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Ch. 14: One of the Motherless

ONE OF THE MOTHERLESS

 

 

Versailles frames in my memory the most tragic of the war-time pictures I collected during my visit to France. That romantic and lovely city which has framed in turn the pomp and glory of France, the iconic simplicities of Marie Antoinette, the odious passions of a French mob, screeching for bread and blood, and the creation of a German Empire, will for long be associated in my mind with a sad and isolated little picture that will find no niche in history, but, as a symbol, is as diagnostic as the storming of the palace gates in 1789.

There is a small but powerful oeuvre in Paris, composed with one exception of Americans devoted to the cause of France. It was founded by its treasurer, Mr. Frederic Coudert. Mr. August Jaccaci, of New York, is President; Mrs. Cooper Hewett, Honorary President; Mrs. Robert Bliss, Vice-President; and the Committee consists of the Comtesse de Viel Castel, Mrs. Francis G. Shaw, and Mrs. William H. Hill, of Boston. It is called "The Franco-American Committee for the Protection of the Children of the Frontier."

This Committee, which in May, 1916, had already rescued twelve hundred children, was born of one of those imperative needs of the moment when the French civilians and their American friends, working behind the lines, responded to the needs of the unfortunate, with no time for foresight and prospective organization.

In August, 1914, M. Cruppi, a former Minister of State, told Mr. Coudert that in the neighborhood of Belfort there were about eighty homeless children, driven before the first great wind of the war, the battle of Metz; separated from their mothers (their fathers and big brothers were fighting) they had wandered, with other refugees, down below the area of battle and were huddled homeless and almost starving in and near the distracted town of Belfort.

Mr. Coudert immediately asked his friends in Paris to collect funds, and started with M. Cruppi for Belfort. There they found not eighty but two hundred and five children, shelterless, hungry, some of them half imbecile from shock, and all physically disordered.

To leave any of these wretched waifs behind, when Belfort itself might fall at any moment, was out of the question, and M. Cruppi and Mr. Coudert crowded them all into the military cars allotted by the Government and took them to Paris. Some money had been raised. Mr. Coudert cabled to friends in America, Mrs. Bliss (wife of the First Secretary of the American Embassy) and Mrs. Cooper Hewett contributed generously, Valentine Thompson gave her help and advice for a time, and Madame Pietre, wife of the sous-préfet of Yvetot, installed the children in an old seminary near her home and gave them her personal attention. Later, one hundred were returned to their parents and the rest placed in a beautiful château surrounded by a park.

Every day of those first terrible weeks of the war proved that more and more children must be cared for by those whom fortune had so far spared. It was then that Mr. Jaccaci renounced all private work and interests, and that Mrs. Hill, Mrs. Shaw and the Comtesse de Viel Castel volunteered. The organization was formed and christened, Mrs. Bliss provided Relief Dépôts in Paris, and Mr. Coudert returned to New York for a brief visit in search of funds.

During the bombardment of the Belgian and French towns these children came into Paris on every train. They were tagged like post-office packages, and it was as well they were, not only because some were too little to know or to pronounce their names correctly, but even the older ones were often too dazed to give a coherent account of themselves; although the more robust quickly recovered. The first thing to do with this human flotsam was to wash and disinfect and feed it, clip its hair to the skull, and then, having burned the rags of arrival, dress it in clean substantial clothes. While I was in Paris Mr. Jaccaci and Mrs. Hill were meeting these trains; and, when the smaller children arrived frightened and tearful they took them in their arms and consoled them all the way to the Relief Dépôts. The result was that they needed the same treatment as the children.

It was generally the Curé or the Mayor of the bombarded towns that had rounded up each little parentless army and headed it toward Paris. When the larger children were themselves again they all told the same bitter monotonous stories. Suddenly a rain of shrapnel fell on their village or town. They fled to the cellars, perhaps to the one Cave Voûtée (a stone cellar with vaulted roof) and there herded in indescribable filth, darkness, fear, hunger for weeks and even months at a time. The shelling of a village soon stopped, but in the larger towns, strategic points desired of the enemy, the bombarding would be incessant. Mothers, or older children, would venture out for food, returning perhaps with enough to keep the pale flame of life alive, as often as not falling a huddled mass a few feet from the exit of the cellar. Mothers died of typhoid, pneumonia, in childbirth; others never had reached the cellar with their own children in the panic; one way or another these children arrived in Paris in a state of orphanhood, although later investigations proved them to have been hiding close to their mother (and sometimes father; for all men are not physically fit for war) by the width of a street, in a town where the long roar of guns dulled the senses and the affections, and the constant hail of shrapnel precluded all search for anything but food.

Moreover, many families had fled from villages lying in the path of the advancing hordes to the neighboring towns, and there separated, crowding into the nearest Caves Voûtées. Most of these poor women carried a baby and were distraught with fear besides; the older children must cling to the mother's skirts or become lost in the mêlée.

When one considers that many of these children, in Rheims or Verdun, for instance, were in cellars not for weeks but for months, without seeing the light of day, with their hunger never satisfied, with corpses unburied for days until a momentary lull encouraged the elders to remove the sand bags at the exit and thrust them out, with their refuge rocking constantly and their ear-drums splitting with raucous sounds, where the stenches were enough to poison what red blood they had left and there were no medicines to care for the afflicted little bodies, one pities anew those mentally afflicted people who assert at automatic intervals, "I can't see any difference between the cruelty of the British blockade and the German submarines." The resistant powers of the human body, given the bare chance of remaining alive, are little short of phenomenal. But then, when Nature compounded the human frame it was to fling it into a newborn world far more difficult to survive than even the awful conditions of modern warfare.

Some of these children were wounded before they reached the cellars. In many cases the families remained in their homes until the walls, at first pierced by the shrapnel, began to tumble about their ears. Then they would run to the homes of friends on the other side of the town, staying there until the guns, aided by the air scouts, raked such houses as had escaped the first assault. Often there were no Caves Voûtées in the villages. The mothers cowered with their children under the tottering walls or lay flat on the ground until the German guns turned elsewhere; then they ran for the nearest town. But during these distracted transfers many received wounds whose scars they are likely to carry through life. The most seriously wounded were taken to the military hospitals, where they either died, or, if merely in need of bandages, were quickly turned out to make room for some poilu arriving in the everlasting procession of stretchers.

Sometimes, flat on their stomachs, the more curious and intelligent of the children watched the shells sailing overhead to drop upon some beautiful villa or château and transpose it into a heap of stones. Where there were English or Americans in these bombarded towns, or where the Curés or the Mayors of those invaded had not been shot or imprisoned, the children were sent as quickly as possible to Paris, the mothers, when there were any, only too content to let them go and to remain behind and take their chances with the shells.

One little Belgian named Bonduelle, who, with two brothers, reached Paris in safety, is very graphic: "We are three orphans," he replied in answer to the usual questions. "Our uncle and aunt took the place of our dear parents, so soon taken from us.... It was towards the evening of Wednesday, 6th September, 1914, that I was coming back to my uncle's house from Ypres, when all at once I heard shrieks and yells in the distance. I stopped, for I was like one stunned. On hearing behind me, on the highway, German cavalry, I ran into a house where I spent the night. I could not close my eyes when I thought of the anxiety of my uncle and aunt and of the fate of my two small brothers, Michael and Roger. Early the following day I rushed to our house. Everybody was in the cellar. We shed tears on meeting again. I found two of my cousins wounded by a shell which had exploded outside our door. Soon another shell comes and smashes our house. I was wounded. Dazed with fear, my cousin and myself got out through a window from the cellar, we ran across fields and meadows to another uncle, where the rest of the family followed us soon. We remained there the whole winter, but what a sad winter! We have not taken off our clothes, for at every moment we feared to have to run away again.

"The big guns rumbled very much and the shells whistled over our heads. Every one heard: 'So-and-so is killed' or 'wounded, by a shell.' 'Such-and-such-a-house is ruined by a shell.'

"After having spent more than seven months in incredible fear, my brothers and myself have left the village, at the order of the gendarmes, and the English took us to Hazebrouck, from where we went to Paris."

In some cases the parents, or, as was most generally the case, the mother, after many terrifying experiences in her village, passed and repassed by the Germans, having heard of the relief stations in Paris, sent their children, properly tagged, to be cared for in a place of comparative safety until the end of the war. Young Bruno Van Wonterghem told his experience in characteristically simple words:

"Towards the evening of September 6th, 1914, the Germans arrived at our village with their ammunition. One would have thought the Last Judgment was about to begin. All the inhabitants were hiding in their houses. I was hiding in the attic, but, desirous to see a German, I was looking through a little window in the roof. Nobody in the house dared to go to bed. It was already very late when we heard knocks at the door of our shop. It was some Germans who wanted to buy chocolate. Some paid but the majority did not. They left saying, 'Let us kill the French.' The following morning they marched away toward France. In the evening one heard already the big guns in the distance.

"Turned out of France the Germans came to St. Eloi, where they remained very long. Then they advanced to Ypres. The whole winter I heard the rumbling of the big guns, and the whistling of the shells. I learned also every day of the sad deaths of the victims of that awful war. I was often very frightened and I have been very happy to leave for France with my companions."

While I was in Paris the refugee children, of course, were from the invaded districts of France; the Belgian stream had long since ceased. Already twelve hundred little victims of the first months of the war, both Belgian and French, either had been returned to their mothers or relatives by the Franco-American Committee, or placed for the educational period of their lives in families, convents, or boys' schools. The more recent were still in the various colonies established by Mrs. Hill and the other members of the Committee, where they received instruction until such time as their parents could be found, or some kind people were willing to adopt them.

It was on my first Sunday in Paris that Mr. Jaccaci and Mrs. Hill asked me to drive out with them to Versailles and visit a sanitorium for the children whose primary need was restoration to health. It was on the estate of Madame Philip Berard, who had contributed the building, while the entire funds for its upkeep, including a trained nurse, were provided by Mrs. Bliss.

Versailles was as green and peaceful as if a few miles away the shells were not ripping up a field a shot. After lunch in the famous hotel ordinarily one of the gayest in France at that time of the year, we first visited the rest hospital of Miss Morgan, Miss Marbury and Miss de Wolfe, and then drove out into the country to Madame Berard's historical estate. Here, in the courtyard of a good-sized building, we were greeted by about forty children in pink-and-white gingham aprons, and heads either shaved or finished off with tightly braided pigtails. It seemed to me then that they were all smiling, and--for they had been there some weeks--that most of them looked round and healthy. But I soon found that some were still too languid to play. One lying in a long chair on the terrace at the back of the house and gazing vacantly out at the beautiful woods was tubercular, the victim of months in a damp cellar. Another, although so excessively cheerful that I suspect she was not "all there" was also confined to a long chair, with a hip affection of some sort, but she was much petted, and surrounded by all the little luxuries that the victims of her smile had remembered to send her. One beautiful child had the rickets, and several suffered from intestinal prolapsus and other internal complaints, but were on the road to recovery.

While their Swedish nurse was putting them through their gymnastic exercises I studied their faces. At first my impression was one of prevailing homeliness; scrubbed, flat, peasant faces, for the most part, without the features or the mental apparatus that provides expression. But soon I singled out two or three pretty and engaging children, and rarely one whose face was devoid of character. And they stood well and went through their exercises with precision and vigor.

It was just before we left that my wandering attention was directed toward the scene to which I alluded in my first paragraph. The greater number of the children were shouting at play in a neighboring field. The preternaturally happy invalid was smiling at the lovely woods beyond the terrace, woods where little princes had frolicked, and older princes had wooed and won. Mr. Jaccaci was still petting the beautiful little boy who looked like the bambino on the celebrated fresco of Florence; Mrs. Hill was kissing and hugging several little girls who had clung to her skirts. It was, in spite of its origin, a happy scene.

I had been waiting by the door for these ceremonies of affection to finish, when I happened to glance at the far end of the wide stone terrace. There, by the balustrade, in the shadow of the leafy woods, stood a girl of perhaps eight or ten. Her arms hung at her sides and she was staring straight before her while she cried as I never have seen a child cry; silently, bitterly, with her heavy plain face hardly twisted in its tragic silent woe.

I called Mrs. Hill's attention to her, for I, a stranger, could not intrude upon a grief like that, and the idol of all those children immediately ran over to the desolate figure. She questioned her, she put her arms about her. She might as well have addressed one of the broken stone nymphs in the woods. That young mind, startled from the present, it may be, by witnessing the endearments lavished upon prettier and smaller children, had traveled far. She was in the past, a past that anteceded even that past of death and thundering guns and rocking walls and empty stomachs; a past when the war, of whose like she had never heard, was still in the sleepless brains of the monster criminals of history, when she lived in a home in a quiet village with the fields beyond; where she had a mother, a father, sisters, brothers; where her tears had been over childish disappointments, and her mother had dried them. Small and homely and insignificant she stood there in her tragic detachment the symbol of all the woe of France, and of the depraved brutality of a handful of ambitious men who had broken the heart of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton