Two days later we had the most magnificent prise d’armes on the same plain that I have ever seen, much more stirring—though less tear-moving—than the same ceremony in the courtyard of the Invalides at Paris, where most foreigners see it. At the Invalides one sees the mutiles and the ill. Here one only saw the glory. In Paris, the galleries about the court, inside the walls of the Soldiers’ Home, are packed with spectators. Here there were almost none. But here the heroes received their decorations in the presence of the comrades among whom they had been won, in the terrible battles of Verdun. It was a long line of officers, and men from the ranks, who stood so steadily before the commander and his staff, inside the hollow square, about the regimental colors, to have their medals and crosses fastened on their faded coats, receive their accolade, and the bravos of their companions as their citations were read. There were seven who received the Legion d’Honneur.
It was a brave-looking ceremony, and it was a lovely day—even the sun shone on them.
There was one amusing episode. These celebrations are always a surprise to the greater part of the community, and, in a little place like this, it is only by accident that anyone sees the ceremony. The children are always at school, and the rest of the world is at work, so, unless the music attracts someone, there are few spectators. On the day of the prise d’armes three old peasants happened to be in a field on the other side of the route nationale, which skirts the big plain on the plateau. They heard the music, dropped their work and ran across the road to gape. They were all men on towards eighty—too old to have ever done their military service. Evidently no one had ever told them that all Frenchmen were expected to uncover when the flag went by. Poor things, they should have known! But they didn’t, and you should have seen a colonel ride down on them. I thought he was going to cut the woollen caps off their heads with his sabre, at the risk of decapitating them. But I loved what he said to them.
“Don’t you know enough to uncover before the flag for which your fellow citizens are dying every day?”
Isn’t that nice? I loved the democratic “fellow citizens”—so pat and oratorically French.
I flung the Stars and Stripes to the French breezes on the 7th in honor of the rupture. It was the first time the flag has been unfurled since Captain Simpson ordered the corporal to take it down two years ago the third of last September. I had a queer sensation as I saw it flying over the gate again, and thought of all that had happened since the little corporal of the King’s Own Yorks took it down,—and the Germans still only forty-two miles away.
February 26, 1917
What do you suppose I have done since I last wrote to you?