from the book ‘For Dauntless France’
'Canteens in France'
by Laurence Binyon

Charity Work During the War

in a soldier's canteen: illustration by Georges Scott


At a Cantine d’IsoIés

About 8.30 one of us arrives at the canteen. Tables and chairs outside washed and dusted over. Games put out and the inkstands and writing things. Tisane made in the large marmite, which holds about 500 cups. This lasts two days as a rule—and is warmed up the second day, as they like it hot. It is extremely simple to make, being only "bois de reglisse" tied in a muslin bag and put into a large urn of boiling water and a few handfuls of mint or camomile, in another small piece of muslin, put in to flavour it. The men stand outside the hut, and they help themselves as they like. About 10.30 the other ladies arrive and then we make the coffee, the water for which is already boiling, and fires kept up by our own orderly, who also washes out the hut for us and fetches water and lights all the fires before we come. He also cleans the chimneys three times a week, which is most necessary to make them burn.

'The coffee is ready by 11.30 and distributed at the window of the canteen, two of us usually pouring out, one giving a sheet of paper and an envelope to every one who wishes for it, and on Wednesdays and Sundays they get a cigarette each also.

'This is the chief feature of the day, and gives great pleasure, as the dejeuner is at 11, and the hot coffee after it is much appreciated. We generally have our own combined tea and luncheon about 2.20, and tidy up the hut, as it is a very dirty and smoky place.

At 1.30 we take a small jug of milk food to the infirmaries who care for it, especially the men who cannot eat solid food, generally Benger's food, or creme d'orge, and one can take them any little present or comforts also; slippers are very useful, and we have had a gift of 25 pairs from the Belgravia War Work Rooms.

'There are four infirmaries, generally full, but as a rule no serious cases or wounds are sent there, only minor illnesses and wounds, frostbitten feet, sprains, etc.

'At 2.30 we have another distribution of cocoa (which is called chocolate), and this too is generally liked.

'About every other day there is a departure for the front of 10 to 50 men, and they generally let us know, when we give them a few cigarettes (3 to 5) and a small souvenir—a small looking-glass is a very favourite one, and also pencils, writing- cases, which can be got at home for 5d. now, and they also greatly like cards of London (6 for a 1d. at Straker's, 3 or 4 series of them.) The gramophone is a great pleasure, and we think of leaving it here. There are some good records. English songs are not much use, we find, but good French songs or opera selections, flute or cornet solos, etc., are very suitable and give much pleasure; they like them very much in the infirmaries too, and it is often borrowed for an hour or so. One very favourite amusement is zigzag puzzles—of which one cannot have too many. Also cards; and we have introduced "Halma," also "Spoof," with good effect. A small board with indiarubber rings and darts to throw at a cardboard target; bumble-puppy, played with old lawn-tennis racquets, now mostly broken, etc., are all popular. We have also attempted Clock Golf. They love talking too—of their wives and families—as they are not allowed to go out at all, and their families, even if quite near, only allowed to come for an hour in the afternoon; they feel like prisoners. Sometimes one can do messages and commissions for them, getting a watch repaired, buying something or other—and many little odds and ends. We were able to let one man's wife know where he was, to their pleasure, as they are not allowed to mention the name of the place in writing. They seem quite to look upon us as friends, and certainly the canteen helps to brighten them and make what would be a very dreary time of convalescence and repose into a bright and cheery one, and we get many letters and postcards from them when they leave, thanking us for what we have done.

‘At 5 o'clock they have soup, and the day is over. We therefore catch the 5 o'clock train back to Paris—in a quarter of an hour. This makes an excellent starting point.'


At a Cantine des Eclopés

‘It is 9 A.M., and the first lady on duty arrives. She hopes (and is not usually disappointed, as the orderly is a very efficient one) to find the big marmite coming to the boil on its r£chaud. The said orderly, who claims descent from St. Louis, has probably been there since 6.30 A.M. cleaning up, carrying the water for the day and lighting the fires. There are two réchauds and two stoves in the small canteen kitchen, although usually the rechaud and the large stove are sufficient. On this stove is another marmite, only smaller, in which the morning's bouillon and puree are cooking. Bouillon and purée de legumes, which seem essentially French fare, are very simple in their making. Any available vegetables (and when are masses of vegetables not available in France, even in war-time, though at war-prices— particularly where English purses are concerned?)—carrots, turnips, potatoes, cabbage, etc., are all sliced up and boiled in the big pot. The vegetables are then fished out from the "bouillon," and passed through a cullender until, as a delightful squash and mixed with some white sauce, they are served out in portions to those men in the infirmary who are on special diet, and to the edentes, the dentist's patients whose toothless condition is supposed to render them unable to eat the barrack ration, but who we strongly suspect often manage to consume the two!

‘A liberal allowance of sugar and the bags of coffee having now been put into the big marmite and a few odd jobs done, such as arranging flowers round the statuette of Joan of Arc and putting out illustrated papers and puzzles (the men love "Jig-Saws," and the "Road to Serbia" and "French Football" are always wearing out owing to constant use and vigorous shakings) on the trestle table in front of the canteen, where benches are also provided, we are ready for the chief business of the day— the serving out of the coffee. The stream of customers begins about 10.30, when the bugle sounds the first " Soupe "—the dejeuner a la fourchette of the éclopés— these are the men sent into the barracks for minor ailments.

'The first to come are orderlies from the infirmary and the edentds to fetch the bouillon and puree, and any still more special diets that they may have been ordered by the Medecin-chef, such as eggs, or a portion of beef-steak, or puree of macaroni, which is often given in place of the purée of legumes.

‘There are messengers with pails and armed with "bons" signed by the sergeant of each batiment, to say how many are to have coffee sent to them. These "bons" are always rather mysterious; for all the men in these barracks except those in the infirmary are supposed to be walking cases, but many, sometimes to the number of fifty or sixty in a batiment, seem to prefer their morning coffee taken to them, and this number has an amusing way of increasing if the day happens to be wet.

‘After the pails are disposed of, our regular customers arrive, those who having finished their meal like to stroll round to the canteen and have a little chat over their morning cup, or "quart" of coffee. These "quarts " (quarter of a litre measure) are typically French, a tin cup which every soldier carries in his pocket, or hidden somewhere about his uniform, and one cannot help thinking what an immense saving of labour it would make in the strenuous "washing up" in some of our,English canteens, if our men did the same! But perhaps the British Tommy would hardly appreciate the one tin cup to serve all purposes when he is not actually in the trenches; and certainly these quarts show few signs of any washing between the various drinks—red wine, coffee, tea, lemonade, cocoa—which are poured into them.

‘It is now about 11.30, and the three lady workers, for the other two have now arrived, sit down to a hurried lunch before the next stream, which has "soupe," somewhat later commences. These are the "Petits Blessés," and form a long procession, as their batiments send no pails. These barracks were intended for Eclopés only, but during the big offensive in Champagne this spring and summer, half of them were given over to the " Petits Blesses," and very glad we were to take them on among our customers. They are a wonderfully cheery, patient, and amusing crowd, and very ready to talk and recount their experiences; but at this hour there is little time except to say "bon jour," and to hear if there is any special news, for by now the morning papers have arrived, and if the English have made any especially brilliant bit of advance, they are here to be the first to tell us. It takes two workers all their time, one pouring out through the canteen window, and the other filhng the pipes from the big marmite behind, to get the stream passed along.

'When that is over a jug of coffee is taken down to the Ambulance Infirmary for those who are too wounded to walk, and also picture papers, books, puzzles, and writing paper—for the French Poilu is a great scribe and his wife too; a man will often say how anxious he is if he has not had a letter from home for three days!

‘From 1 to 2.30 there is rather a pause, as the men are having their afternoon rest, and the early worker goes home while the other two write French letters and make up packets of cigarettes for the men who have gone back to the trenches. This keeping in touch with our old customers is one of the delightful parts of canteen work, and the men write such charming letters. The French Poilu is much less reserved than our English Tommy; he does not try to hide his feelings, and loves to talk about his wife and children or his fiancee, and to tell of the doings of his regiment. It is not that our Tommies are less patriotic in their attitude towards the war, but that the Frenchman does not mind expressing what he feels, particularly in his letters.

'Many of the men give us their addresses when they leave, and some who have no relations ask us to become a Marraine (Godmother) for the war, as they do appreciate having some one to write to and who will write to them.

'But to return to the daily routine of the Cantine. During the afternoon lemonade is served out, or, if it should be cold, tea or coffee, which the men are very fond of. Unless it is wet, the gramophone is brought out, and the men sit on the benches in front of the canteen, smoking (for cigarettes are handed round) and looking at the papers. They are very fond of the gramophone, and sing the French songs, especially those from well-known operas, best of all—often though they will ask for English songs, "Tipperary" or "Rule Britannia," though one always has a suspicion that this is due to French politeness and out of compliment to us. They have a great admiration for the English soldiers, and will always tell us with great pride if they have been beside any of our troops, and if they have made friends with them or exchanged presents. The English hospitals, too, seem to amaze and delight them. The nursing, the splendid food, the jam, the luxuriousness of it all, impresses them very much. Several had been in English hospitals at Havre or along the coast, and one man, who had been at the Scottish Women's Hospital at Royaumont, was very full of the happy time he had spent there. At 5 P.M. more bouillon and puree and special diets are sent out to the infirmary, and at 6 P.M. the canteen closes.

'There are certain variations in the work. One afternoon a week we give a gramophone concert in the Ambulance Infirmary, also serving "dessert," stewed fruit and custard, to those who are not able to come to the canteen. These "Smoking Concerts" are very popular.

'Two days a week "partants" leave; those men returning to the front, and this forms quite a little ceremony. We are warned of the number beforehand, and then when the men are fully equipped in their new uniforms, with all their paraphernalia (including always a large loaf of bread and one or two tins of Singe (bully beef) strapped on their backs, they come to the canteen to say "Au Revoir." They always insist on this form of good-bye, though they can only return by being ill or wounded! Each man carries away some packets of cigarettes, a slab of chocolate, writing-paper, a very gaudy red handkerchief "made in Birmingham," which they seem to prize greatly, and a "porte-bonheur," a little medal of the Virgin or one of the Saints.

‘Sunday is a great morning in the barracks, the authorities providing an extra good "soupe," often adding asparagus or some luxury that may be plentiful, and each man gets three cigarettes from us when he comes for his coffee. To arrange this fairly and to prevent overlapping, we devised a system of counters which much amuses the men. On Saturday the two bureaux, those of the Eclopés and the Ambulance, obtain from us the number of counters they require and distribute them, and on Sunday morning each man returns his counter to the canteen and gets his three cigarettes.

‘About once a month and on special fete-days we present cigarettes to the Guard and also to the Chasseurs, the large body of men who are employed in looking after the sick and wounded horses, for the outer ring of the barracks contains stabling for hundreds of horses sent down from the front to be cured or otherwise disposed of.

‘The distribution of cigarettes amounts to about twelve thousand a month, and is the largest item of the canteen expenses, as in our barracks the authorities allow us to "toucher" the coffee and sugar.

‘Once a week the authorities provide a concert in the barracks, which, if fine, is held out of doors. These concerts are often very good indeed, though the artistes are nearly all from among the men themselves, but in a Republican Conscript Army there are naturally all sorts and conditions of men and of talent.

‘A description of the canteen would be incomplete without mention of the Arabs and Senegalese—for we have many of these. The Algerian Arabs are generally very delightful and appreciative, and very happy when one can talk to them about their own country. They seem rather in banishment, as, when their "Permission" comes, they are not allowed to go home, possibly owing to the dangers of the crossing and also to the time it would take out of the eight days allowed, but are sent to some place in France, which though no doubt very pleasant is hardly the same as their beloved Algeria.

‘They especially appreciate our coffee, as most of them keep strictly to their religion and never drink the wine which is served out in the barrack rations. On the whole, though, they seem fairly content, as they mix happily with the other men, and generally speak French fairly well. Coming, too, from a warlike race, they do not seem to dislike their job, and love to tell of the fighting in which they have taken part—their description of how the Arab fights, taking no prisoners, being sometimes a little too graphic.

‘The most pathetic men are the Senegalese, as they understand very little French and seem to be like little children, drawn into a vortex which they do not understand. Like children though, they are made happy by very small things—they love sweets, and it is amusing to see a huge Senegalese beaming with joy over a handful of peppermints (their chief favourites) or an extra allowance of sugar in the pail of coffee that he has been sent to fetch for his batiment!’


At a Foyer du Soldat

‘It is nine o'clock and we are opening for the day. Already there waits a crowd of shivering Poilus very eager for the hot coffee which is ready in a huge "marmite," which will be filled again and again before the end of the day. A bowl of coffee and a crust of bread content the abstemious Frenchman, and he soon goes off to the duties of the morning, or, if au repos, settles down to his newspaper or a game of draughts or chess. In come some "passage" men in full marching kit, who demand bouillon, and are glad to lay aside their heavy packs and sit down and rest while it is being prepared. The next arrivals are half a dozen Moroccans, brown-faced and turbaned; sometimes we have Senegalese with jet-black skin and dazzling white teeth, or sallow Mongolians from Cochin; or perhaps a party of Breton "permissionnaires," with an hour or two to wait between trains, comes in to while away the time with a game of cards or "jacquet." And presently every one is at the windows to watch a battalion swinging down the street on its way to the trenches—a symphony of soft dull blue in the wintry sunshine, from helmet to puttees—all that "bleu horizon" which will presently melt into the blue mists lying in the forest glades, and so be lost to sight. Very gay and cheery they are, from the band which leads to the humble field-kitchens which bring up the rear, but we notice some wistful glances directed to the Foyer windows. But they may not stop; we can only wave our hands and wish them "bonne chance," and on they go, while we return to the interrupted coffee-making and the other duties of a busy morning.

‘At noon we close the large room for a couple of hours, so that it may be swept and aired in readiness for the afternoon, and one worker remains to make chocolate for the evening, while the others go off to lunch. From one to two there is an English lesson, at which six or seven pupils of varying degrees of proficiency present themselves. They are very keen to learn, and enjoy the lessons as much, we hope, as their teachers, in spite of the difficulties of the terrible English "th" and the vagaries of our pronunciation, so trying to the logical French mind.

‘Before we are ready for it, two o'clock has struck and the business of the afternoon begins. The room is fuller now than in the morning; more coffee is asked for, and between four and five, when hot and thirsty footballers come in and demand tea— often in very good English—you might almost fancy yourself in a Y.M.C.A. hut. But there is no sale of tickets here—no payment of any kind, for everything is given free. We are under the auspices of the British Committee of the French Red Cross, and, as is the rule in all their canteens, nothing may be charged for. The French private soldier's pay is still only 25d. a day, unless he is actually in the trenches, and, though some have means of their own, others, men from the pays envahis are terribly poor.

‘From five o'clock onwards the room grows fuller and fuller, and by the time every one has come back from "la soupe" (the evening meal) every table is occupied, many games are going on, and a hefty pianist is playing rag-time on the long-suffering piano, to a circle of admiring friends.

‘The red chechias of a little party of Zouaves strike a bright note of colour at a table near the counter. One of the quartette is rather excited, and remarks "Madame, je vous aime," to the lady who has just handed him a bowl of coffee. His friends, scandalised, explain, "II a trop bu," which, alas, is pretty obvious. But drunkenness is very rare, and we hardly ever have to turn out an obstreperous client. It is very difficult to enforce a rule which forbids our guests to stand on benches, chairs, and tables, for when the music begins—and there is generally more or less of a concert going on between 6.30 and 8— there simply is not standing room on the floor. But the inevitable crowding and jostling is taken in good part, and anything like quarrelling is unknown.

The music is, naturally, of varying quality. Sometimes we have a singer or violinist who is known in the concert-rooms of Paris or Nice; sometimes the performer is a shy boy who forgets his words and is not very sure of the tune, but always the audience listens with enjoyment; faces are turned expectantly towards the piano, and the demand for coffee slackens for a while.

‘At a quarter to eight, it is time to begin the giving out of chocolate—a beverage which is very, very popular.

‘Bowls are filled and emptied, washed and refilled again and again, till perhaps two hundred have been given out, and a warning whistle from the corporal in charge tells us that it is time to close. Some of our friends leave "wi' deefficulty," but we have to be firm, for the cafés in the town are obliged to shut at eight, and rules are rules. A good deal of clearing up has to be done, and chocolate provided for the excellent helpers who have worked hard for us all the evening; but all is finished by 8.30; our good friend the corporal unbolts the big door—carefully barred to prevent the re- entering of strayed revellers—and sees us out with a cheery " a demain."

‘There is little to mark the days—except the cigarettes which are given on Sundays and Thursdays—the excitement when a new division arrives, the lamentations when our best friends bid us goodbye and go back to the line.

‘Sunday is perhaps our busiest day, for that afternoon we have visitors from all the neighbouring villages. Four hundred bowls of coffee between two o'clock and " Soupe " is no unusual amount to give, and the housekeeper has anxious moments, wondering whether enough coffee has been made, and if the sugar will hold out. We often use twenty pounds a day of the latter, and it is only to be had once in four days from the military authorities—needless to say, it is useless to ask for it at the shops.

‘Then there are days of bitter black frost, when there is no water or gas available, and we have to keep our friends waiting while the pipes are being laboriously thawed; wintry days when snow from two or three hundred pairs of feet covers the floor with slush; and mild days when we gasp for air, and are thankful when a newly-broken window admits a welcome "courant d'air."

‘If space permitted, and I were not afraid of wearying you, there are other things that I should like to tell you of—the "Arts and Crafts" Exhibition at Christmas, which evoked, besides the metal work in which the Poilu is proficient, sketches in oil and water-colour, embroidery (done in the trenches), poetry of no mean order, and musical compositions—of the welcome given to our countrymen when one day some English artillery passed through the town, and "Tipperary," which is regarded as "l'hymne anglaise," equally with "God Save the King," was called for and sung with acclamation. And I should like to quote from some of the letters which reach us, from camp and trench and dug-out, where amid hardships and danger and death men think gratefully of the peace and comfort of the Foyer. In graceful French or the quaintest of halting English, all are alike in their gratitude and affectionate appreciation of English friendship and goodwill. '


Some Canteens in the War Zone

‘Some of the soldiers insist on paying something; and when we say that all is gratuity they say we must give it to the blessés. The older men with families are only too thankful to get a good meal for nothing, as everything costs so much now. Besides, in this part of the world so many cafes are shut, or only open for a short time daily. And many have two, or even three days' journey after they leave us, so that several francs a day mounts up.

‘We had a boy of nineteen the other day who asked for ‘a very little bouillon," and took out his purse. He was told that it was all free; and that we gave bouillon, meat, and coffee. He looked immensely relieved, and ate a large plate of bouillon and a big slice of meat; and then he confided to us that he had a long journey before him, and everything cost so much. So we "stoked" him thoroughly before he started. He was just a hungry boy with a healthy appetite.

‘I explained to a man one day that all was gratuit, when he had put down fifty centimes. He picked it up and then put it down again, for I told him that the Government gave the meat and coffee, and we did the cooking only. "But why should you take all that trouble for nothing?" said he, and offered me the money. I said, "Monsieur, it is not for nothing, it is for the pleasure it gives us to do something for the French Army!" He looked perfectly delighted; said that was really chic, and resumed his money. They certainly meet all friendliness more than half-way.

‘Any man that speaks English, however little, always airs it. It is sometimes a little surprising, and frequently has a marked American accent. One gentleman this morning, at our 5 A.M. reception, saluted me with "Well, Girls!" in a very American voice, as he put his quart down for some coffee. It was said in a most polite tone, which made it sound extremely funny. ‘Oh, you speak English!" said I, and he beamed with satisfaction. Yesterday we had a French Hindu with an Indian detachment; a corporal, smart and intelligent. He had been in an English family in Madras; spoke excellent English, and said what a pleasure it was to hear English ladies' voices again. Many tell us they hope to come to England after the war.

‘A good many of our men come from the pays envahis. We have put up in the foyer of the canteen the addresses of societies helping to find or get news of refugiés. It is very sad for the per-missionnaires who have no home or family. Two came through the other day, who were to spend their leave in barracks in Paris. I suppose they would be the better for a change from the trenches; but it was pathetic, when all the others had somewhere to go where they were sure of a welcome. We gave them an address in Paris.


Respectueux Souvenir des Soldats du ------ Régt. d'Infantrie

Vigilantes et secourables,
A qui paya l'impôt du sang,
Vous êtes toutes adorables,
Aimables Misses de Bussang.
Pour nous les permissionnaires
Vos soins affables et charmants
Paraissent les préliminaires
Du doux accueil de nos mamans.
Dans la tendresse qui nous gagne
Nous regrettons pourtant ici,
O sœurs de la Grande Bretagne!
De ne vous dire que Merci.
Puissons-nous, bien chère espérance,
Vous prouver en un prochain jour
Avec notre reconnaissance
Notre plus fraternel amour.

V-------, Caporal,

Signaleur du Ier Bataillon — Rt.


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