France – The Officer

ON a certain day during the Carnot Presidency, the aspect of French streets changed as if by magic. Squads of raw recruits in their economical, oft-times ill-fitting uniforms still met the eye, but the highly decorative and becoming képi, tunic, and red pantaloons were gone. A stroke of the pen at the War Office had suddenly robbed outdoor scenes of a traditionally national and picturesque element. No more than in England were we now perpetually reminded of armed peace. If the new regulation allowing officers to wear civilian dress when off duty somewhat eclipsed the gaiety of nations, we may be sure it was warmly welcomed by the army. How agreeable, for instance, in hot weather to don a light grey English-made suit and straw hat ! What a relief, that freedom from constantly recurring salute and the necessary acknowledgment ! The French officer of to-day, moreover, is as little like insular conception of him as can well be. Is he not pictured as a light-hearted, inconsequent, dashing fellow, a something of the D’Artagnan, a something of the Charles O’Malley about him, professional duties sitting lightly upon his shoulders, domestic cares quite shaken off? True to life were a directly opposite portrait that of an indefatigable worker, one to whom fireside joys and intellectual pleasures are especially dear, and to whom self-abnegation in the loftiest as well as the domestic sense becomes a second nature.

I should say that in no class of French society more preeminently shine the virtues of forethought and disinterestedness. The first-mentioned quality — namely, thrift if not inherent, is implanted by his position. Indebtedness is impossible to a French officer. From pecuniary embarrassments and involvements with money-lenders he is guarded by a code almost Draconian in its severity. Even before the reorganization of the army in 1872 an officer could not contract debts. A first infringement of this law entails a reprimand. Should the debts remain unpaid, the offender is suspended by the Minister of War for three years. At the end of that period he is summoned before a commission of five members, one of whom holds the same rank as himself. This commission, after the strictest investigation, has power to decide whether or no reinstatement is permissible. It will, of course, sometimes happen that the verdict means disgrace and a ruined career. But the uncompromising, unassailable solvency of the French army is without doubt a tremendous element of its moral strength.

The D’Artagnan phase of military life is usually short-lived. After a few years more or less gaily and perhaps boisterously spent in Algeria, Tonquin, or Senegal, an officer returns to France and takes a wife. Wedded to domestic life and tenacious of the dignity implied in the designation pere de fammille are members of the French army. In no class are these privileges often more dearly purchased. Take the case, for instance, of a captain without any private means whatever, and whose bride brings him a small dowry ; their two incomes put together perhaps bring in something under three hundred pounds a year. Seeing the dearness of living in France, the necessity of keeping up appearances, and the liability to frequent removal from place to place, it is easy to understand the obligation of strict economy. Until recent years an officer could not wed a portionless bride, much less into a family without irreproachable antecedents. The young lady must not only have possessed capital bringing in an income of about fifty pounds yearly ; her parents or guardians must furnish the military authorities with strict guarantees of respectability and decorum. Such regulations formed no part of the Code Civil, but emanated from the War Office, and although they are now rescinded, an officer must still obtain the sanction of the Minister before contracting matrimony. The army as a profession being held in high esteem, officers of rank can always make brilliant marriages, but as a rule they only know one ambition, that the noblest of all, namely, how best to serve their country. They may not feel particularly enthusiastic about the powers that be. Drastically critical they are necessarily, being Frenchmen. No matter individual predilections or antipathies, the honour of France is ever before their eyes ; patriotism, in the august sense of the word, with them is a veritable religion.

In the new volume of his monumental work, ” La France contemporaine,” M. Hanotaux strikingly brings out this characteristic. Marshal MacMahon was a Legitimist at heart, democratic institutions were uncongenial, perhaps even hateful to him, but when President of the French Republic, he was begged by the Comte de Charnbord to visit him secretly, the soi-disant Roi being then in hiding at Versailles, his reply was an unhesitating ” My life is at the Comte de Chambord’s service, but not my honour.”

But indeed for the fine old soldier’s attitude upon that occasion, events might have turned out very differently, and France would have been again plunged in the horrors of civil war. As M. Hanotaux remarked, the country hitherto has little known what she owes him, fluff, simple-minded, monosyllabic commanders after the marshal’s pattern, rough, unscrupulous, swashbucklers of Pellissier’s type belonged to their epoch. The French officer of today is pre-eminently intellectual, to be best characterized by that word.

If a brilliant young captain works harder than any other professional man anxious to rise to the top, the same may be averred of those in exalted positions. Many superior officers never dream of taking, or rather demanding, a holiday, and with the constantly widening area of military science more arduous become their duties and more absorbing their pursuits.

The strain on physique equals that on brains. An artillery captain is as much tied to daily routine as his comrade in the bureau.

I well remember a month spent at Clermont-Ferrand. I had gone thither to be near a friend, the accomplished young wife of an artillery captain. During my stay the heat was tropical in Auvergne ; but, all the same, regiments were drafted off for artillery practice on the plain below the Puy-de-Dôme in the hottest part of the day. Only those men who have been hardened by an African sun can stand such an ordeal with impunity. The French soldier laughs, sings, and makes merry ; but often a hard lot is his ! One day my hostess and myself were driven with other ladies to witness the firing, resting under the shadow of a rock. When it was all over, my friend’s husband galloped up, hot, tired, and dusty, but gay, neat, and composed. He conducted us to the temporary quarters erected for himself and his brother-officers ; and, whilst we sipped sirop water, he restored his spent forces by two large glasses of vermuth, taken neat. This powerful restorative had the desired effect. He declared himself none the worse for his many hours’ exposure to the blazing sun. A sojourn in Senegal had rendered him sunproof, he added.

I have said that officers in command get little in the way of holiday. One kind of change, often a very undesirable one, is entailed upon them by their profession. French officers are hardly more of a fixture in times of peace than of war. Agreeably settled in some pleasant town and mild climate one year, a captain or commandant may be shifted to a frigid zone the next, the transport of wife and children, goods and chattels being the least in-convenience. A brilliant officer I knew well thus fell a victim to patriotic duty as completely as any hero killed on the battlefield. Removed from a station of south-west France to the arctic region of Upper Savoy, there amid perpetual snows to supervise military works, he contracted acute sciatica. He might, of course, have begged for an exchange on the plea of impaired health ; but no ! Biala vaincre ou mourir, “conquer or die,” is the motto of such men. Winter after winter he kept his post, struggling against disease ; finally, obliged to retire upon half-pay, he dragged out a painful year or two, dying in the prime of life. Such instances are numerous, true heroism therein shining more conspicuously than in the chronicles of so-called glorious campaigns.

Hard-worked as he is, the French officer always finds time to serve his friends. No matter his circumstances, he is lavishly hospitable. With what grace and cordiality will he do the honours of a station however remote ! How charmingly will drawbacks be got over ! I recollect an incident illustrating the latter remark. Many years ago I was travelling with four friends in Algeria. When we arrived at Teniet-el-Haad, a captain to whom we had a letter of introduction carried us off to a hastily improvised dinner, his young wife gracefully doing the honours, and several fellow-officers and their ladies being invited to meet us. We were seated at table, and the Kabyle servant had just entered with the soup, when, by an unlucky jerk, he tipped it over, every one jumping up to avoid the steaming hot cascade. “Il faut se tasser de notre potage alors,” ” We must do without our soup, then,” was all our host said, smiling as he spoke ; and with equal coolness and good-nature Hamet took his discomfiture.

Many other illustrations I could cite in point did space permit. “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” is a motto an officer holds to, taking no account of trouble, fatigue, or expense, in his person royally representing the noble French army, doing the honours of France.

Geniality, serviceableness, simplicity, an immense capacity for enjoyment, that is to say, reciprocated enjoyment, these are among the lighter graces of national temperament. We must go deeper if we would appraise a body of men less generally known in England than perhaps any other of their country people. French states-men, scientists, representatives of art, industry, and commerce now happily find themselves at home among us. Is it too much to hope that at no distant period the entente cordiale may bring French soldiers into intimate contact with their English comrades-in-arms !