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Ch. 4: Mademoiselle Javal

 

MADEMOISELLE JAVAL AND THE ÉCLOPÉS

I

 

Mlle. Javal, unlike Madame Balli, was not a member of the fashionable society of Paris, a femme du monde, or a reigning beauty. But in certain respects their cases were not dissimilar. Born into one of the innumerable sets-within-sets of the upper bourgeoisie, living on inherited wealth, seeing as little as possible of the world beyond her immediate circle of relatives and friends, as curiously indifferent to it as only a haughty French bourgeoisie can be, growing up in a large and comfortable home--according to French ideas of comfort--governing it, when the duty descended to her shoulders, with all the native and practised economy of the French woman, but until her mother's illness without a care, and even then without an extra contact, Mlle. Javal's life slipped along for many years exactly as the lives of a million other girls in that entrenched secluded class slipped along before the tocsin, ringing throughout the land on August 2, 1914, announced that once more the men of France must fight to defend the liberty of all classes alike.

Between wars the great central mass of the population in France known as the bourgeoisie--who may be roughly defined as those that belong neither to the noblesse at one end nor to the industrials and peasant proprietors at the other, but have capital, however minute, invested in rentes or business, and who, beginning with the grande bourgeoisie, the haughty possessors of great inherited fortunes, continuing through the financial and commercial magnates, down to the petite bourgeoisie who keep flourishing little shops, hotels, etc.--live to get the most out of life in their narrow, traditional, curiously intensive way. They detest travel, although at least once in their lives they visit Switzerland and Italy; possibly, but with no such alarming frequency as to suggest an invasion, England.

The most aspiring read the literature of the day, see the new plays (leaving the jeune fille at home), take an intelligent interest in the politics of their own country, visit the annual salons, and if really advanced discuss with all the national animation such violent eruptions upon the surface of the delicately poised art life, which owes its very being to France, as impressionism, cubism, etc. Except among the very rich, where, as elsewhere, temptations are many and pressing, they have few scandals to discuss, but much gossip, and there is the ever recurrent flutter over births, marriages, deaths. They have no snobbery in the climber's sense. When a bourgeois, however humble in origin, graduates as an "intellectual" he is received with enthusiasm (if his table manners will pass muster) by the noblesse; but it is far more difficult for a nobleman to enter the house of a bourgeois. It is seldom that he wants to, but sometimes there are sound financial reasons for forming this almost illegitimate connection, and then his motives are penetrated by the keen French mind--a mind born without illusions--and interest alone dictates the issue. The only climbers in our sense are the wives of politicians suddenly risen to eminence, and even then the social ambitions of these ladies are generally confined to arriving in the exclusive circles of the haute bourgeoisie.

The bourgeoisie are as proud of their class as the noblesse of theirs, and its top stratum regards itself as the real aristocracy of the Republique Française, the families bearing ancient titles as anachronistic; although oddly enough they and the ancient noblesse are quite harmonious in their opinion of the Napoleonic aristocracy! One of the leaders in the grande bourgeoisie wrote me at a critical moment in the affairs of Greece: "It looks as if Briand would succeed in placing the lovely Princess George of Greece on the throne, and assuredly it is better for France to have a Bonaparte there than no one at all!"

It is only when war comes and the men and women of the noblesse rise to the call of their country as automatically as a reservist answers the tocsin or the printed order of mobilization, that the bourgeoisie is forced to concede that there is a tremendous power still resident in the prestige, organizing ability, social influence, tireless energy, and self-sacrifice of the disdained aristocracy.

During the war oeuvres have been formed on so vast a scale that one sees on many committee lists the names of noblesse and bourgeois side by side. But it is a defensive alliance, bred of the stupendous necessities of war, and wherever possible each prefers to work without the assistance of the other. The French Army is the most democratic in the world. French society has no conception of the word, and neither noblesse nor bourgeoisie has the faintest intention of taking it up as a study. There is no active antagonism between the two classes--save, to be sure, when individual members show their irreconcilable peculiarities at committee meetings--merely a profound indifference.

 

 

 

II

 

 

Mlle. Javal, although living the usual restricted life before the war, and far removed from that section of her class that had begun to astonish Paris by an unprecedented surrender to the extravagancies in public which seemed to obsess the world before Europe abruptly returned to its normal historic condition of warfare, was as highly educated, as conversant with the affairs of the day, political, intellectual, and artistic, as any young woman in Europe. But the war found her in a semi-invalid condition and heartbroken over the death of her mother, whom she had nursed devotedly through a long illness; her girlhood intimacies broken up not only by the marriage of her friends, but also by her own long seclusion; and--being quite French--feeling too aged, at a little over thirty, ever to interest any man again, aside from her fortune. In short she regarded her life as finished, but she kept house dutifully for her brother--her only close relation--and surrendered herself to melancholy reflections.

Then came the war. At first she took merely the languid interest demanded by her intelligence, being too absorbed in her own low condition to experience more than a passing thrill of patriotic fervor. But she still read the newspapers, and, moreover, women in those first anxious days were meeting and talking far more frequently than was common to a class that preferred their own house and garden to anything their friends, or the boulevards, or even the parks of Paris, could offer them. Mlle. Javal found herself seeing more and more of that vast circle of inherited friends as well as family connections which no well-born bourgeoise can escape, and gradually became infected with the excitement of the hour; despite the fact that she believed her poor worn-out body never would take a long walk again.

Then, one day, the thought suddenly illuminated her awakening mind: "How fortunate I am! I have no one to lose in this terrible war!" (Her brother was too delicate for service.) "These tears I see every day after news has come that a father, a brother, a husband, a son, has fallen on the battlefield or died of horrible agony in hospital, I shall never shed. Almost alone of the many I know, and the millions of women in France, I am mercifully exempt from an agony that has no end. If I were married, and were older and had sons, I should be suffering unendurably now. I am fortunate indeed and feel an ingrate that I have ever repined."

Then naturally enough followed the thought that it behooved her to do something for her country, not only as a manifest of thanksgiving but also because it was her duty as a young woman of wealth and leisure.

Oddly enough considering the delicate health in which she firmly believed, she tried to be a nurse. There were many amateurs in the hospitals in those days when France was as short of nurses as of everything else except men, and she was accepted.

But nursing then involved standing all day on one's feet and sometimes all night as well, and her pampered body was far from strong enough for such a tax in spite of her now glowing spirit. While she was casting about for some work in which she might really play a useful and beneficent rôle a friend invited her to drive out to the environs of Paris and visit the wretched éclopés, to whom several charitable ladies occasionally took little gifts of cigarettes and chocolate.

Then, at last, Mlle. Javal found herself; and from a halting apprehensive seeker, still weary in mind and limb, she became almost abruptly one of the most original and executive women in France--incidentally one of the healthiest. When I met her, some twenty months later, she had red cheeks and was the only one of all those women of all classes slaving for France who told me she never felt tired; in fact felt stronger every day.

 

 

 

III

 

 

The éclopés, in the new adaptation of the word, are men who are not ill enough for the military hospitals and not well enough to fight. They may have slight wounds, or temporary affections of the sight or hearing, the effect of heavy colds; or rheumatism, debilitating sore throat, or furiously aching teeth; or they may be suffering too severely from shock to be of any use in the trenches.

There are between six and seven thousand hospitals in France to-day (possibly more: the French never will give you any exact military figures; but certainly not less); but their beds are for the severely wounded or for those suffering from dysentery, fevers, pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis. In those first days of war before France, caught unprepared in so many ways, had found herself and settled down to the business of war; in that trying interval while she was ill equipped to care for men brought in hourly to the base hospitals, shattered by new and hideous wounds; there was no place for the merely ailing. Men with organic affections, suddenly developed under the terrific strain, were dismissed as Réformés Numéro II--unmutilated in the service of their country; in other words, dismissed from the army and, for nearly two years, without pension. But the large number of those temporarily out of condition were sent back of the lines, or to a sort of camp outside of Paris, to rest until they were in a condition to fight again.

If it had not been for Mlle. Javal it is possible that more men than one cares to estimate would never have fought again. The éclopés at that time were the most abject victims of the war. They remained together under military discipline, either behind the lines or on the outskirts of Paris, herded in barns, empty factories, thousands sleeping without shelter of any sort. Straw for the most part composed their beds, food was coarse and scanty; they were so wretched and uncomfortable, so exposed to the elements, and without care of any sort, that their slight ailments developed not infrequently into serious and sometimes fatal cases of bronchitis, pneumonia, and even tuberculosis.

This was a state of affairs well known to General Joffre and none caused him more distress and anxiety. But--this was between August and November, 1914, it must be remembered, when France was anything but the magnificent machine she is to-day--it was quite impossible for the authorities to devote a cell of their harassed brains to the temporarily inept. Every executive mind in power was absorbed in pinning the enemy down, since he could not be driven out, feeding the vast numbers of men at the Front, reorganizing the munition factories, planning for the vast supplies of ammunition suddenly demanded, equipping the hospitals--when the war broke out there were no installations in the hospitals near the Front except beds--obtaining the necessary amount of surgical supplies, taking care of the refugees that poured into the larger cities by every train not only from Belgium but from the French towns invaded or bombarded--to mention but a few of the problems that beset France suddenly forced to rally and fight for her life, and, owing to the Socialist majority in the Chamber of Deputies, criminally unprepared.

There were plenty of able minds in France that knew what was coming; months before the war broke out (a year, one of the infirmière majors told me; but, as I have said, it is difficult to pin a French official down to exact statements) the Service de Santé (Health Department of the Ministry of War) asked the Countess d'Haussonville, President of the Red Cross, to train as many nurses as quickly as possible, for there was not an extra nurse in a military hospital of France--in many there was none at all. But these patriotic and far-sighted men were powerless. The three years' service bill was the utmost result of their endeavors, and for six months after the war began they had not a gun larger than the famous Seventy-fives but those captured at the Battle of the Marne.

As for the poor éclopés, there never was a clearer example of the weaker going to the wall and the devil taking the hindmost. They had been turned out to grass mildly afflicted, but in a short time they were progressing rapidly toward the grave or that detestable status known as Réformés Numéro II. And every man counts in France. Quite apart from humanity it was a terribly serious question for the Grand Quartier Général, where Joffre and his staff had their minds on the rack.

 

 

 

 

IV

 

 

The Curé of St. Honoré d'Eylau was the first to discover the éclopés, and not only sent stores to certain of the dépôts where they were herded, but persuaded several ladies of Paris to visit and take them little presents. But practically every energetic and patriotic woman in France was already mobilized in the service of her country. As I have explained elsewhere, they had opened ouvroirs, where working girls suddenly deprived of the means of livelihood could fend off starvation by making underclothing and other necessaries for the men at the Front. Upon these devoted women, assisted by nearly all the American women resident in Paris, fell to a great extent the care of the refugees; and many were giving out rations three times a day, not only to refugees but to the poor of Paris, suddenly deprived of their wage earners. It was some time before the Government got round to paying the daily allowance of one-franc-twenty-five to the wives and seventy-five centimes (fifty outside of Paris) for each child, known as the allocation. Moreover, in those dread days when the Germans were driving straight for Paris, many fled with the Government to Bordeaux (not a few Americans ignominiously scampered off to England) and did not return for three weeks or more; during which time those brave enough to remain did ten times as much work as should be expected even of the nine-lived female.

They knew at this critical time as well as later when they were breathing normally again that the poor éclopés beyond the barrier were without shelter in the autumn rains and altogether in desperate plight; but it was only now and again that a few found time to pay them a hasty visit and cheer them with those little gifts so dear to the imaginative heart of the French soldier. Sooner or later, of course, the Government would have taken them in hand and organized them as meticulously as they have organized every conceivable angle of this great struggle; but meanwhile thousands would have died or shambled home to litter the villages as hopeless invalids. Perhaps hundreds of thousands is a safer computation, and these hundreds of thousands Mlle. Javal saved for France.

 

 

 

 

V

 

 

Today there are over one hundred and thirty Éclopé Dépôts in France; two or three are near Paris, the rest in the towns and villages of the War Zone. The long baraques are well built, rain-proof and draught-proof, but with many windows which are open when possible, and furnished with comfortable beds. In each dépôt there is a hospital baraque for those that need that sort of rest or care, a diet kitchen, and a fine large kitchen for those that can eat anything and have appetites of daily increasing vigor.

These dépôts are laid out like little towns, the streets of the large ones named after famous generals and battles. Down one side is a row of low buildings in which the officers, doctors and nurses sleep; a chemist shop; a well-fitted bathroom; storerooms for supplies; and consulting offices. There is also, almost invariably, a cantine set up by young women--English, American, French--where the men are supplied at any time with cocoa, coffee, milk, lemonade, cakes; and the little building itself is gaily decorated to please the color-loving French eye.

Mlle. Javal took me out to the environs of Paris to visit one of the largest of these dépôts, and there the men in hospital were nursed by Sisters of Charity. There was a set of well-filled bookshelves and a stage in the great refectory, where the men could sit on rainy days, read, write letters, sing, smoke, recite, and get up little plays. I saw a group of very contented looking poilus in the yard playing cards and smoking under a large tree.

The surroundings were hideous--a railroad yard if I am not mistaken--but the little "town" itself was very pleasing to the eye, and certainly a haven of refuge for soldiers whose bodies and minds needed only repose, care, and kind words to send them back to the Front sounder by far than they had been in their unsanitary days before the war.

Here they are forced to sleep with their windows open, to bathe, eat good food, instead of mortifying the body for the sake of filling the family stocking; and they are doctored intelligently, their teeth filled, their tonsils and adenoids taken out, their chronic indigestion cured. Those who survive the war will never forget the lesson and will do missionary work when they are at home once more.

All that was dormant in Mlle. Javal's fine brain seemed to awake under the horrifying stimulus of that first visit to the wretches herded like animals outside of Paris, where every man thought he was drafted for death and did not care whether he was or not; where, in short, morale, so precious an asset to any nation in time of war, was practically nil.

The first step was to get a powerful committee together. Mlle. Javal, although wealthy, could not carry through this gigantic task alone. The moratorium had stopped the payment of rents, factories were closed, tenants mobilized. Besides, she had already given right and left, as everybody else had done who had anything to give. It was growing increasingly difficult to raise money.

But nothing could daunt Mlle. Javal. She managed to get together with the least possible delay a committee of three hundred, and she obtained subscriptions in money from one thousand five hundred firms, besides donations of food and clothing from eight hundred others, headed by the King of Spain.

Her subscription list was opened by President Poincaré with a gift of one thousand francs; the American War Relief Clearing House gave her four thousand three hundred francs, Madame Viviani contributed four thousand francs; the Comédie Française one thousand, and Raphael Weill of San Francisco seven thousand seven hundred and fifty; Alexander Phillips of New York three thousand; and capitalists, banks, bank clerks, civil servants, colonials, school children, contributed sums great and small.

Concerts were given, bazaars hastily but successfully organized, collections taken up. There was no end to Mlle. Javal's resource, and the result was an almost immediate capital of several hundred thousand francs. When public interest was fairly roused, les pauvres éclopés became one of the abiding concerns of the French people, and they have responded as generously as they did to the needs of the more picturesque refugee or the starving within their gates.

This great organization, known as "L'Assistance aux Dépôts d'Éclopés, Petits Blessés et Petites Malades, et aux Cantonments de Repos," was formally inaugurated on November 14, 1914, with Madame Jules Ferry as President, and Madame Viviani as Vice-President. Mlle. Javal shows modestly on the official list as Secrétaire Genérale.

The Government agreed to put up the baraques, and did so with the least possible delay. Mlle. Javal and her Committee furnish the beds (there were seven hundred in one of the dépôts she showed me), support the dietary kitchen and the hospital baraques, and supply the bathrooms, libraries, and all the little luxuries. The Government supports the central kitchen (grand régime), the doctors, and, when necessary, the surgeons.

 

 

 

 

VI

 

 

Mlle. Javal took me twice through the immense establishment on the Champs Élysées, where she has not only her offices but workrooms and storerooms. In one room a number of ladies--in almost all of these oeuvres women give their services, remaining all day or a part of every day--were doing nothing but rolling cigarettes. I looked at them with a good deal of interest. They belonged to that class of French life I have tried to describe, in which the family is the all important unit; where children rarely play with other children, sometimes never; where the mother is a sovereign who is content to remain within the boundaries of her own small domain for months at a time, particularly if she lives not in an apartment, but in an hôtel with a garden behind it. Thousands of these exemplary women of the bourgeoisie--hundreds of thousands--care little or nothing for "society." They call at stated intervals, upon which ceremonious occasion they drink coffee and eat pastry; give their young people dances when the exact conventional moment has arrived for putting them on the market, and turn out in force at the great periodicities of life, but otherwise to live and die in the bosom of The Family is the measure of their ambition.

I shall have a good deal to say later of the possible results of the vast upheaval of home life caused by this war; but of these women sitting for hours on end in a back room of Mlle. Javal's central establishment in Paris it is only necessary to state that they looked as intent upon making cigarettes in a professional manner, beyond cavil by the canny poilu, as if they were counting the family linen or superintending one of the stupendous facts of existence, a daughter's trousseau. Only the one to whom I was introduced raised her eyes, and I should not have been expected to distract her attention for a moment had not she told Mlle. Javal that she had read my books (in the Tauchnitz edition) and would like to meet me when I called.

It seemed to me that everything conceivable was in those large storerooms. I had grown used to seeing piles of sleeping-suits, sleeping-bags, trench slippers, warm underclothes, sabots, all that is comprised in the word vêtement; but here were also immense boxes of books and magazines, donated by different firms and editors, about to be shipped to the dépôts; games of every sort; charming photogravures, sketches, prints, pictures, that would make the baraques gay and beloved--all to be interspersed, however, with mottoes from famous writers calculated to elevate not only the morale but the morals of the idle.

Then there were cases of handkerchiefs, of pens and paper, pencils, songs with and without music, knives, pipes, post-cards, razors, parasiticides, chocolate, vaseline, perfumes (many of these articles are donations from manufacturers), soap in vast quantities; books serious and diverting; pamphlets purposed to keep patriotism at fever pitch, or to give the often ignorant peasant soldier a clear idea of the designs of the enemy.

In small compartments at one end of the largest of the rooms were exhibited the complete installations of the baraques, the portable beds, kitchen and dining-room utensils and dishes, all extraordinarily neat and compact. In another room was a staff engaged in correspondence with officers, doctors and surgeons at the Front, poilus, or the hundred and one sources that contribute to the great oeuvre. Girls, young widows, young and middle-aged married women whose husbands and sons were fighting, all give their days freely and work far harder and more conscientiously than most women do for hire.

All of these presents, when they arrive at the dépôts, are given out personally by the officers, and this as much as the genuine democracy of the men in command has served to break down the suspicious or surly spirit of the French peasant on his first service, to win over the bumptious industrial, and even to subdue the militant anarchist and predatory Apache. This was Mlle. Javal's idea, and has solved a problem for many an anxious officer.

She said to me with a shrug: "My brother and I are now run by our servants. I have quite lost control. Our home is like a bachelor apartment. After the war is over I must turn them all out and get a new staff."

And this is but one of the minor problems for men and women the Great War has bred.

 

 

 

 

VII

 

 

Magic lanterns and cinemas are also among the presents sent to the éclopé dépôts in the War Zone; some of which, by the way, are charmingly situated. I visited one just outside of a town which by a miracle had escaped the attention of the enemy during the retreat after the Battle of the Marne. The buildings of the dépôt have been built in the open fields but heavily ambushed by fine old trees. Near by is a river picturesquely winding and darkly shaded. Here I saw a number of éclopés fishing as calmly as if the roar of the guns that came down the wind from Verdun were but the precursor of an evening storm.

In the large refectory men were writing home; reading not only books but the daily and weekly newspapers with which the dépôts are generously supplied by the editors of France. Others were exercising in a gymnasium or playing games with that childish absorption that seems to be as natural to a soldier at the Front when off duty as the desire for a bath or a limbering of the muscles when he leaves the trenches.

Another of Mlle. Javal's ideas was to send to the War Zone automobiles completely equipped with a dental apparatus in charge of a competent dentist. These automobiles travel from dépôt to dépôt and even give their services to hospitals where there are no dental installations.

Other automobiles have a surgeon and the equipment for immediate facial operations; and there are migratory pedicures, masseurs, and barbers. So heavy has been the subscription, so persistent and intelligent the work of all connected with this great oeuvre, so increasingly fertile the amazing brain of Mlle. Javal, that practically nothing is now wanted to make these Dépôts d'Éclopés perfect instruments for saving men for the army by the hundred thousand. I once heard the estimate of the army's indebtedness placed as high as a million and a half.

The work of M. Frederic Masson must not be ignored, and Madame Balli assisted him for a short time, until compelled to concentrate on her other work; but it is not comparable in scope to that of Mlle. Javal. Hers is unprecedented, one of the greatest achievements of France behind the lines, and of any woman at any time.

 

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton