‘Infernal war,’ by Emile Henriot, L’Illustration, 26 September 1914

[Translated by Alastair Dunn. The elipses “…” follow those of the original French text. The images below are a selection of those that accompanied the original.]

In the midst of the French lines – in Soissons under bomabrdment – the ruins of Senlis.  17 September.

Rue Bellon, Senlis
The systematic destruction by the Germans of the old towns of France – The Rue Bellon, Senlis
We arrived by car in driving rain at La Ferté-Milon, having crossed all the battlefields of the Marne from Meaux onwards, and all the villages where they had passed, of which there remain only ruins and still glowing embers.  In these tragic times it is not the memory of Jean Racine that fills our spirits when we reach this friendly little town… The Germans came through after the retreat of our line. During their nine days of occupation, hundreds of thousands of men arrived, camped and passed through. You can still read the Germans’ writing on the doors, in chalk – how many men, how many horses, what quality of service. Those brave people who had remained, and who had not fled in the face of the barbarians, told us what they had seen. We questioned them avidly.

In general the town had not suffered. They requisitioned as much, and more, than they needed, and, under the guise of re-supply they emptied systematically shops, henhouses and wine cellars. The mayor offered himself as a hostage, a brave man – he did his duty, that was it. Thanks to him, the place was spared slightly. The Germans preferred to loot and pillage those houses where they would find no one to fight back or resist.  And, if any did resist, they would be up against a wall straight away…

When they left suddenly, retreating ahead of the English and our soldiers, they cut the bridge behind them. They passed through the town as if on parade. But it was nonetheless a retreat. This is witnessed by all the ammunition boxes and the big shells left on the road sides, the columns of supplies that our men captured and burned in the forests of Villers-Cotterets; and also by the completely abandoned battery high up on one side, dominating the town and the surrounding area. This battery of eight grey guns, with their carriages, and their breaches broken, carried the haughty and pretentious phrase Ultima regis ratio.[1]

While we were looking at these guns chat could no longer do any more harm to our side, we heard a bombardment in the direction of Soissons. In spite of the rain, that muffled and reduced the noise, the rumbling continued ceaselessly. We covered our ears, but the man from those parts who was accompanying us was used it, it didn’t disturb him anymore. Our papers being in order, we are going to see…

About fifteen kilometres from La Ferté, which we had left, the appearance of a column of French artillery showed us that we had arrived at the rear of our lines.  All the way up to Soissons, in effect, we constantly encountered our soldiers, in all the innumerable and necessary functions of an army on the move: convoys of munitions and supplies, commissariat, baggage trains, medical services, military vehicles, grey gun carriages with white lettering, vehicles of all types, official or requisitioned. Carriages, buses, cars, enormous canvas-covered lorries. For miles and miles the convoys rolled up and down, an immense movement, and a prodigious operation that brought comfort and pleasure…

Some villages. The people were at their doorsteps, in spite of the driving rain. Some troops were stationed there. At Longpont a crowd surrounded us, eager for news. These admirable soldiers, who had come to save France, and its honour, and who had been fighting for two weeks, wanted news, and asked for newspapers, cigarettes and tobacco. They even wanted to buy it from us, but we had already given away all our provisions…

Soldiers crossing the Oise
Verberie Bridge, near Compiegne. 18,000 French troops crossed The Oise on this bridge, improvised between 10pm and 7am, from barges and sleepers, by Captain of Engineers Bougier, his telegraph sappers, and thirty civilian volunteer well-wishers.
Over there the guns sounded. At each bounce of the car, on the waterlogged road, the sound grew louder and more voluble, in spite of the incessant traffic, as we approached. The battle was not far away. For an hour we had been passed by ambulances carrying the wounded from the front; today’s wounded, the freshly wounded, and whom we saw laid out on canvas, their heads or arms bandaged.… They were Algerian riflemen for the most part, wrapped in their long woollen cloaks. As we left one of the villages, we were hailed by a farmer who had seen everything. He put us in the picture. Every day the bombardment had extended but today it appeared to stay still, or so it seemed to him.  The fighting was north of Soissons.  A soldier told us they were firmly dug in, and that they would go for them with bayonets, and that the Algerians had captured a battery… This was where the wounded came from that we would see later.

A few kilometres from Soissons we asked the way from a couple of soldiers. They advised us against going any further: it was in the firing line and the route wasn’t safe. The Germans have the road under observation, and when they know that a convoy is passing by, they fire on it. Yesterday, a car was riddled. “Can we go on anyway?” we asked. “Yes but your own risk and peril” they replied. We shall see then…

Now we are all ready. But after a few moments the layman’s ear, if we can call it that, as it is not that of a soldier, recognises this terrible music and can distinguish between the sinister voices that form this orchestra: the regular intervals of our own 75mm guns, quick and sharp; the more deafening response of the German guns, and then, separated by long gaps, dominating and underscoring it all, the immense growling of the great siege mortars, which they call with their accustomed levity “Busy Bertha” and “Lazy Gretchen.”

Bombardment of Soissons
Bombardment of Soissons by German Heavy Artillery. Fires started by the shells. Bursts of shrapnel. French gun emplacements concealed on the banks of the Aisne. Photograph taken from the clock tower of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes.
For four days – we are on Thursday and they began on Monday – the Germans bombarded Soissons. We expected to be stopped at several checkpoints, asking to return whence we had come, and quickly. But there was none of that. An English officer, on being asked whether we could enter the town, said to us phlegmatically, “You can, but it is very unpleasant.” It did not take us long to see the effects of the bombardment, even from the outskirts.  The admirable church of St Jean-des-Vignes is the first witness to the Germans’ savagery: one of the long and narrow spires of the double clock-tower had been blown away; while the other had been torn by shrapnel. We were advancing through a three-quarters deserted town.  Here on the cobbled road there was a sort of ditch two to three metres deep and five or six wide, the cobbles had been ripped out, and the surface reduced to sand, with broken fragments all around. Here is a two-storey house that had been hit from behind, and had collapsed into the street like a house of cards.  Roofs blown off, walls knocked down, trees broken, we stopped counting.  The Post Office and the Great Seminary were in ruins.  When we passed by the cathedral it had suffered relatively little: only one of the chapels had been reduced to dust – and we rejoiced, with tears in our eyes, to have left it in such good condition.

We stopped on the Place de La Republique. Five or six women stopped us in front of a house. We questioned them.  One of them told us they had been bombarded for four days.  You should see it on the other side of the town. What misery ! At the moment they are firing on hospital and the station.  But for the last three hours it seemed to be calmer.

In effect, the firing of the big siege mortars had finished.  It was now only field artillery doing its work – to which our own replied ceaselessly. And hearing it alongside us we felt almost happy, a sense of security such as a child feels in the night when a big person holds their hand.  But our speaker had scarcely finished her words when the mortar shook the air with its bou-bou-boum ! followed also by a type of long howling. The woman had been speaking to us nudged us sharply:

“Look in the air !”

The shell passed, in effect, over heads. We sensed it rather than saw it.  And straight after, about 300 metres away, at the foot of one of the avenues leading off the square where we had been, it exploded with a formidable blast. A bright flash.  The cloud rose, thick and white.

It was the hospital.

The Germans had targeted the building where our wounded were. Systematically, methodically, scientifically, they searched for it to destroy it.  This morning a spy was arrested who had been guiding their firing. He was taken away between two gendarmes….

The enemy occupied heavily entrenched positions on the plateaux that overlooked the town from the North and North-West. They had converted the former quarries into a solid and well-defended fortress, which they have protected with beams, fascines, and strong sandbags. They have placed their mortars there, and bombard us from that well sheltered position. Our men tried to get then out with fixed bayonets, but the position is strong. It will require heavy guns to reduce it.  All around the battle rages. But the soldier and the officers whom we questioned are confident. They are preparing something.

We had hoped to sleep in Soissons, but it was scarcely possible, and where could we have found anywhere open?  Those remaining inhabitants hide in their cellars when the shelling becomes too loud. When it calms down, they go out and look at the sky. They aren’t afraid, these women laugh at the danger when it has passed.  But the hotels are closed, and as night is coming, it is time for us to move on.

German shell, Soissons
The effects of a German shell that fell in a Soissons street. A gutted house and two dead horses.
On leaving Soissons, we stopped on a hill. From that point we saw the whole town laid out before us. As well as the sky trembling under this ceaseless bombardment, masses of rain fell as if in bucket loads, as we watched the bombardment. Above the hillsides whose verdant ridge stands out against a sky that was clearing a little in that direction, and which reddened the burning gold of the sunset, little bursts of white smoke rose and then dissolved slowly in the air. These were the guns, spitting their fire. Higher up, against the uniform grey of the clouds, the eye begins to distinguish the rapid arc of the shells, or the explosions of the little black bullets; the canister-shot bursting in the sky like fireworks; a white burst … then other shells, other bombs, more shrapnel. … We couldn’t leave this spectacle, but suddenly I thought of the ambulance lorries that we had just recently passed on the road.

We slept at Longpont (15 kilometres from Soissons), in a fine hostel which the brave owners opened for us, next to the magnificent chateau and the famous ruins, and all night we heard the guns, always dominated by the German siege mortars, bombarding Soissons, an open town.

* * *

In order to complete the picture, setting out from Meaux and covering the immense battlefield of the Marne, already strewn with corpses and marked by the smouldering ruins of twenty towns, looted and burned, we returned from Soissons to Paris via Villers-Cotterets and Senlis…

Ah! The awful and dreadful spectacle! Poor fine Senlis. The doves are no longer fluttering around its bell tower … The bombardment and fires have driven them away. Will they return?  We came there from Crépy-en-Valois, by the same route that the German horde had taken. A little before we arrived the countryside began to present the appearance that we have come to expect from battlefields: shattered trees, branches scattered over the ground, great round craters in the earth, dug out by shells…  It took barely fifty steps into Senlis before we know how things stood there.  The first house is a hotel-restaurant on a small square. It’s been looted and burned. The main street of Senlis, the Rue de la Republique, extends from this square.  From one end to the other, it is now a street of ruins, like something out of Pompei or Herculaneum, but also more terrible, as these are ruins from yesterday, not cleaned and polished by the passage of time, but still blackened by the flames, and full of still warm slag and rubble. One of the inhabitants, who had been in Martinique at the time of the destruction of St Pierre de Miquelon, said to me that this scene reminded him of that.[2] But here, this was not a natural disaster, the sudden eruption of a volcano which caused these ruins, this was men’s work, to the shame of humanity.

They entered Senlis and began by looting these houses, removing all they could take, eat and drink, and they threw into these houses special bombs that, when they exploded, caused fires.  That was all the way down the street. It wasn’t the bombardment that caused the fires, we would come to understand that more.  A cold and reflective willpower had presided over this devastation. The witnesses confirmed this, and in certain of the houses that had been spared they found incendiary bombs that had not fulfilled their role.  To the right, at the beginning of this terrible procession, a block of houses that had been consumed by fire. All that remained were certain sections of wall, in the middle of which were the roofs, staircases, and a heap of blackish rocks crumbled to ashes. … Detached houses, mansions, dwellings of the rich and poor, modern villas or elegant structures from the past, charming little eighteenth-century houses, simple and gracious, ancient monuments – nothing had been spared.  The fine hall of the Palace of Justice and of the Sub-Prefecture, an exquisite model of the architecture of the era of Gabriel and Louis, is no more.  As if to show what has been lost, only the façade remains, opened to the sky, showing its fine proportions, the regular openings showing where the windows and doors had been … The rest is destroyed, and this façade is held up only by a miracle, and, one could say, to give a few more days for those wish to come and witness this irreparable loss and the Germans’ infamy. … We pass on. One ruin follows another. How many are there? One hundred? Two hundred ? We haven’t made this sinister reckoning. There, where things had been to the put the flames, everything had been devoured. There are no half-ruins there.  Through the ruined entrance in a collapsed wall, we saw a little garden, a mass of flowers that still spread life and colour.  These flowers still living among all this mourning made the mourning even sadder – but the contrast is too cruel…

Palace of Justice Senlis
The remains of the Palace of Justice, Senlis
The cathedral was not seriously damaged: a passing shell broke off a pillar, snapping off a pinnacle, and its fragments made white wounds in the ancient stones made grey and green by the passage of time. But this is nothing, and we shivered when thinking of Rheims, whose Cathedral ….

This is the way that the Germans avenged themselves, on an innocent little town, one of our country’s adorable jewels, the charming smile of our Ile de France, in response to a shot fired, or so they said, by one of the inhabitants against their invading army. This man was shot out of hand, but they gave this reason without any proof.  At the same time, they took away the mayor, M. Odent[3]; they led him under escort to Chamant, where they dug a grave in front of him and shot him without trial. Afterwards, they buried him feet upwards, and that is how the body of this unfortunate magistrate was found, when various pious hands came to exhume him to give a more decent burial.

Look at how our enemies make war against us, in the name of their barbarous civilisation, in the name of a Greater Germany. A foolish as well as ferocious people, who existing only through and for war, find new ways of dishonouring it.’

 

[1]“The king’s final argument”. This was an inscription that had been used historically on cannon, typically those of the Spanish monarchy.

[2] Volcanic eruption of 1902.

[3] Eugène Odent, mayor since 1912. Executed by the German Army as one of seven hostages on 2 September 1914.

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