I came across this in a Canadian archive a few years ago and it seems like the time to dust it off: it is an unusual account of the coming of war in 1914 written by my wife’s great aunt, who found herself trapped in Germany.
By all accounts Dolly Mavor was a remarkable woman. She was 36 in 1914 and a famous hypochondriac.
In the summer of 1914 she sought ‘a cure’ in Germany for an imaginary heart condition, and was still in residence as the diplomatic situation in Europe worsened. The following extracts from her journal, describe her escape to London between 1 and 5 August 1914, in the company of a German nurse; taking tea with German officers on their way to the Front; crossing the border a few hours before Britain declared war on Germany, and the German advance on Liege.
1 August 1914
I have been in Bad Nauheim for a fortnight now for the heart cure and am supposed to stay for another month, but all now is unsettled. The papers for the last few days have been full of the news of the war between Austria and Serbia, and of Russia’s preparations, but of little else. And we have had absolutely no news of England since Thursday. The last few days and nights have been disturbed by the movement of troops, also of the hotel staff, town cabs and motors which have gradually melted down to a minimum. I thought of leaving for home immediately the news came of the declaration of war by Austria, but did not do so because I could get no information as to whether my daughter could or would start to join me to-morrow as originally arranged, and because every one here advised me it was absurd to try to go in the present rush and unsettled condition, which they believe would end in a few days and enable us to leave comfortably.
…. the Military Authorities have taken control of the railways, telegraphs and telephones, and an order was issued that the only correspondence that would be allowed in or out of Germany in any direction would be postcards written legibly in German: and possibly telegrams, also written in German. One lady at my hotel tried to speak in English by telephone to a friend in Frankfurt, and was politely told by the operator that no conversations were allowed in any language but German. I am more fortunate than many, for I have an extremely able German nurse who has managed to get fairly reliable information as to local conditions even to-day, when the English-speaking visitors here first took alarm and spread the most extravagant and unreliable reports, both as to the possibility of getting away and of the comfort and ease of remaining.
2 August 1914
The second night of hardly any sleep, due to the tramp and singing of the soldiers passing along the main Frankfurt road: and this morning came the definite news that all routes into Germany are absolutely blocked and that the only possible route out, via Ostend, was extremely uncertain…..
Some of the hotels are closed to-day owing to insufficient staff – for all three grades of the reserve have been called out, which means that every able-bodied German between the ages of 19 and 45 – and for fear of insufficient provisions. I managed to consult the British Consul at Frankfurt by telephone, with the aid of my nurse as interpreter, and he considers there is a chance of getting through if I start at once, and that there will certainly be no chance after to-night. I have only about £12 in cash, but my nurse not only volunteered to attempt the journey with me, but also to draw £225 of her savings out of her bank at Frankfurt to pay our way.
3 August 1914
We decided to start last night at 8 o’clock and got to the station, which in common with all other German stations is now controlled and guarded by the military. I caught the 9.15 p.m. train to Frankfurt. It was very full but we managed to find room to sit on our luggage in the corridor. We got to Frankfurt about an hour and a half later to find every platform of this huge station piled high with luggage and crowded, most with tired looking country people waiting for the trains. We had to abandon our registered luggage as there were no porters left in the station; all, we were told, had joined their regiments. My nurse telephoned last night to the head of her Nursing Institution and she, with three other nurses, came to the station to meet us, and they carried our hand luggage and pushed a way for us through the vast crowds that thronged the station and the station square, to the Europascher Hof. Here we got rooms for the night, and with considerable difficulty some food, for out of the large staff of this hotel only three servants were left, and all bells had been disconnected.
At 9 o’clock this morning I saw the British Consul, who was extremely kind but said he was afraid he could do little, as it was not possible to obtain any reliable information. His advice, however, in all the circumstances, was to attempt to get through, and he visa-ed the passport I luckily had with me. Then we went back to the Europascher Hof and sent for a doctor to get his advice as to the best way of keeping my heart in good working order throughout the journey. He prescribed various things and gave much kindly good advice……
At a quarter to one the head of the Nursing Institution arrived with a wheel-chair, and by dint of much patience we made our way to a comparatively clear end of the platform by two o’clock, and there we sat until the train came in at a quarter to four. Several arrests were made on the platform; one was an American who was taken to a room and searched… He was with two other American men and an America lady…. Some soldiers came to the lady, who was guarding the six pieces of hand baggage belonging to the party, and made her turn everything for their inspection.
We were very lucky getting into a carriage occupied by two German officers. Both of them were extremely attentive and courteous throughout the journey to Cologne, where they left the train. The elder of the two, who spoke English quite fluently, was very interesting on many subjects and spoke enthusiastically of the British troops whose work he had seen in China thirteen years ago.
As we approached each bridge all the windows of the carriages had to be closed for fear bombs should be thrown from the windows to destroy them. The day was very hot, and this would have been very trying but for the presence of the officers who took the responsibility of opening the windows directly we had passed each bridge. We had a tea basket with us fitted for four people, and the German officers gratefully accepted my invitation to tea, and we had quite a cheery little tea-party, the success of the tea-making being slightly endangered by the anxiety of these officers to be of some use to us. At one stopping place they discovered some fresh drinking water, and were apparently greatly pleased at being able to re-fill our tea-kettle. At Oberlandstein a Russian, who had been seen taking photographs out of a window, was arrested and marched out of the station. A little later a lady of about sixty years and a man a little younger were arrested from our train. It was said that they had been overheard by some one in the same carriage discussing military secrets.
Just before reaching Cologne we were told that it was doubtful that the train would go beyond Cologne and that if it did go to Herbsthal (the frontier town) there would probably be about half an hour’s walk to the Belgian train. At Cologne we parted from the German officers, and learned, much to our relief, that the train would go on. We reached Herbesthal at about eleven without further incident beyond sharing our half chicken and bread with an American lady who got into our carriage at Cologne and said she had had nothing to eat since breakfast. I became doubtful if I could manage half an hour’s walk after the tiring day and therefore gave a rather large tip to a railway official and asked him to do the best he could for me in the way of getting a conveyance. Much to my amusement, and somewhat to my embarrassment, two very large railway officials rushed by me directly I got out of the train and wanted to carry me!
The Customs examination took place on the ground of the platform, and so far as I could see ours was the only hand luggage that was not completely overhauled by the Officials. Ours consisted of my dressing case, nurse’s bag, a canvas bag meant for soiled linen, and the tea-basket, and it was all passed without examination. Then came the examination of passports, etc. by the officer commanding the station. Many people were not allowed to pass at all, others only after a careful scrutiny of papers and a good deal of talk, and some were arrested, but here again we were extraordinarily lucky. The officer only glanced at a corner of my passport, saluted in a very impressive manner, and instructed my burly railway escort to guide me across the line, instead of by the usual tunnel, in order to avoid stairs. Outside the station we found only one farm cart, and it was already fully loaded with people from the train, but the driver promised to return as quickly as possible for us and our baggage, and our escort unlocked and lit up a private room for us to wait in. A little later our escort got word that the return of the cart had been stopped by somebody, and again renewed their offer to carry me. However, an officer in charge of the station approached, overheard the conversation and ran at an extremely good pace down the road to see what had occurred, and returned in about ten minutes with the cart.
My relief at being over the frontier was very great, but there was no peace in our surroundings, for with us in the cart was an American lady who throughout the ‘drive’ complained in very nasal French and in a high-pitched voice of the loss of her luggage. By the time we got to Welkenraedt, the village the Belgian train was to start from, it was midnight, cold and wet, and we were greeted with the cheering information that a bridge had been blown up between Herbesthal and Verviers, consequently there would be no train on to-night and we should have to make our way to Verviers to catch a train.
4TH AUGUST: The motor was to call for us at 8 o’clock this morning, so we ordered breakfast at 7. Just as we were going downstairs to eat it we were told that the motor had arrived and could only wait three minutes. However, we drank a cup of coffee each, and after paying 40 marks for our night’s accommodation started with the good wishes of our hosts. …. The driver of the car had undertaken to drive us to Verviers, said to be about 25 kilometers, for 40 marks, which seemed not unreasonable in the circumstances, but at the end of the village he stopped at a café to pick up a man who was in a very excited condition who told us that the car was really his, that he had hired it for two days and that he now wanted it to take a Belgian Senator from Verviers to Liège, because the line between these towns have been destroyed in the night, and no train could get into Verviers. But he undertook to try and arrange with the Senator for us to share the car on to Liège. It was pouring very heavily and the rain came in through the top, and our companion, whose excitement seemed in great part due to wine, never ceased talking till we got to Verviers. He told me the troops had arrested him five times and taken his car away from him twice…. When we got to Verviers we saw the Belgian Senator who said that he had got another car and we could engage the one we were in for 50 marks more, but was a little uncertain whether he had enough petrol and was quite certain the military authorities had commandeered all the petrol there was in Verviers…
On the road from Welkenraedt to Verviers we met, and overtook, continuous streams of miserable people trudging back to their own country with many families, and a few with their household goods also. Soon after leaving Verviers we overtook a party of men, all Belgian soldiers, but only one in uniform, going to join their regiments at Liegé. All asked for a lift, but our driver refused to take more than the one in uniform who cheerfully mounted beside him. After going some miles we met a party of peasants who told us the road was up and that we should have to make a long detour to get into Liegé…. We turned back, retraced our way for about two miles, and the took a fresh road winding up a rugged hill through most lovely country. By this time it had stopped raining and the country looked beautiful and peaceful, until we saw in the distance, first a whole village and then three single farmhouses burning, and on the rugged hills about us, sentries outline against the sky-line. One fired a shot into the air soon after we passed and a little further on a row of soldiers crossed the road with fixed bayonets and made us slow down, but on seeing the solder seated next our driver they saluted, wheeled aside and let us pass. The same thing happened nine or ten times and after each salute our soldier escort turned and smiled at us, apparently tremendously amused at the effect of his presence. A little further on we came to a long avenue of trees felled by Belgian soldiers, and after we passed I looked back and saw they had begun to draw the trees across the roadway to form a barricade. Then we passed near and through many groups of soldiers encamped by the roadside. As we turned the corner into Liegé we heard firing and saw smoke and the glint of arms and still another farmhouse in flames. We reached Liegé station at twenty minutes to nine and were told that a train would presently leave and would be almost certain to reach Brussels, but further than that nothing was known. We were also told it was impossible to telegraph from anywhere in Belgium and that the station-master believed that the last boat for some days from Ostend to England had gone. Soon a train came in composed of extraordinarily dirty third-class carriages which were filled to overflowing in a few minutes by refugee peasants. The station-master told us that if we would wait a few minutes he would arrange that a better carriage should be put on with the new engine. This he did, and again we had a very comfortable carriage where I could stretch myself. Of the many hundreds that came as far as Herbesthal with us meaning to reach Ostend only eight including ourselves got through that day…
Much to my relief I found that I could telephone home from Brussels to say that I had got out of Germany.