top of page
  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

"Darn This War!" The dream summer in Paris ends abruptly

Updated: Apr 9


Collage of Laura Wheeler in the Luxembourg Gardens
Laura spent hours in the Luxembourg Gardens

Settling into her summer sojourn, Laura began plotting her version of the grand tour. “From Paris I intended to go to Geneva and then to Italy, Germany, Holland and then go back to England and sail from there…I cannot bear to think of missing Italy as I had particularly looked forward to that,” Laura recalled woefully. “[But] Just on the eve of my departure for Switzerland war was declared.”

 

The mood in France appeared to change overnight, beginning with the high-profile assassination of the popular socialist leader on July 31 and the mobilization of Russian forces in defense of Serbia. The citizens of France now realized that their alliance with Russia would draw them into the conflict. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia in defense of Austria-Hungary. The French military began to mobilize.


Jessie Fauset, in an article for The Crisis would recall: “…Saturday, the first of August! That was the day the church bells rang all over the city"



World War I—The “Great War”—had begun and they were caught up in it.

 

French soldiers WWI
Within days, 3.5 million Frenchmen prepared to go into battle.

Within days, 3.5 million Frenchmen donned military uniforms and prepared to go into battle. Numerous boisterous patriotic demonstrations took place at strategic locations throughout the city—at the train stations, in the parks, on the open terraces of large cafes—wherever the common people were likely to gather. Shops considered to be owned by “enemies”—Germans or Swiss—were vandalized and looted.

 

Hoping to avoid being stranded in France, the three women determined to depart for England at the first opportunity. Speaking of those first harried days, Jessie Fauset would write, “for us, of course, they spelt confusion—Our Lady (her sister, Helen) and I had practically no money that was not paper, and that might just as well have been the actual rags of which paper is made.... The Artist (Laura) was little better off than we.”

 

Laura duly recounted her activities in her report to the Academy. “I went immediately to the American Consul and was advised to remain in Paris… to get a passport and also a permis de sejour from the Paris police to secure safety while living in Paris,” she wrote. “For each of these documents I stood in a line or crowd for hours at a time. I was told I might not get away until Christmas and must take the fortunes of war, if necessary. This added nothing to my peace of mind….”

 

Jessie, too, found these visits to the Consulate and Embassy “highly unsatisfactory.” She relayed that “there was a heart-breaking waiting in line at the prefecture only to find out after six weary hours that one had gone to the prefect in the wrong ward. There was the wearying, nerve-racking strain to be undergone all over again the next day.”


photo of crowd at French building at outbreak of WWI
Thousands were stranded

At home, newspaper headlines proclaimed, “Stranded Tourists in Serious Plight” and “American Flight From Paris Almost A Panic.”  Stories circulated about how wealthy and socially prominent American citizens—stuck with virtually worthless currency and having to stay in second-class boarding houses—were being affected by the disgraceful inconveniences brought on by the war. Attention was also given to the predicament of other travelers, such as the Academy art students. A Philadelphia Inquirer article listed the names of all of the students, including Laura Wheeler, but could offer no indication of their whereabouts. That same week Laura sent by cable to her family in Hartford a one-word message: “Safe.”

 

Travelling was crowded, hot, uncomfortable, and delayed. People lined up at the station for hours before a train was due to arrive; when it did, there was a mad dash for the cars. “The usual three-hour trip to Boulogne took all day,” Laura recalled, “and there were soldiers in my compartment…who had been called that day to the front.”


photo of French soldier
Jessie remembered one soldier in particular

Jessie remembered one soldier in particular, who rode in the car with them from Paris north to Amiens. He observed the trois femmes noires intently, and then began to converse. Presently, he offered them some milk chocolate from his knapsack. Since the three had left Paris without taking time for breakfast, Jessie noted, “It was a perfect godsend… I have never tasted anything so delicious.” Wanting to return the act of good will, Jessie requested the privilege of giving him a little money, for “du tabac,” at the very least. “But he refused us gravely,” Jessie wrote appreciatively, as she was particularly sensitive to any racial slight to her sense of respectability and womanhood. “He had done only what a gentleman should, he assured us earnestly, and had in our gratitude and sympathy received more than a gentleman’s reward.”  The idealized vision of cultured romance that she harbored, and the treatment she received in France and from Frenchmen in particular, were among the many attributes that made Jessie Fauset a devout Francophile.


Finally, Laura, Jessie and Helen made it to the ferry that would take them across the channel to Dover. The trip that should have taken little more than 10 hours had kept the ladies on and off trains and ferry for more than a day, but, finally, they had made it—thrilled to arrive on British soil. Another train from Dover to Charing Cross railway station and they were back in London at last!


photo of London circa 1914
Back in London at last!

 

The three companions arrived in London on the 18th of August, determined to regroup and salvage what they could of their plans. Since they were all booked to return to New York on August 27th, why not spend the ensuing days touring England and Scotland? Forwarding their larger baggage to the ship, they soon set out to tour the British countryside, with its centuries-old villages, castles, and charm. Still, Laura noted glumly, “There are soldiers everywhere.”


And so ended Laura's Cresson Award-funded summer, her dream vacation abroad, disrupted by this… this bother. Darn this war! 



© 2023-2026 Valerie Harris. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

1 Comment

Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
Christina Cook
Christina Cook
Apr 04
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

So fascinating to read the perspective of a Black woman traveling in France during a time of such ongoing racial discrimination in her home country, the US, and layered onto that, how she & her friends were caught in the crosshairs of WWII.

Like
bottom of page