Trooper 3809 – Part 13

In June we began “squadron school” and were drilled on the manoeuvring ground with our respective squadrons. It was only then that all the officers attended the drill, for the training of the peloton had been left almost entirely to the Sergeants. By this time we might be regarded as trained troopers, and, indeed, in time of war the Volontaires would have been quite fit to act as Sergeants, although it did not seem to be the aim of the French military authorities to use the Volontaires as such, in the reserve, in case of war. All the reserve men had their own Sergeants already, and it was therefore difficult to understand why so much of our time was wasted in giving us a military education far superior to that of the average non-commissioned officer.

Since we had begun to see less of Sergeant Legros I had not been incessantly punished as I had been when we were constantly under his orders, and I almost dared to hope that I should be able to finish my time without getting further acquainted with the Salle de Police. However, it was not so to be. 

One Sunday morning at six o’clock a Corporal, who was on weekly duty, came to me and asked me to let him have five francs, adding that if I gave him the money he would not send me down to clean the stables. I gave him the money, but half an hour later he came and asked me for more. He had no time to press me hard, as he was called away by the Sergeant, but, as soon as the latter had done with him, he came back just as I was going down to the stables. He was already drunk, and said he wanted another five francs. I absolutely declined to give him the money, pointing out that as he was on duty that day he would be severely punished for getting drunk, and I might also get punished for having supplied him with money. This put him in a frightful rage, and he asked me if I took him for a fool. I told him that it didn’t matter whether I took him for a fool or not, but that he knew perfectly well that he made a fool of himself when he was drunk.

“All right,” he said  “you will have two days’ Salle de Police for having called me a fool. By the way” he added, “Lemaire is sick, and you will have to take the guard for him” I remonstrated, explaining that I had taken the guard the previous week, and that it could not therefore be my turn to take the guard, even to replace a sick man. 

“You refuse to obey the orders of the Corporals” 

“Of course I don’t refuse”  I said, knowing well that in his state of mind he might, upon the least provocation, report me as having refused to obey orders, and this would have meant a court-martial, and most likely a sentence of several years’ hard labour. “

“Well, get ready then” said the Corporal.

 “I want to go and talk to the Sergeant-major first” I replied. 

“No you don’t” he said, standing in front of me. Of course I could not lay hands on him, for, as I have already explained, the slightest assault on any man holding a rank superior to one’s own was invariably punished with death. I therefore proceeded to get my things ready, well knowing, however, that it was physically impossible for me to get my kit into proper order for parade upon so short a notice. Soon after, the Corporal having reeled away, I went to the Sergeant-major’s room, but there I found only his orderly, who told me to my utter dismay that the Sergeant-major had gone the previous evening on twenty-four hours’ leave. 

I therefore walked down to the stables in order to find the Sergeant of the Week. On my way, however, I fell foul of the Corporal, who asked me where I was going.

“I am going to speak to the Sergeant of the Week” I said.

“No you don’t” he replied “you just walk back with me”

!I am going to the Sergeant of the Week” I repeated. 

“You refuse to obey orders then?” asked the Corporal. 

“No, but I am going to the Sergeant of the Week”

 “By God” he said, “if you don’t follow me to the room at once I will go straight to the Captain of the Week and report you for having refused to obey orders” 

Of course I had no alternative but to follow the Corporal, and I had to dress anyhow in order to be ready in time for the parade of the guard. The leather tops of my trousers were not properly polished, my sword and carbine were not spick and span as they ought to have been for parade, and the brass work of my helmet was a trifle tarnished, for it had not been cleaned since the previous afternoon. As it was, I had to run to join the other troopers on parade, and when I got there the command “Attention” had already been given. 

Captain des Tourelles was Captain of the Week, and the moment he caught sight of me he ordered me to come to him. “You are late” he said. 

“Captain,” I replied, “the reason of it is- ” 

“Shut up!” he interrupted ; “don’t answer me – you are filthy, you dirty beast! ” He then began to examine my buttons, my sword, my helmet, my carbine, muttering the whole time,

 “Swine, swine. You are a Volontaire, I think, and you come here late, and as filthy as a pig! You shall have four days’ Salle de Police” 

“But–sir” I ejaculated. 

“You dare answer me! You shall have four days more. Step back into the ranks!”‘ 

After we had been paraded and dismissed to the guard-room, I went to the Sergeant of the Guard to explain my case. This man was of low extraction, a peasant, in fact, who had been promoted to the rank of Sergeant merely on account of his undoubted severity. (He had once sent a man before the court-martial for refusing to obey him, and the poor trooper was sentenced to two years’ hard labour) This would seem to constitute a poor qualification for promotion, but, in many French regiments, it is notorious that a Corporal who sends a man before a court-martial is almost certain to be rewarded for his harshness. 

The Sergeant took very little interest in what I told him, and said it was no business of his, and that I had better speak to the Sergeant-major about it. The following day, when I left the guard, I went to see my Sergeant-major, but, unfortunately for me, he had obtained a two days’ extension of leave, and “the Sergeant fourrier” who was acting in his stead, told me that my punishment had already appeared on the report, and had been forwarded to the Colonel. 

“Very well then” I said, losing my temper, “I shall go and complain to the Colonel” and I asked him to transmit my application to see that officer. He strongly urged me not to do so, assuring me that I should get no redress, but I was obstinate, and my demand was duly forwarded through the usual channels. 

At noon the Sergeant fourrier showed me a copy of the Colonel’s orders for the day. “You have got it pretty hot” he said, and he showed me the passage of the Colonel’s decision referring to my case. To my dismay I read the following 

“The punishments inflicted on Trooper Decle by Corporal Armand and by Captain des Tourelles are altered to twenty days’ Salle de Police” I had, therefore, to sleep in the cells that night, and the Sergeant told me that the answer to my application to see the Colonel would probably appear in the following day’s regimental orders. I did not see Sergeant Legros until the following day, for, as I have explained before, troopers who have taken the guard are exempt from duty for four and twenty hours. The next morning, however, when we went to schoolroom, Legros called me. 

“So you have been at your tricks once more, eh, Decle?” he said.

I told him exactly what had occurred, but he only shrugged his shoulders. “Serves you right!” he said. “You Volontaires get into the habit of throwing your money right and left, and if you hadn’t begun by tipping the Čorporal all this wouldn’t have happened” 

In the regimental orders of the day the Colonel stated that the application of Trooper Decle to see him was granted, and that the said Trooper Decle would have to be at his house at 1 P.M. the next day. I therefore got Titi and my other orderly to clean my clothes and my equipment with the utmost care, and at one o’clock sharp I proceeded to the Colonel’s house. I was received by one of his orderlies, who took me to the kitchen. He went to inform the Colonel that I was there, and returned saying that the Colonel had sent word that I must wait. The cook very graciously offered me a cup of coffee, and during the good three-quarters of an hour that I had to wait she related to me the details of her family history, telling me that she had already saved £20, which would make a nice little dowry when she got married, and also suggesting that I should take her out for a walk next Sunday. (I could only politely express my regret at being unable to do this, as I was undergoing punishment).

She further told me that she did not care much for her place, as “la Colonelle” was too close-fisted, and there was not enough grattage (perquisites) in the place. At the end of three-quarters of an hour the Colonel’s orderly told me to walk upstairs, and showed me into a study where the Colonel was writing at a desk, in regimental, trousers, a pair of slippers, and a black alpaca coat. He did not turn round, and I stood, helmet in hand, near the door. I had quite forgotten the regulations, and, finding myself in polite society, I had instinctively uncovered. Just as I remembered that I ought to keep my helmet on, and was replacing it, the Colonel, hearing me move, turned his head round. 

“What are you fiddling about with your helmet for?” he asked. Stand still, will you!” and he went on writing. Ten minutes later he ordered me to come forward. I saluted and stood at attention. 

“Take off your helmet” said the Colonel. I took it off. 

“Your hair is too long, you will have to get it cut; and you will soon get a court-martial if you go on like that. Put on your helmet. What do you want?” 

“Sir” I began, “I have been punished- “

“Punished!” he exclaimed. “Yes, you are always punished. You are the worst trooper in my regiment. We don’t want men like you in the French army. What do you want?” 

“Sir, I once more began, “I have been punished by Corporal- ” 

“I know it” he replied, waxing quite angry. “I told you so before, you are always punished – always punished. If it is to tell me that that you have come here, you might have stopped at the barracks. Why the deuce don’t you tell me what you want? Do you think I am standing here at your orders?” 

“If you will allow me to explain, sir” I replied, “I will tell you why and how I have been punished”

“I don’t want to know anything about it” said the Colonel, in an angry voice. “Let me see, how many days have you got?”

“Twenty days, sir” I said. 

“Have you finished your punishment?” 

“No, sir, I have only done two days so far” 

“And you dare to come and complain to me! But I ought not to be astonished- for cool cheek and impudence you haven’t your equal. Go back to barracks and tell the Adjutant to put you down ten days more for having made an unjustified complaint. That’s all look sharpIy. 

I saluted, and as I was walking towards the door the Colonel added “I will teach you not to come and bother me in future” 

On my way to barracks I thought of the advice the Sergeant fourrier had given me, and I felt distinctly sorry that I had not followed it. At the end of ten days I began to be so exhausted by sleepless nights and the hard physical work we had now to do that I began to feel seriously ill. I also had a relapse of sore throat accompanied with fever, undoubtedly due to all lack of sanitary precautions in the Salle de Police. Since the warm weather had come, to the other horrors of the place another was added. Fleas and lice came through the boards by thousands, and our rooms were infested with vermin. I went to the medical visit, and the doctor found me so seriously ill that he had to send me to the hospital, promising at the same time that he would do his best to try and get me invalided. 

A fortnight later he proposed me for invalidation, but the Special Commission before whom I was examined refused to invalid me, but consented to allow me two months’ sick leave. I was kept a week longer in hospital, and at the end of that time left the regiment for two months. This interval of respite I spent in Switzerland, where I did a good deal of mountain climbing. I can hardly describe my feelings when I had to return to my regiment and to go back to slavery. When I re-joined my corps I found but a few men in barracks, as the regiment was away at the manoeuvres. The fifth squadron alone, which forms the depôt, was left in barracks, and there also remained a few troopers in each squadron, mostly sick men, who were to look after the chargers which had been left behind as unfit for hard work in the field. I tried my best to get permission to join my regiment, but this was not granted me ; on the other hand, the Major in command of the depôt, who was acting as Colonel in the absence of the regiment, selected me to train some of the young horses which had proved refractory. 

This is the only good time I had as a trooper was particularly fond of the work, being allowed to ride whenever I liked, and having permission to use my own hunting-saddle. I had six horses to train, So that I was in the saddle almost the whole day, and had no one to bully me. 

When the regiment returned, the Volontaires were once more put together, and prepared for their final examination, which was to take place in the middle of October. On their return from the manoeuvres the troopers who had completed their five years’ service left for their homes amidst great rejoicings. Shortly after the departure of the time-expired men (la classe) a good many of those who had remained behind broke away from the regiment, but most of them returned before the expiration of six days, the law being that after six days’ time a trooper absent without leave becomes a deserter, and is tried by court-martial, the sentence passed on him ranging from one to three years’ hard labour. Those who absented themselves for less than six days were punished with fifteen days’ prison by the Colonel, but after some time so many troopers absconded in that way, that, in order to put a stop to the practice, the Colonel promised that any man absenting himself without leave in future would get thirty days’ prison, and that all the troopers belonging to his company would be confined to barracks for thirty days also. 

Notwithstanding this, one trooper, who had twice absconded within the last four months, ran away once more, and the troopers of his company were duly consigned to barracks during thirty days. When the fellow returned at the end of the fifth day, his comrades, infuriated by the punishment they had received through his misconduct, determined to punish him on their own account, and the Lieutenant in command of the peloton, when he heard of this, secretly consented to the plan. When the trooper returned, the Lieutenant ordered that before he was taken to prison he was to be sent to the room “to change his clothes” The moment he entered he was seized by the other troopers, tied face downwards on to a table, and every one of the twenty-four troopers of the company, filed past him, each one dealing, him a sharp blow with the buckle end of his charger’s girth. He was then untied, and led to the riding-school, where a blanket was in readiness. In this blanket were placed sundry wooden clogs, besides platters and a scabbard or two. The blanket was then held all round by the defaulter’s comrades, and he was chucked into it, and sent flying high up into the air perhaps a dozen times. I witnessed the punishment, and wondered how the poor fellow, after being sent flying more than fifteen feet into the air, and then dropping amidst a shower of scabbards, clogs, and platters back into the blanket, was not killed outright. When the punishment had come to an end the trooper was marched to the prison, or, rather, supported thither. On the way he met his Lieutenant and complained bitterly of the treatment he had received,, but the officer merely told him that he had fully deserved all he had got. 

The following day he was so bruised and shaken that he could not rise, and he asked for a doctor. The latter went to see him, but declined to do anything for him, merely relieving him from punishment drill during the next couple of days. At that time there were from twelve to fourteen troopers in prison, so that a peloton de chasse (punishment company) was organised, under the orders of a certain Sergeant de Cormet, who enjoyed the reputation of being the most severe Sergeant of the whole regiment. An episode which occurred during the previous winter may be quoted as an It was bitterly. cold, and was example of his method. drilling the prisoners, making them do the sword exercise and keeping the troopers in the same position for five or ten minutes. He had ordered the second position of the “coup de sabre vers la droite” which consists in holding the sword extended to the right at arm’s length ; at the end of a few minutes the troopers. became so tired that none of them were able to hold their bodies straight, and had to put their left shoulders down, and let the points of their swords drop. De Cormet, as usual, walked behind them, coolly saying, 

“Trooper Gabier, four days more for not holding yourself straight,  Trooper Chirac, .,your sword is not straight, you will have two days more”  and so on. All of a sudden one of the prisoners, a poor weak fellow, said to him : “Sergeant, my hands are frozen ; will you allow me to blow in them for one minute? I can’t hold my sword any longer” 

“Four days for speaking in the ranks” answered Cormet, in his monotonous voice. The trooper’s fingers were as white as wax, and he soon repeated his request with a similar result. At last, unable to stand the pain any longer, the trooper put his sword under his arm and blew on his fingers.

“Hold your sword in position at once” said the Sergeant ; “I shall report you to the Colonel”

“But, Sergeant, I can’t” cried the trooper. 

“You refuse to obey?” said the Sergeant. 

“I can’t, I can’t” said the trooper, sobbing with pain, and at the same time trying to grasp his sword, but finding himself unable to close his benumbed fingers. Again the Sergeant ordered him to hold his sword out, but the man burst into tears, and once more sobbed, “Í can’t, I can’t” Thereupon the Sergeant commanded another prisoner to carry the sword, and calling out to one of the troopers on guard, ordered him to fetch the Corporal, and when the latter came he had the poor fellow conveyed to the cells, and reported him for refusal to obey orders. The trooper was therefore tried by court-martial, and sentenced to two years’ hard labour! 

I little dreamt at the time that the day would come when, as will be seen presently, I would have the misfortune to be placed in the power of this fiend. As the day fixed for our final examination approached we were all busy looking through our various books in order to be well up to the subjects in which we were to be examined. Our Sergeant chiefly made us practise to give the word of command ; and when one of us was placed in command of the company, he had, before ordering any movement, to explain fully the way in which such movement ought to be executed. 

In fact, we were taught to act as Sergeants. At last the great day came. The subjects on which we were to be examined were these : Dismounted drill, and command. Hippology. Voltige. Gymnastics. Topography. Knowledge of regulations in barracks and in the field. Riding. Mounted drill, and command. The maximum number of marks which could be gained for each subject was twenty. We were examined by a Board of Officers, consisting of a Major, the Captain instructeur, our own Captain, and one Lieutenant. The order in which we were called was settled according to the numbers under which we had been enrolled, so that I came third on the list of troopers ; the three Volontaires who had been made Corporals coming of course before the others. 

The first subject on which we were examined was dismounted drill. (The Corporals could select their own subject, so that their examination was merely nominal.) The two Volontaires who were examined before me were told to explain the mere rudiments of the subject, but when my turn came I was ordered to explain and command the most difficult manoeuvres. I did this with credit to myself, and I was further ordered to command sword drill ; this I also did well, and I was then sent back to the ranks. With the exception of three or four of the Volontaires, who bungled most frightfully in explaining the simplest movements, all of us knew our work thoroughly well. 

We were then taken to the riding-school and examined on Hippology ; only four or five of us knew anything about this, and d’Alvarez, who was a Corporal, knew so little about the subject that the Lieutenant had to prompt all his answers. We were then dismissed for breakfast, and were told to return at eleven o’clock to the riding-school to be examined on voltige and gymnastics. We were hardly given a chance to show what we could do, however, as the officers were anxious to go and have luncheon. When they returned at 3 P.M. we were taken to the schoolroom, where our proficiency in topography was put to the test. I have never seen anything more ridiculous than this part of the examination, for with the exception of the Captain instructeur, the officers seemed to know very little about the subject, and most of the Volontaires knew still less. We were closely examined on all questions dealing with the duties of Sergeants and Corporals, in barracks and in the field, and, although the officers who examined us tried their best to put me wrong, I showed myself quite proficient, which evidently disconcerted the officers, as I heard them whispering 

“We must give him good marks, but it’s a nuisance, you know.” “

We shall find a way” replied my Captain. I did not realise then what this meant, but I understood it quite soon enough. This part of the examination over, we were dismissed for the day, and ordered to be ready for mounted drill, with full kit, the next morning at 8 A.M. At the appointed time, the officers who had examined us the previous day turned up at the barracks, and accompanied by a trumpeter we started for the manoeuvring ground. We had first to ride individually at various paces, and were then ordered to go over the jumps. Very little notice was taken of our riding, and while this went on the officers chatted together, hardly bestowing a glance on us. After this we had, each in turn, to take command of the peloton, and to explain and command various evolutions according to the officer’s orders. I was successful in all the various manoeuvres I was ordered to command ; but many of the others made a sad mess of it, especially when they had to wheel their company round, take it at a gallop to a certain point, and then return so as to march past in fours before the Major. Miscalculation of distances was the commonest source of error. 

The examination over, we were marched back to barracks, and in the evening my Sergeant-major told me that he had seen the marks, and that I was among the first half. I expressed my delight, but he said warmly : 

“Don’t crow yet, my boy ;. they mean to keep you a second year, and they will find a way to do it” I was thunderstruck, for I never thought, for an instant, of such a contingency. I told the Sergeant-major that it would be monstrous, considering that I had proved my proficiency. 

“Take my warning” he said, “and don’t be astonished if they keep you another year”

De Lanoy, to whom I went, then said that he did not think that the Colonel could possibly keep me, as he would have to keep a good many others who were below me in proficiency if he did so. It was, therefore, with a beating heart that, on the following day, I stood on parade, awaiting the result of the examination, which was to be proclaimed to us by our Captain, who had prepared a little speech for the occasion. 

“I have to congratulate you” he said, “on your proficiency, which is due to the untiring efforts of Sergeant Legros, whom I hope soon to see duly rewarded. With the exception of two or three of you, I have never had a better or more intelligent set of troopers under my orders. Now I will, before reading out to you the result of how it has been arrived the examination, explain at. The maximum of marks allotted for each subject is twenty, and the number of marks gained by each candidate is multiplied by a coefficient fixed according to the relative importance of the subject. He then read out to us the various coefficients.

“In your previous examinations” he went on, “we did not reckon good conduct, but this being a final examination, and the submission of each trooper to discipline being a matter of such paramount importance, the Colonel has decided to give it due prominence, and has, therefore fixed the coefficient at the figure of fifty, which makes altogether the maximum number of marks to be gained 2000. I am glad to add that many of you have obtained more than three-quarters of the possible number of marks, and this, I say once more, is entirely due to the efforts of your able Sergeant”

The Captain then read out the list. At the head of it stood the names of the three Volontaires who had been previously appointed Corporals, the first being d’Alvarez. This made us smile, for, though we all liked him, we knew perfectly well that if it had not been for the influence of his family, he would have ranked near the end of the list. The two other Corporals had worked hard since their promotion, and fully deserved their position. The Captain, however, continued to read out name after name, and yet mine had not been reached. I became more and more alarmed, and I turned cold when it came at last, at the very end of the list, with 633 marks only, while the man before me, one of the most vulgar, ignorant, and stupid fellows I ever met, had 1027. All the others looked at me, and felt in their hearts that a gross injustice had been committed. was aroused from my thoughts by the Captain’s voice 

“Decle” he said, “I am sorry to have to communicate bad news to you ; but the Colonel, after due consideration, has decided that, having regard to the too small amount of marks you have obtained – see you are the only one who has less than half of the possible maximum– the Colonel, I repeat, has decided that you shall be kept back to complete your military education. I am sorry for you, but it cannot be helped. As to the others, those who are already Corporals will be promoted to the rank of Sergeant, and the next three on the list are promoted to the rank of Corporal” 

Thereupon he dismissed us. I went to him, and begged and implored him to ask the Colonel to reconsider his decision, but he replied that I was merely wasting my time and his. The blow had fallen, and I felt like a madman! The first thing I did was to obtain a copy of the list, which was posted up in the schoolroom. I then saw how the trick had been played. A few words of explanation will make the device clear. 

The highest marks obtained out of a possible 1000 were 816, the lowest marks (given to the Volontaire next to me on the list) were 177. By the actual marks obtained ought to have been classed the fifth out of fourteen, but as the examiners were determined that I should be the last on the list, the following plan was devised : – “Good conduct” was added to the other items, and a coefficient of no less than fifty was allotted to it. With the exception of two other Volontaires besides myself, twenty marks were given to everyone for good conduct, The Volonthus increasing their totals by one thousand. The Voluntaire who was last but one was given seventeen marks for good conduct, and this, multiplied by fifty, made 850 to be added on to his beggarly 177 , giving him a total of 1027 marks. I was given nothing for good conduct, so  that I remained with my original 633 marks, and was thus classed last. 

The regulations stated that Volontaires, who at the end of the year had failed to show a proficiency sufficient to enable them to obtain a number of marks at least equal to half the possible maximum at the final examination might be detained for a second year – I was therefore detained according to the regulations! 

It was with an almost broken heart that I bade good-bye to all my comrades, and when I watched the train which took them away disappearing in the distance, I felt like a marooned stowaway who watches the departing ship sink below the horizon. When they had gone I went to my room at the hotel, seriously debating whether I should desert or else shoot myself. That I did neither remains a source of wonder to me.

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