Paris - The African Troops Pass Through
( Originally Published 1915 )
I AM glad these days that I am living on the "Boul Mich." It is a direct thoroughfare from north to south, and is thus a favorite route for troops going to the front.
Last night I had hardly finished dinner when a hubbub in the street drew me to the door. For over two hours I stood on the sidewalk, with interest never flagging, as regiments from Africa passed, and received a greeting from the people of Paris. They started about eight o'clock to go through our boulevard. Long after I had gone to bed, I heard the clatter of horses' hoofs on the asphalt, the jangle of harness and creaking of wheels of the gun-carriages, the laughter and cheers of the spectators, and the quick repartee of the soldiers.
I cannot help feeling that the French will regret the introduction of large bodies of African troops into the war on European soil. If the Allies are honestly anxious to avoid sullying their arms with the atrocities of which they accuse the Germans, they will not fail to see the mistake of this move. It is only dire necessity,and perhaps the desire to fore stall an appeal of the Germans to Islam through their alliance with the Khalif at Constantinople that could have dictated this move.
The Battle of Leipzig, which brought about the downfall of Napoleon's military power, has been called the Battle of Nations. All Europe was involved in that struggle. But 1914 is going to mark a new epoch in the history of the world, for the composition of the battleline between the Marne and Aisne will see gathered under the British and French flags soldiers from every continent in the world.
Let them come in hordes, the volunteers from Spanish America and Canada and Australia. These are white men. They have the right to shed their blood in deciding the destinies of Europe. Europe is their mother, both as to blood and as to civilization. But what can we say of the Moroccans, the Berbers, the Senegalese, the Hindus, the Sikhs, the Sepoys, the Gurkhas, the Afghans, and the Burmese? It would have been well if the Hague Convention had forbidden Colonials, other than of pure European blood, to be employed in wars upon the continent of Europe. The French have always bitterly opposed this. Their corps of African sharpshooters did valiant service against the Prussians in 1870. Now, more than ever, does France feel that she must rely upon her African subjects to help in reducing her great numerical inferiority to the Germans. Great Britain, too, smarts under the handicap of her ridiculously small trained army, and seeks to increase her forces by calling in her troops from India.
Perhaps I am wrong. It may be the part of wisdom to use this opportunity for emphasizing the solidarity of all the elements especially the Moslem element in the Colonial empires of France and Great Britain. But God help the Germans when they fall into the hands of these Turcos ! It may be a foolish misgiving. But I could not watch them pass towards the Gare du Nord without the fear that the flags of the Powers of western Europe may be dishonored before the year is over.
The Parisians are not thinking of such an eventuality. What I saw last night is sufficient proof of the enthusiasm with which this aid is being received and the confidence which it inspires. These are dark days, indeed, for Paris. Who knows but what the Turcos may prove a tower of strength in the defense of the city? When we come to the elemental considerations of selfdefense, "Necessity knows no law."
There must have been two divisions, one of Senegalese and the other of Turcos. They were a sharp contrast to the regiments of reservists we have become accustomed to see. Instead of the pale faces of city men, tom from the desk and the counter to shoulder arms, here were swarthy warriors, covered with dust and grime. They swung along with a gait, in which the nonchalance of their French officers was mingled with the suppleness of the savage, and the habitude of the professional soldier.
The delight at the ovation they received was that of children. Every one had something to give, tobacco, beer and wine in bottles, cakes of chocolate, flowers, and where the purse was lacking the heart of the midinette, more gamine on the "Boul Mich" than anywhere else in Paris, bestowed kisses regardless of color.
Officers smiled gaily, and waved their hand at every pretty girl. No sharp word was spoken when a soldier left the line and made a dive through the crowd to a door, where a beaming shopkeeper held out offerings from his stock. From the saddles of officers, from the barrels of soldiers' rifles, bunches of flowers sprouted. on one soldier's back cakes of chocolate protruded from his extra pair of boots. At another's belt dangled a choice sausage, hitting his bayonet sheath at every step.
The Turcos made good use of their limited French. They were hoarse from responding to the Au revoir, Bon courage, Bonne chance, Sus a Guillaume, and other sentiments of the crowd. They assured the Parisians that they would "eat the Germans," and that Wilhelm's day would be over when they reached the front.
We do not know where the Germans are, but we are sure they are near. At any moment, the bombardment may begin. Before they attack Paris, however, they will have to fight a colossal battle. To us, accustomed to think of the march of soldiers as the monotonous routine of a machine, and of impending disaster as something that weighs down the heart and makes the face sad and words few, the scenes of the "Boul Mich" last night afford a revelation of character and of temperament far different from ours. The passing of these Turcos, going to their death at a critical moment in the history of the world for I cannot too strongly emphasize my belief that Paris is France, and that France is the world would seem to the Anglo-Saxon an event whose outlines were to be faithfully drawn only by a sober description of a silent and tearful reception.
That is not the way of Paris. The nature of the Parisian is eternal youth, where laughter and tears come in quick succession. The tears, however, are only the passing cloud, for Paris is always full of sunshine, full of hope. Death and disaster are borne with a spirit we would do well to emulate.
The superficial observer calls fickleness what is really heroism. How much more life holds for the community that knows how to laugh, that does laugh, even when the tide is adverse, and leaves to the morrow its burden of suffering and horror.