American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

War Comes to the Alps

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  • Publication Year: 1940

War Comes to the Alps

Ursula Corning

ON the 24th of August, 1939, the streets of Chamonix are as full as ever, but it is a strangely different crowd which surges up and down the way to the station. Gone are the familiar figures with sack and axe, rushing to catch the Montenvers train ; gone the little knots of people gathering in front of the Bureau des Guides or shaking their heads over the vagaries of the barometer. This crowd is thickest at street corners, where the latest editions of the Paris papers are sold, or along the walls, where huge unfamiliar posters show the calling up of various military classes. It is a grave and silent crowd; there is not the faintest sign of hysteria and hardly a trace of recrimination or bitterness, in spite of many Gallic shrugs about the cruel futility of it all. Somehow the rushing of the Arve seems louder and more pressing than usual, and Mont Blanc shrouds himself in thick grey cloud in keeping with the general gloom.

At the barracks outside the village the guides are gathering fast, greeting their acquaintances cheerily and looking with faint surprise at their mostly rather ill-fitting uniforms. Travel agencies are crammed with anxious people of all nationalities, soon to be borne away in the neat little blue and white train down the valley, wondering when and how they will reach their journey’s end.

Couttet’s Hotel is the usual peaceful oasis. Old Monsieur Couttet passes with bent head across the garden, followed by the two faithful dogs. Half his staff has been taken, and his guests discuss their imminent departure. Scraps of conversation float in through the open window. A woman’s voice speaks of her four small children in Belgium, then: “I don’t fancy it’s really necessary for a moment, but I’d better be at my place.” An Englishman that! A querulous high-pitched voice breaks in: “They tell me in the village that the whole of Chamonix is to be evacuated by this evening!” This last sally creates great hilarity; lucky there are so many roomy huts on the glaciers roundabout!

We decide to send back G. (my Swiss guide), knowing he may be needed to guard his frontier. He demurs profusely, even going to the length of calling up his home and then proclaiming that well- informed opinion at Zermatt does not think the situation really serious. He suggests piteously that we should go to the Couvercle hut, away from newspapers, radios and telephones, and stay there till the storm has blown over. We are sorely tempted, but remain firm. While driving over the Col des Montets, suddenly the aiguilles show up in a blaze of glory, and we stay to gaze till they are veiled in cloud. We go on to the Swiss frontier, singing old songs defiantly, while English cars dash in the opposite direction— Chamonix to Calais, non-stop—written in every line of their retreating backs. G. won’t let us wait at the station. “Think of me as shooting straight,” he flings at us and then vanishes through the door, lugging after him the sack with four different ropes, from which we had hoped great things when we came to Chamonix but a few days before!

Next day Spinach (my trusted Ford) and I also left for Switzerland. I decided to go down the valley and across the hills to Evian, for the Forclaz, never an easy pass at the best of times, might be cumbered with military. It was a strange trip. Every barrier was down, and all sorts and conditions of people mingled in a common desire to be helpful in face of this general calamity. I gave many lifts on the way and wished I had room for more passengers. On every road we saw elderly men, many of them with tears in their eyes, bringing cherished mules to the nearest village to be requisitioned for army service. In contrast, carefree children waved to us, holding out tight little bunches of tiny fragrant autumn cyclamen. At the frontier there was no trouble. “Are you not afraid to cross the border?” a kindly customs officials asked me. “We should protect you well here.” In a few days all these frontier villages were to be guarded by Senegalese soldiers. How homesick those men will feel when the heights are covered with snow and the cold mists rise up from the lake!

In Switzerland peasants were working in the fields, and there were horses and mules in plenty. It seemed like a peaceful refuge, but alas, this state of things was not to last. Three days later the frontier troops were called up. Above the Lake of Geneva where we were staying the clanging of a bell aroused us at 5 A.M., and men hurried out onto the village street in uniform, followed by their women and children. They scrambled into a flower- and flag-decked lorry; the foreman of the community made a short address, and the men were carried away down the hill, to the sound of our good wishes. In most mountain villages, all the church bells were pealed, and at Zermatt they sounded the tocsin, otherwise only heard in time of fire or hurricane. Each soldier has his bit of frontier, for the defense of which he and he alone is responsible, and as he is invariably called up in his own home district, a special personal pride enters into it. An ingenious system of cross-firing makes it well nigh impossible for any enemy to break through.

Three days later the bells were heard again, but this time they rang all over Switzerland for the general mobilization. The Swiss lost no time in needless lamentation. Within two days the complete country was under arms, without a hitch anywhere, in fact we were assured that exactly ten minutes before England declared war, the last Swiss soldier was standing at his post. Smart-looking soldiers, no; but they are crack shots, and their morale is excellent. “Let anyone touch us, and they will find us a wasp’s nest,” is the universal attitude.

The early days of September were so beautiful that it seemed as if nature were trying to make up for her cruel treatment of us earlier in the summer. Those men whose service took them to the high Alps had a royal time, climbing everything within sight, under pretext of choosing observation posts, while their unhappier brothers in the lowlands dug trenches, mined bridges and were instructed in the grisly art of making barricades. (At Basle, the frugal soldiers planted lettuces on top of the broader barricades, a constant joy to themselves and to the townsfolk.) With the first snap of cold the tables were turned, and frantic appeals throughout Switzerland begged for warm clothing for the mountain troops. Guides, of course, are well provided for, but men from the valleys and remoter hamlets are often so poor that they wear their uniforms over bare skin. There will be great hardship this winter.

Life in our village was quiet, so quiet that it was hard to believe in the storm that raged in the world outside. Our only visitors were extraordinary swarms of bees, which suddenly appeared all over the countryside, like a plague of Egypt. We remembered the old tradition that all news, good and bad, must be told to the bees.

Perhaps they knew about the war and had come to do their bit by supplying us with an extra amount of delicious mountain honey ?

One day a joyous sound of cowbells lured us onto the street, and there were all the cows coming down in herds from the high Alps, long before their appointed time. No one was left to look after them up there but women and children. Horses and mules had long vanished from the countryside; however, it’s an ill wind blows nobody any good! Friends of mine who own a little farm in the Rhône Valley had long been looked down on by the neighbors because their purse could not run to a horse. Now it was their turn to smile. Hey, presto, every horse and mule had vanished, and it was their humble ox which was in universal request!

We had a blackout, chiefly memorable because the town crier seized one of the few cars allowed to circulate in these days of petrol rations and managed to ring a cowbell and announce the fact no fewer than thirty-two times in our small village. Thereafter whenever a cowbell rang, everybody rushed out, expecting some horrible tiding, till one day all they found was a veritable cow, escaped from its stall, parading majestically down the village street!

Now that everything is organized, the continued mobilization of the Swiss army is a serious problem, quite apart from the five millions of Swiss francs it costs the government daily. The men must be occupied and their morale kept up. So far, the authorities have been amazingly successful. Many of the men who are urgently needed on the land have been liberated, and others are commandeered to help the peasants. The vintage will be very late this year, owing to the scarcity of sun, but there are many grapes, and much help will be needed, even though women and children are rising splendidly to the challenge. The Swiss Exhibition, which in this year of all years has paid for itself twice over, is an indication of the national pride and spirit of cooperation in times of crisis.

G. keeps me well informed of Zermatt doings. He is an excellent letter writer, though, like most guides, his spelling is somewhat unorthodox! This translation from his last letter may be interesting, showing as it does the point of view in the Swiss ranks.

“I am a soldier now and stand firmly at my post. At first I was at Winkelmatten, then they sent us to Schönbühl and Gandegg and to the Matterhorn hut, and now I have been summoned back to the valley to bore shelters in the rock. It is not dull; there is too much variety for that; but it was better once upon a time! It is pretty cold in the high places now at night. We have received orders to secure accommodation in Zermatt for many soldiers during the winter. So be it—we will bring every sacrifice for our dear Switzerland. Even if they demand the uttermost, my comrades and I will gladly give it, to help to annihilate the evil thing, which has cost the lives of so many and has plunged millions of people into misery. The silent mountains speak to me now as they never did in the days when I rushed off full of ambition to climb them. In those days I did not realize one half of what my dear mountains say to me today, and I shall never forget them till I die.”

It was sadder than ever to leave the Alps this year. One of my last visits was to a well-known veteran member of the Alpine Club, marooned in Switzerland. He was sitting on a sunny terrace facing the Dents du Midi, and smiled cheerily at me, waving a khaki scarf. “There’s nothing I can do nowadays to help except to knit,” he said, “so I am doing that to the best of my ability.”

It was a radiant day when we left. The soft blue haze of autumn lay over the Rhône Valley, and the snowy summits shone like visions. Below, the meadows were starred with autumn crocus, and the sound of innumerable cowbells was loud in the air. I was glad we were to drive over the Simplon Pass. There is no doubt that it is well fortified, and we were stopped at five different points and sternly forbidden to linger. We lunched at the Simplon Kulm amongst masses of soldiers in their smart blue-grey parkas and then plunged down into the warm mists of the Italian side of the pass. The Swiss soldier at the last barricade gaily saluted our car with its GB number and wished us good speed. He lifted the barrier— Switzerland lay behind us. Looking back to the heights, it was somehow comforting to remember in these mad and topsy-turvy times that “the righteousness of the Lord is like the great mountains,” and that both will remain immovable whatever else may pass into oblivion.

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