'The Play-Boys of Brittany'
'Les Fusiliers Marins'
by Arthur Gleason
from his book 'Golden Lads' 1916

 
Impressions of the French Naval Infantry Division
 

illustrations of French fusiliers marins in action
see also French Marine Fusiliers at Dixmude

 

At times in my five months at the front I have been puzzled by the sacrifice of so much young life; and most I have wondered about the Belgians. I had seen their first army wiped out; there came a time when I no longer met the faces I had learned to know at Termonde and Antwerp and Alost. A new army of boys has dug itself in at the Yser, and the same wastage by gun-fire and disease is at work on them. One wonders with the Belgians if the price they pay for honor is not too high. There is a sadness in the eyes of Belgian boy soldiers that is not easy to face. Are we quite worthy of their sacrifice? Why should the son of Ysaye die for me? Are you, comfortable reader, altogether sure that Pierre Depage and Andre Simont are called on to spill their blood for your good name?

Then one turns with relief to the Fusiliers Marins — the sailors with a rifle. Here are young men at play. They know they are the incomparable soldiers. The guns have been on them for fifteen months, but they remain unbroken. Twice in the year, if they had yielded, this might have been a short war. But that is only saying that if Brittany had a different breed of men the world and its future would contain less hope. They carry the fine liquor of France, and something of their own added for bouquet. They are happy soldiers — happy in their brief life, with its flash of daring, and happy in their death. It is still sweet to die for one's country, and that at no far-flung outpost over the seas and sands, but just at the home border. As we carried our wounded sailors down from Nieuport to the great hospital of Zuydcoote on the Dunkirk highway, there is a sign- board, a bridge, and a custom-house that mark the point where we pass from Belgium into France. We drove our ambulance with the rear curtain raised, so that the wounded men, lying on the stretchers, could be cheered by the flow of scenery. Sometimes, as we crossed that border-line, one of the men would pick it up with his eye, and would say to his comrade: "France! Now we are in France, the beautiful country."

"What do you mean?" I asked one lad, who had brightened visibly.

"The other countries," he said, "are flat and dirty. The people are of mixed races. France is not so."

It has been my fortune to watch the sailors at work from the start of the war. I was in Ghent when they came there, late, to a hopeless situation. Here were youngsters scooped up from the decks, untrained in trenches, and rushed to the front; but the sea- daring was on them, and they knew obedience and the hazards. They helped to cover the retreat of the Belgians and save that army from annihilation by banging away at the German mass at Melle. Man after man developed a fatalism of war, and expressed it to us.

"Nothing can hit you till your time," was often their way of saying it; "it's no use dodging or being afraid. You won't be hit till your shell comes." And another favorite belief of theirs that brought them cheer was this: "The shell that will kill you you won't hear coming. So you'll never know."

These sailor lads thrive on lost causes, and it was at Ghent they won from the Germans their nickname of "Les demoiselles au pompon rouge." The saucy French of that has a touch beyond any English rendering of "the girls with the red pompon." "Les demoiselles au pompon rouge" paints their picture at one stroke, for they thrust out the face of a youngster from under a rakish blue sailor hat, crowned with a fluffy red button, like a blue flower with a red bloom at its heart. I rarely saw an aging marin. There are no seasoned troops so boyish. They wear open dickies, which expose the neck, full, hard, well-rounded. The older troops, who go laggard to the spading, have beards that extend down the collar; but a boy has a smooth, clean neck, and these sailors have the throat of youth. We must once have had such a race in our cow-boys and Texas rangers — level-eyed, careless men who know no masters, only equals. The force of gravity is heavy on an old man. But marins are not weighted down by equipment nor muffled with clothing. They go bobbing like corks, as though they would always stay on the crest of things. And riding on top of their lightness is that absurd bright-red button in their cap. The armies for five hundred miles are sober, grown-up people, but here are the play- boys of the western front.

From Ghent they trooped south to Dixmude, and were shot to .pieces in that "Thermopylae of the North."

"Hold for four days," was their order.

They held for three weeks, till the sea came down and took charge. During those three weeks we motored in and out to get their wounded. Nothing of orderly impression of those days remains to me. I have only flashes of the sailor-soldiers curved over and snaking along the battered streets behind slivers of wall, handfuls of them in the Hotel de Ville standing around waiting in a roar of noise and a bright blaze of burning houses — waiting till the shelling fades away.

Then for over twelve months they held wrecked Nieuport, and I have watched them there week after week. There is no drearier post on earth. One day in the pile of masonry thirty feet from our cellar refuge the sailors began throwing out the bricks, and in a few minutes they uncovered the body of a comrade. All the village has the smell of desolation. That smell is compounded of green ditch-water, damp plaster, wet clothing, blood, straw, and antiseptics. The nose took it as we crossed the canal, and held it till we shook ourselves on the run home. Thirty minutes a day in that soggy wreck pulled at my spirits for hours afterward. But those chaps stood up to it for twenty-four hours a day, lifting a cheery face from a stinking cellar, hopping about in the tangle, sleeping quietly when their "night off" comes. As our chauffeur drew his camera, one of them sprang into a bush entanglement, aimed his rifle, and posed.

I recollect an afternoon when we had word of an attack. We were grave, because the Germans are strong and fearless.

"Are they coming?" grinned a sailor. "Let them come. We are ready."

We learned to know many of the Fusiliers Marins and to grow fond of them. How else could it be when we went and got them, sick and wounded, dying and dead, two, six, ten of them a day, for many weeks, and brought them in to the Red Cross post for a dressing, and then on to the hospital? I remember a young man in our ambulance. His right foot was shot away, and the leg above was wounded. He lay unmurmuring for all the tossing of the road over the long miles of the ride. We lifted him from the stretcher, which he had wet with his blood, into the white cot in "Hall 15" of Zuydcoote Hospital. The wound and the journey had gone deeply into his vitality. As he touched the bed, his control ebbed, and he became violently sick at the stomach. I stooped to carry back the empty stretcher. He saw I was going away, and said, "Thank you." I knew I should not see him again, not even if I came early next day.

There is one unfading impression made on me by those wounded. If I call it good nature, I have given only one element in it. It is more than that: it is a dash of fun. They smile, they wink, they accept a light for their cigarette. It is not stoicism at all. Stoicism is a grim holding on, the jaws clenched, the spirit dark, but enduring. This is a thing of wings. They will know I am not making light of their pain in writing these words. I am only saying that they make light of it. The judgment of men who are soon to die is like the judgment of little children. It does not tolerate foolish words. Of all the ways of showing you care that they suffer there is nothing half so good as the gift of tobacco. As long as I had any money to spend, I spent it on packages of cigarettes.

When the Marin officers found out we were the same people that had worked with them at Melle five months before, they invited my wife and three other nurses to luncheon in a Nieuport cellar. Their eye brightens at sight of a woman, but she is as safe with them as with a cowboy or a Quaker. The guests were led down into a basement, an eighteen foot room, six feet high. The sailors had covered the floor and papered the walls with red carpet. A tiny oil stove added to the warmth of that blazing carpet. More than twenty officers and doctors crowded into the room, and took seats at the table, lighted by two lamps. There were a dozen plates of patisserie, a choice of tea, coffee, or chocolate, all hot, white and red wine, and then champagne. An orderly lifted in a little wooden yacht, bark-rigged, fourteen inches long, with white painted sails. A nurse spilled champagne over the tiny ship, till it was drenched, and christened. The chief doctor made a speech of thanks. Then the ship went around the table, and each guest wrote her name on the sails. The party climbed out into the garden, where the shells were going high overhead like snowballs. In amongst the blackened flowers, a 16-inch shell had left a hole of fifty feet diameter. One could have dropped two motor cars into the cavity.

Who but Marins would have devised a celebration for us on July 4th The commandant, the captain, and a brace of lieutenants opened eleven bottles of champagne in the Cafe du Sport at Coxyde in honor of our violation of neutrality. It was little enough we were doing for those men, but they were moved to graceful speech. We were hard put to it, because one had to tell them that much of the giving for a hundred years had been from France to us, and our showing in this war is hardly the equal of the aid they sent us when we were invaded by Hessian troops and a German king.

Marins whom we know have the swift gratitude of simple natures, not too highly civilized to show when they are pleased. After we had sent a batch of their wounded by hospital train from Adinkerke, the two sailors, who had helped us, invited my American friend and me into the estaminet across the road from the station, and bought us drinks for an hour. We had been good to their mates, so they wanted to be good to us.

When we lived in barraquement, just back of the admiral's house, our cook was a Marin with a knack at omelettes. If we had to work through the night, going into black Nieuport, and down the ten-mile road to Zuydcoote, returning weary at midnight, a brave supper was laid out for us of canned meats, wines, and jellies — all set with the touch of one who cared. It was no hasty, slapped-down affair. We were carrying his comrades, and he was helping us to do it.

It was an officer of a quite other regiment who, one time when we were off duty, asked us to carry him to his post in the Dunes. We made the run for him, and, as he jumped from the car, he offered us a franc. Marins pay back in friendship. The Red Cross station to which we reported, Poste de Secours des Marins, was conducted by Monsieur le Docteur Rolland, and Monsieur Le Doze. Our workers were standing guests at their officers' mess. The little sawed-off sailor in the Villa Marie where I was billetted made coffee for two of us each morning.

Our friends have the faults of young men, flushed with life. They are scornful of feeble folk, of men who grow tired, who think twice before dying. They laugh at middle age. The sentries amuse them, the elderly chaps who duck into their caves when a few shells are sailing overhead. They have no charity for frail nerves. They hate races who don't rally to a man when the enemy is hitting the trail. They must wait for age to gain pity, and the Bretons will never grow old. They are killed too fast. And yet, as soon as I say that, I remember their rough pity for their hurt comrades. They are as busy as a hospital nurse in laying a blanket and swinging the stretcher for one of their own who has been "pinked." They have a hovering concern. I have had twenty come to the ambulance to help shove in a "blessť," and say good-by to him, and wave to him as long as the road left him in their sight. The wounded man, unless his back bound him down, would lift his head from the stretcher, to give back their greetings. It was an eager exchange between the whole men and the injured one. They don't believe they can be broken till the thing comes, and there is curiosity to see just what has befallen one like themselves.

When it came my time to say good-by, my sailor friend, who had often stopped by my car to tell me that all was going well, ran over to share in the excitement. I told him I was leaving, and he gave me a smile of deep-understanding amusement. Tired so soon? That smile carried a live consciousness of untapped power, of the record he and his comrades had made. It showed a disregard of my personal feelings, of all adult human weakness. That was the picture I carried away from the Nieuport line — the smiling boy with his wounded arm, alert after his year of war, and more than a little scornful of one who had grown weary in conditions so prosperous for young men.

I rode away from him, past the Coxyde encampment of his comrades. There they were as I had often seen them, with the peddlers cluttering their camp — candy men, banana women; a fringe of basket merchants about their grim barracks; a dozen peasants squatting with baskets of cigarettes, fruit, vegetables, foolish, bright trinkets. And over them bent the boys, dozens of them in blue blouses, stooping down to pick up trays, fingering red apples and shining charms, chaffing, dickering, shoving one another, the old loves of their childhood still tangled in their being.

So when I am talking about the sailors as if they were heroes, suddenly something gay comes romping in. I see them again, as I have so often seen them in the dunes of Flanders, and what I see is a race of children.

"Don't forget we are only little ones," they say. "We don't die; we are just at play."

 

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