A Belgian repairing the wreck of his house was a grim, heartbreaking picture; a Frenchman of Lorraine repairing the wreck of his house had the light of hard-won victory, of confidence, of sacrifice made to a great purpose, of freedom secure for future generations, in his eyes. The difference was this: The Germans were still in Belgium; they were out of French Lorraine for good.
“What matters a shell-hole through my walls and my torn roof!” said a Lorraine farmer. “Work will make my house whole. But nothing could ever have made my heart and soul whole while the Germans remained. I saw them go, monsieur; they left us ruins, but France is ours!”
I had thought it a pretty good thing to see something of the Eastern French front; but a better thing was the happiness I found there.
Mon capitaine had come out from the Ministry of War in Paris; but when we set out from Nancy southward, we had a different local guide, a major belonging to the command in charge of the region which we were to visit. He was another example which upsets certain popular notions of Frenchmen as gesticulating, excitable little men. Some six feet two in height, he had an eye that looked straight into yours, a very square chin, and a fine forehead. You had only to look at him and size him up on points to conclude that he was all there; that he knew his work.
“Well, we’ve got good weather for it to-day, monsieur,” said a voice out of a goatskin coat, and I found we had the same chauffeur as before.
The sun was shining—a warm winter sun like that of a February thaw in our Northern States—glistening on the snowy fields and slopes among the forests and tree-clad hills of the mountainous country. Faces ambushed in whiskers thought it was a good day for trimming beards and washing clothes. The sentries along the roads had their scarfs around their necks instead of over their ears. A French soldier makes ear muffs, chest protector, nightcap, and a blanket out of the scarf which wife or sister knits for him. If any woman who reads this knits one to send to France she may be sure that the fellow who received it will get every stitch’s worth out of it.
To-day, then, it was war without mittens. You did not have to sound the bugle to get soldiers out of their burrows or their houses. Our first stop was at our own request, in a village where groups of soldiers were taking a sun bath. More came out of the doors as we alighted. They were all in the late twenties or early thirties, men of a reserve regiment. Some had been clerks, some labourers, some farmers, some employers, when the war began. Then they were piou-pious, in French slang; then all France prayed godspeed to its beloved piou-pious. Then you knew the clerk by his pallor; the labourer by his hard hands; the employer by his manner of command. Now they were poilus—bearded, hard-eyed veterans; you could not tell the clerk from the labourer or the employer from the peasant.