27 Sept 2022

FEATURE: County Derry girl's dramatic journey home amid First World War outbreak

The Bellaghy woman's journey was recorded in a local paper at the time.

FEATURE: County Derry girl's dramatic journey home amid First World War outbreak

The Eiffel Tower, Paris, during the First World War. Picture: Library of Congress.

Earlier this year, as conflict broke out in Ukraine, local people caught in the vicinity scrambled to head for home. They were following in the footsteps of one Bellaghy girl, who fled Paris for home following the outbreak of the First World War.

The tale of a wrong turn, a pot-shot and a teenage assassin is widely credited with precipitating the outbreak of war in Europe over a century ago.

Having survived an earlier assassination attempt that day, the car carrying Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie took a wrong turn down a Sarajevo street on June 28 1914.

Gavrilo Princip seized his chance, firing the shot that would ultimately kill both Ferdinand and his wife and spark the outbreak of the First World War.

The 19-year-old's opportunism was also the beginning of a ripple effect that would eventually cause another teenager to flee Europe for her home in County Derry almost three months later.

On Saturday September 12 1914, a report entitled 'From Paris to Bellaghy' appeared in the Mid Ulster Mail.

It told the remarkable story of 'Miss McCrea', daughter of Rev Thomas McCrea of the Manse, Bellaghy, who was forced to return from Paris following the outbreak of the First World War.

Miss McCrea had originally been at school in Switzerland, where the spectre of war was a distant prospect at the end of term.

“I was at school in Lucerne, Switzerland, a German school where all my girl companions were German and nothing but German was spoken. Such nice girls too. ” she told the paper.

“Little did we think when our school broke up on the 2nd July that we might never see each other again: that our countries would be at each other's throats in a few weeks: and that their countrymen would be committing brutalities too horrible for description.”

“I had arranged to spend my vacation at Asnières, a suburb of Paris. My host here was M. Le Dorê, one of the ministers of finance in the French Cabinet,” she said.

The report first appeared in the Mid Ulster Mail in September 1914.

On August 1 1914, Germany, drawn into the war through allyship with the Austro-Hungarian empire, declared war on Russia, an ally of Serbia.

Then an ally of Russia, France was forced to mobilise, and Miss McCrea found herself at the epicentre of an unfolding conflict.

“On the first day of mobilisation Paris became panic-stricken. I was with some friends boating on the Seine when the news reached us that France was mobilising,” she told the reporter.

“Asnières, where I resided, was about half-an-hour's train journey from where I was, and I at once made for the railway station.

“Train after train left, but so dense was the crowd I was unable to get a seat and at last I was forced to walk home alone through the streets of Paris, most of which were unlighted – a trying ordeal for a girl even under ordinary circumstances.

“On that Sunday, Paris was a city in tears, the langh had been forced from that gayest of gay cities; and on that day every soldier in it went to church, probably for the first time.

“We immediately felt the effect of mobilisation on our food. No milk could be got save by families where there were children under six years of age.

“Meat went up to half-a-crown per lb and bakeries and other large consumers of salt were prohibited from buying it.”

Miss McCrea offered her services as a 'red-cross nurse', but was informed only trained nurses could be taken by the war effort.

She described how war's onslaught changed the atmosphere of Paris entirely.

“After the panic of the first day or two Paris settled down and calmly awaited events,” she said.

“But what a changed Paris! Not a laugh, hardly a smile, no games, no theatres and even the very shops shut at 6pm.

A crowd of French reservists being mobilised at the Gare de l'Est on August 2 1914. Picture: Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

“Newspapers were reduced to single sheets and not one word of ordinary news, all war, war.

“If Paris is besieged it believes that it can hold out for from eight months to a year, but of course no house outside the fortifications will remain when the siege is over.

“So many of my friends, M. and Madame Le Dorê, never expect to see their home or furniture again.

“M. Le Dorê had to leave the city for Bordeaux with the rest of the Government, and hence my home-coming, for had my friends remained on at Asnières I would have remained also.

“I was however, advised by the British Consulate to leave at once or I might not have the opportunity.

“Of course I saw the German airships that passed over Paris, and before leaving I went to see the place where they had dropped the bombs.

“I kept a diary of events from war was declared, but unfortunately it is in my trunk in France. I was not allowed to bring any luggage home save a small portmanteau.”

Miss McCrea's journey home was arduous. After attaining her passport at the British Consulate, she joined a crowd of hundreds awaiting a train for Le Harve.

“Representatives of every nation in Europe, save Germany, composed the crowd and they were packed like herrings in a barrel in the long train,” wrote the Mid Ulster Mail.

“It took twelve hours to do what is normally a four hours journey. During this time her only refreshment was a bottle of lemonade, procured for her by a British soldier.”

Miss Mina McCrea's home town of Bellaghy.

On reaching Le Harve, Miss McCrea was told a boat would leave for England at around 10.00pm the following night.

However, she was informed that without a paper from the British Consulate, she would not be allowed to board.

After being directed by a group of sailors to the Japanese Consulate initially, Miss McCrea located the British Consulate and joined a crowd of 400 waiting to get in.

It was through the assistance of a passing clergyman that she got what she needed.

“After being elbowed for fully two hours she was no nearer to her objective, but just then an Irish clergyman came along and pushing her in front of him, bored a way into the building,” said the report.

“After an exhaustive catechism as to name, age, nationality, she was handed the precious white paper, which bore that day's date (the 4th) and the words 'Seen at Le Harve'.

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“At 5.30, along with some others, she was allowed to go on board an English hospital ship, which was lying in the harbour.”

While on board, she met a man who, after being shot through the arm, had walked from the Belgian frontier, reaching Le Harve in an 'exhausted condition'.

The boat was small, and unable to take the thousands waiting to get on board, but Miss McCrea had secured a berth.

“Though travelling second class, Miss McCrea had to be satisfied with the bare floor of a little luggage room on board, which she shared with sixteen others,” read the report.

“Though the night was extremely rough she dozed off with her head on her one article of luggage, but was rudely awakened later by a large hand bag falling on her head.

“She arose, and feeling sea-sick, attempted to reach the side of the ship, but was unable to do so by reason of the deck being crowded by sleepers and others too sick to rise.

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“An appeal for help to a stewardess only brought the ungracious reply – 'don't be making a mess there.”

The ship reached Southampton at around 5.30am the following morning, and Miss McCrea then made for London, travelling on to Fleetwood and boarding a ship for Belfast.

As a show of support for France – and much like those showing solidarity with Ukraine now – Miss McCrea continued to bear their colours on arrival home.

“And here I am, with only one little bag and the clothes I stand up in,” she told the paper.

“But I am really sorry at having to leave France. You see I still wear my little tricolour.”

She pointed to a piece of French ribbon attached to her breast pocket, and with that, the story of her dramatic journey home had reached a natural end.

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