Rudyard Kipling.

France at War On the Frontier of Civilization online

. (page 1 of 4)
Online LibraryRudyard KiplingFrance at War On the Frontier of Civilization → online text (page 1 of 4)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by David S. Miller

On the Frontier of Civilization




Poem: France
I. On the Frontier of Civilization
II. The Nation's Spirit and a New Inheritance
III. Battle Spectacle and a Review
IV. The Spirit of the People
V. Life in Trenches on the Mountain Side
VI. The Common Task of a Great People

On the Frontier of Civilization


_Broke to every known mischance, lifted over
By the light sane joy of life, the buckler of
the Gaul,
Furious in luxury, merciless in toil,
Terrible with strength that draws from her
tireless soil,
Strictest judge of her own worth, gentlest of
men's mind,
First to follow truth and last to leave old
truths behind -
France beloved of every soul that loves its

Ere our birth (rememberest thou?) side
by side we lay
Fretting in the womb of Rome to begin
the fray.
Ere men knew our tongues apart, our one
taste was known -
Each must mould the other's fate as he
wrought his own.
To this end we stirred mankind till all
earth was ours,
Till our world-end strifes began wayside
thrones and powers,
Puppets that we made or broke to bar
the other's path -
Necessary, outpost folk, hirelings of our
To this end we stormed the seas, tack for
tack, and burst
Through the doorways of new worlds,
doubtful which was first.
Hand on hilt (rememberest thou?), ready
for the blow.
Sure whatever else we met we should
meet our foe.
Spurred or baulked at ev'ry stride by the
other's strength,
So we rode the ages down and every ocean's
Where did you refrain from us or we
refrain from you?
Ask the wave that has not watched war
between us two.
Others held us for a while, but with
weaker charms,
These we quitted at the call for each
other's arms.
Eager toward the known delight, equally
we strove,
Each the other's mystery, terror, need,
and love.
To each other's open court with our
proofs we came,
Where could we find honour else or men
to test the claim?
From each other's throat we wrenched
valour's last reward,
That extorted word of praise gasped
'twixt lunge and guard.
In each other's cup we poured mingled
blood and tears,
Brutal joys, unmeasured hopes,
intolerable fears,
All that soiled or salted life for a thousand
Proved beyond the need of proof, matched
in every clime,
O companion, we have lived greatly
through all time:
Yoked in knowledge and remorse now we
come to rest,
Laughing at old villainies that time has
turned to jest,
Pardoning old necessity no pardon can
efface -
That undying sin we shared in Rouen
Now we watch the new years shape,
wondering if they hold
Fiercer lighting in their hearts than we
launched of old.
Now we hear new voices rise, question,
boast or gird,
As we raged (rememberest thou?) when
our crowds were stirred.
Now we count new keels afloat, and new
hosts on land,
Massed liked ours (rememberest thou?)
when our strokes were planned.
We were schooled for dear life sake, to
know each other's blade:
What can blood and iron make more than
we have made?
We have learned by keenest use to know
each other's mind:
What shall blood and iron loose that we
cannot bind?
We who swept each other's coast, sacked
each other's home,
Since the sword of Brennus clashed on
the scales at Rome,
Listen, court and close again, wheeling
girth to girth,
In the strained and bloodless guard set
for peace on earth.

_Broke to every known mischance, lifted over
By the light sane joy of life, the buckler of
the Gaul,
Furious in luxury, merciless in toil,
Terrible with strength renewed from a
tireless soil,
Strictest judge of her own worth, gentlest of
men's mind,
First to follow truth and last to leave old
truths behind,
France beloved of every soul that loves or
serves its kind._

*First published June 24, 1913.



"It's a pretty park," said the French artillery officer.
"We've done a lot for it since the owner left. I hope he'll
appreciate it when he comes back."

The car traversed a winding drive through woods, between banks
embellished with little chalets of a rustic nature. At first,
the chalets stood their full height above ground, suggesting
tea-gardens in England. Further on they sank into the earth
till, at the top of the ascent, only their solid brown roofs
showed. Torn branches drooping across the driveway, with here
and there a scorched patch of undergrowth, explained the
reason of their modesty.

The chateau that commanded these glories of forest and park
sat boldly on a terrace. There was nothing wrong with it
except, if one looked closely, a few scratches or dints on its
white stone walls, or a neatly drilled hole under a flight of
steps. One such hole ended in an unexploded shell. "Yes,"
said the officer. "They arrive here occasionally."

Something bellowed across the folds of the wooded hills;
something grunted in reply. Something passed overhead,
querulously but not without dignity. Two clear fresh barks
joined the chorus, and a man moved lazily in the direction of
the guns.

"Well. Suppose we come and look at things a little," said the
commanding officer.


There was a specimen tree - a tree worthy of such a park - the
sort of tree visitors are always taken to admire. A ladder
ran up it to a platform. What little wind there was swayed
the tall top, and the ladder creaked like a ship's gangway. A
telephone bell tinkled 50 foot overhead. Two invisible guns
spoke fervently for half a minute, and broke off like terriers
choked on a leash. We climbed till the topmost platform
swayed sicklily beneath us. Here one found a rustic shelter,
always of the tea-garden pattern, a table, a map, and a little
window wreathed with living branches that gave one the first
view of the Devil and all his works. It was a stretch of open
country, with a few sticks like old tooth-brushes which had
once been trees round a farm. The rest was yellow grass,
barren to all appearance as the veldt.

"The grass is yellow because they have used gas here," said an
officer. "Their trenches are - - - . You can see for

The guns in the woods began again. They seemed to have no
relation to the regularly spaced bursts of smoke along a
little smear in the desert earth two thousand yards away - no
connection at all with the strong voices overhead coming and
going. It was as impersonal as the drive of the sea along a

Thus it went: a pause - a gathering of sound like the race of
an incoming wave; then the high-flung heads of breakers
spouting white up the face of a groyne. Suddenly, a seventh
wave broke and spread the shape of its foam like a plume
overtopping all the others.

"That's one of our torpilleurs - what you call
trench-sweepers," said the observer among the whispering leaves.

Some one crossed the platform to consult the map with its
ranges. A blistering outbreak of white smokes rose a little
beyond the large plume. It was as though the tide had struck
a reef out yonder.

Then a new voice of tremendous volume lifted itself out of a
lull that followed. Somebody laughed. Evidently the voice
was known.

"That is not for us," a gunner said. "They are being waked up
from - - - " he named a distant French position. "So and so is
attending to them there. We go on with our usual work. Look!
Another torpilleur."


Again a big plume rose; and again the lighter shells broke at
their appointed distance beyond it. The smoke died away on
that stretch of trench, as the foam of a swell dies in the
angle of a harbour wall, and broke out afresh half a mile
lower down. In its apparent laziness, in its awful
deliberation, and its quick spasms of wrath, it was more like
the work of waves than of men; and our high platform's gentle
sway and glide was exactly the motion of a ship drifting with
us toward that shore.

"The usual work. Only the usual work," the officer explained.
"Sometimes it is here. Sometimes above or below us. I have
been here since May."

A little sunshine flooded the stricken landscape and made its
chemical yellow look more foul. A detachment of men moved out
on a road which ran toward the French trenches, and then
vanished at the foot of a little rise. Other men appeared
moving toward us with that concentration of purpose and
bearing shown in both Armies when - dinner is at hand. They
looked like people who had been digging hard.

"The same work. Always the same work!" the officer said.
"And you could walk from here to the sea or to Switzerland in
that ditch - and you'll find the same work going on everywhere.
It isn't war."

"It's better than that," said another. "It's the eating-up of
a people. They come and they fill the trenches and they die,
and they die; and they send more and _those_ die. We do the
same, of course, but - look!"

He pointed to the large deliberate smoke-heads renewing
themselves along that yellowed beach. "That is the frontier
of civilization. They have all civilization against them
- those brutes yonder. It's not the local victories of the old
wars that we're after. It's the barbarian - all the barbarian.
Now, you've seen the whole thing in little. Come and look at
our children."


We left that tall tree whose fruits are death ripened and
distributed at the tingle of small bells. The observer
returned to his maps and calculations; the telephone-boy
stiffened up beside his exchange as the amateurs went out of
his life. Some one called down through the branches to ask
who was attending to - Belial, let us say, for I could not
catch the gun's name. It seemed to belong to that terrific
new voice which had lifted itself for the second or third
time. It appeared from the reply that if Belial talked too
long he would be dealt with from another point miles away.

The troops we came down to see were at rest in a chain of
caves which had begun life as quarries and had been fitted up
by the army for its own uses. There were underground
corridors, ante-chambers, rotundas, and ventilating shafts
with a bewildering play of cross lights, so that wherever you
looked you saw Goya's pictures of men-at-arms.

Every soldier has some of the old maid in him, and rejoices in
all the gadgets and devices of his own invention. Death and
wounding come by nature, but to lie dry, sleep soft, and keep
yourself clean by forethought and contrivance is art, and in
all things the Frenchman is gloriously an artist.

Moreover, the French officers seem as mother-keen on their men
as their men are brother-fond of them. Maybe the possessive
form of address: "Mon general," "mon capitaine," helps the
idea, which our men cloke in other and curter phrases. And
those soldiers, like ours, had been welded for months in one
furnace. As an officer said: "Half our orders now need not
be given. Experience makes us think together." I believe,
too, that if a French private has an idea - and they are full
of ideas - it reaches his C. 0. quicker than it does with us.


The overwhelming impression was the brilliant health and
vitality of these men and the quality of their breeding. They
bore themselves with swing and rampant delight in life, while
their voices as they talked in the side-caverns among the
stands of arms were the controlled voices of civilization.
Yet, as the lights pierced the gloom they looked like bandits
dividing the spoil. One picture, though far from war, stays
with me. A perfectly built, dark-skinned young giant had
peeled himself out of his blue coat and had brought it down
with a swish upon the shoulder of a half-stripped comrade who
was kneeling at his feet with some footgear. They stood
against a background of semi-luminous blue haze, through which
glimmered a pile of coppery straw half covered by a red
blanket. By divine accident of light and pose it St. Martin
giving his cloak to the beggar. There were scores of pictures
in these galleries - notably a rock-hewn chapel where the red
of the cross on the rough canvas altar-cloth glowed like a
ruby. Further inside the caves we found a row of little
rock-cut kennels, each inhabited by one wise, silent dog.
Their duties begin in at night with the sentinels and
listening-posts. "And believe me," a proud instructor, "my
fellow here knows the difference between the noise of our shells
and the Boche shells."

When we came out into the open again there were good
opportunities for this study. Voices and wings met and passed
in the air, and, perhaps, one strong young tree had not been
bending quite so far across the picturesque park-drive when we
first went that way.

"Oh, yes," said an officer, "shells have to fall somewhere,
and," he added with fine toleration, "it is, after all,
against us that the Boche directs them. But come you and look
at my dug-out. It's the most superior of all possible

"No. Come and look at our mess. It's the Ritz of these
parts." And they joyously told how they had got, or procured,
the various fittings and elegancies, while hands stretched out
of the gloom to shake, and men nodded welcome and greeting all
through that cheery brotherhood in the woods.


The voices and the wings were still busy after lunch, when the
car slipped past the tea-houses in the drive, and came into a
country where women and children worked among the crops.
There were large raw shell holes by the wayside or in the
midst of fields, and often a cottage or a villa had been
smashed as a bonnet-box is smashed by an umbrella. That must
be part of Belial's work when he bellows so truculently among
the hills to the north.

We were looking for a town that lives under shell-fire. The
regular road to it was reported unhealthy - not that the women
and children seemed to care. We took byways of which certain
exposed heights and corners were lightly blinded by
wind-brakes of dried tree-tops. Here the shell holes were rather
thick on the ground. But the women and the children and the
old men went on with their work with the cattle and the crops;
and where a house had been broken by shells the rubbish was
collected in a neat pile, and where a room or two still
remained usable, it was inhabited, and the tattered
window-curtains fluttered as proudly as any flag. And time was
when I used to denounce young France because it tried to kill
itself beneath my car wheels; and the fat old women who
crossed roads without warning; and the specially deaf old men
who slept in carts on the wrong side of the road! Now, I
could take off my hat to every single soul of them, but that
one cannot traverse a whole land bareheaded. The nearer we
came to our town the fewer were the people, till at last we
halted in a well-built suburb of paved streets where there was
no life at all. . . .


The stillness was as terrible as the spread of the quick busy
weeds between the paving-stones; the air smelt of pounded
mortar and crushed stone; the sound of a footfall echoed like
the drop of a pebble in a well. At first the horror of
wrecked apartment-houses and big shops laid open makes one
waste energy in anger. It is not seemly that rooms should be
torn out of the sides of buildings as one tears the soft heart
out of English bread; that villa roofs should lie across iron
gates of private garages, or that drawing-room doors should
flap alone and disconnected between two emptinesses of twisted
girders. The eye wearies of the repeated pattern that burst
shells make on stone walls, as the mouth sickens of the taste
of mortar and charred timber. One quarter of the place had
been shelled nearly level; the facades of the houses stood
doorless, roofless, and windowless like stage scenery. This
was near the cathedral, which is always a favourite mark for
the heathen. They had gashed and ripped the sides of the
cathedral itself, so that the birds flew in and out at will;
they had smashed holes in the roof; knocked huge cantles out
of the buttresses, and pitted and starred the paved square
outside. They were at work, too, that very afternoon, though
I do not think the cathedral was their objective for the
moment. We walked to and fro in the silence of the streets
and beneath the whirring wings overhead. Presently, a young
woman, keeping to the wall, crossed a corner. An old woman
opened a shutter (how it jarred!), and spoke to her. The
silence closed again, but it seemed to me that I heard a sound
of singing - the sort of chant one hears in nightmare-cities of
voices crying from underground.


"Nonsense," said an officer. "Who should be singing here?"
We circled the cathedral again, and saw what pavement-stones
can do against their own city, when the shell jerks them
upward. But there _was_ singing after all - on the other side
of a little door in the flank of the cathedral. We looked in,
doubting, and saw at least a hundred folk, mostly women, who
knelt before the altar of an unwrecked chapel. We withdrew
quietly from that holy ground, and it was not only the eyes of
the French officers that filled with tears. Then there came
an old, old thing with a prayer-book in her hand, pattering
across the square, evidently late for service.

"And who are those women?" I asked.

"Some are caretakers; people who have still little shops here.
(There is one quarter where you can buy things.) There are
many old people, too, who will not go away. They are of the
place, you see."

"And this bombardment happens often?" I said.

"It happens always. Would you like to look at the railway
station? Of course, it has not been so bombarded as the

We went through the gross nakedness of streets without people,
till we reached the railway station, which was very fairly
knocked about, but, as my friends said, nothing like as much
as the cathedral. Then we had to cross the end of a long
street down which the Boche could see clearly. As one glanced
up it, one perceived how the weeds, to whom men's war is the
truce of God, had come back and were well established the
whole length of it, watched by the long perspective of open,
empty windows.



We left that stricken but undefeated town, dodged a few miles
down the roads beside which the women tended their cows, and
dropped into a place on a hill where a Moroccan regiment of
many experiences was in billets.

They were Mohammedans bafflingly like half a dozen of our
Indian frontier types, though they spoke no accessible tongue.
They had, of course, turned the farm buildings where they lay
into a little bit of Africa in colour and smell. They had
been gassed in the north; shot over and shot down, and set up
to be shelled again; and their officers talked of North
African wars that we had never heard of - sultry days against
long odds in the desert years ago. "Afterward - is it not so
with you also? - we get our best recruits from the tribes we
have fought. These men are children. They make no trouble.
They only want to go where cartridges are burnt. They are of
the few races to whom fighting is a pleasure."

"And how long have you dealt with them?"

"A long time - a long time. I helped to organize the corps. I
am one of those whose heart is in Africa." He spoke slowly,
almost feeling for his French words, and gave some order. I
shall not forget his eyes as he turned to a huge, brown,
Afreedee-like Mussulman hunkering down beside his
accoutrements. He had two sides to his head, that bearded,
burned, slow-spoken officer, met and parted with in an hour.

The day closed - (after an amazing interlude in the chateau of
a dream, which was all glassy ponds, stately trees, and vistas
of white and gold saloons. The proprietor was somebody's
chauffeur at the front, and we drank to his excellent health)
- at a little village in a twilight full of the petrol of many
cars and the wholesome flavour of healthy troops. There is no
better guide to camp than one's own thoughtful nose; and
though I poked mine everywhere, in no place then or later did
it strike that vile betraying taint of underfed, unclean men.
And the same with the horses.


It is difficult to keep an edge after hours of fresh air and
experiences; so one does not get the most from the most
interesting part of the day - the dinner with the local
headquarters. Here the professionals meet - the Line, the
Gunners, the Intelligence with stupefying photo-plans of the
enemy's trenches; the Supply; the Staff, who collect and note
all things, and are very properly chaffed; and, be sure, the
Interpreter, who, by force of questioning prisoners, naturally
develops into a Sadducee. It is their little asides to each
other, the slang, and the half-words which, if one understood,
instead of blinking drowsily at one's plate, would give the
day's history in little. But tire and the difficulties of a
sister (not a foreign) tongue cloud everything, and one goes
to billets amid a murmur of voices, the rush of single cars
through the night, the passage of battalions, and behind it
all, the echo of the deep voices calling one to the other,
along the line that never sleeps.

. . . . . . .

The ridge with the scattered pines might have hidden children
at play. Certainly a horse would have been quite visible, but
there was no hint of guns, except a semaphore which announced
it was forbidden to pass that way, as the battery was firing.
The Boches must have looked for that battery, too. The ground
was pitted with shell holes of all calibres - some of them as
fresh as mole-casts in the misty damp morning; others where
the poppies had grown from seed to flower all through the

"And where are the guns?" I demanded at last.

They were almost under one's hand, their ammunition in cellars
and dug-outs beside them. As far as one can make out, the 75
gun has no pet name. The bayonet is Rosalie the virgin of
Bayonne, but the 75, the watchful nurse of the trenches and
little sister of the Line, seems to be always "soixante-
quinze." Even those who love her best do not insist that she
is beautiful. Her merits are French - logic, directness,
simplicity, and the supreme gift of "occasionality." She is
equal to everything on the spur of the moment. One sees and
studies the few appliances which make her do what she does,
and one feels that any one could have invented her.


"As a matter of fact," says a commandant, "anybody - or,
rather, everybody did. The general idea is after such-and-such
system, the patent of which had expired, and we improved
it; the breech action, with slight modification, is somebody
else's; the sighting is perhaps a little special; and so is
the traversing, but, at bottom, it is only an assembly of
variations and arrangements."

That, of course, is all that Shakespeare ever got out of the
alphabet. The French Artillery make their own guns as he made
his plays. It is just as simple as that.

"There is nothing going on for the moment; it's too misty,"
said the Commandant. (I fancy that the Boche, being, as a
rule methodical, amateurs are introduced to batteries in the
Boche's intervals. At least, there are hours healthy and
unhealthy which vary with each position.) "But," the
Commandant reflected a moment, "there is a place - and a
distance. Let us say . . . " He gave a range.

The gun-servers stood back with the bored contempt of the
professional for the layman who intrudes on his mysteries.
Other civilians had come that way before - had seen, and
grinned, and complimented and gone their way, leaving the
gunners high up on the bleak hillside to grill or mildew or
freeze for weeks and months. Then she spoke. Her voice was
higher pitched, it seemed, than ours - with a more shrewish
tang to the speeding shell. Her recoil was as swift and as
graceful as the shrug of a French-woman's shoulders; the empty
case leaped forth and clanged against the trail; the tops of
two or three pines fifty yards away nodded knowingly to each

1 3 4

Online LibraryRudyard KiplingFrance at War On the Frontier of Civilization → online text (page 1 of 4)