Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton.

The living present : the work of French women in war time online

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worth mentioning if she had not been asked expressly
to meet me and give me certain information. One
was of a woman whose husband had been a wage-
earner, and, with six or eight children, had been able
to save nothing. The allocation was not declared at
once and this woman lost no time bewailing her fate
or looking about for charitable groups of ladies to feed
her with soup. She simply continued to run her hus-


band's estaminet (wine-shop), and, as the patronage
was necessarily diminished, was one of the first to
apply when munition factories invited women to fill
the vacant places of men. She chose to work at night
that she might keep the estaminet open by day for the
men too old to fight and for the rapidly increasing
number of "reformes" : those who had lost a leg or
arm or were otherwise incapacited for service.

A sister, who lived in Paris, immediately applied
for one of the thousand vacant posts in bakeries, cut
bread and buttered it and made toast for a tea-room
in the afternoon, and found another job to sweep
out stores. This woman had a son still under age but
in training at the Front. He had been in the habit
of paying her periodical visits, until this woman, al-
ready toiling beyond her strength to support her other
children, sat down one day and wrote to the boy's
commanding officer asking him to permit no more
leaves of absence, as the ordeal was too much for both
of them.

The third story was of a woman whom the Mayoress
had often entertained in her homes, both official and
private. When this woman, who had lived a life of
such ease as the mother of eleven children may, was
forced to take over the conduct of her husband's busi-
ness (he was killed immediately) she discovered that
he had been living on his capital, and when his estate
was settled her only inheritance was a small wine-shop
in Paris. She packed her trunks, spent what little
money she had left on twelve railway tickets for the


capital, and settled her brood in the small quarters be-
hind the estaminet fortunately the lessee, who was
unmarried, had also been swept off to the Front.

The next morning she reopened the doors and stood
smiling behind the counter. The place was well
stocked. It was a long while before she was obliged
to spend any of her intake on aught but food and
lights. So charming a hostess did she prove that her
little shop was never empty and quickly became
famous. She had been assured of a decent living long


When I arrived in Paris in May (1916) a little
girl had just been decorated by the President of the
Republic. Her father, the village baker, had made
one of those lightning changes from citizen to soldier
and her mother had died a few weeks before. She
was an only child. The bakery had supplied not only
the village but the neighboring inn, which had been a
favorite lunching place for automobilists. Traveling
for pleasure stopped abruptly, but as the road that
passed the inn was one of the direct routes to the
Front, it still had many hasty calls upon its hospi-

Now, bread-making in France is a science, the work
of the expert, not of the casual housewife. The ac-
complished cook of the inn knew no more about mix-
ing and baking bread than he did of washing clothes ;
and there was but this one bakery, hitherto sufficient,


for the baker and his wife had been strong and in-
dustrious. The inn was in despair. The village was
in despair. A Frenchman will go without meat, but
life without bread is unthinkable.

No one thought of the child.

It is possible that in her double grief she did not
think of herself for twenty-four hours. But the sec-
ond day after mobilization her shop window was piled
high with loaves as usual. The inn was supplied. The
village was supplied. This little girl worked steadily
and unaided at her task, until her father, a year later,
returned minus a leg to give her assistance of a sort.

The business of the bakery was nearly doubled dur-
ing that time. Automobiles containing officers, huge
camions with soldiers packed like coffee-beans, foot-
weary marching regiments, with no time to stop for
a meal, halted a moment and bought the stock on
hand. But with only a few hours' sleep the girl toiled
on valiantly and no applicant for bread was turned
empty-handed from the now famous bakery.

How she kept up her childish strength and courage
without a moment's change in her routine and on in-
sufficient sleep can only be explained by the twin facts
that she came of hardy peasant stock, and, like all
French children, no matter how individual, was too
thoroughly imbued with the discipline of "The Fam-
ily" to shirk for a moment the particular task that war
had brought her. This iron discipline of The Family,
one of the most salient characteristics of the French,
is largely responsible for the matter-of-fact way in


which every soldier of France, reservist or regular,
and whatever his political convictions, has risen to this
ordeal. And in him as been inculcated from birth
patience and perseverance as well as loyalty to his
beloved flag.

The wives of hotel and shop keepers as well as the
women of the farms have by far the best of it in
time of war. The former are always their husband's
partners, controlling the money, consulted at ever step.
When the tocsin rings and the men disappear they
simply go on. Their task may be doubled and they
may be forced to employ girls instead of men, but
there is no mental readjusting.

The women of the farms have always worked as
hard as the men. Their doubled tasks involve a
greater drain on their physical energies than the petite
bourgeoise suffers, especially in those districts de-
vastated by the first German invasion the valley of
the Marne. But they are very hardy, and they too
hang on, for stoicism is the fundamental characteristic
of the French.

This stoicism as well as the unrivaled mental supple-
ness was illustrated early in the war by the highly
typical case of a laundress whose business was in one
of the best districts of Paris.

In France no washing is done in the house. This,
no doubt, is one of the reasons why one's laundry
bills, even on a brief visit, are among the major items,
for les blanchissenses are a power in the land. When
I was leaving Paris the directrice of the cole


Feminine in Passy, which had been my home for three
months, suggested delicately that I leave a tip for the
laundress, for, said this practical person, herself a
sufferer from many forms of imposition, "she has been
extremely complaisante in coming every week .for
Madame's wash." I remarked that the laundress might
reasonably feel some gratitude to me for adding
weekly to her curtailed income; but my smiling di-
rectrice shook her head. The favor, it appeared, was
all on the other side. So, although I had tipped the
many girls of my unique boarding-place with pleasure
I parted with the sum designated for my patronizing
laundress with no grace whatever.

But to return to the heroine of the story told me
by Mrs. Armstrong Whitney, one of the many Amer-
ican women living in Paris who are working for

This laundress had a very large business, in partner-
ship with her husband. Nobody was expected to
bring the family washing to her door, nor even to send
a servant. The linen was called for and delivered,
for this prosperous firm owned several large trucks
and eight or ten strong horses.

War was declared. This woman's husband and all
male employees were mobilized. Her horses were
commandeered. So were her trucks. Many of her
wealthier patrons were already in the country and
remained there, both for economy's sake and to en-
courage and help the poor of their villages and farms.
The less fortunate made shift to do their washing at


home. Nevertheless there were patrons who still
needed her services at least once a fortnight.

This good woman may have had her moments of
despair. If so, the world never knew it. She began
at once to adjust herself to the new conditions and
examine her resources. She importuned the Govern-
ment until, to be rid of her, they returned two of her
horses. She rented a cart and employed girls sud-
denly thrown out of work, to take the place of the
vanished men. The business limped on but it never
ceased for a moment; and as the months passed it as-
sumed a firmer gait. People returned from the coun-
try, finding that they could be more useful in Paris
as members of one or other of a thousand ceuvres ; and
they were of the class that must have clean linen if
the skies fall. Also, many Americans who had fled
ignominiously to England returned and plunged into
work. And Americans, with their characteristic ex-
travagance in lingerie, are held in high esteem by les

Further assaults upon the amiable Government re-
sulted in the return of more horses and one or two
trucks. To-day, while the business by no means
swaggers, this woman, thanks to her indomitable
courage and energy, combined with the economical
habit and the financial genius of the French, has rid-
den safely over the rocks into as snug a little harbor
as may be found in any country at war.

ASIDE from the industrial class the women who
suffered most at the outbreak of the war were
those that worked in the shops. Paris is a city of
little shops. The average American tourist knows
them not, for her hectic experiences in the old days
were confined to the Galeries Lafayette, the Louvre,
the Bon Marche, and the Trois Quartiers. But during
the greater part of 1915 street after street exhibited
the dreary picture of shuttered windows, where once
every sort of delicate, solid, ingenious, costly, or catch-
penny ware was displayed. Some of these were dosed
because the owner had no wife, many because the
factories that supplied them were closed, or the work-
men no longer could be paid. To-day one sees few
of these wide iron shutters except at night, but the
immediate consequence of the sudden change of the
nation's life was that thousands of girls and women
were thrown out of work: clerks, cashiers, dress-
makers' assistants, artificial flower makers, florists,
confectioners, workers in the fancy shops, makers of
fine lingerie, extra servants and waitresses in the un-



fashionable but numerous restaurants. And then
there were the women of the opera chorus, and those
connected with the theater; and not only the actresses'
and the actors' families, but the wives of scene shifters
sent off to the trenches, and of all the other humble
folk employed about theaters, great and small.

The poor of France do not invest their money in
savings' banks. They buy bonds. On the Monday
after mobilization the banks of France announced
that they would buy no bonds. These poor bewildered
women would have starved if the women of the more
fortunate classes had not immediately begun to or-
ganize relief stations and ouvroirs.

Madame Lepauze, better known to the reading pub-
lic of France as Daniel Lesauer, who is also the wife
of the curator of the Petit Palais, was the first to
open a restaurant for soup, and this was besieged
from morning until night even before the refugees
from Belgium and the invaded districts of France
began to pour in. Her home is in the Petit Palais,
and in the public gardens behind was Le Pavillion, one
of the prettiest and most popular restaurants of Paris.
She made no bones about asking the proprietor to
place the restaurant and all that remained of his staff
at her disposal, and hastily organizing a committee,
began at once to ladle out soup. Many other depots
were organized almost simultaneously (and not only
in Paris but in the provincial towns), and when women
were too old or too feeble to come for their daily
ration it was left at their doors by carts containing


immense boilers of that nourishing soup only the
French know how to make.

Madame Lepauze estimates that her station alone
fed a million women and children. Moreover, she
and all tfye other women engaged in this patriotic duty
had soon depleted their wardrobes after the refugees
began streaming down from the north; it was gen-
erally said that not a lady in Paris had more than
one useful dress left and that was on her back.

Many of these charitable women fled to the South
during that breathless period when German occupa-
tion seemed inevitable, but others, like Madame Pierre
Goujon, of whom I shall have much to say later, and
the Countess Greffuhle (a member of the valiant
Chimay family of Belgium), stuck to their posts and
went about publicly in order to give courage to the
millions whose poverty forced them to remain.


The next step in aiding this army of helpless women
was to open ouvroirs, or workrooms. Madame
Paquin never closed this great branch of her dress-
making establishment, and, in common with hundreds
of other ouvroirs that sprang up all over France, paid
the women a wage on which they could exist (besides
giving them one meal) in return for at least half a
day's work on necessary articles for the men in the
trenches: underclothing, sleeping bags, felt slippers,
night garments; sheets and pillow-cases for the hos-


pitals. As the vast majority of the peasant farmers
and petite bourgeoisie had been used to sleeping in air-
tight rooms they suffered bitterly during that first
long winter and spring in the open. If it had not been
for these bee-hive ouvroirs and their enormous output
there would have been far more deaths from pneu-
monia and bronchitis, and far more cases of tuber-
culosis than there were.

A good many of these ouvroirs are still in existence,
but many have been closed ; for as the shops reopened
the women not only went back to their former situa-
tions but by degrees either applied for or were in-
vited to fill those left vacant by men of fighting age.


And then there were the munition factories! The
manager of one of these Usines de Guerre in Paris
told me that he made the experiment of employing
women with the deepest misgiving. Those seeking
positions were just the sort of women he would have
rejected if the sturdy women of the farms had ap-
plied and given him any choice. They were girls or
young married women who had spent all the work-
ing years of their lives stooping over sewing-machines ;
sunken chested workers in artificial flowers; confec-
tioners ; florists ; waitresses ; clerks. One and all looked
on the verge of a decline with not an ounce of reserve
vitality for work that taxed the endurance of men.
But as they protested that they not only wished to


support themselves instead of living on charity, but
were passionately desirous of doing their bit while
their men were enduring the dangers and privations
of active warfare, and as his men were being with-
drawn daily for service at the Front, he made up his
mind to employ them and refill their places as rapidly
as they collapsed.

He took me over his great establishment and showed
me the result. It was one of the astonishing ex-
amples not only of the grim courage of women under
pressure but of that nine-lived endowment of the
female in which the male never can bring himself to
believe save only when confronted by practical demon-

In the correspondence and card-indexing room
there was a little army of young and middle-aged
women whose superior education enabled them to do
a long day's work with the minimum output of phy-
sical energy, and these for the most part came from
solid middle-class families whose income had been
merely cut by the war, not extinguished. It. was as I
walked along the galleries and down the narrow pass-
ages between the noisy machinery of the rest of that
large factory that I asked the superintendent again
and again if these women were of the same class as
the original applicants. The answer in every case was
the same.

The women had high chests and brawny arms.
They tossed thirty- and forty-pound shells from one
to the other as they once may have tossed a cluster of


artificial flowers. Their skins were clean and often
ruddy. Their eyes were bright. They showed no
signs whatever of overwork. They were almost with-
out exception the original applicants.

I asked the superintendent if there were no danger
of heart strain. He said there had been no sign o-f
it so far. Three times a week they were inspected by
women doctors appointed by the Government, and any
little disorder was attended to at once. But not one
had been ill a day. Those that had suffered from
chronic dyspepsia, colds, and tubercular tendency were
now as strong as if they had lived their lives on farms.
It was all a question of plenty of fresh air, and work
that strengthened the muscles of their bodies, de-
veloped their chests and gave them stout nerves and
long nights of sleep.

As I looked at those bare heavily muscled arms I
wondered if any man belonging to them would ever
dare say his soul was his own again. But as their
heads are always charmingly dressed (an odd effect
surmounting greasy overalls) and as they invariably
powder before filing out at the end of the day's work,
it is probable that a comfortable reliance may still
be placed upon the ineradicable coquetry of the French
woman. And the scarcer the men in the future the
more numerous, no doubt, will be the layers of powder.

I asked one pretty girl if she really liked the heavy,
dirty, malodorous work, and she replied that making
boutonnieres for gentlemen in a florist-shop was para-
dise by contrast, but she was only too happy to be


doing as much for France in her way as her brother
was in his. She added that when the war was over
she should take off her blue linen apron streaked with
machine grease once for all, not remain from choice
as many would. But meanwhile it was not so bad!
She made ten francs a day. Some of the women re-
ceived as high as fifteen. Moreover, they bossed the
few men whose brawn was absolutely indispensable
and must be retained in the usine at all costs.

These men took their orders meekly. Perhaps they
were amused. The French are an ironic race. Per-
haps they bided their time. But they never dreamed
of disobeying those Amazons whose foot the Kaiser
of all the Boches had placed on their necks.


One of the greatest of these U sines de Guerre is
at Lyons, in the buildings of the Exposition held
shortly before the outbreak of the war. I went to
this important Southern city (a beautiful city, which
I shall always associate with the scent of locust*-blos-
soms) at the suggestion of James Hazen Hyde. He
gave me a letter to the famous Mayor, M. Herriot,
who was a member of the last Briand Cabinet.

M. Herriot was also a Senator, and as he was leav-
ing for Paris a few hours after I presented my letter
he turned me over to a friend of his wife, Madame
Castell, a native of Lyons, the daughter of one silk

* It is called acacia in Europe.


merchant and the widow of another. This charming
young woman, who had spent her married life in New
York, by the way, took me everywhere, and although
we traversed many vast distances in the Mayor's auto-
mobile, it seemed to me that I walked as many miles
in hospitals, factories, ateliers (workrooms for teach-
ing the mutilated new trades), and above all in the
Usine de Guerre.

Here not only were thousands of women employed
but a greater variety of classes. The women of the
town, unable to follow the army and too plucky to live
on charity, had been among the first to ask for work.
The directeur beat his forehead when I asked him how
they behaved when not actually at the machines, but
at least they had proved as faithful and skillful as their
more respectable sisters.

Lyons was far more crowded and lively than Paris,
which is so quiet that it calls to mind the lake that
filled the crater of Mont Pelee before the eruption of
1902. But this fine city of the South situated almost
as beautifully as Paris on both sides of a river is not
only a junction, it not only has industries of all sorts
besides the greatest silk factories in the world, but
every train these days brings down wounded for its
many hospitals, and the next train brings the family
and friends of these men, who, when able to afford
it, establish themselves in the city for the period of
convalescence. The restaurants and cafes were always
crowded and this handsome city on the Rhone was
almost gay.


There were practically no unemployed. The old
women of the poor went daily to an empty court-room
where they sat in the little amphitheater sewing or
knitting. In countless other ouvroirs they were cut-
ting and making uniforms with the same facility that
men had long since acquired, or running sleeping bags
through sewing-machines at the rate of thousands a
day. M. Herriot "mobilized" Lyons early in the war,
and its contribution to the needs of the Front has
been enormous.

The re formes (men too badly mutilated to be of
further use at the front) are being taught many new
trades in the ateliers : toy-making, wooden shoes with
leather tops for the trenches, cigarette packages,
baskets, typewriting, stenography, weaving, repairing.
In one of the many ateliers I visited with Madame
Castell I saw a man who had only one arm, and the
left at that, and only a thumb and little finger remain-
ing of the ten he had taken into war, learning to
write anew. When I was shown one of his exercises
I was astounded. He wrote far better than I have
ever done, and I can recall few handwritings so precise
and elegant. One may imagine what a man accom-
plishes who still has a good hand and arm. It was both
interesting and pathetic to see these men guiding their
work with their remaining hand and manipulating the
machinery with the stump of the other arm. Those
who come out from the battlefields with health intact
will be no charge to the state, no matter what their


One poor fellow came in to the ficole Joffre while
I was there. He was accompanied by three friends
of the Mayor's, who hoped that some one of the new
occupations might suit his case. He was large and
strong and ruddy and he had no hands. Human in-
genuity had not yet evolved far enough for him. He
was crying quietly as he turned away. But his case
is by no means hopeless, for when his stumps are no
longer sensitive he will be fitted with a mechanical
apparatus that will take the place of the hands he has
given to France.

Madame Castell's work is supplying hospitals with
anything, except food, they may demand, and in this
she has been regularly helped by the Needlework Guild
of Pennsylvania.

Madame Herriot's ouvroir occupies the magnificent
festal salon of the Hotel de Ville, with its massive
chandeliers and its memories of a thousand dinners
and balls of state from the days of Louis XIV down
to the greatest of its mayors. She supplies French
prisoners in Germany with the now famous comfort
packages. Some of them she and her committee put
up themselves; others are brought in by members of
the family or the friends of the unfortunate men in
Germany. The piece de resistance had always been
a round loaf of bread, but on the day I first visited
the salon consternation was reigning. Word had
come from Germany that no more bread nor any sort
of food stuff should be sent in the packages, and hun-
dreds were being unpacked. Crisp loaves of bread


that would have brought comfort to many a poor soul
were lying all over the place.

The secret of the order was that civilian Germans
were begging bread of the French prisoners, and this,
of course, was bad for the tenderly nursed German



MLLE. JAVAL, unlike Madame Balli, was not a
member of the fashionable society of Paris, a
fcmme du monde, or a reigning beauty. But in certain
respects their cases were not dissimilar. Born into one
of the innumerable sets-within-sets of the upper bour-
geoisie, living on inherited wealth, seeing as little as
possible of the world beyond her immediate circle of
relatives and friends, as curiously indifferent to it as
only a haughty French bourgeoise can be, growing up
in a large and comfortable home according to French
ideas of comfort governing it, when the duty de-

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Online LibraryGertrude Franklin Horn AthertonThe living present : the work of French women in war time → online text (page 3 of 19)