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Ch. 3:The Munition Makers

 

THE MUNITION MAKERS

I

 

Aside from the industrial class the women who suffered most at the outbreak of the war were those that worked in the shops. Paris is a city of little shops. The average American tourist knows them not, for her hectic experiences in the old days were confined to the Galeries Lafayette, the Louvre, the Bon Marché, and the Trois Quartièrs. But during the greater part of 1915 street after street exhibited the dreary picture of shuttered windows, where once every sort of delicate, solid, ingenious, costly, or catch-penny ware was displayed. Some of these were closed because the owner had no wife, many because the factories that supplied them were closed, or the workmen no longer could be paid. To-day one sees few of these wide iron shutters except at night, but the immediate consequence of the sudden change of the nation's life was that thousands of girls and women were thrown out of work: clerks, cashiers, dressmakers' assistants, artificial flower makers, florists, confectioners, workers in the fancy shops, makers of fine lingerie, extra servants and waitresses in the unfashionable but numerous restaurants. And then there were the women of the opera chorus, and those connected with the theater; and not only the actresses' and the actors' families, but the wives of scene shifters sent off to the trenches, and of all the other humble folk employed about theaters, great and small.

The poor of France do not invest their money in savings' banks. They buy bonds. On the Monday after mobilization the banks of France announced that they would buy no bonds. These poor bewildered women would have starved if the women of the more fortunate classes had not immediately begun to organize relief stations and ouvroirs.

Madame Lepauze, better known to the reading public of France as Daniel Lesauer, who is also the wife of the curator of the Petit Palais, was the first to open a restaurant for soup, and this was besieged from morning until night even before the refugees from Belgium and the invaded districts of France began to pour in. Her home is in the Petit Palais, and in the public gardens behind was Le Pavillion, one of the prettiest and most popular restaurants of Paris. She made no bones about asking the proprietor to place the restaurant and all that remained of his staff at her disposal, and hastily organizing a committee, began at once to ladle out soup. Many other dépôts were organized almost simultaneously (and not only in Paris but in the provincial towns), and when women were too old or too feeble to come for their daily ration it was left at their doors by carts containing immense boilers of that nourishing soup only the French know how to make.

Madame Lepauze estimates that her station alone fed a million women and children. Moreover, she and all the other women engaged in this patriotic duty had soon depleted their wardrobes after the refugees began streaming down from the north; it was generally said that not a lady in Paris had more than one useful dress left and that was on her back.

Many of these charitable women fled to the South during that breathless period when German occupation seemed inevitable, but others, like Madame Pierre Goujon, of whom I shall have much to say later, and the Countess Greffuhle (a member of the valiant Chimay family of Belgium), stuck to their posts and went about publicly in order to give courage to the millions whose poverty forced them to remain.

 

 

 

II

 

The next step in aiding this army of helpless women was to open ouvroirs, or workrooms. Madame Paquin never closed this great branch of her dressmaking establishment, and, in common with hundreds of other ouvroirs that sprang up all over France, paid the women a wage on which they could exist (besides giving them one meal) in return for at least half a day's work on necessary articles for the men in the trenches: underclothing, sleeping bags, felt slippers, night garments; sheets and pillow-cases for the hospitals. As the vast majority of the peasant farmers and petite bourgeoisie had been used to sleeping in airtight rooms they suffered bitterly during that first long winter and spring in the open. If it had not been for these bee-hive ouvroirs and their enormous output there would have been far more deaths from pneumonia and bronchitis, and far more cases of tuberculosis than there were.

A good many of these ouvroirs are still in existence, but many have been closed; for as the shops reopened the women not only went back to their former situations but by degrees either applied for or were invited to fill those left vacant by men of fighting age.

 

 

III

 

And then there were the munition factories! The manager of one of these Usines de Guerre in Paris told me that he made the experiment of employing women with the deepest misgiving. Those seeking positions were just the sort of women he would have rejected if the sturdy women of the farms had applied and given him any choice. They were girls or young married women who had spent all the working years of their lives stooping over sewing-machines; sunken chested workers in artificial flowers; confectioners; florists; waitresses; clerks. One and all looked on the verge of a decline with not an ounce of reserve vitality for work that taxed the endurance of men. But as they protested that they not only wished to support themselves instead of living on charity, but were passionately desirous of doing their bit while their men were enduring the dangers and privations of active warfare, and as his men were being withdrawn daily for service at the Front, he made up his mind to employ them and refill their places as rapidly as they collapsed.

He took me over his great establishment and showed me the result. It was one of the astonishing examples not only of the grim courage of women under pressure but of that nine-lived endowment of the female in which the male never can bring himself to believe save only when confronted by practical demonstration.

In the correspondence and card-indexing room there was a little army of young and middle-aged women whose superior education enabled them to do a long day's work with the minimum output of physical energy, and these for the most part came from solid middle-class families whose income had been merely cut by the war, not extinguished. It was as I walked along the galleries and down the narrow passages between the noisy machinery of the rest of that large factory that I asked the superintendent again and again if these women were of the same class as the original applicants. The answer in every case was the same.

The women had high chests and brawny arms. They tossed thirty-and forty-pound shells from one to the other as they once may have tossed a cluster of artificial flowers. Their skins were clean and often ruddy. Their eyes were bright. They showed no signs whatever of overwork. They were almost without exception the original applicants.

I asked the superintendent if there were no danger of heart strain. He said there had been no sign of it so far. Three times a week they were inspected by women doctors appointed by the Government, and any little disorder was attended to at once. But not one had been ill a day. Those that had suffered from chronic dyspepsia, colds, and tubercular tendency were now as strong as if they had lived their lives on farms. It was all a question of plenty of fresh air, and work that strengthened the muscles of their bodies, developed their chests and gave them stout nerves and long nights of sleep.

As I looked at those bare heavily muscled arms I wondered if any man belonging to them would ever dare say his soul was his own again. But as their heads are always charmingly dressed (an odd effect surmounting greasy overalls) and as they invariably powder before filing out at the end of the day's work, it is probable that a comfortable reliance may still be placed upon the ineradicable coquetry of the French woman. And the scarcer the men in the future the more numerous, no doubt, will be the layers of powder.

I asked one pretty girl if she really liked the heavy, dirty, malodorous work, and she replied that making boutonnières for gentlemen in a florist-shop was paradise by contrast, but she was only too happy to be doing as much for France in her way as her brother was in his. She added that when the war was over she should take off her blue linen apron streaked with machine grease once for all, not remain from choice as many would. But meanwhile it was not so bad! She made ten francs a day. Some of the women received as high as fifteen. Moreover, they bossed the few men whose brawn was absolutely indispensable and must be retained in the usine at all costs.

These men took their orders meekly. Perhaps they were amused. The French are an ironic race. Perhaps they bided their time. But they never dreamed of disobeying those Amazons whose foot the Kaiser of all the Boches had placed on their necks.

 

 

 

IV

 

One of the greatest of these Usines de Guerre is at Lyons, in the buildings of the Exposition held shortly before the outbreak of the war. I went to this important Southern city (a beautiful city, which I shall always associate with the scent of locust[B]-blossoms) at the suggestion of James Hazen Hyde. He gave me a letter to the famous Mayor, M. Herriot, who was a member of the last Briand Cabinet.

[B] It is called acacia in Europe.

M. Herriot was also a Senator, and as he was leaving for Paris a few hours after I presented my letter he turned me over to a friend of his wife, Madame Castell, a native of Lyons, the daughter of one silk merchant and the widow of another. This charming young woman, who had spent her married life in New York, by the way, took me everywhere, and although we traversed many vast distances in the Mayor's automobile, it seemed to me that I walked as many miles in hospitals, factories, ateliers (workrooms for teaching the mutilated new trades), and above all in the Usine de Guerre.

Here not only were thousands of women employed but a greater variety of classes. The women of the town, unable to follow the army and too plucky to live on charity, had been among the first to ask for work. The directeur beat his forehead when I asked him how they behaved when not actually at the machines, but at least they had proved as faithful and skillful as their more respectable sisters.

Lyons was far more crowded and lively than Paris, which is so quiet that it calls to mind the lake that filled the crater of Mont Pelée before the eruption of 1902. But this fine city of the South--situated almost as beautifully as Paris on both sides of a river--is not only a junction, it not only has industries of all sorts besides the greatest silk factories in the world, but every train these days brings down wounded for its many hospitals, and the next train brings the family and friends of these men, who, when able to afford it, establish themselves in the city for the period of convalescence. The restaurants and cafés were always crowded and this handsome city on the Rhône was almost gay.

There were practically no unemployed. The old women of the poor went daily to an empty court-room where they sat in the little amphitheater sewing or knitting. In countless other ouvroirs they were cutting and making uniforms with the same facility that men had long since acquired, or running sleeping bags through sewing-machines at the rate of thousands a day. M. Herriot "mobilized" Lyons early in the war, and its contribution to the needs of the Front has been enormous.

The réformés (men too badly mutilated to be of further use at the front) are being taught many new trades in the ateliers: toy-making, wooden shoes with leather tops for the trenches, cigarette packages, baskets, typewriting, stenography, weaving, repairing. In one of the many ateliers I visited with Madame Castell I saw a man who had only one arm, and the left at that, and only a thumb and little finger remaining of the ten he had taken into war, learning to write anew. When I was shown one of his exercises I was astounded. He wrote far better than I have ever done, and I can recall few handwritings so precise and elegant. One may imagine what a man accomplishes who still has a good hand and arm. It was both interesting and pathetic to see these men guiding their work with their remaining hand and manipulating the machinery with the stump of the other arm. Those who come out from the battlefields with health intact will be no charge to the state, no matter what their mutilations.

One poor fellow came in to the École Joffre while I was there. He was accompanied by three friends of the Mayor's, who hoped that some one of the new occupations might suit his case. He was large and strong and ruddy and he had no hands. Human ingenuity had not yet evolved far enough for him. He was crying quietly as he turned away. But his case is by no means hopeless, for when his stumps are no longer sensitive he will be fitted with a mechanical apparatus that will take the place of the hands he has given to France.

Madame Castell's work is supplying hospitals with anything, except food, they may demand, and in this she has been regularly helped by the Needlework Guild of Pennsylvania.

Madame Harriot's ouvroir occupies the magnificent festal salon of the Hôtel de Ville, with its massive chandeliers and its memories of a thousand dinners and balls of state from the days of Louis XIV down to the greatest of its mayors. She supplies French prisoners in Germany with the now famous comfort packages. Some of them she and her committee put up themselves; others are brought in by members of the family or the friends of the unfortunate men in Germany. The pièce de résistance had always been a round loaf of bread, but on the day I first visited the salon consternation was reigning. Word had come from Germany that no more bread nor any sort of food stuff should be sent in the packages, and hundreds were being unpacked. Crisp loaves of bread that would have brought comfort to many a poor soul were lying all over the place.

The secret of the order was that civilian Germans were begging bread of the French prisoners, and this, of course, was bad for the tenderly nursed German morale.

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton