The Battle of the Skies in Paris
While the war was on, when one started for Europe, from the moment he put steps on shipboard until the armistice was signed, there was absolutely no real safety. Perils on sea, perils on land, perils in the heavens! I had gotten safely to Paris having crossed the English Channel in a crowded “packet” steamship, but was not there very long before I got another baptism of fire. The Germans seemed determined to capture Paris, or destroy it. When they started out in August, 1914, their objective was Paris, and they got within 37 kilometers of it, but God, in His good mercy, stopped them, and they never got any nearer. They were marching at the rate of 40 kilometers a day for four days. A German diary found by the French tells about this march: “The men stumble at every step, their faces all begrimed with dust, their clothes in ribbons; they look like living rags; they march with their eyes closed and sing in chorus lest they might drop asleep on the road. The certainty of instant victory and a triumphant entry into Paris keeps their nerves taut. It is the ecstasy of victory that keeps the men alive. That word Paris (on a sign-board) made them simply mad. Some hugged the signpost with both arms; others danced around it.”
Paris! What a city to fight for! No wonder that in 1870 when the Prussians besieged it, rather than give it up the people of Paris endured the most awful privations, until eventually with starvation facing them they surrendered. Paris is France reflected in a single city. Here are her artists and orators, her scholars and her soldiers, her lawyers and her statesmen! Paris is a city of beauty. Statues appear everywhere, many of them are inspired by patriotism, but all are designed to be decorative and magnify the artistic taste. Paris is the home of the artists — the atmosphere of Paris, it is said, teaches them moderation, clearness, discipline, “divine proportion,” as Leonardo calls it, but this must be taken in an artistic sense, not in a moral. Morally, Paris is frightfully unclean. The city is built according to plan, and no one can build a house there unless willing to conform to the general plan or setting of the given locality. Paris has few high buildings. Skyscrapers are unknown there. There are no “canyons” of high buildings such as are to be found downtown in New York.
During the war there did not exist any “gay” Paris. It was somber and sober Paris. At night darkness unrelieved by bright lights took hold of the city and only glimmering street lights were permitted to burn. All windows had to be heavily curtained at night so as not to allow a single ray of light to creep outside because one light might point the way into the city of some enemy airplane hovering on the outskirts of the city. Paris has certainly made a reputation for itself, not alone as the city of art and beauty but as a city of loose morals. The American Army drew a tight line against Paris as a leave center for its men. For a long period no soldiers were permitted to go to Paris on leave — officers were also excluded, but after the Armistice the rules relaxed some and officers were permitted to go there, and some of the privates. In order to guard our men the YMCA, Red Cross and other American Institutions opened up hotels, club rooms, etc., for officers and men. Here everything was on the American plan — American meals, etc., and American women supervised a good deal of the work. These places became the natural rendezvous of Americans. They felt at home there, they were given good beds to sleep on, good food to eat, good entertainments, and on Sundays, religious services. No doubt thousands of Americans in Paris were saved from falling into the toils of the strange women by means of those places provided out of the money of the American people. Besides the above, when the American soldier wished to see Paris he did so with the aid of competent American guides who took him around to all the places worth while seeing.
During the war Paris was the target of German’s airplanes, and latterly of her biggest gun. The Germans had invented a gun that could throw an immense shell seventy-five miles. Paris was the target. That gun was designed to terrorize the Parisians and was employed as an adjunct to their desperate drive of March, 1918. The Germans thought that big Bertha would have such a psychological effect upon the Parisians that they would become utterly discouraged, they would become broken in spirit — but it did not work that way. The big gun did some cruel damages to Paris — the most awful on Good Friday, when the shell fell in a church where there were many worshippers and many were killed, including several Americans.
I had not been in Paris long before one night the alarm was given all over the city that an air raid was in progress. Overhead we could hear the “rat-tat-tat” of the machine guns of the airplanes as they engaged in deadly combat, from the ground the anti-aircraft guns poured forth their deadliest at the invader. While the fighting was going on everybody was in suspense — no one could tell when or where the enemy bomb might fall. During this night’s raid forty-nine were killed. A sad case was that of a French soldier-artilleryman. He arrived home next morning on a ten days’ leave, to find that during this raid his wife and two children had been killed. Some bombs fell in the suburbs but did not do much damage to property or to life. Soon the signals were given that the danger was past and people went back to their homes and hotels. Those air raids always had. a terrorizing effect upon nervous people, the weak and the sick, and no doubt more people died through fear than were killed by falling bombs. Those air raids of the Germans reminded us of the Beast of Revelations 13:13. “He doeth great wonders so that He maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men.” They reminded me, too, of the Judgment Day when woes shall break forth upon the earth and the stars shall fall from their sockets and all nature shall be in convulsions.
See the stars from heaven falling,
Hark, on earth the doleful cry,
Then on rocks and mountains calling,
While the glorious Judge draws nigh,
“Hide us, hide us,
Rocks and Mountains, from his eye.”