CHARLES E. RYAN
With an Ambulance during the Franco-German War

 

CHAPTER XXVIII.

STRASBURG AFTER THE SIEGE.---ALONG THE RHINE.---HOME, AND BACK AGAIN TO VERSAILLES.---CAPTAIN BRACKENBURY.---I LOSE MY PAPERS AND HAVE TO GET FRESH ONES.

AT half-past nine we arrived at Strasburg, and were all billeted together in the most central part of the town, at a grand hotel, where we had the best of living and accommodation. There were about thirty officers quartered there, with whom we messed. I strolled out in the evening through some of the busiest streets. They were brilliantly lighted up; the shops were open, and as much bustle and business seemed to be going on, as if we were in the heart of a peaceable country, and no siege of Strasburg had just taken place.

However, before long I learned that a large section of the inhabitants looked upon the Germans with anything but friendly feelings.

Next morning, 12th January, we went out, six in number, to see the town. We visited the fine old Cathedral, and hung about it for an hour, examining every detail so far as time permitted. One of the chief attractions was its famous clock, which I was quite ready to admire; but the complicated details, and curious performances of this wonderful timepiece are too well known to need description. When Sherwell and I parted from our companions, we went to visit the ruins of the great Library and the Theatre, both of which were burned to the ground during the siege.

Our dinner in the evening was splendidly served, in the French style, and with abundance of wines.

Next morning Sherwell, myself, and two of our old travelling companions chartered a spacious waggonette, in which we set out, determined to see all that we could in and around Strasburg. We first drove through that part of the town which was destroyed by the besiegers,---a dreary but most interesting excursion. So far as I could judge, about one fifth of the suburbs had been ruined. When I say ruined, I don't mean simply made roofless and windowless,---that might have happened in a huge conflagration; but that whole streets were reduced to long heaps of stones, with a few yards' interval between, which marked where the roadway had formerly passed. Nothing could have given a more vivid idea of the effects of a bombardment now-a-days. Even where the demolition was not so complete, and where portions only of the house had been carried away, the sight was appalling. Some of the furniture still remained in its place on the half-shattered floors, being too high to reach easily, or not worth the trouble and danger of removing it.

Here was a second edition of Bazeilles, on a far more extensive scale. I believe one of the best accounts of what took place during the siege is to be read in Auerbach's novel on the subject, called Waldfried.

Having wandered for a couple of hours through the ruins, we drove outside the town. Then we alighted, and one of our party, a captain of artillery who had been through the siege, acted as our guide, and made all the particulars clear to us. Walking along the fortifications, we arrived at the immense breach in the parapet which sealed the fate of Strasburg. It was of great extent, and already hundreds of men were at work repairing it;---but in the interests of Germany, not of France, from whose dominion the city had passed, for who knows how many years? Further on we saw a second breach, not so wide as the other. We now proceeded a considerable distance along the parallels and rifle pits, and visited the captured French lunettes, which seemed to be matters of intense interest to my military friends. A curious fact I learned about this siege was, that of the garrison in the town a comparatively smaller number were killed than of civilians, who met their death in the streets by the bursting of shells. This 1 was told by several who had been present, and who were likely to be well-informed.

When we had explored the various evidences of the mining operations during this memorable blockade, it was almost evening. We returned to our hotel, overcome with admiration at the skill of those who had not only devised, but successfully carried through, these intricate plans for approaching, storming, and capturing a stronghold with such mighty defences. Assuredly, the campaigns of 1870, in the open, and about the historic fortresses of France, afford examples of science, courage, and endurance which it will not be easy to match, and may be impossible to surpass, in the future.

On the 14th, I was up early, went out to make some purchases, came home, packed up, and set off from the station. We crossed the Rhine on the beautiful bridge to Kehl, took our seats in a fresh train, and started northwards. We went by Karlsruhe and Heidelberg, at the latter of which places we halted twenty minutes; and soon after leaving it we found ourselves in a hop-growing district, where there was nothing to be seen but hop-stacks; we passed, also, through extensive vineyards: but, as yet, had only an occasional glimpse of the Rhine in the distance.

During part of our journey, we skirted round steep mountain barriers, which, at times, towered above us with their impenetrable masses of fir trees, at others, being thickly sprinkled with snow and tipped with hoar-frost, shone resplendent in the sunlight, as if silver dust had been shaken all over them, while here and there peeped out the, snow-capped towers of some old castle or baronial hall. I do not pretend that these hills would have looked anything wonderful, had they not been covered with snow, and had not the pellicles of ice, formed on the fir trees by a thick fog the night before, first run into tears, and then been frozen hard, covering the trees with brilliants which sparkled in the sun. These decorations, indeed, gave them an air of fairyland.

On arriving at Darmstadt I took leave of Sherwell and my fellow-travellers, who were going on to Hamburg, and took the train to Mayence. It was very late when I got there, and I stayed the night at the Railway Hotel; for, having a sick officer's pass, I could break my journey where I pleased, which was a great convenience, besides being a cheap mode of travelling. I had practically nothing to pay; my sufficient warrant was the pass, stamped with the royal seal, which I exhibited to inquiring officials.

Mayence is not interesting. I went on next morning as early as I could, had to wait at Coblentz and Bonn to allow some special military trains to pass, and did not get into Cologne till the afternoon. The Rhine scenery, which one gets at times from the train, is very fine; but somehow this was the grand disappointment of my journey. It did not come up to my expectations; and I felt far more delight on viewing the unrivalled beauties of our own Killarney, and of the river Blackwater. But I had not yet gone up the Rhine in a steamboat, which is quite another expedition than the one I was taking just then.

From Cologne, which I explored in a few hours, I travelled by Aix la Chapelle to Liège. At the Hôtel de l'Europe my quarters seemed comfortable; but I had no longer a free billet, and might consider myself to be now in the enemy's country.

It was the 16th, and I went off to call on my friend Vercourt, with whom I spent the forenoon. Then by Ostend, London, and Holyhead, I prosecuted my journey, and arrived in Dublin on the morning of the 19th, and at home at Scarteen on the 22nd.

My furlough was made out for a month: but eight days after my arrival, a telegram came from Dr. Pratt, saying

"I return to-morrow; go to Versailles as soon as possible, find out Ambulance, and join it".

I had no alternative but to pack up and start next day, which I did by the morning train on Jan. 31st. On reaching London, I called at the English Society's rooms in Trafalgar Square, and reported myself to Colonel Lloyd Lindsay. Mr. Pearce, the secretary, made me known to Captain Burgess; and I met there my confrère, Dr. Frank, who greeted me cordially, and sent many affectionate messages to his former colleagues. It will be remembered that Dr. Frank was chief of that section of our Ambulance which had a hospital at Balan and Bazeilles, and which afterwards established itself at Épernay, where it worked for some months before disbanding.

Having got all requisite papers and certificates of identification, I started from London Bridge for Newhaven. As I was taking my ticket I met Captain Brackenbury, who told me that he also was going to Versailles to rejoin the headquarters of the Crown Prince, that he had a private carriage at Dieppe, was going to drive all the way, and would willingly give me a seat. This kind offer I gladly accepted, and was delighted to have so entertaining and accomplished a host on my journey. At Newhaven, as we were crossing by night, we turned at once into our berths, and slept until called by the steward in sight of Dieppe.

Going up on deck I found it was a lovely morning, warm and genial, and very unlike the weather we had been enduring of late. As we approached Dieppe in the morning sun, we could see the glistening bayonets of the ubiquitous Prussian sentries. They were pacing to and fro on the pier, in what appeared to us an aggressive, not to say, menacing fashion. 1 confess the sight startled me : we had the vision of England still in our eyes, and these ambitious warriors seemed too dangerously near. I felt that I should have liked to take them by the collar, and pitch them into the sea. I could not help saying to Capt. Brackenbury that I felt inclined to ask them what they were peering at across the Channel.

But, as he dryly remarked, their answer might be that they were peering at a little island fortress on the high seas :-a mere speck in creation when compared to the great German Empire which had just been proclaimed at Versailles. He was in the right of it; and we had already held conversations on this subject at Orleans, which I should like to set down, were not my space fast running out.

The carriage in which we travelled from Dieppe was a large and comfortable sort of landau, from which we could view the country at our ease.

The weather was now mild and bright, the snow had disappeared, and our journey became a pleasure. But when travelling between Mantes and St. Germain, as I was getting out of the carriage to walk up a steep hill, I had the misfortune to lose out of my overcoat pocket all my passes, letters of identification and the other documents I carried with me. At the gates of the Forest of St. Germain, a Prussian non-commissioned officer stepped out, and demanded our papers. I was minus every document which would have accounted satisfactorily for my being there; and I should certainly have been arrested and sent off to the Commandant of Versailles under an escort, had not Capt. Brackenbury assured the officer on duty that he had seen the papers in question. I had, as it happened, shown them to him that very morning. This satisfied the guard, and I was allowed to pass; but I need hardly say that I was supremely uncomfortable at the case I was in, and thought my journeys along the valley of the Seine were always doomed to misfortune. Last time the Francs-Tireurs had arrested me; now it was the turn of the Prussians.

When we reached St. Germain, we dined, in spite of my lost papers, and visited the Palace and the Bois, from the terrace of which there is such a glorious view, away to Mont Valérien and one or two other of the forts. As we were looking about us, there was quite a stir, bordering on excitement among the soldiers. King William, now the Emperor of Germany, and the Crown Prince, were expected every moment from Versailles, and the road was lined with infantry and cavalry to receive them. But we waited an hour, and his Imperial Majesty did not arrive, so we resumed our journey to Versailles.

There I left Capt. Brackenbury at a private house, where he and Dr. Russell, the Times correspondent, put up; and thanking him for his great kindness I bade him good-bye. This was the last time I saw him. It would be difficult to do justice to the character of this noble soldier; a more generous heart or more gracious disposition, I never had the privilege of knowing. My business now was to search for lodgings, I could no longer requisition one at the Mayor's, since I had lost all my papers. Having secured a niche, I resolved to call at the Hôtel des Réservoirs, where I knew I should find Prince Pless, or some one who would recognise me, and get me these important testimonials. By way of introduction I looked in at the office of the Military Ambulance stores, and inquired whether all those belonging to the Anglo-American Corps had been taken to Orleans or not. This was a happy thought; for they informed me that all the particulars I required would be given by Major de Haveland in the Rue des Réservoirs,---the Maltese knight to whom I have referred as visiting us at Ste. Euverte. This was what I wanted. I called at once on the Major, and he undertook to see the commandant of the place, and explain the whole matter. Thus, thanks to his kind attention, I was given the necessary papers next day, and that evening I chartered a car to Étampes, from which place I could get to Orleans by train.

 

CHAPTER XXIX.

IN ORLEANS ONCE MORE.---PEACE IS SIGNED.---AN EASY TIME.---SENDING AWAY THE CONVALESCENTS.---THE AMBULANCE BROKEN UP.

I HAD to bribe the driver whom I thus engaged with an extra napoleon, so afraid was he that his trap and horse would be seized ; but when I showed him my German papers he knew that he was safe. Accordingly, I started before daylight, and after a pleasant journey arrived at Étampes in the evening, soon enough to escape an awful downpour of rain, and to catch the night train to Orleans.

The train was crowded with peasants, some of whom had no tickets, and it was amusing to watch the stratagems which they adopted in order to hide themselves from the German guard. This fellow was much too good-humoured and indifferent to pretend to see them, though all the while knowing their whereabouts, as I could tell by the twinkle in his eye when their crouching forms betrayed them. It was nothing to him, and he left them under the delusion that they had got to the blind side of their Prussian,---a parable which might serve to describe the whole French tactics during the war!

When I arrived at Orleans it was nearly midnight, and as there were no vehicles at the terminus, I had to tramp across the town to the Quai du Châtelet, where the door was opened to me by our faithful Turco Jean. This barbarian, becoming excited at seeing an old friend, shrieked with delight, and gave utterance to much unintelligible jargon, accompanied by low bows, reverences, or salaams, all which, I believe, is the orthodox method of greeting adopted by Mohammedans.

As I entered our general sitting-room, I heard a ringing cheer from my confrères, who, in this most cordial manner, welcomed me back. I confess that I felt pleased and proud at this spontaneous outburst of kindly feeling.

Nigger Charlie, who had been grinning from ear to ear for the past ten minutes, now disappeared, and after the lapse of a quarter of an hour, came back, bearing in his hands the historic bowl of punch. That was his salaam,---not unkindly meant either.

Next morning I went to see my patients in the Convent of Notre Dame des Récouvrances. Mère Pauline, Soeur Léopoldine, and the other sisters welcomed me into the wards, and Henry Schroeder cried so heartily that I had to put it down to the weakness from which he was suffering.

Young Rüdiger cheered, Kirkhof clapped his hands, and all my patients looked pleased,---which things I mention as giving me a real gratification in themselves, and showing what rewards a doctor who tries to do his duty may expect.

I went on to see other patients, among whom were two in the Rue de Bourdon Blanc. One of these had had his knee joint resected, an operation in which both ends of the bones of the leg and thigh, which enter into the formation of the knee joint, were removed, the limb remaining otherwise intact. It was at this period rather a rare operation, and was performed by Dr. Nussbaum of Munich, who then handed the invalid into my care. The limb was swung in an anterior suspension-splint, which was Dr. May's improvement on the American splint by Smyth. This was a case in which Dr. Nussbaum felt deeply interested, and he inquired of me repeatedly as to its progress.

After one or two days I fell again into the routine, and was running along smoothly in the old groove, which I had left for so short but eventful a period. Several weeks now passed away without anything worthy to chronicle, if I may judge from the blank in my notes. The work had become easier, and my patients, though scattered about the town, had become fewer and less troublesome to manage as they approached convalescence.

We had now much time to ourselves. The armistice continued, and no fresh supplies of wounded came in. Yet, we did not feel sure that hostilities would not recommence, until on the afternoon' of the 26th of February, news reached us that peace was signed. Yes, peace was signed! The joyful tidings spread quickly through the town, and exclamations and prayers of joy and gratitude were on every tongue; nor was it easy to discern whether the townsfolk or the garrison were filled with greater gladness at the news. Indeed, the change that came over the face of the town in an hour was marvellous. Civilians rushed about the streets shaking hands in the most frantic style with those German soldiers who had hitherto been their deadly enemies, while the soldiers cordially returned these friendly advances on the part of their vanquished foes. As the evening drew near, the cheering and confusion increased, and the streets became crowded with a mixed assembly of soldiers and inhabitants. Nor did the authorities appear to object ; nay, all the military bands in the town turned out, and marched up and down the principal streets, playing popular French airs, and even the "Marseillaise ".

It was amusing as well as touching to see these mighty processions, the bands in front, and long lines of French and Prussians linked arm in arm, marching some fourteen abreast, and keeping time with the music. Thus in one hour did the memory of yesterday seem quite obliterated. While I was following one of the bands, and listening to the stirring airs which they were playing, I descried a white figure among the crowd, and what was my astonishment to find that this was Nigger Charlie! Still in his white kitchen-suit, with white sleeves and a paper cap, he was carrying on all kinds of antics, and grinning for the amusement of the juveniles who crowded after the procession.

Our duties now became so light that I was able to do all my work in a couple of hours, and generally had the rest of the day to myself. This time I employed in making excursions on horseback and on foot, to all the places of interest in the adjoining country. I could always get a mount from the ambulance equerry when I. wished for one. As March came on, the weather grew fine, and I rode out to Gien, Chevilly, Patay, and Coulmiers; but Olivet and its neighbourhood, and the picturesque Source du Loiret, were especially my attraction. Dr. Warren, who, like me, preferred walking to riding, often accompanied me on these excursions.

But time rolled on, and we found ourselves in March, with March weather accompanying it. I now met Miss Pearson and Miss McLoughlin, who gave me a stirring account of themselves and their doings during the battles outside Orleans; for the convent, full of wounded, of which they were in charge, was situated in the suburbs. The adventures undergone and the work accomplished by these energetic English ladies have been admirably described in the volume which relates their experiences during the Campaigns of 1870 and 1871. Too much praise cannot be given for the untiring zeal and heroic self-sacrifice which they always displayed in the discharge of their mission, under circumstances which were constantly most trying.

On the 3rd, Dr. Pratt, who had some time back returned from headquarters at Versailles, announced to us that our mission was over, and he must now disband us. We agreed, however, not to separate until we got to Paris, for which place we were to start in a few days. There we should meet Dr. Duplessy, and the heads of the French Ambulance, into whose hands we could deliver the horses, waggons, and infirmiers that we had originally received from them in the Palais de l'industrie. We wished, also, in the presence of the above-named gentleman, to give an account of our stewardship, so far as the care of the French wounded in our charge was concerned. Accordingly, every preparation was made to start. I sent away the wounded that were on my hands, including poor Henry Schroeder, who said, that since I must leave, he would leave too. 1 had the poor fellow conveyed through town to his railway carriage in a sedan chair. When we parted he shed bitter tears.

I had grave misgivings for the ultimate success of his case, for his arm was suppurating profusely; and he had that delusive hectic freshness of appearance, which I had now learnt was so untoward a symptom. Afterwards I had the pain of hearing from his brother that my forebodings were verified, and that Henry died soon after his return home.

On the 4th of March, we had finished nearly all our preparations; and our kind host Proust seemed inconsolable at losing Warren and myself, towards both of whom he had evinced a parental affection. But my time to leave Orleans was not yet come.

 

CHAPTER XXX.

I FALL ILL OF FEVER.---GERMANS LEAVE ORLEANS.---MY BROTHER ARRIVES FROM HOME.---END OF MY EXPERIENCES AS A FIELD SURGEON.

ONE bright evening, as I was out walking on the bank of the Loire, I had felt a dead dull pain at the back of my head and in my back. On my return the pain became so intense that I was obliged to go straight to bed. All night and next day I felt very unwell, and Dr. Bouglet was sent for. He pronounced me to be in fever, of what kind he could not exactly tell; but as small-pox was prevalent in Orleans, he feared it might be that. Subsequently he came to the conclusion that it was low fever of a typhoid sort.

On the 6th, I felt very ill indeed, and beyond a dim recollection of saying good-bye to my confrères, and the consciousness that my old friends Warren and Hayden were continually at my bedside, I can recall but little of what passed around me for the next fortnight.

In a few days all the members of the Anglo-American Ambulance, who had been my friends and companions throughout this adventurous campaign, were off to Paris. So there was I in No. 12 Rue Royale, away from home, and prostrated by a dangerous illness. To those who read this, it may appear that I was alone and friendless. But it was not so. For no father's care could have been more tender, no mother's solicitude more lavish, than that bestowed upon me by M. and Madame Proust, on the one hand, and, on the other, by my guardian angel and nurse, Soeur Berthe, from Notre Dame des Récouvrances.

During five long weeks, this indefatigable woman never left my bedside day or night, save for an interval of an hour or so. She had been working under me in the Hospitals, attending the wounded for many months; and to her valuable and skilful aid I owe any success which may have attended my efforts on behalf of the patients in those wards. Now this good sister saw me, a stranger, but a fellow-labourer in the same cause, struck down at the end of the campaign; and she bestowed upon me, as she was wont to bestow upon them, with that grace of manner and beaming kindness which characterised all she undertook, the same devoted attentions. It was a privilege to be ill in her hands. I learned much from her; and I should be ungrateful indeed, were I to forget the lessons which her refinement, self-sacrifice, and unwearied good temper printed on my mind and heart during those weeks.

Dr. Bouglet came and went, sometimes making a second visit the same day. Evidently he thought my case a serious one. At the end of about ten days from the beginning of my illness, I became so stupid and lethargic that I remembered nothing for the next fortnight, save that during one of my lucid intervals I saw Hayden, Parker, and Warren at my bedside, the first two having come from Paris for the express purpose of seeing me. Warren stayed until I was getting better, and wrote home for me. He finished his letter, but almost failed in getting the address from me, so weak was my mind at the time. Hayden, on being questioned by one of the townspeople as to the chances of my recovery, answered, that it was all up with me. Soeur Berthe, likewise, wrote to Scarteen in my name; but I could do nothing of the kind myself.

About the fourth week I had completely regained consciousness, and was daily getting stronger; but that was not saying much, for I could neither turn in bed, nor lift an arm. I was simply skin and bone, and used to wonder how my knuckles did not come through the skin. When I looked at my limbs, I began to cry like a child, and this loss of control over my feelings was particularly distressing to me. They, never let me see myself in the mirror until I was far advanced on the road to recovery; and then I beheld what looked more like a corpse than my living self, and was much taken aback. When allowed to speak, many hours were spent in pleasant conversation with Madame and M. Proust, and with Soeur Berthe, who was always an interesting and lively companion. She used to pray with me, read to me, both serious and amusing books, and instruct me in the secrets of the science of which she was mistress. She would bring me flowers and fruit according to my fancy. And so the weeks passed by, and, with the assistance of such good friends, they were pleasant enough.

Before my brain got quite clear, I used to imagine that I saw numbers of my friends at home, and was talking with them. Nor were the persons phantoms. For I spoke to those who happened to be paying me a visit to see how I was going on. Upon discovering my mistake, I felt it bitterly, but was soon put into good humour again by Soeur Berthe. I have not yet said much of my hostess Madame Proust; not because she was wanting in any way,---far from it, indeed. That kind lady put her house and all therein at my disposal, and was a most agreeable and sympathetic friend. Occasionally, after returning from her walk in the town, she would tell me of the people who were inquiring for me, which was an equal pleasure and help to a convalescent.

Just about this stage of my illness the Germans evacuated Orleans. I can remember well hearing the last of their bands playing in one direction; while the French were advancing in the other. This was succeeded after a while by frantic cheering, by the din of music, and the tramp of soldiery,---a tramp which I knew to be very different from the measured tread that I had heard an hour previously. And so had come and gone the second German occupation of Orleans, an epoch in the life of those who took any share in it which is indelibly stamped on their memories.

As time wore on I was removed to the armchair by the open window, where I used to remain for several hours every day, when the weather permitted, propped up with pillows and covered against the cold. Many of the passers-by seemed to think me worth looking at, for quite a number stopped in very French fashion to stare up at me. This was only curiosity, and by no means rudeness. At last I was able to go out, or rather to hobble out; and for the first few days had enough to do to keep on my legs while shaking hands with the many kind and friendly townspeople who came forward to greet me. I would go into one shop and rest there for a few minutes, and then move a few doors further on. Thus I spent some hours every day. Many of our old Ambulance friends and acquaintances came also to pay me a visit. There was no end, I may truly say, to the kindness I met with on all sides.

One day I went to the Church of St. Aignan, which is at the end of the Quai du Châtelet, to hear a grand High Mass, offered up for the regeneration of France, which was attended by the élite of Orleans. I settled myself in a chair at the end of the church, and presently the ceremonies began by a procession. As it passed me a priest stepped out of the ranks, and, taking me by the arm, led me up the church, and, to my great confusion, showed me into one of the stalls in the Sanctuary. I never saw the priest before or since.

When I look back on those days of trial and sickness, and how I lay on that bed unable to stir hand or foot, I remember what a longing came over me for the sight of one familiar face, though but for a few minutes. One was still in one's youth; and I fancied, whilst my head was buried in the pillow, that if I could but speak just a few words to my, mother, or to some one at home, it would be enough to cure me. Until then, I never knew how much I loved my native land, or realised my heart's deep devotion to that little spot called home, and to all those dear friends about it.

Little by little I came round. I used to drive out with M. Proust to his lovely little country house near Olivet, and visited the camellia houses and orange groves, all of which were under glass, at the great château there. But during my convalescence, the event of the day was the morning post, which brought my letters and newspapers, every line of which I read and re-read with the greatest avidity, until I knew them by heart. One letter in particular, from a great friend of mine, was so amusing, and had such a reviving effect on me, that I read it certainly a score of times, and I laughed as much the last time as the first.

I was strictly prohibited by the doctor from writing; but in spite of his orders I coaxed Soeur Berthe to let me have pen and ink. Her consternation was great when she saw me fainting from the exertion. One letter I wrote to my mother while my hand was held on the paper, placed on a desk before me; so that I had only, as it were, to form the characters. I used to write a sentence or two every day, and so put them together bit by bit. I compiled several commonplace and uninteresting productions, and sent them home in great glee at the success of my performance. I could not guess how startled they would be at receiving these curious epistles, some of which afterwards came back into my hands. They resolved to send my brother Arthur to fetch me home; and he travelled immediately to Orleans, where he received a hearty welcome from M. and Madame Proust and my other friends.

I insert as an Appendix, from the journal which my brother kept, the impressions made on us both by a visit we paid to the field of Coulmiers.

It was my last view of the scenes in which I had taken part.

My brother arrived on 8th April, and on the 21st we bade farewell to our home in the Rue Royale, and the friends who had made it such, and set out on our journey to Ireland.

 

CHAPTER XXXI.

AN APPENDIX.---M. AND MADAME COLOMBIER.---VISIT TO THE BATTLEFIELD OF COULMIERS.---THE SOLE FRENCH VICTORY.---CONCLUSION.

(From Arthur Ryan's Diary, Wednesday, 19th April.)

OUR déjeûner had not long been over when a carriage drove up, and Charlie bade me prepare for a drive with some friends into the country. We wished M. and Madame Proust good-bye for the day, and stepped into the carriage, where our new host and hostess were awaiting us. M. and Madame Colombier welcomed me cordially as the brother of their friend, and I was not long in their company before I knew how truly they had been such to him. M. Colombier had been a Papal Zouave, but, on the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, had joined the ranks of his countrymen. A middle-aged man with a frank warm manner, and evidently very proud of his wife,---as well he might be. I have seen but little of men or women; but I fancy that many years of experience may, fail to remove Madame Colombier from the place she gained that day in my estimation. She was a heroine, and, what is still rarer, a humble heroine. Being a Canadian she spoke English very fairly; and as we drove along she told us many stories of her war experiences, and with so much gaiety that I felt it hard to believe those experiences had been so often bitter ones to her and her husband. Privations, loss of property, personal danger, all were related as if she were inventing and not recording; all were jested about whenever they affected only herself. But when she spoke of the sufferings of others, of her husband's danger, of the poor soldiers whom she had lodged and tended to the last, then her woman's heart revealed itself, and showed that though gay it was tender, though buoyant it was thoroughly unselfish; and, through all, she seemed so perfectly unconscious of any merit on her part, that one would have thought that her services had been remunerative or a part of her ordinary duty, instead of absorbing as they did the great part of what the war had left them.

A shower came on, and to my surprise Madame Colombier unpinned her warm shawl, and insisted in wrapping Charlie up in it, lest in his weak state he should take cold. "This is my campaigning dress," said she, as I expressed my fears as to the insufficiency of her black silk dress in the teeth of the driving rain; but little she seemed to care, her only anxiety being to shield the "poor invalid" from the storm.

After what seemed a short drive, we were so pleasant together, we came to the battlefield of Coulmiers. On each side of the road the ground was littered with the débris of camp fires, and with the straw that had served to keep some of the soldiers off the frosty ground, as they slept after their fight. Deep ruts-ploughed by the wheels of the guns, cut up the roads and fields; but beyond these marks, and the general bare, down-trodden look of the ground, nothing remained to speak of the terrible battle that had so lately covered these fields with the dead and dying. But as we drove into the Château Renardier, M. Colombier's country place, the sad remembrances of war were multiplied tenfold. The great trees on each side of the drive were riven in all directions, by the shot and shells; and I remarked several thick firs cut clean in two by what was evidently a single shot.

But here we are at the Château. It was a large house, in the regular French style, prettily situated in the midst of a well-planted lawn. It was not, however, at the architecture of the house, nor at the beauties of the lawn, that I looked, as I drove up. No: what riveted my gaze was the number of round holes that perforated the front in every direction. The shells had done their work well; shattered windows and pierced walls were sorry sights for M. Colombier to show his guests; and little more could be seen of the Château Renardier on the front side. As we entered, and passed from room to room, we began to realise the full extent of the damage. Deep stains of blood were on the dark oak floors, which in many places had been splintered by the bursting shells. Madame Colombier took us to her boudoir. Panelled in gold and white, it must have been a lovely room-but now it was a wreck. Right through the mirrors had the splintered shells crashed; in one corner of the rich ceiling the sky was visible through a large shot hole," and here," said our hostess, "here they used to skin their sheep"; and she pointed to the chandelier, which had sadly suffered from its unwonted use, and beneath which the floor was stained, this time not with human gore. "This is my room," said M. Colombier, as he showed us into the billiard room. The slate table was cracked in two, and on the tattered green cloth lay the remains of the oats which had fed the horses; for that room had served as a stable.

We passed into the garden. It had been the scene of a French bayonet charge; and little shape remained, or sign of garden beauty, save that in one trampled bed, we found some plants of the lily of the valley sprouting to the early spring sunshine. Deep in the gravel walks, and through the once well-trimmed turf, had the wheels of the guns sunk, as the Prussians made their hasty retreat before the victorious French; and it must have been some consolation to the fair owner of this desolated garden, to think that it was the scene of the solitary French victory in that disastrous war.

In the front garden every vine was dead, cut from the wall. For the wall had served as a shelter for the German soldiers, and was pierced all along for rifle rests, and by every hole was a heap of empty cartridge cases. The greenhouse and conservatories,---who shall tell their ruin Glass is a poor protection against artillery, and the fierce frost had completed the work. There were the plants all arranged on their stands; there stood the orange trees---all were dead and brown---not a twig was alive. I thought of my mother and her flowers, as Madame Colombier turned with a sigh from her ruined conservatory, and walked back through the melancholy garden. But she was gay enough, though her husband seemed to feel deeply the destruction of his lovely home. He had been married but five years, and had spent much money in making this a happy spot for his wife and children---and now, the wreck! But even M. Colombier laughed with us when we came to the piles of empty bottles that lay in the yard; they were all that was left of two well-filled cellars. The French soldiers had celebrated their victory at the expense of the master of the Château Renardier.

In the coach-house were Madame Colombier's two broughams; they had been used in the battle as temporary fortifications, and were literally riddled with bullets. We walked to the fish pond---a piece of ornamental water in the lawn. It had been netted, and not a fish was left. I stumbled on something under the trees by its brink. It was a Prussian cavalry saddle, not a comfortable-looking thing, thought I, as I surveyed the angular hide-covered wood,---but certainly economical when it is so easily lost. But evening was coming on; so having had lunch in the Château (the strangest ruin I ever picnicked in), we bade adieu to Renardier, and drove back to Orleans.

M. Colombier's house there had, like his country château, been used during the war as a little hospital; and Charlie told me, as he waited in the drawing-room before dinner, how many wounded and dying inmates that room lately had.

Dinner was served in an ante-room, for which Madame Colombier made her apologies, as her dining-room was occupied-by whom we presently saw. Having dined heartily, and been highly amused by the penalties with which the children threatened the Prussians,---such as feeding them on poisonous mushrooms, wood, and such like, I was surprised by Madame Colombier taking out a cigar case, handing it round, and helping herself. "Necessity has made me a smoker," she laughingly observed, as she saw my ill-concealed wonder; and if any lady would condemn my hostess for her cigar, let her follow Madame Colombier as she slips quietly out; and see for herself how false is that delicacy which would place a difficulty in the way of true and heroic Christian charity. We were not long before we followed our hostess. We found her in her dining-room, which had been fitted up as a temporary hospital. There she was tending the wound of her last patient, with a skill which was the result of long and hard-earned experience. And here we will leave Madame Colombier, with the firm trust that her unselfish charity and unostentatious heroism will not go unrewarded before Him, who has promised to repay a cup of cold water given for His sake.

 

EPILOGUE.

A QUARTER of a century has elapsed since the occurrence of the events which I have described. When I view the scenes of those eventful days through this long vista, and when sometimes for a moment one particular picture of hospital or camp life presents itself before my mind, I start as if awakened from a troubled dream, to find there still the shape and form of fact.

The years have come and gone, and with them have passed away many of the principal actors in that great drama. Wilhelm, Napoleon, Moltke, the Crown Prince, the Red Prince, Gambetta, d'Aureille de Paladine, Bazaine, MacMahon, have disappeared from the stage.

Modern surgery and medicine have lost some of their ablest pioneers in Langenbeck, Nussbaum, Esmark and Marion Sims; and I personally have to mourn for many who were kindly and helpful to me in those days, amongst them M. and Madame Proust and General Charles Brackenbury.

I have often wished to revisit Sedan and Orleans; but the desire to make the most of a somewhat limited holiday-time, and to gain fresh experiences, has always led me to new districts and countries previously unknown to me, and I have never had my wish fulfilled. I am glad to say, however, that I never quite lost sight of my old friends M. and Madame Proust, and a visit from their nephew revived all the old associations and remembrances afresh.

It may interest my readers to hear something of our ambulance surgeons. Sir William MacCormac, who succeeded Marion Sims at Sedan, is now one of the greatest living authorities on military surgery and gunshot wounds. His colleague Dr. Mackellar is distinguished on the staff of St. Thomas's Hospital, and Dr. Parker is an eminent London specialist. The others, scattered over the face of the globe, I have lost sight of, but would fain hope one day to meet some of them again.

One object I have had in view in publishing these notes may be worthy of mention.

As I have tried to write down exactly what I witnessed, they may help to afford some idea of what war really means,---war as a hard practical fact---stripped of all the glamour, and poetry, and pride of conquest, that are so attractive when seen in history.

Even from my own observations I could gather that all is not victory to the victors themselves.

When the German soldiery learnt that Louis Napoleon was present in the trap at Sedan, there broke out among them the wildest exhibition of delight; for they believed---wrongly as it came to pass---that his capture would end the war and enable them to go back to their homes. And when peace was finally proclaimed, the Germans in Orleans were no less demonstrative and enthusiastic than the French, whose cup of suffering had been filled to overflowing.

Now-a-days there is perhaps a tendency to undervalue this aspect of the case. People talk very lightly of the great European war that is said to be inevitable. It can do no harm to measure as far as possible what such a war may mean.

Those who count the cost in advance are far more likely to be able to meet it, should the necessity arise, and to bear themselves resolutely and bravely to the end, whatever the event, than those who rush blindly forward, depending mainly on enthusiasm for organisation, and on the reputation of the past to achieve victories in the future. That seems to be the great lesson taught by the war of 1870 and 187 1.

There never was, perhaps, a more flagrant instance of disregard for that wise Shakesperian saying familiar to us all:

                                                "Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel : but, being in,
Bear it that the opposed may beware of thee ".

However, my readers will probably be disposed to form their own opinions on these subjects, and will have far more attractive material elsewhere on which to found them.

Before concluding, I think I am not out of order in mentioning a notable occurrence which took place during the year 1895, and which to my mind affords a favourable augury for the future of France. I mean the celebration at Orleans, with all the pomp and ceremony due to the occasion, of the festival of Jeanne d'Arc. From the general enthusiasm then displayed by the French people, I cannot help thinking that greater things and brighter hopes are in store for that beautiful country, the fortunes of which have ever been as dramatic in their circumstances as they are interesting in themselves.

Finally, I wish here to record, if I may, my own admiration, sympathy and delight in the bright and genial character of the French, and to bear witness that as this feeling was at first so it is now; nor do I think it will ever change.

My task is finished. Though the re-writing of these notes has been a source of great pleasure to me, bringing back as it does old memories and picturesque scenes so vividly, yet I lay aside the unaccustomed pen with-perhaps not unnaturally -some little sense of relief, trusting to the indulgence of my readers that they will overlook the blemishes incidental to a first literary performance. And thus I bid them farewell.

PART OF FRANCE
To illustrate the journey of Dr. Ryan
from Sedan to Orléans, 1870-71.

THE END.

 


Table of Contents