The Flame of France

‘UN poilu? C’est une âme avec un numéro.’ And this line, from a verse written by a soldier at the front, entirely expresses it; for not only is each poilu ‘ une âme, ’ each woman and child is a soul, or rather each one is a living, flaming piece of that collective soul which we now know as France. For this war, so far as France is concerned, is of the spirit. It is a war to save the spirit, to keep the spirit of France independent, untrammeled, and pure. It is an effort of the most developed and civilized people on earth to save its soul alive. It is a glass, through which suddenly we have seen the soul of France.

Even before one lands in Bordeaux one feels it: when one first sees the lighthouse, rising tall and white from the low shore, one feels the ascending line of it to be expressive of aspiration and liberty. In Bordeaux there were soldiers leaving for the front, and one family is unforgettable. The man walked ahead on the narrow sidewalk in his new steel helmet, and behind him came his wife and little girl, and the face of that lady was to me as a vision of another world, — a face carrying such a fullness of victorious self-sacrifice, a face so intelligent, so understanding, so sensitive, so everlastingly sure of victory, so willing to pay the dreadful price, if that price must be paid to insure that victory. One felt it when one went for a brief moment into the beautiful church of St. Croix — felt it all through the darkness of the church, felt it in the old window at the end, where a pale Christ hung on the cross, dying for the sins of the whole world.

The soldiers one saw carried a look of indestructible gentleness, the quiet, retiring, but dreadfully steady eye of a certain type of natural fighter; the women the look of patient courage. ‘Que voulez-vous? C’est la guerre.’ The fact always looked straight in the face, never flinched from, never exaggerated, never belittled.

At a luncheon, the nephew of the host — a most talented young man — was about to leave for the front. His uncle rose, and proposed to drink to the health of his dear nephew, Emile, in champagne— a great rarity now. Before he could drink, the boy’s mother leaped to her feet and cried: ‘Non, non; a la Victoire!’ And they all stood and drank the toast in silence, with the tears running from their splendid eyes. People like that have understood; they have seen.

Of all the gardens, the Luxembourg is the one that carries most quality in it. It is as tender, enfolding, comprehending, as always, but now with a tenderness that comes only out of a deep passion. Sitting there, one could not define; one was sure only that one felt the poignancy, the penetrativeness of it all as one had never realized it before. It came to one through the bare clipped trees, through the straight lines, through the fading chrysanthemums, under the gray sky, with the glimpse of the setting sun.

In the trains arriving at La Chapelle from the front, the faces of the wounded are more like the faces of saints than the faces of soldiers — and now and then a bearded one lifted by suffering and sacrifice to a likeness of the very Christ.

The women in the villages are quite as wonderful as the wounded soldiers. One rainy day, coming across a field road deep in mud, I meet a young woman. She knows me, so I walk with her. She wears a thin black dress and one of those French knitted shawls that are mostly square holes, with only an umbrella to keep off the slanting rain. She belongs at the Post-Office. It is there I had seen her, at the rural free delivery. It is too muddy to ride her wheel, so she must walk. ‘Ah, c’est trop! Trente kilometres, vous savez, chaque jour; c’est trop.’ And when I agree that 18 miles is too much, she says: ‘Mais que voulez-vous? My husband, he was killed in Champagne; my little girl has five years. I must work.’ And then she races me in to the Post-Office to prove her path the shorter, and, when I arrive she, already behind her desk, laughs with gayety at my being in the wrong. A people like that is unbeatable!

A lady’s maid in England gets a six months’ holiday — comes to France. I saw her at work scrubbing floors in a hospital from seven in the morning till night — an intelligent, delicate woman with most refined and sensitive hands, always gay, no matter how many rainy days came in succession and how much mud was tracked over her floors. I told her she deserved the Croix de Guerre. It is such people who are saving France. There is no vindictiveness. The war is a matter of cold business, for the Frenchman never gets hot in his head; his brain is cool; he is always intelligent. The German is a Boche, that is all — the word expresses him entirely: and when one thinks that the Germans are described by the most intelligent people on earth as ‘les sales Boches,’ one feels that they are an unfortunate people, really to be pitied. The wounded, of course, — for it is of course, — never complain; always patient and always gay. One boy, very sick indeed, with four bad wounds and dreadful bedsores, in reply to a hope that things were going better with him, said, smiling, that ‘affairs marched doucement, doucement.’ That particular hospital occupied part of a college, and there d ’Artagnan had, when a boy, been at school.

The college was built very near to the spring that had been tasted and blessed by St. Geneviève. And at midnight, when the wards were dark, it was hard not to think that, through the door of the ward and down the aisle between the rows of sleeping wounded, came the shade of d ’Artagnan, gay and debonair, with his laughing Gascon eyes, with plumed hat, flowing cloak, great jack-boots, and heavy spurs — came until he reached the middle of the room, when off came the hat and out flashed the thin rapier in the grand salut; and then from the glorious ghost came the words: ‘ Messieurs mes frères, au nom de la vieille France, je vous salue.’ Later in the night, toward morning, when the life hung so feebly in the torn and wasted bodies, came St. Geneviève, shielding the flame of her lamp with her thin hand — came and stood over Ernest and made the sign of the Cross, while he, smiling in his sleep, muttered, ‘Doucement, doucement.’

The French know they beat Germany at the Marne, beat the German First Army, flushed as it was with victory. With 1870 tolling in their ears, they turned on the Germans and almost with their bare hands hurled them back. If there had been ammunition they would have pushed them back to Berlin, and they know now that in the field they are the masters.

It is the ordinary, commonplace man that is the wonder. The heroes of romance are seven feet high, with other attributes of the stage idol; but these heroes — these real heroes — are just the men of the shop, the field, and the marketplace. At the midnight Mass on Christmas morning, when they stood, a crowd of soldiers and wounded near the door of the packed church, one saw amid the waving candle-flames and the French flags, the long red streamers that reminded oneof theoriflamme, and one understood something of Joan of Arc: how she too was a simple peasant, but, seeing the vision, had trusted in it and believed it, and by it had delivered France.

One saw in these simple men the everlasting brothers of the Maid — men who saw the spirit as she had seen it, and would again clear France of the invader and save it from destruction. One felt it again that night in the wards, when, after an entertainment of song and dance given by the wounded soldiers, a young man came forward at the end of the long room in the aisle between the rows of beds, and, laying aside his crutches, leaned for support on a chair and sang the Marseillaise. One knew it when, at the end of the song, the wounded raised themselves in their beds to roar, Aux armes, citoyens! One knew then that one had experienced something that is rare in the world.

It is true that their capacity for the dramatic gives one a chance to understand them; but now the dramatic seems to be always any unconscious display of the spirit that is moving them. There is no brag; the spirit just shines through them. They cannot help it.

An aviator had fallen and had died in the hospital. The day of his funeral, a day with gusts of heavy rain, with gray streaked clouds crowding in the windy sky, the funeral procession was just leaving the hospital to go across the little place, under the clipped trees, to the village church. The priest walks at the head of the procession, intoning; the tricolor is carried at the head of the flag-draped coffin, the church-bell tolls, when screaming out of the wind-driven sky comes a war-plane, — down, down, over the church, and then, tilting at a terrible angle, around the church it goes, —once, twice, thrice, and then up and off again into the clouds. A more modern and more extraordinary expression of respect for the dead it is impossible to imagine.

All through the country one feels the same spirit everywhere that one feels in Paris — the straight roads with their sense of mental clearness and passionate directness, the poplars, monumental in their long lines against the sky. Even the clipped trees somehow convey to one a sense one never got from them before. All the common things have suddenly sprung to life, suddenly become symbols of the inner things. For a moment, the veil that hides the world from us, under the visible things, is pulled aside, and we understand as we never understood before.

It is truly as a wounded officer said, looking across a valley on his first ride outside when convalescent, as he saw the dark bare apple trees and the rolling fields, and beyond always the rows of straight trees: ‘Ah, is it not a country worth fighting for?’ —and he had lost his right hand, his right foot was badly hurt, and there was a groove from a shell in the front of his head. And yet he hoped to be back at the front in the spring.

From an artillery regiment passing through a village on a foggy morning, one got a sense of efficiency, of power and completeness; the horses in good shape and the men looking — well, like French soldiers, soldiers of the best army in the world to-day. From one of them, in good American, comes, ‘ So long,’ and they disappear down the foggy street. The sense of power and vividness is everywhere, even to the long thin bayonets of the infantry that are like exclamation points in steel; to the Soixante-quinze, that best of all cannon, as graceful and delicate in its way as was one of the gentlemen of Fontenoy in his.

France carries the civilization of the world in her hands, the civilization which is a heritage from the Greeks, and she knows that that is what she is fighting to save. As the Greeks saved it from the Persian host, she is saving it from the Prussian hordes, from the most backward, the most ruthless, the most material people that the world has yet had the misfortune to produce. France knows that this war is materialism trying to crush the spirit of man, the spirit of freedom, and the rights of truth and liberty, and that is why the common soldier says he is fighting for la civilisation.

Many of us over here think this is an ordinary war, a war between this man and that man. Never was a greater mistake made. It is a war between liberty and beauty on the one hand, and on the other, tyranny and brutality—a war between the civilized man of the twentieth century and the man still back in the Middle Ages. For the German, in spite of his mechanical knowledge, is still in the Middle Ages, but the Middle Ages with chivalry left out — the Middle Ages without honor and without hope. That is why France wanted us to say that she was right — that was all, to say it; but as that is now too late, one hopes that we may think it, that we may understand that it is for us she is fighting — for the very things that we have until now held sacred, for the only things that make life tolerable. What little help we can individually give her, let us give it. What we are officially, let us forget. Let us try to make her, or those of her people with whom we come in contact, understand that we, as a people, give her our respect, our admiration, and more than all, our love; that in us yet, somewhere, still burns the old flame; that in spite of a neutral government, in spite of unrestrained German aggression, in spite of luxury and materialism, there is an America still, and that America understands that France is carrying the hope of the world.