The Poilu

: Winning A Cause World War Stories

The soldier of France, the poilu, is a crusader. He is fighting to

defend France, his great mother, in whose defense, centuries ago, the

invisible powers called and sustained Jeanne d'Arc. In his love of

country there is something almost religious, like that of the

Mohammedan for Mecca and Medina. To serve France, to fight for her, to

die for her--and every French soldier expects to die in battle--is a

privilege as
ell as a duty. He fights for his country as an

Englishman fights for his home. With the Englishman, his home comes

first and is nearest and dearest; with the Frenchman, his country.

Philip Gibbs, who has written from day to day, from the trenches and

the battlefields, letters that will never be forgotten because of their

beauty and truth, says of the French poilu:--

Yet if the English reader imagines that because this thread of

sentiment runs through the character of France there is a softness in

the qualities of French soldiers, he does not know the truth. Those

men whom I saw at the front and behind the fighting lines were as hard

in moral and spiritual strength as in physical endurance. It was this

very hardness which impressed me even in the beginning of the war, when

I did not know the soldiers of France as well as I do now. After a few

weeks in the field these men, who had been laborers and mechanics,

clerks and journalists, artists and poets, shop assistants and railway

porters, hotel waiters, and young aristocrats of Paris, were toned down

to the quality of tempered steel. With not a spare ounce of flesh on

them--the rations of the French army are not as rich as ours--and

tested by long marches down dusty roads, by incessant fighting in

retreat against overwhelming odds, by the moral torture of those

rearguard actions, and by their first experience of indescribable

horrors, among dead and dying comrades, they had a beauty of manhood

which I found sublime. They were bronzed and dirty and hairy, but they

had the look of knighthood, with a calm light shining in their eyes and

with resolute lips. They had no gayety in those days, when France was

in gravest peril, and they did not find any kind of fun in this war.

Out of their baptism of fire they had come with scorched souls, knowing

the murderous quality of the business to which they were apprenticed,

but though they did not hide their loathing of it, nor the fears which

had assailed them, nor their passionate anger against the people who

had thrust this thing upon them, they showed no sign of weakness. They

were willing to die for France, though they hated death, and in spite

of the first great rush of the German legions, they had a fine

intellectual contempt of that army, which seemed to me then

unjustified, though they were right, as history now shows. Man against

man, in courage and cunning they were better than the Germans, gun

against gun they were better, in cavalry charge and in bayonet charge

they were better, and in equal number irresistible.