WE PASSED into the zone of another army and a hillier country, where the border villages lay more sheltered. Here and there a town and the fields round it gave us a glimpse of the furious industry with which France makes and handles material and troops. With her, as with us, the wounded officer of experience goes back to the drill-ground to train the new levies. But it was always the little crowded, defiant villages, and the civil population waiting unweariedly and cheerfully on the unwearied, cheerful army, that went closest to the heart. Take these pictures, caught almost anywhere during a journey: A knot of little children in difficulties with the village water-tap or high-handled pump. A soldier, bearded and fatherly, or young and slim and therefore rather shy of the big girls’ chaff, comes forward and lifts the pail or swings the handle. His reward, from the smallest babe swung high in air, or, if he is an older man, pressed against his knees, is a kiss. Then nobody laughs.
Or a fat old lady making oration against some wicked young soldiers who, she says, know what has happened to a certain bottle of wine. “And I meant it for all—yes, for all of you —this evening, instead of the thieves who stole it. Yes, I tell you—stole it!” The whole street hears her; so does the officer, who pretends not to, and the amused half-battalion up the road. The young men express penitence; she growls like a thunderstorm, but, softening at last, cuffs and drives them affectionately before her. They are all one family.
Or a girl at work with horses in a ploughed field that is dotted with graves. The machine must avoid each sacred plot. So, hands on the plough-stilts, her hair flying forward, she shouts and wrenches till her little brother runs up and swings the team out of the furrow. Every aspect and detail of life in France seems overlaid with a smooth patina of long-continued war—everything except the spirit of the people, and that is as fresh and glorious as the sight of their own land in sunshine.
We found a city among hills which knew itself to be a prize greatly coveted by the Kaiser. For, truly, it was a pleasant, a desirable, and an insolent city. Its streets were full of life; it boasted an establishment almost as big as Harrod’s and full of buyers, and its women dressed and shod themselves with care and grace, as befits ladies who, at any time, may be ripped into rags by bombs from aeroplanes. And there was another city whose population seemed to be all soldiers in training; and yet another given up to big guns and ammunition —an extraordinary sight.
After that, we came to a little town of pale stone which an Army had made its headquarters. It looked like a plain woman who had fainted in public. It had rejoiced in many public institutions that were turned into hospitals and offices; the wounded limped its wide, dusty streets, detachments of Infantry went through it swiftly; and utterly bored motor-lorries cruised up and down roaring, I suppose, for something to look at or to talk to. In the centre of it I found one Janny, or rather his marble bust, brooding over a minute iron-railed garden of half-dried asters opposite a shut-up school, which it appeared from the inscription Janny had founded somewhere in the arid Thirties. It was precisely the sort of school that Janny, by the look of him, would have invented. Not even French adaptability could make anything of it. So Janny had his school, with a faint perfume of varnish, all to himself in a hot stillness of used-up air and little whirls of dust. And because that town seemed so barren, I met there a French General whom I would have gone very far to have encountered. He, like the others, had created and tempered an army for certain work in a certain place, and its hand had been heavy on the Boche. We talked of what the French woman was, and had done, and was doing, and extolled her for her goodness and her faith and her splendid courage. When we parted, I went back and made my profoundest apologies to Janny, who must have had a mother. The pale, overwhelmed town did not now any longer resemble a woman who had fainted, but one who must endure in public all manner of private woe and still, with hands that never cease working, keeps her soul and is cleanly strong for herself and for her men.
The guns began to speak again among the hills that we dived into; the air grew chillier as we climbed; forest and wet rocks closed round us in the mist, to the sound of waters trickling alongside; there was a tang of wet fern, cut pine, and the first breath of autumn when the road entered a tunnel and a new world—Alsace.
Said the Governor of those parts thoughtfully: “The main thing was to get those factory chimneys smoking again.” (They were doing so in little flats and villages all along.) “You won’t see any girls, because they’re at work in the textile factories. Yes, it isn’t a bad country for summer hotels, but I’m afraid it won’t do for winter sports. We’ve only a metre of snow, and it doesn’t lie, except when you are hauling guns up mountains. Then, of course, it drifts and freezes like Davos. That’s our new railway below there. Pity it’s too misty to see the view.”
But for his medals, there was nothing in the Governor to show that he was not English. He might have come straight from an Indian frontier command.
One notices this approximation of type in the higher ranks, and many of the juniors are cut out of the very same cloth as ours. They get whatever fun may be going: their performances are as incredible and outrageous as the language in which they describe them afterward is bald, but convincing, and—I overheard the tail-end of a yarn told by a child of twenty to some other babes. It was veiled in the obscurity of the French tongue, and the points were lost in shouts of laughter—but I imagine the subaltern among his equals displays just as much reverence for his elders and betters as our own boys do. The epilogue, at least, was as old as both Armies:
“And what did he say then?”
“Oh, the usual thing. He held his breath till I thought he’d burst. Then he damned me in heaps, and I took good care to keep out of his sight till next day.”
But officially and in the high social atmosphere of Headquarters their manners and their meekness are of the most admirable. There they attend devoutly on the wisdom of their seniors, who treat them, so it seemed, with affectionate confidence.
When the day’s reports are in, all along the front, there is a man, expert in the meaning of things, who boils them down for that cold official digest which tells us that “There was the usual grenade fighting at——. We made appreciable advance at——,” &c. The original material comes in sheaves and sheaves, where individual character and temperament have full and amusing play. It is reduced for domestic consumption like an overwhelming electric current. Otherwise we could not take it in. But at closer range one realizes that the Front never sleeps; never ceases from trying new ideas and weapons which, so soon as the Boche thinks he has mastered them, are discarded for newer annoyances and bewilderments.
“The Boche is above all things observant and imitative,” said one who counted quite a few Boches dead on the front of his sector. “When you present him with a new idea, he thinks it over for a day or two. Then he presents his riposte.”
“Yes, my General. That was exactly what he did to me when I—did so and so. He was quite silent for a day. Then—he stole my patent.”
“I had a notion that he’d do that, so I had changed the specification.”
Thus spoke the Staff, and so it is among the junior commands, down to the semi-isolated posts where boy-Napoleons live on their own, through unbelievable adventures. They are inventive young devils, these veterans of 21, possessed of the single ideal—to kill—which they follow with men as single-minded as themselves. Battlefield tactics do not exist; when a whole nation goes to ground there can be none of the “victories” of the old bookish days. But there is always the killing—the well-schemed smashing of a full trench, the rushing out and the mowing down of its occupants; the unsuspicious battalion far in the rear, located after two nights’ extreme risk alone among rubbish of masonry, and wiped out as it eats or washes itself; and, more rarely, the body to body encounter with animals removed from the protection of their machinery, when the bayonets get their chance. The Boche does not at all like meeting men whose womenfolk he has dishonoured or mutilated, or used as a protection against bullets. It is not that these men are angry or violent. They do not waste time in that way. They kill him.
The French are less reticent than we about atrocities committed by the Boche, because those atrocities form part of their lives. They are not tucked away in reports of Commissions, and vaguely referred to as “too awful.” Later on, perhaps, we shall be unreserved in our turn. But they do not talk of them with any babbling heat or bleat or make funny little appeals to a “public opinion” that, like the Boche, has gone underground. It occurs to me that this must be because every Frenchman has his place and his chance, direct or indirect, to diminish the number of Boches still alive. Whether he lies out in a sandwich of damp earth, or sweats the big guns up the crests behind the trees, or brings the fat, loaded barges into the very heart of the city, where the shell-wagons wait, or spends his last crippled years at the harvest, he is doing his work to that end.
If he is a civilian he may—as he does—say things about his Government, which, after all, is very like other popular governments. (A lifetime spent in watching how the cat jumps does not make lion-tamers.) But there is very little human rubbish knocking about France to hinder work or darken counsel. Above all, there is a thing called the Honour of Civilization, to which France is attached. The meanest man feels that he, in his place, is permitted to help uphold it, and, I think, bears himself, therefore, with new dignity.
This is written in a garden of smooth turf, under a copper beech, beside a glassy mill-stream, where soldiers of Alpine regiments are writing letters home, while the guns shout up and down the narrow valleys.
A great wolf-hound, who considers himself in charge of the old-fashioned farmhouse, cannot understand why his master, aged six, should be sitting on the knees of the Marechal des Logis, the iron man who drives the big car.
“But you are French, little one?” says the giant, with a yearning arm round the child.
“Yes,” very slowly mouthing the French words; “I—can’t —speak—French—but—I—am—French.”
The small face disappears in the big beard.
Somehow, I can’t imagine the Marechal des Logis killing babies—even if his superior officer, now sketching the scene, were to order him!
The great building must once have been a monastery. Twilight softened its gaunt wings, in an angle of which were collected fifty prisoners, picked up among the hills behind the mists.
They stood in some sort of military formation preparatory to being marched off. They were dressed in khaki, the colour of gassed grass, that might have belonged to any army. Two wore spectacles, and I counted eight faces of the fifty which were asymmetrical—out of drawing on one side.
“Some of their later drafts give us that type,” said the Interpreter. One of them had been wounded in the head and roughly bandaged. The others seemed all sound. Most of them looked at nothing, but several were vividly alive with terror that cannot keep the eyelids still, and a few wavered on the grey edge of collapse.
They were the breed which, at the word of command, had stolen out to drown women and children; had raped women in the streets at the word of command; and, always at the word of command, had sprayed petrol, or squirted flame; or defiled the property and persons of their captives. They stood there outside all humanity. Yet they were made in the likeness of humanity. One realized it with a shock when the bandaged creature began to shiver, and they shuffled off in response to the orders of civilized men.