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Monday, 24 June 2013

First battlefield

Thursday, June 24th., Paris.

Never was Paris so disconcertingly odd. And yet never was it more profoundly itself. Between the slow realisation of a monstrous peril escaped and the equally slow realisation of its power to punish, the French spirit, angered and cold, knows at last what the French spirit is. And to watch and share its mood is positively ennobling to the stranger. Paris is revealed under an enchantment. On the surface of the enchantment the pettinesses of daily existence persist queerly.

Dinner last night at Madame Edwards'. An astounding flat. Philippe Bertholot, Gide, Mair, the Godebskis and Legrix (young novelist). Berthelot, clad in pale alpaca and yellow boots, was as mysterious as ever. When I flattered him about "Le Livre Jaune", he told me he had to leave documents out. One an absolute prophecy of the course of the outbreak of the war, from a Pole, received a month in advance. It was too true for anyone to believe that it wasn't a fake. The other a quite authentic statement of the war plans of the Germans, as to aeroplanes, shells, trenches, strategy etc. This was received a year before the war. It couldn't be published because the French War Office had taken no action on the strength of it, though they knew it was authentic. It was a tremendous accusation of the French War Office. Only a summary was given in "Le Livre Jaune".

Philippe Berthelot (1866 – 1934) was an important French diplomat, son of Marcellin Berthelot. He was a republican (as opposed to monarchists at that time). He entered the French diplomatic service in 1889 and joined the foreign office in 1904. In 1920, he became secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the rank of ambassador. He was forced to step aside from 1922-1925 because of his involvement in the scandal of the Banque Industrielle de Chine, controlled by his brother. The "Livre Jaune" was a collection of dispatches allegedly received by foreign ministries in advance of the outbreak of war. Promulgated in December 1914 by Philippe Berthelot, then Secretary General of the Quai d'Orsay, it was named because the documents were contained within yellow covers.

Negotiations for a private visit to the Front languished. The thing was arranged right enough, but it seemed impossible to fix a day for actually starting. So I came to Meaux. Meaux had stuck in my ears. Meaux was in history and in romances; it is in Dumas. The dilatory train took seventy minutes, dawdling along the banks of the notorious Marne. Here we obtained a respectable carriage, with a melancholy, resigned old driver, who said: "For fifteen francs, plus always the pourboire, I will take you to Barcy, which was bombarded and burnt. I will show you all the battlefield." With those few words he thrilled me.

House by roadside, roof damaged, contents taken away by Germans. Why? What they couldn't take they destroyed.
Trenches. Character of country: rolling upwards. Farms. Wheat, oats, poppies. Heavily wooded in places. High horizon of tree-lined roads. Tombs here and there.

Thence to Chambry. Many tombs in wheat, and hidden by wheat. Barbed wire on four stout posts (a bird on post), white wooden cross. Always a small white flag. Not always a name. On every side in these fields, the gleam of cross or flag as far as you can see. Scores and scores. Dark green-purple of distant wooded hills against high green of fields.

Cemetery used for firing from. Holes in wall.
Wheat absolutely growing out of a German. The Battlefield is between Barcy and Chambry. Barcy is high; Chambry is low, like Meaux. Round through battlefield German army was going south-east, and chiefly east.
General impression. How little is left. How cultivation and civilisation have covered the disaster over.

In half an hour we were back at an utterly matter-of-fact railway station, in whose cafe an utterly matter-of-fact and capable Frenchwoman gave us tea. And when we reached Paris we had news that a Staff Captain of the French Army had been detailed to escort us to the front and to show us all that could safely be seen. Nevertheless, whatever I may experience, I shall not experience again the thrill which I had when a weak and melancholy old driver pointed out the first tomb. That which we had just seen was the front once.

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