THE FANTASSIN, OR FOOT-SOLDIER.
by Emile Gaboriau
The fantassin, par excellence, is a soldier of the regular
infantry. The cavalry pretend that the foot-soldier wears spurs on his
elbows, but this is only a stale joke perpetrated before the bayonet came
into general use.
The regular infantry is really the French army. It has shed its blood upon
every battle-field, and has come off victorious again and again. It is the
infantry that has carried the standards of France through conquered
Europe. It is the regular infantry which, without shoes, provisions, or
artillery, swept down from the Alps upon Italy. It is the infantry that
fought at the Pyramids, at Eylau and at Moscow. The infantry is the queen
of battles; with her one can go in any direction and always maintain one's
There is nothing brilliant about the infantry uniform, and yet when seen
in masses it produces an excellent effect. It is also the most comfortable
and the best adapted to all the needs of a soldier in the field.
At reviews, upon the parade ground, and on the boulevards there are,
perhaps, regiments that attract more attention; but such is not the case
if it is seen in line of battle. One should see it maneuvering under fire
with the same precision as on the Champs de Mars. Each regiment has become
a corps, with its officers at its head. A cannon-ball cuts down an entire
file. "Close up the ranks!" The ranks are closed; the void is filled
without haste, disorder, or confusion.
Nothing could be more beautiful, nothing could be more magnificent than a
regiment of the line advancing for a bayonet charge upon the enemy. Search
the ranks; examine one by one these soldiers blackened with powder, try to
find the foot-soldier you have seen lounging about the shop windows in
large cities, with his shako on the back of his head. The lounger of
yesterday is the hero of to-day. Now, danger illumines every face;
courage, like an aureole, shines resplendent on every brow. All honor to
the regulars! upon their banners is written our glorious history!
The foot-soldier in garrison bears no resemblance whatever to the hero of
the battle-field. He does not even remember his exploits of yesterday; he
little suspects the great deeds he will perform to-morrow should France
have need of his devotion and courage.
The foot-soldier in garrison is the best and most inoffensive of men,
always trying to make himself useful, ever ready to do a favor. His tastes
are simple, and his desires modest; boisterous amusements have no
attractions for him, and he rarely indulges in the bottle.
The foot-soldier, like all the members of his profession, is generally in
"For in France as in Austria
The soldier is not rich,
Every one knows that."
It is true that one can not indulge in much extravagance on five centimes
a day. Fortunately there are ways to increase this meager income. In many
regiments, the soldiers are allowed to find occupation in the city,
provided, of course, that discipline does not suffer thereby. Those who
have a trade devote all their leisure time to it; those who have only
their two hands and their good-will—and they are by far the largest
number—nevertheless find a way to make themselves useful. In some bourgeoisie
households they hire a soldier to take care of the garden and scrub the
There is also another source of revenue which, though not the most
honorable, is certainly the most in vogue; this is playing a trick on
The fraud is generally suggested by some old grumbler who is an adept in
the art of deception. A mischievously inclined volunteer, who is a good
penman, generally writes the letter. Illness is the usual pretext. It is
the simplest of all, and seldom fails to produce the desired effect. How
can you suppose that parents will refuse to forward a few francs on
receiving from their child a letter beginning thus:
"Dear Mother,—The object of this letter is to inform you that I am
in the hospital."
The family send money. A letter arrives, inclosing a post-office order.
The vaguemestre quickly changes it into shining coin. But alas! this money
vanishes like a dream. And how could it be otherwise? So many friends must
have a share of this windfall. First, there is the bedfellow, then the
inventor of the trick, then the writer, then two or three comrades,
fellow-countrymen—then a corporal who has been obliging, and many
others. Besides, it is not considered seemly for a trooper to spend his
A soldier who goes out alone, and who drinks alone, is disgraced in the
eyes of his comrades.
When he has finished his daily task at the barracks, polished his weapons,
and answered to his name at roll-call, the foot-soldier is at liberty,
provided he is not on duty, or on guard, or on the corveÍ, or
undergoing punishment, and he can leave the barracks if he chooses.
Generally he is eager to improve the opportunity. There must be something
of importance to detain him if he does not go out; a letter to write, some
little job to do, a pipe of unusual length to color for an officer who is
making a collection. But such instances are rare. He loves long walks. If
he is stationed in a small town, you can always meet him in the shady
paths in the suburbs. He is generally cutting little switches to beat his
If he is in a large city, he has a variety of amusements. He delights in
gazing into the shop-windows; he haunts the promenades and the public
gardens; mountebanks always find in him a patient and appreciative patron,
ever ready to laugh at their stale jokes. The mountebank and the fantassin
have had a mutual understanding for a long time. "Walk in. Walk in,
gentlemen and ladies. Admission is ten centimes; two sous. The military
But there is no place like Paris for the soldier. Wine is a trifle dear;
but how many diversions there are. This is a city! one can stroll about
five hours without danger of seeing the same objects. Moreover, Paris
contains the Jardin des Plantes, and the Jardin des Plantes is, as every
one knows, the soldier's earthly Paradise.
There, he can spend his hours of liberty most delightfully. He visits, in
succession, all the cabinets of natural history. He almost splits his
sides laughing as he stands before the monkey's palace, watching the
pranks of its occupants; he goes into ecstasies over the wild animals, and
shudders while contemplating the reptiles. But his favorites are the bear
and the elephant. He never leaves the Jardin des Plantes until he has seen
Martin climb the tree, and given the elephant a crust of bread, held in
reserve in his cap—for want of pantaloon pockets.
But the foot-soldier would be a body without a soul, if he had no
countrywoman. The payse, as he styles her, has been created for the
fantassin, as the fantassin has been created for the payse. They love and
understand each other. He accompanies the payse, who is usually a child's
nurse, in her walks; he assists her in watching the children, when he does
not prevent her from watching them; on the promenade, the fantassin seats
himself near the payse and pours sweet nothings into her ears, while the
children play on the gravel-walk. "Honi soit qui mal y pense!"
In spite of the fatigue that results from it, the foot-soldier loves a
change of garrison. He goes cheerfully from one end of France to the
other, singing as he plods along. Every day, before two o'clock, his legs
fail him, which does not prevent him from strolling around to see the
curiosities of the neighborhood as soon as he reaches the town where he is
to spend the night.
The billet troubles the soldier a little. It is like a ticket in a
lottery. Some are very good, some are bad. As a general thing, the soldier
is cordially received; though the contrary happens sometimes. So far as
the fantassin is concerned, he hardly ever abuses the hospitality accorded
him. The billet is considered very good when the people of the
house invite the soldier to share their dinner. It is a saving of time and
of money for him. The fantassin is overjoyed, and to repay his
entertainers, he tells them his history.
When his term of service expires and he returns to his fireside, the
soldier does not presume upon his superiority. He talks freely but not
boastingly of his travels and campaigns. He always finds attentive
auditors, for we all love and respect the old defenders of France.
Some accuse the fantassin of being too unsophisticated; there are
occasions when simplicity of speech is the height of eloquence.
"What were you doing at Solferino?" some one once asked a soldier.
"I?—I was doing like the rest—killing and being killed," he
Sublimely artless speech in which is summed up all the philosophy of war.