from ‘the War Illustrated’ 14ih April, 1917.
M. Poilu As I Know Him
by Basil Clarke
Special Correspondent on the Western Front

Pen-Portraits Of Our Fighting Friends

left : from a coverpage of 'le Petit Journal'
right : coverpage from a French children's book



Pen-Portraits Of Our Fighting Friends

Mr. Poilu, the French soldier ? Which way shall one turn to find the type ? Take the bearded old man you see in the roadway there, sitting with his hammer beside a heap of stones. He is bent and rheumatic ; his eyes are failing, and, despite the spectacles he wears behind his stonebreakers 'goggles,' he can hardly see the stones he is so busily breaking. His lunch is by his side — a loaf, an apple, and half a bottle of mixed wine and water. He will work there from sunrise till sundown, and. then, with bent back and slow step, he will hobble to some neighbouring cottage to sup and sleep. A quaint, pathetic old figure ! But he is a French soldier, none the less. His weather-worn blue coat was served out to him by a regimental commissariat goodness knows how many years ago. His corduroy trousers are also uniform ; his cap is the uniform peak cap of the French Army. Soon, perhaps, you may see this old Poilu's corporal come along the road to take a look at the work done, and to pass censure if the Amount is too little. The corporal is, perhaps, just as old as the stonebreaker himself. He may wear the stripe of the "caporal" because his sight is a little better, or because he can walk along the roads at a whole mile an hour instead of only at half a mile. Both are equally soldiers of France, and they work for soldier's pay — which is the luxurious sum of three or five sous (1 1/2d to 2 1/2d.) a day.

The French Army the French Nation

They may never go near the front. They may be now, as you watch them, a good fifty miles away from the nearest trench. But over the roads they make or mend pass the troops and the stores, the horses and the guns, that go to the winning of France's battles. And just as those guns are necessary so also are the stones for the roads that take the guns and the stonebreakers that break the stones for the roads that take the guns. It is like the "House that Jack built" over again; and in France, when the house to be built is a war to be won, every man necessary for building that house is caught up in that immense and all-embracing labour net, the Army of the French Republic. He may make you a boot or pull you out a tooth, bake you a loaf or bury you, but he becomes a soldier. The French Army just now is the French nation.

M. Poilu's Passionate War Spirit

To take the French equivalent therefore of the British soldier you must take the French fighting soldier. This is not so all-comprehensive a term as the term French soldier, who is everyone. Gunners, sappers, horse and foot, there are numerous types enough of the French fighting soldier, and the wider age limit that exists in the French Army yields greater contrasts in individual types than are to be found in even our own Army. To reduce the French fighting soldiers to a type, therefore to take, that is, all the types of French soldier, and in the manner of those lion-id little sums we used to do at school, to take their G.C.M. or their H.C.F. and say this is the French fighting soldier type — would be rather speculative mathematics. I don't think one could do it. What I will try to do instead is to set down certain qualities which I think belong especially to the French soldier.

First, then, I think the French soldier is the fiercest. of all the soldiers fighting in this war. His war spirit burns him. It is a passion. I shall never forget the face and the eyes of the infantry sergeant who one night, early in the war, came across me in a French troop train (to which one of his men had invited me), and, as .he stood with a lantern peering into my face, said, "Swear to me that you are not a Boche." Even though I was not a Boche the look in that man's eyes quite scared me then, and still remains in my memory as the most fearful examination I have ever undergone. Had he not been satisfied, had my papers not been in order as well as my general appearance, I could have hoped for no mercy, even no respite from a man who could look like that. But I saw that look several times again in French soldiers. Once when walking along a country road near Ypres I stumbled upon a masked French battery. It was a bearded lieutenant, this time, who darted out and stood in front of me, revolver in hand. "What is monsieur doing ?" I can hear to this day the icy coldness and suspicion of those words of his ; can feel still the cold glint of his black eyes as they looked me up and down and through and through. He thought me a spy, and to have his battery located by the Germans was an appalling risk. He marched me in front of him to the commandant of the battery, and all the way there I could feel those yes at my back. The commandant, fortunately, was more satisfied with me, and showed me over his battery, but the lieutenant stood by, and though he did his best to be friendly, I could never forget his first .greeting. I remember thinking that had I been a Boche I would rather have been taken, by the British or by any other race than by the French. My end might not have been any the less swift, but the manner of it could never have been so cold and full of passionate enmity.

Deadly Purpose in Charge and Attack

The French are like this in all their war, but especially in a charge or an attack. They are not as athletic as our men ; they arc not, perhaps, when it comes to the number and quickness of thrusts, so deadly with the bayonet. And yet the Germans fear the French bayonets, I think, more than they fear ours. There is a greater deadliness of purpose, a more unrelenting hate and determination to kill and nought but kill. They are terrible fighters, but even more terrible "haters." I saw a spy once being taken into custody by the French, and noted the look on his guards' faces. I heard the shots that finished his spying and his life the following morning. And a cold chill went along my spine and I somehow, longed to be back in England.

The Best Gunner in the World

This fierceness is an outcome of their intensity of nature and resoluteness of purpose. I don't think any Army shows resolution more than the French Army. Our boys arc resolved enough, but it is the fashion to hide this rather than to show it. A singer who dares to sing to our soldiers at the front about fighting for King and country, dying "with face to the foe," and the like, is generally shouted off the platform before very long. Our soldiers cannot bear it. They will fight as bravely as any soldier for these things, but they don't like it talked about. In their songs, in fact, they prefer to pretend that they are afraid. The most popular type of song out at the front is the song that displays its singers as "having the wind up" which is soldier slang for being in a downright funk. The French soldier would no more think of singing a song like this than he would of flying. Marching along the roads, over camp fires, and in billets and trains he will sing blithely about glorious France, fighting for France, death before the foe, and the like. None of these phrases has become trite and jejune for him ; he feels and thinks that way. Yet he is at heart less combative a type than the average British soldier, especially the North- country soldier. He fights less readily, but with less consideration for his enemy when he does begin. No false ideas of "sport" moderate his warfare.

The French soldier has a wonderful gift for exactness, precision, and essential detail. This is partly what goes to make him the best gunner in the world. Some of our sergeants mistake precision and synchronisation and clock-work movement for efficiency. To watch a French gun crew working, say, a field-gun, you would at first deny even the possibility of their being so efficient as some of the spick-and-span British gun crews you had seen. They seem to go in a "go-as-you-please" fashion. That fellow slogs open the gun-breech and takes a look round the horizon perhaps as he does it; this fellow rams in the shell and makes a joke about "les sale Boches" ; this fellow's tunic is half off because he has not fastened it properly — there seems no comparison at first sight between that crew and its work and a British crew. But note the number of shells that French gun "gets away" to the minute ; note the number of direct hits, and it will amaze you ; the truth being that the French gunner concentrates on the one or two little points that make for quick fire and accurate aim and lets all else go by the board. His skill for detail has shown him what these one or two points are, and he has paid attention to these things till no mortal man could do them better than he. The German gunnery officers have slaved for years to get their gun crews as quick as the French, but they are to this day not within many shots per minute as fast.

The French soldier is as gentle when not fighting as he is fierce when fighting. With his friends he is more like a woman. He will laugh with their joys, weep with their sorrows, and while he is laughing or weeping he means it. His forgetfulness of these moods will be quicker than that of a British soldier it is true, but there is no insincerity at the time.

The French soldier's courage is undoubted, but it is a different kind of courage from that of the British soldier. It is not the stoic kind of courage. I have been in French hospitals many times, and have always been struck by the fact that the Frenchman makes more of pain than our men. They have not the old "biting on the bullet" tradition of the British soldier and they do not hesitate to show signs of pain. But put fifty Frenchmen to take a trench and assure them that at least thirty-five will be killed in the taking, and I don't think you would see any of them fall out. The French soldier's courage and the Briton's rise, I think, from different sources. The source of the Briton's courage is more egotistical. He sets a standard for himself, and tries to live up to that standard. British bravery may often be traced to this rather noble form of egotism. A man does not wish to "let himself down" in his own eyes any more than in other people's eyes. He will not desert a post or shirk a danger because he would feel not so good to himself if he did one of these things. It would not be " playing the game."

Ready to Dare All for La Patrie

The French soldier's courage, on tlie other hand, owes more, I think, to his very strong communal sense. For his own particular sake he would do much to avoid a cut finger or a black eye, but for La Patrie and a .cause he has at heart he would face the biggest Boche and the longest bayonet. The French soldier always strikes me as a man who overcomes his own personality and makes himself do brave things. His imagination tells him the risks he is running far more vividly than does the imagination of the average Briton. He will do his brave deed, then, with a little flourish. He is consciously brave, whereas some of our fellows really do not know when they are brave. They know only when anyone funks.

The French soldier has the dramatic temperament; the British soldier has not. This is another reason of the Frenchmen's greater demonstrativeness. You will see them kiss one another on the checks after a successful charge. They arc delighted to have won and to have "come through." See an English — or particularly a Scottish regiment in like circumstances and they will be laughing and joking no doubt, but striving at the same time, by all the means that they know, to keep to them- selves their deeper emotions — the fact that they are pleased to see one another safe and sound and to be alive. Yet they must feel this just as much as the French soldiers do.

The French soldier's relations with his officer are rather different from those of the British soldier. Men and officers in the French Army are not nearly so like two different races of men. There is a tremendous respect, but at the same time there is not the same stiffness. The relationship does allow room for a mutual smile now and again. The nearest approach to this that I ever saw in the British Army was between the chaplains and the men. A French soldier once asked me if it was against the rules in the British Army for an officer under the rank of major to smile with a common soldier. He said he had been struck by the way our young officers, except when alone with one man, avoided anything like cheery relations with their men. "Your older officers," he said, "are not so stiff and unnatural." Yet the French officers, he argued, were harder on offenders in the ranks than were the British. This greater intimacy between a French officer and his men — to whom he stands more in the light of father than of taskmaster — probably arises from the more democratic spirit of the French nation. Perhaps we shall come to that in time.

One of the Wonders of the War

The French soldier is generous, but not so generous as the British. He is much more thrifty. He cannot throw trouble aside in the way a British soldier can, nor can he quite understand the determination to throw trouble aside in, say, a game of football or a comic song. For a long time our men's football and games behind the lines were utterly incomprehensible to the French, who quite misunderstood them. "Why do your men make a sport of the war ?" they have asked me in horrified tones. And the same idea struck other people than Frenchmen. M. Take Jonescu, the great pro-Entente statesman of Rumania, once asked me the same question — all because of a football game behind the lines. But the French have now come to see that fresh air and games are as much a part of the British race as the meat-breakfast habit.

The French soldier has an endurance and hardihood far greater than his physical condition and his more sedentary, mode of life would suggest. I am still left wondering how the French ever contrived that last great advance of theirs over two miles of Somme mud. It will rank among the wonders of the war.


Back to Index