Part 1 (1/2)

The White Road to Verdun.

by Kathleen Burke.












10th August, 1916.

We left Paris determined to undertake the journey to the front in the true spirit of the French _poilu_, and, no matter what happened, ”_de ne pas s'en faire_.”

This famous ”motto” of the French Army is probably derived from one of two slang sentences: ”De ne pas se faire des cheveux” (”To keep one's hair on”), or ”De ne pas se faire de la bile” (or, in other words, not to upset one's digestion by unnecessary worrying). The phrase is typical of the mentality of the _poilu_, who accepts anything and everything that may happen, whether it be merely slight physical discomfort or intense suffering, as part of the willing sacrifice which he made on the day that, leaving his homestead and his daily occupation, he took up arms ”offering his body as a s.h.i.+eld to defend the Heart of France.”

Everything might be worse than it is, says the _poilu_, and so he has composed a litany. Every regiment has a different version, but always with the same fundamental basis:

”Of two things one is certain: either you're mobilised or you're not mobilised. If you're not mobilised, there is no need to worry; if you are mobilised, of two things one is certain: either you're behind the lines or you're on the front. If you're behind the lines, there is no need to worry; if you're on the front, of two things one is certain: either you're resting in a safe place or you're exposed to danger. If you're resting in a safe place, there is no need to worry; if you're exposed to danger, of two things one is certain: either you're wounded or you're not wounded. If you're not wounded, there is no need to worry; if you are wounded, of two things one is certain: either you're wounded seriously or you're wounded slightly. If you're wounded slightly, there is no need to worry; if you're wounded seriously, of two things one is certain: either you recover or you die. If you recover, there is no need to worry; if you die, you can't worry.”

When once past the ”Wall of China,” as the French authorities call the difficult approaches of the war zone, Meaux was the first town of importance at which we stopped.

We had an opportunity to sample the army bread, as the driver of a pa.s.sing bread-wagon flung a large round loaf into our motor.

According to all accounts received from the French soldiers who are in the prison-camps of Germany, one of the greatest hards.h.i.+ps is the lack of white bread, and they have employed various subterfuges in the endeavour to let their relatives know that they wish to have bread sent to them. Some of the Bretons writing home nicknamed bread ”Monsieur Barras,” and when there was a very great shortage they would write to their families: ”Ce pauvre Monsieur Barras ne se porte pas tres bien a present.” Finally, the Germans discovered the real significance of M.

Barras, and they added to one of the letters: ”Si M. Barras ne se porte pas tres bien a present, c'est bien la faute de vos amis les Anglais”

(”If M. Barras is not very fit, it is the fault of your friends the English”), and from then all the letters referring to M. Barras were strictly suppressed.

While the German Press may not be above admitting a shortage of food in Germany, it seriously annoys the Army that the French prisoners or the French in the invaded regions should hear of it. I heard one story of the wife of a French officer in Lille who was obliged to offer unwilling hospitality to a German captain, who, in a somewhat clumsy endeavour to be amiable, offered to try to get news of her husband and to convey it to her. Appreciating the seeming friendliness of the captain, she confided to him that she had means of communicating with her husband who was on the French front. The captain informed against her, and the next day she was sent for by the Kommandantur, who imposed a fine of 50 frs.

upon her for having received a letter from the enemy lines. Taking a 100-fr. note from her bag, she placed it on the desk, saying, ”M. le Kommandantur, here is the 50 frs. fine, and also another 50 frs. which I am glad to subscribe for the starving women and children in Berlin.”

”No one starves in Berlin,” replied the Kommandantur.

”Oh, yes, they do,” replied Madame X. ”I know, because the captain who so kindly informed you that I had received a letter from my husband showed me a letter the other day from his wife, in which she spoke of the sad condition of the women and children of Germany, who, whilst not starving, were far from happy.” Thus she not only had the pleasure of seriously annoying the Kommandantur, but also a chance to get even with the captain who had informed against her, and who is no longer in soft quarters in Lille, but paying the penalty of his indiscretion by a sojourn on the Yser.