‘Open your eyes – someone said they’ve already sailed into to view’

Countdown to War: July 21st, 1914 – an extract from the St Petersburg News

Tsar Nicholas II with Russian troops, who kneel in homage around 1910. The Peterburgski Listok newspaper reported on a visit to the tsar by France’s president Raymond Poincaré days before the outbreak in 1914 of the first World War. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Tsar Nicholas II with Russian troops, who kneel in homage around 1910. The Peterburgski Listok newspaper reported on a visit to the tsar by France’s president Raymond Poincaré days before the outbreak in 1914 of the first World War. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Tue, Jul 22, 2014, 01:00

At the height of the July crisis, France’s president Raymond Poincaré visited St Petersburg to reinforce the Franco- Russian alliance. He arrived by sea and local steamer companies offered day trips to greet the guests from France – Isabel Gorst

Vive La France

Thankfully, private steamship owners have not yet formed a syndicate. One of the steamers offering to take passengers to meet Poincaré yesterday was charging three roubles per head for the ride, another five roubles and a third seven roubles, regardless of the conditions or whatever comforts might be on board.

Passengers on the five-rouble steamer began assembling at 8.30am. Within an hour the vessel looked like a floating exhibition of photographic equipment.

“Is there enough sea for all the pictures?” sighed someone, observing that seven out of every ten passengers bore cameras.

Many ladies were carrying bags crammed with sandwiches – testimony to Russians’ tendency to hoard.

It appeared the buffet manager also understood the Russian saying – “eat for the day and take stores for the week”. It was hard to imagine how all the bottles on the counter and shelves would get sold.

At 9 o’clock sharp the sky clouded over and it began pouring with rain.

Perhaps that was why some people who had booked tickets earlier decided to stay home. But those already on board weren’t cast down.

“It’s a good thing the deck is covered,” an overdressed merchant remarked.

“Covered or not covered, I’m afraid everyone will be drenched just the same,” replied a bearded man shaking his head.

“And you Stepa, don’t drink. Remember – President Poincaré is a member of the French Sobriety Society and he doesn’t drink.”

“He might not drink, but his French Sobriety Society doesn’t exist in Russia. ”

“Look, the rain’s stopped!” came a chorus from the deck.

It had been bucketing down for a quarter of an hour.

The time slipped by until ten o’clock when the old steamer, festooned with Russian and French flags, lifted anchor and moved off from the quay.

“Wait! Stop!” yelled someone leaping out of a horse carriage on the shore.

“Too late,” a sailor shouted back.

From the deck an angry couple could be seen lashing out at the steamer with a stick and an umbrella.

“Vive la France!”, shouted the merchant from the helm.

Within ten minutes the steamer was in the marine canal and the naval orchestra was playing full blast.

A German cargo vessel – the Elbing – sailed by.

“Vive la France!,” the merchant shouted to the German captain, receiving only a smile in reply.

“I said ‘Vive la France’!! Are you deaf or what?”

“Stepa, stop it. That’s not the French,” said his wife trying to calm him down.

“What the hell. I’m rehearsing.”

“There’s no point.”

“Let’s go to the buffet and get drunk.”

There was a big crowd jostling at the bar. After getting up so early, everyone was hungry and thirsty.

Above the din all you could hear was a gaggle of orders –

“Tea! – Beer! – Veal cutlet ! – A carafe ! – Beer! – Sandwiches! Beer! – Beer! – Beer for me too!”“

On the way out of the canal, the captain slowed the steamer to a tortoise pace and the passengers, already burning with impatience, trained their binoculars on the horizon. Whether they were friends or not, the conversation was all the same.

“What kind of ships are bringing our friends?”

“Two dreadnoughts and a couple of mine sweepers.”

“It looks like they’re about to appear!”

“Anna Lavrentyevna, open your eyes. Someone said they’ve already sailed into to view.”

“Where is Stepa?”.

“On the horizon.”

“And not on the water?”

“You’re so uneducated. The horizon is the name of the place where the sky meets the sea.”

“That’s only in fairy tales.”

“Be quiet. That’s absurd.”

“Everyone, everyone, look! Honestly, they’re sailing in!”

“Hurrah, music, the Marseillaise!”

By now the silhouette of a French ship could be seen approaching the Kronshtadt harbor. Our battleships fired the salute. The passenger steamers kept a very respectful distance.

“Vive la France!” cried a hundred voices.

“Hurrah for the President! Welcome to our allies!”

“What kind of ally are you,” someone muttered grumpily.

“Musicians! Give us a tango!” called the tipsy merchant lowering himself onto the deck to dance.

Everyone was so busy taking pictures of the French ships, the Russian ships and one another, they hardly noticed the time was flying by and that the steamer was slowly turning round.

What else to do, but hurry back to the buffet? Hurry to drink and eat and then doze all the way back to the pier at the Nikolayevsky Bridge.

Peterburgski Listok

July 21st, 1914