A Tour Upon Wheels (Chapter X)

Chapter X

The direct road to Verdun, taken in mistake by Leonard, the queen’s coiffeur, on that fatal evening, leads to the right from the hotel of the Grand Monarque. We had intended to follow it, but were told that it was declasse, and was no longer cyclable. We retraced our steps, and soon rejoined the road from Clermont, which is part of the great road from Paris to Metz. Verdun has left as pleasant a memory to us as any town we have passed through. A bright, lively little place, well watered, surrounded by considerable hills, and crowned with a cathedral and a bishop’s palace worthy of the name. In Verdun we found a good museum, an intelligent director, a good library and a learned librarian, an excellent inn—the Coq Hardi—with good food, and an attractive local wine called vin gris. We naturally asked after traditions of the English prisoners and hostages who were kept here by Napoleon the First. They had left many memories behind them. Some of them had married Frenchwomen generally (we were told, their cooks), and had established themselves permanently in the place. We heard of half-a-dozen families with English names. We saw a model ship rigged by them which they used to sail on the Meuse, and a bas-relief presented by a grateful English sculptor to the church in which he was baptised. They wrote poems—” The Captive Muse”—they had an English club, they quarrelled, they gossiped and they backbit, and they left behind them £40,000 of debt, which the Verdunais to this day hope to recover from the English Government. After labourously pushing our machines up the heights above Nerdun, a favourable wind carried us rapidly to Mars le Tour, the last French village. From this point to Gravelotte the country is one huge graveyard. The fields are almost deserted: monuments erected by regiments, wooden crosses set up by private friends, extend as far as the eye can reach. Traffic seems to avoid the path as if it were haunted. We met a man who was sixteen in 1870. He spent the day of June 16 on the battle-field helping the wounded; he escaped with a bullet through his cap. I asked a peasant ploughing if he could give me a bullet or a badge as a souvenir. “Nous avons assez de souvenirs sans cela,” he replied. We were not sorry to reach Gravelotte. The inn was full of Germans: plans of the battlefields and of the monuments abounded. Just opposite the inn is a house of stone, where the French Emperor and his son slept on the night of the 15th. They had a narrow escape of being shut up in Metz. A stonebreaker by the roadside told us that he had seen Napoleon and Loulou. “Oui, j’ai vu son gamin.” He also informed us that he had spent the next two days in the cellar of his house. A short ride brought us through the terrible ravine of Grivelotte, where so many soldiers found their death, past the public house of St Hubert, so gallantly stormed by the Germans, to the heights of Point du Jour, which was the key of the French position. It appeared to us impregnable, and indeed it was never taken. The capture of St Privat on the left, or perhaps the failure of amunition, led them to retire on the following morning. From the point du Jour the cathedral and the fortifications of Mets were almost visible. A delightful descent brought us into the valley in which the heart of Lorraine lies. France may well regret the loss of so fair a province. She will never recover it: the town is full of soldiers, and the Germans hold it in an iron grasp. We were not sorry to repose in the palatial Hotel de I Europe, and the excellence of the military bands almost made us forgive them for waking us up at half-past four every morning. At Metz the weather broke, and we travelled ignominiously by rail to Strasbourg. Finis chartceque viceque.

Oscar Browning.

(Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine, Volume 140, 1886, pp. 348-363)


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