Constance Elizabeth Maud.

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to full height, and the expansion of one's chest accom-
panied by the inward cry of " On les aura, les salauds ! "

Clause 4 applies to officers. " Envelop the soldier


in an affectionate look while returning his salute,
then with your eyes gazing frankly into his say in-
wardly " Thanks to you, comrade, we'll master the
German pigs ! "

The spirit of chivalry in the French soldier,
and the spirit of levity irrepressible levity char-
acteristic of the British Tommy, are traits which
always completely baffle the Hun. Neither the one
nor the other is provided against in his War-
book. He begins by disbelieving in their existence;
and when therefore forced to face these abnormal
characteristics in so-called men of war, he regards
them as camouflage, disguising treachery and trickery
of the subtlest description. This also leads him
into false situations, for, notwithstanding his chivalry,
the French soldier kills. Oh yes, he is out to kill
Boches as many as possible, and as effectively
as possible. He is not too anxious to take prisoners
either, after three years grim struggle with his remorse-
less, treacherous foe. He is fighting for his life,
for the life of France, for all he holds dear inch by
inch driving the foe off his soil, holding the grey
swarms at bay with a living wall of the sons of France.
As he leaps over the top, the poilu gives his life gladly
for the noblest idea that has ever possessed his simple
soul. Under such an inspiration undoubtedly he is
superb as a soldier.

Personally, however, never having had the chance
of seeing him in the trenches and in the firing-line,
my experience can only take him up a few hours


later upon a stretcher in the sorting station, gravely
wounded or in the ambulance, awaiting another
fiery ordeal. And seeing him under these latter
circumstances it seems to me that nowhere does
the poilu show a finer fellow than in hospital. His
courage never fails. He never grumbles, however
bad things are, and only those who have had to cope
with the awful difficulties of receiving the wounded,
as they arrive at the field hospitals in their
thousands, know what those sufferings, of necessity,
are. Scarcity of nurses, of doctors, of chloroform, of
beds, of bandages, of pillows, of everything. Yet how
wonderful those wounded are ! Ignoring suffering,
a grievously wounded giving place to a comrade
whose case is worse even than his, a one-legged
helping the blind and through it all, joking and
smiling. Oh ! that wonderful smile of the wounded
poilu ! The courage of it is almost heart-breaking.
For it is a smile without effort, coming just as straight
from the heart as light from a lamp. Most inner
lamps get dimmed by the wearing pain of sleepless
nights, of train journeys which are sheer torture
to shattered limbs and gaping wounds, but as the
Croix Rouge nurses or English V.A.D.'s help Monsieur
Poilu out of the train, he assures them he is getting
on famously, and as they lay him on the floor-bed,
with a straw traversin under his head, to wait for
the doctor, he will assure them he does not suffer
" too much " (pas trop) and will smile an au revoir
full of gratitude and cheerfulness.


His reluctance to give trouble is another lovable
trait. He will often disguise his wounds and his
sufferings like a veritable Spartan boy, and this in
spite of loving to be spoilt and cosseted as much
as any baby. Especially this is the case at night,
when the business -like military nurses, or efficient
Croix Rouge ladies retire, and the night duty will
be taken by a gentle sister of St Vincent de Paul
or the Augustine nursing-order. On these occasions
Monsieur Poilu shows himself a pastmaster in the
gentle art of malingering.

I know one hospital where the signal for the night
nurse's appearance was a chorus of piteous sighs
and moans, many of the patients drawing the sheets
over their faces as if their last hour were at hand.
The night nurse was an English woman of sympathetic,
and it was hoped, equally unsuspecting disposition,
" A hot compress " for one, " a cold compress for
another," " a little lemonade for that one," and " a
little massage." Oh, just two little moments to
keep her near him for this big child !

Going from one bed to another she gave to each
one what he needed namely, the feeling of being
mothered, which sometimes included a maternal
scolding, producing in Monsieur Poilu the happy
sensation of being once more just seven years old.

One night a voice called to her from among the
new arrivals.

" Mademoiselle speaks with an English voice !
Me, I know many English people." This of course


drew her to his bedside. " All the English they
visited our hotel at Mont St Michel. My mother she
was well known famous even ! No one like her
for the omelettes ! "

" Madame Poulard ! " cried the V.A.D., as a
recollection of that high-priestess of the omelette
rose before her, standing by the wide, open fireplace
in the old inn, manipulating with consummate
dexterity the largest omelette in the largest frying-
pan ever seen on this globe, tossing the golden,
bubbling, flapping thing of eggs and butter, without
breaking it, like the conjuror she was, while the
firelight played on her beautiful, glowing face.

" She was famous not only for the omelettes,
but for a face so beautiful, so charming, Madame
your mother," said the English V.A.D., "that no
artist could see her without desiring to paint her.
Many would travel to Mt. St Michel to taste the
famous omelettes just in order to see that lovely face."

" Ma foi, oui ! " said her son, " the English, the
Americans, as well as the French, all made pictures
of Maman, but the omelettes they were superb and
alone worth a visit." He could not allow a second
place to those omelettes, and no doubt felt this also
had been Hainan's view.

He was the envy of the whole ward, he who had
known how " to invent " as they maliciously called
it, this " history of mothers and omelettes," a history
so interesting as to keep the night nurse quite ten
minutes by his bedside the cunning scoundrel !


A chorus of sighs and moans began to echo round
the ward again. It was wonderful to see how the pain
seemed to be wiped out of his face as the wounded
man talked of his beautiful Maman, and he turned
to sleep with a happy sigh no doubt to meet her
in his dreams that night.

The V.A.D. found herself beset with questions
as to other parts of France which, perchance, she had
visited, and other Mamans she might have met.
Deep were the sighs when she had to confess the

limitations of her travels.

The poilus' devotion to the nurse shows in
the keen rivalry displayed to serve her. She has
only to ask for another convalescent to act as orderly
to have an embarrassment of choice. Shattered
legs and arms, pierced lungs are impetuously for-
gotten. Firmly the nurse has to refuse the offers
of help. " Thou for example ! convalescent indeed !
scrub the floor ! not just yet mon petit for a week
it is forbidden even to sit up, do you hear ? ' And
when the doctor asks for volunteers to give blood
for exhausted veins, or skin to grow over torn
flesh, those who press forward in eager competi-
tion with their offerings, cause even the doctor
sometimes to turn aside with "a stupid something
in his eye."

Rene Benjamin's "Gaspard," slipping out of bed
at midnight to go out of doors and imitate the
cock-crow for which his dying comrade was longing,


is a typical act of the devotion the poilu is always
ready to show to his wounded copain. . . .

The scene is in hospital at night. They have drawn
the screen round the dying young soldier. His
life is ebbing painfully, but he feels if only he can
pass through the ordeal of this long night all will
go well with him. Anxiously, he asks the nurse :
" Say then, my sister is it soon four o'clock ? r

Knowing this longing of the dying for the dawn,
she answers, prompted by a divine pity : ' Yes,
mon petit a little more courage and soon the night

is over."

The dying man groans. " But there's a cock
a cock who crows at four o'clock. . . ."

All his soul is listening for that sign of the coming

Then "Gaspard," lying in the next bed, wounded
in the thigh, sits up, draws on his trousers, and on
all-fours, manages to reach the door unseen. In
two minutes a cock is distinctly heard a somewhat
quavery, hoarse, not to say human, cock-crow, to
anyone listening with critical attention ; but the dying
man drinks in the sound, as one parched with thirst
a cup of spring water.

" Sister, do you hear ? " he cries joyfully.

" Did I not tell you," she answers, " it is four

Calm and confidence descend upon his spirit.
The dreaded night has passed. He closes his eyes
and gently, almost smiling, he dies.


The effort costs " Gaspard " dear. His wound
reopens, and fever sets in. The doctor is furious,
but what matter, the cock had served his purpose.

It is only because I fear no translator will be found
to undertake the impossible task of Anglicising the
idiom of " Gaspard " that I have ventured to quote this
little gem for the benefit of those who are debarred
from the joy of making " Gaspard's " acquaintance.

Perhaps the greatest test of the poilu's serene
cheerfulness comes when he is convalescent, and
realises that for the rest of his life he is maimed,
crippled, or blinded sometimes even a more terrible
fate has to be faced disfigurement. If one would
learn to what sublime heights of courage the man
who " does his bit " can rise, it is necessary to go
among these latter. Very gently, these most piteous
cases are led back to life. In the ateliers attached
to many of the military hospitals, they learn first
of all to be able to face each other and their teachers,
and gradually the outside world. Interest in learning
a new trade after a time not only diverts, but merci-
fully absorbs their thoughts. They find happiness
in their companions in misfortune, and so strong
is the youth and power of enjoyment within them,
that they take up their lives with courage and keen
interest, even when the disfigurement is so terrible
that at first one questions if it would not have been
more merciful to let death come, instead of using every
means to avert it. Those who work among them,
however, have no doubt or misgivings on the question.


This splendid branch of hospital work was first
started by Mme Viviani, wife of the former
Prime Minister, and many French ladies assist in
teaching and amusing the wounded and maimed
in these curative ateliers, for the employment is
chosen with the view of helping recovery.

It was with one of these workers I visited the
ateliers attached to the big Military Hospital of
Val de Grace, in Paris. We were accompanied by
a rich lady of Brazil in whose sumptuous, white
satin car we drove to the hospital, the idea being
that some of the superfluous Brazilian dollars might
be induced to flow into this beautiful channel.
Whether they did so I never heard. We found
every variety of work going on, carpentering, carving,
saddle-making, typewriting. Legs requiring muscular
development were set to work on sewing machines
with treadles, arms needing vigorous exercise were
supplied with bales of flannel to cut up into shirt
lengths with a sword very popular work this,
recalling no doubt reminiscences of the German
trenches. So much less dull than doing gymnastic
exercises, for, in this way, you are killing, not only
two birds but three, with one stone, the work being
useful, medicinal, and remunerative. On arriving
at the atelier of "the disfigured," the Brazilian
lady paused before the door and remarked that
she trusted she was not going to see any terrible
sights to that she could not consent "her heart
was too tender and it would affect not only


her stomach but her sleep." Such an unthinkable
calamity was of course not to be contemplated for
a single moment, and she was begged to repose herself
in the satin-lined car, while we of sterner stuff entered
that domain of heroic suffering and victorious

The impulse to protect her interior from malaise
and her sleep from haunting dreams was not without
justification. The difficulty in dealing with her
had been a doubt whether, without some such in-
sistent haunting, the dollars could be induced to
flow from her pocket. Oh those tender hearts ! So
tender they cannot bear sight or sound of suffering
lest it should hurt themselves by even so much as
a vibration " visiting them too roughly." The grim
doctrine of re-incarnation combined with the ex-
cellent regime of Mrs Be-done-by-as-you-did is a con-
soling thought when one is confronted with these
" tender hearts " and tight purse strings.

Many of those tragic cases of disfigurement in-
cluded loss of sight. These, as soon as their wounds
are healed, are specially provided for in other houses.
One of the many schools for the blind is at Reuilly,
formerly a large convent, standing in its own grounds.
It is one of twenty French " St Dunstans."

Like the blind Tommy who blesses Sir Arthur
Pearson for his Braille watch on arriving in hospital
at home, so the blinded poilu rejoices in the first
gift to greet him this same little friend who helps
him through the long nights of sleeplessness, from


which so many of those blinded heroes at first suffer.
For when there is no day to alternate the night,
the night ceases to be a repose, and becomes often
an intolerable weariness a menace to sleep. And
the little watch Oh how he blesses the little watch
as he passes his fingers over its face, and it tells him
the night is passing, and the dawn coming ! Even
though he cannot see the glory of the rising sun, the
colours that are flashing over the horizon, he feels
the light and rejoices in the day. Blessed is the
inventor of that little watch, whose friendly tick
and steadily moving hands give the blinded man
a sense of companionship all through those long

" It takes on a veritable personality as of a human
friend," said one of the^e blinded victims, lovingly
stroking the disc.

" The best teachers of the blind are the blind
themselves," said an instructor at Reuilly, who
spends his life among the blinded poilus, teaching
them diamond- cutting, a trade from which one would
think of all others blindness must debar them
yet in which many excel.

" They acquire fingers of a precision, of an exacti-
tude, so fine, one may truly say the sense of touch
has replaced that of sight," said their teacher.

It was interesting to see how the first steps were
taken on pieces of steel on which they learnt to cut
the many facets of the diamond, gradually reducing


the size till the pupil learnt to feel and actually
see, with his sensitive finger-tips.

In another workroom a very cheerful party were
doing basket work and rushing chairs, under the
direction of a blind teacher. One of them, hearing
that in English villages it is difficult to find anyone
who can do rushing almost a lost art now
volunteered to come over as soon as he had found
a nice little wife to go with him, about which he
anticipated no difficulty.

" I should like to travel to see other countries
it gives to think it enlarges the ideas at Commines
I saw many English and I liked them well sont de
chics types les Anglais" he added cordially.

I told him he and his petite amie must begin learn-
ing English at once, for no one in the English village
I feared could speak French, and a picture of the
utter isolation and desolation which would overtake
the sunny-hearted children of France in the damp
mists of a long English winter rose before me.

" Ah, that is not difficult ! " he cried hopefully.
" The English language it is very amusing I know
already some words, and one time I could even sing
that drole canticle of Saint Tipperaire which in 1914
sang all the English army."

He evidently regarded it as the national anthem.
I wondered how far it would take him in the English
village ; in Ireland, perhaps, it might go quite a
long way towards opening doors and hearts to the
" furriner," but what of Suffolk or Surrey ?


He refused to give us a verse of Saint Tipperaire,
but they struck up some trench songs real poilu
songs, both grave and gay. " Rosalie c'est ton
histoire " " Verse a boire," etc. and the ever
popular "Aupres^dx, ma Belle," and "Ma 'mie."
Mostly they revolved around ma 'mie that day, perhaps
because started by our friend whose mind was clearly
working round that idea. All have a little " promised
one," or hope soon to have her une petite femme
being as necessary a part of daily life as daily bread,
and daily sun. Fortunately there is always a girl ready
in France as in England to marry a blind soldier.

Yet home life, however happily he may be mated,
is not enough for the blind poilu. He needs the
comradeship of his brothers in affliction. Only so
does he lose that sense of loneliness and isolation,
which means feeling the darkness. To be the one
blind man at the table, in the workshop, the yard,
this places him apart, but where all are blind there
is no loneliness. Together they can even joke over
their blind blunders the stumbles and falls. They
will play tricks, set traps for each other like school-
boys, our guide told us.

" You see that little fellow with the curly head
over there the wag of that group where he is
there is always a joke. He returned home in July,
he was cured, he had learnt well his trade and could
make a living. His parents are small proprietors
in Touraine there is a large family of whom he is
the eldest adored son. After two months I receive


a letter praying me to take him back here he will
do any work only to be agaizi among his camarades
down there with all those who have their eyes, it
is too triste for him he can no longer bear his life
sooner would he finish it."

And this our guide assured us was no exceptional
case but the rule, and to make a possible life for
these blinded men, working centres should be
established where, while living in their homes, they
could spend their working hours together.

It would seem too that music should be made a
special feature in their lives, for there is no doubt
that to the blind it takes on a new power and sig-
nificance. Even to those who have always loved
music where linked to song and dance, it opens
up new fields new vistas of unsuspected joys and
emotions. One has only to take some of these
blind soldiers to a really good orchestral conceit
to realise this fact. Music which would undoubtedly
have been far over their heads before the darkness
fell upon them, now admits them to a new world.
They discover a hitherto unknown faculty for mental
picturing, the distracting physical vision of audience
and performers being removed. However plain,
commonplace, or unintellectual those young faces
may be, while listening to such music as a Beethoven
Symphony or a Wagner overture, I have seen a
sort of shining intelligence so transfigure them that
one hardly misses the eyes over which the lids are
closed in absorbed enjoyment.


"It is as though the music seems to chase away
the darkness into which one is accustomed to gaze,
it fills all with colour and movement," explained
one whose temperament was only by slow and painful
steps adjusting itself to that same physical blackness.
It is a blessed fact that colour does in a mysterious
sense still exist for the blind. One man learning
the trade of flower-making, most suitably, since he
had formerly been a gardener, declared he could
feel the difference between a white and a crimson
carnation and when tested proved it. We talked a
good deal about the mysterious side of this wonderful
sense of sight. I told him of my old friend, Sir
Edwin Arnold, who bore like a soldier-hero the four
years' darkness which struck him at the end of life-
struck him yet never felled him, for paralysed and
blind he worked and wrote and studied up to the
last. One night he had a strange experience often
repeated afterwards.

He woke, and found on opening his eyes that he
could see. He sat up and gazed round in amaze-
ment the room was filled with a soft light. He
was in his accustomed bedroom, but the walls were
hung with beautiful oriental draperies, and pictures
bearing inscriptions in Sanscrit and Japanese letter-
ing. Amazement and joy almost overcame him, he
could see again ! For that this was sight restored
he did not doubt at first. Only when as a test he
put up his hand in front of his face, and could not
see it, did he realise this vivid picture was a vision


in which the physical eyes had no part. Yet he was
not sleeping or dreaming, that he proved by calling
his servant and making him write down all he saw
still at the moment of describing it. This seeing
without the aid of physical sight proved a great
consolation to Sir Edwin. It suggested a glimpse
of other possibilities, of faculties belonging to another
plane of existence, of senses not necessarily limited
to the orthodox five.

It appears without doubt in the case of the
blind that the remaining senses compensate them by
an extraordinary access of activity, specially those
of touch and hearing. Even taste and smell play
their extra part ; a blind man will detect an escape
of gas by both these latter senses, long before the
average person with sight.

The garden at Reuilly was a source of great delight
to the blind poilus. They felt the beauty of it
the scent and touch of a rose opened out a vista
of all the glories of summer. It was touching to see
the extreme care and tenderness with which they
passed their fingers over flowers and plants as though
fearing to hurt them. Many were training to be
gardeners and learning horticulture. It seems to give
them special joy to be with living, growing things.
Perhaps they get a subtle sense of companionship
out of the sprouting plant, the growing tree, the
little living tip piercing up through the soil; for
it is companionship the blind soldier perhaps all
the blind are always seeking. Having this one


boon it is a constant source of wonder to all those
who visit them to see their courage and serenity,
even their high spirits and joy in life. Dancing,
singing, swimming, boating there is nothing they
will not do and do well. To anyone needing courage
to go on with life and show a brave front to the
world, there is nothing like a visit to Reuilly or
St Dunstan's.

Before tearing myself away from the beloved
Monsieur Poilu there is one variety of him whose
praises I must not leave unsung the poilu priest.
It is difficult to estimate what he has done to revivify
the religious life of France, and to re-establish the
waning influence of his Church. For it is undeniable
that before the Great War there was a general feeling
of stagnation and decay about the Church in France,
she seemed to be losing her hold over the people
while the franc-mapon, the free-thinking materialist,
was gaining ground. But the war gave the priest
a great opportunity, and he took it. Here was
his chance to show that to be a Christian priest did
not make a man either a weak-kneed soldier or a
lukewarm patriot. It was of course no question of
choice for those of military age, the priest coming
under the Military Service Act precisely as every
other fit son of France, and serving as simple
soldat, those who attained officer rank being
aumdniers, those picturesque medieval-looking figures
in black, mounted on their dignified chargers who
are seen not only passing up and down among


field hospitals and rest camps behind the
lines, but in the firing-line and trenches at the

Monsieur I'Aumonier bears no arms, but on his
breast gleams a big cross which must often have been
a good mark for the enemy sniper. His duties are to
bring the consolations and ministrations of the Church
to her fighting sons. Kneeling by the wounded
and dying he may be seen while the shrapnel bursts
all round him, hearing a last confession and administer-
ing the sacred rites. Before going into action in
the dim hours at dawn he holds the solemn early
mass in the little barn or outhouse extemporised
as a chapel. Those services have sent out the poilu
to fight and die with a soul washed clean, in a white
heat of faith and self-sacrifice. Between two poilu

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Online LibraryConstance Elizabeth MaudMy French year → online text (page 7 of 17)