Some time ago I discovered Mildred Aldrich writing about WWI through letters to friends and family at home. One collection is called A Hilltop on the Marne, others are On the Edge of the War Zone and The Peak of the Load. Aldrich writes in a crisp, matter-of-fact style about events that were anything but ordinary. In March 2012, I wrote about a trip she made to Versailles.
During a visit to Paris in February 1918, she wrote about an air raid.
I was reading when I heard a far-off sound. I knew at once what it was. My hostess and I tumbled out of our beds, unlatched the windows so that no shock of air expansion might break them, switched off all the lights and went on the balcony just in time to see the firemen on their auto as they passed the end of the street … in an instant, all the lights of the city went out, and a strange blackness settled down and hugged the housetops and the very sidewalk. At the same instant, the guns of the outer barrage began to fire, and as the night was cold, we went inside to listen, and to talk.
I wonder if I can tell you .. how it feels to sit inside four walls, in absolute darkness, listening to the booming of the defence, and the falling of bombs on an otherwise silent city, wakened out of its sleep.
It is a sensation to which I doubt if any of us get really accustomed – this sitting quietly while the cannon boom, and now and then an avian whirs overhead, or a venturesome auto toots its horn as it dashes to a shelter, or the occasional voice of a gendarme yells angrily at some unextinguished light, or a hurried footstep on the pavement tells of a passer in the deserted street, braving all risks to reach home.
I assure you that the hands on the clock-face simply crawl. An hour is very long. The raid of the 17th lasted only three quarters of an hour. It was barely half-past eleven when the berloque sounded from the hurrying firemen’s auto – the B-flat bugle singing the “all clear” – and, in an instant, the city was alive again, noisily alive .. doors opened and banged, windows and shutters were flung wide, and the rush of air in the gas pipes told that the city lights were on again.
Aldrich also says:
Few as the air raids have been, Parisians have already learned that the guns for the defence make most of the noise. The explosion of the bombs, if rarer, is a more terrible sound. But what is hard to bear, is the certainty that, although you are safe, someone else is not.