This year we are so used to hearing that the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was greeted by cheering crowds that it’s worth pausing to check diaries and memoirs of the time to see what people really thought about it a hundred years ago. Here is how one well-travelled English aristocrat heard the news, and what he felt on hearing the sound of the tocsin presaging war:
“In July 1914, I was in Normandy, undergoing medical treatment for a bad leg. Black as the horizon looked towards the end of that month, I personally believed that the storm would blow over, and that the clouds would disperse, as had happened so often previously when the relations between Germany and France had been strained almost to the breaking-point by the megalomaniac of Potsdam.
On the fateful Saturday, August 1, 1914, I was at a little old Norman chateau standing on the banks of the placid river Mayenne. It was a glorious afternoon, and I was in a boat on the river fishing with the two daughters of the house. We suddenly saw the local station-master running along the bank in a state of great agitation, brandishing a telegram in his hands. He asked us where he could find “M. le Maire,” for my host, amongst other things, was mayor of the little neighbouring town, and added with a despairing gesture, “Helas! C’est la guerre!” showing us the official telegram from Paris. We at once landed and accompanied the station-master up to the house, where our host was dumbfounded at the news, for, like me, he had continued to hope against hope. Five minutes later he was knotting the official tricolour scarf round his waist, for it fell to his duty as Maire to read the Decree of Mobilisation in the town, and I accompanied him there. I shall never forget that sight. Sobbing and weeping women everywhere; the older men, who remembered 1870 and knew what this mobilisation meant, endeavouring to master their emotion and to keep up an appearance of calm; the younger men, who were to be thrust into the furnace, standing dazed and anxious-eyed at the prospect of the unknown to-morrow which they were to face. My host, after reading the Decree, added a few words of his own, such words as appeal to the French temperament; brief, full of hope and courage, and breathing that intensely passionate love of France which lies at the bottom of every French soul. The Maire then ordered the tocsin to be sounded in half an hour’s time, when it would also ring out from every church steeple in France.
The rolling Normandy landscape lay bathed in golden sunshine, the wheatfields ripe for the sickle, and the apple orchards rich in their promise of fruit. There was not one breath of wind to ruffle the sleek surface of the Mayenne, and the wealth of timber of leafy Normandy stood out faintly blue over the tawny stretches of the wheatfields. The whole scene, flooded with mellow sunshine, seemed to breathe absolute peace.
Suddenly, from a distant church steeple, came two sharp strokes from a bell, then a pause, and then two strokes were repeated. The town we had just left rang out two louder notes, also followed by a pause. It was the tocsin ringing out its terrible message; and yet another steeple sounded its two notes, and another and another. The news rung out by those two sharp strokes is always bad news. The tocsin rings for great fires, for revolution, or, as in this case, for a Declaration of War. Before us lay Normandy, looking inexpressibly peaceful in the evening sunlight, and over that quiet countryside the tocsin was sending its tidings of woe, as it was from every church tower in France. Next morning the only son, the gardener, the coachman, and the man-servant left the old Norman chateau to join their regiments; the son and the gardener never to return to it. To the end of my life I shall remember the weeping women, and the haggard-eyed men in that little town, and the two sharp strokes of the tocsin, sounding like the knell of hope.”
From: Lord Frederic Hamilton Here, there and everywhere. London 1921 http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/6368/pg6368.html retrieved 15/03/2014 Courtesy of Project Gutenberg.