in her fingers more tightly. If only Henri were here instead of far away. No. No, that would not do. Then he would have to turn himself in as a prisoner of war or risk being declared a spy and killed.

Andre Guyot sat on a stool behind the counter of the post officer, reading a book. He set it down as she entered. Glancing at the title she saw it was the more scandalous kind of novel.

“Pascal told me about how you helped him when Baptiste was killed.” The postmaster looked away. “Thank you.”

“I wish I could have done more.”

“It was enough. Pascal is so very grateful.”

Andre nodded in acknowledgement.

“Does the mail still go?” Philomene asked, holding out the envelope she had brought.

Andre read the address but did not take it from her hand. “I have been instructed to accept all letters.”

For a moment Philomene continued to hold it out, but Andre made no move to accept it. At last she drew her hand back, unconsciously clasping the letter to Henri close to her chest as she spoke. “It won’t reach him, will it?”

Andre’s eyes flicked around the small room. There was no one else in evidence, but he nonetheless chose his words carefully. “There are so many countries that someone could write to. Switzerland. Or the Netherlands. Norway, Sweden, Italy, America. Even China.”

Neutral countries. It had been a forlorn hope. She could write to someone on the other side of the globe, in far away America, but Paris, just a hundred miles away, was unreachable.

“There won’t be any mail coming from Paris either, will there?”

Andre shook his head silently.

How long? Not until the war was over, won or lost. And what would happen to Henri during that time? In 1870 the war had not been truly over until Paris was conquered. And Henri was in Paris.

“Thank you. I know you must miss Henri too. If you ever want to come and enjoy a family meal, you are always welcome at our house.”

Andre and her father had always clashed, even though they both respected Henri’s opinions. But even such clashes would be a welcome reminder of ordinary times.

He inclined his head. “Thank you. Perhaps I will.”

She took the sealed letter home and placed it behind the painted plaster statue of the Virgin in her room, offering a silent prayer as she did so: Bring him back to me.


Pascal sat with his back to the sitting room wall reading and expecting that at any moment Grandpere would come in and tell him that he must go to bed. The long summer twilight had finally ended and it was fully dark outside. His sisters had long ago been put to bed. He heard footsteps approaching and hunched his head down, as if to hide behind the book. It was not the book itself which made him want to stay up later. He was having difficulty focusing upon Professor Aronnax and his adventures on the submersible. But when he was alone in the dark was when he found it impossible not to think of Baptiste and of the German soldiers shooting at them. It was better to stay downstairs where it was light.

“It’s late, Pascal,” said Grandpere, standing in the doorway.

“I’m not tired. I don’t need to go to bed.”

“No,” said his grandfather. “You don’t. I need your help.”

This instantly got the boy’s attention, and the book was forgotten. “What for?”

“Follow me.”

Grandpere led the way to the kitchen door which opened out into the back garden. With his hand on the door knob, the old man paused. “There is to be no talking while we work outside. You’ll have to move as quietly as you can. If there are soldiers passing in the street, they mustn’t hear anything suspicious.”

“But what are we doing, Grandpere?” Pascal kept his voice quiet, but the curiosity was almost physically overwhelming.

Grandpere reached into the kitchen broom closet and took out a long, narrow bundle of dark cloth: an oiled canvas groundsheet which had been wrapped around something. He set it on the floor and, knelt over it, unwrapped the cloth part way to reveal his shotgun and hunting rifle. “We are digging,” he said. “And you are helping me, because you are the only other person who will know where these are. You are never to tell anyone that we have buried these: not your friends, not your sisters, not the police, not even your mother. No matter what happens to me or to you, this is our secret.”

He paused, and Pascal considered the solemn responsibility which was being entrusted to him. This was like being a spy or a soldier, certainly a hero: a hero for France. With a silent prayer for strength and protection, he promised God that he would never, ever tell.

“We must bury it deep -- three feet down under the kitchen garden bed -- so that even if someone tries to search the garden it will not be found. And we must be very quiet.”

Pascal nodded, his eyes large.

“All right then.”

Grandpere wrapped the bundle back up tightly, tucking the ends in. Then he took a spool of string and a pair of scissors from the drawer and tied the bundle tightly. “I’ve oiled them heavily, and this should keep the water out. Now we dig. This stays in here until the hole is ready.”

The bundle was returned to the broom closet and the two men -- the one old, the other very young, but sensing that by his participating in the night’s duties he had entered a new world of responsibility -- went out into the darkness of the garden. Grandpere took a spade and a hand shovel from the garden shed and led the way to the vegetable bed.

As their eyes adjusted to the dim light, Grandpere pointed to the leafy row of carrot tops. Using the hand shovel, Pascal carefully dug out the carrots, each still only as thick as one of his fingers, while Grandpere, using the spade, dug a three foot deep trench where they had been. After nearly an hour of quiet, careful work, they went back into the kitchen, which now seemed dazzlingly bright, and brought out the bundle. Grandpere placed the oil-cloth-wrapped weapons at the bottom of the trench, and they filled it back in, replanting the carrots as they did so.

It was nearly midnight when Pascal went tiredly up the stairs, having scrubbed the dirt from under his fingernails under Grandpere’s critical eye. He slept late the next morning. When at last he came down to the kitchen to get bread and jam for his breakfast, he could not resist looking out the window. Grandpere stood out by the kitchen garden bed, a cup of coffee in one hand and a watering can in the other, sprinkling water on the vegetables before the heat of the day was overhead.

Read the next installment.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Chapter 10-2

A couple extra days in the making, but tonight's installment brings the novel to 115,000 words. There is one more installment of Chapter 10 to go, and I will be posting it some time during the coming weekend.

Chateau Ducloux, France. August 23rd, 1914. The little church of Saint Thibault was nearly full even before mass began. Surely God would not allow a treasured son or husband to be cut down by a German bullet simply because his loved ones had been lax in their prayers for him, and yet God must somehow hear. Even if prayers could not turn aside bullets, they could at least turn away the self-accusations which might follow: on the day it happened you could not even be bothered to go to mass and pray for him.

Every candle in the votive racks was lit. Many stayed after mass as well, for the rosary which Pere Lebas introduced with the intention, “For the strength and protection of our brave soldiers.”

Once the rosary was over, Philomene gathered up the children to go home. Their behavior had been unusually satisfactory. Charlotte had seemed on the brink of a crying fit when she was told that all of the votive candles were already lit, and so she could not light one for Father. It had seemed the moment to say something inspiring: If you pray to Our Lady and tell her how much you wanted to light a candle for Father, she will light a candle in heaven for you.

But while these little scenes were invariably successful in the columns of devotional magazines, Charlotte was not the type of lisping angel who seemed to inhabit those pages, and so Philomene had instead whispered to her, “Remember that we were going to stop at the patisserie on the way home to get breakfast.”

The thought of her favorite little cake instantly drove thoughts of candles -- and perhaps even of father -- from the seven-year-old’s mind, and she had showed complete decorum as prayer books were collected and the family left the church.

Outside, blinking in the bright morning sunlight after the nearly windowless, candlelit interior of the church, Philomene saw an unusual crowd in the square before the church. A two-wheeled farm cart was stopped in the street, the shaggy pony between the shafts standing with its head down. On the driver’s bench was a woman in a brown dress. The sheen of the fabric and the gathers along the seams made it clear it was a Sunday-best, yet it was also visibly old, and it showed the dust of days on the road. She was flanked by two small children, and the cart was filled with a variety of household valuables: a cedar chest, a mattress, several wooden crates with straw showing through the slats, a treadle sewing machine.

Several people who had just left the church were gathered round the cart asking questions.

“What part of Belgium are you from?” “When did you leave?” “How far have the Germans come?” “Have you seen the French army?” “Has there been a battle?”

“We left Tongeren nine days ago. I don’t know anything,” she said, her French spoken with a heavy Flemish accent.

More questions poured forth but the woman only shook her head. She straightened her back and flexed her shoulders, as if she had been hunched on the seat of the cart for many hours, and as she did so she placed her free hand on her round stomach.

Pregnant. Philomene felt a tightening of her own stomach. This woman was pregnant, her husband gone, trying to bring her children and possessions to safety, driving a farm cart away from the invading armies.

“Is it true that the Germans burn houses and shoot civilians?” “Is the Belgian army still fighting?” “Have you seen the French 212th Regiment? My son is in it.” The crowd continued to press with questions.

Philomene stepped forward. “Let the poor woman alone, she’s said she doesn’t know anything. How could she give us news when she’s been on the road for a week and a half?”

There were some embarrassed murmurs, but the villagers surrounding the cart fell silent and then began to drift away. Philomene stepped closer. “Can I offer you some breakfast? Our house is not far from here. You could have breakfast with us and we could give you food for your journey.”

She reached out and took the woman’s hand in her own. For a moment they looked into each other’s eyes, then the refugee turned away and Philomene saw tears running down her face. “Thank you,” she said. “We will be no trouble. We won’t stay long. Thank you. God bless you.”

It proved an awkward meal. As she stopped at Jeanpetit’s Patisserie and ordered three times her usual number of cakes and pastries, Philomene had entertained visions of the comfort which a little bit of hospitality could bring to this family which had been on the road for ten days. She could give them what they needed while gaining some sense of the plight which faced families in Belgium -- which perhaps awaited families in France as well.

The farm cart stood outside the Mertens shop, and inside the house Louis had brought Madame Peeters and her two children into the dining room. There the little boy and girl sat, very upright in their chairs, having taken to heart their mother’s stern warnings about behavior, lest they appear to be the wrong sort of refugees.

“Good morning!” said Philomene cheerfully. “I have lots of treats to choose from, and you shall have the first pick.” She spread out Monsieur Jeanpetit’s confections on the table and stepped aside, taking Lucie-Marie by the hand when she attempted to rush the table. “Go on. Take as many as you like.”

The two little Belgian children turned to look at their mother, who nodded and held up two fingers. Each child went and carefully picked out two pastries, placed them on one of the waiting plates, and sat down to eat slowly, surreptitiously licking the crumbs from their fingers between bites.

Once she had taken the edge off her own hunger by rapidly consuming three of the treats, seven-year-old Charlotte tried to ply the oldest Peeters girl -- six years old and seemingly all pale blue eyes and blond braids -- with questions, but she only shrugged. “The children only speak Flemish,” Madame Peeters explained, and Charlotte turned away to see if Lucie-Marie really wanted all of her own little cake.

“Where are you going to stay?” Philomene asked, breaking a lengthy silence.

Madame Peeters shrugged. “I don’t know. Reims? Paris?” She paused and again placed a hand on her pregnant belly as if feeling the baby stirring or drawing some strength from inside. “When he was called up, my husband said, ‘Don’t wait until it is too late.’ Now that we’ve left everything, I must not stop too soon and have the Germans come when I can no longer travel.”

Philomene hesitated over the next question. “Your husband…?” She felt guilty as soon as she saw the other woman’s expression. “Mine is with the army in Paris,” she continued, hoping this would provide some small proof of commonality.

“They say the army is falling back on Antwerp. I have had no word, but surely-- He must be safe.”

Philomene nodded eagerly. “Yes. Yes, he must be safe.” The words served both as an apology for asking the question and a prayer that it was true.

As soon as they had eaten, Madame Peeters made ready to go. She refused most of Philomene’s offered gifts, accepting only a jar of jam, a loaf of bread, and a tin of evaporated milk for the children. Standing by the front door, Philomene watched the Peeters’ cart roll slowly away down the Rue des Remparts and wondered how far the poor woman would go before she felt safe enough to stop and find a place for her family to stay. At least she was well ahead of danger. Surely any threat that might come to Chateau Ducloux was many days away. The whole army was between them and the Germans.

The little farm cart had vanished from sight and yet the sound of iron-rimmed wheels on cobbles still sounded, indeed grew louder. No, it was a different cart, coming down the street towards her. Looking the other way she could see a wagon drawn by two horses: a canvas cover stretched over a heap of possessions and an old man driving while several children peered out from under the tarpaulin. As she stood watching it a man walking a bicycle to which several bundles had been tied appeared around the bend in the road, then an old woman walking beside a large dog harnessed to a two-wheeled cart.

All through the day refugees came, sometimes a group of five or ten families, sometimes a break of half an hour during which no more appeared, but the steady stream of humanity continued to flow throughout the day. For the first several hours, Philomene offered supplies to each family that passed: rice, dried beans, tinned beef, smoked herring, dry biscuits, jam. At last Louis stopped her.

“If you go on, I’ll be out out of food in the storeroom.”

“But Father, many of these people have no food. Surely God expects those of us who are more fortunate to help people in need. You can order more.”

“There are so many of them coming through. I think that may mean that the Germans are closer than we think.”

“But our army--”

“If our army is surrounded like in ‘70 we may not see them before we see the Germans.”

Surrounded. The word fell like a blow.

“They are moving on to other towns where they can look for food,” Louis continued. “If the war is close, we may need all we have to feed the people who stay here.”

She did not take any more food from the storeroom to give away, but as afternoon turned into evening, Philomene could not stop watching the silent procession passing through the town, some walking, others using all manner of wheeled things to carry whatever they could away from the approaching danger. She looked around her own rooms. What would she pack? What would she pack in? There was only the baby carriage and the wheelbarrow. She had seen enough of both go by that day.

As darkness fell Pere Lebas opened the church to those who needed a place to sleep for the night, and the mayor opened the school. Nonetheless when morning came, huddled forms could be seen sleeping against the walls of buildings. Now, however, there were not only civilians but men in blue coats and red trousers.

Grandpere went out into the street and confronted a man with sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve who was walking down the street with no rifle on his shoulder but carrying a tree branch that he was using as a walking stick in his hand.

“What happened? Was there a battle? Are we defeated?”

The man stared at him, past him, a gaze that didn’t quite seem to focus. “There is no war out there, friend. No war at all. They’re just murdering us.” Without waiting for a reply he resumed walking.

It was at midday that an organized army unit entered the town. A pair of machine guns was set up before the city hall, and men stacked sandbags around them. Non-commissioned officers patrolled the streets, and any wandering soldiers were re-assigned to units. Pascal was confined to the house after Grandpere found him, along with several other boys, playing near the machine guns in the square.

At three o’clock the church bells began to ring insistently, the same rapid tolling which had drawn the town’s citizens to the square for the announcement of mobilization. Philomene could feel her heart beating faster and her throat tightening. Was the town about to be attacked? Had France surrendered? Or perhaps there had been a victory? But where? There were no signs evident of a victory here among the refugees and the straggling soldiers.

She stepped into the shop but her father had already left, the sign on the door turned over to say “Closed”. She called Pascal down from his room. He descended sullenly, his dignity not yet recovered from being ordered away from the machine gun emplacements by Grandpere.

“Why are the bells ringing?” he demanded

“There must be news. I am going to go find out, and you are to stay here and watch your sisters.”

“Why can’t I go and find out?”

Catastrophe might very well be looming over them, and her son chose this time to engage in rebellion. If Henri were here-- She cut off the thought. “You cannot go because it is your responsibility to stay here and watch your sisters. If you do not obey and show proper respect, I will have to tell Grandpere about it and you will answer to him.”

Pascal’s mouth worked, and she knew that he wanted to retort. That desire, however, was balancing against the knowledge of the heavy meterstick which Grandpere resorted to in the punishment of grave crimes. At last he nodded.

“Will you tell me the news when you get back?” he asked.

“Of course.” She turned and hurried out into the street, where the sound of the tolling echoed up and down the cobbled streets. She joined the flow of people into the square, where a crowd had already gathered. Mayor Binet stood on the steps of the town hall and next to him stood an officer. Unlike the many dusty, rumpled men who had been in the streets that day, his dark tunic was spotless and his red kepi bright.

The bell stopped ringing, and a clamor of voices rose to fill the void it left as people asked each other what was going on.

“There has been fierce fighting in the Ardennes, and although our armies have not been beaten, they are forced to fall back,” said the mayor, his voice carrying across the square as those gathered suddenly fell silent. “Commandant Hamel has orders to continue an orderly retreat. When our armies have reorganized, they will turn on the German invaders and crush them. But since this is not the place where that great battle will take place, he has agreed to leave our town before the Germans arrive in hopes that by leaving it undefended, Chateau Ducloux will be spared from the ravages of battle.”

He paused, but instead of the din of conversation which had filled the square before there was now uncertain silence.

“If the Germans occupy our town, be assured that it will not be for long. The army is falling back only until ready to strike the fatal blow. In order to preserve the town archives from any danger, I will personally take them to the safety of Reims. I urge all of you to consider your safety as well. Any men of military age who have not already been called up should especially consider withdrawing, as there are reports of the Germans interning military age men and transporting them to Germany. Commandant Hamel’s men will remain to provide order until sunset. I ask everyone to behave in a calm and lawful fashion. Vive la France!”

No one took up the cry as the mayor turned from the crowd and went back into the town hall, accompanied by the commandant.

Knots of conversation formed, and voices began to rise. The crowd seemed evenly divided between those who considered the mayor’s course wise and those who considered it to be abandoning his post. Philomene could not interest herself in the dispute and turned away. As she walked back down the street towards her home she could taste fear, sour in her mouth, and her stomach cramped with anxiety. She looked around with a new consciousness of the street on which she had lived nearly her whole life, and yet it seemed impossible that enemy soldiers would patrol these streets, that they would look in the windows of these shops. Perhaps they would not actually come here at all. Why should they? What was Chateau Ducloux, with its three thousand souls, to Germany? Was it not enough that their men had been called away to risk their lives?

A solemn quiet descended on the village. Louis returned not long after Philomene, but he did not reopen the store, and no one came knocking at its door. Mayor Binet pulled his car up in front of the town hall and loaded it full of boxes containing the town’s records. Sharp tongues pointed out that, in addition to the town’s records, he had taken his secretary to the safety of Reims. Others set off southward in carts or on foot. When the evening train for Paris pulled into the station, it was already heavily loaded, but more people climbed aboard, pushing into the passenger cars and even perching on top of the piled fuel of the coal car. Even so, many were left behind when the train slowly chugged out of the station. Some immediately set off on foot, others returned home, but most stayed -- a small crowd sitting, standing or laying on the benches and floor of the train platform, their luggage spread out beside them, holding their places until the arrival of the morning train.

Pascal went to bed early, taking with him a sense of injustice and the well thumbed copy of Rouletabille in the House of the Tsar which his friend Baptiste had lent him. His behavior had been exemplary all afternoon. He had watched over the little girls while Mother and Grandpere talked in hushed voices about the possibility that the town would be occupied and distracted his sisters from their hunger when Mother had to go into the kitchen and make dinner because Madame Ragot had needed to go home and see her own family. However, both Mother and Grandpere had denied him permission to go watch the soldiers march away at sunset. Peering down the street from his window he had been able to make out the distant movement of uniformed figures near the square, but he had been denied the satisfaction of any closer look.

The next morning dawned clear and sunny, a beautiful late summer morning of the sort that afterwards people would remember as “before the war”. Pascal had just finished dressing when he heard a shower of gravel at the window of the children’s room. He looked out and saw Baptiste down in the street, his wooden toy rifle slung over his shoulder. Silently, so as not to attract the attention of anyone who might forbid it, Pascal went downstairs and let himself out the front door to talk to his friend.

“You should have seen the soldiers march away last night,” Baptiste said. “I thought your family had left when I didn’t see you.”

Pascal scowled. “Mother and Grandpere wouldn’t let me go outside. I don’t see why. There wasn’t any danger with the soldiers here.”

“Well, come on; let’s go look around now.”

Pascal considered. On any normal day an early morning ramble with Baptiste would meet with no disapproval. But today… If Mother knew she would almost certainly forbid it. Did Baptiste himself have permission to be out? Still, Mother had not yet told him that he was not allowed to go outside, so he was not really disobeying.

“Come on,” urged Baptiste. For a last moment Pascal hesitated, but the temptation was too great.

“All right. Let’s go.”

They watched the crowd at the train station growing restless as the usual early train for Paris did not arrive. They conducted a series of skirmishes in the Mouret orchard, Pascal using a fallen branch as a gun while Baptiste used his treasured wooden rifle, which his father had given him last Christmas. As the sun rose higher they scouted through the fields and woods around the town. It was as they were moving along a belt of trees between fields to the north of the town that they saw columns of gray-clad men moving towards the town.

All through the morning they had played at seeing Germans, fighting Germans, warning the town of the approach of Germans. Actually seeing large groups of enemy soldiers moving across the fields was a very different thing. The idea of being seen was suddenly terrifying, and rather than running to alert the town or to construct some ingenious booby trap, they remained hidden behind a tree and watched as the soldiers drew closer.

Some columns were moving across the fields, others parallel to the road, while on the road itself rolled supply wagons and guns. The sheer numbers of soldiers seemed far past counting, and there was a mesmerizing power to the view of hundreds of uniformed men all moving together across the otherwise familiar landscape. Now it was possible to make out the details of their uniforms, the red tabs and piping on their field gray uniforms, the strange spiked helmets on their heads.

“We should go before they see us,” Baptiste whispered.

The nearest column of soldiers was now only a hundred yards away, advancing through the field that the treeline bordered.

“They’ll see us,” Pascal said, fear suddenly gripping him in place of curiosity, and making him want nothing more than to press himself against the ground there behind the tree and hope never to be seen by these alien figures in the field beyond.

“If they get any closer they’ll see us anyway. Come on!”

Baptiste got to his feet and began to move quickly, a sort of half run, bent low like a hunter stalking through the forest. The sling of the wooden rifle slipped from his shoulder and the toy fell to the ground with a soft thump. The boy stopped and doubled back to pick it up, gesturing to Pascal as he did so. “Come on! They’ll see us!” he said in a half whisper. Then holding the toy rifle in one hand he hurried off again toward the town. Pascal got up and began to follow him more slowly.

From the other side of the tree line he heard a shout, then several. “Franc-tireur!” Their harsh voices mangling the French words almost beyond recognition.

Pascal dropped to the ground and buried his face in his arms. There was a bang, then a rattling explosion as nearly a dozen rifles fired almost at once. Pascal raised his head a fraction, looking for his friend, his fear and energy both pounding in his ears. He could not see Baptiste. He must have dropped to the ground as well. He turned to look at the Germans. The column had stopped and men were talking and pointing, not at him, but at the point ahead of him where Baptiste must be. Now nine of the Germans were approaching Baptiste, their rifles at the ready. Why didn’t he run? No, perhaps running was the wrong thing. What did you do to surrender to soldiers without being shot? Put your hands in the air?

He wanted to shout or run or do something, anything that might help, but nothing seemed right and fear paralyzed him. Instead he lay still, his fingers nervously clawing at the ground, his face lifted just enough from the soil to allow him to watch.

The Germans stopped and looked down. They were talking to one another. One bent down and picked up Baptiste’s wooden rifle and showed it to the others. All the words of their language sounded harsh and angry, but Pascal felt sure he was scolding the other men. Then he put down the toy gun and led the men away, back towards the rest of the column.

A new sort of terror entered the pit of Pascal’s stomach. He felt he knew what he would see there, yet he was afraid to form the thought, feeling that this would somehow make it real. He stayed, crouched against the ground, and watched as the Germans rejoined their column. Then after a brief conversation between the man who had picked up the toy rifle and one that even at a distance Pascal could recognize as an officer by his sword and holstered pistol, the column began to move towards the town once again.

Pascal watched the column march, until they were between him and the town, their backs to him. Other columns were on the move as well, but none were as close as that had been. He stood up slowly, looking all around. There were no shouts. He could see Germans moving around the countryside, but none were nearby.

Slowly he approach the spot where Baptiste lay. He was terrified to look and felt that by doing so he would make the catastrophe real, but perhaps it was not too late to help his friend. Surely it was not too late.

The wooden rifle lay in the grass, a little to one side of its fallen owner. Baptiste lay face down, unmoving. Hesitantly, Pascal reached out and took him by the shoulder. No response. He pulled at his shoulder, turned him over. Baptiste rolled like a sack of grain, heavy, inert. His arm flopped alarmingly, revealing a dark stain on the side of his coat, under his arm. Laying him on his back, the first thing that struck Pascal’s horrified gaze was the blood that soaked his shirt. His face was uninjured but unmoving. His eyes did not move. There was no sound from his mouth. A few stray bits of dirt and grass were stuck on the skin of his face, which somehow made it look all the more lifeless.

It was too much. Looking away, Pascal ran as fast as he could towards the town. Whether he ran to get help or to get away or simply out of fear he did not know.

There were German soldiers in the streets but they gave him no second glance. The first person that he saw whom he recognized was Andre Guyot, standing outside the post office and watching the enemy pass by in the street.

“Monsieur Guyot! Monsieur Guyot!” He came to a stop before his father’s friend, gasping for breath after his run.

“What is it? Is your family all right?”

“Yes. I think so. But the Germans have shot Baptiste.”

“Shot him?” Andre put a hand on a boy’s shoulder. “Catch your breath. That’s right, now tell me clearly: What happened?”

“Baptiste -- you know, Baptiste Duval -- we were playing in the fields and we saw the Germans coming. We hid from them, but when they were getting closer Baptiste said we should run before they saw us. They shot him, and I think he might be… I think he might be dead.”

Andre’s face turned grave. “Show me.”

They set off, at a slower pace now because of Andre’s limp and the cane he walked with to help him overcome the injury from a childhood illness which had left him partly paralyzed in his left leg. At last they reached the place where Baptiste lay. Andre bent over the boy’s body, leaning heavily on his cane. He wiped the debris from his face and felt the side of his neck for a pulse. Then he shook his head.

“He’s dead.”

The two stood there, the boy and the older man, looking down at the young body laid out before them.

“Come on. We must bring him back to the Duval house.” He began to shift the body from where it lay.

Pascal reach under his friend’s body and tried to lift, but he staggered under the weight. “I don’t think I can carry him. He’s bigger than me. And you--” He stopped, hesitant to name Andre’s disability.

“I can’t walk without my cane, my leg will give out, and I can’t carry someone with only one free hand, but I’m strong enough. Here: I’ll get down low and you help to raise him onto my shoulders. Then I can can walk with him.”

Andre crouched down, bracing the cane against the ground, and Pascal struggled to lift his friend. At last, Baptiste was draped over Andre’s shoulders like a heavy fur mantle.

“Help me up,” directed Andre, and leaning half on his cane, half on Pascal’s shoulder, he struggled upright.

Looking down, Pascal could see blood smeared over his hand and front, where he’d hugged the body against himself as he’d struggle to lift it onto Andre’s shoulders.

Pascal bent to pick up the wooden rifle which his friend had so treasured.

“Put that down,” said Andre.

“But it was his. I should bring it with him.”

“Do you want to be shot?” Andre’s voice had an edge of anger in it. “Do you understand what happened here? If the Germans think they see you carrying a gun, they’ll shoot both of us.”

Pascal dropped the toy rifle. It lay in the grass as the two walked slowly away, Andre leaning one hand on his cane, the other on Pascal’s shoulder and stooping slightly under the weight of Baptiste’s body. The group reenacted all too closely the scenes on real battlefields not far away.

As they entered the town a German officer approached them. “What is this?” he asked, speaking in accented but clear French. “What happened?”

“This?” asked Andre. “Some of your soldiers have shot a boy from the village.”

“How did it happen?” The officer looked at Pascal. “Were you there? Tell me.”

Pascal described what had happened as briefly as possible.

The officer rounded on Andre, his anger all the stronger because of the sense that his men were, in part, at fault. “Do you French care nothing for your children? You let a young boy run around the countryside with a toy rifle on the day that troops who have just been in battle march into your town? My God, what do you expect? If my men see boys running through the fields with a gun they will shoot.”

For a moment the two men glared at one another. Then Andre shrugged. “Good day, officer. I must take this boy’s body home to his mother.”

They reached the Duval house and Andre turned to Pascal.

“Go home, Pascal. I will talk to Madame Duval. Let your mother know that you are safe.”

Pascal nodded. He felt that he should say something but no words came. He turned and walked down the street to his own house. Andre watched him disappear around the bend in the street before turning and knocking at the Duval door. Throughout the village there were women who had been living in fear for three weeks of a knock that the door that would bring them news of their sons, but Madame Duval had not known to be afraid.

Reaching his own door, Pascal found it locked. He gave a hesitant knock, knowing that the door must have been locked since he left and unsure what that meant. The door was flung upon and he saw his mother’s face. For a moment it looked as if she were about to yell at him, to fly at him in anger. Then her eyes took in the blood which stained his coat and shirt and hands and terror replaced anger.

“Pascal! What happened?” She flung her arms around him and pulled him close. “Where are you hurt? We’ve been so terrified.” She released him from her embrace and reached out to touch the bloodstains on his shirt, looking for the wound.

“I’m all right,” he managed to say, though he could feel tears beginning to well forth and swell his throat closed. “I’m not hurt.” He flung his arms around her and sobbed into his mother’s shoulder. “They shot Baptiste. Baptiste is dead.”

Read the next installment.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

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.”

“Father,” she began, but then realized she did not know what to say. He had never spoken before of the village boy hanged for shooting at the Germans in 1870, and it made her think all the more that if the army were defeated as it was then, they should leave. They could try to find Henri in Paris. But he would be with the army. They could--

“But we stayed, and we were safe enough,” Louis said, as if sensing where her thoughts had turned. “There’s no safety on the roads at a time like that.”

“Mother! Mother!” Pascal’s shouts from the entry hall cut through their dark thoughts. “The morning post has come and there’s a letter from Father!”

The small envelope was addressed in Henri’s neat capitals, lettering that would have been as at home in one of his ledger books -- or on a tactical map. She ran her fingers over the envelope for a moment. How recently had his hands touched this same envelope? A distant caress.

“Open it, Mother!” Pascal was now flanked by his younger sisters, Charlotte and Lucie-Marie, all three craning to see the envelope. Even at this remove she was not to be given the moment’s privacy she wanted with her husband. She opened the letter.

My Dearest,

To answer the essential questions first, I am well and safe and not so interestingly employed as to cause you worry. The 104th Regiment has been deployed to Lorraine, as has the 304th Reserve Regiment, but our battalion has been attached to the military camp of Paris.

“What does he say, Mother? What does he say?” the children demanded. “Did he send a postcard? Did he draw a picture? Does he say anything to me?”

Philomene skimmed down both sides of the one, small sheet of paper. “‘Tell Pascal that no, I have not seen any Germans yet, but if I do I shall certainly tell him about it. Give Charlotte and Lucie-Marie my love and kiss them each for me.’” Seeing the next line, she paused, bent down, and kissed each of the little girls on the forehead. “There. That’s Papa’s kiss for you. And then he says, ‘And tell all three that you will give them a spanking for me as well if they do not leave you alone for a time to enjoy your letter.’ There, shall I give you that from Papa too?”

“I’ll take them away,” Pascal said, suddenly asserting the responsibilities of his eleven years. “Soldiers! Form up!” The girls came to attention, shoulders back, chins up in the air. “March,” he ordered, and all three children stamped out of the dining room and thence into the garden.

Philomene looked at her father, trying to decide whether she should begin the second, slower read of the letter now or wait until she had complete privacy. “It’s dated the 13th. Almost a week old.”

“With so many units on the move right now, of course the mail is moving slowly. Don’t worry. It sounds like he is safe. What could be safer than Paris?” He pushed back his chair. “I should go open the shop.”

Before he had even left the room she was unfolding the letter again, preparing to savor every word. “My Dearest…”


It was that precious time of afternoon when all other members of the family were busy. Madame Serre had just left, having made a social call with a purpose: asking if Philomene would be willing to help chair a tea to raise funds for Belgian refugees. Soon the children would come in to ask when dinner would be, even though the time at which Madame Ragot put the dishes on the dining room table never varied. But for now she was alone, sitting before a blank piece of paper and trying to think of words that would convey to Henri how much she wished he were with her. It was the same thing she wanted to express in each letter, and yet each time the sentiment seemed important and the words insufficient to it.

The sound of horses hooves on the cobbles outside first drew Philomene’s eyes to the window. Not the steady clop of a farmer’s horse nor the clatter of a hurrying rider, but the measured pace of many horses. Through the curtains she caught glimpses of uniforms, of long lines of horses.

French Dragoons were passing by, the troopers resplendent in their dark blue tunics, red trousers and polished brown boots. Their brass helmets shone in the sun and the steel tips of their lances flashed when they caught the light. There was something so splendid in the colors, the shining metal, the ordered columns of horsemen. Philomene’s heart lifted at the sight, though in her mind she scolded herself for the thrill she felt. How much better would it be if all these men, and Henri too, were safe in their homes?

Other people were looking out windows or hurrying into the street, and the cavalrymen held themselves more upright in the saddle and looked straight ahead. The Jobarts’ shopgirl leaned out the doorway of the pork butcher shop and blew kisses to the passing soldiers. Boys ran along the sidewalk shouting. Seeing them reminded Philomene guiltily of Pascal. She hurried through the dining room and kitchen to the back garden, where her son was busy training the dog, Yves, to stand on his hind legs upon command.

“Pascal, there are soldiers going by. Cavalry.”

Instantly his attention was on her, the dog forgotten. “Where are they going? Will Father be with them? Is there going to be a battle?”

He hurried through the house and pressed against the window. Yves followed too, placed his paws on the windowsill and gazed out. He gave a couple of sharp barks at the passing strangers, and as a result Philomene took him firmly by the collar and dragged him, all whines and skittering claws, back into the garden, where she shut him out.

The last of the cavalry squadrons passed and in their wake followed an assortment of carts: fodder, equipment, field guns and caissons. Then came the bicycle squad, the men wearing all blue uniforms, the same dark color as the dragoons’ tunics, with their rifles and gear slung across their backs.

When the whole regiment had passed there was a brief break, and Philomene was about to return to her letter. Then marching could be heard; hobnailed boots clashing on the cobblestones. Infantry came into view, marching down the Rue des Remparts five abreast, the officers on their horses riding before each company.

For the first hour, a festival atmosphere prevailed. The soldiers were marching north to meet the Germans. Their uniforms were fresh and they had a spring in their step. Children watched and cheered. Shopkeepers and housewives offered drinks of water to the passing men. Girls tossed flowers.

As time passed and the soldiers kept coming, row on row, each company followed by its supply wagons, the novelty began to dissipate. The number of men passing was too many to count. How many men in ranks of five could march past in an hour, in three? The event ceased to feel like a parade and became a simple fact of life. Men were passing, a population far greater than that of the town. And with so many men marching north to meet the enemy, surely it was impossible that any foe could stand up to such overwhelming numbers.

As people went back to their work and relaxation, the sound of marching steps became a part of the background noise. It was not until they were seated at the dinner table that the sound of passing men and carts finally stopped, leaving a silence in place of the noise to which they had become accustomed.

Pascal was full of information, having watched the whole time the army was marching by and consulted with the other boys on the street until forced to come to dinner.

“You can tell the dragoons from the chasseurs because the chasseurs wear a steel breastplate and the dragoons carry lances. Every cavalry regiment has one squadron of bicycle troops. We saw a regiment of field artillery go by, but no heavy artillery. Do you think there will be heavy artillery tomorrow? Will airplanes fly overhead? The airplanes spot targets for the artillery. They shoot so far that they can hit targets they can’t even see, targets that are miles away on the other side of a hill. Baptiste says his father is in the reserve artillery because he got such good marks in math. Do you you think my marks in math are good enough to be in the artillery?”

When the meal was over, Philomene set the children to making their own contribution to Henri’s letter. Pascal produced a page of closely spaced and poorly spelled detail about the army passing through, illustrated with sketches using his colored pencils, while Charlotte produced, “I miss you, Papa!” and a picture of the dog.

“Why did you draw the dog for Father if it’s you that miss him?” Philomene asked.

“Because he is easier to draw, and he can’t write,” was the relentless logic.

Lucie-Marie produced her own page of cheerful scribbles, and a last, when they were all in their beds, Philomene sat down again with her own piece of blank paper.

“My Dearest Henri, I awoke this morning and wished that you were here.”

She looked at the words and remembered the moments of distance and tears when they had last been in bed together. Would that sentence only remind Henri of how she had kept her distance from him out of fear that she would become pregnant? She did, each morning and each night, wish that he were lying there next to her. And yet, how glad she was that she was not pregnant. Even if she was forced to set out on foot as a refugee, like those poor Belgians the newspapers spoke of, she would at least not be doing it through the tiredness and nausea of early pregnancy. She would not be left bleeding and cramping through a miscarriage in some roadside ditch, with the children looking on.

Reaching out, she crumpled the paper. There were too many thoughts that hung around that affectionate sentence, and if it inspired so many conflicting feelings within her, there was no telling what Henri might think.

She laid out another sheet and stared at its frigid blankness. What could you write to the man you loved more than anything, when it was possible that you would never see him again?

“My Dearest Henri, I love you, and yet I don’t know what to say. Today we watched the army march through town….”


Chateau Ducloux, France. August 22nd, 1914. Saturday was a warm summer’s day as beautiful as anyone could desire. After breakfast, as his mother set out to discuss the benefit tea for Belgian refugees with Madame Serre, Pascal took a carton from Grandpere’s storeroom, the cardboard still fragrant from the boxes of cigars which it had carried from far-away America, and packed into it his entire collection of lead soldiers. With the carton under his arm, he set off for the Mouret orchard.

This walled apple orchard had been the property of Eugene Mouret, a landowner now dead some ten years. His son had died young in an accident, and Mouret had left no will, with the result that his property had been the subject of slow moving litigation among distant relatives in Reims ever since, leaving the walled orchard overgrown and untended, a favorite haunt for children seeking adventure, and occasionally lovers seeking solitude.

Pascal climbed over the wall with his carton and was relieved to find that on this morning he was the orchard’s only occupant. He had originally planned to ask Baptiste and Etienne to join him, but as he had lain in bed that morning thinking about the day, he had decided that he wanted to play alone. Soldiers of France, like those he had watched march past three days before, like his father, might at this very moment be making heroic sacrifices in order to protect them all from invasion and disgrace, and his plans for the day seemed to him a sort of private duty to those men and their sacrifice.

Among the overgrown grasses and twisted tree roots he arranged the enamel painted lead soldiers. Some were wearing uniforms that were too old fashioned -- French soldiers in the blue and white of Napoleon’s day rather than the modern blue and red; Prussians in green and blue as well as gray -- but he sorted them carefully into sides and began laying them out. Then the story could begin.

“Captain Girard wished that he could be at home with his wife and son, but he knew that his duty to France came first. The colonel had asked him to lead the attack against the savage Prussian invaders. He took the regimental standard in his hand and said, ‘If you love your homes and children, follow me!’”

Outnumbered but ready to die for their country, the French lead soldiers conducted a series of tragic stands, complete with last noble last speeches and men who rose, mortally wounded, to strike one last blow for France.

As Pascal was struggling with issues of life and death in his own way, the warmth of the summer day burned off the morning mists which had shrouded the Ardennes Forest along the French/Belgian border, to the north and east of Chateau Ducloux. German 3rd, 4th and 5th Armies, which had been wheeling slowly forward searching for the French center, realized that French 5th, 4th and 3rd Armies had run directly into them in the morning fog. Machine guns and field artillery did their work as the men in red and blue fixed bayonets and charged the German lines. By the end of the day 27,000 Frenchmen had been killed in action and many more captured or wounded. It was the bloodiest single day of the war.

Read the next installment.