At the end of January we passed our first examination. Each one of us had to command in turn the various kinds of drill we had been taught so far-ı-viz., drill on foot with out arms, carbine and sword drill, as well as mounted drill in the riding-school. We were also examined on hippology and the first principles of topography, and were questioned on that portion of the regulations which referred to the duties of Corporals, and we were further examined as to our individual proficiency in Voltige and gymnastics.
There was not a single one of us who hadn’t received by that time a more complete military education than any of the Corporals in the regiment, but although troopers can, according to the regulations, be promoted to the rank of Corporal at the end of three months’ service, none of us received any promotion. I was the fifth by marks out of the fourteen of us. After this examination the order of our day’s work was altered, and mounted drill, instead of taking place in the riding-school, was carried out on the manoeuvring ground, about three miles outside the town. This was a vast area of loose sand, a certain portion of which was prepared for different exercises. There were jumps too of various kinds, but none of them above three feet high. The most peculiar arrangement was what we call the “crater” a huge hole about thirty yards in diameter, and from ten to twelve feet in depth, shaped like a crater, and tapering at the bottom. There was also a narrow defile some hundred feet long, just broad enough to allow the passage of four riders abreast. For the present, however, no use was made of these obstacles, but we went on drilling as we had done in the riding-school.
Squares were marked out with huge poles, and we rode in Indian file around them. Half an hour before the time fixed for mounted drill four of us were sent out under the command of a Corporal to mark the squares. We were all very keen to be selected for this work, for having to carry the poles we were allowed to ride with stirrups, and when we had marked the squares, we always had ten minutes or a quarter of an hour to spare, during which time we used to jump our horses and canter round the manoeuvring ground. We also began mounted drill with arms–viz., carbine and sword. In my time swords were not fixed to the saddle as they are now, and we invariably carried our carbines slung over our backs, the boot never being used. Most cavalry officers considered the carrying of the carbine in the boot a most dangerous plan, likely to break the trooper’s leg in case of a fall. The carrying of the carbine across the back, other hand, was a most cruel torture, especially as we were never allowed to use our stirrups. The French cavalry carbines are much heavier and longer than those in use in the English cavalry. (We had, of course, the Gras pattern in my time).
On Saturdays, besides undergoing the weekly inspection, we had to prepare a number of horses for the infantry officers. The Captains in command of infantry companies being mounted, Lieutenants and Sub-lieutenants had to be taught riding, and few of them had any idea of what riding a horse meant, their only knowledge of such animals being derived from seeing them in the streets. Of course the Sergeants who had drawn up the lists of the horses to be used by the infantry officers took a secret pleasure in selecting the hardest trotters as well as the most vicious chargers in each squadron, so that my little mare was invariably chosen. The costumes donned by the infantry officers for this riding lesson were rather peculiar. Most of them wore patent leather gaiters over their trousers, while a few appeared in tightly-fitting grey breeches. As we brought our chargers to them the timid learners always carefully inquired about the special vice of each.
I well remember the appearance one day of a young infantry Lieutenant putting any amount of “side” on, and adorned by a resplendent pair of patent leather top- boots.
“I say, Dragoon” he said quietly, slipping a two-franc piece into my hand, “that looks rather a nice little horse you’re holding there”
“It isn’t a horse, sir” I replied.
He looked much astonished, and said : “What! You don’t call it a mule, I suppose?”
“No, sir” I replied ; “I call it a mare” .
“Oh- ah- yes! ” he said. “ A mare, of course. Fact is, I’d hardly looked at her. Is she lively?” he added. “I don’t like a beast with the paces of a donkey!”
“Yes, si,” I said “you’ll find her quite lively enough”
“But she’s not vicious- not vicious?” he asked anxiously.
“Vice!” I replied. “She doesn’t know what vice means. She likes to show off a bit, that’s all”
“Just what I like” said the Lieutenant. He asked me to get on her back, and after I had made her prance about a bit, I dropped the reins on her neck, and pulling a bit of sugar from my pocket I made her turn her head to eat it from my hand – a trick I had taught her.
“What a jolly little beast!” said the Lieutenant, as I dismounted “mind,” he added, “that you do not let anybody else ride her” .
“No fear, sir” I answered, upon which he tipped me another franc. I was careful to bring the mare last of all into the riding-school, having purposely put the stirrup-straps three holes too long for my man. The Lieutenant walked up to me. He looked at the girths as if he knew everything about a saddle, and then measured the Stirrups, asking me if I thought they were right.
“It’s not for me, sir,” I replied, “to presume to advise a gentleman like you, who probably has horses of his own”
“Of course-ot course” he replied, highly flattered. “I should say you’re a rare un with horses” I again said. “How do you know?” he asked proudly. “I can tell a gentleman when I see one” I answered. “Just so” he went on patronisingly. “I suppose you’ve been in good houses before?” “That’s just it, sir” I innocently replied. Just then our Capitaine Instructeur, who gave the lesson to the infantry officers, rode into the riding- school and ordered the officers to mount. We had to hold our charger’s head and the off-stirrup, and the Lieutenant having got on to the mare remarked that the stirrups were rather long. “How many holes, sir?” “Just shorten those two holes” he said. Purposely I went on slowly shortening one of the stirrups, holding the mare’s head at the same time, and, as I fully expected, before I had time to touch the second stirrup our Captain commanded the Lieutenants to fall in, and I let go at once the mare’s head, and she began to prance about. Her rider, who knew nothing of riding, foolishly pulled on the bit and pressed his legs to keep his equilibrium. My mare, greatly resenting such treatment, darted forward into the middle of the riding-school, plunging and rearing. In a second or two the officer was landed on the ground, while our Captain coolly asked him what he was doing there? He replied that it had all happened because his stirrups were not right. In the meantime I had rushed to catch the mare, and as the Lieutenant came to remount, our Captain told me to put the stirrups to their proper length. While I was doing so the poor young Lieutenant whispered to me : “Mais c’est une bête terrible que cet animal” I advised him not to use the curb, and not to touch her with his heels, as she did not like it. “It is very difficult not to use the heels,” he replied, with dismay, “I wish I had never seen that beast.”
The poor fellow knew even less about riding than I had thought, and I soon regretted having recommended him to take my mare, as twice more she landed him in the middle * It is a. terrible beast, this animal. of the school, and ultimately the Captain commanding the lesson made him change horses with one of his colleagues.
To return to our own work. Shortly after we had started drilling on the manoeuvring ground, we began to drill by pelotons on foot. The cavalry drill on foot is essentially different from the infantry drill, as all the movements are performed in the same way as the mounted drill ; for instance, the troopers being dressed on two ranks, to break off by fours they swing on a pivot as if they were mounted, and the drill on foot is, indeed, especially intended as a preparation for the mounted drill. Our work in the field, however, consisted of two distinct roles : we had to act as cavalry and at the same time as mounted infantry, although we were absolutely unfit for the latter work. I have often discussed with French officers the question why mounted infantry have never been tried in France, but all the French officers seem to believe them to be practically useless. They point out that all the French cavalry being drilled and armed in such a way as to be able to act as mounted infantry, there is no necessity for the latter. This is all very well in theory, but it is out of the question in practice. All the trooper is fit for when dismounted is to defend himself, but the moment he is sent forward on foot, his heavy, cumbersome trousers, his boots with spurs nailed on to them, and fitting as loosely as they always do, are a terrible burden to him. More than once when we were sent out as sharpshooters through heavy ground, we had not gone 200 yards before our boots came off our feet ; in this respect it may therefore be safely said that, whatever their other qualities may be, the French are very inferior to the English or German cavalry.
Too much time is wasted in educating the troopers to drill on foot, and nothing is done to develop individual initiative in the field. There were not ten of the troopers in my regiment who could have been trusted alone as scouts, and even among the Volontaires, men who had all received a good education, not one half of them at the end of the year’s training thoroughly understood the use of a map, and with the exception of Delbruck and myself not one could have made a sketch-plan, however rough, of the ground we had been over.
Another of the great mistakes made throughout the whole of the French army is the tendency to overburden soldiers as well as horses. Cavalry horses have to carry in the field a kit which, including the rider, amounts to an average of 22 stone, in the light cavalry the kit is, it is true, a little lighter, but there is hardly a stone and a half difference. The light cavalry horses are small, few of them being over 15 hands, while many are under. In the heavy cavalry there is hardly a horse standing 16 hands high, and the average size ranges between 15·1 and 15-2. In the infantry, soldiers have to carry in the field, cartridges included, an average of over 80 lbs. During the Madagascar war this enormous burden was not even reduced, and naturally 50 per cent. of the men died within five months of the beginning of the campaign. Another great fault of the French system is that too much is expected of the troopers, instead of their being regarded exclusively as mounted men.
Their uniform is not only grotesque, but is quite unsuitable for riding. I have often heard it said that the introduction of top-boots and breeches would entail too heavy an expenditure – but the Germans have them, and their cavalry is not inferior in numbers to the French. But this is a digression. Our Sergeant Legros was as great a bully as ever; Volontaires were constantly being punished, and never a week elapsed without my being sent to the Salle de Police ; in fact, Legros got so accustomed to punishing me that many a time he used to say to me in the morning, “I am in a bad temper today, and you’ll get two days’ Salle de Police- – you’ll find out why latter on.” At other times he used to tell us that he meant to stick four of the Volontaires in the lock-up that day, and, true to his word, he always found some cause for punishing exactly four of us during the day.
I had become so used to punishment by that time that it had grown quite indifferent to me, and I became a mere dare-devil. One day having been sent to the lock-up à lail, I found that the Sergeant of the Guard was my friend de Lanoy, and he told me that I could go and sleep in my own bed. As my punishment had not been reported, he ran no risk, but unfortunately for me that night I made a fool of myself. Titi, whom Í had told that de Lanoy had excused me from sleeping in the Salle de Police, came to tell me a long story of how his brother had come to see him on most important business, and how he could not get leave to go out to him, adding that he was sure I would help him. I told him that I would willingly do so if I could, and he then unfolded his plan to me. “You see” he went on, “when the Sergeant of the Week comes for the roll-call at eight o’clock, the Corporal will report you as being in the Salle de Police, but what you will really do will be to get into my bed and cover your head well up, so that your face can’t be seen, and then they will think that it is me. In the meantime I shall have got out, letting myself down from the window into the street with my forage rope”
Foolishly enough, I agreed to the plan. At a quarter to eight Piatte, who had long left the hospital, helped me to let Titi down through the window, and as soon as he had landed safely in the street I went and wrapped myself up in Titi’s bed. Piatte, I must say, tried to dissuade me, but having promised Titi, I said I would certainly keep my word. I covered up my head, and soon after, the Sergeant of the Week walked round the room to make the evening call. When he passed in front of my bed he walked straight up to me and pulled the blankets off. “What are you doing here?” he cried. “Sergeant” I replied, “Sergeant de Lanoy has allowed me to sleep here instead of in the lock-up” “And that is why,” he said, “you sleep in another man’s bed, after you have helped him to get out through the window. You will have four days’ Salle de Police. And now,” he added, “off you go to the cells”
The Sergeant was a new one who had exchanged into the regiment a few days previously, So he was a stranger to me, and though immediately after the call I rushed after him, he had already walked into the Sergeant-major’s office and reported the matter to him. When he came out I asked him to cancel my punishment, not so much for my sake, as for de Lanoy’s, who might be severely punished for having excused me from sleeping in the cells. The Sergeant expressed his regret, but told me it was too late, as he had already reported the matter to the Sergeant-major, adding that he was absolutely unconscious that by so doing he might bring one of his comrades into trouble. I advised him to go and see Sergeant Legros at once, in order to urge him not to lodge a complaint against de Lanoy, adding that I wished to take the whole blame upon myself.
I was very glad to find the following day that de Lanoy had not been embroiled in the business. I did not fare so well. The four days the Sergeant had given me were altered to eight by our Captain, and the Colonel added four more to the total, so that I had twelve days in all. I can honestly say that this was the only punishment I fully deserved among all those which were bestowed on me. Titi also got fifteen days, so that we were once more companions in misfortune.
It was during that time that our Sergeant-major suddenly altered his behaviour towards me. I had been about three days in the lock-up when one afternoon he called me into his office and locked the door. He looked much embarrassed, but asked me to sit down, and offered me a cigarette and a glass of beer. This seemed a very extraordinary proceeding on his part, but I accepted the proffered hospitality and waited for him to open the conversation.
“I am sorry, Decle” he said, “that you should have been once more punished, but I’ll try to make your punishment as light as possible, and I have already given instructions that you are not to sleep in the Salle to-night, as I am acting Adjudant today.”
“By the way” he said, “I have also sent for you to ask your advice. You are a gentleman and a man of the world, and I want some information, but before I consult you I want your word of honour that you will not mention to a living soul what I am going to tell you” I assured him that he could make his mind easy on this point and reckon on my silence. “Well, it is just this” he began : “I am in a fix, and I want to borrow five hundred francs (£20), and unless I get the money within a fortnight I shall be a disgraced man. You know how strict the Colonel is, and how severely he punishes non-commissioned officers who are in debt. Now don’t you know someone who would lend me the money?”
I replied that I was not acquainted with money-lenders, but that in any case I was quite certain that none of the fraternity would advance him the money unless he could give some substantial security.
“I could give my pay” he replied ; “wouldn’t that be sufficient security?” I fairly laughed in his face. “Your pay” I said ; “why, it does not amount to twenty pounds a year ; that would be no security at all”
The man must have been in a fix indeed, for he grew pale and trembled visibly. Once more he told me that unless he had the money his creditor would apply to the Colonel, and that would mean the ruin of his military career. “I tell you what” I then said ; “why should you go to money-lenders? Let me lend you the money, and you can repay me whenever you like” He protested that he could not possibly accept money from me, but I assured him that I could well afford it, and at last he said that he accepted my offer, but that he did not know how to express his gratitude. I knew perfectly well that from the outset he had meant to get the money out of me, but I was not going to let him off so easily as he imagined. I therefore told him that, although I would be very glad to let him have the money, I could not give it to him in a lump sum, as my allowance was only paid to me monthly, and I added that my money being in Paris, I should have to go there to fetch it, and that, having eleven more days’ Salle de Police to undergo, should have to wait until i had finished my punishment, and until I got leave ”
“Oh” he replied, “I will arrange that for you. Today is Monday, and I’ll see that your punishment is put down as finishing on Saturday morning, and then I’ll give you leave to go to Paris from Saturday night till Monday night. You see” he went on, “I am acting as Adjudant during the whole of this week, and I need not report you missing, so nobody will be the wiser”
I thanked him, but he replied most courteously that it was from himself that the thanks were due, and he added that he was very sorry he had hitherto misunderstood me, but that in future he would be delighted to do anything he could on my behalf. I retired, feeling much pleased with myself, as i knew that in future I should have a devoted friend in my Sergeant-major, whose power was far greater than that of any of the officers of our squadron. Por instance, no officer, with the exception of the Captain commanding the squadron, would dare take upon himself to grant a trooper twenty-four hours’ leave sub rosâ, while the Sergeant-major could do this easily, merely by not reporting the trooper as missing from the calls, and even should an officer inquire where the trooper was, the Sergeant-major could always reply that he had given the man leave not to attend the “stables” which he was entitled to do ; moreover, as no officer was ever present at the night-call, the Sergeant-major could deal with that roll exactly as he liked. On the Saturday my Sergeant-major kept his promise, and told me to get dressed immediately after “stables” He advised me, however, to go to my rooms in the town to change my uniform for civilian clothes, as that week the platoon at the station was supplied by the infantry. I should explain here that soldiers on leave who are allowed to leave their garrison town are supplied with a paper stating that they are permitted to go to a specified place outside the garrison. In order to prevent soldiers leaving the garrison without leave, a non-commissioned officer is sent every Saturday and Sunday to the railway-station, and makes the soldiers show him their written leave before they are allowed to take their ticket.
When I was dressed to go out my Sergeant -major accompanied me as far as the hotel, and we had a chat while I was changing my clothes. He told me incidentally that he had re-enlisted one year before, and that he hoped to be sent to the school of Saumur within the next two years, which would enable him to become an officer in three years’ time, and he again insisted on the fact that if the Colonel found out that he was in debt he would lose all chance of going to Saumur, and might even be reduced to the rank of ordinary Sergeant. I promised faithfully that I would bring back at least 100 francs from Paris, and I then jumped into a brougham and ordered the blinds to be carefully drawn down, as the fact of being seen in civilian attire would have meant imprisonment at least. In order to avoid meeting any of my officers, I had timed myself to go by a slow train ; but before I got out of the carriage I carefully peeped round, and did not get out until I had made certain there were no cavalry officers about.
The traffic superintendent was a personal friend of my family, and he had given me a card specially recommending me to all the station masters of the line, and allowing me to use any train I chose, even goods trains. Privates are not as a rule allowed to ride in first-class carriages, and non- commissioned officers are also debarred from this privilege, so that the traffic superintendent’s card was doubly useful to me, enabling me as it did to travel by express trains which only contained first-class carriages. Upon entering the Station the Stationmaster allowed me to stop in his office until the last minute, and sent for my ticket, thus reducing the chances of detection to a minimum.
I reached Paris safely, and when I returned the next evening my Sergeant-major was waiting for me at the hotel, in order to take me back into barracks without my name being taken down by the Sergeant of the Guară, who has to report the names of all troopers who come in after evening call, the exact time at which they return being entered against their names. I told my Sergeant-major that I had been able to get 100 francs only, but that I would get a further sum if I went to Paris the following Sunday. He thanked me profusely, and told me that he would arrange that I should go to Paris on the following Saturday. It soon became an understood thing that when I wanted to go to Paris without leave, I was to ask him to arrange it for me, while on my return I duly handed him from fifty to a hundred francs.
Before my first years’ service was over the Sergeant-major had been enabled to repay considerably more than twenty pounds he owed to his obdurate creditor, but he still maintained the fiction, and whenever I handed him over the price of my journey to Paris, he thanked me warmly, invariably adding, “Ah! I am so glad, I shall be able to take that to my creditors tomorrow” In this way the Sergeant-major certainly received between fifty and sixty pounds from me in all.