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France, 1916-1917

AN IMPRESSION


It was past eleven, and the packet had been steady some time when we went on deck and found her moving slowly in bright moonlight up the haven towards the houses of Le Havre. A night approach to a city by water has the quality of other-worldness. I remember the same sensation twice before: coming in to San Francisco from the East by the steam-ferry, and stealing into Abingdon-on-Thames in a rowing-boat. Le Havre lay, reaching up towards the heights, still and fair, a little mysterious, with many lights which no one seemed using. It was cold, but the air already had a different texture, drier, lighter than the air we had left, and one's heart felt light and a little excited. In the moonlight the piled-up, shuttered houses had colouring like that of flowers at night—pale, subtle, mother-o'-pearl. We moved slowly up beside the quay, heard the first French voices, saw the first French faces, and went down again to sleep.

In the Military Bureau at the station, with what friendly politeness they exchanged our hospital passes for the necessary forms; but it took two officials ten minutes of hard writing! And one thought: Is victory possible with all these forms? It is so throughout France—too many forms, too many people to fill them up. As if France could not trust herself without recording in spidery handwriting exactly where she is, for nobody to look at afterwards. But France could trust herself. A pity!

Our only fellow-traveller was not a soldier, but had that indefinable look of connection with the war wrapped round almost everyone in France. A wide land we passed, fallow under the November sky; houses hidden among the square Normandy court-yards of tall trees; not many people in the fields.

Paris is Paris, was, and ever shall be! Paris is not France. If the Germans had taken Paris they would have occupied the bodily heart, the centre of her circulatory system; but the spirit of France their heavy hands would not have clutched, for it never dwelt there. Paris is hard and hurried; France is not. Paris loves pleasure; France loves life. Paris is a brilliant stranger in her own land. And yet a lot of true Frenchmen and Frenchwomen live there, and many little plots of real French life are cultivated.

At the Gare de Lyon poilus are taking trains for the South. This is our first real sight of them in their tired glory. They look weary and dusty and strong; every face has character, no face looks empty or as if its thought were being done by others. Their laughter is not vulgar or thick. Alongside their faces the English face looks stupid, the English body angular and—neat. They are loaded with queer burdens, bread and bottles bulge their pockets; their blue-grey is prettier than khaki, their round helmets are becoming. Our Tommies, even to our own eyes, seem uniformed, but hardly two out of all this crowd are dressed alike. The French soldier luxuriates in extremes; he can go to his death in white gloves and dandyism—he can glory in unshavenness and patches. The words in extremis seem dear to the French soldier; and, con amore, he passes from one extreme to the other. One of them stands gazing up at the board which gives the hours of starting and the destinations of the trains. His tired face is charming, and has a look that I cannot describe—lost, as it were, to all surroundings; a Welshman or a Highlander, but no pure Englishman, could look like that.

Our carriage has four French officers; they talk neither to us nor to each other; they sleep, sitting well back, hardly moving all night; one of them snores a little, but with a certain politeness. We leave them in the early morning and get down into the windy station at Valence. In pre-war days romance began there when one journeyed. A lovely word, and the gate of the South. Soon after Valence one used to wake and draw aside a corner of the curtain and look at the land in the first level sunlight; a strange land of plains, and far, yellowish hills, a land with a dry, shivering wind over it, and puffs of pink almond blossom. But now Valence was dark, for it was November, and raining. In the waiting-room were three tired soldiers trying to sleep, and one sitting up awake, shyly glad to share our cakes and journals. Then on through the wet morning by the little branch line into Dauphiné. Two officers again and a civilian, in our carriage, are talking in low voices of the war, or in higher voices of lodgings at Valence. One is a commandant, with a handsome paternal old face, broader than the English face, a little more in love with life, and a little more cynical about it, with more depth of colouring in eyes and cheeks and hair. The tone of their voices, talking of the war, is grave and secret. "Les Anglais ne lâcheront pas" are the only words I plainly hear. The younger officer says: "And how would you punish?" The commandant's answer is inaudible, but by the twinkling of his eyes one knows it to be human and sagacious. The train winds on in the windy wet, through foothills and then young mountains, following up a swift-flowing river. The chief trees are bare Lombardy poplars. The chief little town is gathered round a sharp spur, with bare towers on its top. The colour everywhere is a brownish-grey.

We have arrived. A tall, strong young soldier, all white teeth and smiles, hurries our luggage out, a car hurries us up in the rainy wind through the little town, down again across the river, up a long avenue of pines, and we are at our hospital.

Round the long table, at their dinner-hour, what a variety of type among the men! And yet a likeness, a sort of quickness and sensibility, common to them all. A few are a little méfiant of these newcomers, with the méfiance of individual character, not of class distrustfulness, nor of that defensive expressionless we cultivate in England. The French soldier has a touch of the child in him—if we leave out the Parisians; a child who knows more than you do perhaps; a child who has lived many lives before this life; a wise child, who jumps to your moods and shows you his "sore fingers" readily when he feels that you want to see them. He has none of the perverse and grudging attitude towards his own ailments that we English foster. He is perhaps a little inclined to pet them, treating them with an odd mixture of stoic gaiety and gloomy indulgence. It is like all the rest of him; he feels everything so much quicker than we do—he is so much more impressionable. The variety of type is more marked physically than in our country. Here is a tall Savoyard cavalryman, with a maimed hand and a fair moustache brushed up at the ends, big and strong, with grey eyes, and a sort of sage self-reliance; only twenty-six, but might be forty. Here is a real Latin, who was buried by an explosion at Verdun; handsome, with dark hair and a round head, and colour in his cheeks; an ironical critic of everything, a Socialist, a mocker, a fine, strong fellow with a clear brain, who attracts women. Here are two peasants from the Central South, both with bad sciatica, slower in look, with a mournful, rather monkeyish expression in their eyes, as if puzzled by their sufferings. Here is a true Frenchman, a Territorial, from Roanne, riddled with rheumatism, quick and gay, and suffering, touchy and affectionate, not tall, brown-faced, brown-eyed, rather fair, with clean jaw and features, and eyes with a soul in them, looking a little up; forty-eight—the oldest of them all—they call him Grandpère. And here is a printer from Lyon with shell-shock; medium-coloured, short and roundish and neat, full of humanity and high standards and domestic affection, and so polite, with eyes a little like a dog's. And here another with shell-shock and brown-green eyes, from the "invaded countries"; méfiant, truly, this one, but with a heart when you get at it; neat, and brooding, quick as a cat, nervous, and wanting his own way. But they are all so varied. If there are qualities common to all they are impressionability and capacity for affection. This is not the impression left on one by a crowd of Englishmen. Behind the politeness and civilised bearing of the French I used to think there was a little of the tiger. In a sense perhaps there is, but that is not the foundation of their character—far from it! Underneath the tiger, again, there is a man civilised for centuries. Most certainly the politeness of the French is no surface quality, it is a polish welling up from a naturally affectionate heart, a naturally quick apprehension of the moods and feelings of others; it is the outcome of a culture so old that, underneath all differences, it binds together all those types and strains of blood—the Savoyard, and the Southerner, the Latin of the Centre, the man from the North, the Breton, the Gascon, the Basque, the Auvergnat, even to some extent the Norman, and the Parisian—in a sort of warm and bone-deep kinship. They have all, as it were, sat for centuries under a wall with the afternoon sun warming them through and through, as I so often saw the old town gossips sitting of an afternoon. The sun of France has made them alike; a light and happy sun, not too southern, but just southern enough.

And the women of France! If the men are bound in that mysterious kinship, how much more so are the women! What is it in the Frenchwoman which makes her so utterly unique? A daughter in one of Anatole France's books says to her mother: "Tu es pour les bijoux, je suis pour les dessous." The Frenchwoman spiritually is pour les dessous. There is in her a kind of inherited, conservative, clever, dainty capability; no matter where you go in France, or in what class—country or town—you find it. She cannot waste, she cannot spoil, she makes and shows—the best of everything. If I were asked for a concrete illustration of self-respect I should say—the Frenchwoman. It is a particular kind of self-respect, no doubt, very much limited to this world; and perhaps beginning to be a little frayed. We have some Frenchwomen at the hospital, the servants who keep us in running order—the dear cook whom we love not only for her baked meats, proud of her soldier son once a professor, now a sergeant, and she a woman of property, with two houses in the little town; patient, kind, very stubborn about her dishes, which have in them the essential juices and savours which characterise all things really French. She has great sweetness and self-containment in her small, wrinkled, yellowish face; always quietly polite and grave, she bubbles deliciously at any joke, and gives affection sagaciously to those who merit. A jewel, who must be doing something pour la France. And we have Madame Jeanne Camille, mother of two daughters and one son, too young to be a soldier. It was her eldest daughter who wanted to come and scrub in the hospital, but was refused because she was too pretty. And her mother came instead. A woman who did not need to come, and nearly fifty, but strong, as the French are strong, with good red blood, deep colouring, hair still black, and handsome straight features. What a worker! A lover of talk, too, and of a joke when she has time. And Claire, of a languissante temperament, as she says; but who would know it? Eighteen, with a figure abundant as that of a woman of forty, but just beginning to fine down; holding herself as French girls learn to hold themselves so young; and with the pretty eyes of a Southern nymph, clear-brown and understanding, and a little bit wood-wild. Not self-conscious—like the English girl at that age—fond of work and play; with what is called "a good head" on her, and a warm heart. A real woman of France.

Then there is the "farmeress" at the home farm which gives the hospital its milk; a splendid, grey-eyed creature, doing the work of her husband who is at the front, with a little girl and boy rounder and rosier than anything you ever saw; and a small, one-eyed brother-in-law who drinks. My God, he drinks! Any day you go into the town to do hospital commissions you may see the hospital donkey-cart with the charming grey donkey outside the Café de l'Univers or what not, and know that Charles is within. He beguiles our poilus, and they take little beguiling. Wine is too plentiful in France. The sun in the wines of France quickens and cheers the blood in the veins of France. But the gift of wine is abused. One may see a poster which says—with what truth I know not—that drink has cost France more than the Franco-Prussian War. French drunkenness is not so sottish as our beer-and-whiskey-fuddled variety, but it is not pleasant to see, and mars a fair land.

What a fair land! I never before grasped the charm of French colouring; the pinkish-yellow of the pan-tiled roofs, the lavender-grey or dim green of the shutters, the self-respecting shapes and flatness of the houses, unworried by wriggling ornamentation or lines coming up in order that they may go down again; the universal plane trees with their variegated trunks and dancing lightness—nothing more charming than plane trees in winter, their delicate twigs and little brown balls shaking against the clear pale skies, and in summer nothing more green and beautiful than their sun-flecked shade. Each country has its special genius of colouring—best displayed in winter. To characterise such genius by a word or two is hopeless; but one might say the genius of Spain is brown; of Ireland green; of England chalky blue-green; of Egypt shimmering sandstone. For France amethystine feebly expresses the sensation; the blend is subtle, stimulating, rarefied—at all events in the centre and south. Walk into an English village, however beautiful—and many are very beautiful—you will not get the peculiar sharp spiritual sensation which will come on you entering some little French village or town—the sensation one has looking at a picture by Francesca. The blue wood-smoke, the pinkish tiles, the grey shutters, the grey-brown plane trees, the pale blue sky, the yellowish houses, and above all the clean forms and the clear air. I shall never forget one late afternoon rushing home in the car from some commission. The setting sun had just broken through after a misty day, the mountains were illumined with purple and rose-madder, and snow-tipped against the blue sky, a wonderful wistaria blue drifted smoke-like about the valley; and the tall trees—poplars and cypresses—stood like spires. No wonder the French are spirituel, a word so different from our "spiritual," for that they are not; pre-eminently citizens of this world—even the pious French. This is why on the whole they make a better fist of social life than we do, we misty islanders, only half-alive because we set such store by our unrealised moralities. Not one Englishman in ten now really believes that he is going to live again, but his disbelief has not yet reconciled him to making the best of this life, or laid ghosts of the beliefs he has outworn. Clear air and sun, but not so much as to paralyse action, have made in France clearer eyes, clearer brains, and touched souls with a sane cynicism. The French do not despise and neglect the means to ends. They face sexual realities. They know that to live well they must eat well, to eat well must cook well, to cook well must cleanly and cleverly cultivate their soil. May France be warned in time by our dismal fate! May she never lose her love of the land; nor let industrialism absorb her peasantry, and the lure of wealth and the cheap glamour of the towns draw her into their uncharmed circles. We English have rattled deep into a paradise of machines, chimneys, cinemas, and halfpenny papers; have bartered our heritage of health, dignity, and looks for wealth, and badly distributed wealth at that. France was trembling on the verge of the same precipice when the war came; with its death and wind of restlessness the war bids fair to tip her over. Let her hold back with all her might! Her two dangers are drink and the lure of the big towns. No race can preserve sanity and refinement which really gives way to these. She will not fare even as well as we have if she yields; our fibre is coarser and more resistant than hers, nor had we ever so much grace to lose. It is by grace and self-respect that France had her pre-eminence; let these wither, as wither they must in the grip of a sordid and drink-soothed industrialism, and her star will burn out. The life of the peasant is hard; peasants are soon wrinkled and weathered; they are not angels; narrow and over-provident, suspicious, and given to drink, they still have their roots and being in the realities of life, close to nature, and keep a sort of simple dignity and health which great towns destroy. Let France take care of her peasants and her country will take care of itself.

Talking to our poilus we remarked that they have not a good word to throw to their députés—no faith in them. About French politicians I know nothing; but their shoes are unenviable, and will become too tight for them after the war. The poilu has no faith at all now, if he ever had, save faith in his country, so engrained that he lets the life-loving blood of him be spilled out to the last drop, cursing himself and everything for his heroic folly.

We had a young Spaniard of the Foreign Legion in our hospital who had been to Cambridge, and had the "outside" eyes on all things French. In his view je m'en foutism has a hold of the French army. Strange if it had not! Clear, quick brains cannot stand Fate's making ninepins of mankind year after year like this. Fortunately for France, the love of her sons has never been forced; it has grown like grass and simple wild herbs in the heart, alongside the liberty to criticise and blame. The poilu cares for nothing, no, not he! But he is himself a little, unconscious bit of France, and, for oneself, one always cares. State-forced patriotism made this war—a fever-germ which swells the head and causes blindness. A State which teaches patriotism in its schools is going mad! Let no such State be trusted! They who, after the war, would have England and France copy the example of the State-drilled country which opened these flood-gates of death, and teach mad provincialism under the nickname of patriotism to their children, are driving nails into the coffins of their countries. Je m'en foutism is a natural product of three years of war, and better by far than the docile despair to which so many German soldiers have been reduced. We were in Lyon when the Russian Revolution and the German retreat from Bapaume were reported. The town and railway station were full of soldiers. No enthusiasm, no stir of any kind, only the usual tired stoicism. And one thought of what the poilu can be like; of our Christmas dinner-table at the hospital under the green hanging wreaths and the rosy Chinese lanterns, the hum, the chatter, the laughter of free and easy souls in their red hospital jackets. The French are so easily, so incorrigibly gay; the dreary grinding pressure of this war seems horribly cruel applied to such a people, and the heroism with which they have borne its untold miseries is sublime. In our little remote town out there—a town which had been Roman in its time, and still had bits of Roman walls and Roman arches—every family had its fathers, brothers, sons, dead, fighting, in prison, or in hospital. The mothers were wonderful. One old couple, in a ferblanterie shop, who had lost their eldest son and whose other son was at the front, used to try hard not to talk about the war, but sure enough they would come to it at last, each time we saw them, and in a minute the mother would be crying and a silent tear would roll down the old father's face. Then he would point to the map and say: "But look where they are, the Boches! Can we stop? It's impossible. We must go on till we've thrown them out. It is dreadful, but what would you have? Ah! Our son—he was so promising!" And the mother, weeping over the tin-tacks, would make the neatest little parcel of them, murmuring out of her tears: "Il faut que ça finisse; mais la France—il ne faut pas que la France—Nos chers fils auraient été tués pour rien!" Poor souls! I remember another couple up on the hillside. The old wife, dignified as a duchess—if duchesses are dignified—wanting us so badly to come in and sit down that she might the better talk to us of her sons: one dead, and one wounded, and two still at the front, and the youngest not yet old enough. And while we stood there up came the father, an old farmer, with that youngest son. He had not quite the spirit of the old lady, nor her serenity; he thought that men in these days were no better than des bêtes féroces. And in truth his philosophy—of an old tiller of the soil—was as superior to that of emperors and diplomats as his life is superior to theirs. Not very far from that little farm is the spot of all others in that mountain country which most stirs the æsthetic and the speculative strains within one. Lovely and remote, all by itself at the foot of a mountain, in a circle of the hills, an old monastery stands, now used as a farm, with one rose window, like a spider's web, spun delicate in stone tracery. There the old monks had gone to get away from the struggles of the main valley and the surges of the fighting men. There even now were traces of their peaceful life; the fish-ponds and the tillage still kept in cultivation. If they had lived in these days they would have been at the war, fighting or bearing stretchers, like the priests of France, of whom eleven thousand, I am told—untruthfully, I hope—are dead. So the world goes forward—the Kingdom of Heaven comes!

We were in the town the day that the 1918 class received their preliminary summons. Sad were the mothers watching their boys parading the streets, rosetted and singing to show that they had passed and were ready to be food for cannon. Not one of those boys, I dare say, in his heart wanted to go; they have seen too many of their brethren return war-worn, missed too many who will never come back. But they were no less gay about it than those recruits we saw in the spring of 1913, at Argelès in the Pyrenees, singing along and shouting on the day of their enrolment.

There were other reminders to us, and to the little town, of the blood-red line drawn across the map of France. We had in our hospital men from the invaded countries without news of wives and families mured up behind that iron veil. Once in a way a tiny word would get through to them, and anxiety would lift a little from their hearts; for a day or two they would smile. One we had, paralysed in the legs, who would sit doing macramé work and playing chess all day long; every relative he had—wife, father, mother, sisters—all were in the power of the German. As brave a nature as one could see in a year's march, touchingly grateful, touchingly cheerful, but with the saddest eyes I ever saw. There was one little reminder in the town whom we could never help going in to look at whenever we passed the shop whose people had given her refuge. A little girl of eight with the most charming, grave, pale, little, grey-eyed face; there she would sit, playing with her doll, watching the customers. That little refugee at all events was beloved and happy; only I think she thought we would kidnap her one day—we stared at her so hard. She had the quality which gives to certain faces the fascination belonging to rare works of art.

With all this poignant bereavement and long-suffering amongst them it would be odd indeed if the gay and critical French nature did not rebel, and seek some outlet in apathy or bitter criticism. The miracle is that they go on and on holding fast. Easily depressed, and as easily lifted up again, grumble they must and will; but their hearts are not really down to the pitch of their voices; their love of country, which with them is love of self—the deepest of all kinds of patriotism—is too absolute. These two virtues or vices (as you please)—critical faculty and amour propre or vanity, if you prefer it—are in perpetual encounter. The French are at once not at all proud of themselves and very proud. They destroy all things French, themselves included, with their brains and tongues, and exalt the same with their hearts and by their actions. To the reserved English mind, always on the defensive, they seem to give themselves away continually; but he who understands sees it to be all part of that perpetual interplay of opposites which makes up the French character and secures for it in effect a curious vibrating equilibrium. "Intensely alive" is the chief impression one has of the French. They balance between head and heart at top speed in a sort of electric and eternal see-saw. It is this perpetual quick change which gives them, it seems to me, their special grip on actuality; they never fly into the cloud-regions of theories and dreams; their heads have not time before their hearts have intervened, their hearts not time before their heads cry: "Hold!" They apprehend both worlds, but with such rapid alternation that they surrender to neither. Consider how clever and comparatively warm is that cold thing "religion" in France. I remember so well the old curé of our little town coming up to lunch, his interest in the cooking, in the practical matters of our life, and in wider affairs too; his enjoyment of his coffee and cigarette; and the curious suddenness with which something seemed "to come over him"—one could hear his heart saying: "O my people, here am I wasting my time; I must run to you." I saw him in the court-yard talking to one of our poilus, not about his soul, but about his body; stroking his shoulder softly and calling him mon cher fils. Dear old man! Even religion here does not pretend to more than it can achieve—help and consolation to the bewildered and the suffering. It uses forms, smiling a little at them.

The secret of French culture lies in this vibrating balance; from quick marriage of mind and heart, reason and sense, in the French nature, all the clear created forms of French life arise, forms recognised as forms with definite utility attached. Controlled expression is the result of action and reaction. Controlled expression is the essence of culture, because it alone makes a sufficiently clear appeal in a world which is itself the result of the innumerable interplay of complementary or dual laws and forces. French culture is near to the real heart of things, because it has a sort of quick sanity which never loses its way; or, when it does, very rapidly recovers the middle of the road. It has the two capital defects of its virtues. It is too fond of forms and too mistrustful. The French nature is sane and cynical. Well, it's natural! The French lie just halfway between north and south; their blood is too mingled for enthusiasm, and their culture too old.

I never realised how old France was till we went to Arles. In our crowded train poilus were packed, standing in the corridors. One very weary, invited by a high and kindly colonel into our carriage, chatted in his tired voice of how wonderfully the women kept the work going on the farms. "When we get a fortnight's leave," he said, "all goes well, we can do the heavy things the women cannot, and the land is made clean. It wants that fortnight now and then, mon colonel; there is work on farms that women cannot do." And the colonel vehemently nodded his thin face. We alighted in the dark among southern forms and voices, and the little hotel omnibus became enmeshed at once in old, high, very narrow, Italian-seeming streets. It was Sunday next day; sunny, with a clear blue sky. In the square before our hotel a simple crowd round the statue of Mistral chattered or listened to a girl singing excruciating songs; a crowd as old-looking as in Italy or Spain, aged as things only are in the South. We walked up to the Arena. Quite a recent development in the life of Arles, they say, that marvellous Roman building, here cut down, there built up, by Saracen hands. For a thousand years or more before the Romans came Arles flourished and was civilised. What had we mushroom islanders before the Romans came? What had barbaric Prussia? Not even the Romans to look forward to! The age-long life of the South stands for much in modern France, correcting the cruder blood which has poured in these last fifteen hundred years. As one blends wine of very old stock with newer brands, so has France been blended and mellowed. A strange cosmic feeling one had, on the top of the great building in that town older than Rome itself, of the continuity of human life and the futility of human conceit. The provincial vanity of modern States looked pitiful in the clear air above that vast stony proof of age.

In many ways the war has brought us up all standing on the edge of an abyss. When it is over shall we go galloping over the edge, or, reining back, sit awhile in our saddles looking for a better track? We were all on the highway to a hell of material expansion and vulgarity, of cheap immediate profit, and momentary sensation; north and south in our different ways, all "rattling into barbarity." Shall we find our way again into a finer air, where self-respect, not profit, rules, and rare things and durable are made once more?

From Arles we journeyed to Marseilles, to see how the first cosmopolitan town in the world fared in war-time. Here was an amazing spectacle of swarming life. If France has reason to feel the war most of all the great countries, Marseilles must surely feel it less than any other great town; she flourishes in a perfect riot of movement and colour. Here all the tribes are met, save those of Central Europe—Frenchman, Serb, Spaniard, Algerian, Greek, Arab, Khabyle, Russian, Indian, Italian, Englishman, Scotsman, Jew, and Nubian rub shoulders in the thronged streets. The miles of docks are crammed with ships. Food of all sorts abounds. In the bright, dry light all is gay and busy. The most æsthetic, and perhaps most humiliating, sight that a Westerner could see we came on there: two Arab Spahis walking down the main street in their long robe uniforms, white and red, and their white linen bonnets bound with a dark fur and canting slightly backwards. Over six feet high, they moved unhurrying, smoking their cigarettes, turning their necks slowly from side to side like camels of the desert. Their brown, thin, bearded faces wore neither scorn nor interest, only a superb self-containment; but, beside them, every other specimen of the human race seemed cheap and negligible. God knows of what they were thinking—as little probably as the smoke they blew through their chiselled nostrils—but their beauty and grace were unsurpassable. And, visioning our western and northern towns and the little, white, worried abortions they breed, one felt downcast and abashed.

Marseilles swarmed with soldiers; Lyon, Valence, Arles, even the smallest cities swarmed with soldiers, and this at the moment when the Allied offensive was just beginning. If France be nearing the end of her man-power, as some assert, she conceals it so that one would think she was at the beginning.

From Marseilles we went to Lyon. I have heard that town described as lamentably plain; but compared with Manchester or Sheffield it is as heaven to hell. Between its two wide rolling rivers, under a line of heights, it has somewhat the aspect of an enormous commercialised Florence. Perhaps in foggy weather it may be dreary, but the sky was blue and the sun shone, a huge Foire was just opening, and every street bustled in a dignified manner.

The English have always had a vague idea that France is an immoral country. To the eye of a mere visitor France is the most moral of the four Great Powers—France, Russia, England, Germany; has the strongest family life and the most seemly streets. Young men and maidens are never seen walking or lying about, half-embraced, as in puritanical England. Fire is not played with—openly, at least. The slow-fly amorousness of the British working classes evidently does not suit the quicker blood of France. There is just enough of the South in the French to keep demonstration of affection away from daylight. A certain school of French novelist, with high-coloured tales of Parisian life, is responsible for his country's reputation. Whatever the Frenchman about town may be, he seems by no means typical of the many millions of Frenchmen who are not about town. And if Frenchwomen, as I have heard Frenchmen say, are légères, they are the best mothers in the world, and their "lightness" is not vulgarly obtruded. They say many domestic tragedies will be played at the conclusion of the war. If so, they will not be played in France alone; and compared with the tragedies of fidelity played all these dreadful years they will be as black rabbits to brown for numbers. For the truth on morality in France we must go back, I suspect, to that general conclusion about the French character—the swift passage from head to heart and back again, which, prohibiting extremes of puritanism and of licence, preserves a sort of balance.

From this war France will emerge changed, though less changed very likely than any other country. A certain self-sufficiency that was very marked about French life will have sloughed away. I expect an opening of the doors, a toleration of other tastes and standards, a softening of the too narrow definiteness of French opinion.

Even Paris has opened her heart a little since the war; and the heart of Paris is close, hard, impatient of strangers. We noticed in our hospital that whenever we had a Parisian he introduced a different atmosphere, and led us a quiet or noisy dance. We had one whose name was Aimé, whose skin was like a baby's, who talked softly and fast, with little grunts, and before he left was quite the leading personality. We had another, a red-haired young one; when he was away on leave we hardly knew the hospital, it was so orderly. The sons of Paris are a breed apart, just as our Cockneys are. I do not pretend to fathom them; they have the texture and resilience of an indiarubber ball. And the women of Paris! Heaven forfend that I should say I know them! They are a sealed book. Still, even Parisians are less intolerant than in pre-war days of us dull English, perceiving in us, perhaps, a certain unexpected usefulness. And, à propos! One hears it said that in the regions of our British armies certain natives believe we have come to stay. What an intensely comic notion! And what a lurid light it throws on history, on the mistrust engendered between nations, on the cynicism which human conduct has forced deep into human hearts. No! If a British Government could be imagined behaving in such a way, the British population would leave England, become French citizens, and help to turn out the damned intruders!

But we did not encounter anywhere that comic belief. In all this land of France, chockful of those odd creatures, English men and women, we found only a wonderful and touching welcome. Not once during those long months of winter was an unfriendly word spoken in our hearing; not once were we treated with anything but true politeness and cordiality. Poilus and peasants, porters and officials, ladies, doctors, servants, shop-folk, were always considerate, always friendly, always desirous that we should feel at home. The very dogs gave us welcome! A little black half-Pomeranian came uninvited and made his home with us in our hospital; we called him Aristide. But on our walks with him we were liable to meet a posse of children who would exclaim, "Pom-pom! Voilà, Pom-pom!" and lead him away. Before night fell he would be with us again, with a bit of string or ribbon, bitten through, dangling from his collar. His children bored him terribly. We left him in trust to our poilus on that sad afternoon when "Good-bye" must be said, all those friendly hands shaken for the last time, and the friendly faces left. Through the little town the car bore us, away along the valley between the poplar trees with the first flush of spring on their twigs, and the magpies flighting across the road to the river-bank.

The heart of France is deep within her breast; she wears it not upon her sleeve. But France opened her heart for once and let us see the gold.

And so we came forth from France of a rainy day, leaving half our hearts behind us.


(1917).

John Galsworthy

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