The Little Corporal


French Children in the Armed Forces

14 year-old French soldier

see also French Children at War : the Glorification of Adolescent Soldiers


From the book

Our Part in the Great War

by Arthur Gleason - 1917



WE were in the barracks of the Eighth Regiment of Artillery. They have been converted into a home for refugees, but the old insignia of famous victories still adorn the walls. We were talking with Madame Derlon. She is a refugee from Pont-a-Mousson, widowed by German severity. But unlike so many women of Lorraine whom I met, she still could look to her line continuing. For while she sat, slightly bent over and tired, Charles, her fifteen-year-old son ("fifteen and a half, Monsieur"), stood tall and straight at her side. While the mother told me her story, I looked up from her and saw on the wall the escutcheon of the Regiment, and I read in illuminated letters the names of the battles in which it had fought:

"Austerlitz - 1805.

Friedland - 1807.

Sebastopol - 1854.

Solferino - 1859."

At the beginning of the war, her husband was ferryman of the Moselle, she said. He carried civilians and soldiers across. Their little son, then thirteen years old, liked to be near him, and watch the river and the passing of people. The boy had discovered a cellar under the bridge-a fine under-ground room, well-vaulted, where boy-like he had hidden tobacco and where he often stayed for hours, dreaming of the bold things he would do when his time came, and he would be permitted to enlist. His day was closer than he guessed. A cave is as wonderful to a French boy as it was to Tom Sawyer. Sometimes he made a full adventure of it and slept the night through there.

During the early battles, the bridge had been blown up. So Father Derlon was kept very busy ferrying peasants and stray soldiers from bank to bank. One day three German patrols came along. Charles was standing by the bridge, watching his father sitting in the ferry. The boy stepped down into his underground room to get some tobacco. He was gone only five minutes. When he came back, the three Germans said to him: "Your father is dead."

It was so. They had climbed the bridge, and fired three times. One explosive bullet had entered the ferryman's head, and two had shattered his arm.

The Germans said he had been carrying soldiers across, and that it was wrong to carry soldiers.

"The little one came home crying," said Madame Derlon. "Since that moment, the little one left home without telling me. He did not send me any news of himself. I searched everywhere to try to find a trace of him. Monsieur Louis Mann, the Deputy, told me he had seen a boy like my little one following the soldiers. Actually he had been adopted by the 95th Territorial Regiment."

He told the soldiers that he had just seen his father killed by the Germans. One of the captains took him under his protection. The boy insisted on becoming a fighter. He was brave and they made him Corporal. He fell wounded in action, winning the Croix de Guerre.

Charles Derlon, the little Corporal of the 95th Infantry, has a bright open face, but it is a face into which has passed the look of responsibility. In one moment, he became a man, and he has that quiet dignity of a boy whom older men respect and make a comrade of. He holds himself with the trim shoulders and straight carriage of a little soldier of France.

One of us asked him: "And weren't you afraid, my boy of the fight ?"

"It is all the same to me," he replied, "when I get used to it."

"And why," we pressed him, "did you run away without going to your mother? Didn't you think she might be anxious?"

"Because I knew very well," he said, "that she would not want to let me go."

"And you are away from the army now, ‘on permission'?" we asked.

Very proudly he answered: "No, Monsieur. I am on leave of convalescence for three months. I have been wounded in three places, two wounds in my arm, and one in my leg."


see also French Children at War : the Glorification of Adolescent Soldiers

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