My Year Of The War
Including An Account Of Experiences With The Troops In France, And The Record Of A Visit To The Grand Fleet, Which Is Here Given For The First Time In Its Complete Form
By Frederick Palmer (Accredited American Correspondent at the British Front)
To The Reader I. "Le Brave Belge!" II. Mons And Paris III. Paris Waits IV. On The Heels Of Von Kluck V. And Calais Waits VI. In Germany VII. How The Kaiser Leads VIII. In Belgium Under The Germans IX. Christmas In Belgium X. The Future Of Belgium XI. Winter In Lorraine XII. Smiles Among Ruins XIII. A Road Of War I Know XIV. Trenches In Winter XV. In Neuve Chapelle XVI. Nearer The Germans XVII. With The Guns XVIII. Archibald The Archer XIX. Trenches In Summer XX. A School In Bombing XXI. My Best Day At The Front XXII. More Best Day XXIII. Winning And Losing XXIV. The Maple Leaf Folk XXV. Many Pictures XXVI. Finding The Grand Fleet XXVII. On A Destroyer XXVIII. Ships That Have Fought XXIX. On The Inflexible XXX. On The Fleet Flagship XXXI. Simply Hard Work XXII. Hunting The Submarine XXXIII. The Fleet Puts To Sea XXIV. British Problems
To the Reader
In 'The Last Shot', which appeared only a few months before the Great War began, drawing from my experience in many wars, I attempted to describe the character of a conflict between two great European land-powers, such as France and Germany.
"You were wrong in some ways," a friend writes to me, "but in other ways it is almost as if you had written a play and they were following your script and stage business."
Wrong as to the duration of the struggle and its bitterness and the atrocious disregard of treaties and the laws of war by one side; right about the part which artillery would play; right in suggesting the stalemate of intrenchments when vast masses of troops occupied the length of a frontier. Had the Germans not gone through Belgium and attacked on the shorter line of the Franco-German boundary, the parallel of fact with that of prediction would have been more complete. As for the ideal of 'The Last Shot', we must await the outcome to see how far it shall be fulfilled by a lasting peace.
Then my friend asks, "How does it make you feel?" Not as a prophet; only as an eager observer, who finds that imagination pales beside reality. If sometimes an incident seemed a page out of my novel, I was reminded how much better I might have done that page from life; and from life I am writing now.
I have seen too much of the war and yet not enough to assume the pose of a military expert; which is easy when seated in a chair at home before maps and news dispatches, but becomes fantastic after one has lived at the front. One waits on more information before he forms conclusions about campaigns. He is certain only that the Marne was a decisive battle for civilization; that if England had not gone into the war the Germanic Powers would have won in three months.
No words can exaggerate the heroism and sacrifice of the French or the importance of the part which the British have played, which we shall not realize till the war is over. In England no newspapers were suppressed; casualty lists were published; she gave publicity to dissensions and mistakes which others concealed, in keeping with her ancient birthright of free institutions which work out conclusions through discussion rather than take them ready-made from any ruler or leader.
Whatever value this book has is the reflection of personal observation and the thoughts which have occurred to me when I have walked around my experiences and measured them and found what was worth while and what was not. Such as they are, they are real.
Most vital of all in sheer expression of military power was the visit to the British Grand Fleet; most humanly appealing, the time spent in Belgium under German rule; most dramatic, the French victory on the Marne; most precious, my long stay at the British front.
A traveller's view I had of Germany in the early period of the war; but I was never with the German army, which made Americans particularly welcome for obvious reasons. Between right and wrong one cannot be a neutral. In foregoing the diversion of shaking hands and passing the time of day on the Germanic fronts, I escaped any bargain with my conscience by accepting the hospitality of those warring for a cause and in a manner obnoxious to me. I was among friends, living the life of one army and seeing war in all its aspects from day to day, instead of having tourist glimpses.
Chapters which deal with the British army in France and with the British fleet have been submitted to the censor. Though the censor may delete military secrets, he may not prompt opinions. Whatever notes of praise and of affection which you may read between the lines or in them spring from the mind and heart. Undemonstratively, cheerily as they would go for a walk, with something of old-fashioned chivalry, the British went to death.
Their national weaknesses and strength, revealed under external differences by association, are more akin to ours than we shall realize until we face our own inevitable crisis. Though one's ancestors had been in America for nearly three centuries, he was continually finding how much of custom, of law, of habit, and of instinct he had in common with them; and how Americans who were not of British blood also shared these as an applied inheritance that has been the most formative element in the American crucible.
My grateful acknowledgments are due to the American press associations who considered me worthy to be the accredited American correspondent at the British front, and to Collier's and Everybody's; and may an author who has not had the opportunity to read proofs request the reader's indulgence.
FREDERICK PALMER. British Headquarters, France.
My Year Of The War
I "Le Brave Belge!"
The rush from Monterey, in Mexico, when a telegram said that general European war was inevitable; the run and jump on board the Lusitania at New York the night that war was declared by England against Germany; the Atlantic passage on the liner of ineffaceable memory, a suspense broken by fragments of war news by wireless; the arrival in England before the war was a week old; the journey to Belgium in the hope of reaching the scene of action!—as I write, all seem to have the perspective of history, so final are the processes of war, so swift their execution, and so eager is everyone for each day's developments. As one grows older the years seem shorter; but the first year of the Great War is the longest year most of us have ever known.
Le brave Belge! One must be honest about him. The man who lets his heart run away with his judgment does his mind an injustice. A fellow-countryman who was in London and fresh from home in the eighth month of the war, asked me for my views of the relative efficiency of the different armies engaged.
"Do you mean that I am to speak without regard to personal sympathies?" I asked.
"Certainly," he replied.
When he had my opinion he exclaimed:
"You have mentioned them all except the Belgian army. I thought it was the best of all."
"Is that what they think at home?" I asked.
"Yes, of course."
"The Atlantic is broad," I suggested.
This man of affairs, an exponent of the efficiency of business, was a sentimentalist when it came to war, as Anglo-Saxons usually are. The side which they favour—that is the efficient side. When I ventured to suggest that the Belgian army, in a professional sense, was hardly to be considered as an army, it was clear that he had ceased to associate my experience with any real knowledge.
In business he was one who saw his rivals, their abilities, the organization of their concerns, and their resources of competition with a clear eye. He could say of his best personal friend: "I like him, but he has a poor head for affairs." Yet he was the type who, if he had been a trained soldier, would have been a business man of war who would have wanted a sharp, ready sword in a well-trained hand and to leave nothing to chance in a battle for the right. In Germany, where some of the best brains of the country are given to making war a business, he might have been a soldier who would rise to a position on the staff. In America he was the employer of three thousand men— a general of civil life.
"But look how the Belgians have fought!" he exclaimed. "They stopped the whole German army for two weeks!"
The best army was best because it had his sympathy. His view was the popular view in America: the view of the heart. America saw the pigmy fighting the giant rather than let him pass over Belgian soil. On that day when a gallant young king cried, "To arms!" all his people became gallant to the imagination.
When I think of Belgium's part in the war I always think of the little Belgian dog, the schipperke who lives on the canal boats. He is a home-staying dog, loyal, affectionate, domestic, who never goes out on the tow-path to pick quarrels with other dogs; but let anything on two or four feet try to go on board when his master is away and he will fight with every ounce of strength in him. The King had the schipperke spirit. All the Belgians who had the schipperke spirit tried to sink their teeth in the calves of the invader.
One's heart was with the Belgians on that eighteenth day of August, 1914, when one set out toward the front in a motor-car from a Brussels rejoicing over bulletins of victory, its streets walled with bunting; but there was something brewing in one's mind which was as treason to one's desires. Let Brussels enjoy its flags and its capture of German cavalry patrols while it might!
On the hills back of Louvain we came upon some Belgian troops in their long, cumbersome coats, dark silhouettes against the field, digging shallow trenches in an uncertain sort of way. Whether it was due to the troops or to Belgian staff officers hurrying by in their cars, I had the impression of the will and not the way and a parallel of raw militia in uniforms taken from grandfather's trunk facing the trained antagonists of an Austerlitz, or a Waterloo, or a Gettysburg.
Le brave Beige! The question on that day was not, Are you brave? but, Do you know how to fight? Also, Would the French and the British arrive in time to help you? Of a thousand rumours about the positions of the French and the British armies, one was as good as another. All the observer knew was that he was an atom in a motor- car and all he saw for the defence of Belgium was a regiment of Belgians digging trenches. He need not have been in Belgium before to realize that here was an unwarlike people, living by intensive thrift and caution—a most domesticated civilization in the most thickly- populated workshop in Europe, counting every blade of grass and every kernel of wheat and making its pleasures go a long way at small cost; a hothouse of a land, with the door about to be opened to the withering blast of war.
Out of the Hotel de Ville at Louvain, as our car halted by the cathedral door, came an elderly French officer, walking with a light, quick step, his cloak thrown back over his shoulders, and hurriedly entered a car; and after him came a tall British officer, walking more slowly, imperturbably, as a man who meant to let nothing disturb him or beat him—both characteristic types of race. This was the break-up of the last military conference held at Louvain, which had now ceased to be Belgian Headquarters.
How little you knew and how much they knew! The sight of them was helpful. One was the representative of a force of millions of Frenchman; of the army. I had always believed in the French army, and have more reason now than ever to believe in it. There was no doubt that if a French corps and a German corps were set the task of marching a hundred miles to a strategic position, the French would arrive first and win the day in a pitched battle. But no one knew this better than that German Staff whose superiority, as von Moltke said, would always ensure victory. Was the French army ready? Could it bring the fullness of its strength into the first and perhaps the deciding shock of arms? Where was the French army?
The other officer who came out of the Hotel de Ville was the representative of a little army—a handful of regulars—hard as nails and ready to the last button. Where was the British army? The restaurant keeper where we had luncheon at Louvain—he knew. He whispered his military secret to me. The British army was toward Antwerp, waiting to crush the Germans in the flank should they advance on Brussels. We were "drawing them on!" Most cheerful, most confident, mine host! When I went back to Louvain under German rule his restaurant was in ruins.
We were on our way to as near the front as we would go, with a pass which was written for us by a Belgian reservist in Brussels between sips of beer brought him by a boy scout. It was a unique, a most accommodating pass; the only one I have received from the Allies' side which would have taken me into the German lines.
The front which we saw was in the square of the little town of Haelen, where some dogs of a dog machine-gun battery lay panting in their traces. A Belgian officer in command there I recollect for his passionate repetition of, "Assassins! The barbarians!" which seemed to choke out any other words whenever he spoke of the Germans. His was a fresh, livid hate, born of recent fighting. We could go where we pleased, he said; and the Germans were "out there," not far away. Very tired he was, except for the flash of hate in his eyes; as tired as the dogs of the machine-gun battery.
We went outside to see the scene of "the battle," as it was called in the dispatches; a field in the first flush of the war, where the headless lances of Belgian and German cavalrymen were still scattered about. The peasants had broken off the lance-heads for the steel, which was something to pay for the grain smouldering in the barn which had been shelled and burned.
A battle! It was a battle because the reporters could get some account of it, and the fighting in Alsace was hidden under the cloud of secrecy. A superficial survey was enough to show that it had been only a reconnaissance by the Germans with some infantry and guns as well as cavalry. Their defeat had been an incident to the thrust of a tiny feeling finger of the German octopus for information. The scouting of the German cavalry patrols here and there had the same object. Waiting behind hedges or sweeping around in the rear of a patrol with their own cavalry when the word came by telephone, the Belgians bagged many a German, man and horse, dead and alive. Brussels and London and New York, too, thrilled over these exploits supplied to eager readers. It was the Uhlan week of the war; for every German cavalryman was a Uhlan, according to popular conception. These Uhlans seemed to have more temerity than sense from the accounts that you read. But if one out of a dozen of these mounted youths, with horses fresh and a trooper's zest in the first flush of war, returned to say that he had ridden to such and such points without finding any signs of British or French forces, he had paid for the loss of the others. The Germans had plenty of cavalry. They used it as the eyes of the army, in co-operation with the aerial eyes of the planes.
A peasant woman came out of the house beside the battlefield with her children around her; a flat-chested, thin woman, prematurely old with toil. "Les Anglais!" she cried at sight of us. Seeing that we had some lances in the car, she rushed into her house and brought out half a dozen more. If the English wanted lances they should have them. She knew only a few words of French, not enough to express the question which she made understood by gestures. Her eyes were burning with appeal to us and flashing with hate as she shook her fist toward the Germans.
When were the English coming? All her trust was in the English, the invincible English, to save her country. Probably the average European would have passed her by as an excited peasant woman. But pitiful she was to me, more pitiful than the raging officer and his dog battery, or the infantry awkwardly intrenching back of Louvain, or flag-bedecked Brussels believing in victory: one of the Belgians with the true schipperke spirit. She was shaking her fist at a dam which was about to burst in a flood.
It was strange to an American, who comes from a land where everyone learns a single language, English, that she and her ancestors, through centuries of living neighbour in a thickly-populated country to people who speak French and to French civilization, should never have learned to express themselves in any but their own tongue—singular, almost incredible, tenacity in the age of popular education! She would save the lance-heads and garner every grain of wheat; she economized in all but racial animosity. This racial stubbornness of Europe—perhaps it keeps Europe powerful in jealous competition of race with race.
The thought that went home was that she did not want the Germans to come; no Belgian wanted them; and this was the fact decisive in the scales of justice. She said, as the officer had said, that the Germans were "out there." Across the fields one saw nothing on that still August day; no sign of war unless a Taube overhead, the first enemy aeroplane I had seen in war. For the last two days the German patrols had ceased to come. Liege, we knew, had fallen. Looking at the map, we prayed that Namur would hold.
"Out there" beyond the quiet fields, that mighty force which was to swing through Belgium in flank was massed and ready to move when the German Staff opened the throttle. A mile or so away a patrol of Belgian cyclists stopped us as we turned toward Brussels. They were dust-covered and weary; the voice of their captain was faint with fatigue. For over two weeks he had been on the hunt of Uhlan patrols. Another schipperke he, who could not only hate but fight as best he knew how.
"We had an alarm," he said. "Have you heard anything?"
When we told him no, he pedalled on more slowly, and oh, how wearily! to the front. Rather pitiful that, too, when you thought of what was "out there."
One had learned enough to know, without the confidential information that he received, that the Germans could take Brussels if they chose. But the people of Brussels still thronged the streets under the blankets of bunting. If bunting could save Brussels, it was in no danger.
There was a mockery about my dinner that night. The waiter who laid the white cloth on a marble table was unctuously suggestive as to menu. Luscious grapes and crisp salad, which Belgian gardeners grow with meticulous care, I remember of it. You might linger over your coffee, knowing the truth, and look out at the people who did not know it. When they were not buying more buttons with the allied colours, or more flags, or dropping nickel pieces in Red Cross boxes, they were thronging to the kiosks for the latest edition of the evening papers, which told them nothing.
A man had to make up his mind. Clearly, he had only to keep in his room in his hotel in order to have a great experience. He might see the German troops enter Belgium. His American passport would protect him as a neutral. He could depend upon the legation to get him out of trouble.
"Stick to the army you are with!" an eminent American had told me.
"Yes, but I prefer to choose my army," I had replied.
The army I chose was not about to enter Brussels. It was that of "mine own people" on the side of the schipperke dog machine-gun battery which I had seen in the streets of Haelen, and the peasant woman who shook her fist at the invader, and all who had the schipperke spirit.
My empty appointment as the representative of the American Press with the British army was, at least, taken seriously by the policeman at the War Office in London when I returned from trips to Paris. The day came when it was good for British trenches and gun-positions; when it was worth all the waiting, because it was the army of my race and tongue.
II Mons And Paris
Back from Belgium to England; then across the Channel again to Boulogne, where I saw the last of the French garrison march away, their red trousers a throbbing target along the road. From Boulogne the British had advanced into Belgium. Now their base was moved on to Havre. Boulogne, which two weeks before had been cheering the advent of "Tommee Atkeens" singing "Why should we be downhearted?" was ominously lifeless. It was a town without soldiers; a town of brick and mortar and pavements whose very defencelessness was its best security should the Germans come.
The only British there were a few stray wounded officers and men who had found their way back from Mons. They had no idea where the British army was. All they realized were sleepless nights, the shock of combat, overpowering artillery fire, and resisting the onslaught of outnumbering masses.
An officer of Lancers, who had ridden through the German cavalry with his squadron, dwelt on the glory of that moment. What did his wound matter? It had come with the burst of a shell in a village street which killed his horse after the charge. He had hobbled away, reached a railroad train, and got on board. That was all he knew.
A Scotch private had been lying with his battalion in a trench when a German aeroplane was sighted. It had hardly passed by when showers of shrapnel descended, and the Germans, in that grey- green so hard to see, were coming on as thick as locusts. Then the orders came to fall back, and he was hit as his battalion made another stand. He had crawled a mile across the fields in the night with a bullet in his arm. A medical corps officer told him to find any transportation he could; and he, too, was able to get aboard a train. That was all he knew.
These wounded had been tossed aside into eddies by the maelstrom of action. They were interesting because they were the first British wounded that I had seen; because the war was young.
Back to London again to catch the steamer with an article. One was to take a season ticket to the war from London as home. It was a base whence one sallied forth to get peeps through the curtain of military secrecy at the mighty spectacle. You soaked in England at intervals and the war at intervals. Whenever you stepped on the pier at Folkestone it was with a breath of relief, born of a sense of freedom long associated with fields and hedges on the other side of the chalk cliffs which seemed to make the sequestering barrier of the sea complete.
Those days of late August and early September, 10.14, were gripping days to the memory. Eager armies were pressing forward to a cataclysm no longer of dread imagination but of reality. That ever- deepening and spreading stain from Switzerland to the North Sea was as yet only a splash of fresh blood. You still wondered if you might not wake up in the morning and find the war a nightmare. Pictures that grow clearer with time, which the personal memory chooses for its own, dissociate themselves from a background of detail.
They were very quiet, this pair that sat at the next table in the dining- room of a London hotel. I never spoke to them, but only stole discreet glances, as we all will in irresistible temptation at any newly-wedded couple. Neither was of the worldly type. One knew that to this young girl London was strange; one knew the type of country home which had given her that simple charm which cities cannot breed; one knew, too, that this young officer, her husband, waited for word to go to the front.
Unconsciously she would play with her wedding-ring. She stole covert glances at it and at him, of the kind that bring a catch in the throat, when he was not looking at her—which he was most of the time, for reasons which were good and sufficient to others besides himself. Apprehended in "wool-gathering," she mustered a smile which was so exclusively for him that the neighbour felt that he ought to be forgiven his peeps from the tail of his eye at it because it was so precious.
They attempted little flights of talk about everything except the war. He was most solicitous that she should have something which she liked to eat, whilst she was equally solicitous about him. Wasn't he going "out there?" And out there he would have to live on army fare. It was all appealing to the old traveller. And then the next morning—she was alone, after she had given him that precious smile in parting. The incident was one of the thousands before the war had become an institution, death a matter of routine, and it was a commonplace for young wives to see young husbands away to the front with a smile.
One such incident does for all, whether the war be young or old. There is nothing else to tell, even when you know wife and husband. I was rather glad that I did not know this pair. If I had known them I should be looking at the casualty list for his name and I might not enjoy my faith that he will return alive. These two seemed to me the best of England. I used to think of them when gossip sought the latest turn of intrigue under the mantle of censorship, when Parliament poured out its oral floods and the newspapers their volumes of words. The man went off to fight; the woman returned to her country home. It was the hour of war, not of talk.
On that Sunday in London when the truth about Mons appeared stark to all England, another young man happened to buy a special edition at a street corner at the same time as myself. By all criteria, the world and his tailor had treated him well and he deserved well of the world. We spoke together about the news. Already the new democracy which the war has developed was in evidence. Everybody had common thoughts and a common thing at stake, with values reckoned in lives, and this makes for equality.
"It's clear that we have had a bad knock. Why deny it?" he said. Then he added quietly, after a pause: "This is a personal call for me. I'm going to enlist."
England's answer to that "bad knock" was out of her experience. She had never won at first, but she had always won in the end; she had won the last battle. The next day's news was worse and the next day's still worse. The Germans seemed to be approaching Paris by forced marches. Paris might fall—no matter! Though the French army were shattered, one heard Englishmen say that the British would create an army to wrest victory from defeat. The spirit of this was fine, but one realized the enormity of the task; should the mighty German machine crush the French machine, the Allies had lost. To say so then was heresy, when the world was inclined to think poorly of the French army and saw Russian numbers as irresistible.
The personal call was to Paris before the fate of Paris was to be decided. My first crossing of the Channel had been to Ostend; the second, farther south to Boulogne; the third was still farther south, to Dieppe. Where next? To Havre! Events were moving with the speed which had been foreseen with myriads of soldiers ready to be thrown into battle by the quick march of the railroad trains.
Every event was hidden under the "fog of war," then a current expression—meagre official bulletins which read like hope in their brief lines, while the imagination might read as it chose between the lines. The marvel was that any but troop trains should run. All night in that third-class coach from Dieppe to Paris! Tired and preoccupied passengers; everyone's heart heavy; everyone's soul wrenched; everyone prepared for the worst! You cared for no other man's views; the one thing you wanted was no bad news. France had known that when the war came it would be to the death. From the first no Frenchman could have had any illusions. England had not realized yet that her fate was with the soldiers of France, or France that her fate and all the world's was with the British fleet.
An Italian in our compartment would talk, however, and he would keep the topic down to red trousers, and to the red trousers of a French Territorial opposite, with an index finger when his gesticulatory knowledge of the French language, which was excellent, came to the rescue of his verbal knowledge, which was poor. The Frenchman agreed that red trousers were a mistake, but pointed to the blue covering which he had for his cap—which made it all right. The Italian insisted on keeping to the trousers. He talked red trousers till the Frenchman got out at his station, and then turned to me to confirm his views on this fatal strategic and tactical error of the French. After all, he was more pertinent than most of the military experts trying to write on the basis of the military bulletins. It was droll to listen to this sartorial discourse, when at least two hundred thousand men lay dead and wounded from that day's fight on the soil of France. Red trousers were responsible for the death of a lot of those men.
Dawn, early September dawn, on dew-moist fields, where the harvest lay unfinished as the workers, hastening to the call of war, had left the work. Across Paris, which seemed as silent as the fields, to an hotel with empty rooms! Five hundred empty rooms, with a clock ticking busily in every room! War or no war, that old man who wound the clocks was making his rounds softly through the halls from door to door. He was a good soldier, who had heeded Joffre's request that everyone should go on with his day's work.
"They're done!" said an American in the foyer. "The French cannot stand up against the Germans—anybody could see that! It's too bad, but the French are licked. The Germans will be here to-morrow or the next day."
I could not and would not believe it. Such a disaster was against all one's belief in the French army and in the real character of the French people. It meant that autocracy was making sport of democracy; it meant disaster to all one's precepts; a personal disaster.
"Look at that interior line which the French now hold. Think of the power of the defensive with modern arms. No! The French have not had their battle yet!" I said.
And the British Expeditionary Force was still intact; still an army, with lots of fight left in it.
Ill Paris Waits
It was then that people were speaking of Paris as a dead city—a Paris without theatres, without young men, without omnibuses, with the shutters of its shops down and its cafes and restaurants in gloomy emptiness.
The Paris the host of the idler and the traveller; the Paris of the boulevards and the night life provided for the tourist; the Paris that sparkled and smiled in entertainment; the Paris exploited to the average American through Sunday supplements and the reminiscences of smoking-rooms of transatlantic liners, was dead. Those who knew no other Paris and conjectured no other Paris departed as from the tomb of the pleasures which had been the passing extravaganza of relief, from dull lives elsewhere. The Parisienne of that Paris spent a thousand francs to get her pet dog safely away to Marseilles. Politicians of a craven type, who are the curse of all democracies, had gone to keep her company, leaving Paris cleaner than ever she was after the streets had had their morning bath on a spring day when the horse chestnuts were in bloom and madame was arranging her early editions on the table of her kiosk—a spiritually clean Paris.
Monsieur, would you have America judged by the White Way? What has the White Way to do with the New York of Seventy-Second Street or Harlem? It serves the same purpose as the boulevards of furnishing scandalous little paragraphs for foreign newspapers. Foreigners visit it and think that they understand how Americans live in Stockbridge, Mass., or Springfield Illinois, Empty its hotels and nobody but sightseers and people interested in the White Way would know the difference.
The other Paris, making ready to stand siege, with the Government gone to Bordeaux with all the gold of the Bank of France, with the enemy's guns audible in the suburbs and old men cutting down trees and tearing up paving-stones to barricade the streets—never had that Paris been more alive. It was after the death of the old and the birth of the new Paris that an elderly man, seeing a group of women at tea in one of the few fashionable refreshment places which were open, stopped and said:
"Can you find nothing better than that to do, ladies, in a time like this?"
And the Latin temperament gave the world a surprise. Those who judged France by her playful Paris thought that if a Frenchman gesticulated so emotionally in the course of everyday existence, he would get overwhelmingly excited in a great emergency. One evening, after the repulse of the Germans on the Marne, I saw two French reserves dining in a famous restaurant where, at this time of the year, four out of five diners ordinarily would be foreigners surveying one another in a study of Parisian life. They were big, rosy- cheeked men, country born and bred, belonging to the new France of sports, of action, of temperate habits, and they were joking about dining there just as two sturdy Westerners might about dining in a deserted Broadway. The foreigners and demimondaines were noticeably absent; a pair of Frenchmen were in the place of the absentees; and after their dinner they smoked their black brier-root pipes in that fashionable restaurant.
Among the picture post-cards then on sale was one of Marianne, who is France, bound for the front in an aeroplane with a crowing French cock sitting on the brace above her. Marianne looked as happy as if she were going to the races; the cock as triumphant as if he had a spur through the German eagle's throat. However, there was little sale for picture post-cards or other trifles, while Paris waited for the siege. They did not help to win victories. News and not jeux d'esprit, victory and not wit, was wanted.
For Marianne went to war with her liberty cap drawn tight over her brow, a beat in her temples, and her heart in her throat; and the cock had his head down and pointed at the enemy. She was relieved in a way, as all Europe was, that the thing had come; at last an end of the straining of competitive taxation and preparation; at last the test. She had no Channel, as England had, between her and the foe. Defeat meant the heel of the enemy on her soil, German sentries in her streets, submission. Long and hard she had trained; while the outside world, thinking of the Paris of the boulevards, thought that she could not resist the Kaiser's legions. She was effeminate, effete. She was all right to run cafes and make artificial flowers, but she lacked beef. All the prestige was with her enemy. In '70 all the prestige had been with her. For there is no prestige like military prestige. It is all with those who won the last war.
"But if we must succumb, let it be now," said the French.
On, on—the German corps were coming like some machine- controlled avalanche of armed men. Every report brought them a little nearer Paris. Ah, monsieur, they had numbers, those Germans! Every German mother has many sons; a French mother only one or two.
How could one believe those official communiques which kept saying that the position of the French armies was favourable and then admitted that von Kluck had advanced another twenty miles? The heart of Paris stopped beating. Paris held its breath. Perhaps the reason there was no panic was that Parisians had been prepared for the worst.
What silence! The old men and the women in the streets moved as under a spell, which was the sense of their own helplessness. But few people were abroad, and those going on errands apparently. The absence of traffic and pedestrians heightened the sepulchral appearance to superficial observation. At the windows of flats, inside the little shops, and on by-streets, you saw waiting faces, everyone with the weight of national grief become personal. Was Paris alive? Yes, if Paris is human and not bricks and stone. Every Parisian was living a century in a week. So, too, was one who loved France. In the prospect of its loss he realized the value of all that France stands for, her genius, her democracy, her spirit.
One recalled how German officers had said that the next war would be the end of France. An indemnity which would crush out her power of recovery would be imposed on her. Her northern ports would be taken. France, the most homogeneous of nations, would be divided into separate nationalities—even this the Germans had planned. Those who read their Shakespeare in the language they learned in childhood had no doubt of England's coming out of the war secure; but if we thought which foreign civilization brought us the most in our lives, it was that of France.
What would the world be without French civilization? To think of France dead was to think of cells in your own brain that had gone lifeless; of something irreparable extinguished to every man to whom civilization means more than material power of destruction. The sense of what might be lost was revealed to you at every turn in scenes once merely characteristic of a whole, each with an appeal of its own now; in the types of people who, by their conduct in this hour of trial, showed that Spartan hearts might beat in Paris-the Spartan hearts of the mass of everyday, workaday Parisians.
Those waiting at home calmly with their thoughts, in a France of apprehension, knew that their fate was out of their hands in the hands of their youth. The tide of battle wavering from Meaux to Verdun might engulf them; it might recede; but Paris would resist to the last. That was something. She would resist in a manner worthy of Paris; and one could live on very little food. Their fathers had. Every day that Paris held out would be a day lost to the Germans and a day gained for Joffre and Sir John French to bring up reserves.
The street lamps should not reveal to Zeppelins or Taubes the location of precious monuments. You might walk the length of the Champs Elysees without meeting a vehicle or more than two or three pedestrians. The avenue was all your own; you might appreciate it as an avenue for itself; and every building and even the skyline of the streets you might appreciate, free of any association except the thought of the results of man's planning and building. Silent, deserted Paris by moonlight, without street lamps—few had ever seen that. Millionaire tourists with retinues of servants following them in motor- cars may never know this effect; nor the Parisienne who paid a thousand francs to send her pet dog to Marseilles.
The moonlight threw the Arc de Triomphe in exaggerated spectral relief, sprinkled the leaves of the long rows of trees, glistened on the upsweep of the broad pavements, gleamed on the Seine. Paris was majestic, as scornful of Prussian eagles as the Parthenon of Roman eagles. A column of soldiery marching in triumph under the Arc might possess as a policeman possesses; but not by arms could they gain the quality that made Paris, any more than the Roman legionary became a Greek scholar by doing sentry go in front of the Parthenon. Every Parisian felt anew how dear Paris was to him; how worthy of some great sacrifice!
If New York were in danger of falling to an enemy, the splendid length of Fifth Avenue and the majesty of the skyscrapers of lower Broadway and the bay and the rivers would become vivid to you in a way they never had before; or Washington, or San Francisco, or Boston—or your own town. The thing that is a commonplace, when you are about to lose it takes on a cherished value.
To-morrow the German guns might be thundering in front of the fortifications. The communiques from Joffre became less frequent and more laconic. Their wording was like some trembling, fateful needle of a barometer, pausing, reacting a little, but going down, down, down, indicator of the heart-pressure of Paris, shrivelling the flesh, tightening the nerves. Already Paris was in a state of siege, in one sense. Her exits were guarded against all who were not in uniform and going to fight; to all who had no purpose except to see what was passing where two hundred miles resounded with strife. It was enough to see Paris itself awaiting the siege; fighting one was yet to see to repletion.
The situation must be very bad or the Government would not have gone to Bordeaux. Alors, one must trust the army and the army must trust Joffre. There is no trust like that of a democracy when it gives its heart to a cause; the trust of the mass in the strength of the mass which sweeps away the middlemen of intrigue.
And silence, only silence in Paris; the silence of the old men and the women, and of children who had ceased to play and could not understand. No one might see what was going on unless he carried a rifle. No one might see even the wounded. Paris was spared this, isolated in the midst of war. The wounded were sent out of reach of the Germans in case they should come.
Then the indicator stopped falling. It throbbed upward. The communiques became more definite; they told of positions regained, and borne in the ether by the wireless of telepathy was something which confirmed the communiques. At first Paris was uneasy with the news, so set had history been on repeating itself, so remorselessly certain had seemed the German advance. But it was true, true—the Germans were going, with the French in pursuit, now twenty, now thirty, now forty, now fifty, sixty, seventy miles away from Paris. Yes, monsieur, seventy!
With the needle rising, did Paris gather in crowds and surge through the streets, singing and shouting itself hoarse, as it ought to have done according to the popular international idea? No, monsieur, Paris will not riot in joy in the presence of the dead on the battlefields and while German troops are still within the boundaries of France. Paris, which had been with heart standing still and breathing hard, began to breathe regularly again and the glow of life to run through her veins. In the markets, whither madame brought succulent melons, pears, and grapes with commonplace vegetables, the talk of bargaining housewives with their baskets had something of its old vivacity and madame stiffened prices a little, for there will be heavy taxes to pay for the war. Children, so susceptible to surroundings, broke out of the quiet alleys and doorways in play again.
A Sunday of relief, with a radiant September sun shining, followed a Sunday of depression. The old taxicabs and the horse vehicles with their venerable steeds and drivers too old for service at the front, exhumed from the catacomb of the hours of doubt, ran up and down the Champs Elysees with airing parties. At Notre Dame the religious rejoicing was expressed. A great service of prayer was held by the priests who were not away fighting for France, as three thousand are, while joyful prayers of thanks shone on the faces of that democratic people who have not hesitated to discipline the church as they have disciplined their rulers. Groups gathered in the cafes or sauntered slowly, talking less than usual, gesticulating little, rolling over the good news in their minds as something beyond the power of expression. How banal to say, "C'est chic, ca!" or "C'est epatant!" Language is for little things.
That pile of posters at the American Embassy had already become historical souvenirs which won a smile. The name of every American resident in Paris and his address had been filled in the blank space. He had only to put up the warning over his door that the premises were under the Embassy's protection. Ambassador Herrick, suave, decisive, resourceful, possessed the gift of acting in a great emergency with the same ease and simplicity as in a small one, which is a gift sometimes found wanting when a crisis breaks upon the routine of official life.
He had the courage to act and the ability to secure a favour for an American when it was reasonable; and the courage to say "No" if it were unreasonable or impracticable. No one of the throngs who had business with him was kept long at the door in uncertainty. In its organization for facilitating the home-going of the thousands of Americans in Paris and the Americans coming to Paris from other parts of Europe, the American Embassy in Paris seemed as well mobilized for its part in the war as the German army.
In spite of '70, France still lived. You noted the faces of the women in fresh black for their dead at the front, a little drawn but proud and victorious. The son or brother or husband had died for the country. When a fast motor-car bearing officers had a German helmet or two displayed, the people stopped to look. A captured German in the flesh on a front seat beside a soldier-chauffeur brought the knots to a standstill. "Voila C'est un Allemand!" ran the exclamation. But Paris soon became used to these stray German prisoners, left-overs from the German retreat coming in from the fields to surrender. The batches went through by train without stopping for Paris, southward to the camps where they were to be interned; and the trains of wounded to winter resorts, whose hotels became hospitals, the verandas occupied by convalescents instead of gossiping tourists. It is tres a la mode to be wounded, monsieur—tres a la mode all over Europe.
And, monsieur, all those barricades put up for nothing! They will not need the cattle gathered on Long-champs race-track and in the parks at Versailles for a siege. The people who laid in stocks of tinned goods till the groceries of Paris were empty of everything in tins—they will either have to live on canned food or confess that they were pigs, hein? Those volunteers, whether young men who had been excused because they were only sons or for weak hearts which now let them past the surgeons, whether big, hulking farmers, or labourers, or stooped clerks, drilling in awkward squads in the suburbs till they are dizzy, they will not have to defend Paris; but, perhaps, help to regain Alsace and Lorraine.
Then there were stories going the rounds; stories of French courage and elan which were cheering to the ears of those who had to remain at home. Did you hear about the big French peasant soldier who captured a Prussian eagle in Alsace? They had him come to Paris to give him the Legion of Honour and the great men made a ceremony of it, gathering around him at the Ministry of War. The simple fellow looked from one to another of the group, surprised at all this attention. It did not occur to him that he had done anything remarkable. He had seen a Prussian with a standard and taken the standard away from the Prussian.
"If you like this so well," said that droll one, "I'll try to get another!"
IV On The Heels Of Von Kluck
Though the Germans were going, the siege by the cordon of French guards around Paris had not been raised. To them every civilian was a possible spy. So they let no civilians by. Must one remain for ever in Paris, screened from any view of the great drama? Was there no way of securing a blue card which would open the road to war for an atom of humanity who wanted to see Frenchmen in action and not to pry into generals' plans?
Happily, an army winning is more hospitable than an army losing; and bonds of friendship which stretch around the world could be linked with authority which has only to say the word, in order that one might have a day's glimpse of the fields where von Kluck's Germans were showing their heels to the French.
Ours, I think, was the pioneer of the sight-seeing parties which afterwards became the accepted form of war correspondence with the French. None could have been under more delightful auspices in companionship or in the event. Victory was in the hearts of our hosts, who included M. Paul Doumer, formerly President of the Chamber of Deputies and Governor of French Indo-China and now a senator, and General Febrier, of the French Medical Service, who was to have had charge of the sanitation of Paris in case of a siege.
M. Doumer was acting as Chef de Cabinet to General Gallieni, the commandant of Paris, and he and General Febrier and two other officers of Gallieni's staff, who would have been up to their eyes in work if there had been a siege, wanted to see something of that army whose valour had given them a holiday. Why should not Roberts and myself come along? which is the pleasant way the French have of putting an invitation.
Oh, the magic of a military pass and the companionship of an officer in uniform! It separates you from the crowd of millions on the other side of the blank wall of military secrecy and takes you into the area of the millions in uniform; it wins a nod of consent on a road from that middle-aged reservist whose bayonet has the police power of millions of bayonets in support of its authority.
At last one was to see; the measure of his impressions was to be his own eyes and not written reports. Other passes I have had since, which gave me the run of trenches and shell-fire areas; but this pass opened the first door to the war. That day we ran by Meaux and Chateau Thierry to Soissons and back by Senlis to Paris. We saw a finger's breadth of battle area; a pin-point of army front. Only a ride along a broad, fine road out of Paris, at first; a road which our cars had all to themselves. Then at Claye we came to the high-water mark of the German invasion in this region. Thus close to Paris in that direction and no closer had the Germans come.
There was the field where their skirmishers had turned back. Farther on, the branches of the avenue of trees which shaded the road had been slashed as if by a whirlwind of knives, where the French soixante-quinze field-guns had found a target. Under that sudden bath of projectiles, with the French infantry pressing forward on their front, the German gunners could not wait to take away the cord of five-inch shells which they had piled to blaze their way to Paris. One guessed their haste and their irritation. They were within range of the fortifications; within two hours' march of the suburbs; of the Mecca of forty years' preparation. After all that march from Belgium, with no break in the programme of success, the thunders broke and lightning flashed out of the sky as Manoury's army rushed upon von Kluck's flank.
"It was not the way that they wanted us to get the shells," said a French peasant who was taking one of the shell-baskets for a souvenir. It would make an excellent umbrella stand.
For the French it had been the turn of the tide; for that little British army which had fought its way back from Mons it was the sweet dream, which had kept men up on the retreat, come true. Weary Germans, after a fearful two weeks of effort, became the driven. Weary British and French turned drivers. A hypodermic of victory renewed their energy. Paris was at their back and the German backs in front. They were no longer leaving their dead and wounded behind to the foe; they were sweeping past the dead and wounded of the foe.
But their happiness, that of a winning action, exalted and passionate, had not the depths of that of the refugees who had fled before the German hosts and were returning to their homes in the wake of their victorious army. We passed farmers with children perched on top of carts laden with household goods and drawn by broad-backed farm- horses, with usually another horse or a milch cow tied behind. The real power of France, these peasants holding fast to the acres they own, with the fire of the French nature under their thrifty conservatism. Others on foot were villagers who had lacked horses or carts to transport their belongings. In the packs on their backs were a few precious things which they had borne away and were now bearing back.
Soon they would know what the Germans had done to the homes. What the Germans had done to one piano was evident. It stood in the yard of a house where grass and flowers had been trodden by horses and men. In the sport of victory the piano had been dragged out of the little drawing-room, while Fritz and Hans played and sang in the intoxication of a Paris gained, a France in submission. They did not know what Joffre had in pickle for them. It had all gone according to programme up to that moment. Nothing can stop us Germans! Champagne instead of beer! Set the glass on top of the piano and sing! Haven't we waited forty years for this day?
Captured diaries of German officers, which reflect the seventh heaven of elation suddenly turned into grim depression, taken in connection with what one saw on the battlefield, reconstruct the scene around that piano. The cup to the lips; then dashed away. How those orders to retreat must have hurt!
The state of the refugees' homes all depended upon the chances of war. War's lightning might have hit your roof-tree and it might not. It plays no favourites between the honest and the dishonest; the thrifty and the shiftless. We passed villages which exhibited no signs of destruction or of looting. German troops had marched through in the advance and in the retreat without being billeted. A hurrying army with another on its heels has no time for looting. Other villages had been points of topical importance; they had been in the midst of a fight. General Mauvaise Chance had it in for them. Shells had wrecked some houses; others were burned. Where a German non-commissioned officer came to the door of a French family and said that room must be made for German soldiers in that house and if anyone dared to interfere with them he would be shot, there the exhausted human nature of a people trained to think that "Krieg ist Krieg" and that the spoils of war are to the victor had its way.
It takes generations to lift a man up a single degree; but so swift is the effect of war, when men live a year in a day, that he is demonized in a month. Before the occupants had to go, often windows were broken, crockery smashed, closets and drawers rifled. The soldiery which could not have its Paris "took it out" of the property of their hosts. Looting, destruction, one can forgive in the orgy of war which is organized destruction; one can even understand rapine and atrocities when armies, which include latent vile and criminal elements, are aroused to the kind of insane passion which war kindles in human beings. But some indecencies one could not understand in civilized men. All with a military purpose, it is said; for in the nice calculations of a staff system which grinds so very fine, nothing must be excluded that will embarrass the enemy. A certain foully disgusting practice was too common not to have had the approval of at least some officers, whose conduct in several chateaux includes them as accomplices. Not all officers, not all soldiers. That there should be a few is enough to sicken you of belonging to the human species. Nothing worse in Central America; nothing worse where civilized degeneracy disgraces savagery.
But do not think that destruction for destruction's sake was done in all houses where German soldiers were billeted. If the good principle was not sufficiently impressed, Belgium must have impressed it; a looting army is a disorderly army. The soldier has burden enough to carry in heavy marching order without souvenirs. That collector of the stoppers of carafes who had thirty on his person when taken prisoner was bound to be a laggard in the retreat.
To their surprise and relief, returning farmers found their big, conical haystacks untouched, though nothing could be more tempting to the wantonness of an army on enemy soil. Strike a match and up goes the harvest! Perhaps the Germans as they advanced had in mind to save the forage for their own horses, and either they were running too fast to stop or the staff overlooked the detail on the retreat.
It was amazing how few signs of battle there were in the open. Occasionally one saw the hastily-made shelter-trenches of a skirmish line; and again, the emplacements for batteries—hurried field- emplacements, so puny beside those of trench warfare. It had been open fighting; the tide of an army sweeping forward and then, pursued, sweeping back. One side was trying to get away; the other to overtake. Here, a rearguard made a determined action which would have had the character of a battle in other days; there, a rearguard was pinched as the French or the British got around it.
Swift marching and quick manoeuvres of the type which gave war some of its old sport and zest; the advance all the while gathering force like the neap tide! Crowds of men hurrying across a harvested wheatfield or a pasture after all leave few marks of passage. A day's rain will wash away bloodstains and liven trampled vegetation. Nature hastens with a kind of contempt of man to repair the damage done by his murderous wrath.
The cyclone past, the people turned out to put things in order. Peasants too old to fight, who had paid the taxes which paid for the rifles and guns and shell-fire, were moving across the fields with spades, burying the bodies of the young men and the horses that were war's victims. Long trenches full of dead told where the eddy of battle had been fierce and the casualties numerous; scattered mounds of fresh earth where they were light; and, sometimes, when the burying was unfinished—well, one draws the curtain over scenes like that in the woods at Betz, where Frenchmen died knowing that Paris was saved and Germans died knowing that they had failed to take Paris.
Whenever we halted our statesman, M. Doumer, was active. Did we have difficulties over a culvert which had been hastily mended, he was out of the car and in command. Always he was meeting some man whom he knew and shaking hands like a senator at home. At one place a private soldier, a man of education by his speech, came running across the street at sight of him.
"Son of an old friend of mine, from my town," said our statesman. Being a French private meant being any kind of a Frenchman. All inequalities are levelled in the ranks of a great conscript army.
Be it through towns unharmed or towns that had been looted and shelled, the people had the smile of victory, the look of victory in their eyes. Children and old men and women, the stay-at-homes, waved to our car in holiday spirit. The laugh of a sturdy young woman who threw some flowers into the tonneau as we passed, in her tribute to the uniform of the army that had saved France, had the spirit of victorious France—France after forty years' waiting throwing back a foe that had two soldiers to every one of hers. All the land, rich fields and neat gardens and green stretches of woods in the fair, rolling landscape, basked in victory. Dead the spirit of anyone who could not, for the time being, catch the infection of it and feel himself a Frenchman. Far from the Paris of gay show for the tourist one seemed; in the midst of the France of the farms and the villages which had saved Paris and France.
The car sped on over the hard road. Staff officers in other cars whom we passed alone suggested that there was war somewhere ahead. Were we never going to reach the battle-line, the magnet of our speed when a French army chauffeur made all speed laws obsolete?
Shooting out of a grove, a valley made a channel for sound that brought to our ears the thunder of guns, with firing so rapid that it was like the roll of some cyclopean snare-drum beaten with sticks the size of ship-masts. From the crest of the next hill we had a glimpse of an open sweep of park-like country toward wooded hills. As far as we could see against the background of the foliage which threw it into relief was a continuous cloud of smoke from bursting shells, renewed with fresh, soft, blue puffs as fast as it was dissipated.
This, then, was a battle. No soldiers, no guns, in sight; only against masses of autumn green a diaphanous, man-made nimbus which was raining steel hail. Ten miles of this, one would say; and under it lines of men in blue coats and red trousers and green uniforms hugging the earth, as unseen as a battalion of ants at work in the tall grass. Even if a charge swept across a field one would have been able to detect nothing except moving pin-points on a carpet.
There was hard fighting; a lot of French and German were being killed in the direction of Compiegne and Noyon to-day. Another dip into another valley and the thir-r-r of a rapid-firer and the muffled firing of a line of infantry were audible. Yes, we were getting up with the army, with one tiny section of it operating along the road on which we were. Multiply this by a thousand and you have the whole.
Ahead was the army's larder on wheels; a procession of big motor transport trucks keeping their intervals of distance with the precision of a battleship fleet at sea. We should have known that they belonged to the army by the deafness of the drivers to appeals to let us pass. All army transports are like that. What the deuced right has anybody to pass? They are the transport, and only fighting men belong in front of them. Our car in trying to go by to one side got stuck in a rut that an American car, built for bad roads, would have made nothing of; which proves again how closely European armies are tied to their fine highways. We got out, and here again was our statesman putting his shoulder to the wheel. That is the way of the French in war. Everybody tries to help. By this time the transport chauffeurs remembered that they also were Frenchmen; and as Frenchmen are polite even in time of war, they let us by.
A motor-cyclist approached with his hand up.
"Stop here!" he called.
Those transport chauffeurs who were deaf to ex-premiers heard instantly and obeyed. In front of them was a line of single horse- drawn carts, with an extra horse in the rear. They could take paths that the motor trucks could not. Archaic they seemed, yet friendly, as a relic of how armies were fed in other days. For the first time I was realizing what the motor truck means to war. It brings the army impedimenta close up to the army's rear; it means a reduction of road space occupied by transport by three-quarters; ease in keeping pace with food with the advance, speed in falling back in case of retreat.
All that day I did not see a single piece of French army transport broken down. And this army had been fighting for weeks; it had been an army on the road. The valuable part of our experience was exactly in this: a glimpse of an army in action after it had been through all the vicissitudes that an army may have in marching and counter- marching and attack. Order one expected afterwards, behind the siege line of trenches, when there had been time to establish a routine; organization and smooth organization you had here at the climax of a month's strain. It told the story of the character of the French army and the reasons for its success other than its courage. The brains were not all with the German Staff.
That winding road, with a new picture at every turn, now revealed the town of Soissons in the valley of the River Aisne. Soissons was ours, we knew, since yesterday. How much farther had we gone? Was our advance still continuing? For then, winter trench-fighting was unforeseen and the sightseers thought of the French army as following up success with success. Paris, rising from gloom to optimism, hoped to see the Germans speedily put out of France. The appetite for victory grew, after a week's bulletins which moved the flags forward on the map every day.
Another turn and Soissons was hidden from view by a woodland. Here we came upon what looked like a leisurely family party of reserves. The French army, a small section of French army, along a road! And thus, if one would see the whole it must be in bits along the roads, when not on the firing-line. They were sprawling in the fields in the genial afternoon sun, looking as if they had no concern except to rest. Uniforms dusty and faces tanned and bearded told their story of the last month.
The duty of a portion of a force is always to wait on what is being done by the others at the front. These were waiting near a fork which could take them to the right or the left, as the situation demanded. At the rear, their supply of small arms ammunition; in front, caissons of shells for a battery speaking from the woods near by; a troop of cavalry drawn up, the men dismounted, ready; and ahead of them more reserves ready; everything ready.
This was where the general wanted the body of men and equipment to be, and here they were. There were no dragging ends in the rear, so far as I could see; nobody complaining that food or ammunition was not up; no aide looking for somebody who could not be found; no excited staff officer rushing about shouting for somebody to look sharp for somebody had made a mistake. The thing was unwarlike; it was like a particularly well-thought-out route march. Yet at the word that company of cavalry might be in the thick of it, at the point where they were wanted; the infantry rushing to the support of the firing-line; the motor transport facing around for withdrawal, if need be. It was only a little way, indeed, into the zone of death from the rear of that compact column. Thousands of such compact bodies on many roads, each seemingly a force by itself and each a part of the whole, which could be a dependable whole only when every part was ready, alert, and where it belonged! Nothing can be left to chance in a battle- line three hundred miles long. The general must know what to depend on, mile by mile, in his plans. Millions of human units are grouped in increasingly larger units, harmonized according to set forms. The most complex of all machines is that of a vast army, which yet must be kept most simple. No unit acts without regard to the others; every one must know how to do its part. The parts of the machine are standardized. One is like the other in training, uniform, and every detail, so that one can replace another. Oldest of all trades this of war; old experts the French. What one saw was like manoeuvres. It must be like manoeuvres or the army would not hold together. Manoeuvres are to teach armies coherence; war tries out that coherence, which you may not have if someone does not know just what to do; if he is uncertain in his role. Haste leads to confusion; haste is only for supreme moments. In order to know how to hasten when the hurry call comes, the mighty organism must move in its routine with the smoothness of a well-rehearsed play.
Joffre and the others who directed the machine must know more than the mechanics of staff-control. They must know the character of the man-material in the machine. It was their duty as real Frenchmen to understand Frenchmen, their verve, their restlessness for the offensive, their individualism, their democratic intelligence, the value of their elation, the drawback of their tendency to depression and to think for themselves. Indeed, the leader must counteract the faults of his people and make the most of their virtues.
Thus, we had a French army's historical part reversed: a French army falling back and concentrating on the Marne to receive the enemy blow. Equally alive to German racial traits, the German Staff had organized in their mass offensive the elan which means fast marching and hard blows. So, we found the supposedly excitable French digging in to receive the onslaught of the supposedly phlegmatic German. When the time came for the charge—ah, you can always depend on a Frenchman to charge!
Those reserves were pawns on a chessboard. They appeared like it; one thought that they realized it. Their individual intelligence and democracy had reasoned out the value of obedience and homogeneity, rather than accepted it as the dictum of any war lord. Difficult to think that 'each one had left a vacancy at a family board; difficult to think that all were not automatons in a process of endless routine of war; but not difficult to learn that they were Frenchmen once we had thrown our bombs in the midst of the group.
Of old, one knew the wants of soldiers. One needed no hint of what was welcome at the front. Never at any front were there enough newspapers or tobacco. Men smoke twice as much as usual in the strain of waiting for action; men who do not use tobacco at all get the habit. Ask the G.A.R. men who fought in our great war if this is not true. Then, too, when your country is at war, when back at home hands stretch out for every fresh edition and you at the front know only what happens in your alley, think what a newspaper from Paris means out on the battle-line seventy miles from Paris! So I had brought a bundle of newspapers and many packets of cigarettes.
Monsieur, the sensation is beyond even the French language to express—the sensation of sitting down by the roadside with this morning's edition and the first cigarette for twenty-four hours.
"C'est epatant! C'est chic, ca! C'est magnifique! Alors, nom de Dieu! Tiens! Helas! Voila! Merci, mille remerciments!"—it was an army of Frenchmen with ready words, quick, telling gestures, pouring out their volume of thanks as the car sped by and we tossed out our newspapers at intervals, so that all should have a look.
An Echo de Paris that fell into the road was the centre of a flag-rush, which included an officer. Most un-military—an officer scrambling at the same time as his men! In the name of the Kaiser, what discipline!
Then the car stopped long enough for me to see a private give the paper to his officer, who was plainly sensible of a loss of dignity, with a courtesy which said, "A thousand pardons, mon capitaine!" and the capitaine began reading the newspaper aloud to his men. Scores of human touches which were French, republican, democratic!
With half our cigarettes gone, we fell in with some brown-skinned, native African troops, the Mohammedan Turcos. Their white teeth gleaming, their black eyes devilishly eager, they began climbing on to the car. We gave them all the cigarettes in sight; but fortunately our reserve supply was not visible, and an officer's sharp command saved us from being invested by storm.
As we came into Soissons we left the reserves behind. They were kept back out of range of the German shells, making the town a dead space between them and the firing-line, which was beyond. When the Germans retreated through the streets the French had taken care, as it was their town, to keep their fire away from the cathedral and the main square to the outskirts and along the river. Not so the German guns when the French infantry passed through. Soissons was not a German town.
We alighted from the car in a deserted street, with all the shutters of shops that had not been torn down by shell-fire closed. Soissons was as silent as the grave, within easy range of many enemy guns. War seemed only for the time being in this valley bottom shut in from the roar of artillery a few miles away, except for a French battery which was firing methodically and slowly, its shells whizzing toward the ridge back of the town.
The next thing that one wanted most was to go into that battery and see the soixante-quinze and their skilful gunners. Our statesman said that he would try to locate it. We thought that it was in the direction of the river, that famous Aisne which has since given its name to the longest siege-line in history; a small, winding stream in the bottom of an irregular valley. Both bridges across it had been cut by the Germans. If that battery were on the other side under cover of any one of a score of blots of foliage we could not reach it. Another shot— and we were not sure that the battery was not on the opposite side of the town; a crack out of the landscape: this was modern artillery fire to one who faced it. Apparently the guns of the battery were scattered, according to the accepted practice, and from the central firing-station word to fire was being passed first to one gun and then to another.
Beside the buttress of one bridge lay two still figures of Algerian Zouaves. These were fresh dead, fallen in the taking of the town. Only two men! There were dead by thousands which one might see in other places. These two had leaped out from cover to dash forward and bullets were waiting for them. They had rolled over on their backs, their rigid hands still in the position of grasping their rifles after the manner of crouching skirmishers.
Our statesman said that we had better give up trying to locate the battery; and one of the officers called a halt to trying to go up to the firing-line on the part of a personally-conducted party, after we stopped a private hurrying back from the front on some errand. With his alertness, the easy swing of his walk, his light step, and his freedom of spirit and appearance, he typified the thing which the French call elan. Whenever one asked a question of a French private you could depend upon a direct answer. He knew or he did not know. This definiteness, the result of military training as well as of Gallic lucidity of thought, is not the least of the human factors in making an efficient army, where every man and every unit must definitely know his part. This young man, you realized, had tasted the "salt of life," as Lord Kitchener calls it. He had heard the close sing of bullets; he had known the intoxication of a charge.
"Does everything go well?" M. Doumer asked. "It is not going at all, now. It is sticking," was the answer. "Some Germans were busy up there in the stone quarries while the others were falling back. They have a covered trench and rapid-fire-gun positions to sweep a zone of fire which they have cleared."
Famous stone quarries of Soissons, providing ready-made dug-outs as shelter from shells!
There is a story of how before Marengo Napoleon heard a private saying: "Now this is what the general ought to do!" It was Napoleon's own plan revealed. "You keep still!" he said. "This army has too many generals."
"They mean to make a stand," the private went on. "It's an ideal place for it. There is no use of an attack in front. We'd be mowed down by machine-guns." The br-r-r of a dozen shots from a German machine- gun gave point to his conclusion. "Our infantry is hugging what we have and intrenching. You'd better not go up. One has to know the way, or he'll walk right into a sharpshooter's bullet"—instructions that would have been applicable a year later when one was about to visit a British trench in almost the same location.
The siege-warfare of the Aisne line had already begun. It was singular to get the first news of it from a private in Soissons and then to return to Paris and London, on the other side of the curtain of secrecy, where the public thought that the Allied advance would continue.
"Allons!" said our statesman, and we went to the town square, where German guns had carpeted the ground with branches of shade trees and torn off the fronts of houses, revealing sections of looted interior which had been further messed by shell-bursts. Some women and children and a crippled man came out of doors at sight of us. M. Doumer introduced himself and shook hands all around. They were glad to meet him in much the same way as if he had been on an election campaign.
"A German shell struck there across the square only half an hour ago," said one of the women.
"What do you do when there is shelling?" asked M. Doumer.
"If it is bad we go into the cellar," was the answer; an answer which implied that peculiar fearlessness of women, who get accustomed to fire easier than men. These were the fatalists of the town, who would not turn refugee; helpless to fight, but grimly staying with their homes and accepting what came with an incomprehensible stoicism, which possibly had its origin in a race-feeling so proud and bitter that they would not admit that they could be afraid of anything German, even a shell.
"And how did the Germans act?"
"They made themselves at home in our houses and slept in our beds, while we slept in the kitchen," she answered. "They said that if we kept indoors and gave them what they wanted we should not be harmed. But if anyone fired a shot at their troops or any arms were found in our houses, they would burn the town. When they were going back in a great hurry—how they scattered from our shells! We went out in the square to see our shells, monsieur!"
What mattered the ruins of her home? "Our" shells had returned vengeance.
Arrows with directions in German, "This way to the river," "This way to Villers-Cotteret," were chalked on the standing walls; and on door- casings the names of the detachments of the Prussian Guard billeted there, all in systematic Teutonic fashion.
"Prince Albrecht Joachim, one of the Kaiser's sons, was here and I talked with him," said the Mayor, who thought we would enjoy a morsel from court circles in exchange for a copy of the Echo de Paris, which contained the news that Prince Albrecht had been wounded later. The Mayor looked tired, this local man of the people, who had to play the shepherd of a stricken flock. Afterwards, they said that he deserted his charge and a lady, Mme. Macherez, took his place. All I know is that he was present that day; or, at least, a man who was introduced to me as mayor; and he was French enough to make a bon mot by saying that he feared there was some fault in his hospitality because he had been unable to keep his guest.
"May I have this confiture?" asked a battle-stained French orderly, coming up to him. "I found it in that ruined house there—all the Germans had left. I haven't had a confiture for a long time, and, monsieur, you cannot imagine what a hunger I have for confitures."
All the while the French battery kept on firing slowly, then again rapidly, their cracks trilling off like the drum of knuckles on a table-top. Another effort to locate one of the guns before we started back to Paris failed. Speeding on, we had again a glimpse of the landscape toward Noyon, sprinkled with shell-bursts. The reserves were around their camp-fires making savoury stews for the evening meal. They would sleep where night found them on the sward under the stars, as in wars of old. That scene remains indelible as one of many while the army was yet mobile, before the contest became one of the mole and the beaver.
Though one had already seen many German prisoners in groups and convoys, the sight of two on the road fixed the attention because of the surroundings and the contrast suggested between French and German natures. Both were young, in the very prime of life, and both Prussian. One was dark-complexioned, with a scrubbly beard which was the product of the war. He marched with such rigidity that I should not have been surprised to see him break into a goose-step. The other was of that mild, blue-eyed, tow-haired type from the Baltic provinces, with the thin, white skin which does not tan but burns. He was frailer than the other and he was tired! He would lag and then stiffen back his shoulders and draw in his chin and force a trifle more energy into his steps.
A typical, lively French soldier was escorting the pair. He looked pretty tired, too, but he was getting over the ground in the natural, easy way in which man is meant to walk. The aboriginal races, who have a genius for long distances on foot, do not march in the German fashion, which looks impressive, but lacks endurance. By the same logic, the cowboy pony's gait is better for thirty miles day in and day out than the gait of the high-stepping carriage horse.
You could realize the contempt which those two martial Germans had for their captor. Four or five peasant women refugees by the roadside loosened their tongues in piercing feminine satire and upbraiding.
"You are going to Paris, after all! This is what you get for invading our country; and you'll get more of it!"
The little French soldier held up his hand to the women and shook his head. He was a chivalrous fellow, with imagination enough to appreciate the feelings of an enemy who has fought hard and lost. Such as he would fight fair and hold this war of the civilizations up to something like the standards of civilization.
The very tired German stiffened up again, as his drill sergeant had taught him, and both stared straight ahead, proud and contemptuous, as their Kaiser would wish them to do. I should recognize the faces of those two Germans and of that little French guard if I saw them ten years hence. In ten years, what will be the Germans' attitude toward this war and their military lords?
It is not often that one has a senator for a guide; and I never knew a more efficient one than our statesman. His own curiosity was the best possible aid in satisfying our own. Having seen the compactness and simplicity of an army column at the front, we were to find that the same thing applied to high command. A sentry and a small flag at the doorway of a village hotel: this was the headquarters of the Sixth Army, which General Manoury had formed in haste and flung at von Kluck with a spirit which crowned his white hairs with the audacity of youth. He was absent, but we might see something of the central direction of one hundred and fifty thousand men in the course of one of the most brilliant manoeuvres of the war, before staffs had settled down to office existence in permanent quarters. That is, we might see the little there was to see: a soldier telegrapher in one bedroom, a soldier typewritist in another, officers at work in others. One realized that they could pack up everything and move in the time it takes to toss enough clothes into a bag to spend a night away from home. Apparently, when the French fought they left red tape behind with the bureaucracy.
From his seat before a series of maps on a sitting-room table an officer of about thirty-five rose to receive us. It struck me that he exemplified self-possessed intelligence and definite knowledge; that he had coolness and steadiness plus that acuteness of perception and clarity of statement which are the gift of the French. You felt sure that no orders which left his hand wasted any words or lacked explicitness. The Staff is the brains of the army, and he had brains.
"All goes well!" he said, as if there were no more to say. All goes well! He would say it when things looked black or when they looked bright, and in a way that would make others believe it.
Outside the hotel were no cavalry escorts or commanders, no hurrying orderlies, none of the legendary activity that is associated with an army headquarters. A motor-car drove up, an officer got out; another officer descended the stairs to enter a waiting car. The wires carry word faster than the cars. Each subordinate commander was in his place along that line where we had seen the puffs of smoke against the landscape, ready to answer a question or obey an order. That simplicity, like art itself, which seems so easy is the most difficult accomplishment of all in war.
After dark, in a drizzling rain, we came to what seemed to be a town, for our motor-car lamps spread their radiant streams over wet pavements. But these were the only lights. Tongues of loose bricks had been shot across the cobblestones and dimly the jagged skyline of broken walls of buildings on either side could be discerned. It was Senlis, the first town I had seen which could be classified as a town in ruins. Afterwards, one became a sort of specialist in ruins, comparing the latest with previous examples of destruction.
Approaching footsteps broke the silence. A small, very small, French soldier—he was not more than five feet two—appeared, and we followed him to an ambulance that had broken down for want of petrol. It belonged to the Societe de Femmes de France. The little soldier had put on a uniform as a volunteer for the only service his stature would permit. In those days many volunteer organizations were busy seeking to "help." There was a kind of competition among them for wounded. This ambulance had got one and was taking him to Paris, off the regular route of the wounded who were being sent south. The boot-soles of a prostrate figure showed out of the dark recess of the interior. This French officer, a major, had been hit in the shoulder. He tried to control the catch in his voice which belied his assertion that he was suffering little pain. The drizzling rain was chilly. It was a long way to Paris yet.
"We will make inquiries," said our kindly general.
A man who came out of the gloom said that there was a hospital kept by some Sisters of Charity in Senlis which had escaped destruction. The question was put into the recesses of the ambulance:
"Would you prefer to spend the night here and go on in the morning?"
"Yes, monsieur, I—should—like—that—better!" The tone left no doubt of the relief that the journey in a car with poor springs was not to be continued after hours of waiting, marooned in the street of a ruined town.
Whilst the ambulance passed inside the hospital gate, I spoke with an elderly woman who came to a near-by door. Cool and definite she was as a French soldier, bringing home the character of the women of France which this war has made so well known to the world.
"Were you here during the fighting?"
"Yes, monsieur, and during the shelling and the burning. The shelling was not enough. The Germans said that someone fired on their soldiers—a boy, I believe—so they set fire to the houses. One could only look and hate and pray as their soldiers passed through, looking so unconquerable, making all seem so terrible for France. Was it to be '70 over again? One's heart was of stone, monsieur. Tiens! They came back faster than they went. A mitrailleuse was down there at the end of the street, our mitrailleuse! The bullets went cracking by. They crack, the bullets; they do not whistle like the stories say. Then the street was empty of Germans who could run. The dead they could not run, nor the wounded. Then the French came up the street, running too—running after the Germans. It was good, monsieur, good, good! My heart was not of stone then, monsieur. It could not beat fast enough for happiness. It was the heart of a girl. I remember it all very clearly. I always shall, monsieur."
"Allons!" said our statesman. "The officer is well cared for."
The world seemed normal again as we passed through other towns unharmed and swept by the dark countryside, till a red light rose in our path and a sharp "Qui vive?" came out of the night as we slowed down. This was not the only sentry call from a French Territorial in front of a barricade.
At a second halt we found a chain as well as a barricade across the road. For a moment it seemed that even the suave parliamentarism of our statesman and the authority of our general and our passes could not convince one grizzled reservist, doing his duty for France at the rear whilst the young men were at the front, that we had any right to be going into Paris at that hour of the night. The password, which was "Paris," helped, and we felt it a most appropriate password as we came to the broad streets of the city that was safe.
There is a popular idea that Napoleon was a super-genius who won his battles single-handed. It is wrong. He had a lot of Frenchmen along to help. Much the same kind of Frenchmen live to-day. Not until they fought again would the world believe this. It seems that the excitable Gaul, whom some people thought would become demoralized in face of German organization, merely talks with his hands. In a great crisis he is cool, as he always was. I like the French for their democracy and humanity. I like them, too, for leaving their war to France and Marianne; for not dragging in God as do the Germans. For it is just possible that God is not in the fight. We don't know that He even approved of the war.
V And Calais Waits
To the traveller, Calais had been the symbol of the shortest route from London to Paris, the shortest spell of torment in crossing the British Channel. It was a point where one felt infinite relief or sad physical anticipations. In the last days of November Calais became the symbol of a struggle for world-power. The British and the French were fighting to hold Calais; the Germans to get it. In Calais, Germany would have her foot on the Atlantic coast. She could look across only twenty-two miles of water to the chalk cliffs of Dover. She would be as near her rival as twice the length of Manhattan Island; within the range of a modern gun; within an hour by steamer and twenty minutes by aeroplane.
The long battle-front from Switzerland to the North Sea had been established. There was no getting around the Allied flank; there had ceased to be a flank. To win Calais, Germany must crush through by main force, without any manoeuvre. From the cafes where the British journalists gathered England received its news, which they gleaned from refugees and stragglers and passing officers. They wrote something every day, for England must have something about that dizzy, head-on wrestle in the mud, that writhing line of changing positions of new trenches rising behind the old destroyed by German artillery. The British were fighting with their last reserves on the Ypres- Armentieres line. The French divisions to the north were suffering no less heavily, and beyond them the Belgians were trying to hold the last strip of their land which remained under Belgian sovereignty. Cordons of guards which kept back the observer from the struggle could not keep back the truth. Something ominous was in the air.
It was worth while being in that old town as it waited on the issue in the late October rains. Its fishermen crept out in the mornings from the shelter of its quays, where refugees gathered in crowds hoping to get away by steamer. Like lost souls, carrying all the possessions they could on their backs, these refugees. There was numbness in their movements and their faces were blank—the paralysis of brain from sudden disaster. The children did not cry, but mechanically munched the dry bread given them by their parents.
The newspaper men said that "refugee stuff" was already stale; eviction and misery were stale. Was Calais to be saved? That was the only question. If the Germans came, one thought that madame at the hotel would still be at her desk, unruffled, businesslike, and she would still serve an excellent salad for dejeuner; the fishermen would still go to sea for their daily catch.
What was going to happen? What might not happen? It was human helplessness to the last degree for all behind the wrestlers. Fate was in the battle-line. There could be no resisting that fate. If the Germans came, they came. Belgian staff officers with their high-crowned, gilt- braided caps went flying by in their cars. There always seemed a great many Belgian staff officers back of the Belgian army in the restaurants and cafes. Habit is strong, even in war. They did not often miss their dejeuners. On the Dixmude line all that remained of the active Belgian army was in a death struggle in the rain and mud. To these "schipperkes" honour without stint, as to their gallant king.
Slightly-wounded Belgians and Belgian stragglers roamed the streets of Calais. Some had a few belongings wrapped up in handkerchiefs. Others had only the clothes they wore. Yet they were cheerful; this was the amazing thing. They moved about, laughing and chatting in groups. Perhaps this was the best way. Possibly relief at being out of the hell at the front was the only emotion they could feel. But their cheerfulness was none the less a dash of sunlight for Calais.
The French were grim. They were still polite; they went on with their work. No unwounded French soldiers were to be seen, except the old Territorials guarding the railroad and the highways. The military organization of France, which knew what war meant and had expected war, had drawn every man to his place and held him there with the inexorable hand of military and racial discipline. Calais had never considered caring for wounded, and the wounded poured in. I saw a motor-car with a wounded man stop at a crowded corner, in the midst of refugees and soldiers; a doctor was leaning over him, and he died whilst the car waited.
But the journalists were saying that stories of wounded men were likewise stale. So they were, for Europe was red with wounded. Train after train brought in its load from the front, and Calais tried to care for them. At least, it had buildings which would give shelter from the rain. On the floor of a railway freight shed the wounded lay in long rows, with just enough space between them to make an alley. Those in the row against one of the walls were German prisoners. Their green uniforms melted into the stone of the wall and did not show the mud stains. Two slightly wounded had their heads together whispering. They were helplessly tired, though not as tired as most of the others, those two stalwart young men; but they seemed to be relieved, almost happy. It did not matter what happened to them, now, so long as they could rest.
Next to them a German was dying, and others badly hit were glassy- eyed in their fatigue and exhaustion. This was the word, exhaustion, for all the wounded.
They had not the strength for passion or emotion. The fuel for those fires was in ashes. All they wanted in this world was to lie quiet; and some fell asleep not knowing or caring probably whether they were in Germany or in France. In the other rows, in contrast with this chameleon, baffling green, were the red trousers of the French and the dark blue of the Belgian uniforms, sharing the democracy of exhaustion with their foe.
A misty rain was falling. In a bright spot of light through a window one by one the wounded were being lifted up on to a seat, if they were not too badly hit, and on to an operating-table if their condition were serious. A doctor and a sturdy Frenchwoman of about thirty, in spotless white, were in charge. Another woman undid the first-aid bandage and still another applied a spray. No time was lost; there were too many wounded to care for. The thing must be done as rapidly as possible before another train-load came in. If these attendants were tired, they did not know it any more than the wounded had realized their fatigue in the passion of battle. The improvized arrangement to meet an emergency had an appeal which more elaborate arrangements of organization which I had seen lacked. It made war a little more red; humanity a little more human and kind and helpless under the scourge which it had brought on itself.