XVI MARCHING THROUGH FRANCE
MARCHING THROUGH FRANCE
WE were on our way to the front; but from the general attitude of the men you might have thought that we were on a cheap tour. The "management" was subjected to much criticism. The train was very far from being a train de luxe. We had boarded it in the dark. Forty men with forty packs and forty rifles had tumbled, no one quite knew how, into a pitch-dark van, and somehow sat down. At first we most of us sat on each other; but by degrees, and with much wriggling, we managed to separate ourselves more or less, and squatted through long hours in cramped, contorted attitudes. At length, in the small hours, the train stopped, and we bundled out, to find ourselves in a diminutive French town. There was nothing very interesting or sensational about it as far as we could see. The houses were modern, and of a dull red brick. The road was cobbled, and uncomfortable for marching. One could not quite say why, but it certainly had an unfamiliar air about it. It was somehow different to any English town. There was an indefinable something about the architecture of the jerrybuilt villas which betrayed the workings of a foreign mind. We were cold and tired and stiff, and we decided then and there that France was a failure, and that we should have done better to stay at home. We marched through a dull flat country with occasional farms, and avenues of trees appearing in ghostly fashion through the early morning mist. They did not plant trees in avenues like that in England, and we condemned the practice as inartistic.
Very, very tired, we at last arrived at a large barn, and entering lay down in the thick straw, and were soon fast asleep. A short sleep accomplished wonders. We woke to find the May sunlight streaming in through the chinks of our barn. We felt a good deal less critical than we had; in fact we were prepared to be rather excited at the novelties that life was offering. The barn was big and airy, and the straw clean and sweet. We felt encouraged to investigate farther. Outside we found a meadow clothed in long green grass, dotted with one or two big trees, and full of wild flowers. In a corner was a pond of clear water. We stripped, found a bucket, and poured water over ourselves, and then lay down in the long grass and basked in the sun. We were tasting the joys of the simple life---the life of the tramp, for instance; and we thought that if it were always May, and if the sun always shone, there might be a good deal to be said in its favor. We felt our British respectability slipping away from us. The glamour of vagabondage caught us. When we returned to our office in the City or our shop in the suburbs we would take another holiday after this fashion, and wander down English lanes one spring morning, with a rucksack on our back. We would sleep in an English barn, or under an English hedge, and bathe in the water of an English pool. What would Aunt Maria say? A fig for Aunt Maria! We were losing our prejudices, and becoming Bohemian in our tastes. We knew then, as we had never known before, what it is to be young in the sweet springtime. We had never felt like this, even at Brighton or Southend! There was something exquisitely clean and wholesome about this picnic life.
We stayed at the village for several days. In the morning we would go for a walk round the country. It was rather amusing, except that the "management" insisted on our carrying all our luggage on our backs wherever we went. In the afternoon we would go and bathe in a canal half a mile away. In the evening we were free to roam about the village. It was not a bit like an English village. There didn't seem to be any proper shops, and nearly every cottage had something for sale. Large, flat, round loaves, lovely fresh butter, and milk and eggs, delicious coffee, weak beer, and cognac---these were obtainable almost anywhere, at the farms and cottages alike. And these French villagers had a wonderful way with them. Somehow you never felt like a customer. You were made to feel like an old and valued friend of the family. You went into a cottage marked "Estaminet," and you ordered your glass of beer. You sat and sipped it en famille, with Madame making coffee or cooking supper on the big stove, Mamselle sewing in the corner, and Bébé playing on the floor. Sometimes there was a Monsieur, too, but if so he was an old gentleman who smoked his pipe, and smiled genially at you. If you could talk any French, tant mieux. There was plenty to talk about, and everyone joined in with an easy, well-bred courtesy worthy of the finest gentleman. Ah, they were wonderful people, those good villagers of ----- !
Somehow they had the faculty of being sociable and friendly without any adventitious aids. The Englishman cannot be quite at his ease with a stranger unless he has stood him a drink., or eaten with him. The English cannot sell you anything and at the same time make you feel that you are a guest rather than a customer. We felt that there was something to be said for the French, after all.
Of course there were no young or even middle-aged men in the village. They were all---well, making a tour in Belgium and Eastern France. That evidently made a difference. Imagine an English village visited by a number of young Frenchmen. If there were no young Englishmen about, but only women and old men, no doubt they would be received with open arms. The young women would mildly flirt with them, the older women would mother them, and the old men would be quite paternal. But imagine the effect if the English youths suddenly returned. Then there would be jealous lovers, jealous sons, jealous husbands. The women would have to curb their hospitable inclinations. The youths of the two nations would look down their noses at each other, and find each other "gesticulating monkeys" or "mannerless boors." Each would try to feel the better race, and would turn to the women as judges of their quarrel. No, perhaps it was just as well that at ----- there were no young Frenchmen. As it was we were regularly fêted, and being on our best behavior felt that we were a success. What could be more pleasant or gratifying?
We did not stay at ----- very long. Soon we were en route for Belgium. This time we marched, which would have been very pleasant if we had not had to carry all our own luggage. As it was, the marches proved very tiring. The only advantage of a pack is that it makes a very comfortable pillow if you do get a chance to lie down. Every hour we had a short halt, and lay flat on our backs by the side of the road, with our packs under our heads, and were happy. We marched through several nice little French towns, with fine old churches and hotels de ville, and generally a pleasant square in the center, full of seductive-looking auberges and cafés. Unfortunately the "management" did not elect to let us linger in these jolly little towns, but hurried us on to some sequestered farm on the confines of a small village, and billeted us in a barn. We got to know quite a lot about barns. They are very nice if they are clean; but when they have been slept in by about fifty successive parties in a few months they begin to lose their charm. The straw loses its sweetness, and the water of the pond, its crystal clearness. Often we would crowd into a barn in the semi-darkness, and, having with difficulty found six feet of floor space for ourselves and our belongings, discover beneath our heads a little trove of decaying bully, or damp, moldy biscuits. We got used to it; but it was objectionable at first. On the whole, though, we did not fare too badly. There was generally a hospitable little estaminet to visit in the evening, and a cup of lovely hot coffee to be had at the farm in the morning. The sun was always shining, the grass green, and the wild flowers blooming. We said that France was not a bad place to be in in the springtime.
To our destination we gave never a thought. Such is the way of youth. What was the good of worrying? We would take things as we found them. But when we got into Belgium the stern realities of war began to obtrude themselves. The towns which we passed through were half empty. Broken windows, holes in the roof, and here and there the whole front of a house missing, told their story of when the war had swept that way. The people in the villages were no longer genially hospitable. They wore an anxious look, and were obviously out to make money if they could. Our beer was badly watered, and our chocolate cost us more. We did not like Belgium very much.
Finally we came to the trenches themselves, and all around was desolation and ruin. There are few more mournful spectacles than a town or village lately reduced to ruins. The ruins of antiquity leave one cold. The life that they once harbored is too remote to excite our sympathies. But a modern ruin is full of tragedy. You see the remains of the furniture, the family portraits on the wall, a child's doll seated forlornly on a chair, a little figure of the Virgin under a glass case. In the middle of the little square is a little iron bandstand, and you can almost see the ghosts of the inhabitants walking up and down, laughing, chatting, and quarreling, with no sense of the disaster overshadowing them. You wonder what became of them. The girl whose rosary lies on yonder dressing-table, and who doubtless prayed every night be fore that little figure of the Virgin, was she raped by some bloodstained Uhlan? Or did she escape in time to relations or friends at a safe distance? And to what purpose were all these homes sacrificed? Why are all these good people scattered and beggared and fugitive? Cui bono? On the Day of Judgment someone will have to answer. As we thought of the pleasant towns and villages that we had left behind, with their honest, kindly inhabitants, we set our teeth and resolved that, if we could prevent it, the receding tide should never return over the fair lands of France.
So long we stayed in these scenes of desolation that we almost forgot what a live town looked like. It is hard to describe the delights of the journey home, made in far other fashion than the journey out. As we sat in the comer of our carriage in the train de luxe, and watched the busy life of the towns through which we passed, we felt as if we had awakened from a nightmare. But that was many months ago, and now that we are sound of limb again we hear the call of desolate Belgium and threatened France, and long to do our bit once more to hasten that slowly receding tide of devastation.