Souvenirs of France


Rudyard Kipling

Et ce n’est pas une vigilance d’un jour qui nous est demandée. Qui donc pourrait mesurer l’ampleur des oscillations auxquelles cette guerre a donné cours, ou prédire en quelles limites de temps pourra s’enclore l’évolution des conditions de vie mondialement successivement changées?

FRANCE still remembers (but we have forgotten) how the shadow of war darkened over Europe from 1907 onwards when the watch word “World-Dominion or Downfall” was written, taught, prayed, preached, sculptured, set to music, and legislated for as a Gospel, an end, and a certainty. Part of my winters I then used to spend at a “sports” hotel in Switzerland frequented by German officers. On the day of their Kaiser’s birthday, they would dine—very well—and talk and sing of The Day with great clarity and many threats against all mankind. And not the officers alone. I recall, out of many, an interesting conversation with a most respectable Town Councillor of Hamburg. He laid down for me the minimum of his country’s requirements from England. They included an “order” by the “English Parliament” to our “Colonies” to abolish all tariffs against his country, etc., etc. Failing this, the English were to beware of the “Furor Teutonicus”—as it might have been Ira Normanorum. It was illuminating; it was as plain as the new railway sidings at Hamburg—plain as the Boche Press, or the way in which the German Colonies were armed and used as points of friction and blackmail all over the world. That was before Agadir. Could France or England say they had not been warned? . . . 

What the French preparations were is known to us. The English argument was “Fi de manteau quand it fait beau”. Peace being one hundred years old must, they said, be in the immutable order of “Civilisation”. It followed, then, that even to teach respectable Englishmen to stand and walk without falling over each other and themselves was not only absurd but impious. Had we not an immediately effective Army of 80,000 as well as some Field Artillery? In view of the claims of “social reform” on the national purse, what more could be reasonably asked? Those were the years of nightmare!

In ’13–’14 there was little pretence or concealment. The vital question was England’s attitude. This was put to me, baldly enough, in a little hotel in Central France by a colonel of the 29th of the Line. He said, above a map, indicating the very place, “If you do not prolong our left here, you also will perish!” An Englishman who overheard him, remarked, “That man seemed very full of something or other. What was that goshe (gauche) he was talking about?”

By chance or coincidence, it was about that time—late ’13 or spring of ’14—that I met again in Paris Monsieur Gustave Le Bon. It was as though the wheel had come full circle after thirty years. So, naturally, instead of questioning the future at the pleasant meal, we talked of the past.

A little later, in the hot staleness of an alternately chained and unchained newspaper’s office,1 an old man said to me, “It is for now! They will obey their orders. We shall not obey even ourselves.” But Monsieur Clemenceau forgot that he had been Mayor of Montmartre during the Siege of ’70 when, on his notification, the children of the quarter went to school through the shells.

Nor did he foresee that it would be laid upon him very soon to save his country.

.     .     .     .     .

My next visit to France was at harvest time in the autumn of ’15. The little Algerian copy-books had borne fruit in many places. There were multitudes of trains filled with Algerians, Senegalese, and Moroccan troops, commanded by a type of officer new to me and yet indescribably familiar since it handled native troops and delivered low-voiced orders in tongues whose cadence and inflection seemed on the point of giving me their meaning. I asked if there were any difficulty as to Muhammedan food on campaign. I understood that they had not time to consider these things, but, in the case of the stricter sects, sheep and goats were killed after the orthodox Moslem fashion. Yes, so far as was known, all was quiet in North Africa. A man (Lyautey was the name) was in charge yonder, and there was also a certain quantity of wheat ready to ship to France when needed. A bearded, pale-eyed youth, older than his tortured years, told me this in the wreck of a courtyard while the remnant of a native battalion, just come out of action, cooked the evening meal over little fires, as in an Indian caravanserai.

In other places, I saw descendants of my old landlady of the Batignolles—slippered, untidy, voluble—dealing out bowls of soup to the poilus, or driving cows in ploughs not too far behind the shells. That is why I desire a colossal statue on one of the Seine bridges to that enduring woman who also stood fast and said: “Faut pas s’en faire”.

Of the men and officers of the French Army, it seemed to me that the demands of their normal national life had spared them some of the subconscious unease that weighed on our people. Accustomed by heredity and training to the food, exposure, and wasted hours at manœuvres, to lack of privacy and the impact of crowds, they were released from too much desire to dwell on the emotions of civil life. Compare the verse and prose written by combatants of the two races, and you will, I fancy, see a difference.2

On the other hand, the French were in their own country and sometimes very near their own homes. In war, as in love, the divided objective leads to the Devil. There was a young soldier from Amiens where his girl also lived. His battalion came, at last, to lie within a few kilometres of the town. Twice he deserted, and twice France, who understands humanity, overlooked it. The third time he was tried and shot in a little chalk-pit within sight of the Amiens road. I had the tale from a child, who told it as savages tell—without comment.

And here is another tale, the authenticity of which I have not yet arrived at. It is ascribed to a General of the kind which is everywhere at unexpected hours. Very early one morning he came across a firing-party, etc., on their way to their duty. The condemned had been found asleep, worn out, on sentry in a front-line trench. The General, who knew his dossier, said to him, “You do not die because of any disgraceful act on your part; but because your death will save the lives of others. It takes more of courage to die thus. So, I will come with you.” His arm around the man, the General accompanied him, and, just before those eyes ceased to see, saluted. There are several Generals whom I could credit with such an act, but I should like to know who it was.3

.     .     .     .     .

At last there arrived what was called—too justly, as one sees now—an Armistice; and the late President Woodrow Wilson entered to create a new world for us, with no authority whatever from his countrymen to make any arrangements in their name. (His political party was, at the moment, if I remember, in an electoral minority of 1,200,000 votes.)

His countrymen, through their representatives, repudiated, therefore, all the arrangements that he had made. These would have pledged England and the U.S.A. to assist France in event of future German attack, and would have stabilised the future. But a people whose origins, ex necessitate, must have abjured, individually and in writing, all European connections, do not readily embrace external responsibilities. The United States cleared her skirts of the imbroglio with the alacrity of a shocked schoolmistress. Ethnologically this was inevitable; objectively it was very comic; but, in its consequences, never was so far-reaching a refusal nor confusion more incalculable.

Yet, remember, the importation of the United States into the war was due to our common faults—our common inadequate preparations; our divided counsels and our national follies.

There followed, presently, a passionate propaganda that “Civilisation” should “put Germany on her feet” because she was in economic ruin and her heart had changed. After “Civilisation” had sufficiently studied that ruin and satisfied herself, at some cost, of the worthlessness of German currency, the mark returned to parity as a machine-gun re-hoists itself over the apparently abandoned trench. The manœuvre to abolish her internal debt cost Germany no more than a few thousand old and unusable persons wiped out, perhaps by starvation. It was magnificent, and it was the first step of the real war which began at a quarter-past eleven on the 11th November 1918.

.     .     .     .     .

My duties as one of the British Imperial War Graves Commission took me for the next few years over the devastated areas—from that obliteration of all things which had been the Ypres Salient to all but obliterated Rheims, of whose fifteen thousand houses thirty-five, I think, remained intact.

At first the Commission’s great camions, equipped like ships, would push out into oceans of weeds to discover where lay the rough cemeteries of the early years. They would be guided sometimes by voices out of the earth or from beneath indistinguishable bivouacs, saying: “Monsieur, this was Flers”, or whatever might be the name of the wreckage that had once carried a name.

And one met faces that seemed as though fire had passed over them—faces that hurried from one place to another asking for news of relatives—of women and children—who had utterly disappeared during the German “occupations”. What would have been the effect on British mentality if even one hundred civilians had “disappeared” after a raid on England? And what if all the country between Canterbury and Bournemouth had been passed through a sieve for four years?

Then there came up out of that soil of France which had made them, old men and women, each with a long-handled spade, to refill the trenches, and the gun-pits. One was never out of sight of these labouring couples. At Rheims they impeded the Annamites and Senegalese who coiled away the endless barbed-wire. At Soissons and the border towns eastward, they assisted the removal of debris from the suburbs thus: “But this is our land. Look! Here was our garden. Here was the well. Monsieur, mon Capitaine, we tell you that this is our land.” And, all along the Somme, where troops gathered and exploded waste ammunition in the bellowing pits and hollows, they laboured like their own lost oxen with almost as little head for other interests. Theirs seemed an impossible task, even in the second year when the earth began to be cicatrised with white sutures to prove that the gaping trenches were satiated.

One followed these labours as the inadequate passenger seconds, with useless movements of shoulders and feet, the efforts of his chauffeur. It was like a relief after toothache when the first milliner’s shop, with new hats, reopened in a small town near Laventie, which for years had resembled a decayed jaw-bone packed with green teeth.

The devastations were so scientific that one could convey no idea of them to visiting strangers. They would look at a smear of triturated brick-dust on an expanse of pitted mud and say: “But do you mean to tell me that there was ever anything there at all?” I imagine that this was one of the reasons why an English expert, from whom we seem destined still to suffer, pronounced at the Paris Conference that the French had “effrontément exagéré les revendications des régions dévastées”.

In this wandering employ one came upon very many people seen unguarded in their heights and deeps, from every angle of despair, sleek profiteering, resolution, stunned agony, and almost insane cynicism. Often, too, in hideously ludicrous predicaments. There was a point near some brick-fields where our armies had once touched and where the dead lay close. A French officer—too young for that work—was dealing with the human debris. To him came an elderly widow (for the moment mad) in search of her husband’s body. It was there, she said. Her business was to find it. Tenderly and repeatedly, the young man explained that such matters were not to be looked upon, even could she indicate the very spot. She did not hear him. The trench must be searched from end to end. She would wait. At last, when the horror of appeal and denunciation had passed all limit, a woman of the people led her away. The boy wiped his forehead and gasped—“It is not fair. It is not fair. But it is always happening!” In other places, the peasant women sold butter and eggs to our searchers for the dead, and religiously cheated them at every small turn. Then they would give up half a day in which they might have continued their practices, to gather and walk five miles with flowers to lay on some grave of our people. Equally devout in both duties. After all, mankind is but made of earth and water; and our hearts, like muddy streams, cleanse themselves as they go forward.

The two races had been utterly wearied of each other’s enforced society through four years. (Think how one sickens after four hours in an overcrowded railway compartment!) There were a thousand points of friction and disagreement. But I think that the detail of that chiffonnage along the empty fronts acted as an anodyne. And I know that when a French mining company reinstalled its machinery on a site churned thirty feet deep by the gun-fire of years, they came on what remained of two of our dead. They halted everything, and—the great girders for the engine-beds hanging in the cranes—sent word ten miles to notify our people to take delivery.

.     .     .     .     .

In ’20 and ’21 it seemed as though all the Muhammedan world was about to range itself against Western civilisation, and England in particular. At one point only the ring of menace was incomplete. France was not then passionately loyal to British interests in the East—so I asked questions. I was assured that there was nothing of importance stirring in any French Muhammedan zone. All sorts of native troops had, of course, been demobilised lately in North Africa. Doubtless some of them had gone home with a revolver or so in view of social engagements en route. And, perhaps, might have held up some tourists. But why not go and look—at the Department of Algiers, for instance?

So I crossed to the Department of Algiers and found myself returned to a people almost identical in aspect, habit, and gesture with the Moslems among whom I had been brought up. But I understood not a word of their speech. It was like a dream in which one can only make signs to old friends.

They were serenely occupied with their own affairs, into which, it appeared, the French entered as not too exacting comrades. Much of the administration seemed casual and desultory—yet reaching its end as a French infantry attack drifts to the objective. There was a sufficiency, too, of that officialdom and legality with which the national genius adorns the facades of its administration; but one felt that it could be more easily outflanked here than in other lands. The mystery baffled me. Let us concede that Islam in Africa is more homogeneous, less disorientated by the proximity of caste, than Islam in Asia. Granted that there are no organised bodies of public opinion in France to advocate the claims of the ineffective in order to justify their own inefficiencies. Granted, though Colonial officials deny this, that Paris does not eternally and infernally interfere with the man on the spot. Even so, how is the indescribable ease—détente if that be the right word—of the administrative atmosphere reached and maintained? How is the parallelism of the two races achieved, so that one does not make, nor the other demand, allowances? I fell back on Gustave Le Bon’s formula delivered thirty-five years before: “C’est l’emprise morale”. Those little copy-books of my Exposition had done their work.

(I suppress here—though it was very beautiful—a denunciation of certain French writers who would represent their Colonial officers as mournfully devoured, beneath tropical moons, by a passion for drugs and fat black females.)

A Mayor of Algiers who held the city both in and by the hand told me a secret. “It is Paris”, said he, “upon whom we depend in the last resort for some of our diplomacy. Our Algerian Deputies go there, of course, to take their seats in the Chambers. Many of our people know Paris, and more since this war. Good! If any important man out there”, he pointed largely towards the Niger, “feels restless, or neglected, or thinks he would like to be a Prophet, he can always visit Paris. It is only a few days away. Perhaps he is invited there to talk. So he goes. For the rest?—oh! Paris charges herself with that! And he comes back more contented.”

I had never thought of so simple a device! Were I a potential Mahdi with a grievance, the spectacle of the Place de la Concorde flood-lit in a May night would exercise a certain influence on me also.

.     .     .     .     .

Beyond a tourist’s experience of Algiers and an interesting night in microscopical, but aggressively French, Chandernagore where defaulting debtors from Calcutta used to take refuge, I know nothing of French colonies. But one result of the labours there was delivered to me en bloc, at the French Colonial Exposition only three years ago, where the illuminated splendour and mystery of the Ang-Kor façade imposed its significance upon the most hardened.

For me, once again, the wheel of life came full circle. Vincennes had been no part of my Paris: but the packing-cases; the rosetted officials running everywhere to overtake or countermand instructions; the furious erection of the stalls of the concessionaires (their sweetmeats were not so satisfying as in ’78); the smell of trampled turf, raw timber, and sweating workmen, filled me with the august pride of a proprietor. And when I was told of the annoying little contretemps and delays, “incidental to all expositions but which would not interest you, Monsieur”, I kept my face and pretended complete detachment.

Also, I was talking with ghosts—good and justified shadows out of that past when a few bewildered Africans and some copy-books were all that France showed the world of her Colonies. And now, at every turn—easy, assured, and interested—I beheld her peoples of many races and lands. They were each integral and unquestioning parts of a system which had been worked out on the line laid down long ago. One heard the triumphant ghosts summarising it. Listen! “Ye-es. You might do worse than look at the educational show-case. The French have some sound notions about their Colonies.” . . . “My dear confrère, I tell you we must act so as to assimilate and to civilise those races according to the measure of their capacities. Not ours! Is it not so? He there—that boy of yours—may see it perhaps, but not we.”

.     .     .     .     .

As it is, I am well content with the multitude of beautiful things found by chance in small local museums, in neglected churches, in villages beneath unadvertised chateaux which do not as yet sell postcards. There is richer treasure of this sort in France than with us—perhaps because their rulers in the past, when they felt religious or angry, merely slew men. Ours, more respectable, contented themselves with murdering the irreplaceable work of artists. I went, several times, in search of plunder of the eye, with a friend whose passion was thirteenth-century glass of a blue which is now restricted to the Angels. We discovered one very small, very accessible window in a decayed little church which we thought might be exchanged for something really modern and artistic from Limoges, or even Thiers. But it appears that these trifles are known and recorded—probably by the Church: certainly by the Police. So all the glass I possess now is one of those rings which the poilus used to make out of material that fell into their hands at Rheims.

And, because I said that the brick bulk of Albi Cathedral, seen against the moon, hit the soul like a hammer, my friend showed me vast cold Byzantine cathedrals where no one seemed to enter except, at its hour, which is worth waiting for, the single sun-shaft through the bull’s-eye that fumbles round the empty dome and withdraws.

Once at Chartres, when the big organ was being repaired, we got leave to go out on the roof and look at the reverse of the windows. We found that every square millimetre of the glass had been microscopically etched by the years: inlaid here with fine lines of dirt blown up from the street; roughened in places to a tooth-like rough drawing-paper or rubbed down to the silky softness of uncut diamond; studded with minute iridescent efflorescences and conchoidal pittings, and everywhere worked into a thousand varying planes to sift and glorify the light. So we saw that it is not Man that makes perfection but the weather which his works must endure. Those were good journeys.

Years later, I came across another side of inexhaustible France. It was after the return of Alsace, when the Head Quarters of the Administration (what in English we should call “Government House”) had been purged of Boche memories and refurnished in detail with tapestries, mirrors, carpets, porcelain, and the rest. It was of the best; of one period; superbly and officially French, and impressing itself on humanity as though it had been in place since Attila. (Emprise morale again!)

I asked a friend, an Alsatian General, whence the flood of material had come. “From Marianne”, was the reply. “She has all sorts of things like these in her stocking—when she needs them. You have seen the Élysée?” “One sees nothing at the Élysée”, I retorted, “except the backs of large Generals. Where has all this been stored? Who issues it? Above all, who has arranged it here?” “Not my business”, said the General. “Ask Marianne.”

My relations with that lady had been strained because I had “doubled” on some temporary bridge in the devastated area, and she, through her agents, had talked to me as though I would overthrow the Republic. But she is an unequalled housekeeper. Think what it must have been in the old days when Rome lavished the best she had on her first external possession—her beloved Provincia!

.     .     .     .     .

En ce coing font les Saxons, Estrelins, Ostrogotz et Alemans, peuples jadis invincibles maintenant aber keist et subjuguez par ung petit homme estropie. Its nous demandent vengeance, secours, restitution de leur premier bon sens et liberté anticque.

Since the first need of the unrepentant sinner is to make “a face for himself”, the first German manœuvre for position in the real war was to uproot the idea of Boche responsibility for the not-wholly-successful preliminary campaign. This they achieved in their own country by furious outcries and legislative enactments. It is, I believe, now a criminal offence for a Boche to breathe a doubt of his country’s innocence. (Read “La Guerre” for “L’Amour m’a refait une virginité”, and it is Frau Marion Delorme who declaims now.) But their technique with the foreigner filled me with professional jealousy as a purveyor of fiction vastly inferior. Many of our people conformed to this pressure, for England alone had lost more than eight hundred thousand dead of physique and conviction, and a large number of living who had been crippled or laid aside. Their places were taken in the public eye and ear by defaitists, intellectualists, Socialists, Communists, women enfranchised, and those whom four years of repressed and contagious fear had tried too severely. To these the thesis of the relativity of war-guilt offered a door for escape from themselves. If the war had been a cosmic dog-fight into which the nations had been drawn by cosmic hysteria, then all who had assisted to weaken, distract, delay, and confuse their own country and to encourage the enemy were, indeed, the martyr-souls and prophets they had believed themselves to be. They could sleep at last with approving consciences, and wake to demand for what the war had been fought. (It was, of course, that their species might survive to achieve office, honour, and influence.)

A certain amount of the same gas was liberated on the French front, but the national response was more feeble. The French were occupied with reconstruction, the gyrations of the franc, and, as in England, with strikes. Also they knew more than we did of the measures the Boche was taking to rehabilitate himself materially. He borrowed on all sides to recondition his untouched factories and his quite adequate railways. This interested the United States enormously. They are even more interested to-day, but not so polite. I am no financial expert, but a gentleman with a camion in charge of four enormous white sows with golden hair whom I overtook on the Digne-Grenoble road was good enough to explain the system. “Yes. He will borrow from all who will lend, and they will all go the same way. There is a fellow in our village doing the same thing. That is how he pays his debts. It is high finance. What you and I call civil banditry.” That perspicacious pig-breeder spoke sitting between his four ladies, who looked like the fat goddesses in Orphée aux Enfers. He was more accurate than any expert.

There is a belief that the French are narrow and vindictive. It may be true, but the same man who would consider a wireless cabinet a wicked waste, tunes in to all European wavelengths. England is like a ship moored off a mainland which we visit occasionally. We do not feel at Calais that the earth under foot vibrates sustainedly as far as Vladivostock, Dantzig, and the far South. It is, I think, his continentality of experience and intuition that gives the Frenchman his unshaken poise irrespective of circumstances or office at the moment; his power of useful words, his cynicism, and, above all, the quality of his humour.

After the stabilisation of the franc4 and the general reduction of personnel and salaries organised by Monsieur Poincaré, I wished to hear from him the human effect of the measure. “It has been as one would expect”, said he. “All the Préfets of all the Departments are running about telling their subordinates that, if the affair had rested with them, they would have increased all salaries. Then they say, ‘But it is that Poincaré! Do you know the old brute? No? Well, I do. He is impossible—him and his idea!’ And after all that is what I have been put here for.”

And, apropos to our English system of business by cheque which makes our taxation so disgustingly effective, he furnished an illustration. “Do you know what a litre jar is? Yes, it holds a litre; but it can also hold ten thousand francs in small paper. You fill one with your economies. Then you bury it. Then you begin to fill another. That is all. In the villages now, men say of their richer neighbours, ‘He must be at least a two- or three jar man.’ No! It is not so easy to collect taxes when the money is there!” And the square thumb was turned towards the carpet.

I love that imperturbable Lorrainer.

Towards the end of his life, Clemenceau, who had honoured me with his friendship, permitted me to report myself to him when I came through Paris. On the last occasion he was completing, I believe, some personal records, and the twilight into which he retired was alive and populous. He talked to himself as much as to me, ranging from Thiers and Gambetta and a picturesque duel of Rochefort’s, to the statesmen of the present. His trip to India had interested him greatly. He had caught malaria in Calcutta, and the doctors there administered medicines “out of bottles of the same pattern as my great-great-grandmother used. They said if I went North by train, I should die. I said, ‘Then I will go North, and if necessary I will die in your accursed trains’. But, you see, I lived.”

“That was because of the medicine in the bottles”, I ventured.

“It was not. It was because I was so angry with the bottles!” He threw himself back and laughed. (I should not have dared to dose The Tiger when he was enjoying a temperature.)

That made me bold to ask, “And, now, Master, how do you think of men as you have dealt with them and they with you in all these years?”

The answer came slowly. “Yes. I have known men? . . . Yes. I have known them. . . . They are not so bad. . . . After all these years? . . . They are not so bad after all.”

There was the English handshake and then the accolade, as it had been in the office of L’Homme Enchaîné a thousand years ago.

And these are some of the reasons why I love France.

1.    This refers to a newspaper edited by Monsieur Clemenceau which was always in difficulties with the French Government of that day.    [back]

2.    The two schools are alike, it seems to me, in the sincere angularity and rigidity of their literary frame-work. Is this because the writers had lived for years among naked beams and girders, shattered walls, and harshly interrupted outlines? Their insistence on obscure personal moods and minute phenomena observed at close range, was explained to me by a man who said that, when one lies for hours under machine-gun fire in a shell-hole or a tobacco field, one concentrates, for sanity’s sake, on the veining of some single leaf; the union of two water-drops; or the slow deliquescence of mud which releases a pubble on the slope of a crater. The result appears in the verses. It may be so.    [back]

3.    I have since learned it was the late General Maud’huy.    [back]

4.    Though I lost some money by it, and had been severely reprehended during the war for hinting that it was inevitable, I could not but admire the pudicity of France’s four-fifths repudiation. Do you remember the line in Monsieur, Madame, et Bébé, “Protect me, O Lord, but do not protect me too much”?    [back]

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