I had never read Edith Wharton until I stumbled upon her collection of articles Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort available online from Project Gutenberg. Having moved to Paris prior to WWI, Wharton applied her prize-winning writing skills and incredible eye for detail to describe the war for Americans. What an inspiration.
Her connections to people such as Walter Berry, President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Paris, enabled her to travel to various sectors of the front and her writing captured the sights, sounds and horrors of war with passion and clarity.
Wharton describes the streets of Paris when war is declared then the look of Paris six months later under martial law:
FEBRUARY dusk on the Seine. The boats are plying again, but they stop at nightfall, and the river is inky-smooth, with the same long weed-like reflections as in August. Only the reflections are fewer and paler; bright lights are muffled everywhere. The line of the quays is scarcely discernible, and the heights of the Trocadéro are lost in the blur of night, which presently effaces even the firm tower-tops of Notre-Dame. Down the damp pavements only a few street lamps throw their watery zigzags. The shops are shut, and the windows above them thickly curtained. The faces of the houses are all blind.
In the Argonne she sees hard working soldiers and ruined villages, nurses tending the wounded and a view of fighting from a village rooftop:
The cannon were booming without a pause, and seemingly so near that it was bewildering to look out across empty fields at a hillside that seemed like any other. But luckily somebody had a field-glass, and with its help a little corner of the battle of Vauquois was suddenly brought close to us–the rush of French infantry up the slopes, the feathery drift of French gun-smoke lower down, and, high up, on the wooded crest along the sky, the red lightnings and white puffs of the German artillery. Rap, rap, rap, went the answering guns, as the troops swept up and disappeared into the fire-tongued wood; and we stood there dumbfounded at the accident of having stumbled on this visible episode of the great subterranean struggle.
Wharton is inspired by the faces of ordinary French citizens and soldiers, their determination and dedication:
In each of these earthly warrens (ingeniously wattled, roofed and iron-sheeted) stand two or three artillery officers with keen quiet faces, directing by telephone the fire of batteries nestling somewhere in the woods four or five miles away. Interesting as the place was, the men who lived there interested me far more. They obviously belonged to different classes, and had received a different social education; but their mental and moral fraternity was complete. They were all fairly young, and their faces had the look that war has given to French faces: a look of sharpened intelligence, strengthened will and sobered judgment, as if every faculty, trebly vivified, were so bent on the one end that personal problems had been pushed back to the vanishing point of the great perspective.
In spring 1915, it’s the movement of war’s men and materiel that catches her eye:
Standing up in the car and looking back, we watched the river of war wind toward us. Cavalry, artillery, lancers, infantry, sappers and miners, trench-diggers, road-makers, stretcher-bearers, they swept on as smoothly as if in holiday order. Through the dust, the sun picked out the flash of lances and the gloss of chargers’ flanks, flushed rows and rows of determined faces, found the least touch of gold on faded uniforms, silvered the sad grey of mitrailleuses and munition waggons. Close as the men were, they seemed allegorically splendid: as if, under the arch of the sunset, we had been watching the whole French army ride straight into glory.
My copy of Fighting France is full of notes and underlined sections and I could cite many more examples. Wharton’s tireless efforts on behalf of French and Belgian citizens affected by the war earned her the title Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. She remained in France for the rest of her life.
Wharton brings all aspects of war – large and small, human and inhumane, soldier and citizen – to life. Find time to read Fighting France, you won’t be disappointed.