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.
“I have received a letter,” said Henri, holding out the folded piece of paper to Sergeant Sellier. “It is from a Madame Marchal, on whose farm I believe your section was quartered while we were in de Perthes les Hurlus.”
The sergeant did not take the letter, but the way that he shifted his weight from one foot to the other suggested he had some idea what it said.
“Is she asking about Marthe, sir?”
“She is indeed asking about her daughter, whom she says she vanished a week ago. She seems to think that you are somehow involved in this.”
“She’s wrong there, sir. That is to say, I had nothing to do with Marthe running away from home. I was as surprised as anyone when she turned up here.”
“So you are involved. And you have this Marthe stashed away somewhere here in town?”
“Hardly stashed away, sir. She’s in a perfectly respectable boarding house. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
Henri sat back in his chair and fixed Sellier with a steady gaze until the sergeant began to shift his weight from foot to foot again.
“What is to be ashamed of is that I am having to deal with letters about the whereabouts of a woman’s sixteen year old daughter. Am I running an infantry company, Sergeant, or a school?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Sellier said, looking at the ground. “I didn’t know she was sixteen,” he added. “She looks older.”
“Yes, sir.” The sergeant held up his hands, as if cupping a large bosom.
It was impossible to resist a snort of amusement. However, it was equally impossible to allow him to simply laugh it off. “Perhaps you can help me draft the letter then, sergeant. ‘Madame Marchal, I regret to inform you that my sergeant does indeed have your young daughter. However, he would like me to convey to you that he is entirely blameless in the matter because she has large breasts!’”
“I didn’t mean it as an excuse, sir.”
“Well how about if you tell me what you do mean by keeping this woman’s daughter around for your amusement. Running about with your host’s daughter while we were stationed there causes enough resentment. Taking her along with you… I would have expected better judgment from you.”
“It’s not like that.”
“What is it like, then?”
“She’s pregnant, sir.”
This earned a moment of silence, as Henri wondered if he would have to be the first to inform to the aggrieved farmwife.
“She hasn’t told her mother yet,” the sergeant continued. “She ran away to find me and now she’s insisting that I marry her. It’s the damnedest situation, sir.” However fearsome Sellier’s reputation as a labor organizer among the warehouses in Paris, this quintessentially bourgeois set of negotiations appeared to leave him genuinely at a loss.
When Henri had begun the conversation, the purpose had been clear enough. Sellier must be castigated for his reckless behavior and ordered to conduct himself with less scandal. Now it seemed the sergeant might need advice more than a scolding.
“Have a seat,” Henri offered, with a wave of his hand.
Sellier took it, leaned his elbows on his knees, and ran the hand which was not holding his hat through his hair, making it stand on end.
“You’ll have to excuse my indelicacy,” said Henri. “But experience dictates the first question for an officer in this situation is: Do you believe that the child is yours?”
“Must be,” said Sellier. “She was a virgin when I first had her, even if she knew her way around a bit. And she’s not the sort of girl who’d be unfaithful if you were around.”
“And do you want to marry her?”
“I don’t mind, but it’s not that simple.”
“How so? You’re not married already?”
“No! Nothing like that. It’s just-- She says that a civil certificate isn’t enough. She wants to get married in front a priest. Says that otherwise her mother won’t consider it a marriage at all and will beat her fit to kill the child.”
It was a strange sort of piety that would seek to hold the creation of life sacred by taking it, but he had seen enough of the harsh country morality among the farmers in his own village to imagine this description was accurate.
“Well, you know there’s a solution to this problem, don’t you?”
Sellier visibly brightened. “There is?”
“You could marry her in front of a priest.”
He sagged again. “I thought you meant besides that.”
“Is it such a terrible fate? I did it once upon a time, you know.”
“But you’re religious, sir.”
“I wasn’t then.”
“All the worse. Look what it’s done to you.”
Henri shrugged. “It takes different people different ways.” Sellier’s description of his girl did not make her sound the sort likely to make a convert of him.
“It’s a matter of principle,” Sellier said. “I’ve never been religious. It would be dishonest to take it up now. I don’t hold with the church having power over marriage, or anything else for that matter. They had their chance to ally with the people against the rich, and every time they supported the powerful over the common man. Maybe Jesus himself was a radical, but that was a long time ago. Religion nowadays is nothing but a means of oppression and control.”
In this declaration of principles the sergeant regained some of his customary fire.
“Well then,” said Henri. “It sounds like you have your mind made up. You can take this letter with you as a reminder that you and your Marthe need to write to Madame Marchal and let her know where her daughter has got to. And if either of those women tries to force bourgeois convention on you, you just stand on your principles and tell her about how religion is a tool of oppression. She’ll come around.”
The effectiveness of this approach was made clear that night when Sellier slumped into the estaminet favored by the officers and NCOs and ordered a glass of beer.
“What’s this?” called Lieutenant Morel, who had been leading the charge against the forces of sobriety for some time already. “I thought I heard you had adopted a more domestic set of vices.”
Sellier grunted a wordless response and tried to ignore him.
“Come, Sergeant,” Morel went on, unwilling to let his quarry go. “They say, ‘The dairy farmer doesn’t have to pay for milk,’ but there’s another universal truth. The farmer must stay home and attend to the milking, or else the cows will get restless.”
“To the devil with your farmers and cows,” Sellier replied. “Now she won’t even sleep with me, if you must know.”
Morel raised an eyebrow. “That’s closing the henhouse door once the fox is inside, isn’t it?”
Sellier threw his arms out. “Please! She’s unhappy, and there’ll be no peace at all unless I can sort out this marriage problem, to which there’s no solution I can see.”
Lieutenant Rejol waved his fellow lieutenant away. Then he called for two glasses of gin and sat down next to the sergeant. “So I hear your woman wants to get married in front of a priest?”
The sergeant laid out his tale.
“I know that you’re not religious, but have you been baptised?” Rejol asked.
“No, sir. Or is it, ‘Father’?”
“It’s both; I’m only one man. But ‘sir’ will do when we’re having a glass of gin together in uniform.”
“I don’t know that I believe in much, sir, besides justice and the world that we can touch and see. This last year seems to give proof to that. I’ve seen no sign there’s anything of us that keeps on after the body dies. But if I need to get water poured over my head or some such thing so you can give Marthe what she wants, I’ll do it. I’d feel better about it having you do the job, since you’re a comrade of sorts as well as a priest. At least you know what it’s about. If more priests lived down here with the people rather than in their churches collecting their tithes, perhaps religion would be something the common man could believe in.”
“Perhaps it could, sergeant, but I can’t baptize you, if that’s what you mean.”
“Well, you’ve just told me you don’t believe.”
“What of it? You baptize babies, don’t you? They can’t believe anything.”
“Children are baptized on the basis of their parents’ intention to bring them up in the faith. Their parents answer for them. You, on the other hand, are quite capable of answering for yourself, and if you couldn’t say ‘I do’ when asked if you believe in God and in his Holy Catholic Church, then you can’t be baptized.”
“Am I to lie to you then? Do I have to tell you I believe in God when I don’t if I want to marry Marthe? No offense to you, sir, I’m sure you don’t make the rules, but there’s a reason they talk about lying priests if if that’s the way your church runs things.”
“Calm yourself, Sergeant. I didn’t say that you have to be baptized to get married. It just makes things different.”
Sellier folded his arms and turned a suspicious gaze on Rejol. “Different how?”
“I’ll have to get the bishop’s permission. You’ll have to agree to let Marthe raise your children Catholic. And--”
“What if I don’t?”
“Then I can’t perform the marriage. And since you say Marthe won’t get a civil marriage with you unless you agree to the church marriage as well, you won’t be married to her at all and she’ll probably have the baby baptized anyway -- or send the poor thing off to be raised by the sisters at some home for foundlings. So you might as well agree.”
The sergeant shrugged and knocked back the glass of gin that Rejol had ordered him. “She can raise them Catholic if she wants to. I won’t stop her. But I will tell them it’s a bunch of damned nonsense. Then they can sort it out for themselves.”
“As must we all, Sellier.” Rejol finished his own gin and pushed his stool back from the bar.
“Is that all, sir? What do I have to do now?”
Rejol clapped him on the shoulder. “Go back and tell your woman that I’ll get things sorted out within a few weeks. I’ll write to the bishop here and have the parish read the banns. Meanwhile, you get yourselves off to the city hall and have the mayor marry you in the eyes of state. If we get ourselves sent back to the front and some artillery shell has your name on it, you don’t want to leave her without a widow’s pension.”
“Right. Yes. Back to Marthe and tell her we’re getting married.” Sellier stared down at his glass for a moment. “Just one more, first.” He raised his glass and waved it at the bartender, who approached him.
Lieutenant Rejol turned and started for the door. Henri followed him.
“You’re going to a great deal of trouble for Sellier. It’s good of you.”
Rejol shrugged. “It’s not for him. I don’t know if he’ll make much of a husband, our sergeant.”
“For that poor child he’s already got on his Marthe. Do you have any idea what it is to be a bastard? The home where I was chaplain back in Paris was full of them. Lonely children taught cruelty by a cruel world. Even if he abandons her or is killed, if this allows that girl to call herself a married woman and live in something like respectability in her town, it’s worth any trouble on my part. Otherwise it’s the street corner for the mother and the orphanage for the child.”
Over the following weeks, the machinery of city, church, and army all lurched themselves into motion on behalf of Sergeant Sellier and his bride. In the city hall of Mourmelon-le-Grand, officiated by the mayor and witnessed by a smattering of the company’s officers and NCOs, Marthe became Madame Sellier in the eyes of the Republic. At the beginning of June, with a formal dispensation from the Archbishop of Reims in hand, Lieutenant Rejol blessed their marriage on behalf of the church in a small ceremony which, due to Sellier’s status as an unbeliever, was held on the steps of town’s gothic church rather than inside..
Madame Marchal had arrived by train the night before the witness the event. As soon as the lieutenant emerged from the church, looking alien to his fellow soldiers in the heavy brocade vestments borrowed from one of the town priests, the farmwife produced a large lace-trimmed handkerchief with which she mopped tears throughout, until at the end she rained down maternal kisses on the bewildered sergeant, declaring him to be the best son-in-law that a mother could wish for.
The officers and soldiers celebrated in their own fashion, invading one of Mourmelon-le-Grand’s better establishments to toast the new husband until he required his two corporals to help him back to the lodgings he shared with Marthe.
Henri pulled the sergeant aside while the festivities were still beginning.
“Here’s the company’s wedding present for you, Sergeant.”
He handed the typewritten piece of paper to Sellier: a fourtee- day leave pass which after long petition Henri had successfully wrested from the regimental staff.
“Two weeks, sir?”
“That’s right, you can take Marthe back to visit Paris.”
“And stay in a real hotel, away from the army. Thank you, sir. Thank you.” The sergeant hugged him and kissed both Henri’s cheeks, already emotional with the first flush of wine and the day’s events.
It had been no small feat to gain this permission from the machinery of army inertia. The rules by which the activated army reserves were governed had been designed, decades before, with a brief, sharp conflict in mind. Provisions were made for professional army soldiers and even those on their two-year conscription to receive leave at intervals. There were no such allowances, however, for the men called up to serve until the end of an emergency. Now, ten months since mobilization with no end in sight, most men had still received no home leave at all. For Henri, with his family trapped on the other side of the lines, this might be of little importance, but for most other men in the regiment, family was just a few hours train ride away in Paris, yet utterly inaccessible.
They saw the newlyweds off on the train platform the next day. Sellier looked strangely unfamiliar in the worn civilian trousers and coat he had dug out of his belongings. Marthe looked like a child dressed up her her mother’s clothes wearing her new best dress, a second-hand yellow silk which Sellier had bought her for the wedding. Had it been impossible to find a dress that fit properly within the strained resources of the small town, crowded with soldiers and depleted of luxuries by the war effort, or was this a way to hide the signs of the baby they were expecting?
She was younger than Philomene had been when Henri had first met her. Perhaps Sellier himself was younger than Henri had been when he had met his wife. The couple climbed aboard the train and waved to the assembled soldiers and officers. Marthe blew a kiss towards them as the train began to chuff off from the station. This local line would take them to Reims, and from there they would catch the train south to Paris.
In the other direction from Reims, less than two hours north on the main line, was his own home, his own wife and children. But that line was cut. There were trenches and artillery and a whole army of invaders that stood between him and that short train ride home. How long before he could go to spend two weeks with his own wife? How many of them would ever enjoy two weeks of peace with their families again?
Read the next installment.