This is an extract from Patrick MacGill’s First World War memoir, The Red Horizon.
“… Oh! ‘ang it, Pat, they’re nothin’ to the French girls, them birds at ’ome.”
“What about that girl you knew at St. Albans?” I asked. “You remember how she slid down the banisters and made toffee.”
“She wasn’t no class, you know,” said Bill.
“She never answered the verse you sent from Givenchy, I suppose,” I remarked.
“It’s not that—-”
“Did she answer your letter saying she reciprocated your sentiments?” I asked.
“Reshiperate your grandmother, Pat!” roared Bill. “Nark that language, I say. Speak that I can understand you. Wait a minute till I reshiperate that,” he suddenly exclaimed pressing a charge into his rifle magazine and curving over the parapet. He sent five shots in the direction from which he supposed the sniper who had been potting at us all day, was firing. Then he returned to his argument.
“You’ve seen that bird at the farm in Mazingarbe?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “Pryor said that her ankles were abnormally thick.”
“Pryor’s a fool,” Bill exclaimed.
“But they really looked thick —-”
“You’re a bigger fool than ‘im!”
“I didn’t know you had fallen in love with the girl,” I said “How did it happen?”
“Blimey, I’m not in love,” said my mate, “but I like a girl with a good ’eart. Twas out in the horchard in the farm I first met ’er. I was out pullin’ apples, pinchin’ them if you like to say so, and I was shakin’ the apples from the branches. I had to keep my eyes on the farm to see that nobody seen me while I shook. It takes a devil of a lot of strength to rumble apples off a tree when you’re shakin’ a trunk that’s stouter than the bread basket of a Bow butcher. All at once I saw the girl of the farm comin’ runnin’ at me with a stick. Round to the other side of the tree I ran like lightnin’, and after me she comes. Then round to the other side went I—-”
“Which side?” I asked.
“The side she wasn’t on,” said Bill. “After me she came and round to her side I ’opped —-”
“Who was on the other side now?” I inquired.
“I took good care that she was always on the other side until I saw what she was up to with the stick,” said Bill. “But d’yer know what the stick was for? ’Twas to help me to bring down the apples. Savve. They’re great women, the women of France,” concluded my mate.
The women of France! what heroism and fortitude animates them in every shell-shattered village from Souchez to the sea! What labours they do in the fields between the foothills of the Pyrenees and the Church of —-, where the woman nearest the German lines sells rum under the ruined altar! The plough and sickle are symbols of peace and power in the hands of the women of France in a land where men destroy and women build. The young girls of the hundred and one villages which fringe the line of destruction, proceed with their day’s work under shell fire, calm as if death did not wait ready to pounce on them at every corner.
I have seen a woman in one place take her white horse from the pasture when shells were falling in the field and lead the animal out again when the row was over; two of her neighbours were killed in the same field the day before. One of our men spoke to her and pointed out that the action was fraught with danger. “I am convinced of that,” she replied. “It is madness to remain here,” she was told, and she asked “Where can I go to?” During the winter the French occupied the trenches nearer her home; her husband fought there, but the French have gone further south now and our men occupy their place in dug-out and trench but not in the woman’s heart. “The English soldiers have come and my husband had to go away,” she says. “He went south beyond Souchez, and now he’s dead.”
The woman, we learned, used to visit her husband in his dug-out and bring him coffee for breakfast and soup for dinner; this in winter when the slush in the trenches reached the waist and when soldiers were carried out daily suffering from frostbite.
A woman sells café noir near Cuinchy Brewery in a jumble of bricks that was once her home. Once it was café au lait and it cost four sous a cup, she only charges three sous now since her cow got shot in the stomach outside her ramshackle estaminet. Along with a few mates I was in the place two months ago and a bullet entered the door and smashed the coffee pot; the woman now makes coffee in a biscuit tin.
The road from our billet to the firing line is as uncomfortable as a road under shell fire can be, but what time we went that way nightly as working parties, we met scores of women carrying furniture away from a deserted village behind the trenches. The French military authorities forbade civilians to live there and drove them back to villages that were free from danger. But nightly they came back, contrary to orders, and carried away property to their temporary homes. Sometimes, I suppose they took goods that were not entirely their own, but at what risk! One or two got killed nightly and many were wounded. However, they still persisted in coming back and carrying away beds, tables, mirrors and chairs in all sorts of queer conveyances, barrows, perambulators and light spring-carts drawn by strong intelligent dogs.
“They are great women, the women of France,” as Bill Teake remarks.