Chateaubriand's memoirs, IX, 10

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book IX - Chapter 10
A Soldier’s life – The last appearance of the old army of France

London, April to September 1822.

The order was given to march on Thionville. We covered more than fifteen miles a day. The weather was atrocious; we tramped through the rain and mud, singing: Ô Richard! ô mon Roi! or Pauvre Jacques! On arrival at the camping ground, lacking wagons and provisions, we took our mules, which followed the column like an Arab caravan, to search the farms and villages for something to eat. We paid for everything, scrupulously: however I was put on fatigues for absent-mindedly taking a couple of pears from a château garden. A great steeple, a great river, and a great lord, says the proverb, are bad neighbours.

We pitched our tents at random, and had to keep beating at the canvas to flatten the threads and stop the water getting through. We were ten soldiers to a tent; each man in turn was given the task of cooking; one would fetch meat; another bread, another wood, another straw. I made marvellous soup; I received fulsome compliments, especially when I mixed cabbage and milk into the stew, in Breton fashion. Among the Iroquois I had learnt how to tolerate smoke, so that I bore myself bravely in front of the fire of damp, green branches. A soldier’s life is very entertaining; I imagined myself as still among the Indians. Eating our meal under canvas, my comrades asked me for tales of my travels; they repaid me with fine stories of their own; we all told lies like a corporal in a tavern when a conscript is footing the bill.

One thing wearied me, having to wash my clothing; it was often necessary since the obliging thieves had only left me one shirt borrowed from my cousin Armand, plus the one I was wearing. When I cleaned my boots, my handkerchiefs and my shirt by a stream, head down and back in the air, it made me dizzy; the motion of my arms caused an intolerable pain in my chest. I was forced to sit down among the horsetails and water-cresses, and in the midst of military tasks, I amused myself watching the tranquil flow. Lope de Vega presents us with Love’s headband washed by a shepherdess; that shepherdess would have been very useful to me as regards a little turban woven from birch that I had from my Floridian ladies.

An army is usually made up of soldiers of the same age; same height, same strength. Ours was quite otherwise, a motley collection of mature men, old men, and youngsters fresh from their dovecotes, jabbering Norman, Breton, Picard, Auvergnat, Gascon, Provençal and Languedocian. Fathers served with their sons, fathers-in-law with sons-in-law, uncles with nephews, brothers with brothers, cousins with cousins. This gathering, ridiculous as it appeared, had something honourable and touching about it, because it was animated by sincere conviction; it offered a picture of the old monarchy and gave a last glimpse of a dying world. I have seen old noblemen, stern of face, and grey of hair, their coats torn, rucksacks on their backs, muskets over their shoulders, plodding along with the help of a stick, supported under the arm by one of their sons; I have seen Monsieur de Boishue, father of the friend murdered in front of me at the Rennes States, marching sad and alone, his bare feet in the mud, carrying his shoes on the point of his bayonet, for fear of wearing them out; I have seen young men, wounded, lying beneath a tree, while a chaplain in frock-coat and stole knelt by their side, sending them to Saint-Louis, whose heirs they had striven to defend. The whole of this impoverished troop, receiving not a sou from the Princes, made war at its own expense, while the Assembly’s decrees completed its despoliation and consigned our wives and mothers to prison.

Old men in former times were less miserable and less isolated than those of today: if, while still on earth, they lost their friends, little else altered around them; strangers to youth, they were not so to society. Now, a straggler in this world not only has to watch men die, but he sees ideas die too: principles, morals, tastes, pleasures, pains, sentiments, nothing resembles what he has known. He ends his days among a different race of the human species.

And yet, France of the nineteenth century, learn to appreciate that former France which would be a match for yours. You will be old in turn and you will be accused, as we might be accused, of clinging to obsolete ideas. You have vanquished your fathers; do not disown them, you are sprung from their blood. If they had not been disinterestedly loyal to ancient ways, you would not have been able to draw on that inborn loyalty to provide the energy which has been the glory of your modern ways; there has merely been, between the two Frances, a transformation of virtue.