France Rebounds 1918

When, like an autumn wind, these whispers of peace began to move across Europe in early October, they stirred, at first, more scepticism than hope. There had, after all, been so many false dawns during the four dark years that had passed. General Debeney, commander of the First French Army now fighting in the St Quentin sector, told an American visitor that his own poilus were even getting exasperated by the rumours, as they had already geared themselves mentally for a campaign that would last through the winter. ‘It was important that their hopes should not be raised . . . only to be dashed by a rejection of offers unacceptable to the Allies.’

More difficult to gauge was the mood of the French nation at large, which was part actor and part bystander in the conflict. What was undeniable was that France had suffered far more than any other of the major Allied combatants. Ever since 1914, ten of her northern départements, areas covering about twenty-five thousand square miles, had been occupied and largely devastated by the enemy. More than a tenth of her soil, including some of her finest orchards, vineyards and arable land, had been torn up by the rake of war. Some four hundred thousand houses had been levelled to the ground. Hundreds of her factories were either out of commission or, even worse, working for the invader, including key industries like textiles, sugar and metallurgy, to say nothing of the coalmines and heavy plants of Longwy and Briey.

Two preoccupations dominated everyday civilian life: fighting cold and fighting hunger. All forms of fuel were both rationed and scarce. The frantic hunt for coal was graphically summed up by a top Paris jeweller who displayed a lump of it in his shop window in place of his usual array of diamonds and emeralds. By now, the liberation of the mines at Lens, which used to produce three million tons a year, had raised hopes that the flooded and dynamited galleries might yield up at least a few thousand tons of the precious stuff. But no Parisian doubted that, if the war were to drag on until 1919, it would be another winter of shivering in one’s apartment, with the family overcoats on, and huddled into one room for most of the time. In that glacial setting social life tended to freeze over. An invitation to dinner (a rarity in itself) was no more welcome than an invitation just to sit by a fire.

The food problem was not, in practice, so severe – though acute and distressing enough for a people with such veneration for their stomachs. The vast lush countryside of France which stretched south of Paris, untroubled by the war, down to the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans, knew few serious privations. Even in the cities, the perpetual queueing for everything that was unrationed was a commoner hardship than outright privation. Serious shortages did, of course, occur. Le saucisson, so beloved of the Parisians, had been in such short supply that the sausage dealers of the capital had been closed three days a week throughout that summer, and prospects did not look much brighter when they had met to review the situation on 5 October. This fifth autumn of the war had also brought a dearth of potatoes. Yet, as regards bread, the main complaint in Paris concerned quality rather than availability – ‘In one quarter of the city dark brown; in another heavy and golden like Indian corn; in another white as bread ever was.’ The prospects for drink supplies were even more: 1918 had seen an excellent vintage of wine, while beer was now declared to be better and more abundant than for some time past.

Restaurants flourished. This was partly because they ignored the food regulations and partly because, since they provided warmth and light as well as a meal, it often worked out cheaper to eat in them, despite the stiff prices, than at home. France strove to remain true to its gastronomic heritage. The Food Commissioner, Emile Borel, insisted that all French restaurants should provide both à la carte and table d’hôte menus, and warned proprietors to treat both classes of customer equally well. The autumn had also seen the opening of a chain of municipal restaurants where the working man could buy himself a square meal for only 1 franc 65 centimes (little more than one English shilling). Nobody, in short, was starving, and money could buy any delicacy.

More important for the nation’s morale was the feeling that, with the great Allied summer advance from the Marne, the German grip around the throttle of Paris had been shaken off for good, however long it might still take to free Picardy and Flanders. The best token of this easement was the liberation of Crépy, just south of Laon, during the September fighting. There, on a railway siding, had crouched those huge 210 mm German guns, each a hundred feet in length and weighing over three hundred tons, which, at 7.16 a.m. on the morning of 23 March, had hurled the first of their shells into the northwestern suburbs of Paris, a staggering distance of seventy-four miles away. These monsters, now driven from their lair, could, surely, never return.

With their menace removed (and that of the Zeppelin and Gotha bombing raids as well as the proximity of the German army itself) many of the half-million Parisians who had left the capital in the spring were filtering back. ‘Stations which a little while since were busy with departures are almost as busy with arrivals,’ one observer noted. Moreover, shops and theatres were re-opening and the famous fashion houses were stirring into life again. The 1918 autumn models still reflected the shadows of war. Black, the colour of mourning, was prominent in the collections. An abundance of very long gowns and furs took note of the fuel shortage. The hats even included ‘a helmet-shaped erection made of a metallic cloth with little plumes sticking out of it’. But though the associations may still have been military, the revival of the luxury trade itself pointed hopefully towards peace.

Above all, the French had now regained confidence in their own leaders. There had been a thorough, if belated purge of the defeatists in their ranks in 1917, the year when France, wracked by political scandals and mutinies in the army, had stood within a few tottering paces of collapse. In the spring and summer of 1918, most of the principal culprits were brought to justice after public trial. Louis Malvy, the former Minister of Interior, had been sentenced to five years’ banishment, having only just escaped a heavier penalty on charges of incitement to mutiny. Some of his principal henchmen in the same game (financed by German money) of spreading subversive pacifist propaganda were less fortunate, and had ended up before the firing squad. The most illustrious defeatist of them all, the former Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux, was still in jail awaiting trial – which was not to come until February 1920 – for ‘plotting against the security of the state abroad’. He was the black conscience of wartime France. But Georges Clemenceau, the seventy-six-year-old radical Republican who had stepped into that disgraced office on 17 November 1917, had soon become her talisman of hope. Nothing conveyed the transformation better than the phrase now often heard in Paris: ‘If Clemenceau says that victory is in sight, then it must be.’ In short, by the autumn of 1918 France, though more exhausted and bled whiter than ever, was no longer prostrate.

1918       November 11      The Supreme Allied Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, dictates the terms of an armistice to German plenipotentiaries at Rethondes in the Forest of Compèigne. The Germans sign the Armistice at 5:10 a.m.

               A cease-fire ending the First World War takes effect at 11 a.m.

                November 18      French troops led by General Petain enter Metz, Lorraine.

                November 23      The last German troops are withdrawn from Alsace and Lorraine.

                December 8         President Poincaré, Premier Clemenceau, Marshal Joffre and Generals Petain, Haig and Pershing visit Metz to mark the return of Lorraine to France.

                President Poincaré hands General Petain the baton marking his elevation to Marshal of France.

                December 9         President Poincaré, Premier Clemenceau and the military chiefs visit Strasbourg to mark the return of Alsace to France.

                December 14       President Wilson arrives in Paris to attend the Peace Conference.

1919       January 9              The Seine rises nearly 6 meters over flood stage at Paris. Residents of the Rue LeBlanc are evacuated. The bears in the Jardins des Plantes are released from their cages.

                January 10            The Seine rises 6 meters in 3 hours at Paris. A transmission line from the Issy electric generating station breaks leaving entire Left Bank without service.

                January 14            All prisoners of war held by the Allies are released.