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.
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.