Dora Montefiore

From a Victorian to a Modern

Work in the French War Zone

In 1915 I was wanting to do some war work for the French, as they, having been one of the invaded countries, it appeared to me were more entitled than others to help. A friend at my Club (The Lyceum) suggested to me that I should try for work in the French Army at the Croix Rouge Française in Knightsbridge, and after months of delays connected with passports, and obtaining guarantors (personal friends in the Privy Council and the Army) who could vouch that I was not a spy, I left Folkestone on 8th December to work at a “Cantine des Dames Anglaises” in the “ Caserne des Eclop és” at Hesdin in the Pas de Calais. These Casernes des Eclopés were barracks just behind the trenches where every week detachments of sick French soldiers came from the trenches for rest and treatment. There were men with trench feet (sometimes so bad that they had to be carried up on the backs of comrades from the station to the barrack yard), men with boils, skin diseases, syphilis and shell-shock. They all were more or less on invalid diet, and the special feeding of 200 of them was assigned to us Dames Anglaises. I was at the head of the Cantine and had two English V.A.Ds under me, besides two French Army cooks. I had to provide, in the arrangement I made with the London Headquarters, a certain sum of money to supplement the French Army invalid rations, and with this money we bought butter, eggs, jams, farinaceous foods and cigarettes, besides fruit, etc., in the weekly market. I had also to pay part of the board and lodging of one of the V.A.D.s. We were told in London before starting that ours was one of the best kitchens of any of the Cantines des Dames Anglaises. I crossed from Folkestone in a boat packed with English troops, and there were also on board some Russian officers of high rank, who had been on an official visit to England. They were received on the French side by a Guard of Honour, and the playing of the Russian National Anthem and the Marseillaise. Our Tommies looked disappointed at not hearing “God Save,” but almost immediately the voice of an English officer was heard: “Men of the Expeditionary Relief Force, stand fast,” and then the disembarkation of our men began. After passport examinations, I followed my luggage down the gang-way, and found a train waiting for Etaples. Had lunch in train and travelled with an English officer, who told me something about the state of the trenches, where one of our men had lately been drowned in a communication trench. At Etaples I had to go before the R.D.T., which it appears I should have done at Boulogne, and he franked me on to Hesdin, where I was met by Miss Nathan, one of my V.A.D.s.

I have no space for details, but will record that my bedroom was gritty with thick dirt on the floor, and that I discovered afterwards soldiers had been billeted there, and that it had not been scrubbed-out since. I also found the next day that our kitchen at the caserne where we had to cook and wash up for 200 had no water laid on or any sink; that the coals were kept in heaps on the kitchen floor, and that we could not even swill down that floor because there was no drain, and if the dirty water ran out on the barrack yard we had complaints from the Commandant. Also, although I had to work in the barracks from 9 a.m. till 5.30 p.m., there was no sanitary accommodation provided there for us and we had to walk half a mile into the town where one of the shopkeepers allowed us to use the accommodation in their yard. However, when we saw the sufferings of the unfortunate French soldiers we tried to think as little as possible of our own discomforts. Our routine was to leave our lodgings every morning, the V.A.D’s at 8 and I at 9, for the barracks. By the time I arrived our little hut adjoining the kitchen had been tidied up by the orderlies and the girls had made our morning coffee. I usually went into the town then with an orderly to get the necessary extras for the day, and our own meat for dejeuner, and whilst I was away the cooks prepared enormous cauldrons of vegetable soup, in which bones were boiled , and either purée de pomme de terre or macaroni as a second course. When the bugle sounded for the men’s dejeuner, I left my little hut and went over to the big kitchen to keep the tally of the portions served out. The men were served at a hatch, through which they thrust their tin pannikins, and then took them away filled to their dormitories to eat round the fire. Our déjeuner followed at noon, after which the “adjointes,” as my girl helpers were called, went home or took a walk, and I was free to rest in the little hut, and write or keep my accounts. At 3.30 we met for tea, and at 5 the men’s dinner was served. It was of much the same composition as the déjeuner, except that we gave them sometimes petits pois, or rice and jam. At 6 we were free to go home and get ready to go down to the table d’hôte dinner at the Hotel de France, where we often met and dined with English officers, who were passing through with detachments on their way to the Somme. Sometimes in the evening we found the whole Grande Place filled with English covered lorries of the A.S.C. In the centre was a repair lorry with the sides let down, and the whole lit brilliantly with electric light. As usual the English soldiers hearing us speak English came round us in groups, and wanted help in the buying of things at the chemist’s or the bake shop. They then explained that the lighted lorry was the workshop, and that parts of other lorries were undergoing repairs there; nothing would do but we must go up and see the work doing on, and inspect the little Douglas engine, of which they were very proud. We found that they had come from Rouen, and as they were short of cigarettes, and many of them pitched the tale that their pay was much in arrear, one of the girls went down to our rooms and got them cigarettes. The next morning as I passed through the Grande Place on my way to work in the barracks, I was greeted by a friendly sergeant, who was washing at the public tap: “British soldiers on the march, Sister,” and further on I found about twenty Tommies having a swill down at the pump, while others were shaving near the wagons, and others were breakfasting. “Have a cup of tea with the men on the march, Sister,” came from all sides, so I accepted; an enamel mug was hunted for and discovered, and I had to swallow without a murmur some very sweet tea. What they could not get over was finding English women so near the Front and serving in the French Army. “It’s a shame; you ought to be with us,” I heard on all sides, and I could only half propitiate them by telling them how much more the poor French Poilus needed outside help than did the English Tommy, who had all the splendid organisation of the Y.M.C.A., and were much better fed and looked after than were the French soldiers. I don’t think the English have ever realised one point about the supreme misery of some of the French Poilus. Those who, when the war broke out had homes in the parts of France that were invaded by German troops, had to leave their homes at the summons of mobilisation, and had never from that day till the Armistice was declared any news of their wives and families. A great curtain seemed to have been suddenly unrolled that shut away their homes from them, and they had no letters, no parcels, during the whole course of the war. Meanwhile, the most terrible stories were passing from mouth to mouth about what the Germans were doing in the villages of the pays envahis (many of them, no doubt, exaggerations or untrue, but to the men who had no news of their dear ones, most horribly real). The Médicin Majeur used to come into my hut during the afternoon and tell me how very near to madness some of these men were, while some had already been sent away to be put under restraint. We agreed that something must be done to distract the unfortunate men who had to spend weeks in this dreary barrack yard, which they could never leave except in squads under the surveillance of a sous-officier to walk about the town. Our plan gradually matured into a Christmas tree and fete for the New Year; a large salle, used for drying the men’s garments was commandeered and decorated with garlands of yellow paper roses; I went out into the town and bought penknives, combs, mirrors, sucre d’orge, “trousses” (what we should call “house wives,” for mending their clothes in the trenches), English tobacco, which I tied up in packets with coloured ribbons, pipes, handkerchiefs and socks—600 presents in all. Oranges and crackers came from Paris, a fir tree was obtained, the electrician was pressed into our service to light it up with electricity; a piano was borrowed from a young ladies’ school (I trust its morals were not damaged by the songs the Poilus strummed on it), some flags were borrowed from the Mairie, and at 2 o’clock on Saturday, 1st January, the fete was ready and the Poilus crowded in. The whole fete was a delirious success, and was talked of for weeks afterwards among the men, which was just what we wanted; and from it sprang our fortnightly concerts under the patronage of les Dames Anglaises. There was always plenty of talent in the barracks, from clowns to operatic tenors, and I obtained leave for the piano, which we hired permanently, to be placed in my little hut, where rehearsals took place most afternoons. It broke in a good deal on my time for writing and resting, but I was well rewarded by the improved tone of the men, and by the congratulations of the Médecin Majeur. I also gave some of the bad cases little satchels with tools and sandpaper for making trench rings, penholders, etc., and allowed them to come in and talk to me about their wives and families; for I found that often when these men, who were almost like children in their emotionalism, could unburden themselves to some older woman, their worst fears and troubles seemed to fall into the background, and their minds became more healthy.

Our succession of Army kitchen helpers was sometimes a tragedy, and sometimes a comedy. When two of them put their heads together to add to my daily order to the Army store such little oddments as pots of jam and petits pois extra, which the Commandant, when checking the orders put down in his own mind to the greediness of the English ladies, who were treating themselves to little delicacies at the expense of the French Army, it was eventually a tragedy for the two culprits, for they were at once, as a punishment, sent into the trenches. Fortunately, the Commandant had no scruples about placing the matter before me in all its crudity, and asking me why I had ordered these things which were not of the quality supplied to the Poilus. Though horrified that he should think it possible that women who were sacrificing health, money and time in the cause of the Allies should be capable of anything so mean, I kept my temper and asked very suavely if I might be allowed to see the special orders of which complaints were made. They were sent in to me, and with my V.A.D’s we went through them and soon saw that at least half a dozen had been tampered with, and articles ordered in another handwriting. This we pointed out to the Commandant, and he laid a trap for our kitchen helpers, and caught them. There was no apology to us from the Commandant, but when we told the story to one of the gentleman Poilus who used to come and talk to us, he shrugged his shoulders and remarked: “Don’t pay any attention, Madame; c’est un marchand de pommes de terre.” When this Commandant was later on going away on leave, he sent his orderly to ask if Madame would lend one of her large tin bowls from the kitchen, as “ le Commandant désirait prendre un bain de pieds.” I sent one with a charming message, saying that I hoped M. le Commandant would accept it as we had no further use for it. May I be forgiven for the perversion of truth, for tin bowls were worth almost their weight in gold in those days when everything was becoming scarce.

The two kitchen helps who replaced our disgraced chefs were Jean, a chauffeur by trade, a tall slight, cross-eyed Chasseur, an amusing temperamental creature, and who was very proud of having been once to England. His mate, a wretched little, spectacled, toothless individual, was introduced to us with great pomp as a “cuisinier de métier” but as he was too shortsighted to go into the trenches, he was certainly too shortsighted for cooking, and as he looked like a polichinelle with the stuffing knocked out, and as he would spit on the kitchen floor, I had to request he should be withdrawn and some non-professional person with more sanitary habits put in his place. It was while Jean was chauffeur to M. Eiffel that he received orders to follow his master with the car to London; but his directions not being explicit enough he found himself and the car lost in London, and not being able to speak the language he began to cry. Fortunately, he at last found a man who could speak some French, and who helped him eventually to find his master. He confided in me one evening after working hours how much at one time he wanted to win the Croix de Guerre, but now that he had seen how it was earned he was not so keen, and he began to dramatise the scene of certain officers shaking with fear in their funk-holes and dug-outs; and then exclaimed dramatically: “ Croix de Guerre pour eux!” and then he pictured the Poilus bearing all the brunt of the danger; “Rien.” And his cross eyes twinkled and his face was a study. When the day came round that a squad had to leave for the trenches, not only they, but we women felt very sad. They used to stand in files in the barrack yard, and we passed down in front of them giving them each cigarettes and little presents, and wishing them “ bonne chance.” On the outside of each man’s sac was strapped a big brown loaf, weighing a kilo, and an extra pair of nailed boots. Jean declared that each man carried, including rifle and ammunition, 35 kilos. This statement was corrected by a sergeant, who said that the whole equipment weighed 30 kilos (over 60 lbs.), and added that the German way of fastening on the equipment was very superior to that of the French and much simpler, being unfastened with one action instead of with three or four movements. This man had served since the beginning of the war eight days in trenches and a fortnight out; he said that when in trenches they perhaps slept five hours during the week; that, at last, worn out with watching, with dodging bullets, with looking along the barrel of the rifle, they became callous, and exposed themselves, or forgot to dodge and thus many were killed. They feared to lie down, as men had often while lying asleep been smothered with earth from a bursting shell, and had been buried alive. This man was evidently very intelligent, very keen and a brave soldier, having won the Croix de Guerre, but his nerves were worn down, and he could not sleep. He was sent first to a hospital for “ les grands blessés,” who cried and groaned all night, so that he asked to be sent back to the Front; then they sent him on here, where they said he would be “tres bien,” but this place he found no better than a prison. Before I left I had bought a football, had found among the Poilus a professional footballer, and most afternoons they had what they called a match, which gave interest, not only to the players but to those who came down from their dreary barrack rooms and watched.

In 1916 I heard from my son that he was coming home with the Australian contingent to do his bit, leaving his wife and little girl with her mother. This made me feel that my place was now in England to make a home for him whenever he was on leave; so I had to announce to my Poilu friends one day that I had received permission to give up my work in the French Army, and with many regrets on both sides, I left once more for England. With many of the poor fellows I at their request, corresponded for months, with a few for years, but the majority have gone west, and their troubles are over.

This story, strictly speaking, should not come into my reminiscences of a suffragist and socialist; it was an interlude, but one that steeled my heart to fight ever more insistently for a social and economic change which should place fellowship above competitive imperialism, in the front of the Will of the Peoples of the earth.

Next: Chapter XVI. Votes Gained for some English Women