In a French village


Lee McCollum


As we disembarked from the transport on the long wharf at Le Havre, we found ourselves in the center of much feverish activity. A new sharpness gathered in the voices of the officers and non-comms, who gave us quick marching orders. With packs on our backs, we marched up the streets of Le Havre at a rapid pace, having little, if any, time to wonder about the newness of this strange land. The funny looking people looked upon us as an old and familiar sight, because many troops had landed here before.

The street urchins followed the troops along begging for "souvenir . . . cigarette . . . souvenir . . . cigarette." They would make a mad scramble for them as we would toss them some of our American tailor-made "butts." The architecture of the buildings differed greatly from those we had seen in England, and this was noticed by many of us at the time of the first ten-minute rest period.

Continuing our hike for a distance of about five kilometers, we climbed a great hill that led to an English rest camp on its crest. Here we were to rest during the night and the next day. It was here that we got the first real surprise of the war.

This great camp was the clearing house for many different kinds of troops, who were assembled from the incoming boats, then reassorted and sent to their respective destinations, "Somewhere in France." In that barbed wire enclosure which held tight the boundries of the camp, we found soldiers from many different nations. Next to our camp were a contingent of Scotch soldiers from South Africa. In spite of their kilties and their brogue, they were more like Americans in their manner and way of thinking than any people I had ever met, or was ever to meet.

They told us of Johannesburg and Capetown, the southernmost tip of Africa. We, in turn, told them of the far off West of America, its great plains and mountains, and our fairyland of the Pacific Northwest, with its great wooded hills of spruce and fir trees. The time seemed all too short between us, as we saw them preparing to leave at noon the next day.

In a far off corner of the rest camp a group of English soldiers were gathered, and many of them were singing hymns in a low voice, while others were praying as though to themselves. Our own group of half-baked kids who thought we were men twice-grown, scoffed at them among ourselves. We little realized then what we were to do under like circumstances. That going home for "leave," then up into the lines again, month after month, year after year, was more than enough to make anyone pray for peace. Each time the older faces were fewer in number, each time the new faces filling the ranks were those of fresh troops like ours.

No wonder those older campaigners, who knew the full meaning of war, held that ceremony among themselves as they parted from their comrades for separate sections of the war front.

That night we moved from the rest camp and hiked down the long hill to the railroad. There we loaded on the French boxcars which were to carry us into the interior of France for further training before we continued on to the front lines.

These box-cars were strictly honies, marked Hommes Quarante Et Chevaux Heit, and about half the size of our boxcars at home. They were supposed to hold 40 men or 8 horses, and God knows how many soldiers. Hardly had we got the door closed, than with a short, sharp "toot ... toot," the train started moving.

Sleep was impossible. We did not have room to lie down, and there were from four to eight of us standing at all times. I thought to myself, "Isn't this a funny way for France to transport men who were going to fight to save their country?" By now my bubbling- over patriotism was starting to cool down a little. So far no reception committee had welcomed us to France. After a night and part of a day on the trains we landed at the village of La Guersh, tired, hungry, and pretty well fed up with our ride.

Unloading here, we got a chance to stretch our cramped arms and legs, then hiked a distance of ten kilometers to the small village of Grouserve, which was to be our headquarters. When the troops were halted outside the town, and we had received another good old army health lecture, the major then mentioned the fact that we were to go directly to our "billets."

With the word "billets," we immediately thought of sleeping in barns alongside of cows and horses, or in some chicken coop. This was the impression all of us had gathered from something or other we had read, or the "baloney" that had been fed to us at camps back home.

Imagine our surprise when we found that our "billets" were the attics of the French homes of the village, the same kind of homes that had proved so picturesque and interesting to us as we had journeyed across France. We entered our new quarters via ladders that led to the windows. Then the fun started.

Out came the French-English dictionaries which we had studied so arduously on our trip across the Atlantic, and a mob of hungry doughboys turned loose on a group of astounded French peasants, asking for "des eols . . . des eols . . . pomme de terre . . . and . . . du pan." Soon they understood what we meant, and as this was the first time they had seen American troops, they only too willingly supplied us from their own limited stock of food.

Our ration trucks had been delayed in reaching us. On arrival they quickly repaid the French peasants for their kindness, supplying them with things they bad so long gone without in their three years of war.

During our two week stay at this headquarters we were given an unusually hard workout, drilling 44 as skirmishers" over the muddy fields of the farms close by the village. All the while it had been raining continuously. By now we were becoming accustomed to these people, and they to us. So when an American aviator who had lost his bearings descended among us he received a royal reception from our troops, as well as from the villagers themselves. This broke up the tedium of training, and gave us something to talk about for a few days.

On the tenth day of our stay the first order came through for replacement troops to go to the front lines. About sixty of our company marched off for the first active duty that was later to come to all of us. We were a solemn-faced bunch of kids, though, when we saw them going. Once again was borne to us the fact that war, was not the picnic we had so long thought. Within a few days the balance of our company was to follow, as a replacement to a combat division in the front lines.


ALL the way over to France we were lectured on how to behave ourselves with the ladies when we got off the boat. Of course we were only going to a war. So we might as well be polite about it. By the time we landed in France we were so darned scared that half of us wouldn't even look out of the corner of our eye at any of the French girls on the docks at Le Havre. That was only half of us. I can only speak for my side. In time that wore off, as the officers knew it would. Almost any time you found an American doughboy he would have a French girl cornered, talking to her. The army billeted us in little French f arming towns, where most all the Frogs had big manure piles in front of their houses (an indication of their wealth).

Most of the village belles were anything but petite. In f act, they were big and buxom, and strong as horses. We used to go to the river near the town, where we would loll around on the bridges watching the village belles spank the dirt out of the clothes with a short-handled wooden paddle. I'll bet some of these dames washed the same clothes over every day, for you were a cinch to find them there any time you passed by.

We started throwing Ivory soap to them, and their eyes were as big as saucers when they saw the first bar of it floating. They said in French that it was "magic soap," and they all started shouting for "Souvenir, Monsieur . . . Souvenir . . ." The doughboy that had the biggest supply of soap was king. By then we had run out of money, as we hadn't had a pay day yet, so more than one time a crap game was held, using soap or anything else that would pass for souvenirs, instead of money.

Between us teaching them some choice slang, and their talking back to us in French, our "Bridge Brigade" was beginning to learn to speak their language a bit. After a while the timidness left the soldiers, and as the French girls were seldom shy, it made both sides even. Then we were beginning to enjoy this thing called war.

Some romances were started there, eventually culminating in marriages, and the bringing of French brides home after the war. Mostly, the French girls were just about the same as our girls would be at home under like circumstances. A little flirtatious, a trifle romantic, and young enough to welcome anything that would break up the monotony of living in a village with a population of only a few hundred. Doing the same things over and over, day in and day out, and waiting, watching, and hoping to pick off a boyhood sweetheart who would march them up to the marriage block. There was hardly anything unusual or harmful in the mild flirtations that were taking place. After all, the American doughboys were not old men when they were sent to France. And the army can get just a little monotonous at times.

In the army we had a few farm boys, some city clerks, and others from practically every walk of life. Most of them were just big bashful kids. So when our company Beau Brummel, Joe O'Toole, (who had every French dame in the village eating out of his hand) talked, we listened with open cars and minds to the tales of his exploits and romantic campaigns among the fair sex.

Put yourself in our place for a minute. Home-sick kids three to six thousand miles from home, won. dering about home and "the girl they left behind" most of the time. We were all ears when Joe told us of his romantic campaign with "Wee . . . Wee . . . Marie! "


One day in the rain, in quaint Cirfontaine,
I was walking down the street,
When I happened by chance, in a window to glance, and there sat a maid cute and sweet.
With big coy eyes, as blue as the skies, "entre soldat" . . . she bid,
Wet to the skin, I bravely walked in, sat down and took off me lid.

"Parley voo Francay?" was the best I could say, to that beautiful French girl there,
"Mon Dieu mon pet but vous are wet,"
"it even dreep from your 'air."
"Bonjour Monsieur, but you are a dear, so beeg . . . so strong . . . an' so gran' ,
Seet in theez chair, while I frire pomme-de-terre, make yourself home . . . onderstan'?"

So wet as a goat, I took off me coat, and hung it up close to the fire,
She peeled the spuds, while I dried me duds, as we listened to the French Crieur.
She gave me a drink, it was not from the sink, and her eyes laughed up into mine,
My clothes were half dry, and I don't know why, but somehow I was feeling just fine.

you know how you feel, when through a good meal, with wine and a woman there,
Our language was broken, so little was spoken,
but still we got on pretty fair.
it was "Monsieur ... please doan', I know you're tres bon', but no like I to hug and to squeeze,"
As I started to go, she said, "you will catch col', see . . . you're starting already to sneeze!"

"Mon brave soldat, stay right where you're at, an' I let you keeze my scheek,"
And was I sore, when I heard the front door, slowly open up with a squeak.
Then into the room, a big voice did boom, "Marie! . . . Come out here my dear;"
There stood the French Crieur, or I am a liar, she answered, "Bon pere . . . I hear."

"Oh pardoan me . . . your frien' I no see," and he closed the door with a bang,
She was giggling by then, so I kissed her again, while the tea kettle merrily sang.
She hugged me tight, so I told her goodnight, and she cried . . . "Mon pet . . . kiss-ka-dee?"
"It's a kiss from O'Toole," I said like a fool, 4'and it's one on the house and me."

The town clock boomed ten, and I left her then, as she hummed a sweet French refrain,
I marched right on, whistling "Sweet Madelon," and headed for home in the rain.
Well the rain came down, on that sleepy old town,/' but it made no difference to me,
For I'd learned that night, it is best to not fight, with "Mon dieu . . . mon pet . . . sweet Marie!"'


EVERYONE should know Pete. He was a real character. In spite of his harelip and hard-to-understand talk, he has had a wealth of experience and knows life.

I first met him at Camp Kearney, California. At the time I was a rookie assigned to the 40th Division. The camp was built on the red sands of Southern California, near San Diego. Each company was billeted in a group of small tents, with each tent holding a squad of eight men. The tents were set in street formation and the men were assigned to them in alphabetical order. All the men in our tent had the prefix "Me" to their name. So we nicknamed the tent, "The House of Macks."

Pete had his bunk next to mine. We took to one another like a couple of stray ducks out of sight of water. I could readily understand his harelip accent and acted as interpreter to the rest of the squad. Pete had done a hitch in the army in the Philippine Islands. He had hoboed all over the world. Done everything, from stoking coal on a tramp French steamer, living off cocoanuts down in a South Sea Isle, and stealing chickens in Dakota.

When he learned that I had spent a year and a half seeing America from the rods of a freight train and the decks and blinds of fast moving passenger trains, he cottoned to me and stuck like glue. We exchanged many a reminiscence about "side-door" pullmans, little or unknown "water tanks," and the famous or hardly known "jungle-camps" of the itinerant traveler. We had both met Sailor Jack (Jack London) and others famous for their hobo trade marks carved and painted on water tanks from one end of the U.S.A. to the other.

By the time we landed in France we were inseparable. Pete did most of his talking to me and I still acted as interpreter to the gang. We drew the same bunk assignment in the first town we stopped at in France. Our bunk room, or billet, had formerly been used to store hay in. It was large and weather proof, but always cold and damp because of the constant rain.

Moving an entire division of forty thousand men into any area is a big job-doubly so when you are thousands of miles from the base of supplies. Because of this our food supply was days behind us, forcing us to live on half rations. Under such circumstances men grow sulky, surly, and hard to manage, particularly so as they have too much time to think. To overcome this our major, who was a regular army man and experienced, kept us busy working.

The work consisted of hard military training. From early morning until the day's end he kept us busy doing "As Skirmishers." He was teaching us an invaluable war formation that later on no doubt saved many of our lives. The company would march out to the edge of town to one of the soggy wet fields. Then we would "fix bayonets," scatter out about ten to twenty feet apart and "charge" a supposed enemy. The trick was to advance a few feet, then drop quickly to the ground. Then charge forward and drop to the ground again. Repeat this for several hours over a muddy field, with a sweeping, cold rain drenching you to the skin, and on a half empty stomach, and you are fit to be tied.

At the end of the day, when we returned to our bunks, we were all in but our shoe-strings. Five times out of six we would be told to "clean and oil our muddy rifles" for inspection before chow.

On one such occasion, at the end of a particularly hard day, Pete, on hearing the order, looked at the corporal, then at me, his face full of deepest disgust. He picked up his rifle, slammed it across the room, and then turned to me and said:

"Meth, you know what I'm gonta do when thith war ith over?"

"No, Pete. What are you going to do?"

"When I get dithcharged at Bwooklin, I'm gonta take thith wifle with me. Then I'm gonta went me a woom, with a window!"

"What for, Pete?"

". . . a window that lookths out over a bwack yard. Then I'm gonta take thitb damn wifle and stick it in the corner of the fenth. If its wainin', then I'm gonta let it wain! If the thun's shinin' then I'm gonta spwinkle water on it."

"Why, Pete?"

"Nether mind why, Macth. Then I'm gonta go to my woom and thit by the window all day long ... and I'm gonta look at thith damn wifle and thay ... wust, you thun-of-a-gun, wust!"

He meant every word of it. But he never got the chance to make good his threat, as he was soon in the front lines. Some three weeks later we got news of his death. He had been shot down by a sniper while bringing in three German prisoners. He had captured them single-handed when taking a dangerous machine-gun nest.
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