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Ch. 2: The Silent Army

 

THE SILENT ARMY

I

 

Madame Paquin, the famous French dressmaker, told me casually an incident that epitomizes the mental inheritance of the women of a military nation once more plunged abruptly into war.

Her home is in Neuilly, one of the beautiful suburbs of Paris, and for years when awake early in the morning it had been her habit to listen for the heavy creaking of the great wagons that passed her house on their way from the gardens and orchards of the open country to the markets of Paris. Sometimes she would arise and look at them, those immense heavy trucks loaded high above their walls with the luscious produce of the fertile soil of France. On the seats were always three or four sturdy men: the farmer, and the sons who would help him unload at the "Halles."

All these men, of course, were reservists. Mobilization took place on Sunday. On Monday morning Madame Paquin, like many others in that anxious city, was tossing restlessly on her bed when she heard the familiar creaking of the market wagons which for so many years had done their share in feeding the hungry and fastidious people of Paris. Knowing that every able-bodied man had disappeared from his usual haunts within a few hours after the Mobilization Order was posted, she sprang out of bed and looked through her blinds.

There in the dull gray mist of the early morning she saw the familiar procession. There were the big trucks drawn by the heavily built cart horses and piled high with the abundant but precisely picked and packed produce of the market gardens. Paris was to be fed as usual. People must eat, war or no war. In spite of the summons which had excited the brains and depressed the hearts of a continent those trucks were playing their part in human destiny, not even claiming the right to be five minutes late. The only difference was that the seats on this gloomy August morning of 1914 were occupied by large stolid peasant women, the wives and sisters and sweethearts of the men called to the colors. They had mobilized themselves as automatically as the Government had ordered out its army when the German war god deflowered our lady of peace.

These women may have carried heavy hearts under their bright coifs and cotton blouses, but their weather-beaten faces betrayed nothing but the stoical determination to get their supplies to the Halles at the usual hour. And they have gone by every morning since. Coifs and blouses have turned black, but the hard brown faces betray nothing, and they are never late.

 

 

 

II

 

Up in the Champagne district, although many of the vineyards were in valleys between the two contending armies, the women undertook to care for the vines when the time came, risking their lives rather than sacrifice the next year's vintage. Captain Sweeney of the Foreign Legion told me that when the French soldiers were not firing they amused themselves watching these women pruning and trimming as fatalistically as if guns were not thundering east and west of them, shells singing overhead. For the most part they were safe enough, and nerves had apparently been left out of them; but once in a while the Germans would amuse themselves raking the valley with the guns. Then the women would simply throw themselves flat and remain motionless--sometimes for hours--until "Les Boches" concluded to waste no more ammunition.

In Rheims the women have never closed their shops. They have covered their windows with sandbags, and by the light of lamp or candle do a thriving business while the big guns thunder. The soldiers, both British and French, like their trinkets and post-cards, to say nothing of more practical objects, and, admiring their inveterate pluck, not only patronize them liberally but sit in their coverts and gossip or flirt with the pretty girls for whom shells bursting in the street are too old a story for terror.

 

 

 

 

III

 

Many of the women of the industrial classes who have been accustomed all their hard dry lives to live on the daily wage of father or husband have refused to work since the war began, preferring to scrape along on the Government allocation (allowance) of one-franc-twenty-five a day for the wives of soldiers, plus fifty centimes for each child (seventy-five in Paris). These notable exceptions will be dealt with later. France, like all nations, contains every variety of human nature, and, with its absence of illusions and its habit of looking facts almost cynically in the face, would be the last to claim perfection or even to conceal its infirmities. But the right side of its shield is very bright indeed, and the hands of many millions of women, delicate and toil-hardened, have labored to make it shine once more in history.

The Mayoress of a small town near Paris told me of three instances that came within her personal observation, and expressed no surprise at one or the other. She probably would not have thought them worth mentioning if she had not been asked expressly to meet me and give me certain information. One was of a woman whose husband had been a wage-earner, and, with six or eight children, had been able to save nothing. The allocation was not declared at once and this woman lost no time bewailing her fate or looking about for charitable groups of ladies to feed her with soup. She simply continued to run her husband's estaminet (wine-shop), and, as the patronage was necessarily diminished, was one of the first to apply when munition factories invited women to fill the vacant places of men. She chose to work at night that she might keep the estaminet open by day for the men too old to fight and for the rapidly increasing number of "réformés": those who had lost a leg or arm or were otherwise incapacited for service.

A sister, who lived in Paris, immediately applied for one of the thousand vacant posts in bakeries, cut bread and buttered it and made toast for a tea-room in the afternoon, and found another job to sweep out stores. This woman had a son still under age but in training at the Front. He had been in the habit of paying her periodical visits, until this woman, already toiling beyond her strength to support her other children, sat down one day and wrote to the boy's commanding officer asking him to permit no more leaves of absence, as the ordeal was too much for both of them.

The third story was of a woman whom the Mayoress had often entertained in her homes, both official and private. When this woman, who had lived a life of such ease as the mother of eleven children may, was forced to take over the conduct of her husband's business (he was killed immediately) she discovered that he had been living on his capital, and when his estate was settled her only inheritance was a small wine-shop in Paris. She packed her trunks, spent what little money she had left on twelve railway tickets for the capital, and settled her brood in the small quarters behind the estaminet--fortunately the lessee, who was unmarried, had also been swept off to the Front.

The next morning she reopened the doors and stood smiling behind the counter. The place was well stocked. It was a long while before she was obliged to spend any of her intake on aught but food and lights. So charming a hostess did she prove that her little shop was never empty and quickly became famous. She had been assured of a decent living long since.

 

 

IV

 

When I arrived in Paris in May (1916) a little girl had just been decorated by the President of the Republic. Her father, the village baker, had made one of those lightning changes from citizen to soldier and her mother had died a few weeks before. She was an only child. The bakery had supplied not only the village but the neighboring inn, which had been a favorite lunching place for automobilists. Traveling for pleasure stopped abruptly, but as the road that passed the inn was one of the direct routes to the Front, it still had many hasty calls upon its hospitality.

Now, bread-making in France is a science, the work of the expert, not of the casual housewife. The accomplished cook of the inn knew no more about mixing and baking bread than he did of washing clothes; and there was but this one bakery, hitherto sufficient, for the baker and his wife had been strong and industrious. The inn was in despair. The village was in despair. A Frenchman will go without meat, but life without bread is unthinkable.

No one thought of the child.

It is possible that in her double grief she did not think of herself--for twenty-four hours. But the second day after mobilization her shop window was piled high with loaves as usual. The inn was supplied. The village was supplied. This little girl worked steadily and unaided at her task, until her father, a year later, returned minus a leg to give her assistance of a sort.

The business of the bakery was nearly doubled during that time. Automobiles containing officers, huge camions with soldiers packed like coffee-beans, foot-weary marching regiments, with no time to stop for a meal, halted a moment and bought the stock on hand. But with only a few hours' sleep the girl toiled on valiantly and no applicant for bread was turned empty-handed from the now famous bakery.

How she kept up her childish strength and courage without a moment's change in her routine and on insufficient sleep can only be explained by the twin facts that she came of hardy peasant stock, and, like all French children, no matter how individual, was too thoroughly imbued with the discipline of "The Family" to shirk for a moment the particular task that war had brought her. This iron discipline of The Family, one of the most salient characteristics of the French, is largely responsible for the matter-of-fact way in which every soldier of France, reservist or regular, and whatever his political convictions, has risen to this ordeal. And in him as been inculcated from birth patience and perseverance as well as loyalty to his beloved flag.

The wives of hotel and shop keepers as well as the women of the farms have by far the best of it in time of war. The former are always their husband's partners, controlling the money, consulted at ever step. When the tocsin rings and the men disappear they simply go on. Their task may be doubled and they may be forced to employ girls instead of men, but there is no mental readjusting.

The women of the farms have always worked as hard as the men. Their doubled tasks involve a greater drain on their physical energies than the petite bourgeoise suffers, especially in those districts devastated by the first German invasion--the valley of the Marne. But they are very hardy, and they too hang on, for stoicism is the fundamental characteristic of the French.

This stoicism as well as the unrivaled mental suppleness was illustrated early in the war by the highly typical case of a laundress whose business was in one of the best districts of Paris.

In France no washing is done in the house. This, no doubt, is one of the reasons why one's laundry bills, even on a brief visit, are among the major items, for les blanchisseuses are a power in the land. When I was leaving Paris the directrice of the École Feminine in Passy, which had been my home for three months, suggested delicately that I leave a tip for the laundress, for, said this practical person, herself a sufferer from many forms of imposition, "she has been extremely complaisante in coming every week for Madame's wash." I remarked that the laundress might reasonably feel some gratitude to me for adding weekly to her curtailed income; but my smiling directrice shook her head. The favor, it appeared, was all on the other side. So, although I had tipped the many girls of my unique boarding-place with pleasure I parted with the sum designated for my patronizing laundress with no grace whatever.

But to return to the heroine of the story told me by Mrs. Armstrong Whitney, one of the many American women living in Paris who are working for France.

This laundress had a very large business, in partnership with her husband. Nobody was expected to bring the family washing to her door, nor even to send a servant. The linen was called for and delivered, for this prosperous firm owned several large trucks and eight or ten strong horses.

War was declared. This woman's husband and all male employees were mobilized. Her horses were commandeered. So were her trucks. Many of her wealthier patrons were already in the country and remained there, both for economy's sake and to encourage and help the poor of their villages and farms. The less fortunate made shift to do their washing at home. Nevertheless there were patrons who still needed her services at least once a fortnight.

This good woman may have had her moments of despair. If so, the world never knew it. She began at once to adjust herself to the new conditions and examine her resources. She importuned the Government until, to be rid of her, they returned two of her horses. She rented a cart and employed girls suddenly thrown out of work, to take the place of the vanished men. The business limped on but it never ceased for a moment; and as the months passed it assumed a firmer gait. People returned from the country, finding that they could be more useful in Paris as members of one or other of a thousand oeuvres; and they were of the class that must have clean linen if the skies fall. Also, many Americans who had fled ignominiously to England returned and plunged into work. And Americans, with their characteristic extravagance in lingerie, are held in high esteem by les blanchisseuses.

Further assaults upon the amiable Government resulted in the return of more horses and one or two trucks. To-day, while the business by no means swaggers, this woman, thanks to her indomitable courage and energy, combined with the economical habit and the financial genius of the French, has ridden safely over the rocks into as snug a little harbor as may be found in any country at war.

 

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton