I do not intend to enter into many of the details of my second year’s service, as this was a mere repetition of what I had already gone through, and I will therefore confine myself to a brief description of that portion of my adventures which may offer some special points of interest. Some time elapsed before the arrival of the new Volontaires, and during this period we had practically no work to do with the exception of “stables”
AlI the Sergeants of my squadron, and many of those belonging to other squadrons, had made friends with me, and they all pitied me for the cruel position I was placed in. Meanwhile the senior Adjudant retired with a pension, and my Sergeant-major was appointed in his stead, while Sergeant fourrier Vaillant became Sergeant-major. Vaillant was a particular friend of mine, so that with his help, and the support I knew the Adjutant would give me, I hoped that if a decent Sergeant was put in charge of the Volontaires I should soon obtain my discharge. There was no chance of our being entrusted again to the tender mercies of Legros, as he had also been appointed Sergeant-major. A number of Volontaires were drafted into our regiment that year – I believe there were nearly thirty of them. Socially and intellectually they were very inferior to my previous comrades. There never existed between them that spirit of comradeship which was so great among the little set to which I belonged.
Shortly after their arrival a trooper from the first squadron came to tell me that Sergeant de Cormet wanted to speak to me, and that I was to go to his room at once. I could not imagine what he wanted with me, as I did not belong to his squadron, and I had never had anything to do with the man. I went, however, and when I reached his room I asked him whether it was true that he had sent for me.
“Yes” he said, “I want to speak to you. I heard that I am going to be put in charge of the Volontaires, and as it appears that nobody has yet been able to break you in, I merely wanted to warn you that I mean to succeed. If ordinary means are not successful, I’ll stand no nonsense, and I’Il find some way to get you. A few years in a gaol would do a lot of good to a swine of your class”
I had so far made no reply, but stood with my arms folded on my chest. My face must have expressed my stifled anger, I suppose, for when I took two steps forward the Sergeant retreated towards the window.
“Don’t be afraid” I said, “I am not going to touch you – you are not worth it ; but now that you have told me what you mean to do, I will also tell you what I mean to do. Remember this- – you may find a way to get me court-martialled,, though I doubt it, but if you do – when I come out, be it in ten years’, in ffteen years’, or even twenty years’ time – I shall kill ‘you”
“You dare to threaten me – me a Sergeant!” he said.
“Don’t get my blood up; you had better not” I replied ; “remember that there are no witnesses here, and I am a good deal stronger than you. But I think. that this conversation has lasted long enough, and I will only add a few words to what I told you before. I warned you what I would do if you got me court-martialled, but I further warn you. that if you bully, me while I am under your orders Í will punish you when I am no longer a soldier. And now that we quite understand each other I will say :Good afternoon,: only mind”,I added, “if you report me for what has taken place here I will deny everything ; you have no means of proving your word, and you would not have dared to tell me what you did in presence of witnesses”
I returned to my room fairly heart-broken at the idea that I was going to be under the orders of the most cowardly brute in the whole regiment ; I had seen the fellow at work when he was drilling the prisoners, and I knew that if I had had a bad time of it while I served under Sergeant Legros, it would be ten times worse under Sergeant de Cormet. Shortly afterwards the Volontaires and the recruits of the year arrived, and being a trooper of a year’s standing I was allotted a recruit to whom I was supposed to teach his work. I almost despaired of ever doing anything with the fellow, and in vain I tried to prevent his being bullied, but the stupid chap schemed to do all he could to invite it.
I say, “you chaps” he said to the troopers on his arrival, “I am a Parisian, you know, and I am not going to stand any nonsense. I have been in a grocer’s shop, and I am not a greenhorn. Besides, my cousin Beaujean has been in a Dragoon regiment, and he has told me all about it, so no bullying please, or else you will have to do with Jossier- – -that’s my name”
I need not say that after this little speech of his, Jossier became the butt of all the practical jokers in the room. The scenes I described at the beginning of this book were of course once more renewed, but one of the jokes which was played on my bleu (recruit) was quaint enough to be related. He was in the habit of wearing at night a bonnet de coton, similar to the head-gear which was given to us at hospital, but much more bulky. When drawn out to its full length it was fully two feet long, and when he had it on his head the peak stood some eight inches above his head, with an enormous tassel fixed on to it. One evening, after he had gone to sleep, a practical joker set the tassel alight, and being of cotton it began to burn merrily. Nearly all the men in the room collected round his bed to see the fun, and hearing a noise he sat up in bed and looked at us in a bewildered way. By this time the tassel was burnt down, and the other part of the head-gear was smouldering away.
“Well,”` he said, “you are a nice lot of fools to stand there staring round my bed like a lot of idiots. It’s very funny to look at a man, isn’t it ”
We were all laughing, as he had not yet noticed that his head-gear was on fire ; but all of a sudden his speech was interrupted, as he felt an uncomfortable heat near the crown of his head, and having impulsively put his hand to his head he realised what was the matter, and chucked away his bonnet de coton.
“Ah, you swine” he exclaimed, “I’ll teach you” and he jumped out of his bed, making a dash for us. Un-uckily for him, the first man on whom he jumped was Piatte, to whom he dealt a blow on the chest. Piatte caught hold of him by the arms and legs, and shouted,
“I say, boys, I’ve caught a flea ; let’s make it jump, Immediately a blanket was produced, and the recruit tossed up, and when they put him once more on his legs he did not complain, but quietly, sneaked into his bed.
During the fortnight which elapsed until the Volontaires were put together, I was told by my sergeant-major to drill half a dozen ‘recruits, and at the end of the week had already got more out of my recruits than any of the Corporals who were in charge of the others. The method I employed was to promise my men a bottle of wine if they drilled well, and of course they all did their utmost to gain that reward. Captain Hermann, who, as the reader will remember, was in command of our squadron, and had been in charge of the Volontaires, was evidently, pleased with me, and actually came to congratulate me: This state of affairs unfortunately lasted only for a fortnight, and at the end of that time the new Volontaives. were formed into a separate peloton, and on account of their number two officers were placed in command of them – Captain Hermana and Lieutenant Amy. Twi sergeants were also detached for this service Sergeant de Cormet and Sergeant Cordier. The latter was a personal friend of mine, and I knew that he would counteract de Cormet’s bad intentions towards me. No Corporal had yet been selected by the Colonel, and therefore when the Volontaives were assembled for the first time, I took my position to the left of the company, the Corporal’s place, which, by rights belonged to me as the senior trooper.
The previous year when we were formed into a separate peloton there was among us a Volontaire who had been detained and who belonged to the lot who had served before us, and Legros had always made him do Corporal’s duty. But evidently de Cormet did not mean to treat me in that way, for he ordered me to take my place in the ranks among the others, and he made me go through all the rudiments of the instruction, as if I had been a raw recruit. The other Sergeant treated me very differently, and when he took the service the following day he ordered me to act as Corporal. Lieutenant Amy, however, turned up in the middle of the drill and sharply reprimanded the Sergeant, ordering that I should be put through the rudiments of the drill absolutely as if I had been a raw recruit. To make things worse Sergeant Cordier was taken with typhoid fever a few days after he took charge of us, and having had a relapse during his convalescence he was sent home on six months’ sick-leave.
Early in December two Corporals were appointed to help de Cormet : one of them, Lormand, was a school-fellow of mine, who had enlisted three months before, and had just been promoted to the rank of Corporal. I had been doing work with the new Volontaires for a fortnight, and Sergeant de Cormet hadn’t yet found it possible to punish me, for Lieutenant Amy was always present when we drilled, and de Cormet himself spent very little time in the schoolroom, leaving one of the Corporals in charge of it. As, however, the previous year’s regulations as to leave were still in force, de Cormet had always refused to let me apply for leave.
A few months before, I had attained my majority, and at the beginning of December my solicitors wrote me a most urgent letter pressing me to come to Paris without delay, to settle some important matters. I showed this letter to de Cormet, but he absolutely declined to grant me leave, and the Captain to whom I then went was equally emphatic in his refusal, adding that I should only get leave for the New Year provided I was not punished in the interval. As it was most necessary that I should go to Paris that week, I went to see the Adjudant, Bernard, my former Sergeant-major, and asked him to let me go to Paris from Saturday afternoon after “stables” until Monday morning. He at once promised not to report me missing, and told me to go and settle matters with my Sergeant-major.
The latter readily acquiesced, and suggested a plan which would enable me to reach Paris before the offices were closed. “Stables” being over at 4 o’clock, I could by catching the 4. 30 train reach Paris at 5. 30, and as the offices do not close till 6 o’clock (Saturday half-holidays are unknown in France), I should be in time to transact my business. My Sergeant-major, however, remarked that if I wanted to catch the 4.30 train I would have no time to go to the hotel to change my regimentals for civilian attire, and therefore suggested that I should dress in civilian clothes in his room and leave barracks by the infantry gate.
I had made it a rule whenever I went to Paris without leave to wear over my clothes a long blue blouse falling: below the knees, with a silk cap (the costume of the lower classes in the North of France), and I also wore a false beard and blue spectacles. I donned this attire in the Sergeant-major’s room, and in order that I should have no difficulty at the gate he accompanied me there, and told the Sergeant that I was a friend of his who was in a hurry to catch his train, and I was thus allowed to pass. I reached the station only just in time, and the train was already moving so that I had to jump into the carriage nearest at hand, and received a severe shock at finding myself in company with two officers of my regiment.
Having a newspaper in my pocket, however, I opened it, and held it in front of my face. My disguise was so good that the officers had not recognised me when I jumped into the carriage, but I was afraid that they might become suspicious if I held a newspaper in front of my face during the whole journey. I therefore got out of the carriage at the following station, where I had just time to jump into a second-class compartment. Here, to my astonishment, I found my school-fellow,Corporal Lormand, also in civilian attire ; I knew that he had no leave, and as we had been great chums at school, I did not hesitate to remove my false beard and blue spectacles, which were a great discomfort to me.
“Well I never! ” exclaimed Lormand when he recognised me. “Your disguise is so good” he added, “that I should never have known you. But how is it that you are going to Paris without leave?”
“I might put the same question to yo,” I replied, “as we seem to be both in the same boat”
We chatted pleasantly until we reached Paris, where we parted company – not, however, without having arranged to lunch together the next day. I returned to my garrison town by the last Sunday train and found the Adjudant, to whom I had wired, waiting for me outside the barracks, so that I should walk in unquestioned. He told me that everything was all right, and that nobody had noticed my absence, so I went to my Sergeant-major’s room to change my clothes.
The next morning, as we were assembled for dismounted drill, de Cormet called me to him.
“You went to Paris yesterday without leave” he said.
“No, Sergeant” I replied.
“I tell you that you went to Paris yesterday without leave, and what’s more, in civilian attire”
“You are making a mistake, Sergeant” I again said.
“Didn’t you see Decle?” he then asked, turning to Corporal Lormand.
“Yes, Sergeant, I saw him” replied the latter.
“What have you to say to that?” asked de Cormet.
“Very well” he went on, “I will send you to the prison at once” ; and forthwith he had me marched off by the Corporal of the Guard. I need not say that Sergeant de Cormet had absolutely no right to send me to prison, but knowing that the Captain would always endorse whatever he did, he never hesitated to give us punishments far in excess of those.
At breakfast time, after he had dismissed the Volontaires, he came to the prison, where he found me alone.
“Now I have come to speak to you, Decle” he said. “I have not yet reported the matter either to the Lieutenant or to the Captain, and if you will tell me the truth promise you that you shall not be punished. I am fully aware that you went to Paris. in civilian attire, with leave from your Sergeant-major, and I believe with the `Adjutants knowledge, but we shall leave the latter out of the question. Now if you will make a declaration in front of the Captain and another witness, saying that you have been to Paris with leave from your Sergeant-major, you shall not be punished”
Will you allow me to think over your offer, Sergeant?” I asked. “Yes” he said ; “I will release you now, and give you till eleven o’clock to make up your mind. You will then come to my room and tell me what you have decided”
I was accordingly let out of prison, and I pretended to go to my room, but the moment de Cormet had disappeared I rushed to the Adjutant’s room and told him what had happened.
“What do you mean to do?” he asked me.
I replied: “You need not put such a question to me. You ought to know that I would rather, get sixty days’ prison than give you and my sergeant-major away, what we must do is discuss the matter with the sergeant-major so that he may be fully aware of what I mean to say, and act accordingly. The Adjutant dispatched a trooper to call the sergeant-major. When the latter turned up he was greatly concerned to hear what had happened, but I assured him that he need have no fear, and explained my plan to him.
I would say that I left barracks on the Saturday evening after arranging my bed so that it appeared as if I were sleeping in it when the Sergeant of the Week passed through the room to call the evening roll. I would also say that the Sergeant-major gave me leave not to attend stables on the Sunday (which he had a perfect right to do), and that I returned to barracks on Sunday night by getting over the wall. I would also explain that I was not reported missing at the Sunday evening roll-call, one of my comrades having prepared my bed as I had on the previous night, so that the Sergeant of the Week did not notice my absence.
Sergeant- major Vaillant remarked that if I told that story I should be punished – with special severity, but I said I did not mind in the least so long as I did not get him into trouble. He thanked me profusely.
“In the state of mind the Colonel is in,” he added, “if he found out that I had given you leave he would be certain to reduce me in rank” The Adjudant remarked that de Cormet’s motive was plain, for being first on the list of the Sergeants proposed for promotion to Sergeant-major’s rank, he wanted to avail himself of the chance of getting Vaillant reduced to secure his place.
At eleven o’clock sharp I went to de Cormet’s room and found him in the most amiable frame of mind.
“Well” he said, “I suppose that you have made up your mind to tell the whole truth?”
“Certainly, Sergeant,” I replied ; “I see no good in shrinking from it, and I will tell you exactly what happened” I then told him the story I had concocted with the Sergeant-major and the Adjudant.
“You are telling me lies” he angrily exclaimed. “I can’t understand your doing your best to get an exemplary punishment when you can so easily get off scot-free. Why don’t you confess purely and simply that you had your leave from your Sergeant-major? ”
“I will tell you why, Sergeant” I then replied, “and the best of reasons is that I had not his leave, and as there are no witnesses here, you can’t use what I am saying. You want me to accuse my Sergeant-major so as to get him reduced in rank, because you hope to be appointed in his stead. None but a man as mean as you are would try that sort of game. You can do what you like, but I shall merely repeat what I told you just now, and I once more want you to understand that I had no leave whatsoever, and that my Sergeant- major knew nothing about my going to Paris. Now do your worst”
“Oh” he said, “I wanted to do you a good turn, and that’s how you take it. You will see what it will cost you ! I shall report the matter at once to the Captain”
He was as good as his word, and in the afternoon the Captain turned up at the barracks, and sent for me.
“Decle” he said, “when you were doing your work with the squadron, I thought that you were really trying to turn over a new leaf. I find, however, that, on the contrary, you are doing your best to get yourself sent to Biribi. What is the meaning of this story that I hear from de Cormet about your having gone to Paris in ridiculous civilian attire, and with the complicity of your Sergeant-major? I have spoken to the latter, who is naturally, most indignant, and I am not sure that I shall not have you court-martialed for having basely made a false accusation against one of your superiors.
“I have not accused my Sergeant-major, sir”, I indignantly replied, “though I was asked to do so by the Sergeants”
“No further accusations” interrupted the Captain
“Sir” I continued “I do not know what Sergeant de Cormet may have told you; but, if you will allow me, I will repeat to you. what I told him, and freely confess all that I have done”
I thereupon once more repeated the story we had concocted.
“But” cried the Captain, “Sergeant de Cormet distinctly told me that you had tried to exculpate yourself by asserting that you went to Paris with your Sergeant- major’s leave”
“I’llI swear to you upon my honour that I never said so, sir!” I replied.
The Captain then sent for de Cormet, and told him that I denied having tried to excuse myself by alleging that I had permission from the Sergeant-major.
“Didn’t you tell me” said de Cormet, “that you were not reported missing on the Sunday because you had leave from your Sergeant-major? ”
“Certainly” replied ; “I was excused by him from attending stables, but I distinctly told you that I had no other leave : you know it quite well, Sergeant, as you- “
“Oh,” quickly interrupted de Cormet, addressing the Captain, “I suppose, sir, that I misunderstood what Decle told me.
“But didn’t he tell you” replied the Captain, “how he deceived the Sergeant of the Week by making a sham figure in his bed?”
“Yes, sir, I remember now,” said de Cormet quietly.
“I am afraid that you were too kind to Decle,* said the Captain, “and that you wanted to save him from a severe punishment, and it did not strike you that if I had found out that Sergeant-major Vaillant had given him leave I would unhesitatingly have asked the Colonel to reduce him to the rank of Sergeant. As to Decle, I will begin by giving him four days’ prison, and I will draw up a report at once, which you will take the Colonel”
I had to hand the whole of my kit to the Sergeant fourrier, and was then led to the prison. The Adjutant came to inform me, later on, that the Colonel had altered my punishment to eight days’ prison and eight days’ cells in solitary confinement. All punishments have to be accompanied by an explanation, showing the reasons why the punishment has been inflicted, and in all cases involving prison the punishment has to be reported to the Major- general in command of the brigade to which the regiment.
Here are the reasons for my punishment as they appeared in the Regimental Orders of the day :
“The trooper Decle” said the Colonel in the Regimental Orders, “will be punished with eight days’ prison, and eight days’ cells, for having infamously deceived the Sergeant of the Week by making a dummy in his bed, for having gone to Paris without leave in civilian clothes and in disguise – and notwithstanding the orders previously issued applied to his Sergeant -major for leave not to attend stables instead of demanding such leave from the Sergeant in charge of the Volontaires for having further deceived the Sergeant of the Week in getting another trooper to make, a dummy in his bed, and for having returned to barracks over the wall. This trooper is warned that unless he amends soon his conduct the Colonel will be under the painful necessity of sending him before a Conseil de discipline”
When the Adjutant came. to communicate this order to me he promised that he would not let me be put in solitary confinement, but that I should spend the fortnight over which my punishment extended in the common prison. He also promised to give orders that a steak should be brought to me from the canteen and. placed on the top of my daily rations. He added that as he was being retired from duty that day he would recommend me to the other Ajudants. The worst consequence of the punishment I had just received was that it prevented me from entertaining any hope of being released from active military service after the first examination of the and I knew that in future I should be treated even more harshly than before.
I was chiefly indignant with Corporal Lormand. To think that a schoolfellow of mine, who professed to be my friend, who had accepted luncheon from me the previous day, could have been mean enough to denounce me. To think that, although he had gone to Paris without leave, in civilian attire, like myself, he was not punished, but congratulated by the Captain for having “given me away” All this made me ask myself whether such a thing as common justice existed in the French Army.
I have seen a great deal of the world since. Years have elapsed since all this happened, but from all I have heard from young fellows who have served their time but recently, the system is still just the same. The bullying of privates by Corporals and Sergeants is as bad as in my time, the officers are jealous of each other, and, instead of encouraging privates so as to make them love their métier, they plot and scheme to get promotion, while the Corporals and Sergeants chiefly strive to find or manu-facture defaulters, well knowing that by so doing they will attract their chiefs’ attention, and thus get advancement.