Tuesday, April 15, 2014


The subtitle of this little book is The City of Light During the Great War, 1914-1918.  It is a unique look at Paris by an Australian who has lived in that city for many years and is married to a Frenchwoman.  His grandfather was apparently sort of an odd man who enlisted in the Aussie forces to fight in France during World War I.  He never spoke about his experiences so our author, John Baxter, tries to learn what he might have done in France.

That turns out to be a side venture though.  Mainly the book is factual, the real stories of what Paris was like during the war.  I hadn't realized for instance that the trenches were just outside the city.  People could take an excursion to "see the war" rather like Washingtonians riding out to see the battle during the American civil war.  There wasn't much to see except mud, filth, sick and wounded men, and the vast gaping no-man's-land between the lines.  The sounds of the guns could be heard all over the city, and they could see the results of firing of "The Paris Gun" that had a range of 40 miles.

Meanwhile, the city residents and men on leave lived it up.  I guess everyone would go a little crazy with the war just a few miles away, shortages of supplies and money, and not knowing if the Germans would invade.  Horrible lies were spread about what Germans would do if they occupied the city so everyone was afraid.  Might as well live it up while they could.

This was a time when Ernest Hemingway and Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso and many other authors and artists enjoyed a free, libertine way of life.  The wine and liquor flowed and those who had gas for their cars raced around town picking up party-goers.  Troops were ferried to the front lines by taxi and private cars, fashion was either fantastic or military, and sex was freely available.  

Baxter tells this story in vignettes and along the way seeks his grandfather's real story.  There are a few little things in the book which I suppose could offend but after all this is a time when anything was possible and he throws a light on all of it.  He does eventually find out his grandfather's war experiences and realizes why he never talked about it.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would suggest it for anyone who thinks history is dry and boring.  Paris was a lot of things during the war, but never boring.

Highly recommended
Source:  Publisher Harper Perennial

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