Saturday, January 19, 2008

Doughboys and Refugees

When the thousands of American soldiers entering the Marne Salient of 1918 met an almost overwhelming number of pitiful French refugees coming out of the salient and ahead of the advancing German Army, their will to defeat the Germans was reinforced and steeled. Many a Doughboy either said to himself or aloud, "This country and its people are worth fighting for," or "I hate the Germans for what they are doing to these poor people."

To give you, the reader, a feeling for what took place behind the battle lines in June of 1918, the following quotation from the AEF newspaper, Stars and Stripes, 1918, tells it all:

"Refugees flocking to the rear
A drama poignant with tragedy, is being enacted in the theater of war behind the lines toward which the two American divisions are advancing. For, upon every road and by-path leading out of the Marne salient, including those you will travel going toward the battlefields, weaving their way through the traffic of transport and soldiers going to the front, are war's victims, the refugees, streaming to the rear,—old men and young, decrepit or crippled; women of all ages, and little children, the flotsam and jetsam of war, forced from their homes by the rising tide of battle.

Nondescript Transport and Loads
In contrast to the spick-and-span business-like aspect of military transport, the means employed by the refugees to aid them in their flight present a bewildering and nondescript variety of vehicles drawn by jaded horses, mules and oxen, with an intermingling of carts, varying in size, pulled by donkeys, goats and dogs. Lacking animal friends to aid them, men and women tug at the traces of wagons or push baby carriages and wheelbarrows along; while others, with no means of transport save their own poor bodies, struggle wearily on afoot, burdened to the limit of their strength. Loaded down with whatever they were able to rescue,—bits of furniture, bundles of clothing and food, bottles and casks of wine, chickens, canary birds in cages, kittens and puppies, etc.,— the burdens carried by the refugees present an equally bewildering and nondescript variety of prized possessions, making a picture that lends a touch of the grotesque and humorous to the tragic drama of people thrust from their homes in flight before the enemy.

They play the game in good part
Lest they interfere with the imperative business of rushing men, guns, ammunition and supplies to the front, the flow of refugees to the rear is frequently halted or diverted into fields to relieve congestion and blockades in traffic on the roads and by-paths, but all of them,—old and young,—play the game of war in good part, obeying orders quickly, with sighs of resignation, with tears or smiles and laughter.

It is an indescribable drama in which these refugees play their parts, one that the imagination, with the aid of these word, must visualize. With minds and hearts already filled with fear and hatred of the enemy and preyed upon by wild rumors of impending disaster at the front, fact and fiction inextricably mingled, without the links of truth and reason to connect the twain, they cry."
"Our poor Poilus are falling back! Ah, Messieurs, hundreds, nay thousands, have fallen! And the Boches come on! We cannot stop them! Oui, oui, it is true. Messieurs! You can hear Mademoiselle Bertha even now bombarding Paris! Hundreds of thousands are leaving the city and the Capital will fall! Our country is lost!"

Military policemen, regulating traffic at cross-roads, aid them and seek to reassure them in their flight, but rumor, gathering speed and substance on the wings of fancy, had terrified them beyond reason and understanding. Some among them, too old to care, burdened too long with Life's sorrows, are indifferent to further blows from Fate. For them the end has come or will soon come, please God!

"C'est la guerre, Messieurs!—and we are old."

The Indomitable Soul of France is Reflected
In spite of the tragedy that weighs so heavily upon their elders, the younger people, boys and girls and young women, though they have suffered, reflect, by word and deed, the indomitable soul of France and with cheerfulness of spirit and courage of heart, laugh at their troubles.
Ah, la, la! Why so glum and fearful, Mes Vieux? Did not Papa Joffre stop the Boches once before? Foch will do likewise, never fear. Oui, oui! Our Poilus may be falling back, but it is only to make a stand and stop the Germans. Soon les Américains will come to help them and together they will drive the Boches from France!

And thus does youth, with its hope and confidence, seek to comfort and reassure old age and put to shame hysterical and garrulous middle age.

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