“Is anything about World War I even relevant today?”
I’ve often been asked that question since I began this blog last fall. I’ve asked it myself. Is there anything we can learn from 100-year-old wartime experiences?
After reading “War and Hallucinations,” by Corra Harris, I can now answer with an assured yes. Because Harris, though writing 100 years ago, describes the challenge we still face in coming to terms with war and terror.
Back in 1915, American newspapers continued to publish atrocity stories from Europe. The German army was accused of mass executions, rape, and slaughtering children. Journalists couldn’t confirm or deny the reports coming out of Europe, but that didn’t prevent American newspapers from repeating the stories.
Harris didn’t believe the horror stories. Rather than recount them again, she gave her opinion of where they came from, and why so many people believed them. The war, she wrote, had caused the people of Belgium, France, and England to lose some of their sanity:
From the day I entered the war zone till this one upon which I take my departure from it I have been aware of a certain psychic condition, difficult to describe yet so powerful that no one can escape its influence … as if all thought had lost its shape, and reason was no longer reasonable. As if all men and all women were somnambulists walking in a black dream.
They speak with calmness of things so horrible that one is amazed that they do not shriek and wring their hands. And one is still more amazed at having the power to listen with calmness. We see terrible sights, we hear of them, we think of nothing else, and yet we do not go mad. For where everybody is mad no one is.
The French newspapers had carried the news of thousands being killed at the front, and an unstoppable German army was marching on Paris. Fear overpowered reason. The citizens’ anxieties were fed by the terrifying stories — “hallucinations” Harris called them — from refugees arriving in the cities.
Harris described Lille refugees traveling for days, defenseless and hungry, with artillery fire from both sides exploding around them. They knew the Germans were right behind them, and they weren’t permitted to stop in towns along the way. They might collapse in exhaustion in a ditch for a few hours’ sleep, but they’d awake at a strange sound or a suspicious form in the darkness. And as they resumed their march, they picked up bits of conversation from other refugees to weave them into their own fearful imaginings.
When they finally came upon relief workers, they recounted their journeys with a vividness that reflected their terror more than their reality. “The awful thing about war for the helpless,” she wrote, was that war “is what they fear, intensified by the horrible things they have heard.”
It wasn’t just refugees. Harris remembered soldiers claiming to have seen 10,000 men killed every day in one battle. The rivers near Calais, they said, were clogged with the bodies of dead Germans. Calmer observers coming on the scene after the fighting found nothing to justify these claims. These “hallucinations” were the attempts of Frenchmen, who had led routine, peaceful lives before the war, to describe the spectacular horrors of what they’d seen.
“When 70,000 Indian troops landed at Marseilles it was incredible,” Harris added. “The sight fired the imagination, so we heard that a force of 800,000 Japanese were already on their way to join the Allied Armies. Only 800,000! You get the contagion for using big numbers from reading the papers and from listening to the average man talk. Figures, which in normal times are supposed not to lie, have become the medium of fiction in this war.”
This exaggerated language was another sign of the derangement from war, Harris wrote. “Language is … designed to convey the commonplace meanings of life.” But the Europeans were experiencing such atrocities that their minds were “completely divorced from reality, because reality itself surpasses the power of even imagination to conceive.” And language became “the war currency of a bankrupt nation. It has no value. All the lies that words can frame are floating in this atmosphere. The truth itself is the greatest fabrication of all, because it belies all we have called truth.”
Today, it’s difficult to keep a sense of proportion when we think of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, or the grisly murders of captives in the Middle East. We calmly discuss these events, and even try joking about them, as if to laugh off our worries. But the uncertainty and anxiety remain because the limits of the-worst-that-could-happen have been pushed far back. Faceless enemies and random attacks have eroded our sense of what to expect, or whom to trust. When reason can’t make sense of our world, dread and fear can take over.
As Harris noted in 1915, “Every ideal by which men aspired and lived is changed. Nothing is familiar and no man is sane — because imagination rules.”
Step into 1915 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post February 13, 1915 issue.
London and Paris seemed like separate worlds to Post reporter Corra Harris in early 1915. The French capitol was a somber city of limping soldiers, military funerals, and shop window displays where haute couture had been replaced by mourning suits. Across the English Channel, London still looked bright and prosperous. Spirits were generally high since highly censored news kept Londoners from knowing much about the reality of the war.
Both Allied capitols had one feature in common, according to Harris. Each was neglecting their soldiers’ families.
When war began, the French and British had rallied to provide food, clothing, and medical supplies for their soldiers. But little help was available for French soldiers’ wives and children. In France, many soldiers’ families were left behind on farms that could no longer be worked. Their fields were now taken up with trenches, shell holes, and “graves so shallow that to dig at all is to uncover the dead,” Harris wrote in “A Communiqué from the Allies of the Allied Armies” (The Saturday Evening Post, January 23, 1915).
Of France’s rural communities Harris wrote:
There is no money, scarcely any stock with which to cultivate the remainder. All the horses fit for work have been taken by the French or stolen by the Germans. And many of the peasants in Northern France are in danger of freezing to death, even if they have food, for every blanket, quilt, sheet and mattress has been taken from them, even the straw from which they might make beds. …
War is not the worst thing these people face. Pestilence, that poisoned breath of death, is far more terrible. Lille is closed now like a tomb filled with corruption. No one may enter it, and those who remain there cannot escape. Every hospital and every house is overflowing with victims of the fever scourge.
It is impossible to exaggerate the ravages of disease in many of these towns bombarded by the Germans. There were 1,300 cases of typhoid fever in Senlis and the neighboring villages during the month of October. The germs of every disorder fill the air. … They poison all the milk. To touch one’s lips with bread in these places is to invite death.
The women consider themselves fortunate to escape these horrors by coming to Paris. For Paris is still clean. The water is pure. The great Rothschild depots supply milk which is not tainted. There is still bread enough. …
The war orphans suffered the worst, Harris wrote. War might turn men into “cannon fodder, but it changed children into “gutter straw.”
One of the last things I saw in France was a dozen Red Cross orderlies and nurses having their breakfast in a comfortable hotel. Just inside the door of this room three children stood regarding them with hungry eyes. They were in rags. Their faces were emaciated and they were trembling with cold. They were orphans. Their father had been killed in Alsace-Lorraine. They were not begging; they had not learned how yet. They were just learning how to be hungry, and patient.
In London, Harris found members of the British ruling class still preoccupied with class privileges and dress codes. Members of Parliament were debating whether to deprive the poor children in workhouses of their Christmas morning egg to teach them a lesson about the hardships of war. And they discussed what pensions they should give to soldiers’ widows. One member declared that the officers’ widows should receive enough of a pension that they wouldn’t have to enter the work force. In Harris’ account, Prime Minister Asquith seemed to agree:
He was willing that the officers’ widows should be kept out of the labor market, but he thought there were objections to making a common soldier’s widow independent.
What he meant was that all the working classes ought to work for their living. Still, if anyone has earned the right of choice in her mode of living as is conferred by a pension that will maintain her, it is surely the woman who has made the greatest sacrifice that the state can ask, whether she is the widow of an officer or of a private!
Many women in British society were signing up to nurse wounded soldiers. But what these soldiers really needed were doctors and trained nurses, Harris wrote.
“[The aristocratic lady] would serve better if she spent herself and her money caring for the poor women and children in England who are more and more neglected as the war goes on. … For every wounded soldier there are perhaps 50 women and children suffering for the necessities of life. The war office does not protect them. There is no commissary department to provide them with food or clothes, no surgeons or doctors or nurses to attend them in sickness.
Meanwhile, members of the ruling class were complaining that social standards were slipping in wartime.
It seems that the men are not so particular about putting on their evening clothes when they dine. Lady Somebody has entered a solemn protest in [The London Times] calling attention to this. She adds, referring to a certain fashionable café, that it “looks like an American restaurant at the dinner hour because the men are so awfully dressed!”
The subject of dress codes launched Ms. Harris into a rather heated rant about women’s fashions and effeminate men.
It does give one a start to see at the next table an officer of a Highland regiment, clad in a khaki coat and terrifyingly short kilts, with his legs bare very far up and very far down. But, when you put your whole reasonable mind upon it, why should not a man show his mighty legs in a room filled with women who are exposing their shoulders behind down nearly to the waistline?
Besides, that Highlander looks more the part of what a man should be here now than the perfumed English Lord Dandy at the next table, with his receding chin, his womanish hands, and his pink face that has never been exposed to the disgusting grime of powder smoke.
A woman must hate war; but my idea is that if a nation makes up its mind to fight it should have conscription for the gentlemen dandies, and it should hold in reserve these better, bare-legged, long-chinned men for the sake of preserving the breed in the next generation.
Step into 1915 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post January 23, 1915 issue.
Once again journalist Corra Harris slipped past military checkpoints to report on conditions in the French countryside.
In “The Bravest of the Brave” (The Saturday Evening Post, January 16, 1915), Harris was particularly interested in sharing how the women of Europe were enduring the war. She pitied the Belgian women whose homes and families were torn apart by the German invasion. And she was deeply impressed by the women of France, who refused to be cowed by the Germans.
Many of these women chose not to flee when the German army entered their towns. They stayed in their homes, where every day was a struggle to protect and feed their children. Overall, Harris wrote, they showed a tough, resourceful spirit. They could endure much that the Germans inflicted on their property, but they were particularly angered by the German soldiers’ theft of their preserves.
Harris asked a French housewife about having to share a house with German soldiers (before they were driven back by French troops):
“Of course, they drank all the wine, and they ruined the piano; they played it all night — all night! Such awful thunder they make on the poor thing that now it gives out only a bombardment of noise.”
“The Germans are fond of music?” I suggest.
“Yes; but awful! I do not call it music. I am in the cellar, I put my fingers over my ears, I cannot endure it. And the poor piano, it cannot, either. Its feet” — pedals — “are dead. All that, I can bear; since they did not kill us or burn the house; but why have they stolen my jam — my little, little pots of jam! It is wicked. They did so.” She cupped her fingers and pretended to empty something into her mouth. “One after another, that German he licked out my little pots of jam.”
The story is the same everywhere. They break into the stores and eat all the candy and every sweet cake, even when they do no other damage. … It may be that when men revert to savages they get an abnormal appetite for sugar!
Despite their hardships, the French women devoted themselves to caring for the wounded, both Allies and non-Allies alike. One anecdote Harris gathered from a nurse in Paris shows that as much as the French despised the Germans, they could still admire individual courage:
There is a certain hospital near Paris where every bed in the big ward has a locker in which the patient may keep his few possessions; along with the bullet or fragment of shell that has been taken from his wound. And it is the fancy of these men to stick the flag of the nation to which they belong above their lockers; so that ward is very gay with French and British colors.
Recently a desperately wounded German soldier, in this hospital, lay in the corner bed at the end of a long row. Naturally he had no flag above his locker — not until the pain left him and he was able to perceive his inglorious condition.
One day, when the nurse came to take his temperature, she was amazed to see an English flag sticking out of his locker. She was scandalized.
“Where did you get it?” she cried, snatching the sacred emblem.
The German only grinned up at her, wan and invincible. He had stolen it sometime during the night from the sleeping Englishman lying next to him.
The following morning he had it again.
Laughing, Mademoiselle explained, “It is very good for him — stealing that flag. We thought he would surely die, so dreadfully wounded was he; but he has kept himself alive just to do that.” There was no spite against this fallen foe; only a whimsical French sense of humor at the situation, a woman’s kindness, so delicate and so intelligent.
Harris slipped past the military checkpoints to interview an exceptional woman — Jeanne Macherez. When the Germans swept through the French town of Soisson, this 61-year-old women saved the town’s food supply by stepping in and assuming the role of mayor. When Harris asked how she had accomplished this, Macherez told her—
Everybody was gone from the town. I was alone, very busy in my house. The door is open. The Germans see it and they come — officers in a big car, with the streets full of their soldiers. They ask for the mayor … I am not willing to tell them that the mayor is absent. So I make some excuse. Then they say they must see a representative of the mayor. If there is no government they will go and break open the shops and take all. They must have food, everything, at once.
“I thought of what would happen if no one went with them to save a little perhaps for the women and children, hiding in their cellars. So I said: “I am the Mayor of Soissons. I will go with you.”
“Were you frightened?” I asked.
“But no, not for myself — for the people who might starve. The bridges had been destroyed — no trains; no more supplies.
“We could not live if they took all we had. So I got into the car with those Germans. We went to every shop. They wanted all of this and all of that; but I said: ‘No—you can’t have all the flour in this shop.’ I laid my hands on the sugar; I held back all I could. And the lard … they want all of that. I could save only a little.
“The next day,” she went on, “they came again. They demanded to know why I had not delivered the stores — 50,000 cigars; 50,000 pounds of flour; 500 pounds of sugar — all the lard. But they were absurd. I told them so. ‘How can I, messieurs? You have killed all the horses which you have not taken. Shall I send the women and children to your trenches with these things? But no; it is too much for them. Besides, they shall not go!’
“They were very angry. They made a great fuss. I was frightened then; but I stood before them. Let them kill me too! At last they agreed that we should place all the stores in the railroad station. We did that.”
She began to smile. It was like sunlight on an old gray wall — that smile.
“The next day they were all gone; the French came and drove them out. Then we went and carried all the stores back to the shops.”
This, however, was only the beginning of her gallant defense of Soissons against the ravages of the war. So far as the food supply was concerned, it was nearly as bad to have the French troops quartered there. …
[Since then] she has somehow managed to secure food and clothes for the people for three months. It is not an easy task, with no railroads, and almost no horses to bring in the provisions for them.
Step into 1915 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post January 16, 1915 issue.
In the December 19, 1914, issue: French refugees return to their village and learn what happened to their homes during the German occupation.
When the Germans Came
By Corra Harris
Journalists in France begged, bargained, and demanded permission to travel toward the war. Some even obtained passes from high-ranking military officers in Paris. But they could travel only a few miles toward the fighting before they were detained at a military checkpoint.
But Post correspondent Corra Harris found a way to bypass the roadblocks. She had heard trains were leaving Paris every day, carrying villagers back to their homes. Early one morning, before sunrise, she joined a large crowd of women at the Gare du Nord train station and climbed aboard a local train for the town of Senlis. No one stopped her, or even asked to see her papers.
The train moved slowly out of the city and ambled across the countryside, never reaching a speed faster than a trotting horse. After two and a half hours it had traveled only 30 miles. But it reached its destination, at last.
“I should not have known that we were in Senlis if I had not heard the name called, and had not seen women coming down out of the coaches and looking about them with tears streaming down their faces. These were some of the refugees of Senlis who had fled when the Germans came. They were just returning home. They all wore black clothes, and many of them carried homely little things in their hands, which they had snatched at the last moment two months ago. One old woman had a pot with a lily growing in it. Another had a basket with a set of yellow cracked china cups and saucers rattling as she walked.
“That silent crowd of 50 women filed through the ruins of the railway station. The walls of it alone remained. The roof and all the partitions lay a mass of molten metal, stones, and powdered mortar within. On the other side of the station, there were three cabs waiting, but these people were too poor to ride. The cabs went away empty, drawn by horses that looked as if they were merely some of the bones of the general desolation.
“The principal street of the town … was a street no longer, only a long, narrow pile of ruins between the fallen walls of houses as far as sight could reach. The women looked about them. They were confused. They did not know even where they had lived. You cannot recognize your home by blackened walls in the midst of a hundred other walls like them any more than you can recognize a man by his skeleton.
“As we made our way over the stones and rubbish, a woman near me caught sight of a torn lace curtain flapping in and out of a window socket in one of the walls still standing. She gave a cry. She had recognized her home by that scorched rag of tattered lace. Nothing else remained of it now but that and the dead vine still clinging to the casement. The roof was gone, all the inner partitions, all the dear things she had cherished. I left her staring at the ghastly curtain as if she had seen a ghost.”
Not all the villagers had left Senlis. One woman who had remained behind told Harris of how she and her family miraculously escaped being burned to death.
“In the café where I had lunch the little apple-faced waitress was very communicative: ‘When the Germans came we ran down into the cellar. They soaked the house in oil and then set fire to it. And we were in the cellar.’
“‘How many of you?’ I asked.
“‘So many,’ she exclaimed, counting on her fingers. ‘Twenty-eight of them children. We were very still. We could not get out. Suddenly we saw a Prussian’s head thrust through the airhole. He was listening, but we made not a sound. No, the children did not cry. They were so frightened that they went to sleep.’
“‘With the house burning over your heads?’ I exclaimed.
“‘But no; the Blessed Virgin would not let it burn. That oil, it was changed to water.’
“‘How long did you stay there?’
“‘From 2 o’clock in the afternoon until 5 the next morning. It was very hot, and we had no water, no food, but the children did not cry. The next day the Germans came back and set fire to the house again; but we had escaped, so it burned,’ she added simply.
“This girl’s father was a farmer. They lost everything they had. Yet she was not sad. She was sustained by a miracle. The Blessed Virgin had remembered them, the least of these, in the terrible conflagration. So they were safe. No evil could befall them.”
Step into 1914 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post December 19, 1914 issue.