I have already explained that twenty years ago, when I served my time in the ranks of the French army, French military law differed from what it is now. It is true that – speaking generally – every able bodied Frenchman was then, as now, compelled to undergo five years’ active service, but for young men who had graduated at a University there was the loop-hole of escape described in the Introduction. Having no ambition to serve for five years as a private, I naturally determined to avail myself of the benefit of the law, and accordingly in the month of August 1879 I went over to the head-quarters of the military division of Paris, and there, after producing all the papers required by French red-tapeism, I signed a voluntary engagement for a period of one year (Engagement conditionnel).
A month later I received orders to appear before the Conseil de revision, held in the town-hall of my district. About two hundred fellows, belonging to every class of society, were waiting in the yard – most of them, indeed, being roughs from la Villette (the Whitechapel of Paris). We were called up by batches of twenty-five, and shown by gendarmes into a room, around which stood long benches with pegs above them. A red-hot stove was burning in a corner of this room, and as there was no ventilation of any kind, and more than one hundred unwashed ruffians had already, undressed and dressed, the smell was abominable. A gendarme then there ordered us to strip off all our clothing, barring our socks, and when we had done so – what a sight we were! – he called each one of us in turn and placed us under a measuring gauge. He first took our height with our socks on, and then without them – except in the case of those who possessed no such garment, and who formed the majority. The gendarme who measured us was a Sergeant, and he dictated to a private the result of his measurements. When my turn came he placed me under the apparatus and then asked for my name.
“Decle,” I said.
“And your Christian name?”
“Lionel,” he replied : “that’s not a Christian name.”
I assured him that it was my Christian name, and, what was more, the only one I possessed.
“Well, it’s a queer Christian name, and I don’t know where your people fished it out,” he remarked. After a glance at the scale he dictated “1.78 metre in his socks,” to his subordinate. He then ordered me to remove my socks, and, measuring me once more, pronounced the verdict “I.79 metre without socks.”
“But, Sergeant,” I asked, “how can I be taller without my socks than with them on ? “
“You will perhaps teach me my business I” he angrily replied, and seeing that the private was hesitating to write down the figures, “D- – you,” he shouted, “are you going to take that down or not?”
The private silently obeyed, doubtless accustomed for years to passive obedience.
I was then told to stand aside, and another fellow was called up. We were then sent, each in turn, into another room, where sat the Conseil de revision, presided over by a General in full uniform, assisted by officials also in uniform, and a few respectable-looking old gentleman I confess that I felt rather shy at having to appear without clothes before so ornamental a company, whose uniforms strangely contrasted with the state of nature I was in. A clerk, having inquired my name, fished out my papers from a huge bundle, and asked me a long list of questions about my family history. The President then inquired whether I could show any cause why I should not serve, and upon my negative reply, a military surgeon proceeded to examine me. A paper was handed over to him by the clerk.
“What’s this?” he said. “You’re one metre seventy-eight in your socks, and a centimetre more without them? “
“That’s just what I said to the gendarme, sir,” I replied, “but he told me to shut up.”
The gendarme was called and questioned about the matter. “All I can say, sir,” he replied, “is that a machine can’t lie, and I’ve had enough experience not to make a mistake.”
There was a burst of laughter from all the members of the council, which seemed to greatly astonish the old gendarme. The doctor took me back to measure me himself, and finding that my exact height was one metre seventy-nine without socks, he pointed this out to the gendarme. The latter, however, shook his head. ” Well, sir,” he stoutly declared, “all Í can say is that he was one seventy-eight just now.” I was brought back to the council-room and the doctor then proceeded to take my chest and other measurements, dictating to the clerk a list of my various “points.” He then asked me about my past illnesses, and inquired into the health of my father, mother, and grandparents. He then tested my heart and lungs, felt my legs, and examined my teeth ; concluding the whole performance by making me sit down, walk, and cough. I felt like a horse under examination by a “Vet.” The result of this inspection was that I was passed as fit for service. Before retiring I was asked whether I preferred to serve in the infantry, artillery, heavy or light cavalry. I expressed a desire to serve in the Dragoons, and my wish was duly noted. Shortly afterwards I received notice to present myself at one of the Paris cavalry barracks, in order to pass an examination in riding, for Volontaires, having then to serve only one year, were admitted into the cavalry only if they could already ride. The examination was a most simple one: we had to mount a horse, which was saddled, but without stirrups, and then had to walk, trot, and canter once round the riding-school. About a score of others passed the examination, at the same time as myself, and only one candidate, who managed to fall off his horse while trotting, was rejected as unfit to serve in the cavalry, though of the whole batch hardly three could pretend to a knowledge of horsemanship.
At the beginning of October I received a notification that I was to serve in the 9th Dragoons, at Dinan in Brittany. I was most anxious not to go so far from Paris and as my maternal uncle then held a most prominent position in the Senal, being Leader of the Left Centre, I obtained a letter from him to the Minister of War, who allowed me to choose whatever regiment I liked. One year before, a great friend of mine, Baron de Lanoy, had enlisted for five years in the 50th Dragoons stationed at Noilly and he had lately been promoted to the rank of Sergeant. He had strongly advised me to join his regiment, the Colonel of which, the Marquis de Vieilleville, was most favourably disposed towards the Volontaires. At my request I was accordingly drafted into that regiment. Unfortunately, shortly before I joined, the Marquis died, and was replaced by Colonel Hermann, who hated Volontaires, and proved, as will be seen, a martinet of the worst type.
Towards the end of October I received my feuille de route, ordering me to present myself at 10 A. M. at the cavalry barracks at Noilly. It was a dull, dreary, miserable, wet day when I took a train at the gare du Nord at half-past seven in the morning, to begin my military experiences which proved, as will be seen, little short of what I might have had to suffer had I been sentenced to hard labour. An hour later the train stopped at Noilly, where, following the advice previously given to me by my friend de Lanoy, I drove to the Crown Hotel, the best in the place, engaged a room, and hastily swallowed the last decent breakfast I was to enjoy for many days to come. Half an hour before the appointed time I drove to the barracks. The sentry stood shivering in his box, and the thought then flashed across my mind that it would soon become my lot to stand there myself. I passed the gate, and seeing one of the troopers standing outside the guardroom, I was about to ask him where I could find my friend, Sergeant de Lanoy, when a Sergeant, dragging his sword on the ground, stepped out of the guard-room and addressed me :
“Hullo what do you want, you there?”
“Sir,” I replied, “I am a Volontaive, and I want to go and see a friend of mine, Sergeant de Lanoy.”
“Oh, you’re a Volontaire, are you? Well, you can wait where you are!”
“But, sir” I asked again “can’t I be allowed to go and see Sergeant de Lanoy?”
“What! Answers eh? You’ll have to be put through your paces at once, my fine fellow, or else you will make the acquaintance of the boite (cells) sooner than you care for. Wait there and shut up” he concluded.
There was nothing for it, therefore, but to walk up and down in the drizzling rain. I had already visited the barracks once, a few months before, when I came to pay a call on de Lanoy, little thinking then that I should soon belong to his regiment. Now they presented a much keener interest for me, and I looked anxiously at my surroundings. On each side of the gate stood a small lodge. One of these was used as a guard-room, the other was the residence of the barrack caretaker, a post usually bestowed on an old pensioned non-commissioned officer. The barrack yard itself was about 400 yards long and 250 broad ; in the middle of it stood the riding-school, flanked on each side by two rows of huge two-storied buildings running at right angles to the entrance gate, On the ground floor of these buildings were the stables. and above them the men’s quarters. The right-hand portion of the barracks was occupied by an infantry regiment, while the remainder was used by the Dragoons. It may here be noted that different names are given to the barracks occupied by cavalry and by infantry, the latter being called casernes, while the former are termed quartiers. The yard was teeming with life: troopers in stable uniforms were running to and fro, some carrying buckets of water, others empty-handed ; in front of me was a group of half a dozen men pumping water into a long tank running along the riding-school ; other troopers were sweeping the yard while one of their number collected in a wheelbarrow the little heaps of refuse gathered by the others ; then an officer came out of the riding-school and called to a trooper to take back his charger to the stables. In a few moments a man came running to the guard-room, and shouted to the Trumpeter to call the Sergeants of the Week quickly, as the Captain of the Week wanted them. The Trumpeter sounded the call, and had hardly finished when five Sergeants came at a run and went to the Captain, who stood near the riding-school, where I could hear him abusing them with frantic gesticulations. My attention was next called to six troopers in stable dress (but with swords and carbines), their faces turned towards a wall; they were being drilled by a Sergeant, and I was struck by the length of time during which they remained in the same position. While I was looking at them the Sergeant gave a word of command, and the troopers stood with their swords extended at arm’s length : two, three, minutes elapsed, and I could see the poor fellows getting so tired that they had to bend their bodies to remain with their swords in the right position ; the Sergeant, walking up and down, did not seem to mind this, but one of the troopers, having slightly bent his arm, the Sergeant, in a monotonous tone of voice, calling the fellow by name, said, “So-and-so, two days more for not holding your sword straight.” This seemed to me little short of barbaric cruelty. I afterwards realised that this exercise was punishment drill for men punished with prison. Soon the Trumpeter sounded “Soup,” and every trooper employed in the barrack square hurried to put away his tools, while men rushed from every corner, shouting like school-boys let loose. While I was watching the scene I have described I noticed the arrival of a tall, handsome, and well-groomed young man in civilian attire, who asked me if I was a Volontaire, adding that he was himself one, and that he wanted to know where he had to report himself. In order to save him from the Sergeant’s abuse, I warned him that he had better wait with me until the Sergeant of the Guard called us. While we were talking the Sergeant appeared on the threshhold of the guard-room, and, at the top of his voice, shouted out, “What the deuce are you hatching there, you idiots? I suppose you’re another of these (using a double-barrelled adjective) Volontaires?” turning to my companion.
“Yes, sir,”` replied the young fellow.
“Well, why the devil don’t you come and report yourself, you blockhead?”
“Oh, sir,” replied Walter – for such we will suppose his name to be – “this gentleman” pointing to told me”
“This gentleman told you!” howled the Sergeant, “this gentleman, indeed ; you’re really too damned polite. You’re another colt who requires breaking in. Now, you two young pekins, advance to orders, and show me your papers” We produced our feuilles de route, and the Sergeant having examined them told us to go the Paymaster’s office in the town. “Oh! you want to speak to Sergeant de Lanoy, do you? ” he said to me. “I’ll give you a trooper to take you to him.”
Having asked my new comrade to wait a few minutes for me outside the barracks, so that we might go together to the Paymaster’s office, Í was going with the trooper towards de Lanoy’s quarters. when we met him coming to look out for me. I told him how I had been treated by the Sergeant of the Guard, and he replied that he was not in the least astonished, as the fellow was a brute, adding that he had no right to keep me waiting when I asked to go and see him. “I’ll have it out with him,” he remarked, adding : “You go straight to the Paymaster’s office and ask to be drafted into my squadron, the 3rd, and I’ll see that you’re placed under my orders, so that I can look after you.” We then parted, and outside the barracks, found Jack Walter waiting for me. Curiously enough, though he was the first acquaintance I made in the regiment, our friendship, which began that day, has lasted ever since. My friend is of English origin (his grandfather having been an Englishman who became naturalised in France), and were I to mention his real name it would be recognised by most of my readers as that of a rising painter of undoubted genius, whose works have graced many a Salon. We went to the Paymaster’s office, and, although we were rather upset by the reception we had received from the Sergeant of the Guard, we were both very keen on serving.
The Paymaster made no difficulty about placing me in the 3rd squadron, while Walter was drafted into the 2nd, having a letter of introduction to one of the officers of that squadron. We each received a paper from the Paymaster’s clerk with instructions to hand them over to our respective Sergeant-majors ; the clerk kindly added that we need not return to barracks before 11 A.M., as the Sergeants were eating their breakfast. When I returned to the barracks I went to the Sergeant of the Guard and told him that I was back from the Paymaster’s office, asking him to direct me to my Sergeant-major’s office.
“Do you take me for a sign-post?” he answered.
“No sir,” I replied, “but I wanted your leave before asking a trooper to show me the way.”
“You long-nosed chap, you’re a soldier now, remember that; so do me the honour of calling me Sergeant,’ and not sir.'”
“Yes, Sergeant” I replied.
He then ordered a trooper who stood in the guard-room to take me to the office of my Sergeant-major. “By the way” he said, as I was going off “what squadron do you belong to?”
“To the 3rd squadron, Sergeant.”
“It’s a pity you don’t belong to mine” he answered “I should like to have had you under my orders; it would have been a real pleasure to lick you into shape. But God help you if you ever cross my path. I don’t like your face. When I don’t like a man’s face it’s a poor chance he stands with me. Now go, clear out of this.”
I’m sorry to say that it was my misfortune to have this man later on as my chief, and he duly proved that his boast was no vain one. When I reached the Sergeant-major’s office I met outside the door my friend de Lanoy, and informed him that I had managed to be placed in his squadron.
“I’m glad of it,” he said : “I will go with you to see the Sergeant-major, and try to get you put in my peloton” (company)
The Sergeant-major’s office was a small room about sixteen feet by twelve, and served as a bedroom as well as an office. Three non-commissioned officers slept in it ; the Sergeant-major, the Sergeant fourrier, and the Corporal fourrier, who ranks as a non-commissioned officer. At a huge table in the centre of the room sat the Sergeant-major, a cold, stern, and distant individual. He granted de Lanoy’s request, and put me in his peloton, ordering him at the same time to assign me a bed. De Lanoy, now my Sergeant, took me to the room where the 120 men of our squadron lived, ate, and slept. Two lateral partitions, ten or twelve feet high, ran the whole length of the room, with beds on each side of them. There were thus four rows of beds running along the room, each row being occupied by the troopers belonging to the same company.
The beds themselves seemed so narrow that one could hardly realise how a man could manage to sleep in one of them. At the head of each bed hung the trooper’s sword ; on a nail near it was suspended the bag containing brushes and other stable implements, while laid on two shelves runing along the whole length of the room, above the beds, each trooper had his clothes carefully folded, and covered with a canvas bag on which the number under which he was registered appeared in large figures. On the top of this stood the helmet, with a pair of boots on each side of it. In each corner of the room the carbines stood on racks.
“Although you are not allowed to have anyone to help you” said de Lanoy to me, “it is simply impossible for you to make your bed and to clean yourself, your clothes, your boots, saddlery, and weapons, for, the moment you begin the special work allotted to Volontaires, you will only have two hours to spare for meals every day; you must therefore arrange with two men to do your work, and I will place you between two good fellows whom I can trust to look after you. Only mind you,” he added, “the new Colonel hates Volontaires, and as any man found helping them will be severely punished, you will have to allow ten francs a week to each of the troopers who look after your things” He then gave me an empty bed which was placed between those of the two men he had selected and who were only too glad to look after me. One of them was a Parisian ruffian, nicknamed Titi de la Villette, and the other a country bumpkin whom everyone called “the old un,” on account of his prematurely aged appearance. By de Lanoy’s advice I gave Titi five francs to buy a two-gallon jar of wine for the troopers belonging to my peloton.
I then returned to the Sergeant-major’s room, in order to supply him with particulars about myself such as have to be registered in the livret (regimental book) handed over to every French soldier.
“What’s your name? ” he began.
“What’s your Christian name?”
“I have none.”
“Ah, yes,” he replied, “a good-for-nothing, like all the Volontaires.” He then asked me for my father’s name, Christian name and profession. I had also to give him my mother’s maiden name, and to tell him whether I had any brothers or sisters. After this followed some rather ludicrous questions :
“Can you read and write?”
“Well,” I said, “I suppose so, considering that I am a Volontaire, and have therefore taken a University degree”
“I want none of your remarks,” replied the Sergeant- major, staring at me from head to foot ; “answer my questions. Can you swim? I replied in the affirmative. How many times have you been convicted?” I protested against the implication most energetically, but this only brought down on me a few cutting remarks about my cheek and impertinence. I had then to state whether Í had had small-pox, whether I had been vaccinated or not, and whether I meant to re-enlist at the end of my year’s service. My reply was in the negative as may well be imagined.
The Sergeant-major having taken down all my answers looked at me once more from top to toe, and then delivered the following little speech : “Look here, my boy,” he began, “don’t you run away with the idea that military service is all beer and skittles, or you’ll soon be disappointed. I know what you Volontaires are like; you come here and imagine that you are going to have a good time of it; but I warn you that you will have a devilish bad time of it if you don’t keep straight.. I’m a good sort of fellow enough, but all the troopers will tell you that I am pretty stiff. I won’t punish you often, but when I do, you’ll remember it. You’re too much of a fine gentleman for my taste, So I fancy it won’t be long before you get into trouble. Now you can clear out – Sergeant de Lanoy will tell you what you have to do.”
I retired, a sadder but a wiser man.