Paris - "on Dit"
( Originally Published 1915 )
IN war time (is it any different in time of peace?) there is nothing more astonishing than what "they say." When news is suppressed, rumor naturally takes the place of fact. This frequently brings serious consequences. We have already seen that in Paris. But there are many rumors that grow alongside of fact to embellish it, even when there is no suppression of news; and while some stories are evolved from a kernel of truth, others are manufactured out of the whole cloth.
From the very first days of the war, I have been reading in the newspapers and hearing by word of mouth stories of German atrocities in Belgium. Undoubtedly many of them are true. No man can play at war. Killing awakens evil passions. Men become brutes. I have had the opportunity of observing how the sight of blood awakens sexual passions. I have seen men of naturally good instincts transformed into devils. As the appetite grows in eating, so the madness of destruction gets the betterof those who destroy. Destruction may begin for a reasonable and definite purpose. It generally ends in wantonness.
It is a curious fact, however, that practically every story of German cruelty and destruction I have heard before. During the wars of the Balkan peninsula, "they said" the same stories. I mean the stories in their exact form, just as they are being retailed to us here in Paris ! There are the boys whose hands are cut off in order that they may not, when grown to manhood, bear arms against the conqueror; the, little fellow playing "sodjers" with a toy gun shot because he was taken "with arms in his hands"; the men crucified at the crossroads; the women shot as they were kneeling in prayer; the father struck down when holding his child, and the sword killing both with the same blow; the baby thrown in the air and caught on the point of the bayonets; the woman and children forced to march in front of advancing columns to stay the fire of husbands and fathers in the ranks of the enemy. I refrain from mentioning other stories far more horrible than these. Like jokes, they can be traced back. Frenchmen can read some of them in Victor Hugo's Histoire d'un Crime, in the lurid and scathing account of the actions of French soldiers in Paris at the time of the coup d'état that placed Napoleon III in power. But Victor Hugo is modern. We can pursue our research with success back to Herodotus and Livy.
I do not mean to express my belief that these stories are untrue. Only, it is human nature repeating itself and not German nature. If true, they are the exception. But "on dit" transforms acts of vandalism and barbarism into common practice.
I have often wondered during these past weeks if, after all, the only truth is that "all men are liars" ! Are we victims of hallucination, are we easily selfdeceived, or do we deliberately state what we know is not true, and come finally to believe what we say by frequency of statement'? Is our sincerity a matter of practice, and does exoneration come through habit?
I have noted, "just for fun," the occasions during the past few weeks in which women engaged now in Red Cross work, women for whom I have the highest regard have taken me aside and told me confidentially of the "horrible thing that has happened in our hospital." They have a wounded Turco. He came to them with a package from which he refused to be separated. They opened it for obvious reasons,and found the head of a German. The fair dame vouches absolutely for the authenticity of the story. I have recorded seven different hospitals where the same thing has happened in exactly the same way. Generally this story is coupled with another to the effect that "we cannot have any more German wounded in our hospital, for the Turcos get up in the night and strangle them." I first heard this story told about a Bulgarian soldier in a hospital at Sofia : the graphic details were the same. But you never meet the actual eye-witness. The story always comes at second hand.
Another kind of "they say" stories, passing from mouth to mouth with wonderful rapidity, is the "inside track" news. One never knows where it comes from, but it seems to get everywhere. One person says, "Have you heard ...?" and the other person, "Yes, and have you heard ...?" Here are some of the examples of the stories that were told me with perfect gravity by men in responsible official positions in Paris. I heard them all within two hours, when I was taking my daily "constitutional" at the end of a late August afternoon.
It seems that "they were saying" that President Poincare and the Cabinet had already moved to Bordeaux; that the Bank of France had taken all its money to Havre where ships under steam were ready at a moment's notice to transport it to England; that there were five hundred alive out of a hundred thousand British troops; that the French army was practically annihilated; that the German army would be at Versailles that very evening; that at Compiègne the French drenched the trees with petrol, set the whole forest on fire and burned alive a division of the Germans; that thousands of Germans have been killed by the new French bomb which on exploding lets out a gas that asphyxiates every one within a hundred yards of it; that on the way to Bordeaux the Cabinet, in session in a special train, decided to give up the city without a struggle; that the Eiffel Tower was mined at its four corners and would be blown up before the Germans entered the city; that the supplies of petroleum and gasolene which the Government could not carry away from Paris had been dumped into the Seine. So it went!
Around the most unlikely stories of the "whole cloth" variety grow with the telling all the earmarks of truth. This is most strikingly illustrated by the universal belief in Paris of the coming of the Cossacks. From my concierge, from the femme de ménage who comes every morning to look after my office, from the friends I meet in the street or restaurant, from the clerk at the Embassy who has "inside official information, but you must not quote the source," even from the army officer on the General Staff, you have the positive assertion of fact.
The Government is suffering from the mistaken policy of having magnified victories and suppressed the news of reverses. The policy of silence, if adopted, should work both ways. As it has just as bad an effect upon the public to raise their hopes as to cause them anxiety, good news presents the same difficulty as bad news, especially when there is some of both to give out.
A great deal of the unrest in Paris during "the week" was due to the lack of wisdom of the newspapers. From the very beginning of the struggle, we had heard that the Germans were fighting without any spirit whatever, that their officers were driving them into battle at the point of the sword, that their infantry marched poorly, that their artillery fire was wild and that their cavalry was absolutely lacking in the qualities which had been claimed for it. The news of the Berlin press agencies has been pilloried to show how the Germans are carrying on a campaign of lies to convince the outside world that they are winning. All the while, the facts seem to controvert these reiterated statements of our press. The forts of Liege were not still holding out; Namur was taken; the Germans occupied Brussels sans coup férir; and they passed their immense army into France while we were reading that "their game was already up" !
If it is true that neither their infantry nor their artillery nor their cavalry can be compared for a minute with that of the French and that their soldiers are fighting without any spirit whatever, how is it that the Germans have been able to penetrate large portions of northern France and have come near Paris itself? If it is true that they do not know how to use aeroplanes,and this is one of the most frequently reiterated statements of the press,why did we have the daily visits over the city of Paris ?
I am merely reporting here the questions which the Parisians, after reading their newspapers, have asked themselves. It was pretty cold comfort to pick up your paper in the morning and find absolutely no word about the military movements in France, but long enthusiastic articles telling how the Russians were advancing on Berlin.
As the Germans marched through Belgium and France towards Paris, we were fed daily with this story of the Russian advance on Berlin and with the wonderful things the Russian army was accomplishing. The newspapers continue to publish telegrams from their Petrograd correspondents about the colossal numbers of troops that Russia has called into the field. The most reliable papers in Paris state for the comfort of their readers that Russia has six million men under arms, that four million reservists are assembling in their provinces, and that another two million are coming from Siberia and Central Asia. These hordes are expected very soon to fall upon Germany.
When one considers that railways are few and that money is not very plentiful, the putting of an army of ten to twelve million men into the field seems an impossible undertaking. Where could Russia find ten million modern rifles? Any one who knows Russia and has become acquainted with Russian administration and the intellectual condition of the country sees the absurdity of figuring on an army of this size.
A good army must have an officer for every ten men. If all the educated men in Russia of military age were at the front, the Russians could not officer efficiently an army of more than four millions. Even on a peace footing, Russia has always had extreme difficulty adequately to officer her army. The absence of a great educated middle class is the explanation of this. It is extremely cloubtful if there are more than two million Russians in the field, and if, when the mobilization is complete, Russia can muster more than three million men fit for offensive warfare against Germany, and Austria, Hungary. Some of her best regiments must be kept in Central Asia, and the attitude of Turkey does not allow her to draw from her standing army in the Caucasus.
I suppose it was because the Russians have in popular imagination so many more soldiers than they need to face both Germany and Austria, that the story of the Russian Cossacks cooperating on the battlefields of France and Belgium has been able to gain ground.
For the past month I have been hearing most cirumstantial statements concerning the arrival of these Cossacks. There are not less than fifty thousand of them, each with his horse from the Tartar Steppes, who had already arrived. They had actually been seen disembarking at Aberdeen. "An Oxford professor," "my mother-in-law," "my uncle's sister by marriage," "a traveling salesman who is the husband of my sister's old friend at the convent school," are the authorities for this statement. There have been letters received, even telegrams, confirming the transportation of these Cossacks across England. Travelers have seen them landing at Ostend, Dunkirk, Boulogne, Rouen, St. Malo, and Brest. Seventy-five trainloads passed through Rouen, holding up the traffic for hours. A British officer on the Avenue de l'Opera was heard to tell that they were encamped near Versailles. Wounded soldiers, coming from the front, and refugees have described minutely,and variously,how they were clothed. They wore beaver busbies, copper helmets, and brilliant red fezes. The most narrow questioning could not shake the faith of those who told these stories. My informants have been as sure that the Cossacks had come as that the sun would rise tomorrow morning.
So persistent have been these rumors, in England as well as here, that the British Official Press Bureau has found it necessary to deny them.
Last night I had a copy of the London newspaper containing the sweeping denial that any Cossacks had been landed in England, Scotland, France, or Belgium. "No Cossacks have come : no Russians of any branch of the army are expected," reads the official statement.
At dinner I showed this newspaper to a friend of mine, a captain in the Ninth Zouaves, who is recuperating from wounds received at Charleroi. I read the official denial to him. He shook his head. "Of course," he explained, "they say that because they do not want the Germans to know. But a friend of mine came yesterday from Chantilly, and he said that the station master told him that—"
And so the belief remains. They will have the Cossacks here. Next it will be the Japanese!