Constance Elizabeth Maud.

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aux Blesses Militaires, to pass your examination
with distinction, was a fashion for some years before
the war, and fortunate for their country that it
was so, for when the sudden call rang out for women
as well as men to mobilise for National Service,
thousands of efficient, well-equipped young women
were ready to come forward, eighteen thousand
of the S.B.M. alone, and this number before long
was doubled.

During those terrible years of the German occupa-
tion, when Hun tyranny ground down the lives of
the inhabitants to starvation and misery, and deeds
of gross injustice and violence went unpunished,
Mdlle Claire, from her comparatively protected position
as a Croix Rouge nurse, with mother and home near
by, did her utmost to extend a sheltering wing to
other girls. In the hospital the French nurses
formed a bodyguard to each other. After their
first experiences of the manners and customs of the
Boche army doctors they always went in couples


to the private interviews to which these gentlemen
so often summoned the young and good-looking
nurses. Every device was used to break up this
united front, but only in rare cases with success,
chiefly no doubt because of the protecting influence
erected on their behalf by the Swiss Croix Rouge,
who, realising their danger, kept in constant touch.
The Swiss could be of service to the Hun prudent
therefore to stand well with them.

Out of one hundred German doctors with whom
she was brought in personal contact during those
years, Mdlle Claire's verdict was that she had
met but three who stood out conspicuously from
the rest as "of good conduct " a lower record
than those of Sodom and Gomorrah. She was
unable to concede even this percentage, however,
in favour of the Boche nurses. It would seem as
if the effect of German Kultur was signally dis-
astrous on the women of the race, the male, by
his denial to his womenkind of all claim to liberty,
equality or fraternity, crushing out all that makes
for self-respect or any noble ideal of her place in
the universe. The result is, that like a plant deprived
of light and space, the German woman, if not utterly
crushed, throws out contorted branches and develops
perverse and tyrannical qualities, when opportunity
offers a victim, essentially unwomanly and un-
feminine. It is not surprising they proved anything
but sympathetic nurses even with their own men.
" A man who found himself weak and ill they rather


despised," said Mdlle Claire. " Only when the men
swore and spoke with coarseness and roughness
they admired them."

The Boche wounded were not slow to realise the
advantage of a gentle, well-trained hand and soft,
low-toned voice. They had no scruple in showing
their preference even at the risk of hurting and
offending their countrywomen. " The Boche, he
makes no attention to the sentiments of others,"
said Mdlle Claire. "As to the feelings of a woman,
as soon would he consider those of the oysters he
was eating."

I asked her if it was not a difficult task even for
one of angelic disposition to nurse the Boche.

She admitted that there were times when it
certainly was so. " But," she went on, " when they
are greatly wounded a poor one who suffers mortally
oh then one thinks only how to help him he is
of no nation he is only a patient. The Boche
nurses they are not so careful of the wounds as
we others they have the hand heavy, and always
they hurry to get through the work it was but
natural the wounded preferred those who caused
them the least suffering. But when he commenced
to recover, Ah ! then it was difficult to have patience
with the Boche, for he became odious. He would
boast to us how many French men he had killed
with two words of bad French and showing on
his fingers, he made us understand. And not only
soldiers but civilians little children, old men and


women, young girls ' SchreckliMeit,' he would shout
and laugh. And soon they would punish all of us,
the bad French people, who dared to oppose the
good German, and they would show their big hairy
arms getting strong and muscular for this fine work.
Then it was I found it hard to approach those animals
to give them food to dress their wounds. Ah,
my God, to make them recover in order to kill
our brave boys, our poor defenceless civilians. Only
by telling myself that this miserable one he is de-
ceived, he thinks to do his duty, he obeys his officer
and has no choice only so could I continue to
attend him."

As she said this her brown eyes were lit with such
a divine understanding of the deep roots of things
that I understood how it was they called her " the

Like our little old lady of the green-shuttered house
she described life in Noyon under German rule as
a terrible ordeal for the inhabitants in one respect
worse even than for the poor prisoners in Germany,
since they at least received occasional letters and
parcels, and were permitted to write to their friends,
whereas no word, no sign of life was permitted to
reach these occupied regions, no word to be sent
out from them.

" For nearly three years," said Mdlle Claire, " we
had no news of my brother who is aviator. My
poor mother, ah how she suffered not to know even
if he lived or died. The dangers to which the aviator


is exposed are so great few survive a year. Hardly
it seemed possible we should ever see him again.
Yet the miracle has happened and he has been spared
to us- never even a wound up till now. He too
suffered the tortures of anxiety and suspense, fearing
our fate, yet hearing no word- only reports sinister
and fearful of the cruel Boche rule. It is the suspense
which tears the heart to give our lives we are all
prepared the mother who sees her son depart has
already made the supreme sacrifice."

All through these long drawn-out months and
years, though cut off from all news, the French captives
never lost hope, never wavered in the sure conviction
that the Allies would ultimately be victorious. Even
should Paris fall, Heaven would not fall, and no
reverse was going to quench their high courage.
They had often little ground for hope, and things
looked black enough. Their boasting captors fed
them on the lies they themselves more than half
believed, and though their prophecies and dates
were never correct, the fact of many fair provinces
being under German rule was a grim reality not to
be denied. Whenever they had any pretext for
proclaiming a victory the Boches paraded the streets
shouting songs of German triumph or glory, filling
the cafes and drink-shops all night, and flying German
eagles from every window. When they first swarmed
into Noyon they boasted loudly that in three days
they would be in Paris, and it appeared at the time
only too probable. From there they would march


south, sacking and pillaging very province till they
reached Toulouse. So in three weeks the war would
be gloriously finished ! Their rage against the
French knew no bounds when this admirable pro-
gramme somehow miscarried. /The Boche wounded
in the hospitals found a vent for their outraged
feelings by an increased attack of spitting, even
in the faces of the French nurses, while others bit
the hands which dressed their wounds. One shining
example of patriotic vengeance begged for a cup
of boiling milk three times he peevishly rejected
it as not up to the heat he required. At last he
expressed himself satisfied and therewith turned
and flung it in the face of the patient Croix Rouge
nurse. A chorus of bravos from his brother Boches
followed on her cry of agony.

Hearing that an English soldier had died in hospital
I expressed a wish to visit his grave. It might
perhaps comfort some one at home to know it was
cared for. The Angel of Noyon volunteered as my
guide, ad we set out one day for the little cemetery.

At the entrance was a large enclosure gay with
flowers ; at each corner waved the French standard
over a long list of those who had laid down their lives
on the field in those first terrible days. I found on
the grave I sought only a little wooden cross bearing
the brief inscription " Smith, Soldat Anglais. Mort
le 30 Sepbre 1914." Not even a Christian name
to guide one through the vast throng of patriotic


Smiths who have given their lives in the great fight
for right. The date showed he had died just in time
to be spared capture by the Huns, thank God.

A little corner was reserved for the Mohametans
of the Senegalese regiments, their graves marked
by the Crescent and Star together with the French
colours and a verse of the Koran. The Great War
has gathered into one fold all nationalities, all
religions, all classes, the Cross and the Crescent,
the white and the black races. Monsieur le Due
lies side by side with the peasant poilu, the same
flag and the same inscription mark their simple
graves " Mort pour la patrie."

My guide led me to the grave of the first Boche
to be laid among that worshipful company. He
deserved the honour even less than the generality
of his comrades, it appeared, for when I translated
the inscription for the benefit of Mdlle Claire, who
knew no German, and desired to know none, she
gave a little laugh of fine scorn.

" Hans Grobt," it was writ large, " died a hero's
death (Heldentod) for his Fatherland." " A hero's
death ! I will tell you how he died, that one,"
she said. " He was killed by his comrade one
night in a drunken brawl. Both tried to enter an
empty cab to pass the night the one endeavouring
to prevent the other from getting in a revolver
settled the affair for this hero. All the town talked
of it but this is the way the Boche renders facts
such are the typical Boche heroes."


All the same for the sake of some poor mother
somewhere in Germany I felt glad of that German

On leaving the cemetery we made a tour of the
old town, and my guide pointed out the huge pits
prepared for mining and utter destruction before
the Boche retreat in the previous March. Only
the rapid advance of the French had saved the

" An advance patrol of our brave boys arrived
just two hours before they were expected by Messieurs
les Boches," said Mdlle Claire. " They came just at
the good moment. A Boche officer and his six men
were in the Cathedralalready they had removed
the flagstones and made a great hole into which
they were about to lower the mine which would
make of our sacred shrine, our beloved Cathedral,
a deplorable ruin, like so many others. Our soldiers
descended upon them like the judgment of God.
There outside, against the wall, they shot those
destroyers, those desecrators and it was well finished
with them ! "

Even an angel of mercy has moments of righteous
indignation and satisfaction in the execution of
justice. But as she spoke the familiar sinister
sound of the " Take cover " signal tore the peaceful
air. A German wasp soared overhead buzzing
spitefully, and a chill feeling clutched one at the
heart. The wasp overhead dropt no bombs ; he


was merely out taking observations, such an every-
day occurrence no one paid any attention to the
warning. Noyon nevertheless was on the very
fringe of the German front a precarious position.
If ever the Huns got the chance how would they
deal with that grand old Cathedral after being so
ignominiously baulked ? Verily there will be a terrible
bill to pay for those six Bodies shot against the
wall, in strict accord though it was with the stern
laws of warfare. It was difficult to suppress the
fear that Noyon had not finished with les sales


THOSE two French classics " Le Feu " and " Gaspard "
had already made the poilu known to me in so far
as it is possible by means of printed book, vibrating,
throbbing with life, while Sir William Orpen and
Mr Herbert Ward had made familiar his outward
aspect many varieties of type, but all stamped with
the unmistakable yet half elusive characteristics
of the gallant, irresistible, irresponsible, unquench-
able, unconquerable French poilu. But no portrait
either in word or paint is equal to an hour in
the train with Monsieur Poilu, half an hour in
the hospital, or even ten minutes at the station

The poilu is of course of every class, of every
vocation, of every variety of temperament, from
the impulsive, emotional, talkative Tartarin of the
Midi, to the taciturn, moody, emotional Jans of
Brittany. And think of the gamut of tones between
these extremes of gaiety and gravity ! The Parisian
of nimble wits, highly strung nerves and artistic
tastes, the solid, steady, commercial bourgeois of
the manufacturing districts, the quiet, contented
peasant proprietor of the rich corn and vine lands,
at the call of France their Mother, all these sons



take on with their uniform of " horizon bleu " a
family likeness which is undeniable.

The qualities which actually "jump one in the
eye " are a quiet restrained cheerfulness, an entire
absence of boasting and flourish, together with a
resolute, almost grim purposefulness, to fight, to die,
pour la patrie, to which end drive out, and kill,
the sales Baches.

As they pressed round the canteen of the dames
Anglaises at the station, where many thousands
passed daily, changing trains to and from the front,
one met the poilu of every type, including the dark-
faced Moroccans and Senegalese. It was heart-warm-
ing and delightful for those dames Anglaises to see
how their services were appreciated as they dealt out
the hot coffee, soup and chocolate, not forgetting the
Petit Caporal and Woodbine. ' 4 C'est rudement chic les
dames Anglaises," as I heard one of them express it.

Often it is only a passing glimpse, a chance
word you get with Monsieur Poilu on these
occasions, for generally the time is short and the
crowd great. But he does not forget the dames
Anglaises whose cheering cup was accompanied by
a good smile and a few words, none the worse,
perhaps the better, for the strong English accent.
" Nos bons Allies Vive TAngleterre ! Oh yes,
awright," he sings out as he disappears into the
waiting train. But often a week later, his precious
seven days' leave being over, he is there again remind-
ing the dame Anglaise of a message she sent his


wife, or a bet she made that the petit gosse would
know him even before he cleaned off the mud of
the trenches. At the slightest opening his face
lights up, he is ready to make a joke of his wounds,
his frozen or blistered feet, the accursed mud, the
accursed cold, and the pest of the trenches, the
thrice accursed totos. Of all he makes nothing
" Que voulez-vous ? C'est la guerre ! "

Sometimes the dames Anglaises have seen pretty
deep down into the simple heart of the French soldier,
for not only at the canteen, but at the rest camps
behind the line, where the men spend several days
at a time, they have a unique opportunity of getting
in touch with him. Monsieur Poilu in repose has
two passions, la manille, a card game in which big
piles of sous change hands with lightning-like rapidity,
and letter-writing. You see him in the recreation
room, where paper and pen are provided, covering
sheet after sheet his head bent low over the page,
intent and absorbed. Some there are, however, who
have not attained this enviable proficiency, and then
it is that the canteen lady comes in as a good angel.
She is as safe as the confessional, you see, and if
only the feelings with which you are bursting can
find words she will fix them on paper for you. Many
is the love letter the dame Anglaise has penned,
often eloquent with unwritten things between the
lines. Those four little words for instance, "Ne t'en
fait pas " what condensed meaning they hold. " Ne
t'en fait pas " when the heart it is cracking the


anxiety it tears you when you get no news or
even bad news or, well, suppose even the news
after which there is no more news " ne t'en fait pas,
ma vieille," or u ma 'tite femme." With an in-
expressible tenderness which you try to press into
the pen " ne t'en fait pas ! "

Of these letters to wives, fiancees and mothers,
it is generally the mothers who get the most fervid
love letters. She is the first love, and among all
classes she often retains this first place throughout
life. And because the wife desires one day this same
devotion from the fat cherub at her breast, she accepts
the situation in a spirit of poetic justice.

In the little poste de secours behind their canteens
the dames Anglaises are often called upon to give
first aid to the frequent ills of the war- weary poilu,
an aching tooth, an unbandaged wound, a blistered
heel. A little timely remedy earns a great reputa-
tion as a doctor and a touching amount of gratitude.
This is expressed in many ways little odd souvenirs
of the trenches a German button, a bullet or piece
of shrapnel extracted from one of his own vital
organs or one of those mascots which form such
a feature of life in the trenches, sometimes left as
a sacred charge till he shall return for it. To console
him in the wearisome trenches for the absence of
his home objects of affection, Monsieur Poilu will
adopt any substitute at hand, and, failing a dog
or a cat, a rat often fills the part, and becomes a
cherished little friend and companion, sharing his


rations and sleeping up his sleeve when weary of
running races over his face. Magpies and doves
have also joined this auxiliary army of the brother-
hood of St Barnabas, in which the dog holds from
time immemorial the first place.

There is one malady to which the canteen lady
sometimes gives " first aid " without knowing it,
for it is a complaint which the poilu would never,
could he help it, allow her to suspect and that is
le cafard. Without doubt le cafard is a microbe just
like the influenza microbe, the enteric microbe or
any other virulent abomination. It is particularly
attracted to the gallant and high-spirited, and a
Croix de Guerre is no safeguard against it. It makes
its insidious attack just at a moment when, having
said good-bye to all you love, you are feeling about
as elated as a pricked bubble. A deep depression
and silence fall upon you like a pall. Then with
the suddenness of an air raid you explode, and
expressing yourself with violence, with bitterness
you hear yourself * saying curious things for which
you are not the least responsible.

So had the symptoms been described to me. When
therefore I and my Croix Rouge friend were travelling
one day in a crowded train to Lyons, in company
with a number of permissionaires (men on leave)
we recognised a victim of le cafard without difficulty.
The poilus swarmed into the first-class carriage
all classes alike being open to them great round
loaves of home -baked bread on their backs, their


pockets bulging with provisions crammed in by
loving hands as they went off again to face the German
guns and gas.

Laughing, singing, smoking, munching cheese,
they did not at first notice one of their number who
had dropped into the furthest corner, silent and
sombre, his bent head in his hands. The Croix
de Guerre showed on his breast. The man next him
was taken up by troubles of his own which even the
great hunk of cheese could not assuage ; he fidgeted
continually, murmuring at intervals " C'te sacree
vermine " a remark which produced a sympathetic
echo from several others, and apprehensive shivers
from my friend and myself. All at once he of the
Croix de Guerre opened the flood-gates :

" Next time, me, I cross the frontier ! Yes, I
finish with this accursed game ! " he announced to
the company.

" Dis done, mon copain ! " said his opposite neigh-
bour, leaning forward and patting him on the knee.

" Let them send those of sixty, and seventy
it is their turn now," he went on, " after three years
one has had enough of it, I say."

His comrades did not laugh. His neighbour shook
him by the shoulder as he would a man talking in
his sleep : " T'en fait pas ! T'as pas honte ? " he
glanced in our direction, but we both looked as
unconcerned as the round loaves.

The victim of le cafard muttered gloomily like
distant thunder.


" Dis done c'est de la quitter t'a donne le
cafard," said the big fellow opposite, with an indulgent
smile. Had he been his mother he could not have
put more understanding into those few words, which
being interpreted by Thomas Atkins would be,
It's leaving *er as giv' you cold feet."

The case diagnosed, another of the party instantly
came forward with the remedy :

" Ben ! Va te faire une cuite y'a que c,a pour
le cafard," and he forthwith hauled out a huge
evil-looking bottle, greeted with loud approval by
all the company. In accordance with their unfailing
politeness they first passed the healing potion to my
friend and me. With profuse thanks and apologies on
the score of temperance vows, we excused our sad
lack of conviviality. The colour was ominous, the
smell staggering, what the taste must have been
could be dimly surmised from the effects on those
who partook the first result being a heavy drugged
sleep, lasting alas ! but too brief a time. Over
what followed it is best to draw a veil. We left at
the first opportunity.

Le cafard, however, was cured there seemed no
doubt on that point, but it was like curing you of
toothache by setting fire to your bed attention was
absorbed by the matter in hand, every faculty being
strained to cope with the immediate claims of the


It is difficult to say where the poilu is seen at

THE PO/ ; 101

his best. He is always such a gallant fellow, so
human, so humorous, such a bewildering combina-
tion of the simplicity of six years old and the
wisdom of sixty. Those who have stood side by side
with him " going over the top " declare that then
is his superbest moment, and that the Frenchman
is a born soldier of the best fighting type all the
world acknowledges and past history testifies. " He
plays the game." His rules of warfare like those of
Mr Atkins, are based on fair play, and he is endowed
by nature with an innate chivalry. Both in ideals
and practice he is the exact opposite of the Teuton,
that drilled machine of blood and iron, whose watch-
word is Schrecldichkeit, and whose courage waxes
most tremendous in face of helpless girls, white-
haired cures and wounded men.

To his beaten foe Monsieur Poilu is always mag-
nanimous, and should he detect one spark of his own
gallant spirit even in the Boche who has desecrated
his soil and burnt his home, he is ready to take him
by the hand. A typical instance was an occasion
on which a company of Uhlans, having all except one
decamped in face of overpowering numbers, the
French soldiers surrounded this remaining one,
standing to fight to the last, and, attacking him not
with bayonets but cheers, cried : " Tu es un chic
type toi ! " And then, to the grim Boche 's amaze-
ment, carried him off to give him, instead of the
bullets he expected, a feast of the best they could
offer. The Teuton's war- book rigorously excludes


such wayside flowers of chivalry and it is doubtful
whether the Uhlan did not despise them for it.

" So it is not written in our great text-book but
so makes one not war." The more easy-going Saxon
might have appreciated such a spirit, but then he
would never have stayed behind to face the foe
single-handed. " Kamerad," he would have cried
with both hands up and I for one don't blame him.

That le cafard is a comparatively rare complaint
is greatly owing to the extraordinarily stimulating
influence of the officers on the men. There is com-
bined with a good deal of military etiquette a spirit
of camaraderie, even of affection, rarely found except
in the French army.

The picturesque orders issued by the General
Commanding the 12th Division at one time, when
saluting was tending to get slack in some places,
could only have been possible in France.

Clause 1 states, among other equally humoristic
instructions, that the salute should be given " with
true chanticleer spirit," while inwardly saying, "I
am proud to be a poilu ! " " Imperceptibly lower the
chin," goes on Clause 2, " carry a smile in the eyes
and say to yourself having your superior in mind
' You also are a poilu you rate and swear at me
sometimes, but never mind, you can depend on me.' '

The third Clause calls for the drawing up of oneself

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Online LibraryConstance Elizabeth MaudMy French year → online text (page 6 of 17)