What Frenchwomen Are Doing
By Constance Elizabeth Maud
[The Living Age, August 10, 1918; from The Nineteenth Century and After]
In spite of the past four momentous years, revealing of necessity something of the character of the two great Allies to one another, and thereby promoting much cordial friendliness, it remains an undeniable fact that English and French have very little real knowledge and understanding of each other. As a people we are still curiously ignorant of the part each nation is enacting in the world's great drama, one reason undoubtedly being that we are both so absorbed in our own overwhelming affairs as to have little time to concern ourselves with anything else; another, that of systematic propaganda setting forth clearly what is being done by the men and women of each nation, there has until recently been none effective enough to reach the public, either in Britain or in France. And it is indisputable that even between such good friends as the British and their French Allies much friction and misunderstanding could have been avoided had they known more of each other's great undertakings. Did Englishwomen know, for instance, what the women of France are really doing for their country, we should hear less criticism of imperfectly equipped French hospitals and we should never hear that oft-repeated question, 'What are Frenchwomen doing?' with the added, 'I'm sure I don't know' from those who, though just home after perhaps a year's work in France in an English hospital or Y.M.C.A. canteen, have never had the opportunity of even a glimpse at the Frenchwomen of France, and could not count among their acquaintance a dozen of their French sisters. Yet those at home are apt to accept this meagre outlook as competent experience from which they can themselves draw conclusions, and pass judgment.
After only a few weeks of days brimful among some of my French friends, I have seen enough of what Frenchwomen are doing to fill a thick volume—yet I have had only a glimpse. That, however, was sufficient to reveal the fine spirit of patriotism and heroic self-devotion animating the manifold activities of the women of France throughout the length and breadth of the country. 'What are Frenchwomen doing?' As an Englishman living in France, and with opportunity for judging, said the other day, 'They are keeping the country going'; and the verdict of their own countrymen is unanimously the same.
When the call to mobilize rang like a thunderclap through France, it was answered not only by the men, but also by the women, to whom a similar call was addressed by the Prime Minister, through the press. Women, of all ranks and of every occupation, whether among the noblesse and bourgeoisie, the professional, commercial, or agricultural classes, rose up and responded with a burst of patriotic enthusiasm and an ardent desire to serve only to be found in a democratic country where national service is regarded as 'a sacrifice of arms demanded by the gods,' as Kama said to Krishna in the ancient Eastern story—to fight in defense of home and country the noblest duty, the highest privilege of every man; to give ungrudgingly her dearest for such service the imperative duty of every woman. And more, not only to buckle on the sword of her departing sons with words of high courage, but promptly to take up the pen, the plough, the task of whatever kind the man has perforce laid down, is the duty of the Frenchwoman. It is one for which she is always partially prepared by her custom of sharing the life of her menkind in a daily comradeship quite unknown in any rank of life in England. For the Frenchwoman not only takes part in her husband's recreations—the British workman's 'beanfeast' has no equivalent in France—but she shares his business life, counsels him in his enterprises, is conversant of les affaires, and more often than not in small households, shops, and cafés, she keeps the accounts and holds the purse. Also in all agricultural life, as Millet's pictures have made familiar to English eyes, she shares the daily toil, man and woman sowing and reaping side by side in the fields, the vineyards, the orchards of their beloved land.
First in the rank of Frenchwomen answering the call to mobilize were the members of the Croix Rouge, comprising the three great societies—'Secours aux Blessés Militaires,' 'L'Union des Femmes de France,' and 'L'Association des Dames Françaises.' The war of 1870 had shown Frenchwomen their heart-rending helplessness and ignorance, natural consequence of lack of training and organization. To realize was to remedy—'Never again,' vowed the women of France. The Society of the Croix Rouge was founded, and from an acorn rapidly grew into a vigorous widespreading tree, whose leaves are 'for the healing of the nation.'
Long before the supreme hour struck in 1914 this society numbered its thousands in every province, and the three main branches were doing splendid, efficient work, not only among the wounded and sick of the army at home and wherever French troops were stationed abroad, but also in going to the assistance of others at war, and the victims in catastrophes, such as the earthquake in Sicily, or epidemic in Italy.
For many years past it had been a general custom for young women and girls of the educated classes to attend a course of Croix Rouge lectures and go through a practical training, often of a very thorough description, concluding with a stiff examination in order to obtain the certificate of the society. In such numbers had the young women of France thus prepared themselves, that it would almost seem as if they had been prompted by some intuitive sense, some overshadowing of coming events. It is certain their government sounded no note of warning, felt no more need than did our own, to prepare, even in such first essentials of war as guns and boots. It was fortunate indeed that these thousands of efficient women, had prepared themselves in times of peace for the colossal task awaiting them. They formed at once a nucleus, capable of indefinite expansion. At the call thousands more joined up for training, while others, who had retired, offered themselves as teachers and organizers of ambulances. Already in 1916 the numbers of hospitals organized and maintained by the three great branches of the Croix Rouge had grown to about 1800, and the military hospitals and homes where the Croix Rouge matrons and nurses give their services, are now too numerous to count, increasing as they are daily with the needs of the army. This war service of the women is 'bénévole," that is, unpaid, a free gift to the state, the only cases of payment being a small grant from the society itself to those of its members who, being accustomed to live at home, would otherwise be unable to afford, year after year, the expenses entailed, which are often considerable.
The Croix Rouge hospitals are equipped with a care and comfort not to be found in the big French military hospitals. They have not attained the clockwork machinery and breeziness of the English hospital, but there is a sense of repose and sympathy very, conducive to recovery, even if there are not so many open windows and such bracing early hours for being wakened and washed. One hospital was shown me, however, by Madame d'Haussonville, her own pet child, which could vie with any in England for spotless cleanliness, sweetness, and light. The patients were severe cases, grands blessés but they had a look of serenity in spite of their grave wounds, and one poor fellow, his dark eyes looking out of white bandages, remarked dreamily 'To be here, it is Paradise!'
The work of the Société de Secours aux Blessés Militaires is not confined to hospitals and ambulances at the front. An important work is done by the infirmières at the railway stations. Their mission is to bring food to the trainloads of wounded, to dress their wounds, and give hospitality in the dortoirs attached to their railway canteens, to those unable to continue the journey the same night. These canteens supply refreshment to millions of soldiers entirely at the expense of the Croix Rouge. At one of the Paris stations they often entertain British soldiers, and the matron pointed to a douche bath which she said had such an irresistible attraction for Tommy that he could never be got out of it but by main force, and that it constantly needed repairs after his aquatic sports.
In Rumania, Salonica, Serbia, Italy, wherever there are French troops, the Croix Rouge and their hospitals are to be found, their nurses have stuck to their posts by the wounded, while the enemy's shells have fallen round them and the hordes of barbarians have poured into the invaded town. Many have laid down their lives, like the brave young nurse Mademoiselle Gille, killed in the hospital at Lunéville by an exploding shell, having refused to leave the wounded who could not be removed. Many also have died nursing infectious maladies and epidemics.
The record of the nurses at the front, their heroic lives and deaths, is a long roll of honor. Many conspicuous cases have come before the public on account of the recognition given them by civil and military authorities, 'Croix de Guerre,' Croix de la Legion d'Honneur,' 'Citations à l'ordre de l'Armée," etc.; but the majority must necessarily wait like their brethren in khaki for any reward or recognition till they shall hear the 'Well done!' which awaits them when their earthly task is finished.
The nuns too have shown a courage and fortitude equal to any early Christian martyrs. They have laid down their lives, not only for the wounded to whom they have opened their doors when the convent was the only refuge remaining, but for the fugitives, whom they have received, knowing well the risks. The case of Soeur Julie is well known, and in M. Barthou's book, Les Vaillantes, we see she was but one out of a long list of such heroines, for the Huns have invariably shown a special malignity towards those representing the religion of Christ, whether the gentle secluded nun or the white-haired village curé.
Courage, the mother of all the virtues, is a normal and usual characteristic of the Frenchwoman, It goes with her strong vitality, her well-balanced, practical, buoyant temperament. To turn this gay courage into heroic channels of self-sacrifice and devotion she has only to hear the call either on her maternal affection, her patriotism, or her deeply rooted religious instinct, and to throw off all that has led the superficial psychologist into judging her as merely frivolous and mondaine. Like the poilu her brother, she has a serious foundation, a fixity of purpose, and a dauntless courage which is the real Frenchwoman.
Writing of the French nurses who remained voluntarily in the occupied departments, M. Barthou says:
They risked their liberty, their lives, even their honor, to defend our wounded from the ferocious enemy.... They gave their lives also equally to the wounded Germans, remembering that they were not only nurses, but Frenchwomen with the honor of France to uphold.
And this in spite of overwhelming testimony as to the shocking treatment their own wounded were receiving at the hands of Hun doctors and nurses, the doctors repeatedly refusing chloroform when operating on French and English prisoners, whom they designated as 'devils' and 'swine,' and the Hun nurses gloating over the sufferings of their helpless enemies, spitting on them, denying them even a glass of water, and deliberately causing them needless torture when dressing their wounds, such conduct being regarded as 'patriotic' according to Hun standards.
The courage and efficiency manifested by the infirmières has been shown equally in all walks of life, whether the Frenchwoman has acted as manager of a big business, Mayor of the Commune, head teacher, postmistress, or farmer. After four years of war they have proved their value as public servants in a manner which has given a warm human glow to the usually dry, official reports, records of bare facts.
For example, the Vice-Recteur de l'Académie de Paris, in his report to the Minister of Public Instruction, quotes among a long list of women acting as mayors: Madame Fiquémont, school-teacher at T–––– on the 1st of August, 1914, offered herself to replace her husband as secretary to the Mayor. The town was bombarded and for some weeks occupied by the Germans, but she never quitted her post. After the Germans retired, the old Mayor fell ill and his place was then filled by Madame Fiquémont, who remained on with her two children efficiently administering the affairs of the Commune.
Again Madame Machères, acting as Mayor of Soissons, dauntlessly faced the invading army, answering, when the Germans demanded the Mayor, 'Le Maire, c'est moi'; and though the Hun General threatened to have her shot, she boldly remonstrated with him for the excesses and violence of his troops. She was 'cited' in the official report of September, 1914.
Not only in the devastated regions, but throughout France, women are acting as mayors, head teachers, and postmasters. At one town in the Dordogne the Municipal Council was convoked and presided over by a woman. She superintended the work of the Commune so ably that the Sous-Préfet begged her to continue to fill a post in which no one else could replace her.
Among the innumerable organizations born of the war there is not one which does not claim women to bear their share of the work, not only as 'hands,' but as 'heads.' They have been called upon to enter even the hitherto most rigidly closed doors, to give their counsel and become members of committees arid departmental commissions, to organize the recruiting of women for munitions of war, to settle the salaries and housing of this army of workers, and, as the Bulletin des Usines de Guerre states: 'Besides the aforesaid duties, to take measures to insure the moral as well as material welfare of the women working in the industrial world.' So indispensable did the women prove, that the Senate passed a law obliging all national and departmental committees to elect women as one-third of their numbers.
At the declaration of war the mobilization of the women was greatly facilitated, as in England, by the suffrage and feminist societies, which were at once converted into centres for organizing the various branches of national service. These societies, with their staff of women trained in organizing and business methods, their branches in every part of France with offices and press departments, proved invaluable to their country. At Le Havre and many other centres the Feminist Society became a 'Bureau d'Assistance' functioning with the municipal funds. At Rouen the Commission of Succor and Aid, installed at the Mairie and presided over by the Mayor, included six women of the National Council and Union for Woman's Suffrage.
The moral influence so strongly enjoined by the government was responded to heartily by all the suffrage societies. The president of the great 'Union Française' issued a pamphlet, which was distributed all over the country, making appeal to the mothers, wives, and daughters to keep up the faith and courage of their men when returning to their homes on leave. For it was decided at the beginning of the war to grant, whenever possible, seven days' leave every four months to those at the front.
Women, of France [ran the appeal], our hearts beat with joy at the news that some among us will have our husbands and sons home on a short leave, as the needs of the army will permit. Again we shall see them face to face, clasp them to our hearts, show to the fathers how the little ones have grown, say the many things which cannot be written. Frenchwomen, we who are sisters in love of our country and in our duty to defend it, let us not forget that we are about to be put to a severe test, that all the world will now be able to judge what is the quality of our souls, what the value of the spirit animating us. By the effect of this leave on our soldiers, the manner in which we receive them, and above all the way in which we send them back to their duty, we shall show whether we are women worthy, of France, or merely poor loving creatures without courage or noble ideals, unworthy to be wives and mothers of French soldiers.... Our responsibility towards them is overwhelming, for the attitude of the women may be a decisive influence.... Let us never forget that our inner thought reflects itself upon the face and in the speech, and that ignoble thought like noble emotion will find an echo in the hearts of our men.... Remember that we have not the right to be feeble and that revivifying tenderness testifies to a far greater love than enervating tenderness—our soldiers win never mistake the difference. Any woman who at this hour destroys in a man the high sense of duty towards his country will be a criminal, since we are fighting not only for France but for the principle of right and of justice in the world, and this duty should be accepted, not as a heavy charge, but as an honor and a joy.
Frenchwomen have not been content to exercise moral influence only in their own homes. They have arisen in their strength to combat the enemies of France, not only external foes in the field, but those internal foes more to be dreaded than the Boche—drink, vice, and child mortality. Recognizing the terrible menace of the growing evil of alcohol, of special danger to a nation at war, not only to the army and munition workers, but to the now doubly precious lives of the coming generation, the women of France inaugurated a vigorous campaign, united under the banners of the 'Conseil National des Femmes' and the great Woman Suffrage Unions, 'Fédération Nationale,' 'Alliance Nationale,' and ''L'Union Française.' They held meetings all over France, got up petitions, and published pamphlets giving statistics. In April 1915, they held a great meeting at the Sorbonne which had an unprecedented success. The nation was roused and the military authorities became acutely awake to the grave peril. With their coöperation and that of influential public men of the medical and scientific world, pressure was brought to bear upon the government, and certain measures passed controlling liquor traffic and forbidding absinthe. Much more would have been achieved but for the same powerful influences exerted by vested interest, as prevent effective liquor control in this country.
Another enterprise created by the women of France which has had a most happy result in combating the evil influence of alcohol has been the "Foyer du Soldat.' The popularity of these soldiers' clubrooms has shown how easy it would be to transform the evil cabaret or public house into its beneficent rival, were it only a question of pleasing the poilu instead of making profits for the trade. Frenchwomen knew, however, that it could be done, for the way had been shown long ago by an Englishwoman fighting greater odds—Agnes Weston, the Mother of the British navy, as her Bluejackets lovingly call her, with her world-renowned Sailors' Rests. The foyers providing healthy foods and temperance drinks, a cheerful, bright atmosphere where the soldier could find newspapers, writing material, music, and games, or rest and quiet according to his tastes, proved to be a real godsend to the French army. So beneficial, indeed, that wherever troops are stationed there is an urgent demand for them, and the municipality in many towns has now inaugurated foyers and clubs on these temperance lines, not only for soldiers, but for civilians also.
In connection with the 'Foyer du Soldat' the women have worked that other scheme for the benefit of the homeless soldier on leave—namely, his adoption into a family who receive him in their own home, restoring his physical and mental health with rest, good food, and cheerful company.
Another field in which Frenchwomen have exercised beneficial moral influence is to be found in the ateliers or workshops attached to the military hospitals. 'L'Atelier du Blessé' was started by Madame Renée Viviani at the beginning of the war. In these workshops of the hospitals, convalescent maimed, blind, and disfigured are trained in a trade which at the same time serves the purpose of a remedial physical exercise. In the ateliers of the big military hospital of Val de Grâce one saw men doing right or left-arm exercise, as the case may be, by measuring great bales of shirt flannel and cutting it through with a sword; others exercising partially, paralyzed legs on sewing machines; while men with one hand were becoming dexterous typists. All this work, the men have the satisfaction of feeling, is National Service—each is still fighting for France, and even though a grand blessé, earning his living.
The interest in the work, the hope of after all making something of what remains, helps to tide over the inevitable days of deep depression which come to the poor fellow who finds himself maimed, and often terribly disfigured, for life. In these curative workshops the latter gain courage to face their fellow men, and all are kept happily occupied and out of the temptations which beset them in the streets. It is a common thing to find the men spending all their hours of leave in the atelier, so keen do they become about their new occupation. This gives a unique opportunity for the women to exercise that moral influence to which the feminist leader made such a stirring appeal, and that they have not neglected it, no one can question who visits these busy, happy workshops, where a personal human interest and sympathy, a stimulating, patriotic ideal, are the spiritual daily bread offered to the men. Madame Nicolas Eliasco has made several attempts to start the same work in England, and in 1916, American friends of hers offered to finance it, but the offer was declined.
An important branch of Frenchwomen's work is the campaign against infant mortality, and their organizations for the preservation of child life. In connection with these combined objects the Maternal Canteens and the 'Goutte de Lait' have played a significant part. Long before this war made such institutions of double value to the state, they flourished in France, a decreasing population being a matter of grave anxiety. In 1905, the first Canteen for Mothers was opened by M. and Madame Coullet, with a modest beginning on the rue Bonnet, a poor and populous part of Paris. The canteens soon spread, and mothers flocked to them from the Bastille, Montmartre, Montparnasse, and every quarter, with their babies in their arms. Philanthropic friends and devoted workers rallied round the founders, and before long the child born in the little cradle of the rue Bonnet developed into the full-grown 'Fédération des Cantines Maternelles' which, on the declaration of war, found it necessary almost at once to open new branches in all directions.
Another important society actively engaged in child welfare, almost entirely worked by women, is the 'Oeuvre de la Chaussée du Maine.' Founded in 1871 by Madame de Pressensé, its first object was to assist the child victims of the war, not only to protect them during infancy, but to follow them through school-days, to the start in life with both material and spiritual aid, 'that the child might be equipped for the high purpose and duties of life.' Since those early days it has developed into a vast centre, of works too numerous to go into here. The mother house is in Paris on the rue Vigée-Lebrun. Here, under the auspices of 'L'Union des Families' men and women of this populous neighborhood crowd on Saturday evenings to hear conferences on the war and on religious and social subjects, given by distinguished generals and members of the government who recognize the vital importance of holding up continually the ideals for which the war is waged, and the reasons for the tremendous sacrifices the nation is called upon to make. This constant fuel is needed to keep bright the flames of courage and faith in a nation so sorely tried, where hardly a family is not in mourning, and a long black veil is the prevailing note in any crowd. The evening I was there we had appeals to both our faith and our patriotism, an address on La Toussaint (All Saints' Day) just approaching, with its consoling significance for the bereaved; patriotic songs from a primo tenore of the opera, now an officer at the front; and some words of the kind that go straight to the heart of the hearer, from that familiar and beloved friend of the poor, Madame Jules Siegfried, who took as her subject the uniform of the French soldier, 'horizon blue,' and all it can be meant to symbolize. She is a true 'Semeuse de Courage,' as a former Premier of France designated his countrywomen, and those words of hers, 'Si nos coeurs aspirent à la paix, nos consciences nous le défendant aujourd'hui,' are the Frenchwoman's answer to all pacifists. Many children attend these meetings with their parents, and if they do not follow all, at least they learn the spirit of a patriotic love of their country and the ideal 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.'
Among other numerous societies for the benefit of mothers and children is 'L'Accueil Français,' devoted to the children of the invaded districts, for 15,000 of whom Madame Manger, the indefatigable secretary, has found homes. Also, 'Pupilles de la Guerre,' directed by Madame Henri May, and 'Veuves de la Guerre,' by Madame Pierre Goujon. All these organizations for the saving of child-life were federated during the first year of war, so that overlapping might be avoided and coöperation secured, into one society, 'L'Assistance à la Mère et L'Enfant,' under the presidency of Madame Michel, wife of General Michel, Governor of Paris at the outbreak of war.
Frenchwomen have always worked with special zeal for the children. The war has quickened their efforts, and the care of the orphans of the army has been another activity in which they are taking an important part. In this work the French organizations have received great help from two English ladies, long resident in Paris, Miss Schofield and Miss Fell, who in 1916, went over to America and collected funds providing for some 50,000 children, on a plan of adoption which leaves them in their own country with their nearest of kin. It would be difficult at this moment to find a French orphan of the war unprovided for.
But it is in hitherto unaccustomed spheres that Frenchwomen are now specially distinguishing themselves. What are the women of France doing? 'They are keeping the country going.'
They have kept the country going as farmers and agricultural laborers. The mobilization of the men, in 1914, came in the midst of harvest, but everywhere the crops and the vintage were gathered in, the fields were ploughed and sown. The work of the farm went on without interruption, for the nation in arms must be fed. The Minister of Agriculture states in his Journal Officiel of February, 1916, in recognition of their services: 'The women placed at the head of an agricultural business will have the same rights as a man. Many of them have, by their courage and indisputable competence, earned a place in the first ranks on the agricultural committees.' M. Quillet, president of the Agricultural Syndicate of the Eure, wrote in this connection:
Happily in our misfortune we had the women; rich and poor, old and young, all gave a hand with energy and courage. Women born in luxury, educated in convents, women occupied only with their pianos and their hats, at the call of their country showed what was really in them. They became good farmers, rose at five in the morning, went into the dairies and the stables, toiled and struggled; for the farmer's life is a daily struggle with the incapable, the drunkard, the unscrupulous. They faced, besides, the additional disabilities caused by war conditions and heavy taxation of all articles necessary to the productiveness of the earth and feeding of the animals.
Even quite young girls showed the stuff of which the real Frenchwoman is made. One, a girl of fourteen, at Morannes in the Loire, after the departure of her father, her mother being dead, took charge not only of the three younger children, but of her father's large farm, conducting all the work in such an efficient manner as to earn the public thanks of the préfet of the Maine et Loire. Another similar case was of two young girls who, left quite alone when their three brothers were called up, continued to work a large farm of twenty-five hectares with twenty-five cows and five horses, to the great benefit of the Commune! It was the same in all parts of France; even in the devastated regions, where all able-bodied women under fifty and boys and girls over fourteen were deported by the Huns to work as slaves in Germany—a typically Hunnish deed—the old women who remained valiantly set to work with the children to reclaim the stricken land, planting vegetables among the ruins of their burnt homes and down-trodden fields, and trying, under appalling difficulties, to sow crops and plough the land. In some parts they were greatly helped by the soldiers in their hours of respite from the trenches, but often the old people and children had to depend on themselves till the various societies for restoring and reconstructing the devastated regions came in a measure to their aid. What they did manage to accomplish is significant as showing the indomitable spirit which animated the old worn hands endeavoring to cope with this well-nigh hopeless task. The French peasants' passionate love for their own inherited soil forms, with the love of their country, the warp and woof of their being. Neither of these loves has any counterpart in England, where farmer and laborer are merely tenants, and where national service with its high call on duty and self-surrender has until recent events been a thing unknown, and the advocates of it treated as cranks.
The French countrywomen look with mingled curiosity and wonder upon those young men of the Quaker persuasion who have come to help them cultivate their stricken farms. They feel of course sincere gratitude towards the Community of Friends, who have shown themselves such friends in need; but the sight of able-bodied young Britons not bound to fight, when their country fights for its life, 'young men of good health, good heart, and good character—well, it is a strange country, England!' With a philosophic shrug they give up attempting to understand a thing so incomprehensible. 'Why, in France, even the priest, he serves at the front, as a simple poilu he serves—and the man who has lost one eye, one hand, one foot, he goes with the remaining one to serve again!'
The conscientious objector can no more strike root in French soil, than cellar fungi can grow on a sunny south wall.
Much valuable work in reconstructing and setting the villages again on their feet has been done by Americans and English in the devastated regions. They have erected temporary wooden houses for the homeless villagers, imported agricultural implements, kitchen utensils, seeds, fruit trees, and stores of boots and clothes; but it is only Frenchwomen who can get into that close touch which raises the morale of their stricken countrymen and women, putting new life and courage into crushed spirits. These ladies, like themselves, have lost husbands and sons; in many cases their homes too, the beautiful chateaux, lie in ruins. They speak the same language and hold the same faith. Their help is accompanied by kinship in suffering, and does not incur the same danger of proving demoralizing and enervating as that of the wealthy stranger, however kind and tactful. In these regions many societies are working in coöperation with the government, such as 'Le Bon Gîte,' founded by the Marquise de Ganay, Madame Gompel, and Madame Boutroux; and 'Le Retour au Foyer,' of which the Baronne Sebastien de Neufville is an active vice-president. Many Frenchwomen have also started work in the stricken villages, independently, on their own lines, living among the inhabitants and so gaining their sympathy and affection as to be able to know their needs and help to build up their broken lives. Among these are the Comtesse de Chabannes, Madame Sainte-Aldegonde, Madame Jacques Faure, and Madame Brincard. In their villages temporary wooden houses have been erected, cottages have been repaired, gardens are being remade, orchards replanted, children taught, and help given in a hundred different ways to make a fresh start with courage to face life again.* [* Since this was written these unfortunates regions have again been devastated by the Boches.] But a black cloud hangs over this stricken land in the thought of those thousands who can never return, those who have died by the wayside, and those who have disappeared, separated from their families in their flight and whom it may take years to trace; also those young boys and girls, torn from their homes by the Germans, of whom nothing has since been heard. To help these latter tragic cases of German cruelty has been specially the care of the women's societies. The finding of lost relatives being too vast an undertaking for any state department, it was taken over by the National Council of Frenchwomen, who employ 650 people at the head office in Paris to work in connection with the prefects of the provinces and the feminist societies in every department of France. The work is so admirably organized that already in the year 1915 as many as 400,000 investigations had been taken up and no less than 50,000 had proved successful. The office is flooded with letters overflowing with gratitude for this humane work. It was this society that succeeded at last, by appealing to the Pope and the King of Spain to interfere, in getting 300 deported young girls sent back to their homes—only a small percentage, it is true, but they are not ceasing their efforts to obtain further releases.
For the unfortunate refugees from devastated France and Belgium much has also been done by the women. 'L'Oeuvre Parisienne,' founded and directed by Madame Brunschvicq, secretary of 'L'Union pour le Suffrage,' gives, free of payment, hospitality in Paris to over a thousand. They are housed in blocks of model flats with every convenience, Madame Brunschvicq herself personally directing every thing for their comfort and happiness, finding them employment and caring also for the children.
To turn to the commercial world, here again the women of France have kept the country going. They have shown they can manage an important business firm with the same efficiency they have always displayed in the housekeeping of their own homes. Everywhere you find women as heads of departments, houses of business, hotels, and banks, replacing absent husbands and sons.
The Frenchwoman is remarkably adaptable, and one case is quoted of a woman who replaced her husband as a plumber, and lost no clients! The duties of tram conductors and drivers, ticket collectors on the railways and underground trains, were at once taken on by the women. In January, 1915, there were already 650 women conductors of tramways in Paris alone, a number greatly increased since then, and 1300 were employed in the Metro-tube. In the banks 1200 were employed by the Credit Lyonnais and 700 by the Banque de France, while the railway companies had 6700 female employees. The only door remaining firmly closed appears to be that of the taxi. As in England, doubtless the men of the trade object to relinquishing an occupation so comparatively pleasant and so lucrative. Female nerves, it is pleaded, though able to stand the strain of the motor lorry and tramway, could never bear that of the taxi.
A business in which the Frenchwoman's nerve and endurance have rendered the same incalculable war service as that of the Englishwoman has been munition work. This is the report of M. Bourillon, Inspector of the Ministry of Works:
Women have shown themselves as needing no special training to become irreproachable makers of shells and to give to artillery work the most exact inspection...out of 80,000 shells verified in a workshop of 845 women, only one shell failed to pass the test—this on a visit taken at random. [He goes on to say:] The previous training of women in trades, and occupations requiring dexterity—such as lace-making, dressmaking, the porcelain work of Limousin, the embroideries of the Vosges, tulle-cutting, etc.—has caused them to bring to their work hand and eye long trained in the finest precision and exactitude, making them in such respects far above the average man.
M. Albert Thomas, Minister of Munitions, states in his circular of July, 1916:
With the object of obtaining the utmost ability from the military munition workers and as a natural consequence of my circular relating to the employment of women hands, I have decided from henceforth to dispense with all mobilized workmen in works which, in every detail of their fabrication, can be confided entirely to women.
Then followed a long list of munitions of war. Special machinery was installed to enable women to deal with even the heaviest shells, and the numbers of women who volunteered for the hardest toil and the most dangerous explosives always exceeded the vacancies, though the Secretary of State was obliged to intervene to obtain a living wage for them, and this was far from the corresponding wage of men for the same work.
The care of these many thousands of women and girls in munition factories has been undertaken by women. It was at first uphill work. The usual attitude of the head or director of anything whatsoever is the same all over the world—he is the stone at the mouth of the cave, and he does not want to be rolled away to admit the disconcerting spirits of innovation and reform, however beneficial they promise to be. But once prove to him that a canteen, where his women workers can get a good nourishing meal for half the price they paid for bad, insufficient food and drink at the public house, is having the effect of vastly superior output, and a general uplift morally as well as physically, all conducive to his own profit, and he is apt to experience a complete volte-face. Not only does he help voluntarily to support that sensible canteen, on the sound principle of a sprat to catch a salmon, but to hear him discoursing on the subject you would imagine he had been the courageous initiator, fighting single-handed against great odds. The munition-workers' canteens have caught on; one of the first to lead the way being that of the Baronne de Gunsburg just outside the fortifications of Paris, where thousands of women are employed making munitions. To her own personal daily supervision is due the beneficent effect, both physical and moral, that this big canteen has had on thousands of munition workers.
Another boon to these women workers has been the introduction recently of the lady superintendent. The officer to whom this arduous task was formerly intrusted, performed it in the most perfunctory manner, and as to questions of moral influence, attention to health and hygiene, never attempted to deal with them. The idea of women superintendents for munition factories was first started in England. Having come over to study the subject at first hand, the Comtesse de Brémont wrote an article which drew the attention of certain French ladies already actively engaged in work for their country. They approached the Minister of Munitions and the Minister of Works on the subject, and having obtained their interest and support, laid their scheme before some of the directors of the principal state factories. The first to agree to the experiment was the head of the big munition factory of Bourges. The success was immediate, and the 'Association des Surintendantes d'Usines' grew rapidly; classes, lectures, examinations were arranged for the education of pupils, and candidates offered themselves at once for training, but it is impossible to keep pace with the ever-increasing demand for their services.
Another excellent institution which France owes to her women is the 'Infirmières Visiteuses'—visiting nurses. Like so many other organizations, it was started by private individuals and had a modest beginning, founded only a year before the war by a small group of French ladies—the Marquise de Ganay, Madame le docteur Gérard Mangin, Mademoiselle Diemer, and Mademoiselle de Montmort, who made their special care that of tuberculous patients living in their own homes. At the outbreak of war, with the sudden influx of wounded, this experiment on a small scale developed into an important branch of national service. The civil patients were turned out of the hospitals to make room for the wounded, and such urgent demand was at once created for the nurses who would visit the civilians sent back to their homes, that numerous centres for these visiting nurses were soon formed in all parts of Paris and taken over by the government.
So many are the activities of Frenchwomen that it is impossible to enumerate all. I have only attempted here to speak of those I saw in the working, or of the friends with whom I was in personal touch. I have also restricted myself to work specially initiated by the women of France; and in this connection some of those Frenchwomen who have made England their home must not be forgotten, for many of them also responded to the call of their mother country in her need. . Among these was Mrs. Floyd, née de Neufville, who, enlisting the sympathies of her adopted country by indefatigable efforts and eloquent appeals, inaugurated the French Wounded Emergency Fund which has given such valuable aid to French hospitals, and a flourishing branch of which spread to America. Another patriotic daughter of France is the Vicomtesse de la Panouse, who, since the early days of the war, as president of the Comité Britannique of the Croix Rouge, has never left her arduous post at the busy headquarters in Knightsbridge, helping to organize British help for her country.
The spirit of the armies of France will never weaken while their women hold fast to the ideals expressed in the letter sent to the Women's Congress of the Hague which met in April, 1915. Not a single French society would consent to attend this 'Pacifist' meeting, and the 'Conseil National des Femmes Françaises,' a Federation of 150 feminist associations, affiliated with the Federation of eighty suffragist societies, gave the following reasons for their grave step in abstaining for the first time from taking part in a Peace Congress, declaring their unanimous decision neither to participate in this International Congress, nor to accept the programme it proposed.
How would it be possible [went on the manifesto] for us at such a time as the present to meet the women of the enemy countries and again take up with them the work so tragically interrupted? Have they denounced the political crimes and sins against humanity perpetrated by their Government? Have they protested against the violation of Belgium, against the criminal acts of their army and their navy? If their voices have been raised, it has been too feebly for their protestations to reach us. We can only resume coöperation with them when they accept, as we do, respect for right as the basis of all social life and action.With regard to a future peace it went on:
We in France nursed the dream of a peace and understanding, if not universal, at least European; we refused to believe those who pointed out to us the growing menace on the other side of the frontier. How we have been awakened to the reality—you know, and history will keep the record forever. Since events have proved the danger and futility of a one-sided pacifism, we shall only resume our propaganda when the peace to come has given us efficacious guaranties against the domination of one nation. But is this the moment to discuss peace? With sorrowful amazement we read your programme for an armistice. How can we think of such a thing while our provinces are still subject to the enemy's yoke, and Belgium stands martyred before all eyes?
Do you ignore what France demands of this peace? She requires the freedom of the future and, that her enemies, forced by defeat, shall be made to recognize that their material strength has been crushed by the heroic defense of their victors....
To think of peace to-day, before peace can consecrate and establish the principles of right, would be to betray those for whom we are so many of us proudly mourning. It is in order that future generations may reap the fruit of their splendid self-abnegation and death, that the women of France will continue the combat as long as needful; united with those who are fighting and dying for their country they will not associate themselves with one gesture of peace.
Animated still by this spirit the women of France are keeping and will keep their country going, till victory is assured.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald