While my grandfather’s army scrapbooks are eighty percent WWII, he kept a few pictures and mementos from WWI. This one, taken at Versailles, intrigues me.
- Why did this group of men decide to pose in such an orderly fashion?
- Why is my grandfather – the one at the back left – looking so cocky with his hands stuffed in his pockets and his angled stance?
- What brought men from different ranks and countries together?
- What does the flag, so prominently displayed, represent?
I imagine my grandfather was training or on leave, but that’s merely a guess.
The town was full of training camps, cantonnements, and cantines. Soldiers of all nations, all colours, all divisions, and all grades pass in and out the Park gates all day. The tower of Babel could have been nothing to what the Park of Versailles was that Sunday that I was there. There were Americans and British,—Canadians, Australians, Egyptians, Indians,—there were French and Senegalese, and Moroccans; there were Serbs and Italians; there were Portuguese and Belgians and Rastas, and alas! there were a few Russians, for there are millions of them just as ashamed of what is happening out in the east as we are, and just as sad over it. There were blacks and whites, yellows and reds and browns. There were chic officers, some of them on leave, still sporting their pantalons rouges, and much braided képis. There were slouching poilus in their baggy trousers and ill-fitting coats, and smart English Tommies, and broad-hatted Yanks, looking as if they wished they could go coat-less and roll up their sleeves — it was a hot day — instantly distinguishable from the wide-hatted Australians and Canadians. Nothing was handsomer than the Italians with their smart, half-high hats, or more amusing than the Belgians’ little tassels of all colours jigging from the front of their head covering. All day that picturesque crowd passed in and out of the park, with crowds of women and children and all sorts of civilians …
There are no flowers. Some of the pines and cedars on the terraces are neglected — the number of gardeners is insufficient for all the work — and in some of the more primitive parts of the park the trees need trimming. Instead of flowers there are vegetables planted everywhere. All the flower beds surrounding the grass plots are planted with potatoes and beans and simple garden stuff. As the French gardener is incapable of doing anything ugly, these beds of vegetables are laid out just as carefully as if the choicest flowers from the serres were there; each bed has its label, carefully placed, to indicate the variety, bearing the words, “Planted for Ambulance No.——.
Perhaps my grandfather was there at the same time?