Chapter V. Paris Again - And Bordeaux: Journal of a Flight from a London Fogs
The imperfections of the French army sanitary service, the censorship, and the demoralization of the postal service since the war have been favorite targets recently. There has been much complaint of the difficulty of getting news from men at the front. M. Viviani, the premier, in an address at Reims, ventured to say that it was his duty to "organize, administer, and intensify the national defense." On this innocent phrase the eye of M. Clemenceau fell the other day, and he now flings off a characteristic three-and-a-half-column front-page salvo so adroitly combining the premier's remark with the actual, pitiful facts that the reader almost feels that "intensifying" the suffering of parents and friends of men fighting for their country is something in which the present government takes delight.
I wish there was space to quote the editorial. I may, at any rate, quote from one or two of the letters written to M. Clemenceau, to suggest a stay-at-home aspect of the war of which we do not hear much. This is from the mayor of Pont-en-Royans:
"Officially," he writes, "on September 29 I was asked to notify the family of the soldier Regnier of his death. In the midst of their cries and tears, the family showed me the last letter, received that very morning, and dated the 27th September, two days before. Now, the notice of his death was dated September 7, and I said to the father:
"'I would not give you too much hope; your son probably died the 27th, suddenly, perhaps, and the secretary charged with writing the letter I have received forgot a figure - instead of 27 he put 7. Meanwhile, as a doubt exists, I will do what I can to clear the matter up.'
"The Administrative Counsel replied to me: 'There has been no error. The notice of decease is dated September 27. If, then, the soldier wrote the 27th, he is not dead. We shall inform the ministry, and you, on your side, should write to the hospital where he is being treated.'
"I wrote to the chief doctor at Besancon. No response. I sent him a telegram with the reply prepaid. No response. I wrote him a third letter, this time a trifle sarcastic. I received finally a despatch: 'Regnier is not known at this hospital.'
"I still had the telegram in my hand when to my house came the sister of the dead soldier, in mourning, and beaming, and gave me a letter. 'It is my brother who has written us.' So there was no mistake. The dead man wrote on the 2d October.
"'Very well,' said I to the family. 'Are you sufficiently reassured now?'
"Some days after I received from the Red Cross hospital at Besancon a letter giving me news of Regnier and explaining that there were several hospitals in the town, that they had only just received my letter, etc., etc.
"I did not think more of the matter until October 23, when I received a circular from the prefecture of Isere, asking me to advise the Regnier family that the soldier Regnier, wounded, was being treated at the hospital of Besancon.
"At last I thought the affair was closed, when, to-day, October 30, I received the enclosed despatch, sent by I know not whom, informing me that the soldier Regnier is unknown in the hospital of Besancon!
"Oh, my head, my head!"
You can imagine what this slashing old privateer would do with a letter like this. The censor will not permit him to make any comment. Very well - he wishes to make none. "You see, Mr. Viviani, it isn't one of those execrable parliamentarians who makes these complaints. It is a mayor, a humble mayor, officially designated by you to transmit to his people the striking results of your 'organization,' of your 'administration,' of your 'intensification' in the cruelly delicate matter of giving news to families. He supplies the picture, and you see in plain daylight your 'intensification' at work. What do you think of it? What can you say about it? Do you believe that because you have given to your censor the right - pardon me, the power - to make white spaces in the columns of newspapers that that is going to suppress the fact? Do you believe," etc., etc.
In the same editorial was a letter from a father whose two sons, on the firing-line, had received none of the family letters since the beginning of the war and wrote pathetically asking if their parents and little sister were ill, or how they had offended. A wife enclosed a letter from her husband, telling how he was suffering from the cold because of insufficient clothing; a doctor wrote protesting because there was not a single bottle of antitetanic serum in his field-hospital.
We found M. Clemenceau in his lodgings late one afternoon - a leonine old gentleman bundled up in cap and overcoat before a little grate fire, while a secretary ran through the big heap of letters piled on the bed. In the corner of the room was a roll-top desk - the sanctum, evidently, of The Chained Man.
As M. Clemenceau was insistent that he should not be interviewed, I may not repeat the exceedingly lively talk on all sorts of people and things with which he regaled us once - and it didn't take long - he "got going."
One purely personal little bit of information may be passed on, however, in the hope that it may be as interesting to other practitioners of a laborious trade as it was to me.
We were talking of the facility with which he reeled off, day after day, columns of lively, finished prose, and I asked whether he wrote in longhand, dictated, or used a typewriter.
This question seemed to amuse and interest the old war-horse greatly. He went to his desk and brought back a sheet of paper, half of which was covered with a small, firm handwriting. It was his next day's broadside, not yet finished.