Trooper 3809 – Part 4

At the end of about three weeks the Colonel decided to form the Volontaires into a separate peloton, as, according to the usual custom, they had to follow a special course of instruction besides learning the ordinary regimental duties of a trooper. A Sergeant, assisted by a Corporal, was put in charge of us under a Captain selected to supervise our instruction. Sergeant Legros, who was placed in command of the Volontaires, was well known as one of the sulkiest brutes in the whole regiment. Our Captain whose name was Hermann, was the Colonel’s nephew. When this “décision” appeared in the regimental orders, read after “Stables” all the troopers had a good laugh at us. “Well, old chaps,” they said, “now you’re going to have a grand time of it. By Jove, won’t you!” 

I went to De Lanoy’s room and asked him what sort of a fellow Legros was. De Lanoy told me that he was the son of a small farmer, and was a stubborn, vindictive man, who positively enjoyed punishing his men and doing a bad turn to his fellow Sergeants whenever he got a chance. This picture, indeed, was but too accurately drawn. Our Captain was in command of my own squadron, and I had already had a specimen of his manners when. I went before him to try on my clothes. rough and abrupt manners, I must concede that he was a gentleman ; but, unfortunately, for the future he scarcely ever came to see us, and left to the Sergeant the entire control of the Volontaires, merely signing the daily reports drawn up by Legros. The following day the Colonel paid one of his rare visits to the barracks, and had the Volontaires mustered in the riding-school. We waited there for him for more than an hour. When he appeared he walked past us, surveying each one of us with a disgusted look on his face. He was a harsh, stout, sulky looking officer. For a few minutes he walked up and down in front of us, talking with our Captain and striking his boot with his riding-stick. Then, suddenly turning towards us with one hand in his pocket and the other on the handle of his riding-whip, which was stuck under his arm, he addressed us. 

“So” he said, “you’re the Volontaires who have been sent to demoralise my regiment. Well, there are a few things I want you to remember ; you are serving five times less than other troopers ; you will therefore have five times more work, five times more punishments, and five times less leave than the rest” Then turning towards the non-commissioned officer : “Dismiss your men” he said, and at the same time he walked away with our Captain. Before dismissing us our Sergeant also thought fit to address us : “You are now going to be under my orders” he began, “and you may have been told that the Volontaires who served last year had a good time of it, but if you think that you are going to be treated as they were, you are jolly wełl mistaken. I mean to make you work, and to make you work hard too. There are a few hard-mouthed ones among you. I with use the curb with them so as to soon break them in” 

With these words he dismissed us. As we were running off to the canteen. he recalled us. “At eleven o’clock” he said, ” you will have to be at the gymnasium without arms” So saying, he dismissed us once more. It was then a quarter to eleven, so we hardly had any time for our food. At eleven o’clock sharp we were all standing where he had ordered us, and the Corporal, having dressed us in a single file, stood grumbling at not having had time for his meal. It was raining hard, and as the Sergeant had not appeared at the end of a quarter of an hour, the Corporal took us inside one of the stables. Nearly three-quarters of an hour elapsed before Legros turned up. He marched us to a room specially reserved as a schoolroom for Voloniaires, and also used as a lecture-room for those troopers who aspired to pass the examination necessary for obtaining the rank of Corporal. At the end of the room stood a raised platform with a desk for the Sergeant, while we sat at tables, twelve to fourteen of which stood in pairs facing the Sergeant’s. Having been ordered to take our seats, we placed ourselves as we liked, all those belonging to my set selecting a table far away from the Sergeant’s desk. He began by giving us a list of books we were to purchase – viz.

1 “General Instructions as to the Service in Barracks” (Service Intérieur des Troupes de Cavalerie). 

2. “Cavalry Drill Regulations”(Réglement sur les Exercices de la Cavalerie). 

3. “The Duties of Cavalry in the Field” (Service de la Cavalerie en Campagne) 

4. “Moral Duties of the Soldier” 

5. “Dismounted Cavalry Drill Regulations” (Réglement sur les Exercices de la Cavalerie à pied). 

Besides these there was another book, the title of which I cannot remember, and which is now out of print. This book contained most interesting information as to the composition of the French army, the details of the rations allowed to troopers, as well as the principles of topography, and many other matters of use to soldiers. The Sergeant then explained to us what our daily work would consist of. We should no longer have to groom our horses, except on Saturdays and Sundays. But this was to be our time-table 

From 6. 30 A.M. to 8 A.M. school. 

From 8 to 10 A.M. drill on foot. 

From 10 to 11  A.M. breakfast. 

From 11 to I2 school. 

From 12 to 1 P.M. gymnastics. 

From 1 to 2 P.M. voltige (circus- riding). 

From 2.30 to 5 P.M. school. 

From 5 to 6 P.M. dinner. 

From 6 to 8 P.M. mounted drill. 

As will be seen by the above, we had only two hours to ourselves during the whole day, and we had absolutely no chance of being able to leave barracks. We were to begin this programme at once, but as it was necessary that we should purchase the books of which a list had been handed over to us, the Sergeant told us that we should have no voltige that day, but that we could, instead of it, go to the town to purchase our books. We hurried to dress, and at 2.30 every one of us was once more in the schoolroom. The Sergeant, however, gave us leave to smoke during our lectures, a concession which we all greatly appreciated. We were first given to study “The Moral Duties of the Soldier:” This little book begins with an outline of the origin of the first permanent French army created by Charles VII. in 1439. It tells how this army was recruited at first on the principle that each parish had to supply one man, and how this small force continuously and rapidly grew in numbers under the following reigns : how in the time of Louis XIV. the French army already numbered 279,000 men ; how Vauban, the greatest engineer of modern times, fortified the frontiers of France, drew up new rules for carrying on the siege of fortified places, and was alleged to be the inventor of bayonets ; how Louvois, when he became Minister of War, compelled the officers to be punctual in their service, improved the armaments, erected the first barracks, established regular pay, and devised new uniforms. The book then went on to tell us that before the great Revolution of last century the active army was recruited by Recruiting Sergeants ; while the Provincial militia consisted of men called under the flag by conscription, the poorer classes alone being compelled to serve. The highest commands were granted to incapable courtiers, commissions being exclusively granted to noblemen ; corporal punishment was in force, and the condition of soldiers was a most miserable one. Thus desertions were of constant occurrence. With the Revolution came great changes ; the provincial militia was abolished and corporal punishment was suppressed, bravery and military worth entitled any citizen to reach the highest ranks ; and this enabled eminent soldiers to reveal themselves – men such as Hoche, Kléber, Desaix, Jourdan, Masséna, Lecourbe and many others, most of whom became Field-Marshals and Generals under Napoleon. 

As will be seen, the drift of all this was to try and impress our minds with the fact that we were entirely indebted for our present happy condition to the Republic. This sketch was read to us by the Sergeant, who, taking no more interest in the matter than we did, soon stopped and told us to read the remainder carefully, while he himself proceeded to enjoy a novel. The rest of the booklet contained a summary description of the various wars of the Republic, and of the First Empire, special stress being laid on the persistent antagonism of “perfidious Albion.” A brief summary of the War of ’70 was also given, concluding with these words : 

“Do not let us forget this terrible lesson ; do not let us slumber in apparent security, lest on our awakening we find the soil of France invaded by the enemy. Let us therefore adopt and put in practice this fine motto, the basis of a strong army,

“Work And Discipline”

Then came a pompous dissertation on the duties of citizens towards La Patrie, and on the duties of soldiers towards their superiors, beginning thus : 

“What is subordination and discipline?” The answer consisted of three pages of high-sounding phrases, among which I may quote the following : “Orders must be executed to the letter without hesitation or murmuring, the authority from which orders come being alone responsible for them ; the inferior has only the right to complain after he has obeyed and carried out his orders .. …unquestioning and blind obedience is absolutely necessary to enable every individual effort to work towards a common aim”

Curiously enough, duelling is officially countenanced in these regulations, which are still in force : “If a soldier has been gravely insulted by one of his comrades, and the insult has taken place in public, he must not hesitate to claim reparation for it by a duel. He should address his demand to his Captain, who should transmit it to the Colonel but it must not be forgotten that duels must be the exception, and that a good soldier ought to avoid quarrels” The passage relating to cleanliness is rather interesting: “Troopers are sent to the swimming-baths in the summer, and are allowed to have tepid baths in winter, in order to scrape off the deposit formed on the surface of the body by perspiration and dirt (sic)” I must add that, as in many other cases, theory and practice differ vastly, for in my time there existed but one dilapidated bath in the whole of our barracks, where 1600 men were quartered. No appliance for admitting hot water into the bath existed, so that, when it had to be used for a sick man, hot water had to be carried from the nearest kitchen 300 yards away I need dwell no longer on this little book, evidently written with the best intentions, but entirely ignored by every French soldier. 

At the end of an hour or so the Sergeant closed his novel, and told us to learn by heart two pages of the regulations dealing with drill on foot. In order to show how narrow-minded Sergeant Legros was, I must mention that he expected us to learn verbatim every single sentence of those regulations. So far as I am concerned (and I am not the only one who suffers from this defect in memory), I am totally unable to learn anything verbatim, so that, when an hour later, the Sergeant called upon me to recite what I had learnt, instead of reciting the following : “At the command of Cavalerie en Avant- Marche,’ the trooper places the whole weight of his body on his right foot, after which he. .” &c. &c. I recited, “At the command of “Cavalerie en Avant–Marche,’ the trooper puts the whole weight of his body on his right foot and then. .” &c. &c. The Sergeant stopped me : “You blockhead” he exclaimed, “what the deuce is that you are reciting?”

“What you gave us to learn, Sergeant.” 

What I gave you to learn! Go and look at your regulations, and you’ll see if it’s right, and as you can’t learn the thing in an hour, you will be confined to barracks next Sunday, and that will give you plenty of time to ponder over it.” 

In everything we were given to learn it was always thus. Legros cared little or nothing whether we understood what we learnt or not, but he attached the greatest importance to our repeating it verbatim, notwithstanding the fact that he was himself unable to do so. Even when we had to learn the principles of surveying, he expected us to know word for word every explanation given in the book. Later on, before we were dismissed, the Sergeant called me up once more, and finding that this time I could answer his question to his satisfaction, he cancelled my punishment, telling me, however, that he would deprive me of the right of applying for leave on the following Sunday. 

As the routine of our daily work made it impossible for us to dine out in future, we made an arrangement with the canteen-keeper, who agreed to supply us with board at the rate of £5 a month, and henceforth a table was permanently reserved in the canteen for us. 

We had been more than two hours in the schoolroom, and it was with real relief that we heard the trumpeter’s call of “Soup” (dinner). Before dismissing us from school, however, the Sergeant read us the regimental orders for the day, which contained a reference to ourselves. “The Volontaires” said the Colonel, “are warned that they are, under no circumstances, to ask for another troopers help, either to clean their outfits, or their arms, or to get their horses saddled. Any Volontaire receiving assistance from another trooper will have eight days’ Salle de Police, and the trooper who has helped him will receive a similar punishment” 

“Now you’re warned” commented the Sergeant, “and although I have no right to interfere with those who don’t belong to my squadron, I’ll see about those among you who are in it, and I’Il take jolly good care that the Colonel’s orders are strictly carried out” 

Here was a nice state of affairs! We had but two hours to ourselves every day, and we were expected, not only to take our meals during that time, but also to do work for which an ordinary well-trained trooper was supposed to require three to four hours of steady application! That we could carry out the Colonel’s orders was physically impossible, and the only result was that the two men who looked after our things insisted upon getting two francs more a week, as a compensation for the risk of punishment to which they were exposed. 

That evening we had our first mounted drill in the riding-school under our new Sergeant, and we were able to realise what a bully the man was. He frequently kept us trotting without rest for a quarter of an hour at a time, though it may be remembered that we had no stirrups, and riding as we did on hard saddles with coarse trousers was a terrible strain on most fellows who had very little previous training on horseback. It was then that I appreciated the precaution I had taken of donning doe-skin riding breeches under my trousers. One of my comrades fainted from sheer exhaustion, while three others dropped off their horses, but every one of them was immediately ordered to remount, and the trotting went on for fully five minutes longer. When our Sergeant commanded a halt and let us dismount for a few minutes’ rest, some of my comrades sat on the ground, completely exhausted ; they were coarsely rebuked, and ordered to stand up at once, the Sergeant commanding “Attention!” 

“There’s a fine lot of troopers” he said, “who can’t even stick on a horse and trot round a riding-school without coming a cropper! Now I warn you that, if one of you falls off again, I’ll keep you on the trot until every blessed one of you drops from exhaustion – you blasted recruits!” and forthwith he gave the command to “Mount” starting us immediately at a trot. On we went round and round the riding-school, and God knows how long we should have been kept on the move had not our Captain appeared on the scene. The Sergeant’s manner altered immediately ; he made us halt and spoke gently, carefully explaining to each one of us the right position on horse-back, and while the Captain was there, never kept us trotting or cantering for more than a couple of minutes at a time. During one of the rests the Captain said that he could not congratulate us, as a body, on our riding; “Out of fourteen of you” he said, “there are not five who understand a horse, and I see but three who can really ride” I am glad to say that I was among the three that he pointed out with his whip. How one of the Volontaires could ever have been foolish enough to join a cavalry regiment passes my comprehension ; the poor fellow was absolutely ignorant of the first principles of riding; he was, besides, terribly afraid of horses, and never managed to get over his dread ; in fact, it was through sheer luck that he stuck on his horse for five consecutive minutes. Hardly a day passed during the first two months of his service without coming a cropper, although he was allotted the quietest horse in the regiment. 

I must mention here that our horses were changed every day, and that, besides, while we drilled in the riding-school, we were told to change horses in the middle of the lesson. The first day, I was mounted on a mare, who was the worst kicker I ever came across in my life ; she could kick so high that at times she almost stood perpendicular with her hind legs in the air, but fortunately she had a very tender mouth, so that with judgement and good handling it was easy to check her antics. When we were told to exchange horses I handed over the mare to my neighbour, the son of a farmer, who had never ridden anything but plough-horses ; the moment he got on the mare’s back she gave a tremendous kick and he was sent flying in the air, and turning a complete somersault he landed on his back. He soon got up and was ordered to mount again, but he had no sooner done so than the mare, guessing his lack of confidence, gave another furious kick, with her hind legs so straight in the air that he slipped over her head to the ground, where he sat in front of his charger. It was fortunate for him that in these two instances the animal was immediately caught by a Corporal, as that mare was such a vicious brute that she never failed, after having thrown her rider, to turn round and try to kick him. I was therefore ordered to take her back, and having asked leave to remove the rags covering my spur rowels, I was allowed to do so. As soon as I got on her back she tried her kicks once more, but I gave her such a dressing with the sharp points of my spurs, holding her head well up at the same time, that she became as quiet as a lamb for the remainder of the evening. I often rode this charger afterwards, having a particular liking for her, as she ambled easily, and one hardly moved on her back while trotting, a great boon when one has to ride without stirrups. When we were dismissed that evening several of my comrades were almost unable to walk, and one of them had his knees so terribly scraped that he was losing a large quantity of blood, and was literally leaving a red trail on the ground behind him  Notwithstanding this, he was compelled to ride the following day, as he did not wake up in time to report himself sick, and was therefore not allowed to attend the Surgeon-major’s visit.

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