Saturday October 16th, 1915
Travelled from London to Paris. Arrived 7 pm. Special facilities for passing luggage and all attention shown us by officials on the way.
Sunday October 17th
M. Guillion called and stayed with us to lunch. Interpreter (Military) accompanied us throughout the day. All facilities and attention to see Paris shown us.
Monday October 18th
Chiefly on our own. Later in the day called at British Embassy; when we were leaving Col. le Roy Lewis ran after me. He is Military Attaché at the Embassy; wondered at my being in Paris. The matter of an interpreter was discussed, would have been provided had we wished it, but as we gathered from M. Guillion that it would be simpler without and our progress and liberty to go certain places more free, we decided, as two of our company spoke French fairly well, not to take one.
Started by train from Paris to Chalons, traversing the valley of the Marne and the places where Germans were first turned back, showing little damage beyond where bridges had been destroyed, now partly repaired. Trelport (?) bridge in particular where Germans were entrapped in the river and some German officers killed. We went through some good wine districts making high quality wine. At 9.55 we passed the first village we had seen caught by the German fire. We arrived at Chalons 10.40, had lunch, after which we started in 4 military motors; M. Lemasson la Morinière, Director of Agriculture for the district of the Marne, joined us. Visited English cemetery. The roads from here were full of war material and convoys. Chalons is still occasionally receiving German attention and it was not thought safe lodging for us. So we travelled on our way to Vitry where we were to dine and spend the night. Arriving there we called on the sub-prefect and proceeded on our route passing the villages and alighting and inspecting the devastations that war and a savage foe had left behind. An awful sight, Sommersous,..........Villers-aux-vents, Chateau de Chapelaine, Lenharrée ....Huiron, Courdemanges, Frignicourt,....Thiéblemont last, where we saw one of the King's rams, quite a village pet and he knows it, quite a good sheep; there was a favour shown to the commune who got one of these. The land was generally cultivated, chiefly by women and girls; all kinds of teams were seen at work, cows, oxen, mules and horses being harnessed indiscriminately. The land was generally of a light character and easily worked. Stacks were not thick on the land. All were busy getting in the beet crop and ion places potatoes. Vines are generally grown on the slopes of the hills, but many patches are cultivated on the highest land which is of a very poor character. At dark we returned to Vitry, dined and retired at an early hour.
Wednesday October 20th
We left on our journey at 8.30. The first village we stopped at, Pargny. The few places in which it was possible to live were occupied. This was a large village with a beautiful church and amongst the general wreckage the altar was generally intact and in another place the Mayor's dwelling, although all around was desolation, at first sight was wholly untouched, but he showed us where on the inside about a dozen bullets had penetrated. There were 400 killed in this village and in the battle 1500 soldiers slain. At Sermaise we were met by M. Robert, Director of Agriculture, the Mayor and Miss Fry of the Society of Friends, who showed us round the breeding pens for poultry and rabbits, which are being distributed to the villages round. This work has not been long in operation. The poultry is a doubtful success and it would probably be better to send help in this direction from England, as practically none have been spared by the war. In a large building about 40 children were being taught, were had out and photographed. Miss Fry reached here in April, is very energetic and is doing much good work with her many helpers: the most noteworthy being the erection of small wooden dwellings in the villages round, where for all practical purposes not one stone is left upon another. The various villages we saw told the same tale of a country wholly and in most cases wantonly devastated. Tales told of brutality to the inhabitants, and perhaps about a dozen remaining where there had been hundreds, or rather, who had returned. We saw a dugout where the Crown Prince was for two or three days, had robbed the church for furniture. The communication trenches had been filled in. In this village we saw some of the implements sent out by the Committee. The Department of Agriculture had erected some wooden dwellings, with which, though small, the fortunate possessors were very pleased: a good change from the wretched underground holes in which the year had been passed. Triaucourt-In this village great barbarities were committed, but I refrain from details as a small pamphlet written by the Curé explains all by one who had to endure the destruction of his village and the desecration of his church. His own residence and the hotel, where we had lunch, with a very few other buildings are left. The hotel was used for wounded German soldiers.
The Curé joined us after lunch, we each purchased one of his pamphlets, in which he wrote his name. This very kind and sincere old man had gone through all the dreadful ordeal of a German occupation during which the Mayor was shot, women and children violated and killed in cold blood and last the village destroyed; but during the whole had looked after his people, nursed and tended the German wounded and is still cheerful and hopeful. We next, after passing more ruined villages, arrived at Clermont, a military base. Behind this town a somewhat extraordinary natural mound rises, very steep slopes, and from the summit a grand view is obtained as far as the eye can reach. From here the guns could be heard continuously. The church, partly destroyed, was used as a rest hospital and we stayed some time to hear a band playing on the adjoining ground; soldiers on duty equally appreciated the music. The spot is only 4 or 5 miles from the firing line and the boom of guns was continuous. We now started on our way to Bar le Duc passing ruined villages and stopping at B... This wreckage must have been a fine and well-built village. We arrived at Bar le Duc 6.50. Dined and to bed.
Bar le Duc. Walked round the town which just escaped the Germans. The old town is on the hill, very old and quaint, with steep narrow winding streets. From the higher part you get a good view of the surrounding country with the modern part lying in a basin surrounded by hills and vineyards and patched cultivation. At 12.45 we started for Nancy by train travelling up the valley of the Moselle. An invasion by the Germans would have had to be through this route, had they not fit to violate Belgian territory. It would have been a formidable undertaking, the valley being hemmed in by steep wooded hills, and for some distance the whole is nearly occupied by the railroad, road and canal. We arrived at Nancy at 3 pm and were met at the station by the Prefect, M. Mirman. We then called on him at the Prefecture; when, after being addressed, he replied at length (and after sent us typed copies of his speech). He then accompanied us to the barracks, where we saw, instead of soldiers, about 1400 women and children, refugees from the districts of Lorraine where fighting is now going on; many children are here placed in safety whilst the parents remain at their post. The women are chiefly employed making sandbags for the soldiers, but some were very clever at lace and embroidery, of which the Prefect's wife, on whom we were invited to call later in the evening, we were assured, would provide us with specimens for a consideration. The boys and girls are apprenticed to useful trades and vocations at about the age of 13; much useful seed is being sown here in habits of cleanliness and industry. It was nice to see the old prefect going round with a kindly word for all, often taking the old women's faces between his hands, but only kissing the cleanest and nicest little girls, but many more, I think, would have allowed the liberty. We returned to our hotel, dined and afterward called on the Prefect, his wife and family. We had tea, coffee and smokes and were much interested in the many war trophies both of the present and the 1870 wars. We took our leave after making some purchases in accordance with prearranged plans, retired and slept the sleep of the just.
The morning was dull, misty and drizzling. We started on our expedition at 8.00am in three strong military motors over roads that had as yet received little attention. This however made little difference to our expert drivers, who, where the way was in anyway direct, took us at 40 miles an hour and were not above taking chances. This proved the most interesting day of the whole tour. We passed and entered trenches in process of construction, quite works of art. We travelled over 200 kilometres besides alighting and spending much time in inspecting the scenes of some of the most bloody battles. We were, as we thought, able in our minds and vision to reconstruct the whole scene; the trenches, crude in comparison with those now constructed, left with much debris in the state in which they were evacuated. Saddest of all: the crosses marking the graves of the fallen: these, both of friend and foe, are carefully tended and will at a future date be removed to sacred ground; as they are scattered over the whole of the ground we traversed, it will entail a long and sad labour of love.
On this day we passed and visited about 20 villages that had been; At Gerbéviller, near one of these battlefields, we purchased some trophies: the only place at which we found them. This was nearer the firing line than any place yet visited, about 3 ½ miles distant, and from the old battle-ground the guns are still heard booming.
We left for Paris, where we arrived at about 3 p.m. We had several formalities to go through relative to our passports and, although special facilities were given us, we had no time to spare.
We were accompanied on the whole of our tour by M. Guillion from the Department of Agriculture; he was conversant with the country and, with his official documents, we were permitted where all but the privileged are denied. We wished him good-bye on the following morning with pleasant recollections of his companionship.
We left Paris at 7.30 for England via Boulogne. We passed the British main camp before reaching there; wooden huts are rapidly taking the place of canvas. On our arrival at the station we had the sad experience of seeing an ambulance train of our wounded soldiers being unloaded. After formalities of passports and customs we embarked, reaching London at 9.30 p.m.
Samuel Kidner of Bickley Farm, Milverton was one of a delegation of four sent to France in October 1915 by the Agricultural Relief of Allies Committee of the Royal Agricultural Society. The other three were Colin Campbell, C.J.B. Macdonald and Percy Hurd. Monsieur Guillion, Inspector-General of Agriculture, accompanied them during their visit.
Last updated on 17th December 2007
© Simon Kidner 2007
Appendix 81 - 1915, Diary of Samuel Kidner of Milverton