We saw a good deal too of the officers of a French Observation Balloon. One of their officers was a tall man, promoted from the ranks, with big upturned moustaches, a delightful smile and twinkling eyes. He smoked more cigars than any man I have ever met. He smoked them, like some men smoke cigarettes, one after another all the evening, with no interval between. He came from Marseilles. Another was from Auvergne, always most elegantly dressed. He never smoked at all, for he was very proud of his white teeth. He spoke Italian and German, but no English. A third was a little blonde Alsatian business man. He was usually rather quiet, but one evening I saw him roused, when someone had said something that displeased him about Alsace. Then he showed us that he could be eloquent when he chose.
They are very implacable, these Frenchmen. Undoubtedly Clemenceau spoke in their name, when he said, “my war aim is victory.” Another Frenchman said to me once, “when Clemenceau is speaking, no one dares to interrupt, for they know it is the voice of the soldier at the Front speaking.” And one can scarcely wonder that they are implacable. In Alsace-Lorraine and in the occupied territories of Northern France, they say that it is known with complete certainty that the daughters and wives and widows of many French officers and men have been compelled to take up their abode in brothels, and there to await at all hours of the day and night the visits of their country’s enemies. Is it surprising that certain French Regiments, knowing these things, never take prisoners? And can one fail to admire, even if one does not unconditionally agree with, the soldier who would fight on and on, until everyone has been killed, rather than accept anything less than a complete victory?
It is all but impossible for a foreigner to measure the spiritual effects upon a proudly and self-consciously civilised Frenchman of these unpardonable, brain-rending, heart-stabbing provocations. But the statesman at home who, drawing good pay and living in comfort far behind the Front, is ever ready to declare that his country “shall continue to bleed in her glory” is a less admirable spectacle. It is his business to conceive some subtler and more comprehensive war aim than bare military victory, and to make sure that, when he has died safely in his bed and been forgotten, other men shall not have to do over again the work which he complacently bungled. A fighting soldier, who risks his life daily, may speak brave words, which are indecent on the lips of an imboscato, whether military or civilian.
THE ASIAGO PLATEAU
About the middle of March the British Divisions moved up from the Montello to the Asiago Plateau, and all the British Heavy Artillery was concentrated in the Asiago sector. We, therefore, moved six miles to the west and found ourselves in support of British, and no longer of Italian, Infantry. Our Brigade ceased to be a “trench-punching” and became a “counter-battery” Brigade. Most of our work in future was to be in close co-operation with our own Air Force.