The women of France

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.



Filed under History, Literature

63 responses to “The women of France

  1. Nice piece. Our elders didn’t like telling the stories of war times. Once President Gül said that, referring the Armenian misfortune, we have a lot of scars on our side, but we chose to forget and forgive. I think this is what kept our elders silent.

  2. I must admit I was wary when I read the title. 😛

  3. Rainer the cabbie

    Typical, she came to his rescue with a stick so he could sink his teeth into an apple. 🙂

  4. The paternal Grandfather of Ron Broxted was there. But what of Belgian women, Brendan? Or are you tacitly racist?

  5. You are entirely welcome to make a case for the outstanding qualities of Belgian women, chocolate, etc., RB.

  6. Met some fit ones when I was at Ypres (as I am sure my Grandfather did). Must get DNA tests of red heads in Flanders;)

  7. I don’t know whether any of my relatives fought in WW1 … I suspect that a few of these were related to me.

  8. Poignant list. Land fit for heroes? Still waiting.

  9. Ike Jakson

    When I first saw the headline I decided to stay out of this one though the dialogue had attracted me and I popped in by chance this time.

    The dialogue is good [I love books with lots of dialogue] and the subject is not as frightening as implied in the headline; when I read on and saw who were bantering with each other I lost my initial fears and here I am.

    Ron, stories of women and apples could mean danger though the people in Georgia [the peach State of America] are convinced that it was a peach and not an apple that caused all the trouble. And don’t get to close to Belgium because then you are just about in Holland; them girls are something that I do know something about.

    But you don’t ask, and I don’t tell.

    Hi Levent. Hi Brendan and Rainer. Don’t tell anyone that I have been around. But it is a nice story anyway.

  10. I suppose I should know a little about French women since my great-grandfather, who served on the Western Front and won the Military Cross for his conduct during the Battle of Passchendale, married one. 🙂

  11. Don’t you think I know that also? In fact you may recall the title of one of my early blogs on My T. :-))

  12. I was just talking, Ana, not trying to enlighten you.

    Yes, I do now. 🙂

  13. Yes, I know that too, Brendano, but you should never discount the slight undercurrent of sardonic humour in the way I express myself. 🙂

  14. Will try to remember. 🙂

  15. FitzGeralds, how Irish are they? Not very, nouveau arrivistes dating from only 1169.

  16. Cymbeline

    McGill, or MacGill?

    Interesting how, in the direct speech, he tries to transcribe the Cockney soldier’s accent, but not his own.

  17. Thanks, Cymbeline … careless of me, and now corrected.

    Re the accent, yes, I suppose so, but our accents sound ‘normal’ to ourselves. He would have spoken with a Donegal accent, which is quite distinctive, but he wouldn’t have, for example, messed about with his aitches … the accent would have been mainly in the intonation as opposed to the form of the words.

    Correct me if I’m wrong.

  18. Cymbeline

    Wouldn’t there have been a rhotic ‘r’ for example? And say, ‘side’ as ‘soide’?

  19. Probably not ‘soide’ in Donegal. Accents within Ireland are very diverse … at least as diverse as between Ireland and Wales, say.

    As for the rhotic ‘r’, to me it just seems that the Irish and Americans, for example, pronounce ‘r’ as (and if) it appears in the word, whereas the non-rhotic English often insert an ‘r’ sound where it doesn’t appear (‘drawer’ instead of ‘draw’) and omit it where it does (‘island’ instead of Ireland). 🙂

  20. This Wikpedia article points out that some English accents are rhotic, as I had noticed before.

  21. Cymbeline

    I simply pointed out what I found interesting in the direct speech, Brendano.

  22. Cymbeline

    And I believe that even Cockneys learn how to write ‘house’, ‘hill’, ‘however’, Hackney’ – ‘owever strange that may seem.

  23. Cymbeline

    I also notice that the Frenchwoman speaks completely accentless English. Perfect RP English. She does not mess around with HER aitches, and does not have any non-standard English speech patterns.

  24. Yes, but if you watch East Enders (which I very rarely do) you will notice that people say an ‘and rather than a hand.

    Should a hand be given in written direct speech?

    One thing I notice about the ‘Irish jokes’ on MyT is that Irish speech is reported as it is supposedly spoken, whereas English speech is not. Same kind of thing, I suppose.

  25. Cymbeline

    The way Irish speech is reported on MyT is a way of making the Irishman seem like a simpleton. MacGill is doing the same sort of thing to the Cockney soldier.

  26. Cymbeline

    In conclusion, I would venture that MacGill is trying to put himself across as an educated Englishman.

    • I think if you read his books, particularly Children of the Dead End, an account of navvying life, you would see it differently.

      • Cymbeline

        I am speaking of what I see in this excerpt.

        Because of our earlier conversations, I know that MacGill is known as the ‘navvy poet’, and I know that he came from a humble background in Ireland.

        This is why I was particularly struck by his ‘educated English chap’ linguistic persona here.

        Perhaps he had a particular sort of reader in mind.


  27. Some Irish novelists gave working-class Irish speech phonetically .. Maria Edgeworth in Castle Rackrent, for example.

    I have a novel called The Nowlans by John Banim (1826). Sample:

    Avoch, there ‘ud be open skhandal to go an’ put it on, the one day with the other ould duds, sure the rest iv us ‘ud be jealous wid our back; and so, waitin’ for such time as we’d have the loock to make off a middle-aged breeches, an’ dacent covering to match, we hung id up by the nape o’ the neck, so we did.

  28. In Donegal speak it would be Saaaayyyde. Bit like Belfast. The cockney L is like Polish “w”.

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