Read The 40s: The Story of a Decade Online

Authors: The New Yorker Magazine

The 40s: The Story of a Decade (6 page)

BOOK: The 40s: The Story of a Decade
12.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

The trip to the Gare du Nord was solemn. M. Bisque dragged me to see various mothers sitting on rolls of bedding and surrounded by miauling children; his eyes would water, and he would offer a child a two-franc piece, and then haul me to the buffet, where he would fortify himself with a glass of Beaujolais. At the buffet I remember meeting a red-bearded gnome of a colonial soldier who kept referring to himself as “a real porpoise.” “Porpoise” was the traditional Army term for a colonial infantryman. “A real porpoise,” the soldier repeated dreamily, “an old porpoise, and believe me, Monsieur, the Germans need
somebody
to bust their snouts for them.” He had two complete sets of decorations, one
from the old war and one from the new. He was going north to rejoin his regiment and he was full of fight and red wine.

Saturday morning I had another note from Jean-Pierre. He enclosed a bit of steel from a Dornier shot down near him. “How I am still alive I have not time to write to you,” he said, “but chance sometimes manages things well.” The letter produced the same effect on me as news of a great victory. I called up Henri. He and Eglée had had a letter too.

· · ·

On Saturday, May 18th, I went to a press conference held by the Ministry of Information, which had just organized an Anglo-American press section, with quarters in a vast, rococo ballroom at the Hôtel Continental called the Salle des Fêtes. Pierre Comert, chief of the section, held conferences for the correspondents at six every evening, when he would discuss the day’s developments from the government’s point of view. This evening he announced that Paul Reynaud had taken over the Ministry of National Defence. He also announced that Reynaud had recalled Marshal Pétain from Spain to advise him. General Weygand had already arrived from Syria and it was understood that he would take over the high command in a few days. The two great names, in conjunction, were expected to raise national morale. The two old men, however, were military opposites. Pétain, cautious at sixty, when he had defended Verdun, was at eighty-four incapable of conceiving any operation bolder than an orderly retreat. Weygand believed in unremitting attack. One staff officer later told me, “Weygand’s ideas are so old-fashioned that they have become modern again. He is just what we need.” Strategically, the two men cancelled each other, but politically they were a perfect team. Both were clericals, royalists, and anti-parliamentarians. There is something about very old soldiers like Hindenburg and Pétain that makes democrats trust them. But Pétain was to serve Laval’s purpose as Hindenburg had served Hitler’s. However, we were cheerful on the evening we heard about the appointments. The German advance was apparently slowing down, and all of us thought that Weygand might arrange a counterattack soon. A week earlier we had been expecting victories. Now we were cheered by a slightly slower tempo of disaster.

· · ·

There was a hot, heavy pause the next few days. I took long walks on the boulevards, and up and down dull, deserted business streets. The wartime
population of Paris had slowly increased from late November until April, as evacuated families returned from the provinces, but since the beginning of the offensive the population had again decreased. All the people who remained in town seemed to concentrate on the boulevards. It gave them comfort to look at one another. They were not yet consciously afraid, however. There were long queues in front of the movie houses, especially those that showed double features. You could get a table at a sidewalk café only with difficulty, and the ones that had girl orchestras did particularly well. One girl orchestra, at the Grande Maxeville, was called the Joyous Wings and its bandstand and instruments had been decorated with blue airplanes. There were no young soldiers in the streets, because no furloughs were being issued.

It is simple now to say, “The war on the Continent was lost on May 15th.” But as the days in May passed, people in Paris only gradually came to suspect how disastrous that day had been. There was a time lag between every blow and the effect on public morale. I can’t remember exactly when I first became frightened, or when I first began to notice that the shapes of people’s faces were changing. There was plenty of food in Paris. People got thin worrying. I think I noticed first the thinning faces of the sporting girls in the cafés. Since the same girls came to the same cafés every night, it was easy to keep track. Then I became aware that the cheekbones, the noses, and the jaws of all Paris were becoming more prominent.

There was no immediate danger in Paris unless the Germans bombed it, and when the news was in any degree encouraging I did not think of bombing at all. When the news was bad I thought of bombing with apprehension. It helped me understand why troops in a winning army are frequently brave and on the losing side aren’t. We heard anti-aircraft fire every night now, but there were no air-raid alarms, because the planes the guns were firing at were reconnaissance planes. The heaviest shooting would begin in the gray period just before dawn. You wouldn’t really settle down to sleep until the morning shooting was over, and you wouldn’t wake up until noon.

On the night of May 21st, after Paul Reynaud announced to the Senate that the Germans were at Arras and that France was in danger, I had a
frousse
—a scare—of such extreme character that it amounted to
le trac
, which means a complete funk. It was an oppressively hot night, with thunder as well as anti-aircraft fire, interspersed with noises which sounded like the detonations of bombs in the suburbs. When I lay on my
bed face down, I couldn’t help thinking of a slave turning his back to the lash, and when I lay on my back I was afraid of seeing the ceiling fall on me. Afterward I talked to dozens of other people about that night and they all said they’d suffered from the same funk. The next morning’s papers carried Weygand’s opinion that the situation was not hopeless. This cheered everybody. It has since been revealed that May 21st, the day of the great
frousse
, was the day set for the counterattack which might have cracked the Germans. It never came, and by May 22nd, when we were all beginning to feel encouraged, the opportunity had been missed.

Later that day, word got around among the correspondents that negotiations were already on for a separate peace and that if the French didn’t sign it the Germans might arrive in Paris in a few days. This counteracted the effect of the Weygand message. Still later, I felt encouraged again as I watched a city gardener weed a bed of petunias in the Square Louvois, the tiny park under my hotel window. Surely, I thought, if the old man believed the Germans were coming in, he would not be bothering with the petunias.

· · ·

The greatest encouragement I got during those sad weeks came from Jean-Pierre. Shortly after the Reynaud speech, I went up the hill to Montmartre to take some flowers to Jean-Pierre’s mother. For once, Henri and Eglée were smiling at the same time. “You should have been here early this morning for a good surprise!” Henri shouted. “At five there was a knock at our door.” “And who do you suppose it was?” his wife cried, taking over the narrative. “Suzette?” I demanded, naming their married daughter, who lived in Grenoble. I was sure that it had been Jean-Pierre, but I wanted to prolong Eglée’s pleasure. “No,” Eglée announced happily. “It was Jean-Pierre. He was magnificent. He looked like a cowboy.” “He came with his
adjudant
,” Henri broke in, “to get engine parts they needed for tanks. The boy has no rest, you know,” he said proudly. “When the division goes into action he fights. When they are in reserve and the other fellows rest, he is head of a repair section. He is a magician with engines. And his morale is good! He says that the first days were hard, but that now they know they can beat the Boche.” “On the first day of the battle, Jean-Pierre’s general was arrested,” Eglée said, with a sort of pride. “What
canaille
! Jean said it was fantastic what a traitor the general turned out to be. And there were German spies in French officers’ uniforms!” “They met a regiment of artillery without
officers,” Henri said, “but completely! ‘So much the better,’ the artillerists said. ‘They were traitors anyway. But where in the name of God are we supposed to go?’ Fifteen German bombers appeared over Jean-Pierre’s unit. ‘We’re in for it,’ he said to himself. But the boy was lucky. The Germans had dropped their bombs elsewhere. Then Jean-Pierre’s unit met German tanks. He says our fellows rode right over them. ‘There may be a great many of them,’ he said, ‘but we are better than they are. Our guns penetrate them but they do not penetrate us. As for the spy problem, we have solved that. We simply shoot all officers we do not know.’ Jean-Pierre and the
adjudant
stayed for breakfast. Then they had to go away.”

Although I knew that an individual soldier had no chance to understand a military situation as a whole, Jean-Pierre’s optimism raised my spirits considerably. I believed fully the details of the encounter with the German tanks. Jean-Pierre was of that peculiar race of engine-lovers who cannot lie about the performance of a mechanical thing.

When I returned to my hotel, I passed along Jean-Pierre’s confident report to Toutou, the hotel’s cashier, with whom I often discussed the war. She was a patriot but a congenital pessimist. All the employees slept on the top floor of the hotel, and as soon as Toutou had read of the German parachutists in Holland she had bought a revolver and cartridges. “If one lands on the roof, I’ll pop him!” she had said. “Or perhaps as he descends past my window!”

· · ·

In each week of disaster there was an Indian summer of optimism. On the third Sunday after the offensive started, I had dinner with Henri and Eglée. We teased one another about our forebodings a fortnight earlier. “Do you remember how sure you were that the Germans would be here momentarily?” Eglée said to me. “And how you were certain that Jean-Pierre was no longer alive?” Henri asked Eglée. “It seems a year ago,” I said sincerely. “I must admit that the French have their heart well hooked on. Any other people would have caved in after such a blow. I wonder where Weygand will make the counterattack.” “In Luxembourg, in my opinion,” Henri said. “If he made the counterattack too far to the west he would not catch enough Boches. A good wide turning movement, and you will see—the whole band of them will have to scramble off. They will be on the other side of the Albert Canal again in a week.”

We talked and listened to the radio, and, as usual, I stayed for tea,
then for supper, and then for the final news bulletin broadcast at eleven-thirty. The bulletins earlier in the day had been dull. But something in the speaker’s voice this time warned us, as soon as he commenced, that the news was bad. We began to get sad before he had said anything important. Then he said, “Whatever the result of the battle in Flanders, the high command has made provision that the enemy will not profit strategically by its result.” “What can he mean?” Eglée asked. “He means that they are preparing to embark that army for England,” Henri said. “Unless the enemy captures the army, his victory is tactical but not strategical.” “But why must they embark?” Eglée asked. “I do not know,” Henri said almost savagely. That was the day—though none of us knew it—that King Leopold told his Ministers he was going to give up. Eglée began to cry. “Now they are coming to Paris,” she said, “now they are coming to Paris.”

· · ·

As late as Monday, May 27th, people in Paris still believed that the Allies stood a chance of closing the gap between their southern and northern armies. That evening, Pierre Comert, chief of the Anglo-American section of the Ministry of Information, announced at a press conference I went to that operations in the north were “proceeding normally” and that the high command expected the Battle of Flanders to last at least another two weeks. I slept well that night, awakened only a few times by moderate anti-aircraft fire. In the morning, Toutou, the cashier at my hotel, stopped me as I was going out and said, “Did you hear Reynaud on the radio? The King of the Belgians has surrendered his army.” She had been crying.

I walked about the streets stupidly the rest of the morning. I had the map well in mind. The Belgians, by their surrender, had laid bare the left flank of the Franco-British armies in Flanders, and I thought the armies would soon be surrounded. Perhaps the French and British in the north would become demoralized and surrender. If they had been seeking an excuse to quit, they had a good one now. People on the streets were saying to each other, “And that isn’t the worst of it. All the refugees probably are spies.” They did not seem depressed. A fellow wheeling a pushcart loaded with wood stopped and shouted to a colleague on the other side of the street, “Say, old fellow, did you hear the news? Ain’t we just taking it on the potato!” In his voice was a note of pride.

I walked around the Place Vendôme a couple of times; the luxury-shop
windows had for me a reassuring association of tourists and normal times. Charvet was showing summer ties. I bought a couple from an elegant and hollow-chested salesman. I didn’t want to talk to him about the war because he looked sad enough already, but he began to talk about it himself. “We are an indolent people, Monsieur,” he said pleasantly. “We need occurrences like this to wake us up.” Paris reminded me of that conversational commonplace you hear when someone has died: “Why, I saw him a couple of days ago and he looked perfectly well.” Paris looked perfectly well, but I wondered if it might not be better for a city in such danger to show some agitation. Perhaps Paris was dying.

That night, when the shock of the Belgian surrender had begun to wear off, I had a late dinner with two American friends in a little Marseillais restaurant on the Rue Montmartre. We were the only customers. We had Mediterranean rouget burned in brandy over twigs of fennel. Although all three of us knew that the war was lost, we could not believe it. The rouget tasted too much as good rouget always had; the black-browed proprietor was too normally solicitous; even in the full bosom and strong legs of the waitress there was the assurance that this life in Paris would never end. Faith in France was now purely a
mystique;
a good dinner was our profane form of communion.

BOOK: The 40s: The Story of a Decade
12.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Of Noble Birth by Brenda Novak
The Day the Flowers Died by Ami Blackwelder
On Best Behavior (C3) by Jennifer Lane
Rest Assured by J.M. Gregson
Motion to Suppress by Perri O'Shaughnessy
Salvage by Stephen Maher
King by R.J. Larson
20Seven by Brown, Marc D.