Paris - The Foreign Volunteers
( Originally Published 1915 )
THE other day I was lunching with the Lawyer and the American-Journalist-Who-Loves-France at the home of the Modiste. To sit at the Modiste's board and have before you any dish at all that she has prepared, is a treat, but on the day of goose stewed with turnips—words convey no meaning here. You have to taste to understand.
Conversation turned to the foreign volunteers, of whose noisy demonstrations on the first evening of the mobilization I have written. That first enthusiasm has been checked—or seemed to be so by the declaration of the Minister of War that no volunteers, French or foreign, would be enrolled until after the mobilization was completed. This was ignoring the axiom of striking while the iron is hot. Then it was announced that the only way open to serve would be to enlist in the Foreign Legion for the length of the war. Were privately organized bands of volunteers not to be accepted in the army as separate companies'? Were there to be no regiments, no companies, with distinctive uniform, serving as units distinct from those of other nations'?
The Lawyer and I were of the opinion that volunteering would suffer from this cold water which had been thrown upon it, and that when the 22nd arrived (the day after general mobilization terminated) there would be fewer volunteers than followed the flags bearing inscriptions of love for France on that memorable first Sunday evening of August.
The Modiste, being a woman, could not understand that we were discussing an academic question, and were not expressing how we should feel, were we ourselves contemplating the act of volunteering.
"General Messimy is right !" she cried. "What France needs is volunteers who go into the war just as Frenchmen go into it, with the complete sinking of self into the whole. If we are to win this war, God forbid that we should fall into the German idea of organization, and make our army a machine. We want to preserve our individualism, but we must at the same time show our solidarity. We cannot accept volunteers in separate organizations of their different nationalities. If they come to us, it is as individuals, who enlist because they love France and are willing to die for France. How is it that you do not understand?"
The Journalist had been silent. His eyes were wandering up toward the ceiling, and he seemed to be counting on the shelves the rows of pasteboard boxes that would not be used for hats this season. The Modiste's dining-room, under ordinary circumstances, is a busy workshop for catering to the fashionables of Paris. It is only on account of the war that it is suffering this unwonted masculine invasion. The Modiste's clients are not in Paris these days, or, if they are, they are not buying Paradise plumes. The Journalist's ascetic, super refined face, true product of Puritan ancestors and Boston, had turned almost white. The long thin fingers were nervously crumbling bread. Then he spoke.
"You are talking just to thresh out the subject in your own minds, and, as usual, you are cynical. I should do the same, I should be the same with many subjects, but not with this. The impulse that drives foreigners to volunteer for France is too sacred to be dissected. There may be more than one motive actuating individuals, there is undoubtedly a large amount of disgusting self advertisement on the part of many who are organizing Rough-Riders and other volunteer corps, but what you do not bring out is the fact of which you are as much aware as I, because in the bottom of your heart you feel as I do. The only foreigners in France are tourists or those whose egoism or lack of soul life keeps them aloof and apart from the life of this country. Potentially speaking, every man in whose brain and heart is developed the love of that which is beautiful, has two countries : his own and France. Potentially speaking, I say; and that is why I can make of this statement a universal proposition. For, no matter where he was born, no matter what his antecedents may have been, when the man with a soul comes to live in France, and by France, you understand, I mean Paris, he is at home. If he is not at home here, he has no soul. Then, it necessarily follows that we are patriotic Frenchmen in spite of being foreigners. If we volunteer or, I ought to say, when we volunteer it is because of love, and is not the test of love the willingness to give our lives?"
on the way back to work, the Journalist accompanied us. We left the Lawyer on the Boulevard des Italiens, and went down the Rue de Richelieu to cross the Pont des Saints-Pères. For my office as well as for my residence, I still hold to the Rive Gauche.
It occurred to us both at the same moment or was it mental suggestion from his brain to mine? To pass by way of the Palais Royal, where the Herald had announced there was a recruiting office of the American Volunteer Corps.
Under the arcade, crowded in between the shops of questionable jewelers and questionable booksellers, the wee American recruiting headquarters was marked by our flag.
The Journalist clutched my arm as we entered. I could feel in the pressure of his fingers a suggestion of his struggle for selfcontrol.
Two Americans, not of the Journalist's type, were running the office, and a dark haired man, whose eyes suggested a Southern and un-American origin, was presiding over the table where the recruiting slips were to be had.
The two Americans not of the Journalist's type greeted us in the idiom which is well known north of Park Row where the Elevated runs. When they discovered that we were of the world that sent daily messages to the newspapers they were quite solicitous about our having all the information "going" of the American Volunteer Corps, and the full names and antecedents of those who were organizing it.
We made, of course, the perfunctory motions of taking down the names and details. I do not give them here, for the paper has been mislaid. What interested us was the tall boy of nineteen or twenty who was having some difficulty in filling out his recruiting slip. So we moved over toward the table at which the black-eyed man was presiding.
The volunteer had a puzzled expression on his face as the recruiting officer retranslated for him a question to which he must respond. It was a simple question. But simple questions do not always have simple answers.
"Why am I volunteering?" stammered the boy. I interrupted.
"Put down," I said to the recruiting officer, "this answer : `Because I love France and I want to help in preserving her as the beacon-light of civilization.' "
"Say, that 's all right," remarked the relieved volunteer. "I did n't know what in to give for that one."
The recruiting officer, when the boy had signed his name, arose ceremoniously, shook hands with the new soldier of France, and said : "Now you must turn up here every morning at eight o'clock for drill. They 've given us permission to use the Garden of the Palais Royal, so we shall drill here."
The two other Americans shook hands with the volunteer, and congratulated him. So did we. As he was going out, he hesitated a moment, turned his straw hat over several times in his hands, and then asked,
"When is the grub going to begin on this deal?"
"on the 22nd," the three answered succinctly and in chorus. They were evidently accustomed to the question. He need not have hesitated. From the boy's face I judged the 22nd seemed a long way off. The Journalist and I flashed a look at each other, and hurried out to give him something to tide him over. But the volunteer had disappeared.
So had the spell over the Journalist. At least I thought so for the moment. But he was holding fast to his thesis of the luncheon table. For, when we parted at the Quai Voltaire, he remarked simply without explanation, knowing that none was needed, "I must talk it over with my wife first."
The 22nd, for which thousands of others stranded like the boy at the Palais Royal had been waiting, has come. Since the American-Journalist-Who-Loves-France went home to talk it over with his wife, I have seen notices appealing to different categories of foreigners to volunteer under the auspices of a multitude of organizations. Recruiting has been carried on actively among rich and poor, fortunate and unfortunate, educated and ignorant. Student societies of the Latin Quarter have vied with the clubs of the Boulevards and Passy and the trades-unions of Belleville and St. Denis.
The result I saw this afternoon on the Esplanade des Invalides. The fourteen Crimean veterans and the twenty-three of the Solferino campaign were taking their usual sun-bath by the cannon on the talus. But this time before their eyes was being enacted a far different drama from that of August 5. Here was an offering of human lives instead of machines : here was an outpouring of the love than which no man hath greater. There were the same bureaux de fortune, the same pine tables, and the same three chairs. But it was a dealing in flesh and blood : how great the difference !
The foreign volunteers marched into the Esplanade, following the flag of the countries which they represented. I will not enumerate the flags. Just open a geography or almanac, copy down the list of the civilized nations of the world, and you will have the nomenclature of the volunteering groups. Even the subjects of Wilhelm II and Franz Josef were not lacking in the number of those who came to join the Foreign Legion.
They marched into the Esplanade, following their own flags and in distinct groups. They marched out soldiers of France, following the flag of France. It was the complete sinking of self into the whole, as the Modiste had said it must be. The motives of volunteering may have been mixed, but the fact remains that these men have volunteered, and that what they are offering is all they have to give. I am not a cynic, and I have no right to form a judgment contrary to that of the American-Journalist-Who-Loves-France. For he is of those who march, and I am not.