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Garrison Duty: August 2–November 1, 1914
General mobilization. Departure for Narbonne.
August 2, 1914. A broiling hot August afternoon. The streets of the village all but deserted. Suddenly, a drumroll. Probably a traveling merchant setting up shop on the main square, or maybe some acrobats announcing their evening performance.
But no, it's not that. When the drum falls silent, we hear the voice of the town clerk, the commissaire as we call this unique embodiment of local authority. So we lend our ears, expecting to hear the reading of a new decree about rabies or keeping the streets clean.
Alas! This fellow proceeded to announce the most frightful cataclysm to afflict humanity since the Flood. He announced the greatest of all scourges, the source of all evils. He announced the general mobilization, prelude to the war—the accursed, infamous war, which forever dishonored our century and blighted the civilization of which we were so proud.
This announcement, to my great amazement, aroused more enthusiasm than sorrow. Unthinking people seemed proud to live in a time when something so magnificent was about to happen. Even the most indifferent didn't doubt for an instant that victory would be prompt and decisive.
Wouldn't Austria shatter into pieces at the first shock of a Russian attack?
And wouldn't Germany be ground to bits between France and Russia, like a nut in a gigantic vise?
Everyone got ready, at a fever pitch, as if they really feared not getting there in time before the victory was complete. A few headed off even before their appointed departure dates.
We saw extraordinary things: irreconcilable brothers suddenly reconciled; mothers-in-law and their sons-in-law, who the day before would have been smacking each other and pulling each other's hair out, now exchanging kisses; neighbors who weren't speaking, now engaging in the friendliest of dialogues.
There were no more political adversaries, insults, injuries, hatreds—all was forgotten. The first effect of the war was the accomplishment of a miracle—peace, concord, reconciliation among people who hated each other.
Would this fraternal spirit last? The future will tell.
On August 4, the third day of mobilization, about half the mobilized men of the village embarked at the train station, accompanied by almost the whole population.
Everyone showed courage, whether true or false. There were only two women whose nerves were so sensitive that they fainted away at the sight of their sons or husbands leaving.
At this time I was only just recovering from a serious illness, an erysipelas1 of the face which had sapped all my strength. On August 4, the date set for my departure, it was all I could do to walk around my bedroom. I wasn't in any condition to march on Berlin!
The gendarmes, alerted to the impossibility of my departure, would hear nothing of it. I had to leave, just like everyone else. I no longer belonged to myself, I belonged to the fatherland, like a soul condemned to Satan's power.
My family went crazy. In this situation, my political opponents who held the reins of municipal power, forgetting that I had done everything I could to oust them, went out of their way to pull me out of this mess. One of them took my father in his automobile and went to find the prefect of the Aude département who, hesitating, handed me over to the mercy of my recruitment commander, who responded that I had to join up as soon as I could.
A few days later, feeling strong enough to make the journey, I left for Narbonne to join the dépôt of the 125th Territorial Regiment installed in a former Capuchin monastery whose monks had been asked a few years earlier to go chant their daily offices in Spain.
A mob of soldiers filled Narbonne, dressed half in mufti, half in uniform. No one knew where to billet all these people running around with a purposefulness that disconcerted the military authorities themselves, who expected to have to deal with hundreds of slackers and deserters. But everyone stepped forward obediently to put their liberty in chains, to stoop beneath the yoke of militarism.
Narbonne—It's my first night there, curled up in a confessional booth of the former Capuchin church where we were all piled in.
Narbonne—Crowds of soldiers filling up hotels, cafés—and the coffers of the shopkeepers.
Narbonne—The departure of 80th Active [Line] Regiment for the frontier on August 7th, the 280th Active Reserve Regiment on the 13th, both in the midst of indescribable enthusiasm.
During the night of the 12th–13th it was the turn of the 125th Territorial Regiment, which left for Morocco. In spite of the void left by the departure of these three regiments, the streets were just as packed with pantalons rouges [red trousers].
Why call up, in the same week, on the same day, ten times more soldiers than were necessary, and bring normal life to such a sudden halt?
Wouldn't it have been simpler, more sensible, to call up each reserve class as needed? But no, the mistrustful military flung itself upon the public like a beast upon its prey, and clutched it to itself in the iron grip of discipline. Who knew if these people, so docile, wouldn't regain their senses and their strength, once the initial shock had passed?
That's why they called up everyone, from the beardless conscripts to the old codgers of the R.A.T., at the risk of not being able to house, feed, and clothe all this vile rabble.
We were kitted out in old, patched-up, filthy, ragged, cast-off clothing. Weren't we dazzling! As for food, that was even worse: having nothing or almost nothing to eat, we emptied our purses into the pockets of hotelkeepers, lousy cooks, and other tradespeople.
But we didn't complain too much because, at first, the discipline wasn't too rigorous. We still thought we were free men. But that couldn't last. We were soon subjected to the dictatorship of one Manival, named commandant of the different regimental depots of the city.
This paragon of militarism started out by confining us all to quarters all day long, obliging us to nibble on bad and meager food, and at night the doors opened only very late and then closed pitilessly at first call.
Day and night, patrols hunted those who tried to escape into town. I won't take the time to recount all the little irritants, the bothers, the big and petty tyrannies to which Manival subjected the garrison. That would take too long. This big striper was just right for running a prison hulk, not free men—but then we were no longer free, I forgot to say.
Meanwhile there was one fellow who defied Manival's authority, his orders, his instructions, with boldness and scorn. This man was known widely throughout Narbonne as "Falet," especially by the police, who picked him up almost daily, drunk on the sidewalk, after he had been amusing passersby with his songs, skits, and pantomime. He spent more nights in the town jail, sleeping off his wine, than he did in his barracks bunk, if he even had one.
The war had made Falet a soldier, but a drunk he was and a drunk he remained, all the more because, right then, wine was selling for almost nothing and was even given out for free at the winegrowers' association.
A drunk thrives on liberty, open space, fresh air. It was clear that our disciple of Bacchus wouldn't be content to stroll in the little garden where the monks had come to read their prayer books and where a few stunted pines grew. That's why he usually missed the roll calls and the drills.
In vain was he consigned to barracks. In vain were the sentries at the gates declared responsible for his whereabouts. Falet slipped between them like a needle, and disappeared.
One day, right under the captain's nose, Falet took off for the hills, or rather into town. I had the bad luck to be posted on guard duty, so the captain gave me the order to pursue the escapee and to bring him back into military custody.
Here I was, with four fellow guards, in pursuit of Falet. But he seemed to have sprouted wings. Our pursuit had no result other than attracting a bigger and bigger crowd of delighted street urchins, shouting, "You'll find him! No you won't!" We had to come back to the barracks empty-handed.
That night Falet held court in a café and made as much racket as four men. An officer told him to pipe down. Falet didn't take it well; he insulted the officer and even threatened him with a bayonet. The officer called in two policemen, who hauled Falet off to a dingy cell of the 80th Regiment.
The terrible Manival would no doubt have had this unlucky fellow shot out of hand, but Falet had earned the sympathy of the public, who saw him as a harmless and easygoing drunk. Furious to see his despotic authority held in check, the Narbonnais dictator made a public notice in his orders of the day, flaying the conduct of Private Assens, who was sullying the uniform which, at the front, his comrades were covering with glory, holding him up to everyone's scorn, nailing him to the pillory, et cetera.
Never had anyone piled such honors on Falet. They made him a celebrity. He was let go, but far from repenting, he continued to do honor to the local vintages, which made him the frequent guest of Commandant Manival in the prison of the Montmorency barracks, as you can imagine.
I mentioned that I arrived at Narbonne in a pitiful state of health. If I bring it up again, it's to point out the welcome I got from the majors [medical officers] whose help I sought.
There were two doctors in the reserve units at Narbonne itself. In no time they had sent back to the ranks a hundred sick men who paraded in front of them. You can understand that they weren't generous to me, despite my gaunt appearance.
"Well," they said to me, "you had a mortal illness, you pulled through, and you still have the nerve to complain, and waste our time?"
"But I still need some care," I insisted, "I still can't digest anything except milk."
"Enough. Who's next? Don't let us see you back here." That's how they sent me away, and how they sent away almost everyone who was sick.
The guy behind me showed a suppurative wound on his stomach. "That's nothing, it will scab up," they said without even examining the wound. "Next!" And so forth.
That very day this fellow and I went to report these facts to Ferroul, the sympathetic mayor of Narbonne, and asked for his help. When he heard what we had to say, he angrily crumpled up a piece of paper on his desk and threw it to the floor, but said nothing. What good would a protest of his have done, in this time of fever, of madness, when all of France was up in arms, in a state of siege?
Of course he lavished on us what care he could, freely, as he did to all the soldiers who came to him for help.
Soon Manival was putting us through long drill sessions, day and night. It was a relief when we were assigned to duty at the powder magazine, the firing range, the railway station, et cetera.
The firing range was on the banks of the Étang [lake] de Bages, and on shooting days our bullets chased the fishermen away.
A detail of four men and a corporal stood guard, day and night, at the cabin where they kept the targets, and also kept watch over the embankment behind the targets to keep bullet collectors away. The twenty-four hours of guard duty in this spot should have pleased me greatly, due to the peace and quiet, the wide-open space, the splendid view, the fresh air. But what made it very unpleasant was the company of millions of tiny, sharp-tongued mosquitoes that, as soon as the last ray of sunlight stretched across the lake, surged from the gorse and the bushes and attacked our poor skin, which nature had made so tender and sensitive.
We had to light brushfires, the smoke from which kept them at bay; it was the only weapon at our disposal. That wasn't all. When you wanted to lie down on the five filthy mattresses which the military authorities had so generously provided, or simply on the planks of the camp beds, you had to be completely overcome with fatigue so as to fall asleep before feeling the stingers of legions of famished ticks and lice, which infested these quarters, boring into your skin.
Back at the barracks, the fleas had multiplied so quickly since our arrival that sometimes you had to resort to bunking outside, under the pine trees in the garden, at the risk of catching a head cold or a stiff neck.
Duty at the railway station was more interesting, due to the variety of sights and sounds one could see there during the first few months of the war. The trains came and went without interruption, trains with Italian laborers heading home, refugees, war materiel, horses, and troops who adorned their railway cars as if they were going to a party, these unknowing ones.
How many bellicose, bragging inscriptions scrawled in chalk on the railway cars! One quickly saw the frivolous, childlike, presumptuous spirit of the French soldier. How many insults addressed to the Kaiser, to the Germans, that the officers should have erased if they had any sense of propriety or dignity.
Then, one day, came the arrival of the first trainload of wounded men. I was on duty at the station when the first such train rolled in.
What emotion! What a crowd! What enthusiasm! This was a big event. An hour before the arrival, something like twenty thousand people massed around the station, barely held back by a full company of soldiers which had to be reinforced.
Only the volunteer stretcher-bearers had the right to enter the platforms. To earn this envied privilege, local big shots and high officials signed up as porters.
Finally, at 9 in the evening, the train bearing the wounded flesh entered the station. At the sight of the first stretcher emerging from the waiting room, there was mass delirium. The crowd applauded, wept, stamped their feet, pushed, seeking a closer look, and finally broke through the cordon of troops which could only yield.
By midnight the last automobile had long ago taken away the last of the wounded, but a dense crowd still waited in front of the station. Who knows? Maybe another train was coming in.
Alas, in a week all the hospitals in the city were overflowing with wounded, and the authorities had to call upon the civic devotion of people willing to take care of wounded men in their homes. Oh, the inconstancy of enthusiasm, the fickleness of the mob. Barely a week after the first train arrived, indifference had already set in, hearts became blasé. There was no longer anyone curious enough to witness the arrival of wounded men, ever more numerous, who sometimes were billeted right at the station because there was nowhere to send them.
Excerpted from Poilu by Edward M. Strauss. Copyright © 2014 Robert Cowley. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Posted August 14, 2014
Posted July 6, 2014
Any young person who wants to VOLUNTARILY JOIN the military these days should read this book first. We haven't learned anything in the 100 years since the Great War. War isn't a fun computer game. We have had "shell shock" aka PTSD in at least all of the 20th Century wars including WWII (Patton slapping the soldier) and Vietnam. Most of those guys were drafted. I feel sorry for the way they were treated when they came home. And the homeless problems. But I in no way support what we did in Vietnam or its necessity. Anyhow, I am sorry you were so ill-informed that you joined our MERCENARY military and got a case of PTSD. But you voluntarily assumed that risk. You will have no excuse if you join up after carefully reading this book.
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Posted June 26, 2014
DRUM ROLL PLEASE........
THE DRAGON RIDER AND....... TALE OF LONDON STREET RATS!!! CONGRATS!!! Your stories where awesome!!! Please continue them and tell me where!! - Ari
0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.