WWI Air Raid in Paris

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.

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11 Responses

  1. I’ve never heard of Mildred Aldrich, though now I’m scrambling to get copies of the books you’ve mentioned. They look so absolutely perfect for my current research! Many thanks for sharing!

  2. Don’t forget about the notorious “Big Bertha” and all the damage she did to Paris. Big Bertha was a HUGE howitzer manufactured by Krupp (Bertha was the Krupp heiress.) that destroyed fortifications with shells that weighed 2,000 lbs. There was also the “Kaiser Wilhelm Geschütz” (“Emperor William Gun” or “Paris Gun”) that bombarded Paris from a range of up to 80 miles with shells that weighed 200 lbs.
    From March through August of 1918, three of the guns shot 351 shells at Paris from the woods of Crepy, killing 256 and wounding 620. As a military weapon the gun was a failure – the payload was minuscule, the barrel needed replacement after 65 shots, and the accuracy was only good enough for city-sized targets. But as a psychological tool it was remembered when the V-1, V-2 and V-3 weapons were being developed two decades later. Incidentally, the Paris gun was the direct ancestor of the V-3.

  3. Wow, that closing comment “although you are safe, someone else is not”. That genuinely shook me.
    The details in the first paragraph were amazing, the B-flat bugle, the auto and I must confess I was very intrigued by the fact they actually had to open the windows to avoid the glass being broken because personally my instinct would be to shut them even though they would prove no real defence against what might be coming.
    Amazing stuff.

    1. You’re right, Kirstie. I’d instinctively close the windows too. WWI reality is amazing. The more I research, the more I am astonished — which I suppose one could say about any historical period 🙂

  4. Wow, how good is Mildred! I’ll certainly keep her in mind for further research.
    Was wondering if you would be interested in writing about your current WIP.
    I’ve been tagged in a meme called The Next Big Thing. It features 10 questions about your current project. My blog will be finished soon. At the end I tag 5 writers. Would you like to be one of them? Let me know.

  5. All of the talk about war, bombs, etc. is very ironic because she told friends that she was moving to the community of Huiry, overlooking the Marne, to find a “perfect peace.”

      1. I have recently completed a 3-act play based on three of Mildred Aldrich’s books.
        In the play I sort of mention in passing about the Zeppelin raids on Paris and the Big Berthas.
        I plan to post my play on some site in the near future after I have it in the exact form that I want it. I lived in Paris for 2-plus years, and I drove to Huiry to see Mildred’s “hilltop.” It is on the highest point of a hill that very gradually slopes to the Marne. Thank you for additional information about Mildred’s experience in Paris.
        Bob Winthrop peoriabob2006@yahoo.com

        1. Many thanks for stopping by, Robert. I’m intrigued at your interest in Mildred Aldrich and wish you great success with your play. Her journals were fascinating – such a plucky woman (plucky isn’t a word I would normally use but it seems appropriate for someone living during WWI).

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