George Fenn.

George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life

For the fighting in Paris was now going on more fiercely than ever. Grape-shot and shell from the batteries of field-pieces, from the various barricades and the forts engaged, worked dire havoc, and just at this time in particular, Henty relates the fact that from nearly every house and almost every window in the better streets hung the gay tricolour flag, in proof that the occupants were anti-Communists, and opposed to the red. In the boulevards and elsewhere the openings, whether gratings or windows, were all covered up with heaps of wet sand or mud, or by tightly-fitting boards. This precaution was taken on account of the fiendish women belonging to the Commune, who were going about pouring petroleum into the cellars and then throwing down lighted matches. On one day alone, marked by fresh fires constantly breaking out, Henty saw lying on the pavement the bodies of two women, who had just been taken in their deadly pursuit and shot. Six more were lying close to the ruins of the Palais Royal. The death sentence had been promulgated by MacMahon, not only for the protection of the city, but of the lives of the troops as well, for the Communists were desperate, and again and again wires laid for communication with mines were torn up; this saved the principal buildings. Despite all the horrors of destruction and the retribution that followed, it was necessary for orders to be issued as to the early closing of public buildings. Something had to be done to put an end to the sight-seeing of the people who were prowling about, eager to get a glimpse of a stray corpse or a pool of blood, or to follow the troops leading off a prisoner, man or woman, to be shot; any sensation, no matter how terrible, was followed up with the same eagerness with which at home in England people would hurry to a race meeting or to some royal event.

That monstrous cataclysm, the Commune, was in its last throes, though dying hard. Its lurid sun was setting in blood. Retribution was falling heavily and sensational reports were in the air. One of the Parisian papers that had shown a ghoul-like thirst for blood, and had exhibited the desire further to inflame the fury of the victorious party, asserted that a hundred and fifty firemen had been shot at Versailles on the date previous to its appearance. This, on authority which Henty considered unimpeachable, was utterly false, for there had been no summary executions there. Soon after, as a special correspondent, he had to read a communication addressed by a Frenchman to one of our English papers, charging his colleagues with exaggerating their accounts of the wholesale and summary executions which they witnessed, and with feeling undue compassion for the men, women, and children thus butchered. In reply to this Henty says: No correspondent that I am aware of has ever regarded as other than inevitable the fury of the troops whose duty it was to avenge the burning of the Tuileries and the murder of the hostages. That they would give no quarter was what everyone supposed.

Such deeds done in hot blood, horrible as they may be to witness, are common incidents in warfare, and though the correspondents might regret to find a regular army so entirely beyond control, they would hardly be surprised. But that which the correspondents saw with feelings of horror and disgust was people arrested on a mere hue and cry of their being insurgents or having thrown petroleum, and then dragged away amidst showers of blows from the ruffianly middle-class mob that had tamely put up with the Commune, and shot down like dogs. To make my meaning clear, I will give you a couple of instances. At the corner of one street there was a barricade. The insurgents had run away when the troops came up and carried it. It was not until the following morning that the neighbouring houses were searched for fugitives. Six men, and a boy in the uniform of the National Guard, were found. The men pleaded piteously for their lives; the boy, who had retained his musket, resisted to the last, and wounded two men before he was disarmed. Then all the seven were put up against the barricade and shot. This is bad, but it is not what my colleagues or myself mean by atrocious reprisals. But what will the French writer of the letter to the English press say to this. At a house in the Faubourg Saint Germain there was a native of Chaillot, who fled thither with his family to escape being forcibly incorporated in the troops of the Commune. He had belonged to the National Guard during the first siege, and had retained the k?pi which most Frenchmen then wore. The troops searched the house, dragged the man down into the street, and without listening to a word of explanation blew out his brains. In the wholesale razzias that were made, prisoners overcome with fear and falling down from utter nervous exhaustion were dragged out, shot, and left lying in the road. As regards the women supposed to be going about with bottles of petroleum to set houses on fire, all I can say is that I have seen what has made me understand the old cry of A witch! a witch! with us. Any ugly old crone, who might be mingling with the crowd, was liable to instant execution, and many were thus butchered. I will only add that so far as I have seen, the correspondents of the English press have rather underrated than overstated what took place, and so far as I am concerned, I have never reported what I did not see myself, and have even carried my scruples so far as not to mention the wholesale butcheries of which a well-known general was guilty, and from which a former officer in our artillery was rescued by something little short of a miracle. As for the troops, they did not, that I ever saw, exhibit any ferocity. They left that to the cowardly curs who were crying Vive la Commune! the very day before the Versaillais came in. Had all the insurgents been put to death, I should not say a word. Such atrocities are part of the business of war. But what I do say is, that thousands have been sacrificed without their executioners taking the trouble to ascertain their identity. The clamour of the mob was considered to be sufficient proof of guilt.

Henty was very reticent about a good many of his adventures in Paris and just outside the Ville Lumi?re during those days streaked with political trouble and dire calamity which followed the close of the war. He looked on at the Commune just as a soldier thoroughly accustomed to horrida bella might, and what is more, he saw through its egotism and hollow pretence, and criticised its op?ra bouffe absurdities and its crimes. When the Commune was at its height, however, he got out of Paris and set out to join the investing Versaillais. From the vantage point of Meudon he and one or two other correspondents used to watch the firing of the Communists, and came to entertain a very poor opinion of it, except from a spectacular point of view. To the uninitiated, shell-firing seems a form of warfare of the most deadly kind; but that is where the mistake comes in, for, as Henty says, in no case is artillery fire really dangerous except at point-blank range. With elevation, a shell, to do great damage, must drop straight on top of you. Then, of course, the effect is bad; otherwise there is a good deal of sound and fury signifying the vagaries of shells, and with a properly constituted obus the looker-on has time to decide, as he watches the firing, which way he had better go to avoid any unpleasant consequences. Henty seems to have rather enjoyed the sensation, as a matter of fact, and he pricks the bubble of the cannons mouth, as it were by destroying a popular delusion as to the awful results bound to follow from heavy shell-fire. To read what he says, one is driven to the conclusion that the projectiles in question have been masquerading as far more dangerous than is really the case, in the same way as the Russian has built up a bogus reputation for fearsomeness on the strength of the big boots he wears. Why, in the Turco-Servian War, Henty writes, I was with some four thousand men on a knoll twice the size of Lincolns Inn Fields. Into that space the enemy dropped three thousand shells in eight hours, and killed three or four men! One chance in a thousand was fairly small.

But to return to that charming spot, Meudon, at the time when it was residentially risky. What is the sensation like of being under fire? Henty, of course, was fortunately constituted, and did not mind little things. At first, he says, you are too flustered to be really afraid, and when you get used to that youve got your business to think about. Youre there for a purpose, you must remember. Besides, use enables one to estimate danger very quickly, and often that estimate reveals the fact that there is no danger at all.

He gives a vividly interesting, and yet a matter-of-fact impression of watching shell-firing. When the flash showed at the far-off battery, one listened for the missile that horrible whistle, growing louder and louder as the shell travelled towards one. Until it was about thirty yards away it was impossible to tell whether it was coming within dangerous proximity or not. Thirty yards off, the sound altered if it was moving at an angle that would carry it out of range. If the sound didnt alter, one fell flat on ones face; if it did, one stood still. A matter of nerve, perhaps, but nerve backed up by knowledge. Familiarity, of course, produces an easier way of looking at such things, but viewed in this way the ordinary everyday idea of artillery fire has to be considerably altered. Hentys observations might well be incorporated in some little manual on etiquette when meeting shells.

Chapter Twenty Five.
A Word about Politics

It is impossible not to admire the single-mindedness and directness of purpose which characterise Hentys letters from Paris written at this period of dire trouble, when chapters which rival in tragedy and sadness any of those that have gone before were being added to the history of France. He viewed this time of heart-stirring crisis in a matter-of-fact style, such as was to be expected from a man of his temperament and businesslike attributes. He went straight forward with the work of the day, chronicling details which came under his notice, and keeping to hard plain facts at a time when visionary speculation was the rule, and when all those who followed the prodigious happenings in France were amazed and bewildered by the complexity of the situation, and by the startling suggestiveness of what the morrow might have in store for the high-strung and imaginative French people. He kept sedulously to the point, despite of all, notwithstanding the rumours concerning what Thiers meant to do, and what Marshal MacMahon had said to the Comte de Chambord regarding the possibility of the latter being received at Versailles as Henri Cinq.

Outside the heated arena of politics in Paris there were all these larger issues of extreme importance, issues of such significance that they brought into the tumult of that day the quieter spirit of the old past. At the dinner tables, and in the salons of Paris, and elsewhere as well, even up to 1875, the talk was of the coming of Henry the Fifth, the king of the old line, the great-nephew of his majesty, Louis Seize, and of King Louis the Eighteenth, and the grandson of Charles the Tenth. Such an advent would have been in curious contrast to the wild chicken-and-champagne days of the corrupt and materialistic Second Empire, for the Comte de Chambord had lived in monastic seclusion ever since his protest in the early fifties. Maybe in his mimic court at Frohsdorff, surrounded by all the respect and divinity of a prince who represented an illustrious tradition, and who found in religion his greatest solace, the heir to the French crown was nearer to happiness than he would have been had he boldly come forward and assumed the reins of power, as he might have done had his character been of blunter fibre. If this had occurred, the change for Paris from the red dominion of the Commune to the white lilies, with all they signified, would have been another strikingly dramatic episode in the chronicles of France.

All these things Henty saw and lived among at that time when people were disgusted with the preceding twenty years, and wished for something which was better and more earnest, though precisely what was desired it would be hard to say. Side by side with rank, uncompromising Anarchism, were the echoes of an old and aristocratic regime, and learned theorists were busy weighing the various proposals in the balance, while a sort of hybrid military republic kept the lists. And all this at a time when the streets of the capital were perhaps the most dangerous of any in the world, and social order had gone by the board. At one time it really seemed as though the spirit of the older France would prevail, that certain incontestable rights would come up for final adjustment, and that a thread of policy, of which sight had been lost for some years, would be finally resumed.

Vague speculation about matters which lay outside his immediate purview was, however, never Hentys method, but here and there a newsy item crops up in his correspondence, such as that the Prince of Orleans politely saw Thiers to his carriage, and that people were talking of the Duc dAumale, also that the Princes of Orleans, who had always followed social and military things rather than political, would abide by what France said. Of course this was rather a doubtful policy, for France sometimes speaks with an uncertain voice. The demagogue shouts enough for a hundred, but the silent thinker who disdains noise would be better worth hearing. That Henty followed all these things we know, and his real views crop up here and there; but he was a narrator, not a commentator. The empire was dead. As an actual political power it died in 1867, and however much Napoleon the Third might protest against his deposition, the fact that he had finally lost the throne was there patent to all. Even the statement of the astute M. Pietri, the secretary of the disinterested ex-monarch, that his master had not one centime in foreign funds, seems to have had no effect on the course of events.

Henty was only a bird of passage, an observer of Paris during a few moments at a period when the influences of centuries were at work, and his was by no means exclusively a political view. Empty theorising or the peering into empty houses did not lie his way; but maybe for this reason more than any other is it most interesting to con over his lengthy contributions to the newspapers of that time. The almost photographic minutiae give the reader a vivid impression of the crucible period, for everything was in the course of remaking. There was the first review after the Germans had packed up and gone away, the recoming of the martial spirit under the leadership of MacMahon, who turned in his saddle with a There, gentlemen, what do you think of that? as the battalions of cadets, the future officers of the armies of France, came swinging by before the staff and the foreign attach?s. There was the bright spot of the Belfort incident, when the devoted garrison marched out with all the honours of war. It was a great and stirring time, when every moment was lived at fever heat; and Henty looked on as a soldier as well as a correspondent.

Very soon the French were beginning to look up again. We have an army of 450,000 men, was the cry. There were a few pride-saving laurels won in the defeat of the Commune, civil war though it was. Then we see the recommencement of the social life of the capital. Wonderful was the exhibition of recuperative power. The broken bits of civic life were put together, and an order sent to the factories for a new outfit, as it were. The Com?die Fran?aise Company toured in London, and refilled the empty exchequer; the loan necessary to pay off the more urgent demands was easily subscribed; and Henty fills in the picture with the unerring touch of a master hand. It is a pen such as his dispassionate, observing, restrained on which the historian rightly relies.

Chapter Twenty Six.
On the Life of a War Correspondent

Europe being once more at peace, with France settling down, Henty turned from fact to fiction, producing The Young Settlers, and later a book for boys, The Young Franc Tireurs and their Adventures in the Franco-Prussian War, the source of his inspiration being evident.

Little more than a year though elapsed before the cry in the north and east was again havoc. The dogs of war were let loose by Russia, and Hentys pen was again busy for his paper. This was in connection with the restless Turkoman dwellers in Khiva, a name which brings up recollections of Captain Burnaby, who described his solitary ride to that city, and graphically narrated his extraordinary journey upon a camel in love. Burnaby was a thorough specimen of the beau sabreur, as well set up and muscular as any Lifeguardsman (or Blue) in his regiment. He was good company, and a very welcome guest at Hentys club, where he came one evening shortly before his departure for Egypt. His fate was that of a gallant soldier. Dismounted, he stood warding off the spear-thrusts of the Mahdis followers with his sword, what time they had succeeded in breaking the British square at Abu Klea, and he held them back until he received in his neck the fatal thrust which robbed the service of a brave soldier.

Upon Hentys return from Russia the preparations for another campaign were not far distant, for the Ashanti expedition had been decided upon, and in September 1873 he sailed for Cape Coast Castle in the Ambriz, with Sir Garnet Wolseley.

In speaking of a correspondents duties he tells us how, when at home, he receives a telegram saying, Come up to the office at once, he knows that it means that there is something serious on the way, and from general knowledge of what is going on abroad he is pretty well aware why his services are required. On reaching the room of the manager of the newspaper, or that of the editor, he is told that he is to accompany this or that expedition, and most probably he is informed that he must be off the very next day.

If the journey is by rail, it may be that it has to be commenced at once, or if by steamer, it may depend upon when the vessel starts east, west, north, or south, and he learns that it will be better to go and take his passage at once.

If the conversation is with the editor, there are many things to be discussed, such as the length of the letters he is to send, the people he is to see; there is talk about passports, discussion on letters of recommendation, and hints about the political line he is to take, while various little ins and outs have to be dwelt upon. In fact, editors have special ideas of their own, and often in petto a disposition to come to conclusions as to what is about to take place.

At the end of the business discussion the correspondent receives a big cheque, and what remains to do is soon got over. The passage to wherever it may be is taken, and the adventurer for such he is hurries home to make the preparations which experience has taught him are necessary. The fewer things he has to lumber himself with the better, but stern necessity has taught him that certain provisions must be made; and when a man has followed the head-quarters of an army time after time, he knows that he must have with him, to face heat, cold, and storm (often in extremes), a stock of clothes suitable for all climates, saddle and bridle of the best, revolvers, and a tent. The reader may raise his eyebrows as he reads this list of necessaries and think of the amount of luggage. Pooh! One has not half done. Our correspondent has to look after his health and strength, and the chances are many that he will starve if not provided for the worst. He has to take cooking apparatus for field work. He must be provided with waterproof sheets to spread on the damp ground and supplement the canvas of his tent. He has to take a portable bed, three or four blankets, and much other impedimenta which experience has taught that he must carry with him if he is to be in condition to write good stuff when he wants to commit the information he has learned to paper.

With regard to Ashanti, Henty says in addressing an imaginary person who wants to know what it is to become a war correspondent: You will probably pause, after visiting the bank, to buy a case or two of spirits and one of cocoa and milk, a few pounds of tea in a tin, and if you are a smoker and I dont know any special correspondent who is not a good supply of tobacco, also in tins.

Then there is the health to be considered; and a man of experience knows how necessary it is to nip any threatening of disease in the bud. He must take remedies which suit his constitution in an ordinary way, and certain others which are bound to be wanted by a man who is about to cross rivers and swamps, and force his way through tangled forest and the other strongholds of jungle and malarial fever.

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