An Italian in our compartment would talk, however, and he would keep the topic down to red trousers, and to the red trousers of a French Territorial opposite, with an index finger when his gesticulatory knowledge of the French language, which was excellent, came to the rescue of his verbal knowledge, which was poor. The Frenchman agreed that red trousers were a mistake, but pointed to the blue covering which he had for his cap—which made it all right. The Italian insisted on keeping to the trousers. He talked red trousers till the Frenchman got out at his station, and then turned to me to confirm his views on this fatal strategic and tactical error of the French. After all, he was more pertinent than most of the military experts trying to write on the basis of the military bulletins. It was droll to listen to this sartorial discourse, when at least two hundred thousand men lay dead and wounded from that day’s fight on the soil of France. Red trousers were responsible for the death of a lot of those men.
Dawn, early September dawn, on dew-moist fields, where the harvest lay unfinished as the workers, hastening to the call of war, had left the work. Across Paris, which seemed as silent as the fields, to an hotel with empty rooms! Five hundred empty rooms, with a clock ticking busily in every room! War or no war, that old man who wound the clocks was making his rounds softly through the halls from door to door. He was a good soldier, who had heeded Joffre’s request that everyone should go on with his day’s work.
“They’re done!” said an American in the foyer. “The French cannot stand up against the Germans—anybody could see that! It’s too bad, but the French are licked. The Germans will be here to-morrow or the next day.”
I could not and would not believe it. Such a disaster was against all one’s belief in the French army and in the real character of the French people. It meant that autocracy was making sport of democracy; it meant disaster to all one’s precepts; a personal disaster.
“Look at that interior line which the French now hold. Think of the power of the defensive with modern arms. No! The French have not had their battle yet!” I said.
And the British Expeditionary Force was still intact; still an army, with lots of fight left in it.
It was then that people were speaking of Paris as a dead city—a Paris without theatres, without young men, without omnibuses, with the shutters of its shops down and its cafes and restaurants in gloomy emptiness.