Louis Barthas: the old lady and her garden

Louis Barthas (1879 – 1952) was a cooper (barrelmaker) from a small town in the south of France. He joined the army when war broke out in 1914 despite being a 35-year-old husband, the father of two young sons, and a socialist staunchly opposed to the war. During four years of service on the Western Front he kept a diary, and miraculously both he and his notebooks survived. He never thought to publish his war diaries, however; it was only his grandson, a school teacher, who recognized their value and brought them to the attention of a historian at a nearby university who arranged their publication in 1978. They were published in English as Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. (Poilu in French means “hairy” or “bearded”; it is the slang term for the ordinary soldiers of the French army, similar to “Tommy” for the British soldiers, and “doughboys” for the Americans.)

In this passage from 1916, Barthas reveals his talents as a storyteller, his own quiet generosity, and his love for the simple pleasures of life. In early April, 1916, Barthas and his regiment has been relieve at the front and is resting behind the lines.

The long sojourn we had in this village was such that a great intimacy built up between the poilus and the inhabitants, especially among the ladies. Some idylls were kindled; there were some amorous adventures which became tied and untied. As for me, a loving and faithful husband, I won the affections of a lady of Lamotte.

But alas, for her and for me. The snows of sixty-five winters had colored her hair, and this lady was a poor old hag living with her husband in a shack at the far end of the village.

The husband, worn down by the years and by rheumatism, lay moaning in his bed. His wife used up her last reserves of strength making sure that her bits of field didn’t go fallow, as well as a rather large garden surrounding the thatched cottage, three-quarters of which were choked with thistles and other weeds.

I observed all this one day, when I was on my way to guard duty at the village’s exit points, this useless and ridiculous guard duty which they had set up according to established practice.

Except on Sundays, this guard duty was a sort of relief for the poilus; in exchange, you could cut out twenty-four hours of drills or parades. Only the four hours of night duty you’d pull could perhaps be wearisome for those who couldn’t appreciate the charm of solitude, of nocturnal silence, of contemplation of a starry sky, etc.

It’s true that, at this time, stinging April showers often troubled the poetic moonlit vigils. Then you would seek refuge in the clever little sentry boxes which the wicker workers had fashioned out of the boughs of the Crécy forest. But if the down pour lasted, you’d be chased out by the raindrops and find better shelter behind a wall. It was during one of my breaks between guard duty shifts that I picked up a tool and went to working, spading the old lady’s garden.

“But monsieur,” said the old lady, “you’re working for nothing. I’m too poor to pay you anything.”

“Don’t worry about that, grandma. I’ll stop by every day when I’m off duty, until your garden is in good shape and your potatoes are planted,” which she despaired about getting done in time.

In fact, four or five days later, the work was done. The old lady didn’t know how to express her thanks. She picked out for me the best apples in her cupboard, and I had to accept a coffee one evening. The old man wanted to be at the party, too, so we took our coffee in the sickroom.

As coquettish as any daughter of Eve, the old lady showed me her portrait at age twenty, and the old codger smiled impishly, as if to say, “You see, we were young once, and we were carefree in those days.”

And I had to listen to the tales of their young love. They were about to be married when the war broke out—the war of 1870, that is. He went off in the Garde Mobile. Once peace was signed, he hurried back to Lamotte to find his fiançee, but the Prussians were still occupying the region and the village. The marriage was put off. From morning to evening he was at her house, attending to her every need. One day, they were having a cozy tête-à-tête at home, which they hardly ever left, when a rude and insolent Unteroffizier burst in. He claimed that he needed some information, but his true purpose was to harass the lovers. He went so far as to try to kiss the young woman, right in front of her fiancé.

Evoking these distant memories, the old lady turned red with indignation, as if she could still feel the lips of the Boche.

But the story isn’t finished. The young man—now an old codger, nailed to his bed—had to defend the honor of his Picard blood, and to avenge the outrage he slapped the German on both cheeks.

The [German] dashed out more quickly than he had come in, but he came back a moment later with a squad of policemen who seized the unlucky fiancé and dragged him off to jail, under a rain of blows and kicks.

The cantonment’s [German] commander was a captain who inspired real terror among the inhabitants for his severity, his brutal discipline. He decided to set an example, to make it known that whoever dared to raise a hand against a German non-com would be shot the very next day.

He had no idea of the circumstances which brought on this incident. But luckily for our pair of young lovers, he was billeted at the home of the town’s mayor, who told him the whole story.

The terrifying officer summoned the young girl, the heroine of the story, to his office. She presented herself, fearful and faltering. There also appeared the ungallant non-com, who was forced to confess his misdeeds.

The next day they released the young Frenchman who was expecting to be shot. Three days later the village was delivered from German occupation. And our two young folks got married, loved each other, and had many children, now either dead or living far away. And they remained there, at home in the poor thatched cottage, from which only death would take them away.

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