THIS IS the end of the line,” said the Staff Officer, kindest and most patient of chaperons. It buttressed itself on a fortress among hills. Beyond that, the silence was more awful than the mixed noise of business to the westward. In mileage on the map the line must be between four and five hundred miles; in actual trench-work many times that distance. It is too much to see at full length; the mind does not readily break away from the obsession of its entirety or the grip of its detail. One visualizes the thing afterwards as a white-hot gash, worming all across France between intolerable sounds and lights, under ceaseless blasts of whirled dirt. Nor is it any relief to lose oneself among wildernesses of piling, stoning, timbering, concreting, and wire-work, or incalculable quantities of soil thrown up raw to the light and cloaked by the changing seasons—as the unburied dead are cloaked.Yet there are no words to give the essential simplicity of it. It is the rampart put up by Man against the Beast, precisely as in the Stone Age. If it goes, all that keeps us from the Beast goes with it. One sees this at the front as clearly as one sees the French villages behind the German lines. Sometimes people steal away from them and bring word of what they endure.
Where the rifle and the bayonet serve, men use those tools along the front. Where the knife gives better results, they go in behind the hand-grenades with the naked twelve-inch knife. Each race is supposed to fight in its own way, but this war has passed beyond all the known ways. They say that the Belgians in the north settle accounts with a certain dry passion which has varied very little since their agony began. Some sections of the English line have produced a soft-voiced, rather reserved type, which does its work with its mouth shut. The French carry an edge to their fighting, a precision, and a dreadful knowledge coupled with an insensibility to shock, unlike anything one has imagined of mankind. To be sure, there has never been like provocation, for never since the Aesir went about to bind the Fenris Wolf has all the world united to bind the Beast.
The last I saw of the front was Alan Breck speeding back to his gun-positions among the mountains; and I wondered what delight of what household the lad must have been in the old days.
Then we had to work our way, department by department, against the tides of men behind the line—supports and their supports, reserves and reserves of reserves, as well as the masses in training. They flooded towns and villages, and when we tried short-cuts we found them in every by-lane. Have you seen mounted men reading their home letters with the reins thrown on the horses’ necks, moving in absorbed silence through a street which almost said “Hush!” to its dogs; or met, in a forest, a procession of perfectly new big guns, apparently taking themselves from the foundry to the front?
In spite of their love of drama, there is not much “window-dressing” in the French character. The Boche, who is the priest of the Higher Counter-jumpery, would have had half the neutral Press out in cars to advertise these vast spectacles of men and material. But the same instinct as makes their rich farmers keep to their smocks makes the French keep quiet.
“This is our affair,” they argue. “Everybody concerned is taking part in it. Like the review you saw the other day, there are no spectators.”
“But it might be of advantage if the world knew.”
Mine was a foolish remark. There is only one world to-day, the world of the Allies. Each of them knows what the others are doing and—the rest doesn’t matter. This is a curious but delightful fact to realize at first hand. And think what it will be later, when we shall all circulate among each other and open our hearts and talk it over in a brotherhood more intimate than the ties of blood!
I lay that night at a little French town, and was kept awake by a man, somewhere in the hot, still darkness, howling aloud from the pain of his wounds. I was glad that he was alone, for when one man gives way the others sometimes follow. Yet the single note of misery was worse than the baying and gulping of a whole ward. I wished that a delegation of strikers could have heard it.
. . . . .
That a civilian should be in the war zone at all is a fair guarantee of his good faith. It is when he is outside the zone unchaperoned that questions begin, and the permits are looked into. If these are irregular—but one doesn’t care to contemplate it. If regular, there are still a few counter-checks. As the sergeant at the railway station said when he helped us out of an impasse: “You will realize that it is the most undesirable persons whose papers are of the most regular. It is their business you see. The Commissary of Police is at the Hotel de Ville, if you will come along for the little formality. Myself, I used to keep a shop in Paris. My God, these provincial towns are desolating!”
He would have loved his Paris as we found it. Life was renewing itself in the streets, whose drawing and proportion one could never notice before. People’s eyes, and the women’s especially, seemed to be set to a longer range, a more comprehensive gaze. One would have said they came from the sea or the mountains, where things are few and simple, rather than from houses. Best of all, there were no foreigners—the beloved city for the first time was French throughout from end to end. It felt like coming back to an old friend’s house for a quiet talk after he had got rid of a houseful of visitors. The functionaries and police had dropped their masks of official politeness, and were just friendly. At the hotels, so like school two days before the term begins, the impersonal valet, the chambermaid of the set two-franc smile, and the unbending head-waiter had given place to one’s own brothers and sisters, full of one’s own anxieties. “My son is an aviator, monsieur. I could have claimed Italian nationality for him at the beginning, but he would not have it.” . . . “Both my brothers, monsieur, are at the war. One is dead already. And my fiance, I have not heard from him since March. He is cook in a battalion.” . . . “Here is the wine-list, monsieur. Yes, both my sons and a nephew, and—I have no news of them, not a word of news. My God, we all suffer these days.” And so, too, among the shops—the mere statement of the loss or the grief at the heart, but never a word of doubt, never a whimper of despair.
“Now why,” asked a shopkeeper, “does not our Government, or your Government, or both our Governments, send some of the British Army to Paris? I assure you we should make them welcome.”
“Perhaps,” I began, “you might make them too welcome.”
He laughed. “We should make them as welcome as our own army. They would enjoy themselves.” I had a vision of British officers, each with ninety days’ pay to his credit, and a damsel or two at home, shopping consumedly.
“And also,” said the shopkeeper, “the moral effect on Paris to see more of your troops would be very good.”
But I saw a quite English Provost-Marshal losing himself in chase of defaulters of the New Army who knew their Paris! Still, there is something to be said for the idea—to the extent of a virtuous brigade or so. At present, the English officer in Paris is a scarce bird, and he explains at once why he is and what he is doing there. He must have good reasons. I suggested teeth to an acquaintance. “No good,” he grumbled. “They’ve thought of that, too. Behind our lines is simply crawling with dentists now!”
If one asked after the people that gave dinners and dances last year, where every one talked so brilliantly of such vital things, one got in return the addresses of hospitals. Those pleasant hostesses and maidens seemed to be in charge of departments or on duty in wards, or kitchens, or sculleries. Some of the hospitals were in Paris. (Their staffs might have one hour a day in which to see visitors.) Others were up the line, and liable to be shelled or bombed.
I recalled one Frenchwoman in particular, because she had once explained to me the necessities of civilized life. These included a masseuse, a manicurist, and a maid to look after the lapdogs. She is employed now, and has been for months past, on the disinfection and repair of soldiers’ clothes. There was no need to ask after the men one had known. Still, there was no sense of desolation. They had gone on; the others were getting ready.
All France works outward to the Front—precisely as an endless chain of fire-buckets works toward the conflagration. Leave the fire behind you and go back till you reach the source of supplies. You will find no break, no pause, no apparent haste, but never any slackening. Everybody has his or her bucket, little or big, and nobody disputes how they should be used. It is a people possessed of the precedent and tradition of war for existence, accustomed to hard living and hard labour, sanely economical by temperament, logical by training, and illumined and transfigured by their resolve and endurance.
You know, when supreme trial overtakes an acquaintance whom till then we conceived we knew, how the man’s nature sometimes changes past knowledge or belief. He who was altogether such an one as ourselves goes forward simply, even lightly, to heights we thought unattainable. Though he is the very same comrade that lived our small life with us, yet in all things he has become great. So it is with France to-day. She has discovered the measure of her soul.
One sees this not alone in the—it is more than contempt of death—in the godlike preoccupation of her people under arms which makes them put death out of the account, but in the equal passion and fervour with which her people throughout give themselves to the smallest as well as the greatest tasks that may in any way serve their sword. I might tell you something that I saw of the cleaning out of certain latrines; of the education and antecedents of the cleaners; what they said in the matter and how perfectly the work was done. There was a little Rabelais in it, naturally, but the rest was pure devotion, rejoicing to be of use.
Similarly with stables, barricades, and barbed-wire work, the clearing and piling away of wrecked house-rubbish, the serving of meals till the service rocks on its poor tired feet, but keeps its temper; and all the unlovely, monotonous details that go with war.
The women, as I have tried to show, work stride for stride with the men, with hearts as resolute and a spirit that has little mercy for short-comings. A woman takes her place wherever she can relieve a man—in the shop, at the posts, on the tramways, the hotels, and a thousand other businesses. She is inured to field-work, and half the harvest of France this year lies in her lap. One feels at every turn how her men trust her. She knows, for she shares everything with her world, what has befallen her sisters who are now in German hands, and her soul is the undying flame behind the men’s steel. Neither men nor women have any illusion as to miracles presently to be performed which shall “sweep out” or “drive back” the Boche. Since the Army is the Nation, they know much, though they are officially told little. They all recognize that the old-fashioned “victory” of the past is almost as obsolete as a rifle in a front-line trench. They all accept the new war, which means grinding down and wearing out the enemy by every means and plan and device that can be compassed. It is slow and expensive, but as deadly sure as the logic that leads them to make it their one work, their sole thought, their single preoccupation.
The same logic saves them a vast amount of energy. They knew Germany in ’70, when the world would not believe in their knowledge; they knew the German mind before the war; they know what she has done (they have photographs) during this war. They do not fall into spasms of horror and indignation over atrocities “that cannot be mentioned,” as the English papers say. They mention them in full and book them to the account. They do not discuss, nor consider, nor waste an emotion over anything that Germany says or boasts or argues or implies or intrigues after. They have the heart’s ease that comes from all being at work for their country; the knowledge that the burden of work is equally distributed among all; the certainty that the women are working side by side with the men; the assurance that when one man’s task is at the moment ended, another takes his place.
Out of these things is born their power of recuperation in their leisure; their reasoned calm while at work; and their superb confidence in their arms. Even if France of to-day stood alone against the world’s enemy, it would be almost inconceivable to imagine her defeat now; wholly so to imagine any surrender. The war will go on till the enemy is finished. The French do not know when that hour will come; they seldom speak of it; they do not amuse themselves with dreams of triumphs or terms. Their business is war, and they do their business.