“We are going to meet the mayor,” said the major.
First we went to his office. But that was a mistake. We were invited to his house, which was a fine, old, eighteenth-century building. If you could transport it to New York some arms-and-ammunition millionaire would give half a million dollars for it. The hallway was smoke-blackened and a burnt spot showed where the enemy had tried to set it on fire before evacuating the town. Ascending a handsome old staircase, we were in rooms with gilded mirrors and carved mantels, where we were introduced to His Honour, a lively man of some forty years.
“I have been in Amerique two months. So much English do I speak. No more!” said the mayor merrily, and introduced us in turn to his wife, who spoke not even “so much” English, but French as fast and as piquantly as none but a Frenchwoman can. Her only son, who was seventeen, was going up with the 1916 class of recruits very soon. He was a sturdy youngster; a type of Young France who will make the France of the future.
“You hate to see him go?” I asked.
“It is for France!” she answered.
We had cakes and tea and a merrier—at least, a more heartfelt—party than at any mayor’s reception in time of peace. Everybody talked. For the French do know how to talk, when they have not turned grim, silent soldiers. I heard story on story of the German occupation; and how the mayor was put in jail and held as a hostage; and what a German general said to him when he was brought in as a prisoner to be interrogated in his own house, which the general occupied as headquarters.
Among the guests was the wife of a French general in her Red Cross cap. She might see her husband once a week by meeting him on the road between the city and the front. He could not afford to be any farther from his post, lest the Germans spring a surprise. The extent of the information which he gave her was that all went well for France. Father Joffre plays no favourites in his discipline.
Happy, happy Lorraine in the midst of its ruins! Happy because her adored tricolour floats over those ruins.
Other armies go to war across the land, but the British go across the sea. They take the Channel ferry in order to reach the front. Theirs is the home road of war to me; the road of my affections, where men speak my mother tongue. It begins on the platform at Victoria Station, with the khaki of officers and men, returning from leave, relieved by the warmer colours of women who have come to say good-bye to those they love. In five hours from the time of starting one may be across that ribbon of salt water, which means much in isolation and little in distance, and in the trenches.
That veteran regular—let us separate him from the crowd—is a type I have often seen, a type that has become as familiar as one’s neighbours in one’s own town. We will call him the tenth man. That is, of every ten men who went to the front a year ago in his battalion, nine are gone. All of the hardships and all of the terrors of war he has witnessed: men dropped neatly by a bullet; men mangled by shells.