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Introduction

FRENCHWOMEN IN WAR TIME

 

 

 

If this little book reads more like a memoir than a systematic study of conditions, my excuse is that I remained too long in France and was too much with the people whose work most interested me, to be capable, for a long while, at any rate, of writing a detached statistical account of their remarkable work.

In the first place, although it was my friend Owen Johnson who suggested this visit to France and personal investigation of the work of her women, I went with a certain enthusiasm, and the longer I remained the more enthusiastic I became. My idea in going was not to gratify my curiosity but to do what I could for the cause of France as well as for my own country by studying specifically the war-time work of its women and to make them better known to the women of America.

The average American woman who never has traveled in Europe, or only as a flitting tourist, is firm in the belief that all Frenchwomen are permanently occupied with fashions or intrigue. If it is impossible to eradicate this impression, at least the new impression I hope to create by a recital at first hand of what a number of Frenchwomen (who are merely carefully selected types) are doing for their country in its present ordeal, should be all the deeper.

American women were not in the least astonished at the daily accounts which reached them through the medium of press and magazine of the magnificent war services of the British women. That was no more than was to have been expected. Were they not, then, Anglo-Saxons, of our own blood, still closer to the fountain-source of a nation that has, with whatever reluctance, risen to every crisis in her fate with a grim, stolid, capable tenacity that means the inevitable defeat of any nation so incredibly stupid as to defy her?

If word had come over that the British women were quite indifferent to the war, were idle and frivolous and insensible to the clarion voice of their indomitable country's needs, that, if you like, would have made a sensation. But knowing the race as they did--and it is the only race of which the genuine American does know anything--he, or she, accepted the leaping bill of Britain's indebtedness to her brave and easily expert women without comment, although, no doubt, with a glow of vicarious pride.

But quite otherwise with the women of France. In the first place there was little interest. They were, after all, foreigners. Your honest dyed-in-the-wool American has about the same contemptuous tolerance for foreigners that foreigners have for him. They are not Americans (even after they immigrate and become naturalized), they do not speak the same language in the same way, and all accents, save perhaps a brogue, are offensive to an ear tuned to nasal rhythms and to the rich divergencies from the normal standards of their own tongue that distinguish different sections of this vast United States of America.

But the American mind is, after all, an open mind. Such generalities as, "The Frenchwomen are quite wonderful," "are doing marvelous things for their country during this war," that floated across the expensive cable now and again, made little or no impression on any but those who already knew their France and could be surprised at no resource or energy she might display; but Owen Johnson and several other men with whom he talked, including that ardent friend of France, Whitney Warren, felt positive that if some American woman writer with a public, and who was capable through long practice in story writing, of selecting and composing facts in conformance with the economic and dramatic laws of fiction, would go over and study the work of the Frenchwomen at first hand, and, discarding generalities, present specific instances of their work and their attitude, the result could not fail to give the intelligent American woman a different opinion of her French sister and enlist her sympathy.

I had been ill or I should have gone to England soon after the outbreak of the war and worked with my friends, for I have always looked upon England as my second home, and I have as many friends there as here. If it had not been for Mr. Johnson and Mr. Warren, no doubt I should have gone to England within the next two or three months. But their representations aroused my enthusiasm and I determined to go to France first, at all events.

My original intention was to remain in France for a month, gathering my material as quickly as possible, and then cross to England. It seemed to me that if I wrote a book that might be of some service to France I should do the same thing for a country to which I was not only far more deeply attached but far more deeply indebted.

I remained three months and a third in France--from May 9th, 1916, to August 19th--and I did not go to England for two reasons. I found that it was more of an ordeal to get to London from Paris than to return to New York and sail again; and I heard that Mrs. Ward was writing a book about the women of England. For me to write another would be what is somewhat gracelessly called a work of supererogation.

I remained in France so long because I was never so vitally interested in my life. I could not tear myself away, although I found it impossible to put my material into shape there. Not only was I on the go all day long, seeing this and that oeuvre, having personal interviews with heads of important organizations, taken about by the kind and interested friends my own interest made for me, but when night came I was too tired to do more than enter all the information I had accumulated during the day in a notebook, and then go to bed. I have seldom taken notes, but I was determined that whatever else my book might be it should at least be accurate, and I also collected all the literature (leaflets, pamphlets, etc.) of the various oeuvres (as all these war relief organizations are called) and packed them into carefully superscribed large brown envelopes with a meticulousness that is, alas, quite foreign to my native disposition.

When, by the way, I opened my trunk to pack it and saw those dozen or more large square brown envelopes I was appalled. They looked so important, so sinister, they seemed to mutter of State secrets, war maps, spy data. I knew that trunks were often searched at Bordeaux, and I knew that if mine were those envelopes never would leave France. I should be fortunate to sail away myself.

But I must have my notes. To remember all that I had from day to day gathered was an impossibility. I have too good a memory not to distrust it when it comes to a mass of rapidly accumulated information; combined with imagination and enthusiasm it is sure to play tricks.

But I had an inspiration. The Ministry of War had been exceedingly kind to me. Convinced that I was a "Friend of France," they had permitted me to go three times into the War Zone, the last time sending me in a military automobile and providing an escort. I had been over to the War Office very often and had made friends of several of the politest men on earth.

I went out and bought the largest envelope to be found in Paris. Into this I packed all those other big brown envelopes and drove over to the Ministère de la Guerre. I explained my predicament. Would they seal it with the formidable seal of the War Office and write Propagande across it? Of course if they wished I would leave my garnerings for a systematic search. They merely laughed at this unusual evidence on my part of humble patience and submission. The French are the acutest people in the world. By this time these preternaturally keen men in the War Office knew me better than I knew myself. If I had, however unconsciously and in my deepest recesses, harbored a treacherous impulse toward the country I so professed to admire and to desire to serve, or if my ego had been capable of sudden tricks and perversions, they would long since have had these lamentable deformities, my spiritual hare-lip, ticketed and docketed with the rest of my dossier.

As it was they complied with my request at once, gave me their blessing, and escorted me to the head of the stair--no elevators in this great Ministère de la Guerre and the Service de Santé is at the top of the building. I went away quite happy, more devoted to their cause than ever, and easy in my mind about Bordeaux--where, by the way, my trunks were not opened.

Therefore, that remarkable experience in France is altogether still so vivid to me that to write about it reportorially, with the personal equation left out, would be quite as impossible as it is for me to refrain from execrating the Germans. When I add that during that visit I grew to love the French people (whom, in spite of many visits to France, I merely had admired coolly and impersonally) as much as I abominate the enemies of the human race, I feel that the last word has been said, and that my apology for writing what may read like a memoir, a chronicle of personal reminiscences, will be understood and forgiven.

G.A.

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton