Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 78.djvu/375

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
365
IMPRESSIONS OF MILITARY LIFE IN FRANCE

the brothels (on the day of sanitary inspection), and how to tell a diseased woman. I received a shock which I remember clearly to this day. Yet the fault lay not with militarism, but with social conditions. These being granted, our sergeant's eloquence was to the point[1] and there was some advantage in my being compelled to realize "how the other half live."

All educated conscripts, serving one year, were segregated, and had to study for becoming reserve officers. I wanted most particularly at that time not to become an officer, even in the reserve. So I did not go in with the special company of "dispensés," but remained with the "skimmed milk." The social and intellectual level among the dispensés must have been much higher. I am not so positive about the moral level. They were kept more busy, had more intelligent work to do, and their instructors—officers and non-coms—were picked men. But I had the advantage of seeing more of the real thing. I did not suffer in the least from my position. The fact that I was the only educated conscript left in the company (I was then twenty-three, had spent two years in England, and held a few degrees) was a great advantage. I was made instructor of the illiterate—three half-witted peasants, two of whom did not even know that France was a republic. I gathered a library of 600 volumes for the use of the soldiers. I coached my sergeant major for an examination. Thus I had congenial work instead of the usual fatigue duties (cleaning the room, etc.), and after a few weeks of gradual adaptation I had a fairly pleasant time of it.

From the material standpoint, life in the army is on a higher level than the lowest among the poor (leaving out the destitute), although not quite up to the average. My terms of comparison are the London slums, on the one hand (I spent a year at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel), and on the other hand, the conditions which prevail among ordinary working people—my neighbors and acquaintances—in Paris. Food is coarse and monotonous (boiled beef every morning), prepared in bulk by unskilled cooks, but it is abundant, and cleaner than the fare afforded by cheap restaurants. I tried the canteens, the non-coms' mess (by special privilege) and the popular eating-houses near the barracks, and went back in disgust to the plain, wholesome regimental beef. Cleanliness is enforced in an unpleasant, rough, but efficient way; hair cropt short, frequent hot shower baths (thirty in a room at times!), sea-bathing in the spring, on a beach of brick bats and tin cans; walls kept whitewashed and coal-tarred; lavatories disgustingly primitive, but disinfected every day. Our captain "took pride" in the feet of his

  1. Our sergeant was unwittingly following in the footsteps of Field Marshal Lord Roberts. Cf, Lord Roberts's famous circular-memorandum 21 and W. J. Corbet's comments thereon in "Bella! Bella! Horrida Bella!", Westminster Review, March, 1902.