Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/April 1911/Impressions of Military Life in France

1579524Popular Science Monthly Volume 78 April 1911 — Impressions of Military Life in France1911Albert Léon Guérard




I SERVED 309 days—we counted them from the very first, and shouted every morning "Encore tànt et la fuite!"—as second-class private in the 129th regiment of the line, stationed at Le Havre. I was paid one cent a day, and in addition was entitled, every ten days, to a packet of tobacco at half its market value. That was in 1903-04, under the old (1889) law. University students, teachers, artists, artisans and craftsmen (ouvriers d'art), ministers and men having a family to support (soutiens de famille) had to serve, nominally one year, practically ten months. The rest—two thirds of the contingent—served three years. Any one mentally or bodily deficient was totally exempted. At present, the universal term of service is two years, without exception. Many of the halt and maimed, formerly totally excused, are employed in office work or in the repair shops, which offer a sorry sight. Candidates for the priesthood were for a while placed in the regular troops. Now they serve in the ambulance corps, as do a few determined Tolstoians who stubbornly refused to touch a weapon.

My impressions of the army were unfavorably colored, for several reasons, and my testimony is open to discount. First of all, I was a widow's only son, and was brought up very strictly by my mother. Then, the Dreyfus case was hardly over at that time (it was before the second "revision," and the final triumph of justice), and for the last four or five years I had been an enthusiastic Dreyfusist and attended numberless antimilitarist meetings. I found myself among workmen from the mills of Elbeuf and Rouen. Normandy is a fine country, and the race that lives there still offers splendid specimens. But it is rapidly being ruined by an evil greater than militarism—alcoholism; alcoholism to a degree which I as a Parisian did not dream of. Children seemed to be brought up on "Calvados" (cider brandy). The result can be imagined.

Finally I was stationed at Le Havre, the second seaport in France. The barracks rose right on the quays, and I could see in all its hideousness the gross immorality which prevails in all shipping centers. On the very first day, our sergeant carefully explained to us when to go to 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[2] 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 company, and inspected them repeatedly. The amount of work was not excessive for any but weaklings—soon weeded out and put to sedentary work; it was generally hard and prolonged enough to prevent habits of laziness from being formed. On the whole, a very unpleasant experience for any person of fastidious tastes and habits; tolerable for healthy individuals of an adaptable type; satisfactory for the great majority.

From the moral point of view, the question is more complex. I no longer hold, as I did in the fever of my Dreyfusism, that the army is the school of all the vices. Such exaggerated statements would harm the best cause. The indictment may have been true of the old professional army, recruited exclusively from the lowest strata, and entirely separated from the rest of the nation. Yet I have known veterans of the second empire who were simple-minded, honest, kindly, delightful old fellows. A regiment is not much worse than a big factory. Factory life in Europe is bad enough; military service extends its evils to agricultural laborers, and also to men who would otherwise have escaped these lowering influences. As for traces of moral uplift in the army, I have totally failed to notice any. War may be a stern school of virtue: barrack life is not. Honor, duty, patriotism are feelings instilled at school; they do not develop, but often deteriorate, during the term of compulsory service. Daily drudgery deadens enthusiasm. That is probably why so many French "Nationalistes" tried to dodge the law and shirk their military duty, in order to retain their patriotic feelings intact.

The first evil of military life is that young men are transplanted away from home, and no provision made for sane, wholesome entertainment. Military clubs have greatly developed of late. They are still too few, and so "philanthropic" in character as to frighten most men away. A soldier is free every evening after five. This would be dangerous for most young workmen, who do not know what to do with their leisure hours. The absence of any home circle makes it much worse. For a long time the principle was to send young recruits as far as possible from their place of residence. The idea was to break down local differences, to prevent the army from siding with the population in case of political or social conflict (the brief mutiny of a southern regiment at the time of the wine-growers' riots in 1907 shows that this is a real danger), and to foster the old spirit of exclusive loyalty to the flag. Now, the contrary principle of local (regional) recruiting has been adopted, with a view to more rapid "mobilization," and also under the pressure of public opinion. Even then, it was impossible for most soldiers to go home oftener than once a month. Uneducated young men, friendless and idle, turned loose in the evening in a big city, could do little good. There were certainly temptations to drunkenness and debauchery greater than those which would assail the regular working man. And unfortunately the repressive measures were a farce. The non-commisssioned officers, so strict about trifles, sympathized with the drunkards and shielded them, and the penalties were so severe that the officers themselves often preferred to close their eyes. The old ideal of the eighteenth century soldier, "le vin, l'amour et le tabac," remains unchanged to this day. Home-sickness, chiefly among peasants, the squalor and monotony of barrack life among clerks and even students, often lead to a sort of dull despair, which seeks relief in drink (sometimes in suicide, too—there are occasional epidemics). On the evening of July 14 there were hardly half a dozen men sober in the whole company of a hundred.

The officers had no moralizing influence. The superior officers were seldom seen and greatly feared. The subalterns (captains and lieutenants) belonged to three groups: (1) A few clever, ambitious young men. These, all too rare anyway, scorned the routine of barrack life. They spent little time with the men; they studied, or managed to be sent abroad or in the colonies on a mission, or served at headquarters and on the general staff. (2) A large group of young men of means and leisure, not a few belonging to the old nobility. They serve because it is a family tradition, because a man must do something, because of the social prestige of the uniform—not seldom with a view to the larger price which officers command in the matrimonial market in the form of a dowry. They are, on the whole, amiable, inefficient and totally without prestige with their men. The old military caste, still the backbone of the German army, is merely an uninteresting survival in France. Distrusted by the government on account of their royalist opinions, without hope or desire of reaching the highest positions, they give a contagious example of indifference and idleness. (3) Men risen from the ranks—efficient drill-masters as a rule; not seldom kind with their men in a rough way; but often coarse, uncultured, intellectually paralyzed by twenty years of garrison life. The pay is small, the standard of living set by the officers of the second group is high; plebeian or free-thinking intruders are mercilessly snubbed. Silent or open rivalry of aristocrats and commoners, of school-trained and unschooled officers; a general spirit of uneasiness, listlessness and ennui; the most blindly patriotic men not in sympathy with modern France; with all these causes of division, officers as a body can have no real influence on their troops.

As for the non-commissioned officers, I think that Lucien Descaves's sordid and disgusting book, "Sous-Offs," does not slander them. The pay is exceedingly small (from twelve to thirty cents a day), the prospects of promotion not very bright, the work not attractive to a normal, self-respecting man. Only actual failures, or men who shrink from responsibilities in civil life, will take up military service (in subordinate ranks) as a profession. Working men despise them exactly as they despise flunkeys—and they have all the vices of flunkeys—laziness, arrogance and servility. They are undoubtedly inferior to the average foreman or head clerk. In the army authority is much more absolute, obedience more strictly enforced than in civil life. An act of disobedience, "talking back," means not "the sack," but imprisonment, the court martial, the disciplinary companies of Africa or even death. Yet in civil life authority generally implies some degree of real superiority; in the army it is often vested in men flagrantly inferior to the average. Hence a spirit of sullen opposition among the soldiers. The only enduring bitterness which my passage in the army left me was due to the pettiness and tyranny of these underlings. Yet I found among them one unusually able and well-meaning young man, a sergeant-major who died three years later as a lieutenant.

The most demoralizing features in French military life are due to an incontestable progress in the French mind—its gradual loss of faith and interest in military glory. Henceforth the army is considered as useless, dangerous, a burden without a compensation. Authors of school books may be censured for daring to print such opinions, but the great majority of the French hold them in their hearts. Nay, there is a prevailing suspicion among workingmen that the military establishment is kept up for the sole benefit of the capitalists, and the reckless use of troops in case of labor conflicts gives color to the contention. In missions, explorations, aviation, rescue work and on colonial battlefields, the French have shown the same enthusiastic spirit as of yore. But dreary barrack life, without a clear purpose, without an ideal, is more than they can bear. Hence, a universal spirit of indifference and laziness; the main point is to reach the end of the year without trouble, and with the least possible effort (vulgo "tirer au flanc"). Those who succeed in shirking duty are admired and envied as "debrouillards." A disease or an accident, if not too painful, is considered as a stroke of luck; it gives a soldier a few days of far-niente. The military doctors have to exercise the closest scrutiny on malingerers and shammers. To waste time and to escape punishment are the only ideals. There is no incentive to good work. In this respect military life is vastly inferior to industrial life. Men who serve only two years do not aspire to promotion; by working hard for fifteen months, they could barely manage to become sergeants for the remaining four or five. They can't be turned out for inefficient work. I believe the barracks were the school in which the French working-men, naturally industrious and conscientious, learned the terrible habit of "Sabotage." No legitimate superiority is recognized in any way. Education, refinement, cleanliness—verbal, physical and moral—are causes of suspicion. Brute strength, profanity, capacity for strong drink, are titles to respect. Many a workman's son, trained in technical schools, aspiring to better manners and a higher ideal than those of his first associates, is during his stay in the army dragged down back to his old level.

So my general impression is that the army has on the whole no uplifting influence whatever; and without being so black as it was sometimes painted, it has a lowering effect on all except the very lowest. I must, however, mention a few hopeful signs of transformation, which seem to point to a compromise between the army and modern democracy.

The first is the absolute equalization of the term of service. Before 1905 the wealthy classes had either escaped service altogether (paying a substitute, or buying themselves off directly) or served one year in special corps while the rest served five or three. They consistently opposed the general adoption of the one-year term of service, which they themselves enjoyed. Now, it will be easier to further reduce the term of service, first to one year, then to six months. With such reduction the dangers of military life decrease (less idleness, more interest), while its good features (as a school of citizenship and physical culture) are retained.

2. For the last ten years an immense effort has been made for transforming the army into a great educational agency. Le Temps, always opposed to any form of progress, recently published a skit in which civil professors in the army (professors of civics, hygiene, geography, rural economy, "prévoyance," etc.) complained that drills, marches and manœuvres were interfering with their teaching. Nay, pacifist lectures were at one time regularly given in French barracks (under General André). Of course it would be more sensible to spend the money directly on education. But the gradual "humanization" of the army is an excellent thing.

3. At the time of the postal strikes, of the railroad strikes, of the Seine flood, the army was called upon to fulfil various duties, and did it admirably. There is a great danger in turning the army into a universal strike-breaking corps, or a body of "compulsory scabs." On the other hand, this industrial use of the army points to a mighty transformation; the war forces could become, as TV. James intimated, reserve forces of peace, for great public works, sudden emergencies, national disasters. (Herein again the wit of journalists found a free field; it was announced that nursery-maids had formed a union (syndicat) and struck for shorter hours. The Nth regiment of engineers was detailed to take their places, to the great delight of cooks.)

We must look forward to a gradual transformation, for militarism will not be rooted out in one day. Costly as it is, the nations grow rich in spite of the burden. There is no doubt but France is amassing wealth at a rapid rate, and fast becoming the banker of the world, while Germany's progress is stupendous. France's toll on the foreigner (investments abroad, and expenses of tourists) alone more than pays for the interest of the debt, and the cost of the military establishment. Conservative papers, like Le Figaro and Le Temps sound notes of warning when new educational or social laws are proposed; but when a reduction of military expenditure is mooted, they prove conclusively that the country is marvelously prosperous, and could afford a few more army corps and a dozen super-Dreadnoughts.

Beside the spirit of mutual diffidence which centuries of hostility have fostered, and which the recent attitude of Germany has revived, the strong point of militarism remains its sentimental appeal. Dreary barrack life is still linked in popular imagination with the sombre but grandiose epic of ancient wars. Men serve their time when they are young and buoyant, when no hardship is unendurable, when even the memories of unnecessary fatigue, squalor, petty tyranny, are transfigured by the general glow of youth and hope. I for instance look back upon these days of servitude with a sort of pleasure. I remember the fun, the marching at the sound of bugles and band, or singing away on the highroad; the mock guerilla warfare around Norman farms in the early morning; the incontestable grandeur of a division in battle array. Soldiering is a pretty game, although murdering is an ugly business. It is possible that wars will be abolished generations before armies are suppressed.

  1. This article is an extract from a private letter in answer to a query concerning the military system of France. It is published by permission of Professor Guérard.—David Starr Jordan.
  2. 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.