Oct/Nov 2018  •   Fiction

The Matter of France

by Peter Bridges

Image salvaged from public domain

In the early summer of 1939, I went on a driving trip through England and France. I spent ten rainy days in England and then put my rented car on the ferry from Dover to Calais. I drove first to Verdun, where there was a good hotel I could use as a base in touring for the first time the battlefields of World War I. My father had served in 1918 as a young captain in the 145th Infantry and had lost his left arm in the bloody battle of the Argonne—which did not keep him from later becoming vice president of an insurance company in Hartford.

Now, in 1939, people were wondering if there could be a second great war. Recent events were worrisome. Hitler had just months ago taken over Austria and then Czechoslovakia. Mussolini had grabbed little Albania after escaping sanctions for invading Ethiopia. Japan was engaged in a major war with China.

Like most Americans, though, I could not believe war would again engulf the whole world. Hitler might well attack France, but if he did so, he would run up against the impregnable Maginot Line. I met a retired French colonel at the Hotel du Coq Hardi in Verdun who told me, over drinks, how impregnable the Line was, with its great underground forts. I was not surprised by what he said. I had read recently a long article about the Line, full of photographs of its heavy armament and thick steel and concrete walls, in Life magazine. For some reason I thought of the Carolingian Matière de France, the tales of Charlemagne battling the infidels. Well, the French in 1939 lacked a Charlemagne, but if it came to a new war with Germany, they'd come through.

I spent a couple of days touring the battlefields where many hundreds of thousands had died and my father had been wounded. What in particular has always remained in my memory since then is the Ossuary of Douaumont, the great stone tomb-shaped construction on a ridge a few miles north of Verdun. There were large apertures on the side of the building, and I looked down into the cellars at the bones of an estimated 130,000 soldiers, both French and German—only half of all the men slaughtered there in 1916. The interior was lit by windows of red glass, giving it a bloody look. Everywhere on the walls were small plaques commemorating dead soldiers and devastated units. Where, I thought for a moment, will they build the ossuary for the next war's bones? But, again, I really did not think there would be another such conflict.

Then I drove south from Verdun to see Joan of Arc's country, in and around Domrémy, in the gentle green valley of the Meuse.

This was not wholly a vacation. I was an assistant professor of history at Dartmouth College, and I was aiming to write a book about opposition to the Papacy in Europe, beginning perhaps with the Albigensians in the 1200s. Joan of Arc would figure in my study. When I had first read the minutes of her trial for heresy in 1431, I had wondered whether she might actually have been a practitioner of the old religion. Others might have wondered, too; it had taken the Church five centuries to decide to canonize her.

My book would look into all that, and into proto-Protestants like John Wycliffe and Jan Hus—and would of course go on to John Calvin of Geneva. For now, though, I was not bent on research; I wanted just to see some of the locales where these personages had lived.

After two days at Domrémy, spent largely on pleasant walks in a countryside full of blossoming fruit trees, I drove a couple of hundred miles farther south, to Geneva, on a fine warm day in June. I would ask about archives while I was there, but I mainly wanted to get a feel for Calvin's old home.

I was pretty free of cares that June. My parents had left me a modest inheritance, I was still unmarried, and I did not need to economize on this trip. In Geneva I had reserved a somewhat expensive room at the elegant Hotel Beau Rivage, built in the late 1800s in Art Nouveau style. As its name indicates, the hotel is well located on the shore of the great Lake, a quarter mile north of where the Rhone flows out of the lake on its way south to the Mediterranean. Just beyond the river is Calvin's old city. My room was on the third floor of the hotel, and I had a good view of the lake and the tall white plume of the Jet d'Eau.

My neighbors in the two rooms just down the corridor were a father and daughter, whom I soon met and who had tea with me the afternoon after my arrival. They were Germans: the Graf Ulrich von Closen, a Bavarian nobleman in his 60s, and his daughter, Clara, blond and very pretty and perhaps 25 years old. I spoke passable German, but the Graf's English was near-perfect if slightly accented, and Clara's was still better. It turned out she had had an English nanny for many years.

Graf Ulrich asked about me and my origins. "My name is John Cluverius," I said, "and my ancestors came to Virginia more than two centuries ago, from England, although we believe the family was originally German. Over the years we have been farmers, more recently businessmen, but I am a professor, and my father has an older brother, my Uncle John, who works in government. I was named John after him."

"Oh," said the Graf, "And just where in government does this uncle work, if I may ask? You will forgive me if I am being too inquisitive. Your nation has long interested me, but I have not the opportunity to meet many Americans."

"I am always happy to talk about my family. Uncle John is a career diplomat, and not long ago he returned to Washington from some years at our London embassy. Just now he is chief of the division of European affairs in the Department of State—you know, our Auswärtiges Amt."

"Yes, I know. My own family have long served the state, but in the military. I myself was an army officer for three decades, but I retired in the wake of the Great War and now spend much of my time touring, with my dear daughter when she is not otherwise occupied..."

"My father," Clara broke in, "is being a bit modest. He was a Generalleutnant, a lieutenant general, and during the war he was assistant to the chief of the General Staff, Marshal von Hindenburg. And then he worked for Hindenburg when he became our President."

"Well," said the Graf, "that all ended when Herr Hitler became the Chancellor. But although I now live a quiet life in a small castle in Bavaria—where we would be happy to have an American guest—I flatter myself I am still remembered by a few people in Berlin..."

We decided after an hour to continue our conversation over dinner, and the three of us walked into the old town to a place the Graf knew, Les Armures. I commented after we had sat down that both father and daughter were strong walkers.

"Well," said the Graf, "I am 70 now and I have slowed down, but in my day I climbed most of the peaks in the Bavarian Alps. And Clara, here, is I think going still higher, every year."

I said I was no technical climber but I, too, liked high places with a view.

"We are leaving for Munich on tomorrow evening's train," Clara said to me, "And I know my father is meeting a friend tomorrow for lunch. Would you by chance be interested in joining me in the morning to walk up the Salève?"

"Perhaps—if you will tell me what it is."

"It is the long ridge you may have seen, just across the French border—a few minutes' bus ride from here. The Höhenunterschied, which is to say elevation gain, is I think no more than 500 meters, but there are stupendous views of the high Alps. We could climb it in an hour or so—and if we feel lazy we can ride down on the cable car and come back to town for lunch."

"That sounds perfect," I said. "Let's do it."

And we did. At 10:30 we were sitting atop the mountain ridge on a long slab of limestone, admiring in turn the curving Lake to our north and, far to the east, the tall white spike of the Matterhorn.

I pulled a water bottle out of my pack and offered it to Clara. I looked at her as she drank. She was lovely, I was lonely for a woman, and no one else was around. I wondered if I might take her in my arms, kiss her...

"Thanks," she said. "Tell me—are Americans good at keeping secrets? Are you good at keeping secrets?"

"That was not exactly what I was thinking of..."

"Perhaps not," she said with a smile, "But my question is a serious one. If I tell you something important, something very secret, will you promise not to tell anyone until you come home to America? I need to know."

"Yes, dear lady. I am very good at keeping secrets. What is it?"

"It is the future of Europe, nothing less. You know about the Maginot Line, I suppose."

"Yes, of course."

"You know it does not stretch all the way north to the seacoast."

"Yes. That is because the terrain of the Ardennes region in Belgium is too rough to be penetrated by a large army, and in any case the Low Countries will stay neutral if war comes, just as the Netherlands did in the last war."

"John, if I may, the secret I have to tell you, that my father told me to tell you, and that you must tell your uncle in Washington, is Hitler plans to go around the Maginot Line. He is going to violate the neutrality of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, and push a huge tank army through them and straight on to Paris. And my father has learned Hitler's generals are telling him the Ardennes is not as much of a barrier as the French think it is—as the French hope it is."

"I take it your father believes this is reliable information. But why does he want it passed on to the Americans, who will presumably tell the French and British and Belgians and Dutch? Does he want to see a German defeat?"

"I cannot tell you who the source of this information is. You would be surprised. As I think he told you, he still has friends in Berlin. Perhaps I should not even say this much. But there is no question what I have told you is true, exactly true.

"Of course we don't want to see Gemany defeated—defeated again, that is. We love our country. My father's hope, he tells me, is the Western allies will strengthen their defenses between the end of the Maginot Line and the sea—and Hitler will become aware of this, and change his mind—and so there will be no war, at least in the West. Perhaps, says my father, Hitler will then turn his attention eastward. But, he says, first things first. And, he says, you must ensure no one in Washington, or in London or Paris, learns the source of this information. It would surely mean our deaths.

"Now—did you say you wanted to kiss me?"

"Yes. Oh, yes, I do." We kissed, and embraced, and I remember how a warm flood rose in me. And then two hikers passed by, and so we went no further. In two more hours we had walked down and taken the bus back to the Beau Rivage. Clara and her father had a drink with me in early evening. Then we said goodbyes, with a handshake from the father and a polite kiss from the daughter, and they went off to take the overnight express into Germany, which had been Hitler's homeland for not many years but theirs for many centuries.

I sailed from Le Havre to New York ten days later on that elegant liner the Île de France. We docked in Manhattan early on a Wednesday morning in early August. That evening I got off the Montreal express at White River Junction and an hour later reached my old white house at the edge of Hanover.

As soon as I had put down my bags, I placed a long distance call to my Uncle John at his home in Georgetown. His wife, Aunt Eleanor, answered. John was at some reception, but she would have him call me when he returned. He did so, an hour later.

"John," I said, "I am happily back from Europe. While I was there, I bought a small birthday present for Eleanor—I know her 50th is coming soon. She and you have always been very kind to me, especially after my father died. Now, I have a proposal. The two of you take the train to New York next Saturday morning, I come down on the train from White River, and I take you to Luchow's for a birthday lunch. What do you say?"

He consulted Eleanor and quickly said yes. We had a pleasant lunch at Luchow's, that grand old place on 14th Street, and I gave Eleanor my present, an early edition of Emily Dickinson's poems I had bought in Geneva for a modest price.

Then I swore them both to secrecy and told them quietly what Clara von Closen had told me. John said he knew full well the need to protect one's sources. He would pass on the information to the French and British, but would of course not say who the source was. Eleanor said she knew nothing of such matters and of course would say nothing.

The Second World War began very soon, when Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939. It was a War that did indeed engulf the world. After we got into it, I served as a Marine Corps F4U fighter pilot in the South Pacific, and I came home in 1945 with only a modest amount of what we used to call combat fatigue. Uncle John had been made Minister to Canada in 1940, and he served in Ottawa throughout the war. In the spring of 1946 he returned to Washington, and in June he and Eleanor came to visit me in Hanover.

I asked him, first thing, what had happened with the information from the von Closens—and what might have happened to them, father and daughter. John said he had inquired. A captured Nazi document reported that in 1940 they had both been hanged in Berlin for treason. Alas, I thought, had I not been discreet enough? Spies were—and are—ubiquitous.

"There is no reason for you to blame yourself," John said. "But let me tell you now what I did with the information. Eleanor and I got back to Washington that Saturday evening. At nine on Sunday morning, I phoned the British chargé d' affaires and the French ambassador at their residences and asked them to come see me at the State Department as a matter of urgency. The British were between ambassadors, and the number two, in charge for the moment, was a diplomat named Victor Mallet. He later became an ambassador in his own right, I think to Sweden. Anyway, Mallet came in that Sunday morning without complaint, saying only 'John, you must have good reason to keep me from my usual glass of sherry at this hour!'"

"'I do, Victor, as you will hear once our French colleague joins us.'"

"The French colleague was the Count de Saint-Quentin, and he took his own good time to arrive. When he did, he made clear his irritation at being called in on a Sunday."

"Both of them," John told me, "were not only seasoned diplomats but veterans of the First War, and the Frenchman, I knew from others, had been badly wounded. And both of them were incredulous when I told them what I had heard from you."

"I recall Victor Mallet saying Herr Hitler was a scoundrel but not a stupid one. He might well go to war, and he was certainly capable of violating Dutch neutrality, but he, Mallet, knew the Ardennes, and it was impossible to believe the Germans would try to push trucks or tanks through those heavily wooded mountains and narrow, steep-sided valleys. The Count agreed, adding he too knew the area; it was on the edge of the Ardennes where he had been wounded in August 1914. 'And,' he said, 'Just where did you hear this report? I simply do not find it credible.'"

"'Nor do I,' said Mallet."

"I said, 'I can only tell you, gentlemen, the source is German and well informed, and I believe the report is accurate. Perhaps you don't find it credible. God only knows what is in Hitler's mind now—and what will be in his mind if and when his generals tell him he can defeat France by going around the end of the Maginot Line. We know the man is willing to take chances. He did that, of course, when he occupied the Rhineland, and just now when he gobbled up what was left of Czechoslovakia after the Sudetenland agreement. I must ask you to inform London and Paris of this new information. Frankly—but you need not report I said this—I sense a degree of complacency in both your capitals. If nothing else, this report may shake up your planners. And that's enough for me to say, beyond my regrets for spoiling your Sunday.'"

"I assume, John, that each of them reported my démarche. As far as I know, though, their governments did nothing about it. And so the Wehrmacht of course came down through the Ardennes and Low Countries in a Blitzkrieg, and occupied poor Paris in May 1940."

I will only add to this brief memoir that after my brief dalliance with young Clara, I came home and fell in love with Sally Enright, the lovely daughter of our Dean of Freshmen. We married and had two fine children and remained happily married for 40 years, until her death last year.

I will leave this in my safe-deposit box—a small piece of history and a memory of what might have been—since it seems my time, too, will soon come to an end.