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Over There War Scenes on the Western Front   By: (1867-1931)

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War Scenes on the Western Front


I The Zone Of Paris

From the balcony you look down upon massed and variegated tree tops as though you were looking down upon a valley forest from a mountain height. Those trees, whose hidden trunks make alleys and squares, are rooted in the history of France. On the dusty gravel of the promenade which runs between the garden and the street a very young man and a girl, tiny figures, are playing with rackets at one of those second rate ball games beloved by the French petite bourgeoisie. Their jackets and hats are hung on the corner of the fancy wooden case in which an orange tree is planted. They are certainly perspiring in the heavy heat of the early morning. They are also certainly in love. This lively dalliance is the preliminary to a day's desk work. It seems ill chosen, silly, futile. The couple have forgotten, if they ever knew, that they are playing at a terrific and long drawn moment of crisis in a spot sacred to the finest civilisation.

From the balcony you can see, close by, the Louvre, with its sculptures extending from Jean Goujon to Carpeaux; the Church of St. Clotilde, where Cesar Franck for forty years hid his genius away from popularity; the railway station of the Quai d'Orsay, which first proved that a terminus may excite sensations as fine as those excited by a palace or a temple; the dome of the Invalides; the unique facades, equal to any architecture of modern times, to the north of the Place de la Concorde, where the Ministry of Marine has its home. Nobody who knows Paris, and understands what Paris has meant and still means to humanity, can regard the scene without the most exquisite sentiments of humility, affection, and gratitude. It is impossible to look at the plinths, the mouldings, the carving of the Ministry of Marine and not be thrilled by that supreme expression of national art.

And all this escaped! That is the feeling which one has. All this beauty was menaced with disaster at the hands of beings who comprehended it even less than the simple couple playing ball, beings who have scarcely reached the beginnings of comprehension, and who joined a barbaric ingenuousness to a savage cruelty. It was menaced, but it escaped. Perhaps no city was ever in acuter peril; it escaped by a miracle, but it did escape. It escaped because tens of thousands of soldiers in thousands of taxi cabs advanced more rapidly than any soldiers could be expected to advance. "The population of Paris has revolted and is hurrying to ask mercy from us!" thought the reconnoitring simpletons in Taubes, when they noted beneath them the incredible processions of taxi cabs going north. But what they saw was the Sixth Army, whose movement changed the campaign, and perhaps the whole course of history.

"A great misfortune has overtaken us," said a German officer the next day. It was true. Greater than he suspected.

The horror of what might have happened, the splendour of what did happen, mingle in the awed mind as you look over the city from the balcony. The city escaped. And the event seems vaster and more sublime than the mind can bear.

The streets of Paris have now a perpetual aspect of Sunday morning; only the sound of church bells is lacking. A few of the taxi cabs have come back; but all the auto buses without exception are away behind the front. So that the traffic is forced underground, where the railways are manned by women. A horse bus, dug up out of the past, jogs along the most famous boulevard in the world like a country diligence, with a fat, laughing peasant woman clinging to its back step and collecting fare moneys into the immense pocket of her black apron. Many of the most expensive and unnecessary shops are shut; the others wait with strange meekness for custom. But the provision shops and all the sturdy cheap shops of the poor go on naturally, without any self consciousness, just as usual. The pavements show chiefly soldiers in a wild, new variety of uniforms, from pale blue to black, imitated and adapted from all sources, and especially from England and widows and orphans... Continue reading book >>

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