The Sinistrées of France

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The Sinistrées of France

By MARY HEATON VORSE
Author of "The Highest Power," etc.


IT is a smiling, fruitful country over the surface of which graves are everywhere scattered,—men died fast along this country lane,—in the grain are crosses, in the dooryards of what once were peasants' houses are more crosses. Here and there in the pleasant wood trees have been mown down as by a scythe, and when the road leads to a town, heaps of brick, tortured ironwork, and shapeless mounds of stone confront one, and in strange contrast to the general desolation, scattered seemingly at random, are occasional wooden houses, temporary dwellings which the English Quakers in coöperation with the French Government have been building in what is aptly named "the devastated areas."

In these districts, over which the full fury of war passed, they will tell one, as they do in Paris, that "things are more normal now." In these areas of destroyed towns and grave-strewn fields live the sinistrées, a sinister name for those war victims. These, again, are divided into three classes: the refugees, the burned, and the pillaged.

It is strange and terrible to visit Paris,—and no one can be happy,—but to one who has loved France it is far worse to visit the lovely Northern country. There is here a sense of emptiness, as if terror still hushed the normal cheerful noises of mankind. The people of these regions have lost everything: their houses are burned; their animals, even the rabbits, are gone; their farm implements are shapeless pieces of grotesquely melted iron. They live in temporary, patched shelters and in the houses built by the Society of Friends, or mass themselves in some nearby village that escaped destruction at the hands of the crown prince's retreating army. After a time in this silent country one gets the sense that destruction is normal, and tears start to one's eyes at the sight of an undestroyed French village smiling in the sun. So changed are all values that I could feel nothing strange in the words of the woman who told me, "Fortunately, my husband is a hunchback."

Then through the empty country-side come a few soldiers, or a band of wounded men stagger and grope their way on their first walk forth from the hospital gates; and the thought comes to one that in the world there are always devastated areas and men wounded in battle.

It is in the devastated areas, from the sinistrées themselves, that one will learn how simple women feel toward war. It is there one will hear more fully expressed the thought that I had already heard in different languages and in different countries.

"We do not live in the world in which we believed that we were living. None of us thought that it could happen to us, in our time, to the lands we knew, to our husbands and our sons. No one could believe that the world was like this and continue to bear children. And all the time, like some hideous growing plant, war was preparing; it was there waiting for us a few years away, a few months away, a few days away, and no woman believed it could be.

"Then came the horror that we refused to believe in: war came."

War held up a hand and said, "Stop!" Civilization stood still. Suddenly men and women went separate ways; common life was cleft in two by war.

When war called all the able-bodied men to the blood-stained ditches and burrows that rend France from the channel to Alsace and gave the command, "Destroy!" it also said to the women: "Go your fruitful way, bear more children, bind up your men's wounds, bind up the wounds of the country. See, beside your own work of children and home, I give into your hands the families of a million refugees. Bind up the wounds of their spirits, put hope into the hearts of the old, save the lives of the little children, put together those countless families that have been torn apart; then the work that your man has left I give to you to do, and later I may come and destroy the fruitful fields you have planted, and in a day undo the work of careful centuries. I will kill your men and your old people and little children, and when I have done this, you must again rise up and again bear children and again repair the ruin I have wrought."

A well-known writer who has had unusual opportunities for observation has searched almost in vain among the wounded and among those men who have suffered most in war for men who hated it, and has found discouragingly few. Had the search been among women, he would have had a different story.

The simple man accepts war as he accepts birth and death. It does not show its face to him as a monstrous and bleeding horror. Among the many wounded men I talked with, the emotion I found often was a naïve self-congratulation that they had been through so much. They, too, when they were old, could tell of their adventures in the great war.

No woman in France could speak this way, but the women of the devastated districts, educated or simple, have a special loathing of war and a bitter and intelligent hatred of the conditions which make war possible. As they talk about it, one feels that there has surged into their fruitful, painstaking lives a hideous monster having no connection with the civilization of which they were a part, a terrible and indecent anachronism, as though from some hidden place of slimy ooze some primeval creature had reared its head and come forth to ravage a country-side.

It is in the quiet of the devastated areas, where from one week's end to another you will see no young man, that you will find the sharpest contrasts between women's and men's parts of the world's work in war-time. In the foremost ranks of what one might call mobilized women have been the schoolmistresses. In one little village, which is recorded as totally destroyed, one house has been rebuilt. This one house serves as school-house and mairie. The schoolmistress was a youngish woman, frail and delicate, with lines of sorrow and overwork on her intelligent face. She and an assistant teacher instructed eighty children. It was her energy and resourcefulness that caused the reconstruction of this one house.

She also acts as mayor of the village. The mayor himself is of course mobilized; so is the curé. This means that she takes upon herself much of the relief work that the curé would naturally have performed. The acting mayor is an old man who comes from a village at some distance as infrequently as possible, only to sign the papers necessary for giving receipts for money from the Government, etc.; for the French Government gives to all sinistrées twenty-five cents a day for every grown person and ten cents for all children under sixteen years of age. The distribution of this fund, as well as the private charities, falls, therefore, into her hands. She sat there in her little office and talked about the various sides of her work, and said in a tone of apology:

"You see, there is really more to do than I can do well. There are eighty children to care for, and their families, and I have an immense correspondence." She motioned to some vast portfolios. "Two thousand French soldiers fell on the battle-field over there,"—she nodded out of the open window,—"and I am of course still answering the inquiries of their families."

She was of course still answering the inquiries of their families, and she was of course teaching eighty children; she was of course doing all manner of relief work; she was of course giving all sorts of comfort and kindness, making a circle of light in the desolation in which she lived. And as I looked at her, I realized that there were hundreds of women like her who were of course doing the same thing through all the vast, desolated country of the north of France, merely standing by their posts as the telephone and telegraph girls had done during the invasion, unwitting heroines performing their tasks of incredible difficulty. This woman did not mention that she was merely doing her duty; there comes a pressure in human affairs where one ceases to think in terms of duty for one's self, where one works to the limit of endurance and then beyond that limit.

During the war there have been thrown to the surface extraordinary women like the "Mayor of Soissons," but even more characteristic of the spirit of the people are the unusual qualities that have been called up in those who are merely the nation's ordinary women.

I looked out of the window. Here indeed was the biblical word fulfilled, "There shall not be left one stone upon another." What had been an orderly and sweet French village was a nameless heap of stones and rubble, only rearing their heads, gaunt and fireless amid the general destruction, were the chimneys and the hearthstones, as though the foyer, the hearth, of France, refused to be destroyed. Pompeii, beside it, was habitable. It looked as if some great natural calamity, known as an act of God, had passed over it. So it seemed.

Then came to me the intolerable thought, Man did this thing. No incredible cataclysm of nature, but man, more relentless than the sea in his hideous self-destruction.

I looked from this work of man to the toil-burdened schoolmistress who in the midst of this desolation had assembled her children together, and contrasted her work with that for which the men of Europe had been preparing, and one nation so supremely well and with such loving care. The careful Germans had brought with them petroleum cans, solid and German, with which to burn the villages through which they passed. An old man, standing in his flowering garden, showed me a can that had escaped in the general conflagration; he called it his "little souvenir which the Prussians had left him." They even brought with them paraffin with which to burn the manure-heaps, so that, in case they should not hold the land, the civil population might suffer to the utmost, as they have indeed suffered, but with what unshakable gallantry it is impossible to express.

This unquenchable spirit was forever being interpreted to me by some person like an old woman whom I found working in her flower garden. No dwelling of man was now near that garden, only the shapeless ruins of what had once been houses. All about was the quiet of the country and fields, fields studded with graves—graves and ruins, and there was that garden, bright with peonies and other flowering things, and the old woman working it. She looked up from her weeding to offer me flowers.

"Of course my garden is not what it may be another year," she told me, "for I have walked eight miles to get here, and I cannot always come; but I cannot bear the thought of losing them altogether. Flowers, you know, require cultivation."

This blooming garden in the midst of the unspeakable desolation of a ruined village was a part of this old woman's contribution toward reëstablishing order. Whether there has been war or not, the education of the little children must go on, and flower gardens must go on, and all the blooming, graceful things of French life must go on, as much as they can.

Among all the sinistrées, only once did I come across the suggestion from any woman that there was no use in going on. This woman had lost all her sons in battle, and her husband had been ill all the winter as the result of exposure. She sat with hands folded in her lap; when a woman from the Society of Friends asked her if she did not wish to put in an application for a temporary house, she said:

"There is no use in it for us."

Her husband, beaten by illness and the loss of his sons, sat there as though still stunned by the immensity of his misfortunes. These two people were so apathetic, so detached from life, that they seemed to be only waiting for death; and it came to me that they were the first I had seen whom the Germans had beaten. But I had reckoned without their eight-year-old daughter Rose.

"Madame," she said as we were leaving, "they want this house." She came forward, her face flushed. She stood there before us, her little head erect, her eyes shining, the embodiment of the courage of the women of France. "I will go with you," she said, "to the mairie, and we will put in our application."

She knew what she wanted; she knew the cost of the house; she knew the business details connected with it. "For I can read," she said; "I have been reading about these houses upon the posters."

She had sat there amidst her mother's tears, her father's dumb despair; she had watched them relax their hold on life, and, baby though she was, there had come into her heart the resolve of a woman: she would have their little house; she would reëstablish their family.

And now, at this writing, Rose's house will already have been built, and her parents will again be re-awakening to life. For such a heroic child they can do nothing else.

I left the country of the sinistrées with the words of a friend of mine echoing in my heart:

"I have seen so much beauty, so much mutual aid, so much self-sacrifice since the beginning of this war that I can never distrust human nature again."

But above this thought is another one. Must heroic and great qualities of men and women be organized forever only for war and for repairing the destruction that war causes?

There is an office through which passes a procession of dark-clothed men and women, where all day long the words, "We regret there' is as yet no news," are heard. Once this had been a language school; to-day it houses the Bureau de Renseignements pour les Families Dispersées. This is one of the thousands of familiar places in Paris that war has changed to its uses.

The red cross floats over the place where there had been a club for girl students; a favorite restaurant houses a workshop. The reception-rooms of hotels are turned into vestiaires; schools house the most miserable of all sinistrées, the refugees. The altered use of public and private buildings is the outward sign which tells you that all through France the thought of anything except war has ceased. Life in its ordinary course has ceased. People get up and go to bed, pursue their various businesses, as in a vacuum. The ordinary business of life has no longer any meaning; nothing has meaning except that unnatural and ghastly work of killing; nothing counts that is not connected with this work of destruction. The complete spiritual isolation of a whole nation from all subjects that do not concern killing and being killed, or the contemplation of the destruction attendant on war, is another of war's least negligible by-products.

In the strange and nightmare country of the trenches where the men of France live, the real lives of the women of France are passed.

There is not a single little family on the remote border of France whose eyes are not fixed on that long, narrow strip of blood-stained country, that tormented and tortured country of barb-wire, of mitrailleuses, of shell, of great guns and trenches. The state of soul of a nation which has subordinated the fruitful industries of life to the subject of killing and being killed is a strange thing. The spirit of a nation which sees its young manhood and its youth surge up to the country of death and then ebb back wounded and dead is strange and grave; so strange and so grave that, if you had lived there before, the unfamiliarity of its familiar aspect is a terrifying thing.

As I went about among my friends, I became aware of the overpowering sense of something that was almost more poignant than grief; a nerve-racking spiritual discomfort overwhelmed me, outsider though I was; and presently the meaning of this discomfort translated itself into words: suspense was what brooded over all the men and women whom I met. They were waiting; they gave the effect of a whole nation listening to invisible voices; and while the surface of conversation was as normal as it could be, since it dealt with such abnormal things as war and the lamentable by-products of war, they were all of them waiting, waiting, for news from the front, waiting to learn if sons and husbands were still alive, waiting for the end of the war.

Suspense was everywhere, but it brooded more closely in that office where once people went to learn languages and where they now go to wait for tidings of their mothers, of their children, lost years ago, in the time when the German army overran France and created the army of the sinistrées.

In the vast confusion that occurred when the German army swept down upon Paris—a confusion which affected a civil population of millions of people, members of families lost one another. In the vast card-catalogues of the Bureau de Renseignement les Familles Dispersées is concentrated the suspense and anguish of a nation.

Of this vast suspense, this anguished searching of mothers for children, of daughters for mothers, of fathers, of sons for all their families, nothing is heard in the outside world. This calamity of the tearing asunder of thousands upon thousands of families, which, had it come at another time, as the result of some catachism of nature, would have caused the pity of the whole civilized world to stream forth, is now only a little incident for the world at large, an incident for every one except those concerned in its hideous tragedy.

There are many little children in France, tiny youngsters, babies so young that they cannot speak, who have strayed on the roads, and of whose parents no trace has yet been heard.

The newspapers in France also contain advertisements of fathers searching for their children, and wives for their husbands, and soldiers for their families.

So to-day when I think of France, I cannot think merely in the terms of a country invaded. Another great, shadowy army fills my mind—the army of mothers searching for their children, of daughters searching for their old parents, waiting day by day for news of those whom they love, wondering among what strangers they are living, and then, perhaps mercifully and perhaps sadly, after months, again united. My mind reverts to this group of women searching continuously for the lost, and helping to reunite the members of those families.

War, which had welded the men of the country into an engine of destruction, had sent its women forth on countless works of mercy and reconstruction, and this work I had come to France to witness. As I went about on this strange and heartbreaking sight-seeing, as I visited barracks in which not wounded soldiers, but wounded families, lived and ate, saw workshops, hospitals, there came to me a vision of what a total disorganization war meant to the civil population.

Day by day among the sinistrées I heard stories of flight from burning villages, until such a flight seemed a usual experience. I heard tales of lost relatives. I saw families cut in half by war. I saw women searching for old mothers. I saw refugees who had lost little children. I listened to the dreadful prattle of children who talked of killing. I saw listless, sad-eyed young girls who had witnessed the death of all dear to them. I saw women sitting with folded hands, their means of livelihood gone, their husbands gone, their reason for living gone.

I saw little children below the age of speech, who had been found wandering on the roads by soldiers, and two Belgian children who had been found in the very trenches where they had fled terrified during the bombardment. No one can ever know who they are; their mothers will never see them again.

I saw women, in deepest grief over the loss of their sons, stay by their posts unflinching, never stopping in their work, and everywhere I saw beauty and unquenchable courage, even though many walked with the weary air of those whose illusions have been killed and with them their inner reason for living. High and low worked with the desperate activity of ants whose ant-hill had been stepped on. I looked and listened until I was drowned by what I saw, until I could see no more and hear no more.

And as I saw these things, all the vast, restless stirring of women, which, when it is self-conscious, we call feminism, seemed to me to have supremely gained in significance; it seemed that its very roots lay in women's age-old mute protest against war.

I had, in the weeks that preceded my journey into France, heard a great deal of talk concerning the basic racial and economic causes of war. Here is the contribution to these reasons of a very simple woman, and it seems to me that in it there is a very profound truth.

The name of this woman is Mme. Etienne, and she was once my concierge. I always go to see her when I am in Paris, for I love her homely wit and her gaiety. Her three boys had been almost young men when I had last seen her, and I wondered if she had joined the women in mourning. She met me dry-eyed. She seemed, indeed, as if turned to stone, for she told me in a hard and steady voice:

"They are all dead, all. All three died within six weeks. Since then I have read no papers. There is no victory for me. There can be no victory for those whose sons are dead."

From the streets came the sound of singing, cabs rattled by decorated with Italian flags. War had called to something deep in the hearts of these men, and found there a response. We watched them in silence a moment. Then Mme. Etienne stretched out her hand toward them and cried:

"As long as men love war like that, there will be war, and when they hate it as we hate it, there will be no more war."

And at her words the oppression that had followed me since the beginning of the war found its meaning. She had said the thing that I had seen since I had realized to the full the terrific cleavage war had brought between men's affairs and our affairs, but had not wished to put into words.

Since the war, even the men at home had turned to me the faces of strangers. They thought negligible what women thought important. The things we asked one another as we talked about the war held no interest for them. The sense of men's strangeness has bred a fear in me that had no name and no face. Now at last I saw the reason with terrible clearness.

Now I knew why even the men of my own country had seemed so alien to me, and the reason is that the difference between men and women is the difference between birth and death. I had thought that the profound differences between men and women became trivial in the face of their still profounder similarity. But now it seems to me that our deepest experience is giving life and their intensest moment is when they are called on by war to go out and destroy the lives for which we have risked our own.

Man plays a very small part in the supreme adventure of birth. When a woman goes down to death to give life she goes alone. Man is nothing to her then. Her husband, the father of the child to be born, cannot share in her pain. Her intensest moment she lives by herself. The great miracle of birth is no concern of his, and he can only shrink back, a frightened witness, and wait and wait interminably and pray that all is well. The great experience for her, and for him only the permission to wait.

When men go out to fight they, too, go alone. We cannot go with them; we only wait while they risk their lives that other men may die. Men and women go alone to their supreme adventures.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1966, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.