Fighting France - From Dunkerque to Belport
by Edith Wharton
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While we stood watching we heard the sudden scream of a battery close above us. The crest of the hill we were climbing was alive with "Seventy-fives," and the piercing noise seemed to burst out at our very backs. It was the most terrible war-shriek I had heard: a kind of wolfish baying that called up an image of all the dogs of war simultaneously tugging at their leashes. There is a dreadful majesty in the sound of a distant cannonade; but these yelps and hisses roused only thoughts of horror. And there, on the opposite slope, the black and brown geysers were beginning to spout up from the German trenches; and from the batteries above them came the puff and roar of retaliation. Below us, along the cart-track, the little French soldiers continued to scramble up peacefully to the dilapidated village; and presently a group of officers of dragoons, emerging from the wood, came down to welcome us to their Head-quarters.

We continued to climb through the forest, the cannonade still whistling overhead, till we reached the most elaborate trapper colony we had yet seen. Half underground, walled with logs, and deeply roofed by sods tufted with ferns and moss, the cabins were scattered under the trees and connected with each other by paths bordered with white stones. Before the Colonel's cabin the soldiers had made a banked-up flower-bed sown with annuals; and farther up the slope stood a log chapel, a mere gable with a wooden altar under it, all tapestried with ivy and holly. Near by was the chaplain's subterranean dwelling. It was reached by a deep cutting with ivy-covered sides, and ivy and fir-boughs masked the front. This sylvan retreat had just been completed, and the officers, the chaplain, and the soldiers loitering near by, were all equally eager to have it seen and hear it praised.

The commanding officer, having done the honours of the camp, led us about a quarter of a mile down the hillside to an open cutting which marked the beginning of the trenches. From the cutting we passed into a long tortuous burrow walled and roofed with carefully fitted logs. The earth floor was covered by a sort of wooden lattice. The only light entering this tunnel was a faint ray from an occasional narrow slit screened by branches; and beside each of these peep-holes hung a shield-shaped metal shutter to be pushed over it in case of emergency.

The passage wound down the hill, almost doubling on itself, in order to give a view of all the surrounding lines. Presently the roof became much higher, and we saw on one side a curtained niche about five feet above the floor. One of the officers pulled the curtain back, and there, on a narrow shelf, a gun between his knees, sat a dragoon, his eyes on a peep-hole. The curtain was hastily drawn again behind his motionless figure, lest the faint light at his back should betray him. We passed by several of these helmeted watchers, and now and then we came to a deeper recess in which a mitrailleuse squatted, its black nose thrust through a net of branches. Sometimes the roof of the tunnel was so low that we had to bend nearly double; and at intervals we came to heavy doors, made of logs and sheeted with iron, which shut off one section from another. It is hard to guess the distance one covers in creeping through an unlit passage with different levels and countless turnings; but we must have descended the hillside for at least a mile before we came out into a half-ruined farmhouse. This building, which had kept nothing but its outer walls and one or two partitions between the rooms, had been transformed into an observation post. In each of its corners a ladder led up to a little shelf on the level of what was once the second story, and on the shelf sat a dragoon at his peep-hole. Below, in the dilapidated rooms, the usual life of a camp was going on. Some of the soldiers were playing cards at a kitchen table, others mending their clothes, or writing letters or chuckling together (not too loud) over a comic newspaper. It might have been a scene anywhere along the second-line trenches but for the lowered voices, the suddenness with which I was drawn back from a slit in the wall through which I had incautiously peered, and the presence of these helmeted watchers overhead.

We plunged underground again and began to descend through another darker and narrower tunnel. In the upper one there had been one or two roofless stretches where one could straighten one's back and breathe; but here we were in pitch blackness, and saved from breaking our necks only by the gleam of the pocket-light which the young lieutenant who led the party shed on our path. As he whisked it up and down to warn us of sudden steps or sharp corners he remarked that at night even this faint glimmer was forbidden, and that it was a bad job going back and forth from the last outpost till one had learned the turnings.

The last outpost was a half-ruined farmhouse like the other. A telephone connected it with Head-quarters and more dumb dragoons sat motionless on their lofty shelves. The house was shut off from the tunnel by an armoured door, and the orders were that in case of attack that door should be barred from within and the access to the tunnel defended to the death by the men in the outpost. We were on the extreme verge of the defences, on a slope just above the village over which we had heard the artillery roaring a few hours earlier. The spot where we stood was raked on all sides by the enemy's lines, and the nearest trenches were only a few yards away. But of all this nothing was really perceptible or comprehensible to me. As far as my own observation went, we might have been a hundred miles from the valley we had looked down on, where the French soldiers were walking peacefully up the cart-track in the sunshine. I only knew that we had come out of a black labyrinth into a gutted house among fruit-trees, where soldiers were lounging and smoking, and people whispered as they do about a death-bed. Over a break in the walls I saw another gutted farmhouse close by in another orchard: it was an enemy outpost, and silent watchers in helmets of another shape sat there watching on the same high shelves. But all this was infinitely less real and terrible than the cannonade above the disputed village. The artillery had ceased and the air was full of summer murmurs. Close by on a sheltered ledge I saw a patch of vineyard with dewy cobwebs hanging to the vines. I could not understand where we were, or what it was all about, or why a shell from the enemy outpost did not suddenly annihilate us. And then, little by little, there came over me the sense of that mute reciprocal watching from trench to trench: the interlocked stare of innumerable pairs of eyes, stretching on, mile after mile, along the whole sleepless line from Dunkerque to Belfort.

My last vision of the French front which I had traveled from end to end was this picture of a shelled house where a few men, who sat smoking and playing cards in the sunshine, had orders to hold out to the death rather than let their fraction of that front be broken.


Nobody now asks the question that so often, at the beginning of the war, came to me from the other side of the world: "What is France like?" Every one knows what France has proved to be like: from being a difficult problem she has long since become a luminous instance.

Nevertheless, to those on whom that illumination has shone only from far off, there may still be something to learn about its component elements; for it has come to consist of many separate rays, and the weary strain of the last year has been the spectroscope to decompose them. From the very beginning, when one felt the effulgence as the mere pale brightness before dawn, the attempt to define it was irresistible. "There is a tone—" the tingling sense of it was in the air from the first days, the first hours—"but what does it consist in? And just how is one aware of it?" In those days the answer was comparatively easy. The tone of France after the declaration of war was the white glow of dedication: a great nation's collective impulse (since there is no English equivalent for that winged word, elan ) to resist destruction. But at that time no one knew what the resistance was to cost, how long it would have to last, what sacrifices, material and moral, it would necessitate. And for the moment baser sentiments were silenced: greed, self-interest, pusillanimity seemed to have been purged from the race. The great sitting of the Chamber, that almost religious celebration of defensive union, really expressed the opinion of the whole people. It is fairly easy to soar to the empyrean when one is carried on the wings of such an impulse, and when one does not know how long one is to be kept suspended at the breathing-limit.

But there is a term to the flight of the most soaring elan. It is likely, after a while, to come back broken-winged and resign itself to barn-yard bounds. National judgments cannot remain for long above individual feelings; and you cannot get a national "tone" out of anything less than a whole nation. The really interesting thing, therefore, was to see, as the war went on, and grew into a calamity unheard of in human annals, how the French spirit would meet it, and what virtues extract from it.

The war has been a calamity unheard of; but France has never been afraid of the unheard of. No race has ever yet so audaciously dispensed with old precedents; as none has ever so revered their relics. It is a great strength to be able to walk without the support of analogies; and France has always shown that strength in times of crisis. The absorbing question, as the war went on, was to discover how far down into the people this intellectual audacity penetrated, how instinctive it had become, and how it would endure the strain of prolonged inaction.

There was never much doubt about the army. When a warlike race has an invader on its soil, the men holding back the invader can never be said to be inactive. But behind the army were the waiting millions to whom that long motionless line in the trenches might gradually have become a mere condition of thought, an accepted limitation to all sorts of activities and pleasures. The danger was that such a war—static, dogged, uneventful—might gradually cramp instead of enlarging the mood of the lookers-on. Conscription, of course, was there to minimize this danger. Every one was sharing alike in the glory and the woe. But the glory was not of a kind to penetrate or dazzle. It requires more imagination to see the halo around tenacity than around dash; and the French still cling to the view that they are, so to speak, the patentees and proprietors of dash, and much less at home with his dull drudge of a partner. So there was reason to fear, in the long run, a gradual but irresistible disintegration, not of public opinion, but of something subtler and more fundamental: public sentiment. It was possible that civilian France, while collectively seeming to remain at the same height, might individually deteriorate and diminish in its attitude toward the war.

The French would not be human, and therefore would not be interesting, if one had not perceived in them occasional symptoms of such a peril. There has not been a Frenchman or a Frenchwoman—save a few harmless and perhaps nervous theorizers—who has wavered about the military policy of the country; but there have naturally been some who have found it less easy than they could have foreseen to live up to the sacrifices it has necessitated. Of course there have been such people: one would have had to postulate them if they had not come within one's experience. There have been some to whom it was harder than they imagined to give up a certain way of living, or a certain kind of breakfast-roll; though the French, being fundamentally temperate, are far less the slaves of the luxuries they have invented than are the other races who have adopted these luxuries.

There have been many more who found the sacrifice of personal happiness—of all that made life livable, or one's country worth fighting for—infinitely harder than the most apprehensive imagination could have pictured. There have been mothers and widows for whom a single grave, or the appearance of one name on the missing list, has turned the whole conflict into an idiot's tale. There have been many such; but there have apparently not been enough to deflect by a hair's breadth the subtle current of public sentiment; unless it is truer, as it is infinitely more inspiring, to suppose that, of this company of blinded baffled sufferers, almost all have had the strength to hide their despair and to say of the great national effort which has lost most of its meaning to them: "Though it slay me, yet will I trust in it." That is probably the finest triumph of the tone of France: that its myriad fiery currents flow from so many hearts made insensible by suffering, that so many dead hands feed its undying lamp.

This does not in the least imply that resignation is the prevailing note in the tone of France. The attitude of the French people, after fourteen months of trial, is not one of submission to unparalleled calamity. It is one of exaltation, energy, the hot resolve to dominate the disaster. In all classes the feeling is the same: every word and every act is based on the resolute ignoring of any alternative to victory. The French people no more think of a compromise than people would think of facing a flood or an earthquake with a white flag.

Two questions are likely to be put to any observer of the struggle who risks such assertions. What, one may be asked, are the proofs of this national tone? And what conditions and qualities seem to minister to it?

The proofs, now that "the tumult and the shouting dies," and civilian life has dropped back into something like its usual routine, are naturally less definable than at the outset. One of the most evident is the spirit in which all kinds of privations are accepted. No one who has come in contact with the work-people and small shop-keepers of Paris in the last year can fail to be struck by the extreme dignity and grace with which doing without things is practised. The Frenchwoman leaning in the door of her empty boutique still wears the smile with which she used to calm the impatience of crowding shoppers. The seam-stress living on the meagre pay of a charity work-room gives her day's sewing as faithfully as if she were working for full wages in a fashionable atelier, and never tries, by the least hint of private difficulties, to extract additional help. The habitual cheerfulness of the Parisian workwoman rises, in moments of sorrow, to the finest fortitude. In a work-room where many women have been employed since the beginning of the war, a young girl of sixteen heard late one afternoon that her only brother had been killed. She had a moment of desperate distress; but there was a big family to be helped by her small earnings, and the next morning punctually she was back at work. In this same work-room the women have one half-holiday in the week, without reduction of pay; yet if an order has to be rushed through for a hospital they give up that one afternoon as gaily as if they were doing it for their pleasure. But if any one who has lived for the last year among the workers and small tradesmen of Paris should begin to cite instances of endurance, self-denial and secret charity, the list would have no end. The essential of it all is the spirit in which these acts are accomplished.

The second question: What are the conditions and qualities that have produced such results? is less easy to answer. The door is so largely open to conjecture that every explanation must depend largely on the answerer's personal bias. But one thing is certain. France has not achieved her present tone by the sacrifice of any of her national traits, but rather by their extreme keying up; therefore the surest way of finding a clue to that tone is to try to single out whatever distinctively "French" characteristics—or those that appear such to the envious alien—have a direct bearing on the present attitude of France. Which (one must ask) of all their multiple gifts most help the French today to be what they are in just the way they are?

Intelligence! is the first and instantaneous answer. Many French people seem unaware of this. They are sincerely persuaded that the curbing of their critical activity has been one of the most important and useful results of the war. One is told that, in a spirit of patriotism, this fault-finding people has learned not to find fault. Nothing could be more untrue. The French, when they have a grievance, do not air it in the Times: their forum is the cafe and not the newspaper. But in the cafe they are talking as freely as ever, discriminating as keenly and judging as passionately. The difference is that the very exercise of their intelligence on a problem larger and more difficult than any they have hitherto faced has freed them from the dominion of most of the prejudices, catch-words and conventions that directed opinion before the war. Then their intelligence ran in fixed channels; now it has overflowed its banks.

This release has produced an immediate readjusting of all the elements of national life. In great trials a race is tested by its values; and the war has shown the world what are the real values of France. Never for an instant has this people, so expert in the great art of living, imagined that life consisted in being alive. Enamoured of pleasure and beauty, dwelling freely and frankly in the present, they have yet kept their sense of larger meanings, have understood life to be made up of many things past and to come, of renunciation as well as satisfaction, of traditions as well as experiments, of dying as much as of living. Never have they considered life as a thing to be cherished in itself, apart from its reactions and its relations.

Intelligence first, then, has helped France to be what she is; and next, perhaps, one of its corollaries, expression. The French are the first to laugh at themselves for running to words: they seem to regard their gift for expression as a weakness, a possible deterrent to action. The last year has not confirmed that view. It has rather shown that eloquence is a supplementary weapon. By "eloquence" I naturally do not mean public speaking, nor yet the rhetorical writing too often associated with the word. Rhetoric is the dressing-up of conventional sentiment, eloquence the fearless expression of real emotion. And this gift of the fearless expression of emotion—fearless, that is, of ridicule, or of indifference in the hearer—has been an inestimable strength to France. It is a sign of the high average of French intelligence that feeling well-worded can stir and uplift it; that "words" are not half shamefacedly regarded as something separate from, and extraneous to, emotion, or even as a mere vent for it, but as actually animating and forming it. Every additional faculty for exteriorizing states of feeling, giving them a face and a language, is a moral as well as an artistic asset, and Goethe was never wiser than when he wrote:

"A god gave me the voice to speak my pain."

It is not too much to say that the French are at this moment drawing a part of their national strength from their language. The piety with which they have cherished and cultivated it has made it a precious instrument in their hands. It can say so beautifully what they feel that they find strength and renovation in using it; and the word once uttered is passed on, and carries the same help to others. Countless instances of such happy expression could be cited by any one who has lived the last year in France. On the bodies of young soldiers have been found letters of farewell to their parents that made one think of some heroic Elizabethan verse; and the mothers robbed of these sons have sent them an answering cry of courage.

"Thank you," such a mourner wrote me the other day, "for having understood the cruelty of our fate, and having pitied us. Thank you also for having exalted the pride that is mingled with our unutterable sorrow." Simply that, and no more; but she might have been speaking for all the mothers of France.

When the eloquent expression of feeling does not issue in action—or at least in a state of mind equivalent to action—it sinks to the level of rhetoric; but in France at this moment expression and conduct supplement and reflect each other. And this brings me to the other great attribute which goes to making up the tone of France: the quality of courage. It is not unintentionally that it comes last on my list. French courage is courage rationalized, courage thought out, and found necessary to some special end; it is, as much as any other quality of the French temperament, the result of French intelligence.

No people so sensitive to beauty, so penetrated with a passionate interest in life, so endowed with the power to express and immortalize that interest, can ever really enjoy destruction for its own sake. The French hate "militarism." It is stupid, inartistic, unimaginative and enslaving; there could not be four better French reasons for detesting it. Nor have the French ever enjoyed the savage forms of sport which stimulate the blood of more apathetic or more brutal races. Neither prize-fighting nor bull-fighting is of the soil in France, and Frenchmen do not settle their private differences impromptu with their fists: they do it, logically and with deliberation, on the duelling-ground. But when a national danger threatens, they instantly become what they proudly and justly call themselves—"a warlike nation"—and apply to the business in hand the ardour, the imagination, the perseverance that have made them for centuries the great creative force of civilization. Every French soldier knows why he is fighting, and why, at this moment, physical courage is the first quality demanded of him; every Frenchwoman knows why war is being waged, and why her moral courage is needed to supplement the soldier's contempt of death.

The women of France are supplying this moral courage in act as well as in word. Frenchwomen, as a rule, are perhaps less instinctively "courageous," in the elementary sense, than their Anglo-Saxon sisters. They are afraid of more things, and are less ashamed of showing their fear. The French mother coddles her children, the boys as well as the girls: when they tumble and bark their knees they are expected to cry, and not taught to control themselves as English and American children are. I have seen big French boys bawling over a cut or a bruise that an Anglo-Saxon girl of the same age would have felt compelled to bear without a tear. Frenchwomen are timid for themselves as well as for their children. They are afraid of the unexpected, the unknown, the experimental. It is not part of the Frenchwoman's training to pretend to have physical courage. She has not the advantage of our discipline in the hypocrisies of "good form" when she is called on to be brave, she must draw her courage from her brains. She must first be convinced of the necessity of heroism; after that she is fit to go bridle to bridle with Jeanne d'Arc.

The same display of reasoned courage is visible in the hasty adaptation of the Frenchwoman to all kinds of uncongenial jobs. Almost every kind of service she has been called to render since the war began has been fundamentally uncongenial. A French doctor once remarked to me that Frenchwomen never make really good sick-nurses except when they are nursing their own people. They are too personal, too emotional, and too much interested in more interesting things, to take to the fussy details of good nursing, except when it can help some one they care for. Even then, as a rule, they are not systematic or tidy; but they make up for these deficiencies by inexhaustible willingness and sympathy. And it has been easy for them to become good war-nurses, because every Frenchwoman who nurses a French soldier feels that she is caring for her kin. The French war-nurse sometimes mislays an instrument or forgets to sterilize a dressing; but she almost always finds the consoling word to say and the right tone to take with her wounded soldiers. That profound solidarity which is one of the results of conscription flowers, in war-time, in an exquisite and impartial devotion.

This, then, is what "France is like." The whole civilian part of the nation seems merged in one symbolic figure, carrying help and hope to the fighters or passionately bent above the wounded. The devotion, the self-denial, seem instinctive; but they are really based on a reasoned knowledge of the situation and on an unflinching estimate of values. All France knows today that real "life" consists in the things that make it worth living, and that these things, for France, depend on the free expression of her national genius. If France perishes as an intellectual light and as a moral force every Frenchman perishes with her; and the only death that Frenchmen fear is not death in the trenches but death by the extinction of their national ideal. It is against this death that the whole nation is fighting; and it is the reasoned recognition of their peril which, at this moment, is making the most intelligent people in the world the most sublime.


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