In 1914, it happened, as it often had in other years, that my daughters had left Paris for their summer vacation before me. They were accompanied by their governess, in whom I had all confidence, and were living in a small house on the seashore in Brittany, at a place where there were also the families of several of our good friends. My work did not generally permit me to pass the entire vacation near them without interruption.
That year I was preparing to join them in the last days of July, when I was stopped by the bad political news, with its premonitions of an imminent military mobilization. It did not seem possible for me to leave under these conditions, and I waited for further events. The mobilization was announced on August 1st, immediately followed by Germany's declaration of war on France. The few men of the laboratory staff and the students were mobilized, and I was left alone with our mechanic who could not join the army because of a serious heart trouble.
The historic events that followed are known to everyone, but only those who lived in Paris through the days of August and September, 1914, can ever really know the state of mind in the capital and the quiet courage shown by it. The mobilization was a general wave of all France passing out to the border for the defense of the land. All our interest now centered on the news from the front.
After the uncertainties of the first days this news became more and more grave.
First, it was the invasion of Belgium and the heroic resistance of that little country; then the victorious march of the German army through the valley of the Oise toward Paris; and soon the departure of the French government to Bordeaux, followed by the leaving of those Parisians who could not, or would not, face the possible danger of German occupation. The overloaded trains took into the country a great number of people, mostly of the well-to-do class. But, on the whole, the people of Paris gave a strong impression of calm and quiet decision in that fateful year of 1914. In the end of August and the beginning of September the weather was radiant, and under the glorious sky of those days the great city with its architectural treasures seemed to be particularly dear to those who remained in it.
When the danger of German attack on Paris became pressing, I felt obliged to put in security the supply of radium then in my laboratory, and I was charged by the government to take it to Bordeaux for safety. But I did not want to be away long, and hence decided to return immediately. I left by one of the trains that were carrying government staff and baggage, and I well remember the aspect of the national highway which is at intervals in view from the train; it showed a long line of motor-cars carrying their owners from the capital.
Arriving at Bordeaux in the evening, I was very embarrassed with my heavy bag including the radium protected by lead. I was not able to carry it and waited in a public place, while a friendly ministry employee who came by the same train managed to find a room for me in a private apartment, the hotels being overcrowded. The next morning I hurried to put the radium in a safe place, and succeeded, although not without difficulty, in taking a military train back to Paris in the evening of the same day. Having opportunity for exchanging a few sentences with persons on the place who wanted to ask information from people coming by the train, I was interested to notice how they seemed surprised and comforted to learn of someone who found it natural to return to Paris.
My trip back was troubled by delays; for several hours the train rested immovable on the rails, while the travelers accepted a little bread from the soldiers who were provided with it. Finally arriving in Paris, I learned that the German army had turned; the battle of the Marne had begun.
In Paris I shared the alternating hope and grief of the inhabitants during the course of that great battle, and had the constant worry of foreseeing a long separation from my children in case the Germans succeeded in occupying the city. Yet I felt that I must stay at my post. After the successful outcome of the battle, however, any immediate danger of occupation being removed, I was able to have my daughters come back from Brittany to Paris and again take up their studies. This was the great desire of my children, who did not want to stay away from me and from their work, even if many other families thought it wiser to stay in the country, far from the front.
The dominant duty imposed on every one at that time was to help the country in whatever way possible during the extreme crisis that it faced. No general instructions to this were given to the members of the University. It was left to each to take his own initiative and means of action. I therefore sought to discover the most efficient way to do useful work, turning my scientific knowledge to most profit.
During the rapid succession of events in August, 1914, it was clearly proved that the preparation for defense was insufficient. Public feeling was especially aroused by the realization of the grave failings which appeared in the organization of the Health Service. My own attention was particularly drawn to this situation, and I soon found a field of activity which, once entered upon, absorbed the greatest part of my time and efforts until the end of the war, and even for some time thereafter. The work was the organization of radiologic and radio-therapeutic services for the military hospitals. But I also had to make the change, during these difficult war years, of my laboratory into the new building of the Institute of Radium and to continue, in the measure possible to me, regular teaching, as well as to investigate certain problems, especially interesting the military service.
It is well known that the X-rays offer surgeons and doctors extremely useful means for the examination of the sick and wounded. They make possible the discovery and the exact location of projectiles which have entered the body, and this is a great help in their extraction. These rays also reveal lesions of bones and of the internal organs and permit one to follow the progress of recovery from internal injuries. The use of the X-rays during the war saved the lives of many wounded men; it also saved many from long suffering and lasting infirmity. To all the wounded it gave a greater chance of recovery.
However, at the beginning of the war, the Military Board of Health had no organization of radiology, while the civil organization was also but little developed. Radiologic installations existed in only a small number of important hospitals, and there were only a few specialists in the large cities. The numerous new hospitals that were established all over France in the first months of the war had, as a rule, no installation for the use of X-rays.
To meet this need I first gathered together all the apparatus I could find in the laboratories and stores. With this equipment I established in August and September, 1914, several stations of radiology, the operation of which was assured by volunteer helpers to whom I gave instruction. These stations rendered great service during the battle of the Marne. But as they could not satisfy the needs of all the hospitals of the Paris region, I fitted up, with the help of the Red Cross, a radiologic car. It was simply a touring motor-car, arranged for the transport of a complete radiologic apparatus, together with a dynamo that was worked by the engine of the car, and furnished the electric current necessary for the production of the rays. This car could come at the call of any of the hospitals, large or small, in the surroundings of Paris. Cases of urgent need were frequent, for these hospitals had to take care of the wounded that could not be transported to more distant places.
The first results of this work showed that it was necessary to do more. Thanks to special donations and to the help of a very efficient relief committee called "le Patronage National des Blessés," I succeeded in developing my initiative to a considerable extent. About two hundred radiologic installations were established or materially improved through my efforts in the zone of the French and Belgian armies, and in the regions of France not occupied by the army. I was able, besides, to equip in my laboratory and give to the army twenty radiologic cars. The frames of these cars were donated by, various persons who wished to be helpful; some of them offered also the equipment. The cars were of the greatest service to the army.