Tuesday 12 August 2014

Bedford Boys’ Journey Across France

Zermatt and the Matterhorn [JN76/28]

Wednesday 12th August 1914: The following interesting account has been written of the experiences of A. A. and J. H. Linsell, sons of J. Linsell of 2a Chaucer Road, Bedford, in getting home from Zermatt last week: “At the time of the crisis my brother and I were staying at Zermatt, in Switzerland, where news was both late and unreliable. In fact, we should probably have stayed on there if we had not received two urgent telegrams from home and when we eventually left (Sunday, August 2nd), there were still several English there and more were arriving. Once on the main Simplon line, however, we noticed a change. In the villages, horses were being commandeered for the Swiss army, bridges and level-crossings were guarded and everything was in the hands of the military. On the platforms of the different stations, there was a hopelessly overwhelming amount of luggage, belonging to – and apparently in most cases, abandoned by – returning tourists. It was not however, till we reached Lausanne, that we received our first check, which was in the information that the trains had ceased to run in connection with French railways. This left us with two alternatives, firstly to find out the nearest British Consul, and secondly, to get on as far as possible to the French frontier in the hope of being able to get some conveyance to the nearest French station. Thinking that the British Consul would have probably enough English subjects already on his hands and would not be able to help us, on account of our numbers, we chose the second alternative and took the next train to Valorbe, arriving there at 1.30 on Monday morning. In the train there were crowds of others in the same plight as ourselves – mostly French but some American and one or two English. We were herded into the waiting-room for the rest of the night. Both the air, which was decidedly unhealthy, and the snoring of my fellow passengers, made sleep impossible for me. In the same building, lying about the stairs and in the hall, there were hundreds of Italian workmen, with their families. They were, of course, very poorly clad, and the sight was rather awful. They were able, however, to get a special train to take them on early the following morning. We, on the other hand, were stranded, as far as trains were concerned, and were forced eventually to walk to Pontarlier – a distance of twenty miles. Pontarlier was the nearest French station of any use to us. Another English tourist, my brother and myself left Valorbe, therefore, at 5 a.m. carrying our luggage between us. At the frontier we were received with enthusiasm by the Customs’ Officers on account of our nationality. Soon afterwards we came up with a French lady and gentleman, also tramping to Pontarlier and then with three English (two ladies and a gentleman). We all joined forces, and arranged to share a wheelbarrow for the conveyance of the luggage. At the different villages we passed through there was a considerable waste of time on account of the police, whom it was necessary to satisfy before going on. The barrow was also very cumbersome and difficult to manage, as it was very much overloaded. Afterwards, we succeeded in changing it for a four-wheeled conveyance, and finally we were able to hire a horse and cart, by means of which the luggage and the ladies of our party eventually reached Pontarlier. The French on the way did their very best for us, but the whole countryside had been upset by the preparations for war - all horses and sorts of conveyances had been commandeered and most of the men had already left for the front".

"At Pontarlier, where we expected to be able to get a train through to Paris, we found ourselves indefinitely "held up", as for the next three days, we were told there would be only troop trains running, and after the next three days …? That night we were billeted on the inhabitants. We reported ourselves to the Town Hall, and obtained a passport permitting us to return "as soon as possible" (which was little comfort). In the meantime, the English gentleman we picked up on our tramp had managed to get himself arrested as a German. I believe he was afterwards released, but I was not present at the incident. We spent the rest of the evening in worrying the officials and with the help of an English officer who had a special permit to travel by troop train, we succeeded in the end in obtaining a similar permit (as being liable to service in the British army). Our being able to obtain this was pure luck - and the result of persistent worrying. the English officer, my brother and myself, were the only ones to get through, and we left numbers of British subjects despondently waiting at the railway station. By a series of troop trains we managed to reach Boulogne, travelling to the following times: Pontarlier departure 6.30 am, Tuesday, Paris arrival 1.30 am Wednesday, departure 5.15 am, Wednesday; Boulogne arrival 2 pm, Wednesday, departure 11.30 pm, Wednesday: Charing Cross arrival 3 am Thursday".

"As we had left Zermatt on Sunday afternoon, our whole journey which, under ordinary circumstances, would not have lasted over 24 hours, had taken us over 85 hours, and at the same time we had every reason to consider ourselves exceptionally lucky. From Dôle to Dijon we had to travel by goods train (a matter of three or four hours). Several times we had difficulty in getting our passports accepted, even at the last moment on Boulogne quay. On the journey, of course, eating and sleeping was a secondary matter, the chief thing being to push on as fast as possible".

"As, however, all this time we were travelling with French soldiers, we had excellent opportunities to form a good idea of their keenness and enthusiasm. The trains were decorated with branches and flags, and in some cases, also with flattering pictures of William II[1]. Our train was labelled "Express to Berlin!" People unknown to each other would shake hands and give each other a rendezvous in some town in Germany,  and on account of our nationality, we came in for a considerable amount of shaking hands too. At the same time, one could not overlook the serious side; the farewell scenes, which repeated themselves at each station, where we took up fresh soldiers - when young mothers with babies in their arms, broke down hopelessly, in spite of the hearty encouragements from the men, always optimistic. "I have said adieu to no one" one of our fellow passengers boasted, "only au revoir". The women and children, however, will not lack work during the war. They have the harvest to see to, and already they have converted most of the stations into Red Cross hospitals. The nurses have been seeing that the soldiers on the troop trains have everything in the way of refreshments".

"This enthusiasm on the part of everybody; the general stoppage of traffic; the good humour of civilians unable to get home; these and many other sights we came across, could not but convince us of the complete and united turning-out France is under-going for the war. In their own expression, "il faut aller jusque' au bout”[2]".

[1]  i.e. cartoons of Kaiser Wilhelm II
[2] “It is necessary to see it through”

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