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Mrs Mavor takes flight

Mrs Alfred E. Mavor (1878-1961), 36 in 1914, married in her teens, gave birth to her first-born, a daughter, at the age of 19. Two boys followed, Anthony Mavor and Stephen Mavor. By her own account, Mrs Mavor had a ‘heart condition’ for which she had sought a ‘Kur’ at a health spa at Bad Neuheim, Germany. She was in residence when news of an outbreak of hostilities between Austria and Serbia was brought to the spa. As events proved, Mrs Mavor was a survivor. She outlived two of her children, dying at the age of 83 in 1961. The following extracts taken from the journal she kept describe her journey in the company of a nurse from 1 to 5 August 1914 when she travelled from Bad Neuheim to London. Of the nurse who attended her during her stay at the spa and, as events transpired, her travelling companion, nothing is known.From the text of the journal, however, it is suspected that Mrs. Mavor's nurse was a German national who used the opportunity to leave Germany in the company of her patient.

1 AUGUST 1914: I have been in Bad Nauheim for a fortnight now for the heart kur 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.

Immediately War had been declared the Military Authorities took 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. The postal authorities would give no idea when any of these would be delivered, but said probably the postcards would get through first. One lady at my hotel several days ago tried to speak in English by telephone to a friend in Frankfort, and was politely told by the operator that no conversations were allowed in any language but German. I was more fortunate than many, for I had an extremely able German nurse who 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.

2ND AUGUST: The second night of hardly any sleep, due to the tramp and singing of the soldiers passing along the main Frankfort 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. An American friend told me to-day that a friend of his staying at another hotel tried two days ago to get out of Germany via Basle, but had not been allowed to enter Switzerland because it was said that Switzerland was already overfull of refuges and had insufficient food supplies. He therefore returned to Nauheim, to complete his ‘cure’. Another American friend told me of a party of eight Americans who had brought two cars to Nauheim and tried to get away in them. They provisioned the cars for the journey, and took with them a small quantity of clothes. However, after the had gone fifteen miles, and were still twelve miles from any town, they were stopped by body of troops, their cars and provisions carried off -- each car being occupied by only one man to drive -- and the original owners were left by the roadside with their clothing, twelve miles from anywhere.

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 Frankfort 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 for some considerable time. I have only about £12 in cash as I always pay my hotels here by cheque, 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 Frankfort to pay our way.

3RD AUGUST: 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, at 9 o’clock. And at 10.45 caught the 9.15 train to Frankfort. It was very full but we managed to find room to sit on our luggage in the corridor. We got to Frankfort 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 – waiting there two hours for our belated train – 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 visaed the passport I luckily had with me. He also said he would, if I liked, try to get my luggage to the Consulate, but that he could not guarantee its safety. My nurse said that her Institution would willingly try to get it from the railway and house it until the War is over, so I gave the registration ticket for it (from Nauheim to Frankfort) to the head of the Institute, and hope that it may turn up some day. When we left the Consulate we went to the Frankfurter Bank and Nurse, after a delay of three quarters of an hour, owing to the large crowd, drew out £25 in German notes, the Bank being unable to give any of this in gold. 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, also a golden ten mark piece as change from a twenty mark note, which is very precious in these days!

The station-master told us the train usually went at 2, but it was still uncertain whether it would run, and it was quite possible that it might start early, and on his advice we resolved to be at the station at 1 o’clock. We got a very limited luncheon at 12 o’clock for 18.50 marks, and half a chicken to take with us for 5.50 marks. The price did not seem altogether unreasonable because we had just heard that the few visitors remaining in one of the largest Frankfort hotels had been turned out of the building and refused any food at all. At our hotel there were two English ladies without any money or friends; no Express Company’s cheques or Letters of Credit being of any value. One American fellow-traveller told me later that he had been unable to get any advice, information or assistance from his country’s consuls at Carlsbad or at Frankfort, and that the only useful advice, information or assistance he had received was from the British Consul at Frankfort. He told me that he also had insufficient money, and that to get £15 he had to give American Express Company’s cheques to the value of £500, his Letter of Credit and an undertaking on the security of his well-known business to pay anything up to £2,000, which might well be demanded.

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 and then released. He was with two other American men and an America lady and this delay caused them to miss the 12 o’clock train, which departed about 1.30. Apparently the authorities had strong suspicions, for a little later when the three men were absent some soldiers came to the lady, who was guarding the six pieces of hand baggage belonging to the party, and made her turn everything out of all six packages 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 a very nasal French and in a high-pitched voice of the loss of her registered 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 said to leave there at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. Our rooms were more interesting than clean and comfortable and I preferred not to undress, but was glad to rest for a few hours.

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. We heard that many people had failed to pass the passport examination and would have to remain indefinitely at Herbesthal because from last midnight until further notice the railway would be used only for the transport of troops. The driver of the car had undertaken to drives 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 Vervieers. 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; and one rather wonders how all this could have happened in thirty-six hours. 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. After a delay of about twenty minutes for much talk between our driver and a considerable crowd, we started, and almost immediately passed two huge barricades which only left room for a vehicle to get through.

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. This was another little bit of anxiety, for though we had plenty of time if the train went at 10.30, our driver was very doubtful whether the petrol would last through the extra miles. However, 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. They had also succeeded in hiring a motor car from Welkenraedt to Liegé, and had to pay 230 marks for it.

A slow but uneventful journey to Brussels where we had to wait three and a half hours for a train to Ostend. Much to my relief I found that I could telephone home from Brussels to say that I had got out of Germany. This was my first chance of communicating with home for six days. Then a slow train to Ostend where we were greeted with the news that the fifth and last boat for the day had left but that there would probably be one leaving at ten in the morning. The inspector who gave us this information advised us to be on the pier by seven in the morning, because he said the crowds for the boats had been so great lately that many had been left behind. We went to the Terminus Hotel, and asked the Manager for rooms for the night, saying we were leaving by the boat next morning. He replied that there would be no boat to-morrow morning and probably not another for a long time. He also said he would have difficulty in giving us food, because there is very little in Ostend, and partly because his staff consists now of one man and one woman. However, we got some beef and grapes after an hour and a half’s delay and went to bed, after refreshing hot baths.

5 AUGUST: We got up, paid our bill, and were on the pier by seven o’clock, with one pound left, in addition to some German notes which were practically unchangeable in Belgium, though a telegraph clerk thought he might be able to get four francs for 20 marks during the day. There we stayed through several showers of rain until the boat arrived at 10. The pier was guarded by Belgian soldiers, and before the steamer was moored up the crowd very near to us tried to push their way through the cordon of soldiers and were kept back by the commanding officer with a good deal of shouting and a pistol. After some delay we got on board and started at a quarter to eleven. We were told we should be in at Folkestone harbour by two, but after the first hour the sea became very choppy and we had to steer a round about course and stop twice on account of the cruisers, so we did not reach Folkestone until about four. After we were moored there was a tantalising interval of about half hour for the interchange of papers between the captain of the ship and the harbour authorities before we were allowed to land. Rather to our surprise no one was scrutinized apparently, and passports were not examined. The rest of our journey was uneventful; the usual cursory customs examination and a quick train to London.

Transcribed from the Mavor collection of WWI letters
with permission of D. M. Armour of Toronto

September 2004

Postcards and telegrams despatched on July 31st have not yet been delivered. D. M. 8. VIII, 1914.
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