Paris - Winter Clothing For The Piou-pious
( Originally Published 1915 )
IT is getting cold in France. The principal thought of the nation is how to clothe the million and a half soldiers in the field. The Wet and the cold expose the men to a danger as great as that f the enemy's fire. A soldier can carry in his knapsack hardly more than his blanket and one change f underclothing. He marched away under a summer sun, the little piou-piou, as he is affectionately called,' so he is not provided with proper clothing for what now looms up as a winter campaign. The headline that greets you every day on the front page of the newspapers is: "Send woolly things to the soldiers."
This exhortation is unnecessary. I have often wondered at the industry of French peasant women.
It is over a century since the soldiers of the line were first called Piou-pious. The word had its origin in a change of uniform for the infantry. They were given a sort of clown's costume with a ruffle around their neck like a sparrow's ruff. When the Parisians saw them for the first time, they called piou-piou, imitating sparrows. The term, first used in derision, has now come to signify deep affection and tenderness.
In every hamlet you will find three generations knitting between tasks. The inevitable ball f yarn occupies rheumatic fingers and baby fingers as well. The old motto that the secret f the wealth of France and the fruit f her industry is in the stocking would read with as much force if that last word were plural ! A great city makes for idleness among the poor as well as among the rich. There are many housewives f country origin in Paris that have lost not only the bloom on the cheek but also the nimbleness of fingers that used to add pennies to the family horde at all hours of day and night.
But during the past week rusty needles have come out of forgotten corners, and a hundred thousand who have never used needles before have bought sets. For knitting is now the national occupation of the army at home. Frosty days and nights have come. Practically every woman has a son or a husband often both sleeping and fighting in the open air, exposed to the rain and wind of these cold autumn nights. Loving hands have been busy. On the street, at the door, in tramways, in cabs, in luxurious automobiles, beside the huckster pushcart, the women are knitting today. There is an undershirt, probably several, for every soldier. But the difficulty is to get these stitches of love to the loved one.
As with the wounded', so it is with the mail.
The organization of the service between the; battlefields and the capital has broken down completely You mail your package to your man at the front, pay full postage for it, and it has to go first to the garrison town where his regiment was mustered into active service. For example, it may be that you live in Paris, but are originally from Marseilles. Your man has been mustered in at Marseilles. Although you know that he is shivering fifty miles away, your package has to go six hundred Miles to Marseilles and come six hundred miles back td Paris, and then it is officially ready to go to the, front. Multiply this one case by hundreds of thousands f cases, and we see how the postal administration stands. Since the beginning of the war, there has been exactly the same regulation for letters. The anxious wife or mother writes every day to her loved one at the front. The letters travel all over France and back again, and perhaps after a month or six weeks, if the one to whom they are addressed is still alive, he may possibly receive a few them !
Tonight it will be as it is every night when I go to mail my letters. At our branch post office, I stand in line before the one window for registered matter. In front of me, behind me, are the *omen with their packages. For most of them the contents, even the one or two francs of postage means a real sacrifice in times like these. If only they could feel certain that the sacrifice would meet the reward of the package reaching the man in the trenches ! Every time I stand in that line I hear some little women asking the gruff clerk behind the window when the package is likely to reach its destination. His answer is invariably a growl. But they pay and hope. The receipt they are given for the registration is a scrap of paper, at which, if ever one were bold enough to come back to make a claim for non-delivery, the post office clerk would look as von Bethmann-Hollweg looked at the treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium.
If this were only all that the army at home has to endure ! But they have also the fear that governmental initiative is failing to cope with the problem of winter clothing for the piou-pious, owing to the same incompetence in the supply department of the Ministry of War as that in the post office administration. I have heard this fear expressed a hundred times in almost the same words. "If they do not succeed in getting my package to my soldier, are they capable of supplying him from the dépôt, par exemple?"
The bureaucrats who sit at their desks in the ministries, and year in and year out follow the dull routine of advertising for bids for certain supplies, passing upon the bids, and seeing that the goods ordered are paid for and sent to garrisons, are aghast at, and entirely unfit to cope with, the proposition of a million and a half new winter overcoats. Indeed, at different points along a hundred and fifty miles of battlefield, positions are changed every day with the varying fortunes f war. This is no time for routine. And yet, these poor creatures, of limited mentality, continue to exercise their functions and vainly try to rise to the situation.
The only way the French Government could properly and adequately and quickly give to the army the clothing it needs for the winter would be to call temporarily into the administration the head of some great department store. There are Men in Paris today who could go into the Ministry of War and look at an order for five hundred thousand over-coats to be delivered in two weeks just as they would at an order for a single cake of soap. They would refuse to think of anything else but the one thing, "How soon can I get those overcoats on the backs of the soldiers?" Telegraph and cable wires would flash messages, here, there, and everywhere. I They would scour the world to find the materials and the workmen for making these overcoats. And they would get them. As soon as they got them they would see, in spite of red tape, that they reached the soldiers in the field wherever "the field" happened to be.
Of course exeutive ability of this kind, whose possessors have deservedly made great fortunes cannot be commanded by a government bureau. But in times of war, such men would be glad to step in and give to the country a service that would be equal to that rendered by generals f armies. But they are not called. The soldiers are left to shiver.
NOTICE has been given that the Uhiversity of Paris will open as usual next month, and that lycées, secondary schools, and primary schools in Paris are resuming their courses. Some teachers have gone to the front. But it is astonishing how many men over fifty, eager for work, rise up from cover to seek places as substitute teachers! Every large city is full of them. Paris has more than enough.
The problem of reopening schools is not in finding teachers. The hesitation has been on account of the pupils. Where are they? Only the older university men are in the army : boy volunteering has not been allowed as yet. Most of the froussard families will soon be returning. For it is getting very cold in the country, and very dull. Those who fled from the Germans might endure the cold rather than return to the fear of bombs. But what Parisian can long suffer dullness? Better death.
Where, then, are the boys? They are; Scouts,and they do not want to give up this fascinating work to go back to school. That is the problem.
From the first day of the war we began to see on the streets of Paris the boys who had donned the uniform that has become known all over the world since General Baden-Powell conceived his brilliant idea ten years ago. The movement, already initiated here, has spread wonderfully since August.
At first, the Boy Scouts were considered as a joke. Their elders were amused at the way the boys "played at war." But the boys soon showed that they were in earnest, and that they could be f real service. They made a place for themselves in our civil and military administrations.
When, in August and September, successive classes of men were called under the colors, we learned that very many of them were not indispensable. Their places in home industries, in factories, in shops, and in public service corporations, upon whose continued activity the economic life that minimum necessary for existence is dependent, were filled immediately by mothers, wives, and daughters. God bless the women ! There will be a lot of men eating humble pie after this war.
In spheres of activity, where women and girls are hardly suitable, the boys found that they were able to replace grown men. In uniform, and convinced that they are serving in the active army, the Boy Scouts have been filling an amazingly useful part in the life of France.
The Boy Scouts are patrolling the railways. For moving up and down the tracks and keeping an eye on rails, on culverts and on the unimportant bridges, the boys are better than the older reservists whom they have replaced. Their legs are nimbler and their eyes quicker. They carry newspapers and letters on motorcycles from cities to the base camps of the armies. In garrison towns they are marmitons, preparing meats and vegetables in the casernes for the regimental mess. They render this same sort of service in the cantines, where the refugees and the poor of the city gather to be fed. With the help of the Boy Scouts to run errands and serve the food, two or three women are able to managea large cantine.
The Boy Scouts are messengers for the ministries and embassies and legations. One sees then going back and forth through the streets, carrying messages and letters too important or too urgent to be entrusted to the post. A Cabinet Minister recently received a large sum for the decoration of the graves of soldiers in the Paris cemeteries. He wondered how it would be possible to utilize this money for the purpose intended by the donor. He thought of the Boy Scouts. By the dozens they visited the florists of Paris, bought up all the flowers, and carried them to the cemeteries on their bicycles.
Their most valuable service, the most indispensable and the most difficult, has been in the care of the wounded in hospitals and at railway stations. In September, Paris could not have done its duty by the wounded who were poured into the city had there been no organized Boy Scouts. Many a soldier owes his life to them. They were always at the trains with stretchers. They did not tire of carrying burdens too heavy for their undeveloped backs and arms. Orderlies were lacking in the hospitals. The Boy Scouts saved overworked nurses and physicians many a step.
But now we are accustomed to the war, and its exigencies can be met without the help of the Boy Scouts. In a great city like Paris, there are bound to be more helpers than there are jobs, even when the bulk of the men are withdrawn for the army. The economic life of the city has adjusted itself to changed conditions, and plenty who need work are seeking it.
The Boy Scouts do not want to give up, though. They reason that they have enlisted for the length f the war, and must not quit. Parents are beginning to be embarrassed and annoyed. They do not feel so kindly towards General Baden-Powell's brilliant idea. It is difficult to get the boys back to school. The Scouts disdain the idea of being schoolboys again. They are doing a more useful, and more noble work, they maintain.
But parents in France have a way of enforcing obedience. The war is over for the Boy Scouts. They yield with poor grace. After all, it is hard for them to believe what the Minister of Public Instruction tells them, that "diligent attention to studies is the best way in which boys can prepare themselves to serve the nation." PREPARE to serve the nation? What does the Minister think they have been doing these three months pat?
A Boy Scout whom I love comes to me this evening, and pours out his heart. He wants sympathy and encouragement to resist the call back to books. I have to disappoint him, and I make the mistake of trying to work off the Minister's arguments on him.
He eyes me with amazement. Amazement changes to disgust.
"You belong to the conspiracy against the Boy Scouts !" he cries. "And I thought you vere our friend!"
"Well, I am a father myself, you know," I answered lamely.
"Say, I'd forgotten that. Never mind, you can't help it. I suppose it's the Lycée Montaigne for me tomorrow."
He grins, and holds out a pardoning hand. After I have shut the door, I can hear him whistling his way down the stairs.