Copyright
Constance Elizabeth Maud.

My French year online

. (page 15 of 17)
Online LibraryConstance Elizabeth MaudMy French year → online text (page 15 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


neat, short-cut skirt and coat of khaki, a close-fitting



THE DAMES ANGLAISES

cap to match. Instead of veiled and downcast eyes
which never faced a man, clear, far-seeing eyes,
fearlessly, laughingly facing any man, friend or foe ;
instead of white bloodless hands folded in prayer or
cramped with fine sewing, strong muscular bronzed
hands, steadily guiding the heavy motor lorry or
dressing the terrible wounds of war. Yet both are
aspects of the selfsame spirit, women banded together
under one roof for service divine service.

And even as to the Lady Abbess of old, the people
of all the countryside come with their troubles and
grievances to the directrice of the Dames Anglaises.
And like a wise and loving mother, but with eyes very
wide open and in no way blinded by love and
sympathy, she deals with each individual.

It is not in human nature that all should be always
good and perfect children. There are occasionally
cases to be dealt with of funny little tricks, deceptions
and jealousies. One somewhat troublesome child,
living amid the wreckage of Montdidier, wrote to the
directrice of those parts a long and vehement protest
against the injustice of a world in which more was
done for others even those in the same street
even he might add, and herein lay the sting, his own
son than for himself. The Dames Anglaises had
proved themselves, in respect of totally disregarding
merit and ignoring just claims, no better than the
Dames Franpaises yet enclosed was his carnet showing
beyond all doubt that his was a case, if ever there was
one, for a cooking stove ! A widower for the last
Q




MY FRENCH YEAR

eighteen years, and the father of twelve children !
What more could he have done ? The wages he gained
as a postman were less by far than those of his son
who had no children yet to this one had been given
a stove, besides many other gifts withheld from
himself.

The letter ended with a somewhat pathetic bitter-
ness : "I make no doubt you will now throw this
letter of mine into the fire and say nothing of it to
anyone."

The thought that a composition on which evidently
much time and thought, as well as intensity of feeling,
had been expended, should end without even being
widely published and discussed, was the bitterest
thought of all to the writer.

On looking up his name and address it was found
that Mr Postman had, however, very little grounds
for complaint.

Quite a long list of goods, including pots and pans,
blankets, sheets, boots and shirts, had been bestowed
on him, though it was true the much- coveted cooking
stove was not among them. Only a very limited
number being obtainable, these are given first to
families, and Monsieur le facteur, in spite of his twelve
offspring, was living alone and had only himself to
support, his youngest fledgling having long ago spread
wide its wings and left the parental nest.

Armed with these facts I accompanied the direc-
trice on her rounds to Montdidier when she included
a call to interview personally this case of complaint.



THE DAMES ANGLAISES 243

Unfortunately " the case " was out on postman's duty.
He had, however, left the key and full particulars
of his grievances with his next-door neighbour, and
the Dames Anglaises, if any called, were to be shown
in and see for themselves the bareness of his habitation.

The neighbour, a woman of pleasant, humorous
countenance, whom not even Montdidier surround-
ings could depress, showed us into the two small
rooms still holding together on the ground floor, in
spite of the collapse of the roof and upper floors.
Yellow paper filled in the window panes all glass
being shattered in Montdidier, and none as yet
obtainable anywhere.

The place contained a good bed well fitted up.
Two chairs, a strong table, and kitchen utensils from
the Dames Anglaises. It was obvious that a stove
would be a valuable addition to the poor little menage
of the old man he was sixty-eight, and the directrice
left a message, at once gently reproving and yet
consoling, for her difficult child, the more difficult
that she found he had the reputation for drowning his
troubles in drink too strong for his head and legs to
support with steadiness. The neighbour, on the other
hand, was discovered to be one of those deserving of
every help, who had been so fearful of pushing herself
forward she had not even gone through the necessary
form of giving her name and address at the Mairie.

Few of the people returning to Montdidier find
more than a room or a wall to mark the spot where
their homes stood, and these are the fortunate ones




244 MY FRENCH YEAR

whose houses had cellars and deep, solid foundations
on the rock. But even where there exists nothing
save a heap of ruins, they set to work where it is
possible and clear a patch in order once more to be
on their own " foot of earth."

When I said to one woman we visited, what courage
and love they all showed to come back to poor Mont-
didier, she answered : " Yes, one comes back though
the boy is gone but one thinks one hears him
whistling down the road."

" The road " was a pathway among ruins. But
still it is the road the same spot where now a family
of five are crowded into one poor room roofed in with
tarpaulin, was where stood the home " the boy " had
loved. And still the echoes of his happy childhood,
his laugh, his cheery whistle, can be heard there by
the mother's heart.

Wherever we went it was the same :

" Quand mSme it is good to be back in one's own
pays."

Another family we visited were in a neat little
wooden cabin standing in a well cultivated potager
(vegetable garden) among the surrounding ruins.
The hut of which the family was justly proud had been
constructed by the old man and his son, fortunately
demobilised at the right moment for lending a hand.
They had had a dangerous and difficult task, for a
German gun had taken up its position on the site of
their ruined house, and some fifty live shells had been
sown in the ground now showing such neat rows of



THE DAMES ANGLAISES 245

beans and peas, carrots and onions. While digging
the foundations the son had escaped by two inches
being blown to fragments as his spade suddenly
revealed a shell three feet long. These seeds of the
Boche had to be removed with great caution, for the
slightest unwary tap spells disaster, and tragic accidents
occur every day. Inside, the little hut contained a big
bed and a stove sent by a brother-in-law living out
of the danger zone. The Dames Anglaises had come
like angels of succour and brought blankets, sheets,
pots and pans, clothes and food for all, all was
lacking. The cabin was built near ruins of the old
home on their own land. It had been a nice solid
house with a good basse cour and plenty of fine fowls
no finer in Montdidier ! The mother was in deep
mourning for a little daughter of thirteen who had
died in exile from an epidemic of typhoid which
attacked the refugees owing to the terrible conditions
when herded all together in their flight.

" Yes," said the mother, " the Boches killed her
as surely as with a gun our little Marie."

There are many thousands who like poor little Marie
will never come back the old, the young, the sick,
just lay down and died on the road, unable after days
of weary trudging to go another step. They were
sent fleeing from their homes, and took to the roads,
dragging the children with them, carrying the pitiful
bundle or wheeling a barrow piled with the few things
seized in their flight. Like stray leaves blown before
a gale, they fled without a goal, without a friend




246 MY FRENCH YEAR

in that vast outside world into which they found
themselves suddenly precipitated. Some had to
this the added anguish of getting separated, the
Huns falling upon the village at night and driving the
inhabitants hither and thither, in many cases de-
liberately separating the older girls from their mother.

Life in the khaki convents begins early allowing
for the daylight saving hour, just about the same time
as the ancient Orders. At Pierrefonds as the clock
strikes seven one of the sisterhood goes round with a
rousing rap on every door. You spring out of bed,
and perform your morning rites of washing in fresh,
cold water. The breakfast bell rings at a quarter
to eight. There is tea or porridge with condensed
milk for the Germans took away all the cows long
ago a dish of wild strawberries, (one of the very few
things the Germans could not take away, though they
devoured them like locusts while they were there,
employing the babies in picking) a small ration of
butter to each plate, and the same of sugar and
plenty of bread, good bread made of wheat from which
the germ has not been extracted, as in England. So
we do very well on our plain breakfast, for real bread
is a real staff of life, and each one goes fortified on
her several ways the cook back to her kitchen,
the housemaid to her linen cupboard or her broom.
Every member of the Community makes her own
bed and keeps her own room in order, but still there
is plenty for the broom to do. Two go off to fetch




THE DAMES ANGLAISES 247

fresh stores from the depot at Compiegne driving one
of the big camions, and two more with another lorry
to take round food, clothes, stores of all kinds, in-
cluding pots and pans, seeds and garden implements,
to the distant villages.

Two others are visiting nurses, and armed with
bandages and medicines have a busy day before them,
for there are many sick and bedridden poilus from
the hospitals not half cured, bad cases of tuberculosis
contracted in exile, little children, nerves broken
and bodies wrecked with fits, the result of fear and
scenes of horror from which the child mind cannot
get free, and women starting new babies on life's
journey.

Three days in the week a long procession of all
those within walking distance, troop up the hill, and
the big stores are opened out of which come all the
heart of woman can desire. Sheets, blankets, pillows,
for, after wandering on the face of the earth for two
or three years, the first thing you want is a good bed
under your own roof. Next, having slept, you want
to eat, and for that what so needful, after a stove of
course, as a fine saucepan and a big pot for your in-
dispensable potage. Without the pot au feu no
French menage can walk. Then clothes oh, the
splendid stores of clothes for those of all ages and
sizes ! One woman came up with a boy of twelve
and a baby of a year to be measured for outfits. In
between these two ends of the family were five others
of both sexes, but as they were even as steps she



248 MY FRENCH YEAR

judged the measure of the absent ones could be rightly
guessed. No refugees have any clothes but the
scanty ones in which they stand. One family just
arrived from Brittany found their house a mere shell,
walls and roof intact, but the inside bare as an empty
nut shell even the doors had been taken for fire-
wood. The Dames Anglaises supplied all their needs.
The Government allowed something, but quite in-
adequate. The gifts were taken in a most matter
of fact way. I heard no thanks, just a nod and a
smile now and then.

" Will that fit you ? " or, " Is this what you
need ? " asks the Dame Anglaise in her most sym-
pathetic tone.

" Yes that will do well, I think. Bonjour."

" Come again bring the little one, I have a frock
we will try on," responds the Dame Anglaise.

A cloak was produced for one young woman with
a whole history of suffering writ plain on her pale,
still pretty, face.

" Try it on let us see how it goes for you," said
the dispenser of the stores.

" Oh, I can see it goes well enough, thank you,"
said the woman, not ungraciously, only with a sort of
hopeless indifference. But the young khaki knight
was nothing daunted.

" See," she said putting it over the poor thin
shoulders, " cloaks are the latest fashion, you know.
Why, now you look quite chic," and she turned her
round admiringly. " N'est-ce pas, Jacques ? " she



THE DAMES ANGLAISES 249

appealed to a small boy who had come to help carry
the things.

" Mais oui ! " said Jacques looking at his mother
with round eyes. Then came a smile, a wintry smile
but there it was, showing the sun was not extinct.
The cloak remained on the thin shoulders. The
thought of looking chic, of being in the fashion,
had gone straight home and proved strangely heart-
warming.

The look on her face was thanks enough as she
went off well laden with a nod and friendly " bonjour
Mademoiselle."

The point of view is this, it appears : without any
action on their part, a horrible, aggressive war,
devastated their lives they lose everything. In the
course of time, equally without action on their part,
a benign influence swoops down and envelops them,
they are glad, oh yes, since one has to continue this
curious existence, and le Ion Dieu seems at last
to be attending to His world. They will even go
to Church if one still remains, and thank the Blessed
Virgin, for it is probably Her doing that these
strangers have brought such useful tilings along.
They are a proud people, however, and do not really
like taking presents they would prefer buying,
specially if there could be introduced the element of
bargaining the feeling of getting a good bargain
produces the keenest joy. Many other Societies
working in these districts have acted on this discovery,
and now sell all their gifts at a moderate sum, leaving



250 MY FRENCH YEAR

the money so received in the hands of the village
Mayor for the most destitute cases, but the rule of
the Dames Anglais es is to take no payment, and they
would rather have that nod and smile than any thanks.
One enterprise of theirs has, however, called forth
most hearty and spontaneous thanks, and that is
the Baby Clinique.

Every Saturday morning as to some sacred shrine
a long procession winds up to the Chateau Ste Anne,
wheeled in perambulators or carried in their mothers'
arms comes a goodly company of fat and rosy- cheeked
three year olders and under.

" Six months ago," said one mother of two
sturdy youngsters, " these were mere skeletons
white and thin like sticks of celery ! You see
them now they could take a prize these two of



mine."



The two high priestesses who receive the pilgrims
are as popular as any saints, and believed in quite
as fervently and with good cause. It was hard to
credit the " celery sticks " as one looked at this jolly
crowd, crowing, waddling up, one by one to be weighed
and tested and commended. Condensed milk and
medical care I was assured had worked the miracle.
These are the children young enough to save, even
born under most harrowing conditions they recover
taken young enough. The war stopped just in time
for help to be effective in building up their fast dwind-
ling little bodies. It is the children a few years
older whom the Huns have permanently injured,



THE DAMES ANGLAISES



251



little creatures fully conscious from the first of
the terror, the horror of that first cry " They come !
The Boches are upon us ! " And the awful scenes
that followed : the bloodshed, the fire, the roar of the
guns, the breathless escapes, hiding in cellars, the
homeless wanderings, starvation and cold, suffering
and death on every side. Many of those children
who failed to escape were forced to labour like grown
people for their brutal captors. If the task proved
beyond the child's strength it was cruelly beaten
and imprisoned. " They died in piteous numbers,"
said an old cure who survived the four years with
difficulty himself. " Yet," he added, " those are the
more fortunate ones, for never can these children
who lived through it be otherwise than feeble in mind
and body." This is confirmed by the school reports
of this year, which say that these children who en-
dured the Boche rule in the occupied territories are
unable to retain what they learn or to concentrate
their attention the whole system is anaemic and
the mental growth arrested.

They are like those poor blighted trees in the war
zone, whom poisoned gas has choked so that the living
sap is vitiated. The leaves try in vain to push forth
and the branches grow all twisted and distorted.
There appears to be no doubt from the testimony of
the Germans themselves that this was one of the
methods of Schrecklichkeit deliberately aimed at,
a part of the plan of world domination which, by
destroying the French race at its source, should



MY FRENCH YEAR

elevate the Teuton and make " Deutschland iiber
Alles ! "

The ladies of Ste Anne included in their household
a tiny three months' old baby and a young but
enormous refugee dog. The baby's mother had just
died of consumption there was no one to take it, and
no one to take the dog, so both found a haven of refuge
with the Dames Anglais es.

Ste Anne's is a big chateau on the side of the hill,
used as a military hospital till taken over by the
Englishwomen in the month of December after the
Armistice. Those who have followed in the wake
of messieurs les militaires, whatever their nationality,
can imagine the condition of that chateau. The
wintry blasts swept through freely hardly a pane
of glass was unbroken yellow paper here and there
attempted to stop the gap. Coal was scarce as gold.
Electric light did not work. Water had to be carried
up the hill, as also the scanty fuel, whether wood or
coal. According to a frequent custom in France
a large and most aggressive cesspool adjoined the
kitchen. The dirt of the whole place defied descrip-
tion. The two heads of the Community, having served
as matron and sister in a big Paris hospital, faced the
task which would have daunted less valiant spirits.
By the time their hospitable doors opened to me Ste
Anne's was a very pleasant summer residence, thanks
to the wonderful resource and energy of the gallant
band of Dames Anglaises, who in their task had had






THE DAMES ANGLAISES 253

no one to assist them but two German prisoners.
These latter had proved excellent workers men of
peace rather than war by profession, skilled craftsmen
of a well-educated class. To be with these ladies doing
their gentle behests, rather than with their comrades
of the camp under the rule of their own sergeants,
was to them a cause of much thankfulness, and by
every means in their power they tried to make their
presence acceptable, doing all sorts of little works
of supererogation, offering little gifts of neatly-
carpentered boxes and carved frames. To such men,
and there must be a numerous class in Germany,
one realised that the Great War will bring the dawn
of a real Freedom, the victory of the Allies is their
great chance to be rid of a tyranny, an Iron Heel
under which their lives were ground down. Had their
masters been victorious, their yoke would have but
grown heavier, the Mailed Fist and Iron Heel held
them down more securely.

About fourteen kilometres from Pierref onds a greatly
needed hospital had lately been opened, and once a
week the Dames Anglaises collected their patients and
drove them over to consult the American women- doctors
and nurses a very efficient and up-to-date company.

In a big lorry with our girl driver we set out early
one lovely morning taking the cases for consultation.
We started with an old man with a bad arm, a woman
and a child, the latter suffering from what the mother
described as " vegetation of the throat," and a boy



MY FRENCH YEAR

going to see his father who had been operated on. On
the road at intervals we picked up other patients
looking out for our Red Cross lorry, till it was well
loaded. A French doctor was of the party, bringing
a poor old gran'mere in whom he was interested a
grave case about which he felt rather doubtful whether
these women doctors would be able to cope.

The idea of a woman surgeon was as new to him
as was our little girl driver, who managed the steep
hills, sharp turnings and bad roads with such easy
skill. In France women have become doctors only
in small numbers though with signal success but they
have not yet been allowed to attend the classes and
become surgeons. Our French doctor doubted the
wisdom of such a step, as men always doubt the step,
however inevitable, not yet taken. He himself had
just been demobilised.

" This drive is for me a rather curious experience,"
said he, as we got about five miles out of Pierrefonds.
" These are the battlefields. Not many months
ago my regiment was here. There we fought those
great battles when we drove the Boches at last from
their strongholds." He pointed out his own little
paste de secours just off the roadside, which he
recognised, for the small weathercock he had fixed
up outside was still turning busily in the wind. Just
here had been the French trenches and here the
German. From the heights of this ridge was to be
seen in the distance the famous " Chemin des Dames."
We passed the ruins, not even a wall remaining of a



THE DAMES ANGLAISES 255

big farm round which the fight had raged, la ferme
de Queunevers.

" The owner," said the doctor, " was of our regiment,
and he went over one day to see if anything remained
but there was nothing nothing he had lost all,
the unhappy one."

Arrived at Blerancourt we unloaded our poor sick
" civils " at the American women's fine new tent
hospital, and handed them over to the spotless white
uniformed nurses of the Stars and Stripes. The
French doctor, walking casually into the operating
theatre in his workaday coat, was summarily taken
by the shoulders and turned right about face by the
tall high priestess in white mask and white garments
from head to foot. He gasped with surprise, but
was clearly impressed profoundly before we left by
these women surgeons who so well knew their job and
had all equipped with such precision and per-
fection. Windows and doors were wide open, but
carefully netted over to keep out the flies. Every-
thing floors, walls, beds, utensils were of a spotless-
ness which, to the man accustomed to the horrors of
countless wounded and dying, to be treated in tents,
in cellars, on platforms, anywhere, must have ap-
peared almost incredible ; even when compared with
the military hospital at its best.

Most of the patients we brought were left at the
hospital for treatment. The doctor's old lady was
told to come back next Friday for her operation.
She looked troubled.




256 MY FRENCH YEAR

" Ah, my ladies, not Friday, I beg you," she said.
" It was Friday that les sales Boches they drove me
into exile. Friday for me is a black day ! "

So they promptly fixed another, these American
women, who being psychologists recognised the import-
ance of getting the patient's mind to co-operate with
the surgeon's hands.

In less than three weeks they have performed sixty
operations.

" Many very interesting cases," said the medecin
en chef. " This hospital is a regular Pandora's box
you never know what is coming out of it."

Many are cases which have been waiting years for
such an opportunity as this hospital offers.

One old fellow we brought over declared that
his damaged arm dated from the Franco-Prussian



war.

44



Ah but yes, Madame, me also," he said with
evident satisfaction, " I am a wounded soldier ! It
was in 1870 I caught this night and day it pre-
vents me to sleep."

He had been a sniper, and had killed many sales
Bodies. They had taken him prisoner, but he " had
known how to escape." Poor old fellow,, he had
suffered many miseries, together with all those of these
invaded regions.

"Without les Dames Anglaises we should all be
dead ones," he said. After examining his arm the
American women decided to take him in for a week,
and his eyes lit up with pleasure at the idea of enter-.



THE DAMES ANGLAISES 257

ing one of the white cool tents with their rows of
spotless beds.

Under one big tent a number of refugees were
taking temporary shelter, having been turned out of
their houses by the recent explosion of a huge am-
munition dump. It was believed to be the work of
the Boche prisoners, for the time chosen was just
when the sentinel unfortunately happened to have
stepped across the way to the beguiling cabaret " It
was but for a few moments, you understand, but those
devils they were on the watch, and to put a fuse it is
not a long affair ! "

The Boche prisoners were not popular in that part,
having shown themselves lately very restive and
arrogant, maltreating little children if they got the
chance, and insulting the women they passed on the
road.

" One feeds them too well," said a victim of the
explosion, " see how fat and strong they are, and


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17

Online LibraryConstance Elizabeth MaudMy French year → online text (page 15 of 17)