- from 'T.P.'s Journal of Great Deeds of the Great War' October 31st, 1914
- 'French Hosts'
- The Lighter Side of War
- French Hospitality
the hardships of war
The British campaign in France is not all fatigues and fighting. The British private does not spend the whole of his time in the trenches battling desperately with a desperate enemy. He has his relaxations. He is seeing something of France, and he is learning a good deal about the kindly French people. And in his contact with France and with the French folk the British Tommy is as human as ever, and is filling for himself a volume of experiences grave and gay, touching, pathetic, and, above all, humorous, that makes delightful reading.
Les Tommies !
Tommy, of course, is having a good time, for "Les Tommies" are adored all over France, and nothing is too good for them. They take the adulation with good humour and without swelled heads (that, indeed, is one of the reasons for their popularity). Already they have, to a certain extent, acclimatised themselves to the French "fag" of caporal, which is "All right," though already they have said their say with a certain vehemence on the "rottenness" of the Gallic conception of what good "beer " should be. French wines still fill them with a certain amount of diffidence. A correspondent of a London paper came upon a Frenchman with his wife watching a soldier to whom they had generously given some wine of the country. Tommy, looking dubiously at the liquor, which tasted sour, thought he would make certain of its strength, and asked : "Look 'ere, does this 'ere stuff get into your 'ead? " and receiving in return an unintelligent smile, took it to be friendly, and drank with mixed pleasure a large quantity out of politeness. The coinage, too, is a perplexing quantity. It seems built on the wrong lines. Why a big coin, seemingly of silver, should be only half the value of a small silver coin is a bit of a mystery. The journalist was called in to settle a heated argument upon the subject amongst some of the East Lancashires, and when he explained that the big coin was only nickel, while the other was silver, there was much laughter.
Tommy Likes France
On the whole, Tommy likes France, though in certain things he feels that the French have a lot to learn from his own country. Private Talbot, of the Army Service Corps, is, for instance, an indulgent critic:
"As regards France in general," he says, "they are a long way behind England in so far as trains, 'buses, etc., are concerned, but the country is simply handsome. There is not a bit of idle land anywhere, for all you can see for miles is nothing but wheat and fruit trees. The houses and villages, I should think, were built years ago. They put you in mind of the old-fashioned pictures of villages you see at home. The people are the most cordial I have seen, and at the present moment they would give you their hearts if they could."
"They Would Give their Hearts"
"They would give you their hearts if they could." Certainly the French people are willing and ready to give all to the troops who came to their aid in the moment of need. And it is not only the well-off who give, but the poor as well. It was of the poor that Mme. la Princesse de Poix wrote in a letter:
"Old men and women, children even, when the British wounded pass through town or village, bring them the best they have. It is a common sight to see them give our patients the milk kept for the baby's bottle, who will have to do with water for twenty-four hours in consequence, their only and much-valued bottle of champagne or old wine, and to serve them such tea, coffee, or chocolate as they have in the pots and cups kept for great occasions. One private from Lancashire showed me an agricultural medal an old man had given him : ' It is not much in itself, I daresay,' he said, to excuse the tears in his eyes, ' but I could see it was what he was proudest of ; so you see I have to keep it careful.' Every day we get fresh instances of this feeling."
The Uhlans' Dinner
There is an instance where the British soldier took what he wanted for himself, but even then what he took was generously given, though for a specific reason. The story is contained in a letter from Trooper Walter Dale, of the 2nd Royal Dragoons, and this is the way he tells it:
"One day last week we were on the move, and were about as hungry as men could be, when we came on a party of Uhlans just about to sit down to a nice dinner, which had been prepared for them at a big house.
"They looked as if they had had too much of a good time lately, and wanted thinning down, so we took them prisoners, and let them watch us enjoying thek dinner. They didn't like it at all, and one of them muttered something about an English pig. The baby of the troop asked him outside to settle it with the fists, but he wasn't having it. After the best dinner I've had in my life we went round to where the Uhlans had commandeered the supplies, and offered to pay, but the people were so pleased that we had got the food instead of the Germans that they. wouldn't hear of payment."
A Ruse for a Meal
There have been times, however, when the British have not been welcomed in the usual warm and generous way.
"After the battle of Mons," an officer narrates, "we were billeted at a large farmhouse, the occupants of which did not seem very pleased to see us. We had not touched any eatables for several hours, and I made the housewife understand that we wanted some food. She looked at us in a way which was not altogether an expression of friendliness, and, pointing at the table, round which a number of working men were gathered, to whom she was serving their meals, she said, 'Après les ouvriers.' We waited patiently till the men had finished their meal, and then asked once more for food. But the woman merely remarked, Après nous.' And she and her husband subsequently prepared to eat their supper. It is rather trying to see somebody making an attack on a hearty meal while one has not tasted any food for a long time. So I demanded, in the name of the King, that we should be supplied with foodstuff immediately, the more as (I had every reason to believe) the woman seemed to be unwilling to grant our wishes.
"The situation was rather awkward, and I was wondering why these French peasantry were so extremely unkind towards British soldiers. Suddenly it entered my mind that perhaps she thought we were Germans, and at the same time I had something like a happy thought in order to prove that we were no enemies. One of our men, a tall, heavy chap, who was still outside the house, was ordered to substitute a German helmet for his own cap, and to knock at the door. He did, the door was opened, we dashed forward, and made 'the German' a prisoner. The whole scene changed all of a sudden. The whole family embraced us, almost choked us. Food and wine and dainties were supplied at once, and we had a most glorious time."
The Laugh on Tommy
Not only the French peasant, however, makes mistakes in identity. The laugh on one occasion was on the British soldier. A correspondent of the Daily Chronicle, sleeping in a French village, woke up in the, morning "to the sound of someone making lurid remarks in the purest ' Billingsgatese,' apparently quite close to the head of my bed, and so I opened my window, and looked out on the grinning face of Tommy Atkins sitting on his 'hunkers' on the top of a service wagon piled high with sacks full of some sort: of army supplies. 'Mornin', guv'nor,' said he, 'we've just called for the empties.' Another voice from the rear of the wagon beseeched me in husky tones 'not to wake the missus,' and to give his love to 'little Chawles.' Various other remarks of a like nature, and then I realised that in my half-awake condition, decked out in a suit of pyjamas of unmistakably French appearance, I was being: mistaken for the master of the house. So I called: ' I say, you chaps, how would a bottle of Bass go down, eh?' "
Tommy was taken aback for a moment, but he accepted it in good part, and apologised for any insult he might have afflicted. "Only a bit o' kid, sir, not meaning no 'arm"; and, having been reassured, he drank his Bass and went on his happy way again, the way that is winning hearts in France and winning battles against Germany.
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