But We Think You Ought to Go

We’ve watched you playing cricket and every kind of game,

At football, golf and polo you men have made your name.

But now your country calls you to play your part in war.

And no matter what befalls you

We shall love you all the more.

So come and join the forces

As your fathers did before.

PAUL RUBENS, lyrics to “Your King and Country Want You,” 1914

The Paris métro line 4, Porte de Clignancourt–Porte d’Orléans, runs right by the foot of our street, rue de l’Odéon. A few days after meeting Peter at Brancion, I took it northbound. At the Château d’Eau stop, I surfaced onto boulevard de Strasbourg, into a cluster of grinning young Africans offering suspect mobile phone cards.

A few blocks away, the façade of the Gare de l’Est, the eastern station, marked the end of the boulevard. It hadn’t changed much since 1914. Back then, even the phone card vendors would have had their contemporary equivalents—voyous selling tip sheets with guaranteed winners at Chantilly and Longchamp, or copies of the sports papers that handicapped the bike races at the Vél d’Hiv.

From the moment of mobilization, attention in France shifted to the railways. With little public road transport and almost no private cars, they were the commonest form of travel. On that Sunday in August 1914, the morning of mobilization, passengers on expresses heading into Paris found their carriages invaded. “We were besieged by crowds of reservists,” an American wrote, “until there was no more room and the engine could draw no more extra carriages. Then we crept slowly toward Paris, bearing our offering of human lives. One could feel, mingled with the effervescence, the excitement, the joy of approaching conflict, an undertone of anguish and sorrow.”

A French journalist felt differently.

At every station, reservists got on. Workers and peasants mostly, with their poor baggage. They clogged the corridors, because there were already fifteen people in every compartment meant for ten. As more boarded at Maintenon, Chartres and Nogent, they moved into the first class; these brave men among officers; respectful, disciplined, confident. They spoke among themselves and very intelligently with us about the different phases of the crisis. All of them read the papers regularly. They understood perfectly the true character of the crisis. One said, “It had to happen. We’ve been insulted for forty-four years.” Another said, “We aren’t sad. We’re serious.” It was true. They didn’t sing. They didn’t demonstrate. They embodied, these humble men, the firm dignity of the nation.

Arriving in Paris at one of the grandes gares, the great railway stations, conscripts had to make their way to the designated rallying point for their unit, usually a large café. From there, they were sent to an embarkation point. For most, that was the Gare de l’Est. Many found it easier to walk. From a restaurant in the rue Royale, Edith Wharton watched them pass.

The street was flooded by the torrent of people. All were on foot, and carrying their luggage; for since dawn every cab and taxi and motor-omnibus had disappeared. The crowd that passed our window was chiefly composed of conscripts who were on the way to the station. Wives and families trudged beside them, carrying all kinds of odd improvised bags and bundles. The faces ceaselessly streaming by were serious but not sad; nor was there any air of bewilderment—the stare of driven cattle. All these lads and young men seemed to know what they were about and why they were about it. The youngest of them looked suddenly grown up and responsible; they understood their stake in the job, and accepted it.

Contingents from other nations marched with them. They carried hastily prepared banners assuring their support.

Rumania Rallies to the Mother of the Latin Races

Italy, Whose Freedom Was Purchased with French Blood

Spain, the Loving Sister of France

Greeks Who Love France

Scandinavians of Paris

South American Lives for the Mother of South American Culture

Loud cheers greeted BELGIUM LOOKS TO FRANCE and LUXEMBOURG WILL NEVER BE GERMAN, but the crowd really went wild as a group passed under the banner ALSATIANS GOING HOME.

Summer holidays in France always begin on August 1. It’s an immovable feast, as cut in stone as Christmas Day or France’s national day, July 14. In any other August, Parisians would have been streaming out of the city, heading for that almost mystical reunion with the region of their birth that is central to the French vacances.

Their numbers would have been swelled by foreign tourists, many headed for the Gare de l’Est to board the Orient Express, traveling via Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, and Bucharest to Istanbul. Normally these well-heeled travelers crowded the departure hall, exchanging kisses and going-away gifts as porters hustled brass-bound trunks into the luggage vans.

Gare de l’Est, August 1914

Instead, this August, to their astonishment, most were sent home. Only military trains were running. A cartoon showed a man telling a railway man, “I’m in a hurry. I’ve got to be somewhere in two hours,” and the official replying, “Alsace has been waiting for 44 years. You’re not saying your impatience compares with hers?” Edith Wharton, who had no travel plans, took perverse satisfaction in the tourists’ comeuppance. “The civilians who had not bribed and jammed their way into a cranny of the thronged carriages leaving the first night could only creep back through the hot streets to their hotel and wait. Back they went, to the resounding emptiness of porterless halls, waiterless restaurants, motionless lifts: to the queer disjointed life of fashionable hotels suddenly reduced to the intimacies and makeshift of a Latin Quarter pension.”

For the young reservists, being in Paris on their way to war was better than a holiday. Tanned farm boys, seeing a city for the first time, gaped at the cars, the crowds, the vaulted ceiling of the Gare de l’Est. In the patois of Brittany and Normandy, they drawled their astonishment to uncomprehending street kids, pale and rat-thin, freshly rousted by the police from the lanes of Montmartre. Over the next few years, deaths at the front would confer on this terminus a sinister, even menacing, character. When someone asked after an absent son, father, or husband, women would say somberly, “He was eaten by the East.”

Today, I had no trouble crossing the wide courtyard in front of the station, but in August 1914 it would have been a struggle. Conscripts and their families blocked the area solid, joined by the curious and the frustrated private passengers. Residents around the square looked down on an ocean of straw hats, the traditional summer headgear of the average Parisian, either the stiff canotiers the British called “boaters,” or soft Panamas, so popular that the slang term for Paris’s working-class suburbs was “Panama,” shortened to “Panam.”

Le Départ des Poilus, Août 1914 by Albert Herter

Many in the crowd that day were drunk, either from elation or despair. When a café opposite the station tried to exploit this by raising prices, customers rampaged through its three floors, smashing every piece of glass. English and American journalists who came to investigate were boosted onto tabletops and ordered, in celebration of the Triple Alliance, to sing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and “God Save the Queen.”

Fortunately, the architects who renovated the Gare de l’Est in 1931 preserved its windowed stone halls. Hanging overhead in one of them was the painting I’d come to see. Le Départ des Poilus, Août 1914 is eighty meters square—almost as wide and tall as the railway carriage it depicts. The American artist Albert Herter painted it in 1926 and presented it to the nation. Since then, it’s been on display here, first along the wall of the departure hall, then higher up, where one can admire the composition, even if the details aren’t so clear.

It shows a typical scene of August 1914. Fathers in uniform say good-bye to their families. Husbands hug wives. One man, apparently in despair, sits with his head in his hands. Young men crowd the carriage windows, most in shirtsleeves because of the heat. A few look excited. Others are indifferent. At the center of the composition, one boy stands in a doorway, kepi in one hand, carbine in the other, arms flung out in a gesture that could represent either ecstasy or protest. The lily jutting from the barrel of his rifle is ambiguous; is it there as the symbol of Bourbon France or as the traditional Anglo-Saxon flower of funerals? No less enigmatic are the figures of a gray-bearded man on the far right and a woman with clasped hands on the left. Neither looks at the soldiers. The man carries a bunch of flowers and has laid his hand on his heart. The woman looks pensively into the middle distance, her mind elsewhere.

The canvas trades in that sense of time lost and regained that preoccupied Proust and Cocteau. For Herter, as for many writers and artists who found their material in the war, mixing the present and the past became a form of denial, a refusal to accept the waste and anarchy.

The older couple are Herter and his wife. The exultant boy is Everit, their son, who would die in the war. Herter shows himself and his wife as they appeared in 1926, when he painted the picture, but Everit is as they last saw him, forever young.

As the Herters mourned their son, the British poet Laurence Binyon stood on Pentire Head in Cornwall, looking toward France. Thoughts of the dead inspired the poem he called “For the Fallen.” It became so treasured that a plaque on the spot celebrates the moment.

In the poem, Binyon suggests that war has made the casualties immortal.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning

We will remember them.

By showing the loss of loved ones in a more optimistic light, “For the Fallen” comforted the bereaved. It became an anthem, and remains one. In Returned Soldiers League clubs across Australia, at 9:00 p.m. every night, the rattle and crash of the poker machines ceases. At the bar, glasses are lowered and hands laid on hearts. As the lights dim, curtains part on a tabernacle in which burns an eternal, albeit electric, flame. A recorded voice recites the verse beginning “They shall grow not old,” at the end of which everyone mumbles “Lest we forget.”

Nobody remembers the poem’s other lines, which propose an even sunnier upside to the war.

Death august and royal

Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.

There is music in the midst of desolation

And a glory that shines upon our tears.

Such sentimentality angered Wilfred Owen, who might have had Binyon in his sights when, in 1917, he evoked a gas attack and its horrible casualties. Remembering the words from the Roman poet Horace chiseled into the wall of the chapel at Sandhurst, the military academy—DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI: it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country—Owen lashed out at those who traded in spurious glory or clung to it for reassurance.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

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