« PreviousContinue »
THE FRENCH ARMY AND DISCIPLINE
French people have a peculiar faculty for being misrepresented, and in no direction is this more apparent than in the army. Obviously it is no pipeclayed institution and yet one was constantly amazed at the laisser-aller of the pioupiou. This was before the war. English people, accustomed to the perfection of their own soldiers, whose buttons shone in the sun and whose boots reflected the crease of impeccable trousers, had rarely a flattering opinion of Dumanet. The tunic and red trousers generally showed a disposition to fall apart and the nether garments were either too short or too long. In the former case, they gave prominence to the immense boots, which were made for the march and not for the parade ground. Dumanet seemed to carry his linen in his pocket, which bulged ominously. Added to the neglect of his uniform was his slouch. Even on the march he did not keep step always with the neighbour. How could this careless-hearted soul be compared either with the drilled machine of Germany or with Mr. Tommy Atkins beautifully groomed and shimmering with bear's grease? Evidently it was quite impossible. The casual observer forgot many things; one of them
was to look into the face of the little French soldier.
He would have read there intelligence and vivacity. Had he followed Dumanet on manoeuvres, he would have learned his good humour and his gay unbreakable spirit. He comes up smiling after a march of fifty kilometres, with a heavy pack on his back which contains his extra clothes, spare boots, pannikins and kindling for the fire which is to boil his soup. He breaks into song again after the weary tramp in the sun along dusty routes nationales lined with straight poplars and planes, across woods and stubbled fields, whence rise the frightened partridges and hares to the delight of men bred up to la chasse—a song that accompanies the simmering of the pot on the camp-fire, a song that breathes the joys of peace rather than the austerities of war, that expresses the red blood of the race with no refinement of tongue.
And Dumanet's adaptability is discovered in the field. He takes advantage of each depression of the ground to build his fire or prepare his couch. He is the handy man. He is full of initiative, of intuition, of resource. His quick brains interpret orders and even discuss them in a spirit which would be fatal to a system more rigid and less human in its application. This is the man upon whom in the last resort depends the safety of France.
I have said that appearances are deceptive. The French soldier wastes no time in considering the cut of his coat. He is not unhappy because his boots do not shine. He does not seem to be seriously distressed when he is dirty. Nor do his commanders give him fancy drill even in the piping times of peace. He has not to stand, for hours at a time, with his thumbs to his trousers' seams. That kind of drill was abolished long ago in the French army—if it ever really existed—abolished when the army was remodelled after the disasters of 1870. Then the mot aVordre ordained simplicity, and uniforms were the first to feel the influence of it. Many of the gilded reminders of the Imperial regime were swept away. The Higher Command began to take its duties seriously. Staff men ceased to be drawing-room soldiers to become students of war. Gradually there was formed a brilliant General Staff composed of the best brains in the army. It did not talk about itself or get itself talked about; it was content to do its work without advertisement.
If politics had left the army alone, all would have been well; there would have resulted a cohesive mass welded together in the national defence. But an evil genius pursued France, implacably, for a number of years. Political friends, rather than his own merits, advanced the officer. In an attempt to correct the abuses of a Clerical authority, the Republican sectaries had gone too far and the Dreyfus affair was their excuse. Happily the extreme danger of a policy which divided the military house against itself was brought home to the consciousness of the nation. Vive Varmie became a popular cry after having shared the suspicion of Vive le roi. Workmen, fresh from anti-militarist talk over petits verres, stood in the street to see the regiment go by and uncovered to the flag. The full danger of the old indifference became apparent when the Panther anchored off Agadir. France began to realize that she had given an impression of weakness and division to the enemy. "Stop the Rot" articles began to appear in the
Press, particularly in the Echo de Paris, which, though wedded to reaction, has written some admirable reforms in the chapter of its changes. About this time, Joffre was appointed to the chief command of the army; the reign of politics was over, the reign of efficiency commenced.
From that moment the patient began to mend, and, like a self-respecting convalescent, he thought of his toilet. It was simple enough in all conscience— the frills had been suppressed, but was it quite suitable to modern war? He had serious doubts about it as he looked at himself in the mirror. Mon Dieu, he was not smart, certainly. And he summoned the tailor to put touches to his raiment. The tailor, who was also an artist, was called Edouard Detaille. That battle-painter designed a picturesque new uniform which Parisians found opera bouffe, but Detaille himself said was confused with bastard imitations put forth by the War Office. In any case, all that remained of the efforts of the reformers were the puttees. But they were important. They represented the 20th century in a uniform too voyant to be practical. It was the point de depart for a radical change. Parliament intervened to substitute for the traditional blue and red of the infantry a new and "invisible" cloth after the English and German model. It was not without a pang that the army bid adieu to the red trousers, which had played their gallant part in history. That the blue adopted showed white under the searchlight, soiled easily and was a colour difficult to reproduce did not detract from the essential character of the change. It meant that the French army was designed for business and intended to justify that high opinion that experts had formed of it. It had become a modern fighting machine.
When war broke out, people had almost forgotten what Dumanet was like in the unreformed days. It is true that you still saw men with ill-fitting uniforms and unshaven chins miles from the Front; but they were the old generation—fathers of the young men in the line. In an army of four to five millions, some allowance must be made for the difficulties of equipment. And the Territorial army was forced to content itself with the old uniforms, when it had any at all beyond the kepi and the fustian jacket marked with the regimental number. But at the breath of war the conscript soldier had automatically changed into the first-class fighting man. His slackness had disappeared with the slack of his trousers into his top-boots and his puttees. And the First Reserve, after contact with the trenches, became so adapted to its work that Joffre suppressed the special designation and incorporated it with the active army. In like manner, of course, the English Territorials caught up the life and spirit of the Regulars. Nor was the transformation of the casual pioupiou into the serious soldier in the least surprising to those who saw the real man behind the vague exterior.
Even in peace time he becomes a different person when on the march. The slouch disappears under the general impulse. In immediate response to duty, to the necessity of the hour, is found the keynote to his character. It lies at the base of French discipline. Here, again, the casual observer often draws a wrong conclusion. He is convinced that