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A War Correspondent in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870

WHEN war was declared between France and Germany in the early summer of 1870, I was sent by a London paper to act as special correspondent with MacMahon's corps d'armee, and, leaving the town at twenty-four hours' notice, arrived at Strasburg with by no means too much time to spare. On arriving at Strasburg, I managed to be introduced, in an informal manner, to the gallant officer who commanded the army there assembled, and was not a little pleased when the marshal recognized me, as having met me in Algeria some years before. Frenchmen, and more particularly French military men, are somewhat backward, or shy, of fraternizing with new acquaintances; but when the latter show any desire to know them, and more particularly, as was the case with me, when they show anything like a genuine admiration of the many soldier-like qualities which are to be found among those who compose their armies, they will always come more than half-way to meet foreigners in the bond of good-fellowship.

When we reached Worth it was evident that something very like a decisive engagement would take place, and that either the French or the German army would be badly beaten before many hours were over. I got away from the lines and, with the help of a little of that gold which is a key to most doors, managed to get up to the flat top of the tower which forms part of the village church, and there witnessed what proved to be the beginning of the end of the war, so far as the French army and nation were concerned. To me, as well as to my friends, the day proved most unfortunate. I felt so certain that MacMahon's troops would rally and eventually beat their enemy, that I delayed coming down from the tower until it was too late. By the time I got back to where I had left an old britschka with two screws of horses that I owned, the French army was in full retreat for the Vosges, the Germans were in possession of the village, and my conveyance, together with my servant who drove it, and all the clothes I had in the world, had vanished. As a matter of course, not being able to speak German, I was made a prisoner, and taken before the officer commanding the brigade that held the place. Of the treatment I received from them I had nothing whatever to complain. An officer who could speak English was sent for, and when he had read my Foreign Office passport, as well as my credentials for the paper I represented, I was at once released, on condition of giving my parole that I would not rejoin the French army for at least seven days. I was then given a free pass, which would prevent my being made prisoner by any of the German troops, and was told I might go where I liked.

But where to go and how to do so, was now the question. My carriage and all my kit having been looted, as I afterwards found out, by the German camp-followers, I had, in the way of clothes, what I stood in. Most fortunately my circular letter of credit had not shared the fate of the rest of my property. I had kept it in my breast pocket, and was not a little glad that I had done so. If I could only reach Karlsruhe I should be able to get whatever money I wanted. But how to get there was the question. It was some thirty or forty English miles from Worth; there was no conveyance of any sort to be had; and even if the latter had been favorable, my whole worldly wealth consisted, with the exception of the letter of credit, of something less than twenty francs. If I could manage to walk all the way, that very modest sum would suffice me for a very humble lodging each night, and for a moderate amount of indifferent food.

I had, however, no choice. Walk I must, if I did not want to be left to starve at Worth. The journey to Karlsruhe would help to pass away the seven days, or, at any rate, a large portion of them, during which I was under parole not to rejoin the French army. To remain where I was, or to follow the French through the Vosges, was equally impossible. So I made up my mind, and started upon what promised to be, and what certainly proved, a journey that was anything but pleasant.

Whatever other drawbacks the road between Worth and Karlsruhe had, it was by no means a solitary or lonely route. It would be difficult to say whether the wagons and other conveyances going towards Germany or those coming into France, were more numerous. The former were filled with French prisoners and wounded soldiers; the latter with fresh German troops en route for the seat of war, doctors and sisters of charity on their way to tend the sick of the German army, and every sort of war stores and supplies it is possible to imagine. There were three villages in the thirty miles of road where I found it possible to rest at night. There was nothing in the shape of a bedroom, or even of a bed, to be had, except at prices which my very limited amount of cash rendered impossible for me. I was obliged to make the best of things, and to sleep, as well as eat, as best I could. Under such circumstances personal cleanliness was almost impossible. When I arrived, on the morning of the fourth day, at Karlsruhe, I was very far from being respectable in appearance. At Grosse's Hotel the clerk in the bureau evidently did not like to admit me, and it was only after I had shown him my passport that he ordered a room to be got ready for me. I went at once to the bank named in my letter of credit, got what money I required, bought a suit of ready-made clothes; and after a hot bath, and using plenty of soap, began to feel as if it were possible to be clean and comfortable again; although it took two or three days before I could realize that I had got rid of the dirt and discomfort brought about by my vagabond-like pedestrian journey. On the third day after my arrival at Karlsruhe I started for Baden, thence went over the Swiss frontier to Basle; and by that time the seven days having elapsed, I crossed the French frontier and made my way to Laon, following, as well as I could, the direction in which public report gave out that the army under MacMahon was marching.

At Laon I learned that Marshal MacMahon had, with the army he commanded, made his way to Rheims, whence he intended to try to afford assistance to Bazaine, who was already surrounded at Metz. The rail from Laon towards Rheims had been cut by order of the French military authorities, so that I had no means whatever of pushing on, except by purchasing an old rattle-trap of a carriage to supply the place of the one that had been taken by the German camp-followers at Worth. I was, however, fortunate enough to procure two active and fast horses which, as will be seen presently, proved, in a great measure, the means by which I afterwards was able to effect the very narrow escape that saved my life.

Between Laon and Rheims I passed through Chalons and Epernay, at which places I saw, for the first time, the francs-tireurs, or free-shooters. The corps was, in the most comprehensive possible meaning of the word, irregular. The men who composed it were not only irregular in everything they did, but appeared to glory in their irregularity. They seemed to have very few officers, and the few they had were seldom, if ever, to be seen on duty with the men. The latter had evidently souls above obedience, for they did very much what they liked, and in the manner they liked. They evidently hated the regular army, and the latter returned the compliment with interest.

I was very anxious to let my employers in London know the exact state of affairs in regard to the intended advance of MacMahon towards Metz, and how the attempt to relieve Bazaine had utterly failed. To telegraph the news was impossible, as all the wires had been cut by the enemy. I had prepared a long letter which gave many details that had not yet been published in England, and I felt sure that if I could only manage to get what I had written to London it would do me no little credit. As yet Sedan was not even threatened by the Germans. I knew the officers who commanded there very well, and I resolved to push on by myself, and see what could be done in the way of forwarding my letter thence over the Belgian frontier, whence it would be safe to reach London in twenty-four hours. It took the best part of three days to reach Sedan. At Sedan I was able to procure a horse, and rode some ten miles over the Belgian frontier to Buiony, where there were neither wars nor rumors of wars. Here my letter was posted, registered, and sent off to London. I then returned to Sedan, and, having the horses harnessed to the wretched old conveyance of which I was the owner, set off on my return to the headquarters of MacMahon's army, wherever they might be.

The colonel in command at Sedan was very kind to me, gave me the best of food, and the most reliable of information, advising me, if I wanted to rejoin MacMahon's army, to make the best of my way to a small town called Mouson, some fifteen or twenty miles off, situated in the valley of the Meuse, whence, as he said, I should be pretty sure of finding the headquarters of the army. My coachman, a Swiss whom I had engaged when I bought the trap at Laon, told me that the drive from Sedan to Mouson would occupy about four hours, going at a comparatively slow pace which could not knock up the horses. It was agreed that we were to hills for an hour or so, after we had been a couple of hours on the road. I was very tired and sleepy when we left, and therefore made myself comfortable to enjoy a good sleep, thinking I should have at least two hours in which I could do so.

To my amazement, we had not gone more than a couple or three miles from Sedan when the carriage came to a sudden halt, and I heard more than one rough voice ordering the driver not to move, unless he wished to he shot then and there. I drew back the leather curtains and looked out, when I found that some thirty or more armed men had surrounded the vehicle, and two of them, opening the door, ordered me in the most brutal manner to get out. At first I thought they were soldiers, and that they were laboring under some mistake, having taken me to be somebody else. But I soon discovered that they belonged to the franc-tireurs; and that they fully intended to make me a prisoner. I still thought there must be some mistake, and asked them what they wanted, telling them that I was an English newspaper correspondent who had accompanied MacMahon all through the campaign, and was now on my way to rejoin him. AVous mentez" (You lie) was the polite answer I got; and, as one of them cocked his rifle and swore he would shoot me dead if I did not get out, I thought that discretion was the better part of valor, and got out upon the dusty road. I asked where their officers were; but they replied that there were none present, and that Frenchmen knew how to deal with Prussian spies without being controlled by officers. I asked them what I had done that I should be made a prisoner. They answerd that I was a Prussian spy, and that they intended to try me by court-martial and shoot me. I told them that if they would only come back to Sedan with me, the commandant of the garrison would satisfy them that I was not a Prussian, still less a spy, but an Englishman who was going about his lawful work. They said that the commandant at Sedan was, like most of the French army, a traitor to his country; that they would not believe a word he said, but had determined to make me a prisoner and kill me. Anything so brutal as they were in their words and manner it has never been my lot to witness in any part of the world.

At last they decided to begin what they were pleased to call a conseil de guerre, or court-martial, in order that they might try me for being, as they asserted, a Prussian spy on French soil. I question whether, in the history of the world, a greater farce or a more entirely one-sided affair was ever enacted than on this occasion. I was accused, as I said before, of being a Prussian spy; but what I came to spy upon, or in whose employment I was, my accusers, who were also my judges, did not say. A couple of dozen times at least I was told that I was what they said; and when I denied it, and said I was an Englishman, I was told "Vous locates" (You lie). Of the twenty-five or thirty men present, twelve resolved themselves into what they called a court, a thirteenth individual acting as president. I offered to show them---in fact held out for their inspection---my Foreign Office passport, as well as a pass I had received from MacMahon's chief-of-staff when I joined the army at Strasburg. But the first they would not even look at; and the second they said was given by a man---Marshal MacMahon---who was himself a traitor to France. They did not seem to think it requisite that I should be put upon my defense. One of them was called forward by the rest, asked whether he could speak English, and whether he would know an Englishman by sight when he saw him. To both questions he answered in the affirmative. He was then told to speak to me in English, and to look at me, and say if I was an Englishman. He came up to me and muttered some gibberish which contained a few words that might, by persons of a very strong imagination, be called English. I endeavored to say a few words to him in my own tongue; but he stopped me by shouting out that I was a Prussian, that I spoke German, and did not understand a word of English.

This seemed quite enough for those who were trying me. After consulting together for a few minutes one of them announced in a loud voice that I had been found guilty of being a Prussian spy, and that as such I was condemned to be shot. He then told me---looking at his watch and letting me look at mine---that I had a quarter of an hour given me to live, and, as a proof that he meant what he said, orders were given to twelve of the party to load their rifles, and two others were told off to give me the coup de grace, in the event of my not being killed by the firing party. In a word, my lease of life seemed to be very near its termination, and I felt very certain that I had not more than the fifteen minutes the fellow named in which to live.

To analyze one's feelings or thoughts under such circumstances is impossible. For about five minutes, a third of the time that was left me, I felt utterly stunned, and kept wondering whether those I had left behind in England would ever learn what my fate had been. At last an idea, a sort of forlorn hope, came to me, and I lost no time before trying whether or not I could put it in execution. I called to one of the men, who seemed to be a leader among his fellows, and told him that I wished, before being shot, to see a priest, which was a privilege invariably granted to even the greatest culprits in France, and asked him to find out the cure, or parish priest, of the nearest village, and bring him to me. My idea was that by making this request I should, at any rate, gain a little time, and that if this priest did come to see me it was possible, although I feared not very probable, he might have some influence with these men, and might get them to send me to some military post, where I should have justice done me. My request did not seem to annoy my judges in the least. On the contrary, they approved of it, and at once sent off a couple of messengers in different directions to look for this curé.

In the meantime my feelings and surroundings were by no means happy. It is true that since they had sentenced me to be shot the men had---most fortunately, as it afterwards turned out---unbound my hands and feet. I was allowed to sit on the ground, close to a wall, a sentry with a loaded ride being within a dozen yards of me, and due notice was given that if I attempted to get away this man had orders to shoot me at once. I was covered with dirt and dust, the result of having been knocked down more than once when I was made a prisoner. What the ultimate result of my reprieve might be, or what the priest could do if they found him, which seemed far from likely, was, I need hardly say, utterly uncertain. I kept on hoping for the very improbable best but fearing in my heart that the more than probable worst would be my fate.

At last what turned out to be my guardian angel appeared. The messengers who had gone in search of the priest had been absent some little time, and my captors were beginning to grumble and say that it was time to finish the business and shoot me offhand, when all at once an old man, a garde champêtre, appeared on the scene, his fowling-piece over his shoulder, and the red ribbon in the buttonhole of his blouse, showing that he had served, and served with honor, in the French army. He asked what was the matter, and turning to me, inquired whether I really was an Englishman. I told him my story, and showed him the different documents I had by me, commencing with the pass given me by the chief of MacMahon's staff. He read it carefully, and I could see by his face that he was convinced I was telling the truth. He then looked at my Foreign Office passport, but did not seem able to make out what it meant. All at once he left me, and I saw him go to where my carriage was, and while examining the vehicle and horses,---the latter, most providentially, as it turned out, having never been unharnessed,---he spoke a few words to the coachman. He then came back to where I was, asked me to show him again my different papers, and then, turning to some of the francs-tireurs who were standing near, said, in a loud voice, "Messieurs, you have made a great mistake. This person," pointing to me, "is not a Prussian. He is an English officer of rank, who has come to France in order that he may see and admire how Frenchmen defend their country. Even now French officers are expecting him at the headquarters of the army." And then, turning to me, he said, "Allons, monsieur, en route; he perdez pas on moment." With that he caught hold of my arm, hurried me away, and before my enemies had time, or anything like time, to realize what he was doing, we were not only inside the carriage, but were tearing along at a smart hand-gallop on the road to Mouson. The anger and vexation of my captors may be imagined. They had not the means of pursuing us; but they fired several shots after us, one of which went through the crown of my billycock hat. However, I was saved; and if ever one man saved the life of another, that old garde champêtre saved mine. When we arrived at Mouson I got five hundred francs (twenty pounds) on my letter of credit, and made it a present to the old fellow who had behaved with such pluck, and who had certainly risked his life to save me. Had we been caught before we reached the carriage, nothing could have saved him from suffering with me the death to which I had been condemned.



From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, 14 Vols., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VII: Germany, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, pp. 237-248.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998
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