Copyright
Constance Elizabeth Maud.

My French year online

. (page 10 of 17)
Online LibraryConstance Elizabeth MaudMy French year → online text (page 10 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


I fear when the Englishwoman has learnt to cook.

At the Gare St Lazare we found a charming lady
of the S.B.M. in charge of the Croix Rouge equipment.
She had spent three strenuous years at her post, often
taking British soldiers as well as French poilus under
her care. Many she had come to know well, for they
passed to and fro frequently in the course of the long
war, and not only M. Poilu but Mr Atkins too, eagerly
looked out for her friendly smile and hearty welcome
as something almost as good as " Blighty," this was
evident when we visited the canteen.

" The influence of such a woman is incalculable,"
said my guide, " she is good as bread " than which
on French lips no praise can be higher. She had a
large staff of assistants, all of the S.B.M., and all giving
their services benevoles to their country.

Recently twenty-eight British wounded had passed
through her hands from the Italian battlefields
on their way to England via Le Havre. Here the
comfortable Poste de Secours, with its good beds as
well as free canteen, offered kindly hospitality to the
wounded Tommies. The directrice showed us also
a douche bath, a gift of the London Committee of the
Croix Rouge, much appreciated and which she said
had such an irresistible attraction for " Mr Atkins " he




THE WOMEN OF FRANCE 155

uld never be got out of it but by main force, while
it constantly needed repairs after his aquatic sports.

It would be difficult to estimate what these women
of the Croix Rouge have done for their country the
enormous burden they have borne, giving not only
unpaid service in military hospitals as well as their
own Red Cross but equipping hundreds of hospitals,
canteens and rest camps all over the country. In
Rumania, Salonika, Serbia and Italy, wherever there
are French troops, they have opened hospitals also,
and these matrons and nurses have stuck to their
posts by the wounded while the enemy shells have
fallen on their buildings, and the hordes of barbarians
have poured into the invaded town. Many have laid
down their lives like the brave young nurse Mdlle
Gille, killed in the Luneville hospital, after refusing
to leave the wounded who could not be removed.

Many have received the Croix de Guerre, Croix de
la Legion d'Honneur and Citations a I Or Are de VArmee,
but the vast majority have worked equally devotedly
without any recognition or reward, quite content that
their services have been accepted and acceptable.

The nuns of France have also played their part
nobly, and I was told of one community after another
who had shown a courage and fortitude equal to any
early Christian martyrs ; laying down their lives for
the wounded whom they took in and refused to desert,
opening their doors to the fugitives, though knowing
the penalty if discovered would be death.

This courage of the Frenchwoman has been one of



156 MY FRENCH YEAR

her most conspicuous traits. It has continually
taken the German so by surprise he has had nothing
with which to meet it. I noticed this when my old
lady at Noyon told me of the dressing- down she gave
to the Boche Colonel who brought disreputable
women to the little green- shuttered house. " He
regarded me without replying," she said triumphantly.
And Mme Latour when she arraigned the Hun officer
for blasphemy came off victorious, for he retired
worsted from the field from sheer surprise at a creature
he was accustomed to regard more as a neuter 1 than
the female of the race, presuming to stand up to him
fearless and unashamed, arguing with and even rating
him. Madame Macheres seems to have had a similar
effect upon the Boche General she confronted when
acting as Major of Soissons. " Le Maire, c'est moi,"
she informed the invader who asked for the Mayor,
and though he threatened to have her shot she boldly
remonstrated with him at the violence and excesses
of his troops and was not shot.

The first thing that struck me on getting in touch
with the work of my friends in Paris was the clever
way the Government had made use of all the Suffrage
Societies. From the very beginning they had mobil-
ised their services, converting the various organisations
into centres for starting branches of national service.
These societies, with their staffs of trained women,
their offices and their Press departments, proved
invaluable. At Le Havre and many other centres
the Feminist Society became a Bureau ^Assistance

1 Das Weib noun neuter the wife. Das Madohen noun neuter the girl.




THE WOMEN OF FRANCE 157

functioning with municipal funds. At Rouen the
Commission of Succour and Aid was presided over by
the Mayor, assisted by six women of the National
Union for Women Suffrage. When the Government
wanted a powerful appeal to the moral influence
women must exert on the soldier it was the Presidente
of the French Union for Women's Suffrage who
voiced that appeal and issued a pamphlet which
was distributed throughout the length and breadth
of France. For it was decided at the beginning of
the war to grant, whenever possible, seven days' leave
every four months to the men at the Front, and it
was realised that much depended on the wives and
mothers in what spirit those men returned to their
grim duty. If the women kept their faith and
courage high, all would be well, as the Suffragist
leader told them in her simple and stirring words :

'' By the effect of this leave on our soldiers, the
manner in which we receive them, and above all the
way in which we send them back to their duty, we
shall show whether we are women worthy of France,
or merely poor loving creatures without courage or
noble ideals, unworthy to be wives and mothers of
French soldiers. . . . Our responsibility towards
them is overwhelming, for the attitude of the women
may be a decisive influence. . . . Let us never
forget that our inner thought reflects itself upon the
face and in the speech, and that ignoble thought, like
noble emotion, will find an echo in the hearts of our
men. ."




158 MY FRENCH YEAR

The Government were wise indeed to mobilise
such a moral force as this. Curious to think that the
men who could go so far could not go the logical step
further and give these women the political freedom
which would enable them to extend incalculably their
uplifting influence. Perhaps they considered it un-
necessary since they achieved so much without the
vote, and no doubt a fear of the influence of the priest
in politics made the anti-clerical party vote against it
to a man.

Frenchwomen did not rest content with exercising
moral influence in their own homes. They rose in
their strength to combat not only the Germans in the
field, but those internal foes more to be dreaded than
the Boche vice, drink, child-mortality. Recognising
the terrible menace of the growing evil of alcohol,
a special danger to a nation at war, the women of the
Conseil National des Femmes Franpaises, a federation
of one hundred and fifty feminist Associations, together
with the great Suffrage Unions, inaugurated a vigorous
campaign, holding meetings all over France, getting
up petitions and publishing pamphlets giving
statistics. They roused the nation, and with the help
of military authorities and medical men, brought
such pressure to bear on the Government that certain
measures were passed controlling liquor traffic and
forbidding absinthe. Much more would have been
achieved but for the same powerful influence exerted
by Vested Interest, which prevented effective reform
in England.



THE WOMEN OF FRANCE 159

Another enterprise created by the women of France
for fighting the evils of drink, and in which I found
many of my friends in Paris actively engaged, was
the Foyer du Soldat i.e. soldier's clubrooms providing
healthy foods, temperance drinks, and a cheerful,
bright atmosphere where the poilu could find news-
papers, writing material, music and games, or rest
and quiet, according to his taste. These proved such
a success that wherever troops were stationed there
was an urgent demand for a foyer, and the Munici-
pality in many towns inaugurated this same boon for
civilians. In connection with these foyers the women
worked that other scheme of filleuls or godsons
the adoption of the homeless poilu into a family who
receive him when on leave and send him parcels when
at the Front.

What Frenchwomen are doing is such a wide subject
it is only possible just to touch on the limited aspect
offered by what I found my own friends and their
friends to be doing.

Several days I spent in the company of that familiar
and beloved friend of the poor, Madame Jules Siegfried,
for years a leading suffragist and President of L' Union
pour le Suffrage des Femmes. She is a true " Semeuse
de Courage," and those words of hers, " Si nos cceurs
aspirent a la paix, nos consciences nous le dependent
aujourd'hui," were the Frenchwomen's answer to all
Pacifists. She was the moving spirit of the meetings
of V Union des Families held in a populous part of
Paris, where on Saturday evenings crowds of men and




160 MY FRENCH YEAR

women assembled in the big hall to hear conferences
on the war, religion and social subjects, given by
distinguished Generals and members of the Govern-
ment, who recognised the vital importance of holding
up constantly the ideals for which the war was waged,
and the reasons for the tremendous sacrifices the
nation was called upon to make. This constant fuel
was needed to keep bright the flame of courage and
faith in a nation so sorely tried, where every family
was in mourning, and the long black veil the pre-
vailing note in every crowd. One evening I passed at
the Union des Families Madame Siegfried herself gave
us a charming little address, taking as her subject
the poilu's horizon bleu uniform and all it symbolised.
A leading tenor of the opera sang stirring patriotic
songs, and a first-rate choir gave us glees and part
songs. The audience was entirely composed of work-
ing people, and many brought their children the
regular family party you so often see in France taking
their pleasures all together.

On another occasion I went with Madame Siegfried
to one of her Maternal Canteens, branches of which
exist all over Paris. They are gratuite, and open to
all married and unmarried mothers, Catholic, Jew
or pagan, no questions asked, the only qualification
necessary being a doctor's certificate. Two excellent
meals are given every day, and the results of the food,
rest and sympathy are such that these women undergo
a transformation not only of body, but mind and
character.



THE WOMEN OF FRANCE 161

Certainly they looked a most happy and pleasant
company sitting round their well-served dejeuner.
Several to whom I spoke to had husbands at the
Front one had two brothers who were prisoners in
Germany. They sorely needed boots, and by a great
effort she had saved money and sent some to " the
poor boys." They were stolen at once by the Boches,
also from the parcels they stole all they wanted.
Working in the salt mines without boots, they would
soon lose the feet from a returned prisoner she had
heard of many poor boys who had done so. Other
women joined in with their experiences. All had
something to say of the sufferings of the prisoners. It
is not only the English who have experienced the
brutal treatment of the Hun.

Another use the Government made of the Women's
Suffrage Societies, and in which Mme Siegfried took
an active part, was the finding of lost relatives in the
devastated regions. She told me of two little girls
separated from their mother when driven out of their
burning village. For months no trace of them could
be found, the mother, with a baby and another small
child, being nearly crazy with grief and suspense.
At last they were found to have been rescued by some
kind people in the Midi who were trying every means
to discover the mother the Society restored them
to each other. The office is flooded with letters of
gratitude for this humane work. It was found to be
too vast an undertaking for any State department,
so was handed over to the National Council of French-




162 MY FRENCH YEAR

women. They employ 650 persons at the head
office in Paris alone to work in connection with the
Prefects of the provinces and the Feminist organisa-
tions which exist in every department of France.
The work was so admirably organised that already
in 1915 as many as 400,000 investigations had been
taken up and no less than 50,000 proved successful.
It was the women of this Society who by appealing
to the Pope and the King of Spain to interfere, got
the Germans to return 300 of the deported young
girls to their homes only a small percentage, it is
true, but they hoped for more before long.

Another of my friends I found working unceasingly
for the welfare of the munition girls. A small group
of Frenchwomen having heard of the splendid work
done by the English women factory superintendents,
they laid their scheme before the Minister of Munitions
and the Minister of Works. It had been proved in
England that attention to health and hygiene, good
food and a good moral influence, greatly assisted the
output of the munitions. This was a trump card-
it was no question of sentiment, of philanthropy, it
was good business, or the practical British would never
have taken it up ! The directors of the State factories
were slower to convince, but after a lead from the big
munition factory at Bourges the rest followed quickly,
and Surintendantes d?U sines de Guerre were a fait
accompli. These superintendents were trained with
classes, lectures and examinations, and generally
spent a few weeks working themselves at the muni-



THE WOMEN OF FRANCE 163

tions with the girls so as to get better in touch with
them.

The Frenchwoman's record as munition worker is
second to none. M. Bourillon, Inspector of the
Ministry of Works, said in his report that they were
" far above the average man, their previous training
of eye and hand in such industries as lace-making,
dressmaking, porcelain work, having given them a
dexterity, a fine precision and exactitude, which made
them irreproachable makers of shells, and gave to
their artillery work the most exact execution." He
stated that " out of 80,000 shells verified in a workshop
of 850 women only one shell failed to pass the test."

At Aubervilliers, where thousands of women are busy
night and day making munitions, I visited another
interesting work accomplished by a French lady
a Cantine Alri on a big scale for the women workers.
Before she started this canteen the women had no-
where to go except the evil cabarets where they were
forced to buy bad wine and spirits if they took food.
This enterprising French lady, up to three years before,
had lived entirely in the brightest and gayest world
of the Ville Lumiere ; then came the war, and showed
her the other side of the shield and revealed to her
another self. The call for service she answered by
showing such a talent for running a business concern
she might have been trained to do nothing else.
Beginning with meals for 350 she soon had to double
the number, and even then the demand for admittance
so greatly outstripped all capacity for supply that only



164 MY FRENCH YEAR

those living at a distance could be admitted, and that
by ticket.

The effects of this canteen on the women and girls
in raising their moral tone and manners, and improv-
ing their physical health, resulted in such an increase
of their output that the Director of the factory him-
self offered to contribute so much a head to the upkeep
of this beneficent institution, on the principle of
" a sprat to catch a salmon."

" Soon it is to be hoped he may start a similar
canteen himself, for the women are crying out for it,"
said Madame. As we walked down between the
avenues of long tables where an excellent meal was
being served, everyone tried to catch her eye and a
smile. One young girl with whom she stopped to
speak was a mark of envy. Though there were seven
hundred she seemed to know all personally, and asked
after their husbands and babies by name. She had
also a creche near by for the babies, run at very small
cost. For their dinner they paid one franc twenty-five
cents. I should like to have sat down and joined
them at their tempting potage, ragotit and vegetables,
compote of fruit and long rolls of bread, beer and
coffee included. These women were high explosive
workers, very satisfactory work, we agreed, for those
keen on doing their bit. They were both interested
and surprised when I told them English girls were
doing the same, and how lately when a sad accident
occurred, and several were killed by an explosion,
not a woman moved from her post, and others



THE WOMEN OF FRANCE 165

instantly volunteered to take the place of their dead
companions.

ic Tiens ga c'est chic ! " said the French girls with
a nod of approval. It made one feel what a pity it
was we did not know more of each other.

Munition workers have the reputation of being
somewhat rough and reckless, but the care they had
taken of their canteen was an example to girls of any
class. Though in use for more than a year the toile
dree which covered the tables was spotless, the chairs
in perfect condition, and a broken plate rarer than an
explosion at the factory. " They take a pride," said
their friend, " in their restaurant that it shall look
chic. They themselves also they desire to have the
appearance chic. We are not the same we were a year
ago there is a wonderful transformation. A year
ago these poor children of mine were not at all chic
that word so popular now had not even a meaning for
them."

I found my friends working for the refugees, both
French and Belgians, who have poured into France
like a flood we thought the latter all came to England,
the French thought they all came to France and
with as good cause. They had also their own millions
from the devastated regions lodging, food, clothes,
all had to be found for them.

Then there were the war orphans which made a
special appeal to the women of France of all classes.
Offers to adopt them poured in from abroad, but all




166 MY FRENCH YEAR

were refused if it involved taking them out of the
country. France needs everyone of her children, and
they were all provided for by the different Societies
for Orphelins de la Guerre.

Other activities of the women in Paris were educating
and entertaining the wounded and the reformes, those
unable to serve again and the clothing of these latter
organised by the Society of Vetements du Soldat,
where I spent an afternoon seeing heroes with one leg,
one arm, sometimes both gone, trying on coats and
boots with the keenest interest, delighted as children
when they lighted on something which took their
fancy. I helped one who had suffered considerable
losses in limbs into a greatcoat which he said " fitted
him to a marvel." He could now face the cold winter
with his one arm and one leg and a hole in the lung,
and " make famous shells to kill more sales Boches,"
said he with a happy smile.

Though I have limited my account to what my own
friends were doing, it would need a volume to tell
even that. As an example, I will just take two or three
typical families.

" Madame " went daily to a war workroom and
stitched away for hours. Her three young daughters,
one married to a doctor, all served in hospitals, one
near the Front, constantly under fire, wore the Croix
de Guerre. The two sons were both at the Front, one
an " ace " in the Flying Corps.

Another lady and her daughter, who volunteered
at the outbreak of war for services in a hospital



THE WOMEN OF FRANCE 167

clerical and domestic work, being untrained as nurses
have both died at their posts from pneumonia, caught
in the bitter cold of the draughty, unwarmed building
the daughter leaving two little children.

Another member of this same family, having lost
her husband and two sons in the war, spent her life
in doing domestic work of the most arduous kind at
a needy hospital.

But one could go on indefinitely with these examples
answering that question, often asked in England,
" What are French women doing? " meaning of course
the educated women, for everyone knows French-
women of the agricultural classes share that work
with the men even in peace time, and that French
working women were doing precisely the same war
work as English women.

Morally and materially the women of France
" kept their country going," while their men were
at the Front. As to their attitude towards a pre-
mature peace, the manifesto sent by the women of
France to the Women's Congress at the Hague ex-
presses their position and their ideals, when they
refused to take any part in that Congress to which
German women were invited.

6 We in France nursed the dream of a peace and
understanding, if not universal, at least European.
We refused to believe those who pointed out to us
the growing menace on the other side of the frontier.
How we have been awakened to the reality you know,
and history will keep the record for ever. Since



168 MY FRENCH YEAR

events have proved the futility of a one-sided pacifism,
we shall only resume our propaganda when the peace
to come has given us efficacious guarantees against
the domination of one nation. But is this the moment
to discuss peace ? With sorrowful amazement we
read your programme for an Armistice. How can
we think of such a thing while our provinces are
still subject to the enemy's yoke, and Belgium stands
martyred before all eyes ? Do you ignore what
France demands of this peace ? She requires the
freedom of the future, and that her enemies forced
by defeat shall be made to recognise that their material
strength has been crushed by the heroic defence of
their victors. ... To think of peace to-day, before
peace can consecrate and establish the principles of
right, would be to betray those for whom we are so
many of us proudly mourning. It is in order that
future generations may reap the fruit of their splendid
self-abnegation and death that the women of France
will continue the combat as long as needful, united
with those who are fighting and dying for their country
they will not associate themselves with one gesture
of peace."

It was this spirit in the women which made the
men unconquerable. That is what Frenchwomen did.



PART II

1919

THE spring was unfolding into summer and the
voice of the mock-turtle of Peace Conference was heard
in the land when again I crossed the Channel and
found myself in France.

No lifebelts or rafts, no anxious watch for peri-
scopes or mines but still a steamer crowded with
troops, khaki red tabs, Tommies and Indians, besides
civils, Red Cross and Croix Rouge, smart women and
dowdy women, and a group of Tommy's children
going out to see " Daddy in France."

Boulogne is still practically an English town, and
American prices are the order of the day. France is
going to take a long time to get straight. If in
England we feel the dislocation and disorganisation
caused by the Great War even in the smallest details
of daily life, we who have only had the enemy blacken-
ing our skies and polluting our air, it may be imagined
what it must be for France who has had him on her
soil for over four years, laying waste six million
acres of what was originally the most highly cultivated
and productive land in Europe, making of it a barren
wilderness, a waste of ruin and devastation, with its
villages, towns, cities, farms, homesteads and factories

169




170 MY FRENCH YEAR

of all descriptions demolished as if by an earthquake,
and Maurice Barres tells us that more than three
thousand churches have been sacrificed on the fields
of battle. Over one million acres of forest have been
utterly destroyed, and miles of orchards cut down.
Out of 213 sugar factories 145 are wrecked, and the
sugar industry reduced to one-third of what it was
before the war. The coal mines will take five to
ten years to restore to working conditions. To heal
the soil and bring it back to cultivation will in some
districts, experts say, take twenty-five years, the
land for miles being poisoned with gas and explosives,
sown with millions of live shells and grenades, and
graves scattered broadcast over the whole desolate
scene.

France- will take a long time to " set her house "
even " in order." As to being restored to former
prosperity one cannot measure the time, for no one
can foresee the great changes in physical, mental
and spiritual life which may shortly usher in a new
era for mankind. But the man- power of France is


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryConstance Elizabeth MaudMy French year → online text (page 10 of 17)