Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2, Chapter 2-3

This section concludes Chapter 2. Chapter 3 will focus on Natalie.

Mourmelon-le-Grand, Champagne , France. May 4th, 1915 Orders to move the regiment to the rear had come in the last week of March. It had been a journey of only fifteen kilometers, a morning’s easy march, to the town of Mourmelon le Grand and the nearby military Camp de Châlons.

The camp had hosted soldiers since Napoleon’s time, and even during the long years of peace had been the site of annual maneuvers. There were rows of large canvas tents where the men had cots to sleep on. As an officer, Henri received a room in the officer’s barracks building. It was small and bare, but it did at least offer a small degree of privacy: a door that he could shut, a window looking out on the dusty street where men marched by at all hours, a bed with a thin mattress, and a small bureau on which he put his photograph of Philomene and the children.

When a town of five thousand is host to an army division three times that size, the needs and wants of the soldiers shape the character of the town. Mourmelon le Grand offered more than the usual small town’s share of bars and brothels. There was even a makeshift theater for watching moving pictures. Soldiers crowding into its chairs could watch by the flickering light of the projector as Inspector Juve pursued Fantômas, the criminal master of disguise, through the streets of their native Paris.

Fewer of the soldiers frequented the church, even during Easter week, which came just after the 4th Division settled in the camp. Attending Easter mass, Henri found himself surround primarily by the women, children, and old people of the town itself. Little girls were in their bright dresses. Several of the boys were wearing miniature uniforms in honor of absent fathers. Too many of the women were dressed in black. Watching these familial scenes was enough to recall Easters of years past, of Philomene putting the children into their best clothes for church, of the rich loaf of brioche for breakfast and the roasted lamb and potatoes for dinner. There were no such comforts in the officers’ mess that night, though there was wine and gin in copious amounts to make up for the everyday nature of the fare. Though few soldiers from the company had appeared in the church on Saturday night, so many were absent from muster on Monday morning as they slept off the effects of the night before that the senior sergeant set the men to cleaning latrines on Tuesday as a penance for failure in devotion to the military laws.

After this initial disruption the division settled into the routine of life behind the lines. The company drilled. They performed fatigue duty. They took long marches to keep the men fit. The mess kitchens served out three times a day food that was monotonous but nonetheless healthy and filling. Wounds, physical and mental, had time to heal, and men who had become thin and sallow during days when all too often hot food could not be brought to the front line trenches due to artillery fire or supply problems gradually regained their health.

With this safety and health, however, came certain discontents. It was nine months since the men had been called up to active duty, and most had received no leave during that time. Despite the drills and training, camp life was incapable of filling all the hours of the day. Different men sought to fill their remaining time in different ways.

The town’s bars were always full, and the number of men under disciplinary action for public drunkenness and for the fights which went with it gradually grew. Such sprees were, at least, fairly quick to recover from. More concerning to the medical section were the number of men being hospitalized for venereal diseases. While the brothels were of at most dubious legality, the army had acknowledged them sufficiently to conduct regular inspections of the women in them in an attempt to control the spread of infection. Yet in the crowded conditions of town and camp, this was not enough to avoid difficulties. When one of the prostitutes became ill, more than two dozen soldiers from the division ended up in the hospital even though she has removed from work as soon as symptoms appeared.

The fate of soldiers injured at the front was uncertain, however much the nation spoke of the field of honor. The pensions that existed for men disabled by the ravages of war were as yet insufficient to keep men off the streets, the rates having been set according to the cost of living during the last war, forty years ago. Everyone agreed, at least, that these conditions would be improved as soon as the Republic had sufficient time to consider the matter. But if the men used up by the war had little recourse, the women used up by those men had none. Those who provided lonely (or simply lustful) soldiers with a solace of companionship for pay were already on the lowest step of society’s ladder. Should they become infected and rejected from the purpose to which they had been relegated, they no had fallback other than begging.

For all these reasons, it seemed best to wink at those instances where soldiers’ women from back home came to stay, forbidden though such visits technically were by military regulations. Not a day passed but Henri and the other company commanders received some report of a soldier’s wife being found in the barracks or a man slipping out of camp at night to visit a woman staying in one of the town’s boarding houses.

Nonetheless, this latest seemed to go too far.

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