Constance Elizabeth Maud.

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motor cars with the little flags of stars and stripes,
their American shiploads of stores, their inexhaustible
funds, from which they were ever ready to draw,
these attractions, combined with charming manners
and good looks, formed a constellation of starriness
sufficient to make any man an astronomer," as
George Meredith has it. To the refugees of these
ruined villages and homesteads they appeared in
the light of wondrous radiant beings from a far
distant world. " Les dames Americaines," was
uttered in the tones in which the ancient Greeks


must have spoken of the Olympians when in beneficent
mood they descended to the earth. Driving through
many of these villages we saw a great deal of
their excellent work. The comfortable little wooden
houses (barraques), where the homeless families are
being installed for the winter. The restocking of
the farms with live stock, seeds and vegetables, and
the orchards with fruit trees. Everywhere the return-
ing inhabitants were setting to work with courage
renewed and hope revived by this timely, friendly help.
They were supplied also with agricultural implements
and garden tools so difficult to obtain in any part
of France, all such factories being used now for mak-
ing munitions. UAmerique was the wonderful store-
house, the land of plenty, from which came food
and clothes, boots and stoves, pots and pans, even
spades and ploughshares. Many a poor destitute
victim of the Boche lifted up the heart in gratitude
that le bon Dieu had made America, and Christophe
Colombe had the good luck to discover it. But
though Americans and English have done much to
help them, the people best able to raise the stricken
inhabitants of the devastated regions are naturally
those of their own nationality, their own faith, their
own speech. The Frenchwoman, who has lost her
husband, her son, whose home has also been burnt
to the ground, who uses the same speech and finds
comfort at the same altar she can speak to her
poorer sister from che depths of a common suffering.
To these other sufferers she can say, " I understand,


for I too am French. I too have given all have
lost my heart's treasure have found comfort in
the faith of our fathers."

Though she may have but little money to give,
and few of the gifts of the generous Americans,
she gives what is of infinitely more value, the
sympathy which stimulates without danger of
enervating, the example which engenders hope and
courage. Such workers are found living among
their people, teaching them how to build up a new
life amidst the ruins, literally out of the ruins,
showing the quickly adaptable women how to turn
their hands to new and unaccustomed trades, holding
little extemporary schools for the children and
cliniques where the babies and sick people can
receive medicines and advice.

" Just to see Madame la Comtesse, it warms one
the heart, see you," said one brave old body. " Like
the good red wine of the country which fortifies
we others more than all the other kind gifts. She
has the right word for everyone she divines just
what you want some baby clothes will be needed
for this one a big saucepan for that one for me
and my old one it was a little stove impossible
to obtain, one declared yet Madame la Comtesse
she obtained it. There are of course many things
we need she cannot give, but always she gives the
courage she lifts up the heart which has fallen
into the despair crushed by the sorrow, see you,
for she has also known what it is to be crushed by


the sorrow. Her three sons they have been killed
in this cruel war ' My friends,' she says, ' they
have given their lives for France, our brave boys
yours and mine let us show by our courage and
our faith in God that we are worthy of them.' It
is like that she speaks, Madame la Comtesse, and
it consoles, it warms the heart, more even than the
good words of Monsieur le Cure."

Going through these villages where the Huns have
left their most deadly trail, there were many where
hardly one stone remained upon another. Chauny,
for instance, is only a heap of ruins though still
periodically shelled, no doubt in memory of the fact
that there were once aniline works there. Some
villages still have a few walls but half burnt, and
wherever it has been possible the courageous French
have set to work repairing and reconstructing.
In the fields the soldiers have rendered important
assistance. When resting at the back of the lines,
and often during their few days' leave, the poilus
have devoted their time to helping the old men and
women who alone are left to do the work of re-
claiming the devastated land clearing, ploughing
and sowing. One of the most Hunnish of all the
Hun deeds has been the wholesale deportation of
all the able-bodied women under fifty, and the cruel
tearing from their families of all young boys and
girls over the age of fourteen, leaving only those
they considered useless. The scenes that took place
were heart-rending, many mothers who would have


followed their children but unable to leave the
babies at home, becoming nearly insane fighting
desperately to defend them when their screaming
children clung to them in a frenzy of terror.
But the Huns showed no pity, no mercy, even in-
sisting on separating brothers and sisters, mother
and daughter, when deported together. These deeds
were nearly always perpetrated at night, thereby
adding to the general terror and dismay.

The little village churches are almost all blown
up, lying prone in a melancholy heap upon the
graves of the once peaceful God's acre. The only
thing surviving here and there is a tall crucifix
emerging from the chaos as if triumphing over all
the efforts of the Boche. Most of the chateaux also
have been " made an example of ' either reduced
to a pile of ruins, or the walls alone left standing,
gaunt, charred and blackened with gaping holes
and sightless windows a spectacle for all the
countryside to behold and shudder, as at a grim
gallows set on a hill.

Neither were the orchards spared in which this
country abounded. Acres of bleeding stumps
marked the deadly trail of the Boche. He has
hacked down even the long avenues of poplars whose
friendly whisper was such an indispensable accom-
paniment along all the country roads, and is now
silenced for^ twenty years to come.

And this was once a smiling land flowing with



milk and cider, glowing with fruits of the earth,
cornfields and orchards heavy laden ; happy little
villages crowned with an ancient church spire, where
dwelt a people, industrious, frugal, sunny-hearted
and content.

Here in his happy wanderings journeyed the
"Arethusa" with his friend the "Cigarette,"
paddling their canoes down the canals and the rivers
Oise and Aisne tramping over the hills and resting
at night in the friendly woods or agreeable little
villages nestling among the folds of the fertile valleys
and open pastoral country.

What would that devout lover of France say and
feel could he see the Golden Valley now ! That
air once so sweet with the breath of " rejoicing
trees " and growing things, now laden with the dust
of burnt-up villages and farms, the smoke of exploding
shells and poison gas. Instead of the glowing
stretches of corn and the green beauty of the fields
and fruit trees, nothing far as the eye can reach,
nothing but grey stony desolation the earth so
scarred, so mutilated, so dry and arid, it seems
impossible Nature can ever heal such wounds and
restore poor Mother Earth to life and greenness.
The bodies of France's defending sons are sown
in that desolate waste among the gaping trenches,
entanglements of barbed wire and charred woods,
scene of such repeated battles. Sometimes a tiny
green enclosure, or a little wooden cross with the
tricolour rosette marks a solitary grave, but whole


armies lie there barely hidden from sight, sown
not in weakness or defeat but an honourable death,
duke et decorum, to be raised in power and undying

The churchyards and cemeteries were full of soldiers'
graves. One of the most pitiful sights was the long
row in a newly-made cemetery, of open graves
ready, waiting. . . .

All along our route were traces of the battles so
recently fought.

The village of Bailly was completely razed to
the ground, like Chauny, no habitation left. At
Ribecourt the people had suffered from the depreda-
tions of the wild boar as successor to the Boche.
Not having been hunted for three seasons he had
grown so bold as to dare to come into the gardens
and take off all the vegetables newly planted. At
this village a good deal of reconstruction was going
on, many houses half demolished being repaired
and little wooden barraques erected. Often the
returning refugees lived in the remains of a cowhouse
or barn, any shelter if only to be on their own " foot
of earth " once more. One family consisting of a
grandmother, her daughter and a small boy were
living in the only building not destroyed a damp
and disused stable. Around them were the ruins
of their once prosperous farm, a comfortable house,
barns and sheds.

" No less than one hundred Boche soldiers were
planted on us at first," said the farmer's wife. " They


lay one over the other, there was no place for us
except this old stable where we had ceased to lodge
the horses it was too damp for them. When they
left, the enemy burnt all to the ground, even the
trees of the orchard they cut : there were no apples
like ours in all this country, and see now ! " She
pointed to the melancholy stumps in what had
once been an orchard. It gave one almost the feeling
of looking on mutilated human beings to see those
bleeding tree stumps.

" For two seasons they lived here. The Boches
liked well our poor apple trees, they eat all the
fruit all the chickens all the milk. They left
us only the beetroots ! " she added bitterly. Yet
the spirit of home-making was unquenchable, and
once back on their own land they had set to work
with a will to remake, even to re-beautify if possible.
This was shown by some drawings made by the
little boy which decorated the walls of the poor stable.

" He has the idea one day to become an artist,"
said the grandmother with pride. In the garden
was still the deep trench made by the Boches when
they were fighting over this ground, but the potager
or kitchen garden had already been restored to some-
thing like order and profit by the energetic work
of the women and boy who lived chiefly on the
produce beans, potatoes, cabbages and beetroots.
One most invaluable assistant they had & goat !
A French landowner of that country presents one
of these useful and unexacting animals to anyone


applying to him, and there are few who do not apply.
We have yet to learn in England what a friend the
goat can be, especially to children, and how modest
are her demands.

Right close up to the grey hordes the returning
inhabitants were settling down in any shelter they
could find clearing the ground, sowing and planting
just as though they had now nothing to fear. It
reminded me of the way the villagers on the slopes
of Vesuvius return to their homes destroyed by the
molten stream of lava, and rebuild and settle down
again before the volcano has ceased rumbling. The
German guns were often heard rumbling in those days.
Yet even the French Government encouraged the
return of the inhabitants by giving compensation
for their losses in cows, pigs and goats. Many
however were utterly destitute. In one village I
met a poor bent old woman who, while my friend
was talking to the postmistress and enquiring of
the latest arrivals, begged me to come and see how
she was lodged. We walked down a dreary street
of ruins on either side ; among them she showed
at length a roofed-in shed.

" That is where we live, my old one and me,"
she said. "At the back there stood our farm a
fine farm it was, the neighbours will tell you. The
sales Boches have made of it a heap of black stones !
My old one has become quite foolish from the miseries
we have suffered often he speaks badly even to
me. He understands nothing, the unhappy one ! "


Great as were her material woes it was those
of the heart which evidently hurt most. That her
" old one " should be so changed that he spoke badly
even to his vieille !

They were living in the former hen-house. Les
jeunes Qudqueres had supplied beds and Le Bon Gtte
a small oil stove and pot for cooking, " So one
manages," she said philosophically. But when she
spoke of her vieux the poor old voice quavered,
and when she told of her son from whom no news
had come for two years, the tears coursed slowly down
the poor old furrowed parchment cheeks.

" He and his wife and two children all had been
deported to work for the Boches in their accursed
land. The poor boy he was lame with a malady
of the hip, or of course he would have been serving
as soldier like everyone else. The Boches they care
not who they take ! They drag a dying one from
his bed to work in the coal mines. Ah, my poor
boy my Charles, does he live still ! "

The only comfort I could give was to write down
all particulars and put her in touch with the Society
which makes the repatriation of the deported their
special business. Already they have achieved some-
thing by getting the intervention of the Pope and
the King of Spain. The Huns have been obliged
for diplomatic reasons to restore some three hundred
of the women and girls carried off to slavery the
previous March. Thousands were seized in the
occupied territory, and this it was hoped was only


a first instalment of those soon to be restored.
One thing however seemed but too certain, that many
would die before their rescue came. There was the
young sister-in-law of the postmistress of where we
stopped on our way. She was among the fortunate
three hundred if you can call anyone " fortunate "
who looks like poor Clemence so lifeless, so hopeless
" as yellow as a lemon! And that girl had six
months ago the cheeks colour of apples the sun
has kissed," said her sister-in-law. " But there,
what will you, she has lived for four months on

beetroots and soup of cabbage- stalks "

" It was not alone the hunger, it was the dirt
the misery the agony of mind," said the girl
suddenly, and then relapsed into silence. Evidently
she could not talk of that time in Germany. It
was too recent. But when she left the room, we
learnt how they had been sent back in cattle-trucks
herded together to suffocation. During the journey
which lasted nearly seven days and nights they had
gone through such torment that three of their number
had succumbed, and with their dead companions
they had continued to the end of that journey.

In these villages occupied for so long by the
enemy many a drama, many a tragedy has taken
place. For though the Boche was here under strict
discipline, and the terrible outrages impossible which
took place at the outbreak of war in Belgium and
the North of France, when mad with drink they


raided the convents and the girls' schools, sparing
no one, old or young, still the Hun is always a
Hun and does not change his spots even when obliged
to hide them. The misery and starvation of their
children drove many of these village women into a
terrible situation. Sometimes the victim had as
little voice in the matter as the nuns in Flanders,
but often it was to save her children from starvation
and cold in the awful winter months, food and fuel
being nearly all seized by the German, that the
young wife of the absent poilu sold herself.

There was one such a case round which the whispers
of the neighbours still centred she who dwelt in
the cottage standing back from the road apart
like herself. " Ah, the miserable one what will
you ! The Boche he paid her well he was well
behaved, that one. The good God knows one could
not say this of many of those animals there ! She
had three children, see you, and to give them enough
to eat with the few francs she gained by washing,
it was not possible. At first she refused to act
badly la malheureuse then the eldest child he
began to cough and to grow so thin one could count
every bone, the others also like all the little ones,
became pale as parsnips. Ah ! but it tore one the
heart to see the children, the babies, who died in
those days. One day then at the end of her forces,
Madelon in despair she became the mistress of the
Boche the miserable one to give to eat to the
little ones she did it not from lightness, you under-


stand ! She said to herself if he comes back, my
Francois, he will surely pardon me when I show
to him the children who are well and strong. Then
at last arrives the time when we gain a victory and
our army it pushes the Boche out of this village.
So quickly our brave boys they advance, the enemy
had no time to burn the village and to make jump
the church, as in other places. Then one day there
comes to the door the husband of Madelon, the brave
Francois. Six months before the Boche he had
departed leaving her with a gros bebe. Strange it
may appear but Madelon she felt for that bebe a sincere
affection. Francois he takes in the arms his wife
he embraces his little ones when suddenly he
looks ! There in the cradle he sees a child, fat,
rosy, of perhaps ten months old. It must be remem-
bered for two years and a half he had not seen his
wife nor heard any news. c Whose is that child ? '
he asks all trembling. ' Helas \ my poor Franois,'
cries la malheureuse, ' I will not lie to thee it is
my child to save the life of Pierre it was that I
consented at last. The Boche already six months
he has departed, without doubt by now he is killed in
all the cases never we shall see him again.' She wept
she excused herself she reproached herself never
had she loved any man save her husband of that
she was incapable. But to all she said he replied
nothing. Like a stone he regarded her, as though
the heart had ceased to beat. Then without a
word he picked up his knapsack and his helmet


from the floor, and he turned away. Down the
street out of the village he went, and never again
has the unhappy Madelon heard of him."

Will Franois ever return ? Has he gone back
to seek death, or to inflict it on as many of the Boches
as possible. That abhorrent people who have taken
all all that made life worth living. Better a
thousand times had their guns killed her and all
the children that he could have borne as others
have had to bear it. Le Ion Dieu would have kept
them safe and clean in His Paradise till he too should
depart and be reunited to them. But now, what
was left to him ! Not only the hideous fact that
she, his well-loved wife, his beautiful Madelon,
had belonged to a vile Boche, but in his home con-
fronting him daily, the child of that Boche calling
his wife " mother." And she, loving the young
Boche, as a mother must love her innocent helpless
child, caring for him as for the others. And this
daily going on under his very eyes, so that never for
one hour would he be able to forget ! Poor Franois.
Poor, poor Madelon !

One day we had as our guide another Commandant
of the district. His life was not so harassed as
that of his confrere at Noyon, and his temperament
far less highly strung. The very car in which he
was wont to drive on his rounds would have been
enough to produce a crisis of the nerves with the
former, whereas this gallant and genial gentleman
seemed quite oblivious that he was seated upon a


quivering corkscrew, and so beguiling was his con-
versation we were enabled to sit on corkscrews
likewise with smiling faces as he told us of his ex-
periences with the British Allies and his partiality
for the English officers. The Scotch too with their
uniforms so amusing, so original, he liked " Oh ver'
moch." Once he had been to a Scotch church-
that also was "very original." He had heard there
" an excellent discourse " evidently rather a surprise.

" But I will confess," he said, "that I received at
first a shock to hear that preacher treating the good
God with such familiarity addressing Him c thou '
as if He were a comrade of the trenches ! But after
a time it becomes clear to me that the bonhomme
he had no intention of blasphemy quite the con-
trary, this mode of address was merely a Scotch
custom even as the kilt uniform the whisky
the bagpipe ! And to say truth I approved very
much of that discourse given with such sincerity
such eloquence which his costume of black draperies
rendered profoundly impressive."

Jolting over the broken roads our guide pointed
out how thorough had been the work of the Boche
even where his retreat had been a positive scuttle.
Not a bridge but had been blown up not a carrefour
(crossroads) but had been mined one of these,
an important junction of main roads, had been
mined with a time fuse, deferring the explosion one
month, by which time it was calculated there would
be constant transports along this route. But the


Angels, whose guardianship has been experienced
on many occasions besides that of Mons, saw to it
that nothing disastrous resulted save a huge cavity.

" The fashion in which the Boche executed his
plan of destruction was always the same," said the
Commandant. " It was perfectly simple, and of
the thoroughness of the Car of Juggernaut. When
the order came to retreat, already some days before,
every horse and cow had been driven away. This
made little difference to the inhabitants, for the
Boches had appropriated them from the moment
of their arrival. The villagers were summoned to
assemble in the church on pain of death every
man, woman and child must obey. The church
doors were then locked. The people inside looked
at each other fearfully as sounds of explosions, of
falling things, reached them from time to time. On
the outer walls of the church too could be heard
ominous, tapping sounds.

" ' What is it ? ' asked the women, and the old
men answered : ' They take out the stones they
make holes Why ? In order to insert mines or
bombs and make jump the church ! ' The unhappy
ones like rats in a hole they found themselves
impossible to escape, for outside the Boches kept
guard ready to shoot any who even showed the nose
at a window. After two, three hours, suddenly the
church door is flung open and the Boche Commander
shouts : ' Out with you pigs ! Go back now to your
nice little village and each find his house if he can.'



" In truth," went on our guide, " it was often
difficult to recognise a single house. All was by this
time in a blaze. Walls were falling, broken windows
smashing orchard trees cut down, leaving only
bleeding stumps. The Boches had cleared away
all things of value which could be taken in their
lorries all the animals for food, pigs, fowls, etcetera.
What they could not take they destroyed and then
set fire to all. As they left the church matches were
applied to the incendiary pastilles and mines, and with
a loud report the church lay prone upon the graves.
' Vor warts,' then cries the gallant representative o!
Kultur, and they proceed to the next village."

For some time we drove on in silence. The idea
of reparation, of reconstruction seemed so hope-
lessly inadequate, so utterly futile. And the de-
struction was on such a vast scale the whimsical
words of Lewis Carrol kept singing in my head

" ' If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half an year,
Do you suppose,' the walrus said,
' That they could get it clear ? '

' I doubt it/ said the carpenter," etc.

I, too, doubted it ! As hopeless as the seven mops
to clear away the sands of the sea- shore appeared
the task of clearing away the debris of the Boches
les sales Boches / Yet as our friend the Commandant
observed when I tried to express this depressing
thought, " II faut faire ce qu'on peut ! "


We had not finished with the Boches that day,
for having seen how they treated the country people,
their homes and their churches, our guide explained
we must now see what they did for the aristocracy
and their homes.

" Here we see how the Boche he arranges a
chateau ! " said the Commandant as we drew up
before some stately, iron- wrought gates. It can only
have been owing to a deplorable oversight that these

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Online LibraryConstance Elizabeth MaudMy French year → online text (page 4 of 17)