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The Aftermath of 1871: A Schoolboy’s Letters from France

John Lehmann presents the grim but fascinating impressions of post-Commune France, by an English schoolboy.

In 1871 my father was a boarder of fifteen at High-gate School, not far from the family ‘country’ home, Woodlands in Southwood Lane.

A few years earlier he had spent the winter at Pau with his mother, the eldest daughter of Robert Chambers, the Scottish publisher, had gone to the local Lycée Imperial and quickly acquired proficiency in French. German he had learnt in his childhood.

Whether it was in order to give his eldest son a chance to refresh his knowledge of these languages, or because he thought it would be generally educative for him, my grandfather Frederick Lehmann decided to take him on a tour to Paris and the battlefields of the Franco-Prussian War in his summer holidays.

His letters home provide a grim but fascinating picture of the destruction caused by the fighting and the upheavals of the Commune only a few months before.

They set out at the end of July, and on August 2nd my father wrote a long letter from the Hotel du Helder in Paris to his younger brothers, Freddie and Ernie, describing what he had seen and heard so far.

During the journey from Calais to Paris, he observed that Amiens was no longer occupied by the enemy, but ‘further on when we got to Creil the last station before Paris we saw at the railway station about 20 of the proverbial spike-helmeted Prussians smoking away and looking as happy as they could.

Again at St Denis the Prussians had a large park of artillery which we saw as we passed. I must explain,’ he went on, airing his political wisdom for the benefit of his uninstructed juniors, ‘that the Germans will not altogether evacuate France till they have got all their money and I can only think that they are acting wisely.’

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