France through English Eyes

France through English Eyes

From The London Times Literary Supplement

Among all the sorrows of this war there is one joy for us in it: that it has made us brothers with the French as no other two nations have ever been brothers before. There has come to us, after ages of conflict, a kind of millennium of friendship; and in that we feel there is a hope for the world that outweighs all our fears, even at the height of the worldwide calamity. There were days and days, during the swift German advance, when we feared that the French armies were no match for the German, that Germany would be conquered on the seas and from her eastern frontier, that after the war France would remain a power only through the support of her Allies. For that fear we must now ask forgiveness; but at least we can plead in excuse that it was unselfish and free from all national vanity. If, in spite of ultimate victory, France had lost her high place among the nations, we should have felt that the victory itself was an irreparable loss for the world. And now we may speak frankly of that fear because, however unfounded it was, it reveals the nature of the friendship between France and England.

That is also revealed in the praise which the French have given to our army. There is no people that can praise as they can: for they enjoy praising others as much as some nations enjoy praising themselves, and they lose all the reserve of egotism in the pleasure of praising well. But in this case they have praised so generously because there was a great kindliness behind their praise, because they, like us, feel that this war means a new brotherhood stronger than all the hatreds it may provoke, a brotherhood not only of war but of the peace that is to come after it. That welcome of English soldiers in the villages of France, with food and wine and flowers, is only a foretaste of what is to be in both countries in a happier time. It is what we have desired in the past of silly wrangles and misunderstandings, and now we know that our desire is fulfilled.

“That Sweet Enemy.”

For behind all those misunderstandings, and in spite of the difference of character between us, there was always an understanding which showed itself in {155}the courtesies of Fontenoy and a hundred other battles. When Sir Philip Sidney spoke of France as that sweet enemy, he made a phrase for the English feeling of centuries past and centuries to be. We quarrelled bitterly and long; but it was like a man and woman who know that some day their love will be confessed and are angry with each other for the quarrels that delay the confession. We called each other ridiculous, and knew that we were talking nonsense; indeed, as in all quarrels without real hatred, we made charges against each other that were the opposite of the truth. We said that the French were frivolous; and they said that we were gloomy. Now they see the gayety of our soldiers and we see the deep seriousness of all France at this crisis of her fate. She, of all the nations at war, is fighting with the least help from illusion, with the least sense of glory and romance. To her the German invasion is like a pestilence; to defeat it is merely a necessity of her existence; and in defeating it she is showing the courage of doctors and nurses, that courage which is furthest removed from animal instinct and most secure from panic reaction. There is no sign in France now of the passionate hopes of the revolutionary wars; 1870 is between them and her; she has learned, like no other nation in Europe, the great lesson of defeat, which is not to mix material dreams with spiritual; she has passed beyond illusions, yet her spirit is as high as if it were drunk with all the illusions of Germany.

And that is why we admire her as we have never admired a nation before. We ourselves are an old and experienced people, who have, we hope, outlived gaudy and dangerous dreams; but we have not been tested like the French, and we do not know whether we or any other nation could endure the test they have endured. It is not merely that they have survived and kept their strength. It is that they have a kind of strength new to nations, such as we see in beautiful women who have endured great sorrows and outlived all the triumphs and passions of their youth, who smile where once they laughed; and yet they are more beautiful than ever, and seem to live with a purpose that is not only their own, but belongs to the whole of life. So now we feel that France is fighting not merely for her own honor and her own beautiful country, still less for a triumph over an arrogant rival, but for what she means to all the world; and that now she means far more than ever in the past.

Furia Francese.

This quarrel, as even the Germans confess, was not made by her. She saw it gathering, and she was as quiet as if she hoped to escape war by submission. The chance of revenge was offered as it had never been offered in forty years; yet she did not stir to grasp it. Her enemy gave every provocation, yet she stayed as still as if she were spiritless; and all the while she was the proudest nation on the earth, so proud that she did not need to threaten or boast. Then came the first failure, and she took it as if she had expected nothing better. She had to make war in a manner wholly contrary to her nature and genius, and she made it as if patience, not fire, were the main strength of her soul. Yet behind the new patience the old fire persisted; and the Furia Franceseis only waiting for its chance. The Germans believe they have determined all the conditions of modern war, and, indeed of all modern competition between the nations to suit their own national character. It is their age, they think, an age in which the qualities of the old peoples, England and France, are obsolete. They make war, after their own pattern, and we have only to suffer it as long as we can. But France has learned what she needs from Germany so that she may fight the German idea as well as the German armies; and when the German armies were checked before Paris there was an equal check to the German idea. Then the world, which was holding its breath, knew that the old nations, the old faith and mind and conscience of Europe, were still standing fast and that science had not utterly betrayed them all to the new barbarism. Twice before, at Tours and in the Cata{156}launian fields, there had been such a fight upon the soil of France, and now for the third time it is the heavy fate and the glory of France to be the guardian nation. That is not an accident, for France is still the chief treasury of all that these conscious barbarians would destroy. They knew that while she stands unbroken there is a spirit in her that will make their Kultur seem unlovely to all the world. They know that in her, as in Athens long ago, thought remains passionate and disinterested and free. Their thought is German and exercised for German ends, like their army; but hers can forget France in the universe, and for that reason her armies and ours will fight for it as if the universe were at stake. Many forms has that thought taken, passing through disguises and errors, mocking at itself, mocking at the holiest things; and yet there has always been the holiness of freedom in it. The French blasphemer has never blasphemed against the idea of truth even when he mistook falsehood for it. In the Terror he said there was no God, because he believed there was none, but he never said that France was God so that he might encourage her to conquer the world. Voltaire was an imp of destruction perhaps, but with what a divine lightning of laughter would he have struck the Teutonic Antichrist, and how the everlasting soul of France would have risen in him if he could have seen her most sacred church, the visible sign of her faith and her genius, ruined by the German guns. Was there ever a stupidity so worthy of his scorn as this attempt to bombard the spirit? For, though the temple is ruined, the faith remains; and whatever war the Germans may make upon the glory of the past, it is the glory of the future that France fights for. Whatever wounds she suffers now she is suffering for all mankind; and now, more than ever before in her history, are those words become true which one poet who loved her gave to her in the Litany of Nations crying to the earth:

I am she that was thy sign and standard bearer,
Thy voice and cry;
She that washed thee with her blood and left thee fairer,
The same am I.
Are not these the hands that raised thee fallen, and fed thee,
These hands defiled?
Am not I thy tongue that spake, thine eye that led thee,
Not I thy child?

Uploaded but not written by Louis Sheehan


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Louis Sheehan
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