Prologue

We sit in calm, airy, silent rooms opening upon sunlit and embowered lawns, not a sound except of summer and of husbandry disturbs the peace; but seven million men . . . are in ceaseless battle from the Alps to the Ocean.

WINSTON CHURCHILL

The first blow fell on Paris at 7:18 a.m. on March 21, 1918, interrupting the calm of a spring morning.

As its concussion echoed over the roofs, residents came to their front doors and stared at the sky. Was it another accident, like that of the previous January, when an ammunition dump in Courneuve blew up, shattering windows across the city?

People living close to the Canal Saint-Martin knew better. A crater had appeared in the wide stone towpath where horses usually dragged barges into the city. They assumed a German bomber had made an audacious solo raid, the pilot fleeing to the safety of his army’s trenches that zigzagged across France from Belgium to the Swiss border.

Everywhere, Paris displayed dispiriting evidence of its vulnerability to aerial attack. Paper tape crisscrossed shop windows, and the lower portions of most monuments were heaped with sandbags. More bags blocked the doors of such great churches as Notre Dame de Paris. Wooden braces protected priceless stained glass.

Hoping to lure bombers away from the city, the army was constructing a fake Paris in the sleepy satellite town of Maisons-Laffitte, where a stretch of the Seine resembled the river as it ran through the capital. It included plywood replicas of the Arc de Triomphe and the Opéra, false train tracks, and facsimiles of such industrial suburbs as Saint-Denis and Aubervilliers. Ingenious lighting and translucent paint created the effect of light shining through the dirty glass of factory roofs.

The second blast, coming only fifteen minutes after the first, dispelled the theory of a high-flying bomber. When a third shell landed fifteen minutes after that, panic gripped Paris. Could a German fifth column be responsible? The labyrinth of underground stone quarries that honeycombed the hills of Montparnasse on the southern edge of the city offered plenty of hiding places. Maybe spies had set up a clandestine battery. This theory didn’t survive the first examination of shrapnel fragments. The shells that materialized from a clear sky each fifteen minutes didn’t come from either bombs or aircraft but from a cannon. Parisians with long memories recalled the siege of 1871 when Prussian artillery pounded portions of the city to rubble. Now, once again, a German gun of frightening power was zeroing in on Paris.

Forty miles northeast, where a bulge in the line of trenches brought the German positions closest to the city, engineers had been busy for weeks on the slopes of Mont de Joie, near the village of Crépy. Under cover of the forest, they constructed a railway spur line and a deep concrete emplacement—a nest for the greatest internal engine ever devised by man.

The barrel of the Paris-Geschütz, the Paris Gun, was as tall as a ten-story building. Each explosive charge was ten feet long. With the railway truck on which it stood, the gun weighed four hundred tons. Eighty men were needed to man it—sailors, not artillerymen, since long-barrel precision gunnery was the jealously guarded province of the Kriegsmarine. Each shot expended the power of nine million horses in a gush of orange smoke and flame. The 228-pound projectile left the barrel at a mile a second. Within a minute and a half, it had climbed twenty-four miles, to the edge of space. Three minutes after firing, the shell plunged into a street, a theater, a school, or a church.

The gun wasn’t hard to find. Once the French realized that its shells fell along a single line, pinpointing its location became a matter of simple ballistics. What followed was a game of hide-and-seek, the French bombing and shelling the area around Crépy, the Germans laboriously shifting the gun to new emplacements and moving other units into the area to confuse aerial spotting.

French government propagandists encouraged magazines and newspapers to convey an image of a tranquil Paris going about its business; illustrations showed groups of women working on embroidery by a window and concierges chatting on the sidewalk while children played nearby. André Lefèvre, an engineer in the city government, pointed out that “serious results from long-range guns were unlikely, as they were worn out after 80 or 100 shots.” In fact, the barrels of this weapon were sent back to the Krupp factory after only sixty-five firings.

The Paris Gun—range: 40 miles

Though it inflicted only modest damage, the Paris-Geschütz taught Paris it was not exempt from war. Penance for this sin of omission was due, and soon paid. Seventy-one people died after a direct hit on the Bolivar métro station. On March 29, 1918—Good Friday—a shell plunged through the roof of the church of Saint-Gervais, in the very heart of the Marais, one of the city’s oldest districts. It killed eighty-eight people and injured seventy-eight—the worst civilian casualties of the war. Next day, all Paris churches closed. Forced underground, the pious worshipped like early Christians, in cellars and catacombs. On Sundays in May and early June children in white veils and suits filed into basements, including that of the Bon Marché department store, to receive their First Communion.

The French 75—range: six miles

Before the Germans retired the weapon, it had fired 367 shells, killing 256 people and wounding 620—by trench standards a small loss, but of far greater damage psychologically. Parisians had believed intelligence, wit, and style could protect them from the worst effects of the war. Now they saw that these had the evanescence of a soap bubble. The grace of the belle époque had ended. The madness of les années folles was about to begin.

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