Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton.

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

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scended to her shoulders, with all the native and prac-
tised economy of the French woman, but until her
mother's illness without a care, and even then without
an extra contact, Mile. Javal's life slipped along for
many years exactly as the lives of a million other
girls in that entrenched secluded class slipped along
before the tocsin, ringing throughout the land on
August 2, 1914, announced that once more the men
of France must fight to defend the liberty of all classes



Between wars the great central mass of the popu-
lation in France known as the bourgeoisie who may
be roughly defined as those that belong neither to the
noblesse at one end nor to the industrials and peasant
proprietors at the other, but have capital, however
minute, invested in rentes or business, and who, be-
ginning with the grande bourgeoisie, the haughty
possessors of great inherited fortunes, continuing
through the financial and commercial magnates,
down to the petite bourgeoisie who keep flour-
ishing little shops, hotels, etc. live to get the most
out of life in their narrow, traditional, curiously in-
tensive way. They detest travel, although at least
once in their lives they visit Switzerland and Italy;
possibly, but with no such alarming frequency as to
suggest an invasion, England.

The most aspiring read the literature of the day,
see the new plays (leaving the jeune fille at home),
take an intelligent interest in the politics of their own
country, visit the annual salons, and if really advanced
discuss with all the national animation such violent
eruptions upon the surface of the delicately poised
art life, which owes its very being to France, as im-
pressionism, cubism, etc. Except among the very rich,
where, as elsewhere, temptations are many and press-
ing, they have few scandals to discuss, but much
gossip, and there is the ever recurrent flutter over
births, marriages, deaths. They have no snobbery in
the climber's sense. When a bourgeois, however
humble in origin, graduates as an "intellectual" he is


received with enthusiasm (if his table manners will
pass muster) by the noblesse; but it is far more diffi-
cult for a nobleman to enter the house of a bourgeois.
It is seldom that he wants to, but sometimes there
are sound financial reasons for forming this almost
illegitimate connection, and then his motives are pene-
trated by the keen French mind a mind born with-
out illusions and interest alone dictates the issue.
The only climbers in our sense are the wives of poli-
ticians suddenly risen to eminence, and even then the
social ambitions of these ladies are generally con-
fined to arriving in the exclusive circles of the haute

The bourgeoisie are as proud of their class as the
noblesse of theirs, and its top stratum regards itself
as the real aristocracy of the Republique Frangaise,
the families bearing ancient titles as anachronistic;
although oddly enough they and the ancient noblesse
are quite harmonious in their opinion of the Napoleonic
aristocracy! One of the leaders in the grande bour-
geoisie wrote me at a critical moment in the affairs of
Greece: "It looks as if Briand would succeed in
placing the lovely Princess George of Greece on the
throne, and assuredly it is better for France to have a
Bonaparte there than no one at all !"

It is only when war comes and the men and women
of the noblesse rise to the call of their country as
automatically as a reservist answers the tocsin or the
printed order of mobilization, that the bourgeoisie is
forced to concede that there is a tremendous power


still resident in the prestige, organizing ability, social
influence, tireless energy, and self-sacrifice of the dis-
dained aristocracy.

During the war ceuvres have been formed on so
vast a scale that one sees on many committee lists the
names of noblesse and bourgeois side by side. But
it is a defensive alliance, bred of the stupendous neces-
sities of war, and wherever possible each prefers to
work without the assistance of the other. The French
Army is the most democratic in the world. French
society has no conception of the word, and neither
noblesse nor bourgeoisie has the faintest intention of
taking it up as a study. There is no active antagonism
between the two classes save, to be sure, when indi-
vidual members show their irreconcilable peculiarities
at committee meetings merely a profound indiffer-


Mile. Javal, although living the usual restricted life
before the war, and far removed from that section of
her class that had begun to astonish Paris by an un-
precedented surrender to the extravagancies in public
which seemed to obsess the world before Europe ab-
ruptly returned to its normal historic condition of
warfare, was as highly educated, as conversant with
the affairs of the day, political, intellectual, and ar-
tistic, as any young woman in Europe. But the war
found her in a semi-invalid condition and heart-
broken over the death of her mother, whom she had


nursed devotedly through a long illness; her girlhood
intimacies broken up not only by the marriage of her
friends, but also by her own long seclusion; and
being quite French feeling too aged, at a little over
thirty, ever to interest any man again, aside from her
fortune. In short she regarded her life as finished,
but she kept house dutifully for her brother her
only close relation and surrendered herself to mel-
ancholy reflections.

Then came the war. At first she took merely the
languid interest demanded by her intelligence, being
too absorbed in her own low condition to experience
more than a passing thrill of patriotic fervor. But
she still read the newspapers, and, moreover, women
in those first anxious days were meeting and talking
far more frequently than was common to a class that
preferred their own house and garden to anything
their friends, or the boulevards, or even the parks of
Paris, could offer them. Mile. Javal found herself
seeing more and more of that vast circle of inherited
friends as well as family connections which no well-
born bourgeoise can escape, and gradually became in-
fected with the excitement of the hour; despite the
fact that she believed her poor worn-out body never
would take a long walk again.

Then, one day, the thought suddenly illuminated
her awakening mind : "How fortunate I am ! I have
no one to lose in this terrible war!" (Her brother was
too delicate for service.) "These tears I see every
day after news has come that a father, a brother, a


husband, a son, has fallen on the battlefield or died of
horrible agony in hospital, I shall never shed. Al-
most alone of the many I know, and the millions of
women in France, I am mercifully exempt from an
agony that has no end. If I were married, and were
older and had sons, I should be suffering unendur-
ably now. I am fortunate indeed and feel an ingrate
that I have ever repined."

Then naturally enough followed the thought that it
behooved her to do something for her country, not
only as a manifest of thanksgiving but also because it
was her duty as a young woman of wealth and

Oddly enough considering the delicate health in
which she firmly believed, she tried to be a nurse.
There were many amateurs in the hospitals in those
days when France was as short of nurses as of every-
thing else except men, and she was accepted.

But nursing then involved standing all day on one's
feet and sometimes all night as well, and her pampered
body was far from strong enough for such a tax in
spite of her now glowing spirit. While she was cast-
ing about for some work in which she might really
play a useful and beneficent role a friend invited her
to drive out to the environs of Paris and visit the
wretched eclopes, to whom several charitable ladies
occasionally took little gifts of cigarettes and choco-

Then, at last, Mile. Javal found herself; and from
a halting apprehensive seeker, still weary in mind and


limb, she became almost abruptly one of the most
original and executive women in France incidentally
one of the healthiest. When I met her, some twenty
months later, she had red cheeks and was the only
one of all those women of all classes slaving for
France who told me she never felt tired; in fact felt
stronger every day.


The eclopes, in the new adaptation of the word, are
men who are not ill enough for the military hospitals
and not well enough to fight. They may have slight
wounds, or temporary affections of the sight or hear-
ing, the effect of heavy colds; or rheumatism, debili-
tating sore throat, or furiously aching teeth; or they
may be suffering too severely from shock to be of
any use in the trenches.

There are between six and seven thousand hospi-
tals in France to-day (possibly more: the French
never will give you any exact military figures; but
certainly not less) ; but their beds are for the severely
wounded or for those suffering from dysentery, fevers,
pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis. In those first days
of war before France, caught unprepared in so many
ways, had found herself and settled down to the busi-
ness of war; in that trying interval while she was ill
equipped to care for men brought in hourly to the base
hospitals, shattered by new and hideous wounds ; there
was no place for the merely ailing. Men with organic
affections, suddenly developed under the terrific strain,


were dismissed as Reformes Numero II unmutilated
in the service of their country; in other words, dis-
missed from the army and, for nearly two years, with-
out pension. But the large number of those tempor-
arily out of condition were sent back of the lines, or
to a sort of camp outside of Paris, to rest until they
were in a condition to fight again.

If it had not been for Mile. Javal it is possible that
more men than one cares to estimate would never have
fought again. The eclopes at that time were the most
abject victims of the war. They remained together
under military discipline, either behind the lines or on
the outskirts of Paris, herded in barns, empty fac-
tories, thousands sleeping without shelter of any sort.
Straw for the most part composed their beds, food
was coarse and scanty ; they were so wretched and un-
comfortable, so exposed to the elements, and without
care of any sort, that their slight ailments developed
not infrequently into serious and sometimes fatal cases
of bronchitis, pneumonia, and even tuberculosis.

This was a state of affairs well known to General
Joffre and none caused him more distress and anxiety.
But this was between August and November, 1914,
it must be remembered, when France was anything
but the magnificent machine she is to-day it was
quite impossible for the authorities to devote a cell
of their harassed brains to the temporarily inept.
Every executive mind in power was absorbed in pin-
ning the enemy down, since he could not be driven
put, feeding the vast numbers of men at the Front,


reorganizing the munition factories, planning for the
vast supplies of ammunition suddenly demanded,
equipping the hospitals when the war broke out there
were no installations in the hospitals near the Front
except beds obtaining the necessary amount of surg-
ical supplies, taking care of the refugees that poured
into the larger cities by every train not only from
Belgium but from the French towns invaded or
bombarded to mention but a few of the problems that
beset France suddenly forced to rally and fight for
her life, and, owing to the Socialist majority in the
Chamber of Deputies, criminally unprepared.

There were plenty of able minds in France that
knew what was coming; months before the war broke
out (a year, one of the infirmiere majors told me; but,
as I have said, it is difficult to pin a French official
down to exact statements) the Service de Sante
(Health Department of the Ministry of War) asked
the Countess d'Haussonville, President of the Red
Cross, to train as many nurses as quickly as possible,
for there was not an extra nurse in a military hospital
of France in many there was none at all. But these
patriotic and far-sighted men were powerless. The
three years' service bill was the utmost result of their
endeavors, and for six months after the war began
they had not a gun larger than the famous Seventy-
fives but those captured at the Battle of the Marne.

As for the poor eclopes, there never was a clearer
example of the weaker going to the wall and the devil
taking the hindmost. They had been turned out to


grass mildly afflicted, but in a short time they were
progressing rapidly toward the grave or that detest-
able status known as Reformes Numero II. And
every man counts in France. Quite apart from
humanity it was a terribly serious question for the
Grand Quartier General, where Joffre and his staff
had their minds on the rack.


The Cure of St. Honore d'Eylau was the first to
discover the eclopes, and not only sent stores to cer-
tain of the depots where they were herded, but per-
suaded several ladies of Paris to visit and take them
little presents. But practically every energetic and pa-
triotic woman in France was already mobilized in the
service of her country. As I have explained elsewhere,
they had opened ouvroirs, where working girls sud-
denly deprived of the means of livelihood could fend
off starvation by making underclothing and other
necessaries for the men at the Front. Upon these de-
voted women, assisted by nearly all the American
women resident in Paris, fell to a great extent the care
of the refugees; and many were giving out rations
three times a day, not only to refugees but to the poor
of Paris, suddenly deprived of their wage earners. It
was some time before the Government got round to
paying the daily allowance of one- franc-twenty-five to
the wives and seventy-five centimes (fifty outside of
Paris) for each child, known as the allocation. More-


over, in those dread days when the Germans were driv-
ing straight for Paris, many fled with the Govern-
ment to Bordeaux (not a few Americans ignomini-
ously scampered off to England) and did not return
for three weeks or more; during which time those
brave enough to remain did ten times as much work
as should be expected even of the nine-lived female.

They knew at this critical time as well as later when
they were breathing normally again that the poor
eclopes beyond the barrier were without shelter in the
autumn rains and altogether in desperate plight; but
it was only now and again that a few found time to
pay them a hasty visit and cheer them with those little
gifts so dear to the imaginative heart of the French
soldier. Sooner or later, of course, the Government
would have taken them in hand and organized them as
meticulously as they have organized every conceivable
angle of this great struggle; but meanwhile thousands
would have died or shambled home to litter the villages
as hopeless invalids. Perhaps hundreds of thousands
is a safer computation, and these hundreds of thou-
sands Mile. Javal saved for France.

Today there are over one hundred and thirty
ficlope Depots in France ; two or three are near Paris,
the rest in the towns and villages of the War Zone.
The long baraques are well built, rain-proof and
draught-proof, but with many windows which are open


when possible, and furnished with comfortable beds.
In each depot there is a hospital baraque for those that
need that sort of rest or care, a diet kitchen, and a
fine large kitchen for those that can eat anything and
have appetites of daily increasing vigor.

These depots are laid out like little towns, the streets
of the large ones named after famous generals and
battles. Down one side is a row of low buildings
in which the officers, doctors and nurses sleep; a
chemist shop; a well-fitted bathroom; storerooms for
supplies ; and consulting offices. There is also, almost
invariably, a cantine set up by young women Eng-
lish, American, French where the men are supplied
at any time with cocoa, coffee, milk, lemonade, cakes ;
and the little building itself is gaily decorated to please
the color-loving French eye.

Mile. Javal took me out to the environs of Paris
to visit one of the largest of these depots, and there
the men in hospital were nursed by Sisters of Charity.
There was a set of well-filled bookshelves and a stage
in the great refectory, where the men could sit on
rainy days, read, write letters, sing, smoke, recite, and
get up little plays. I saw a group of very contented
looking poilus in the yard playing cards and smoking
under a large tree.

The surroundings were hideous a railroad yard if
I am not mistaken but the little "town" itself was
very pleasing to the eye, and certainly a haven of
refuge for soldiers whose bodies and minds needed
only repose, care, and kind words to send them back


to the Front sounder by far than they had been in
their unsanitary days before the war.

Here they are forced to sleep with their windows
open, to bathe, eat good food, instead of mortifying
the body for the sake of filling the family stocking;
and they are doctored intelligently, their teeth filled,
their tonsils and adenoids taken out, their chronic in-
digestion cured. Those who survive the war will
never forget the lesson and will do missionary work
when they are at home once more.

All that was dormant in Mile. Javal's fine brain
seemed to awake under the horrifying stimulus of that
first visit to the wretches herded like animals outside
of Paris, where every man thought he was drafted for
death and did not care whether he was or not ; where,
in short, morale, so precious an asset to any nation in
time of war, was practically nil.

The first step was to get a powerful committee to-
gether. Mile. Javal, although wealthy, could not carry
through this gigantic task alone. The moratorium had
stopped the payment of rents, factories were closed,
tenants mobilized. Besides, she had already given
right and left, as everybody else had done who had
anything to give. It was growing increasingly diffi-
cult to raise money.

But nothing could daunt Mile. Javal. She managed
to get together with the least possible delay a com-
mittee of three hundred, and she obtained subscriptions
in money from one thousand five hundred firms, be-


sides donations of food and clothing from eight
hundred others, headed by the King of Spain.

Her subscription list was opened by President
Poincare with a gift of one thousand francs; the
American War Relief Clearing House gave her four
thousand three hundred francs, Madame Viviani con-
tributed four thousand francs; the Comedie Fran-
c.aise one thousand, and Raphael Weill of San Fran-
cisco seven thousand seven hundred and fifty; Alex-
ander Phillips of New York three thousand ; and capi-
talists, banks, bank clerks, civil servants, colonials,
school children, contributed sums great and small.

Concerts were given, bazaars hastily but successfully
organized, collections taken up. There was no end to
Mile. Javal's resource, and the result was an almost
immediate capital of several hundred thousand francs.
When public interest was fairly roused, les pauvres
eclopes became one of the abiding concerns of the
French people, and they have responded as generously
as they did to the needs of the more picturesque
refugee or the starving within their gates.

This great organization, known as "L' Assistance
aux Depots d'ficlopes, Petits Blesses et Petites Ma-
lades, et aux Cantonments de Repos," was formally in-
augurated on November 14, 1914, with Madame Jules
Ferry as President, and Madame Viviani as Vice-
President. Mile. Javal shows modestly on the official
list as Secretaire Generate.

The Government agreed to put up the baraques, and
did so with the least possible delay. Mile. Javal and


her Committee furnish the beds (there were seven
hundred in one of the depots she showed me) , support
the dietary kitchen and the hospital baraques, and sup-
ply the bathrooms, libraries, and all the little luxuries.
The Government supports the central kitchen (grand
regime), the doctors, and, when necessary, the sur-


Mile. Javal took me twice through the immense
establishment on the Champs filysees, where she has
not only her offices but workrooms and storerooms.
In one room a number of ladies in almost all of
these ceuvres women give their services, remaining all
day or a part of every day were doing nothing but
rolling cigarettes. I looked at them with a good deal
of interest. They belonged to that class of French
life I have tried to describe, in which the family is the
all important unit; where children rarely play with
other children, sometimes never; where the mother is
a sovereign who is content to remain within the
boundaries of her own small domain for months at a
time, particularly if she lives not in an apartment,
but in an hotel with a garden behind it. Thousands
of these exemplary women of the bourgeoisie hun-
dreds of thousands care little or nothing for "so-
ciety." They call at stated intervals, upon which cere-
monious occasion they drink coffee and eat pastry;
give their young people dances when the exact con-
ventional moment has arrived for putting them on the


market, and turn out in force at the great periodicities
of life, but otherwise to live and die in the bosom
of The Family is the measure of their ambition.

I shall have a good deal to say later of the possible
results of the vast upheaval of home life caused by
this war ; but of these women sitting for hours on end
in a back room of Mile. Javal's central establishment
in Paris it is only necessary to state that they looked
as intent upon making cigarettes in a professional
manner, beyond cavil by the canny poilu, as if they
were counting the family linen or superintending one
of the stupendous facts of existence, a daughter's
trousseau. Only the one to whom I was introduced
raised her eyes, and I should not have been expected
to distract her attention for a moment had not she
told Mile. Javal that she had read my books (in the
Tauchnitz edition) and would like to meet me when
I called.

It seemed to me that everything conceivable was in
those large storerooms. I had grown used to seeing
piles of sleeping-suits, sleeping-bags, trench slippers,
warm underclothes, sabots, all that is comprised in the
word vetement; but here were also immense boxes of
books and magazines, donated by different firms and
editors, about to be shipped to the depots; games of
every sort; charming photogravures, sketches, prints,
pictures, that would make the baraques gay and be-
loved all to be interspersed, however, with mottoes
from famous writers calculated to elevate not only the
morale but the morals of Jthe idle.


Then there were cases of handkerchiefs, of pens
and paper, pencils, songs with and without music,
knives, pipes, post-cards, razors, parasiticides, choco-
late, vaseline, perfumes (many of these articles are
donations from manufacturers), soap in vast quanti-
ties; books serious and diverting 1 ; pamphlets purposed
to keep patriotism at fever pitch, or to give the often
ignorant peasant soldier a clear idea of the designs of
the enemy.

In small compartments at one end of the largest
of the rooms were exhibited the complete installations
of the baraques, the portable beds, kitchen and dining-
room utensils and dishes, all extraordinarily neat and
compact. In another room was a staff engaged in
correspondence with officers, doctors and surgeons at
the Front, poilus, or the hundred and one sources that
contribute to the great ceuvre. Girls, young widows,
young and middle-aged married women whose hus-
bands and sons were fighting, all give their days freely
and work far harder and more conscientiously than
most women do for hire.

All of these presents, when they arrive at the
depots, are given out personally by the officers, and
this as much as the genuine democracy of the men in
command has served to break down the suspicious or
surly spirit of the French peasant on his first service,
to win over the bumptious industrial, and even to

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Online LibraryGertrude Franklin Horn AthertonThe living present : the work of French women in war time → online text (page 4 of 19)