Going to War in 1914: French People’s Reactions to Mobilisation

This weekend marks the outbreak of World War I, 105 years ago in 1914. On 2nd August the French government issued the general mobilisation order. The following day, Germany declared war on France. On 4th August, Britain in turn declared war on Germany. The stage was set for one of the bloodiest – and most futile – conflicts in history. To mark the occasion, I’m publishing below an excerpt from near the end of my latest novel, Overture, when the main characters hear the tocsin alerting the villagers to the general mobilisation.

In the French countryside, the reaction to the outbreak of the war was often one of stupor and disbelief. International conflicts seemed far away. The main concern was to get in the harvest, particularly as the weather had been miserable in France that summer.

Contemporary accounts indicate that, initially, people were bewildered but resigned. One account from the Limousin says that women were in tears, while the men looked grim but determined. Later, however, there was a increase in patriotic fervour as the men left to board the trains bound for the Front. The following is an account from a village in Charente (my translation):

Around 5 pm, most people were alerted to the general mobilisation by the sound of the church bell. A short time beforehand, police from the gendarmerie in Blanzac had arrived to bring the news to the mayor. Later, the news was confirmed in all the villages by the village policeman, who put up the posters. The first reaction, for everyone, was a profound bewilderment, since nobody had thought war possible. Nonetheless, during the days that followed, the departures took place smoothly. The women regained their calm and the men, full of enthusiasm, sang as they left.

At that point, of course, no one could know that the war would last until November 1918 and inflict numerous casualties and lasting social and political change on the countries that took part.

Extract from Overture

The main characters, Ida, a young opera singer, Frédéric, her friend and mentor, and Augustine, her mother, are relaxing in Ida’s country house in the rural French département of Aveyron in early August 1914. They have experienced a trying and exhausting year and are looking forward to a summer break.

“What a relief the weather’s turned,” Ida said. “It’s lovely to see the sun again.”

“Let’s hope it stays like this for a while,” Augustine said. “I’m fed up with the weather this year.”

Ida opened the French windows wide. “My poor roses have suffered. They’ve been looking rather limp and miserable with all the rain. Now, perhaps, they’ll have a chance to revive.”

“The place does feel a bit unloved,” Frédéric said. “I think…”

The frantic pealing of a bell interrupted him. The still summer air vibrated with wild chiming.

Ida stepped onto the terrace.

“Is there a fire?” Augustine said.

“Can’t be. It hasn’t been dry enough.”

Frédéric joined them, his eyes wide. “The tocsin. I’m afraid I think it’s the call for mobilisation.”

Ida gasped and covered her mouth with her hands. “I can’t believe it! Surely things can’t have gone that far.”

Augustine went white and steadied herself against the French door.

“We’d better go out and see what’s happening,” Frédéric said.

People emerged from their houses along the main street and converged on the village square. From the other direction, men ran from the fields, a few still bearing sickles.

“Where’s the fire?”

“What’s going on?”

“Why’s the bell ringing?”

In the middle of the square, the village policeman beat a steady rhythm on his drum, while the mayor fixed a poster to the door of the Mairie. “Ordre de mobilisation générale” was printed on it in thick black letters. The villagers crowded around, and a hubbub of voices arose.

Mayor Durand held up his hands for silence. The drumbeats ceased. “A gendarme from Villefranche brought the news. The order was issued from Paris to the Prefects earlier this afternoon.” He proceeded to read out the mobilisation order. 

People looked at each other open-mouthed. A few crossed themselves.

“But what does it mean? Are we at war?” Ida said.

“As good as, I suppose,” the mayor said.

A thickset man elbowed his way to the front. “How? We hadn’t heard anything about this.”

Frédéric coughed. “The newspapers have been speculating about it for the past few days. It seems things have moved rather quickly.”

The man eyed Frédéric. “Down here we don’t get to hear much about what goes on in Paris.”

The clamour arose again, like the buzzing of a swarm of bees.

“Who’s got to go, anyway?”

“Everyone who’s able. The younger reservists first, and then the rest of us. Our papers say when we have to go.”

“We’re in the middle of the harvest. How are we supposed to finish it?”

“They want the horses and oxen, too.”

A few of the women dabbed their eyes with the corner of their aprons. Most of the men wore sombre expressions. No one cheered. It was as though someone had died.

“We’ll do our duty, for France,” the mayor said, his shoulders slumped. “Go home now and start preparing. There’s a lot to do in a short time. I need to call an urgent council meeting and send messages out to the hamlets. They don’t know about this yet.” He paused. “Vive la France!

Durand re-entered the Mairie and closed the door. Knots of people hung around for a while, talking in soft voices and reading the mobilisation order, before drifting away.

Ida stood for a long time in front of the poster. Her body was hollow, drained. Turning, she took Augustine and Frédéric by the arm and they walked back to the château, too stunned to speak.

Throughout the late afternoon, Saint-Romain hummed with activity as men polished boots and harness, while women crammed clothes and provisions into packs for the departure. The clanking of hammer on iron carried in the still air as horses and oxen were re-shod at the forge. Despite the haste to get everything ready, an atmosphere of muted restraint hung over the village.    

Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2019. All rights reserved.  

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