Paris - Red Tape
( Originally Published 1915 )
I WAS on a tram this morning going from the Gare Montparnasse to the Etoile. Opposite me was a wounded soldier, who was evidently not accustomed to crutches, and had great difficulty getting to his seat. As he had a bag to carry, he could not have done so without help. When the conductor came for his fare, the soldier looked surprised and stammered something that I did not catch. The conductor insisted. Others, sitting beside him, intervened, and paid the conductor. The soldier was greatly embarrassed. He began to tell his story. We gathered that he had been wounded in the Battle of the Marne, and "evacuated" to a hospital in the west of France. When he was discharged, he was sent back to Paris to appear before the Council of Revision, which sits at the Ecole Militaire. Only when given a certificate of incapacity would he be allowed to return to his home.
"How long were you on the train ?"
"And have you had nothing to eat?"
"No: I have no money."
"But when they discharged you from the hospital, did they give you no money'?"
"No. You see, I was in a military hospital, and they discharged me with a ticket to Paris. In the regulations there is a provision only for a ticket to the point where one must rejoin his regiment or pass before the Council of Revision of the district of his enrollment."
Here was red tape with a vengeance. I have gathered so many instances of "applying the rule" that my heart is sick. This soldier in the tram is typical of the machine like way in which bureaucracy deals with human beings. The poor fellow had been discharged from a military hospital. They applied the rule a ticket to Paris ! If the man next to him had not intervened, the conductor on the tramcar would have had to apply the rule, and put him off to stumble along to the Ecole Militaire the best way he could.
It never fails. The routine life of a government office invariably stultifies the initiative and judgment of the unfortunates who are chained to desks and bound in their every action by rule. Apply the rule ! That is officialdom in a nutshell.
The illustrations of how "the letter killeth" are most striking when gathered from the dealings of officials with the women to whom sorrow and suffering have come through the war.
Recently the wife of an officer, who had fought with great heroism in defending Maubeuge, could get no information as to his fate. After weeks of the anguish of uncertainty, an employee from the accounting department of the Ministry of War arrived at her house with the following note :
"Dear Madam, we have just been notified that your husband was killed at Maubeuge on August---.
On our books, we find that he had received an advance of salary up to September , and that he owed for a leather revolver case. Will you kindly give to the bearer, the sum of francs due to the Government for the advance of salary to your husband from the date of his decease until the period to which he had been paid, and alsofrancs for the revolver case charged against him.
I know of other cases where women have gone to the local office where the daily amount allowed to the wives and children of men at the front is paid, and have met the crisp, matter of fact statement, "Your husband is dead; your name has been struck off the list."
The wives of officers in the departments of the North which are occupied by the enemy are finding it impossible to secure the portions of their husbands' salaries that were set aside by agreement at the beginning of the war to be directly paid to them each month. For, when these departments were invaded, the Government ordered local paymasters to withdraw, taking with them the governmental cash boxes. Many of these women are wholly dependent upon what they draw of their husbands' salaries.
One officer's wife has four children. Her husband has been cited for bravery in the "Order of the Day." She is without private resources. When Madame went to the local officials who remained in her town, and asked them if there was any way in which money due her could be paid, they replied that she would have to make the request on stamped paper, and send it to Bordeaux, where it would be passed upon by a special council. Then, when the paper came back, they would be able to pay her out of the general funds of the municipality. This would constitute a lien against the Government, to be collected later.
"How long will it take?" she asked.
"Such a request will probably be returned here with the budget papers on October 1."
"But what shall I do in the meantime? Can you not telegraph for the authorization? I and my children will starve before then."
The employee shook his head. "Rule 189, Madame, formally forbids a request for special authorization of funds to be made by telegraph."
"This is vital to me."
"The rule, Madame, has no exception."
There was nothing left for the officer's wife to do but to ask alms to prevent her children from starving.
I could multiply these cases to show how the inflexibility of public officials is causing a wholly unnecessary burden of sorrow and anxiety. It is not the destitute who are suffering most. They have known in times of peace what it is to be without means, and have learned how to get assistance. It is the women of the middle classes who would rather die than ask for private help, that are suffering all over France.
In the meantime red tape reigns supreme.
The most pitiful feature of the war, as we see it in Paris, is the state of uncertainty in which most people are living. Is the husband, the son, the brother alive, or is he dead? If he is wounded, is it seriously, and where is he'? If he is cold in the trenches, is there any certainty that he received the warm clothing mailed to him? If he is a prisoner, will he get the money sent to him?
Poor mothers and wives and children of the soldiers ! Suffering women of France ! The haggard and drawn faces that one sees on the streets are due to this failure of the postal administration more than to any other cause.
A soldier was wounded on September thirtieth. By accident his wife learned that he had been wounded. She had no official information, and has none yet. On October ninth, she met an officer of her husband's company who told her that her husband had a bullet through his shoulder and had been removed by a field ambulance to some base hospital. On October first, she sent him a registered letter; on the third, a registered package; on the seventh, a registered package; on the tenth, a registered letter; on the seventeenth, a registered letter; on the twenty-third, a money order; on the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth, telegrams. These communications were all addressed, following the official direction, to the garrison town where he had joined his regiment at the time of mobilization.
The soldier's wife is poor, and has deprived herself of necessities to pay the postage. She has had absolutely no word of any kind either from her husband or from the military authorities. She says, "I am brave, and I am ready for every sacrifice. I did not weep before my husband on the day of his departure. I showed him that he could go peacefully to do his duty, that my courage and my reassuring words would never fail. But to think that he is suffering in some far off corner of France, perhaps dying, without having a word from him, is more than my heart can bear."
The Mayor of the village of Pont-en-Royans has seen his hair turn white during the past three months. Loyalty to the administration has kept his lips sealed as to the cause of his troubles. But the last straw has been placed upon the camel's back. M. Hennebert has finally burst forth into public print. He does not care now whether he loses his job or not. He has all he can stand. I am going to let him tell his story.
"In my official position, ever since the beginning of the war, there has not been a moment that I have not been besieged by families who have tried to obtain news of their children at the front, and who, in some cases, have not heard from their loved ones since the end of August.
"Full of confidence in our official machinery, at the beginning I wrote to the proper authorities, who at the end of fifteen days answered me: No information ; presumably in good health.'
"And I used to say to the families : Every evening they sound the call, and in each regiment they gather the names of those who have been killed and wounded. If a soldier does not answer eight days on end, then they report him as disappeared. In this case, he may be either dead or prisoner, but, at any rate, at the end of eight days, if he is no longer with his regiment, his name is written down and sent to the Ministry.
" Then, since the name of your child has not been given to be sent in to the Ministry, it is because he is with the others in his regiment; that is why they write to you "Presumably in good health."
"Alas ! I have for a long time lost confidence in the information given by the Ministry. One day, I received concerning a certain soldier the customary information, 'Presumably in good health.' Six days later, I was informed by the Council of Administration of this regiment of the decease of this soldier, `Dead a month and a half ago.'
"For another soldier I receive the ordinary printed slip, 'Presumably in good health.' I tell his wife. Eight days after, his wife receives from him a postal card from Germany, announcing that he has been a prisoner for five weeks !
"I could go on ad nauseam, but this is enough to show you what my situation is when mothers come to ask about their boys. Ought I to continue to write and fool them by these printed slips, 'Presumably in good health'? Here is a story to top off all the rest.
"Officially, on the twenty-ninth of September, I am told to notify the family of the soldier Regnier of his decease. Officially, mind you. So I go to their home to break the news. In the midst of their tears and their cries, the family show me the last postal card from the young soldier which was received that very morning, and dated September twenty-seventh, that is, two days before. But the notice of decease is that he died on September seventh. I say to the father: 'I would not give you too great hope Your child must have died the twenty-seven, perhaps suddenly, and the secretary charged with transcribing the letter I have received must have forgotten the cipher. Instead of the twenty-seventh, he must have put the seventh. But for all that, a doubt exists. Don't worry too much. I am going to find out the truth of the matter.'
"I write to the Council of Administration. They answer : `There has been no error. The official notice of decease carries indeed the date of September seventh. If, then, the soldier has written the twenty-seventh, it is that he is not dead. We shall notify the Ministry. On your side, you ought to write to the hospital where he was in treatment and from which his death was reported.'
"I write to the chief physician of Besancon, no response. I send him a telegram with answer prepaid,no response. So I write him a letter, this time a little hot. Finally I receive a telegram : 'We do not know one Régnier at the hospital.'
"I am still holding this telegram in my hand when there comes to my office with smiling face the sister of the dead man, who holds out to me a letter : 'Monsieur le Maire, my brother has written to us again.' I take the letter to examine it. There is no error. The dead man had written on October second.
" 'Very well,' I say to the family. 'Now you are reassured.
"Several days afterwards, I finally receive from the hospital of the Red Cross a letter giving me news of Régnier, telling me that there are several hospitals in the city, that they have only just received my letter, etc.
"I thought no more of this affair until October twenty-third. Then I received a notice from the Prefecture of Besancon begging me to advise the family of the soldier Régnier that he had been wounded, and was being treated at the hospital at Besancon.
"Finally, I thought that this affair was indeed closed, when, today, October thirtieth, I received a telegram sent to me by some one--I don't know by whom—which informs me that the soldier Regnier is unknown in the hospitals at Besancon.
"Oh, my head ! My head ! I do not care what happens if I send this story to a newspaper. Anything is better than having to give false news, and to play in this farcical manner with the affections of those who are giving their children for the salvation of France."