The opera is in 4 acts and 15 scenes. Place and time: Lille & Armentieres in French Flanders, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Scene 1 (strophe): Marie has moved from ArmentiÃ¨res to Lille with her father Wesener, a fancy goods merchant. She writes a letter to the mother of her fiance, Stolzius, a young draper in Armentieres. An argument breaks out between Marie and her sister Charlotte, who is scornful of Marie's love for Stolzius.
Scene 2 (ciacona I): Stolzius has been lovesick since Marie's departure for Lille, but he is encouraged when his mother brings him a letter.
Scene 3 (ricercari I): Desportes is a French-serving nobleman from Hainaut, and one of Wesener's customers. He courts the commoner Marie and wins her affection. Her father, however, forbids her to go with him to the theatre - for a commoner to accompany an officer in public would damage the family name.
Scene 4 (toccata I): At the trenches in Armentieres, officers discuss with Padre Eisenhardt the relative merits of comedy - Haudy, one of the officers, holds the view that it has more value than a sermon. Eisenhardt maintains that comedy undermines the soldiers' sense of what is right - their loose morals have already brought misery to countless young women. Haudy counters with the argument, "once a whore, always a whore". No, replies the Padre, a whore would never be a whore if she were not forced to become one.
Scene 5 (nocturno I): Wesener advises his daughter to be cautious in her dealings with Desportes, although he secretly harbours the hope that she may marry the young aristocrat. In the meantime, he says, it would not be wise to give up Stolzius altogether. As stormclouds gather, Marie grows anxious at what lies ahead and the dilemma builds in her heart.
Scene 1 (toccata II): The officers are relaxing at the Armentieres cafe owned by Madame Roux. They call across the unsuspecting Stolzius and make insinuating remarks about Marie's relationship with Desportes.
Scene 2 (capriccio, corale e ciacona II): Marie has received a reproachful letter from Stolzius. She is reading it in tears when Desportes enters. He scornfully dictates to her a brusque reply. His flattery finally has the desired effect - his spot with Marie is won. In the room next door Wesener's aged mother sings the folk song Roesel aus Hennegay which contains the prophetic line "Some day your cross will come to you". On a partitioned stage appear, on one side, Marie and Desportes as a couple engrossed in love play, and on the other, Stolzius and his mother, who is trying to convince her son that having broken off his engagement, the "soldier's whore" Marie was not worthy of him. But Stolzius defends her and swears revenge on Desportes.
Scene 1 (rondino): A conversation between the Padre and Captain Pirzel, whose odd behaviour is portrayed as the result of the monotony of military service, reveals that major Mary - a friend of Desportes - is to be transferred from Armentieres to Lille.
Scene 2 (rappresentazione): In order to move closer to Marie, Stolzius offers Major Mary his services as a batman.
Scene 3 (ricercari II): Desportes has left Marie. When she starts accepting gifts from Major Mary, her sister Charlotte labels her a "soldier's girl". Marie claims she only behaved in this way in order to get news of Desportes. Mary invites the two sisters Marie and Charlotte for a drive - neither of them recognises the true identity of his batman Stolzius.
Scene 4 (nocturno II): Countess de la Roche reproaches her son, the young Count, for his behaviour towards Marie. She advises him to leave town and, in order to protect Marie from the advances of other officers, she declares herself willing to take the girl into her own house as a companion.
Scene 5 (tropi): The countess goes to find Marie at her father's house. In Charlotte's presence she makes the offer to take Marie into her household, persuading her it is the only way she can now save her honour.
Scene 1 (toccata III): What the future holds in store for Marie is a living nightmare. Having turned down the Countess' offer in order to try to renew her contact with Desportes, he now subjects her to the attentions of his gamekeeper who makes a brutal sexual assault on her. Dishonoured and discredited, Marie wanders aimlessly while the Countess, the young Count, Wesener, Charlotte, Pirzel and the Padre search for her.
Scene 2 (ciacona III): Mary and Desportes are eating their evening meal. Stolzius, who is serving them, overhears their conversation and learns of Marie's fate. He hands Desportes a bowl of poisoned soup, and before drinking some of the soup himself he triumphantly reveals his identity to the dying officer.
Scene 3 (nocturno III): Marie, now sunk to the level of a street beggar, encounters her father and asks him for alms. The old man does not recognise her, but out of concern for his daughter he gives her money. He then joins an endless procession of enslaved and fallen soldiers, in which the drunken officers also take part. In the final scene, the action builds to a vision of hell in which one human is raped by another, the individual by the collective conscience - and, in this instance, by the ruthless power of the army.