E-text prepared by A. Langley
THE SOUL OF THE WAR
by PHILIP GIBBS
I. The Foreboding II. Mobilization III. The Secret War IV. The Way Of Retreat V. The Turn Of The Tide VI. Invasion VII. The Last Stand Of The Belgians VIII. The Soul Of Paris IX. The Soldiers Of France X. The Men In Khaki Conclusion
A pre-war best-selling author and journalist, Philip Gibbs was one of the most outstanding British war-time reporters and writers. Like many reporters in the opening months of the war, Philip Gibbs and his companions seemed to posses the knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, following armies across northern France in the vain hope of being on hand to witness battle. He never really succeeded during the first year, aside from joining a British volunteer ambulance service on the Ypres front in late 1914. But while other reporters unashamedly spruced up their reporting, dramatizing and glorifying small insignificant incidents and passing occurrences of no import, Gibbs knew how to talk to soldiers coming from or going to the front lines, how to convey their thoughts and fears and vividly describe their battle experiences. Gibbs was a very serious writer, and extremely proficient at his trade. He knew how to get to the essence of things, to describe the feel of the times, the general attitude, and the hopes and fears of both fighting men and civilians. Not only is this voluminous book a brilliantly written commentary on the opening months of the war, it is also infused with an inner sadness that could well be considered a precursor to the post-war "lost generation" myth, which is yet another indicator at how well Gibbs could gage the feel of the times and assess its impact on future developments in society.
In this first book of his, he tells of his wanderings during the first year of the war, as he tried (in vain) to witness the fighting in France. His observations, descriptions and opinions are however well worth reading; they are accurate, insightful and to the point. He gives detailed descriptions of both British and French soldiers and includes an incredibly atmospheric portrait of Paris during the opening months of the war as well as a moving account of his time spent with the British Field Hospital in Furnes. After being arrested in 1915 on general principle by the British authorities as a nuisance and potential loose-lipped journalist, he was afterwards appointed one of the few officially accredited journalists attached to the British forces on the Western front. Thereafter Gibbs continued filing dispatches till the end of hostilities. His writing is heartily sympathetic to the common soldier and war-time refugees, but quite critical to those in power. After the war he was knighted for his valuable patriotic services and enjoyed a distinguished career as novelist and writer.
He served yet again as accredited reporter during the opening months of the Second World War, being billeted in the same areas in France as during the Great War. After the evacuation of the BEF in 1940 he remained in Great Britain. His son followed in his footsteps, taking up the profession of war reporter for the British press.
Chapter I The Foreboding
What man may lay bare the soul of England as it was stirred during those days of July when suddenly, without any previous warning, loud enough to reach the ears of the mass of people, there came the menace of a great, bloody war, threatening all that had seemed so safe and so certain in our daily life? England suffered in those summer days a shock which thrilled to its heart and brain with an enormous emotion such as a man who has been careless of truth and virtue experiences at a "Revivalist" meeting or at a Catholic mission when some passionate preacher breaks the hard crust of his carelessness and convinces him that death and the judgment are very near, and that all the rottenness of his being will be tested in the furnace of a spiritual agony. He goes back to his home feeling a changed man in a changed world. The very ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece of his sitting-room speaks to him with a portentous, voice, like the thunder-strokes of fate. Death is coming closer to him at every tick. His little home, his household goods, the daily routine of his toil for the worldly rewards of life, his paltry jealousies of next-door neighbours are dwarfed to insignificance. They no longer matter, for the judgment of God is at hand. The smugness of his self-complacency, his life-long hypocrisy in the shirking of truth, are broken up. He feels naked, and afraid, clinging only to the hope that he may yet have time to build up a new character, to acquire new spiritual strength, and to do some of the things he has left undone—if only he had his time over again!—before the enemy comes to grips with him in a final bout.
That, with less simplicity and self-consciousness, was the spirit of England in those few swift days which followed the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia, and Germany's challenge to France and Russia. At least in some such way one might express the mentality of the governing, official, political, and so-called intellectual classes of the nation who could read between the lines of diplomatic dispatches, and saw, clearly enough, the shadow of Death creeping across the fields of Europe and heard the muffled beating of his drum.
Some of our public men and politicians must have spent tortured days and nights in those last days of July. They, too, like the sinner at the mission service, must have seen the judgment of God approaching them. Of what, avail now were their worldly ambitions and their jealousies? They too had been smug in their self- complacency, hypocrites, shirkers of truth and stirrers up of strife, careless of consequences. If only they could have their time over again! Great God! was this war with Germany an unavoidable horror, or, if the worst came, was there still time to cleanse the nation of its rottenness, to close up its divisions and to be ready for the frightful conflict?
All things were changed in England in a day or two. The things that had mattered no longer mattered. The Arming of Ulster and the Nationalists, Votes for Women, Easier Divorce, the Craze for Night Clubs—had any of these questions any meaning now? A truce was called by the men who had been inflaming the people's passion to the point of civil war. The differences of political parties seemed futile and idiotic now that the nation itself might be put to the uttermost test of endurance by the greatest military power in Europe. In fear, as well as with a nobler desire to rise out of the slough of the old folly of life, the leaders of the nation abandoned then-feuds. Out of the past voices called to them. Their blood thrilled to old sentiments and old traditions which had seemed to belong to the lumber-room of history, with the moth-eaten garments of their ancestors. There were no longer Liberals or Conservatives or Socialists, but only Englishmen, Scotsmen, Irishmen and Welshmen, with the old instincts of race and with the old fighting qualities which in the past they had used against each other. Before the common menace they closed up their ranks.
Yet there was no blood-lust in England, during those days of July. None of the old Jingo spirit which had inflamed great crowds before the Boer War was visible now or found expression. Among people of thoughtfulness there was a kind of dazed incredibility that this war would really happen, and at the back of this unbelief a tragic foreboding and a kind of shame—a foreboding that secret forces were at work for war, utterly beyond the control of European democracies who desired to live in peace, and a shame that civilization itself, all the ideals and intellectual activities and democratic progress of modern Europe, would be thrust back into the primitive barbarities of war, with its wholesale, senseless slaughter, its bayonet slashings and disembowellings—"heroic charges" as they are called by the journalists—and its gospel of hatred. So humanity was still beastlike, as twenty centuries ago, and the message of Christianity was still unheard? Socialistic theories, Hague conventions, the progress of intelligence in modern democracy had failed utterly, and once again, if this war came upon the world, not by the will of simple peoples, but by the international intrigues of European diplomats, the pride of a military caste and the greed of political tradesmen, the fields of Europe would be drenched with the blood of our best manhood and Death would make an unnatural harvesting. Could nothing stop this bloody business?
I think the Middle Classes in England—the plain men and women who do not belong to intellectual cliques or professional politics—were stupefied by the swift development of the international "situation," as it was called in the newspapers, before the actual declarations of war which followed with a series of thunder-claps heralding a universal tempest. Was it true then that Germany had a deadly enmity against us, and warlike ambitions which would make a shambles of Europe? Or was it still only newspaper talk, to provide sensations for the breakfast table? How could they tell, these plain, ignorant men who had always wanted straightforward facts?
For years the newspaper press of England had been divided over Germany's ambitions, precisely as, according to their political colour, they had been divided over Tariff Reform or Home Rule for Ireland. The Liberal Press had jeered at the hair-raising fears of the Conservative Press, and the latter had answered the jeers by more ferocious attacks upon German diplomacy and by more determined efforts to make bad blood between the two nations. The Liberal Press had dwelt lovingly upon the brotherly sentiment of the German people for their English cousins. The Conservative Press had searched out the inflammatory speeches of the war lords and the junker politicians. It had seemed to the man in the street a controversy as remote from the actual interests of his own life—as remote from the suburban garden in which he grew his roses or from the golf links on which he spent his Saturday afternoons as a discussion on the canals of Mars. Now and again, in moments of political excitement, he had taken sides and adopted newspaper phrases as his own, declaring with an enormous gravity which he did not really feel that "The German Fleet was a deliberate menace to our naval supremacy," or joining in the chorus of "We want eight and we won't wait," or expressing his utter contempt for "all this militarism," and his belief in the "international solidarity" of the new democracy. But there never entered his inmost convictions that the day might come during his own lifetime when he—a citizen of Suburbia—might have to fight for his own hearthside and suffer the intolerable horrors of war while the roses in his garden were trampled down in mud and blood, and while his own house came clattering down like a pack of cards—the family photographs, the children's toys, the piano which he had bought on the hire system, all the household gods which he worshipped, mixed up in a heap of ruin—as afterwards at Scarborough and Hartlepool, Ipswich, and Southend.
If such a thing were possible, why had the nation been duped by its Government? Why had we been lulled into a false sense of security without a plain statement of facts which would have taught us to prepare for the great ordeal? The Government ought to have known and told the truth. If this war came the manhood of the nation would be unready and untrained. We should have to scramble an army together, when perhaps it would be too late.
The middle classes of England tried to comfort themselves even at the eleventh hour by incredulity.
"Impossible!" they cried. "The thing is unbelievable. It is only a newspaper scare!"
But as the hours passed the shadow of war crept closer, and touched the soul of Europe.
In Fleet Street, which is connected with the wires of the world, there was a feverish activity. Walls and tables were placarded with maps. Photographs, gazetteers, time tables, cablegrams littered the rooms of editors and news editors. There was a procession of literary adventurers up the steps of those buildings in the Street of Adventure—all those men who get lost somewhere between one war and another and come out with claims of ancient service on the battlefields of Europe when the smell of blood is scented from afar; and scores of new men of sporting instincts and jaunty confidence, eager to be "in the middle of things," willing to go out on any terms so long as they could see "a bit of fun," ready to take all risks. Special correspondents, press photographers, the youngest reporters on the staff, sub-editors emerging from little dark rooms with a new excitement in eyes that had grown tired with proof correcting, passed each other on the stairs and asked for their Chance. It was a chance of seeing the greatest drama in life with real properties, real corpses, real blood, real horrors with a devilish thrill in them. It was not to be missed by any self-respecting journalist to whom all life is a stage play which he describes and criticises from a free seat in the front of the house.
Yet in those newspaper offices in Fleet Street there was no real certainty. Even the foreign editors who are supposed to have an inside knowledge of international politics were not definite in their assertions. Interminable discussions took place over their maps and cablegrams. "War is certain." "There will be no war as far as England is concerned." "Sir Edward Grey will arrange an international conference." "Germany is bluffing. She will climb down at the eleventh hour. How can she risk a war with France, Russia, and England?" "England will stand out." "But our honour? What about our understanding with France?"
There was a profound ignorance at the back of all these opinions, assertions, discussions. Fleet Street, in spite of the dogmatism of its leading articles, did not know the truth and had never searched for it with a sincerity which would lead now to a certain conviction. All its thousands of articles on the subject of our relations with Germany had been but a clash of individual opinions coloured by the traditional policy of each paper, by the prejudice of the writers and by the influence of party interests. The brain of Fleet Street was but a more intense and a more vibrant counterpart of the national psychology, which in these hours of enormous crisis was bewildered by doubt and, in spite of all its activity, incredulous of the tremendous possibility that in a few days England might be engaged in the greatest war since the Napoleonic era, fighting for her life.
On my own lips there was the same incredulity when I said good-bye. It was on July 29, and England had not yet picked up the gauntlet which Germany had flung into the face of European peace.
"I shall be back in a few days. Armageddon is still a long way off. The idea of it is too ridiculous and too damnable!"
I lay awake on the night before I left England with the credentials of a war correspondent on a roving commission, and there came into my head a vision of the hideous thing which was being hatched in the council chambers of Europe, even as the little clock ticked on my bedroom mantelpiece. I thrust back this vision of blood by old arguments, old phrases which had become the rag-tags of political writers.
War with Germany? A war in which half the nations of Europe would be flung against each other in a deadly struggle—millions against millions of men belonging to the peoples of the highest civilization? No, it was inconceivable and impossible. Why should England make war upon Germany or Germany upon England? We were alike in blood and character, bound to each other by a thousand ties of tradition and knowledge and trade and friendship. All the best intellect of Germany was friendly to us.
In Hamburg two years ago I had listened to speeches about all that, obviously sincere, emotional in their protestations of racial comradeship. That young poet who had become my friend, who had taken me home to his house in the country and whose beautiful wife had plucked roses for me in her garden, and said in her pretty English, "I send my best love with them to England"—was he a liar when he spoke fine and stirring words about the German admiration for English literature and life, and when—it was late in the evening and we had drunk some wine—he passed his arm through mine and said, "If ever there were to be a war between our two countries I and all my friends in Hamburg would weep at the crime and the tragedy."
On that trip to Hamburg we were banqueted like kings, we English journalists, and the tables were garlanded with flowers in our honour, and a thousand compliments were paid to us with the friendliest courtesy. Were they all liars, these smiling Germans who had clinked glasses with us?
Only a few weeks before this black shadow of war had loomed up with its deadly menace a great party of German editors had returned our visit and once again I had listened to speeches about the blood- brotherhood of the two nations, a little bored by the stale phrases, but glad to sit between these friendly Germans whom I had met in their own country. We clinked glasses again, sang "God Save the King" and the "Wacht am Rhein," compared the character of German and English literature, of German and English women, clasped hands, and said, "Auf wiedersehen!" Were we all liars in that room, and did any of the men there know that when words of friendship were on their lips there was hatred in their hearts and in each country a stealthy preparation for great massacres of men? Did any of, those German editors hear afar off the thunderstrokes of the Krupp guns which even then were being tested for the war with France and England? I believe now that some of them must have known.
Perhaps I ought to have known, too, remembering the tour which I had made in Germany two years before.
It was after the Agadir incident, and I had been sent to Germany by my newspaper on a dovelike mission of peace, to gather sentiments of good will to England from prominent public men who might desire out of their intellectual friendship to us to pour oil on the troubled waters which had been profoundly stirred by our challenge to Germany's foreign policy. I had a sheaf of introductions, which I presented in Berlin and Leipzig, Frankfort and Dusseldorf, and other German towns.
The first man to whom I addressed myself with amiable intent was a distinguished democrat who knew half the members of the House of Commons and could slap Liberal politicians on the back with more familiarity than I should dare to show. He had spent both time and trouble in organizing friendly visits between the working men and municipalities of both countries. But he was a little restrained and awkward in his manners when I handed him my letter of introduction. Presently he left the room for a few minutes and I saw on his desk a German newspaper with a leading article signed by his name. I read it and was amazed to find that it was a violent attack upon England, demanding unforgetfulness and unforgiveness of the affront which we had put upon Germany in the Morocco crisis. When the man came back I ventured to question him about this article, and he declared that his old friendship for England had undergone a change. He could give me no expression of good will.
I could get no expression of good will from any public man in Germany. I remember an angry interview with an ecclesiastic in Berlin, a personal friend of the Kaiser, though for many years an ardent admirer of England.
He paced up and down the room with noiseless footsteps on a soft carpet.
"It is no time for bland words!" he said. "England has insulted us. Such acts are not to be tolerated by a great nation like ours. There is only one answer to them, and it is the answer of the sword!"
I ventured to speak of Christian influences which should hold men back from the brutality of war.
"Surely the Church must always preach the gospel of peace? Otherwise it is false to the spirit of Christ."
He believed that I intended to insult him, and in a little while he rang the bell for my dismissal.
Even Edward Bernstein, the great leader of the Social Democrats, could give me no consoling words for my paper.
"The spirit of nationality," he said—and I have a note of his words—"is stronger than abstract ideals. Let England make no mistake. If war were declared to-morrow the Social Democrats would march as one man in defence of the Fatherland. . . . And you must admit that England, or rather the English Foreign Office, has put rather a severe strain upon our pride and patience!"
My mission was a failure. I came back without any expressions of good will from public men and with an uneasy sense of dangerous fires smouldering beneath the political life of Germany—fires of hate not easily quenched by friendly or sentimental articles in the English Liberal Press. And yet among the ordinary people in railway trains and restaurants, beer-halls and hotels, I had found no hostility to me as an Englishman. Rather they had gone out of their way to be friendly. Some of the university students of Leipzig had taken me to a public dance, expressed their admiration for English sports, and asked my opinion about the merits of various English boxers of whom I had to confess great ignorance. They were good friendly fellows and I liked them. In various towns of Germany I found myself admiring the cheerful, bustling gemutlichkeit of the people, the splendid organization of their civic life, their industry and national spirit. Walking among them sometimes, I used to ponder over the possibility of that unvermeidliche krieg—that "unavoidable war" which was being discussed in all the newspapers. Did these people want war with England or with anyone? The laughter of the clerks and shop-girls swarming down the Friedrichstrasse, the peaceful enjoyment of the middle-class crowds of husbands and wives, lovers and sweethearts, steaming in the heat of brilliantly lighted beer-halls seemed to make my question preposterous. The spirit of the German people was essentially peaceful and democratic. Surely the weight of all this middle-class common sense would save them from any criminal adventures proposed by a military caste rattling its sabre on state occasions? So I came back with a conflict of ideas....
A little bald-headed man came into London about two years ago, and his arrival was noted in a newspaper paragraph. It appeared that he was a great statistician. He had been appointed by the Governments of Canada and the United States jointly to prepare a "statistical survey of Europe," whatever that may mean. I was sent down to call upon him somewhere in the Temple, and I was to get him to talk about his statistics.
But after my introduction he shut the door carefully and, with an air of anxious inquiry through his gold-rimmed spectacles, asked a strange question:
"Are you an honest young man and a good patriot?"
I could produce no credentials for honesty or patriotism, but hoped that I might not fail in either.
"I suppose you have come to talk to me about my statistics," he said.
I admitted that this was my mission.
"They are unimportant," he said, "compared with what I have to tell you. I am going to talk to you about Germany. The English people ought to know what I have learnt during a year's experience in that country, where I have lived all the time in the company of public officials. Sir, it seems to me that the English people do not know that the entire genius of intellectual Germany is directed to a war against England. It dominates their thoughts and dreams, and the whole activity of their national intelligence."
For an hour the little bald-headed man spoke to me of all he had heard and learnt of Germany's enmity to England during twelve months in official circles. He desired to give this information to an English newspaper of standing and authority. He thought the English people had a right to know.
I went back to my office more disturbed than I cared to admit even to myself. There had been a kind of terror in the voice of the little man who had found time for other interests besides his "statistical survey of Europe." It seemed that he believed himself in the possession of an enormous and terrible secret threatening the destiny of our Empire. Yet nobody would believe him when he told it, however fervently. My editor would not believe him, and none of his words were published, in my paper or any other. But sometimes I used to remember him and wonder whether perhaps in all such warnings that came to us there were not a horrible truth which one day, when brutally revealed, would make a mockery of all those men in England who pooh-poohed the peril, and of the idealists who believed that friendly relations with Germany could be secured by friendly words. Meanwhile the Foreign Office did not reveal its secrets or give any clear guidance to the people as to perils or policy—to the people who would pay in blood for ignorance.
When I stood on the deck of the Channel boat in Dover Harbour looking back on England, whose white cliffs gleamed faintly through the darkness, a sense of tragic certainty came to me that a summons of war would come to England, asking for her manhood. Perhaps it would come to-night. The second mate of the boat came to the side of the steamer and stared across the inky waters, on which there were shifting pathways of white radiance, as the searchlights of distant warships swept the sea.
"God!" he said, in a low voice.
"Do you think it will come to-night?" I asked, in the same tone of voice. We spoke as though our words were dangerous.
"It's likely. The German fleet won't wait for any declaration, I should say, if they thought they could catch us napping. But they won't. I fancy we're ready for them—here, anyhow!"
He jerked his thumb at some dark masses looming through the darkness in the harbour, caught here and there by a glint of metal reflected in the water. They were cruisers and submarines nosing towards the harbour mouth.
"There's a crowd of 'em!" said the second mate, "and they stretch across the Channel. . . . The Reserve men have been called out— taken off the trams in Dover to-night. But the public has not yet woken up to the meaning of it."
He stared out to sea again, and it was some minutes before he spoke again.
"Queer, isn't it? They'll all sleep in their beds to-night as though nothing out of the way were happening. And yet, in a few hours, maybe, there'll be Hell! That's what it's going to be—Hell and damnation, if I know anything about war!"
"What's that?" I asked, pointing to the harbour bar.
From each side of the harbour two searchlights made a straight beam of light, and in the glare of it there passed along the surface of the sea, as it seemed, a golden serpent with shining scales.
"Sea-gulls," said the mate. "Scared, I expect, by all these lights. They know something's in the wind. Perhaps they can smell—blood!"
He spoke with a laugh, but it had a strange sound.
In the saloon were about a dozen men, drinking at the bar. They were noisy and had already drunk too much. By their accent it was easy to guess that they came from Manchester, and by their knapsacks, which contained all their baggage, it was obvious that they were on a short trip to Paris. A man from Cook's promised them a "good time!" There were plenty of pretty girls in Paris. They slapped him on the back and called him "old chap!"
A quiet gentleman seated opposite to me on a leather lounge—I met him afterwards at the British Embassy in Paris—caught my eye and smiled.
"They don't seem to worry about the international situation. Perhaps it will be easier to get to Paris than to get back again!"
"And now drinks all round, lads!" said one of the trippers.
On deck there were voices singing. It was the hymn of the Marseillaise. I went up towards the sound and found a party of young Frenchmen standing aft, waving farewells to England, as the syren hooted, above a rattle of chains and the crash of the gangway which dropped to the quayside. They had been called back to their country to defend its soil and, unlike the Englishmen drinking themselves fuddled, were intoxicated by a patriotic excitement.
An answer came back from the quayside:
"Vive la France!"
It was to this shout that we warped away from the jetty and made for the open sea. A yacht with white sails all agleam as it crossed the bar of a searchlight so that it seemed like a fairy ship in the vision of a dream, crept into the harbour and then fluttered into the darkness below the Admiralty pier.
"That's a queer kind of craft to meet to-night!" I said to the second mate. "What is she doing?"
"I'd like to know. She's got a German skipper and crew. Spies all of them, I guess. But nobody seems to bother."
There were spies watching our own boat as we went across the Channel, but they were on English vessels. Searchlights from many warships turned their rays upon us, staring at us from stem to stern, following us with a far-flung vigilance, transmuting the base metal of our funnel and brasswork into shining silver and burnished gold. As I stared back into the blinding rays I felt that the eyes of the warships could look into my very soul, and I walked to the other side of the boat as though abashed by this scrutiny. I looked back to the shore, with its winking lights and looming cliffs, and wished I could see by some kind of searchlight into the soul of England on this night of fate. Beyond the cliffs of Dover, in the profound darkness of the night, England seemed asleep. Did not her people hear the beating of Death's war drums across the fields of Europe, growing louder and louder, so that on a cross-Channel boat I heard it booming in my ears, louder than the wind?
Chapter II Mobilization
The thunderbolt came out of a blue sky and in the midst of a brilliant sunshine which gleamed blindingly above the white houses of Paris and flung back shadows from the poplars across the long straight roads between the fields of France. The children were playing as usual in the gardens of the Tuileries, and their white-capped nurses were sewing and chatting in the shade of the scorched trees. The old bird man was still calling "Viens! Viens!" to the sparrows who came to perch on his shoulders and peck at the bread between his lips, and Punch was still performing his antique drama in the Petit Guignol to laughing audiences of boys and girls. The bateaux mouches on the Seine were carrying heavy loads of pleasure-seekers to Sevres and other riverside haunts. In the Pavilion Bleu at St. Cloud elegant little ladies of the demi-monde sipped rose-tinted ices and said for a thousand times; "Ciel, comme il fait chaud!" and slapped the hands of beaky-nosed young men with white slips beneath their waistcoats and shiny boots and other symbols of a high civilization. Americans in Panama hats sauntered down the Rue de Rivoli, staring in the shop windows at the latest studies of nude women, and at night went in pursuit of adventure to Montmartre, where the orchestras at the Bal Tabarin were still fiddling mad tangoes in a competition of shrieking melody and where troops of painted ladies in the Folies Bergeres still paraded in the promenoir with languorous eyes, through wafts of sickly scent. The little tables were all along the pavements of the boulevards and the terrasses were crowded with all those bourgeois Frenchmen and their women who do not move out of Paris even in the dogdays, but prefer the scenery of their familiar streets to that of Dieppe and Le Touquet. It was the same old Paris—crowded with Cook's tourists and full of the melody of life as it is played by the hoot of motor horns, the clang of steam trams, the shrill-voiced camelots shouting "La Presse! La Presse!" and of the light laughter of women.
Then suddenly the thunderbolt fell with its signal of war, and in a few days Paris was changed as though by some wizard's spell. Most of the children vanished from the Tuileries gardens with their white- capped nurses, and the sparrows searched in vain for their bird man. Punch gave a final squawk of dismay and disappeared when the theatre of the Petit Guignol was packed up to make way for a more tragic drama. A hush fell upon Montmartre, and the musicians in its orchestras packed up their instruments and scurried with scared faces—to Berlin, Vienna, and Budapesth. No more boats went up to Sevres and St. Cloud with crowds of pleasure-seekers. The Seine was very quiet beneath its bridges, and in the Pavilion Bleu no dainty creatures sat sipping rose-tinted ices or slapped the hands of the beaky-nosed boys who used to pay for them. The women were hiding in their rooms, asking God—even before the war they used to ask God funny questions—how they were going to live now that their lovers had gone away to fight, leaving them with nothing but the memory of a last kiss wet with tears. It was not enough to live on for many days.
During the last days of July and the first days of August Paris was stunned by the shock of this menace, which was approaching swiftly and terribly. War! But why? Why, in the name of God, should France be forced into a war for which she was not prepared, for which she had no desire, because Austria had issued an ultimatum to Servia, demanding the punishment of a nation of cut-throats for the murder of an unnecessary Archduke? Germany was behind the business, Germany was forcing the pace, exasperating Russia, presenting a grim face to France and rattling the sword in its scabbard so that it resounded through Europe. Well, let her rattle, so long as France could keep out of the whole affair and preserve that peace in which she had built up prosperity since the nightmare of 1870!
L'annee terrible! There were many people in France who remembered that tragic year, and now, after forty-four years, the memory came back, and they shuddered. They had seen the horrors of war and knew the meaning of it—its waste of life, its sacrifice of splendid young manhood, its wanton cruelties, its torture of women, its misery and destruction. France had been brought to her knees then and had suffered the last humiliations which may be inflicted upon a proud nation. But she had recovered miraculously, and gradually even her desire for revenge, the passionate hope that one day she might take vengeance for all those indignities and cruelties, had cooled down and died. Not even for vengeance was war worth while. Not even to recover the lost provinces was it worth the lives of all those thousands of young men who must give their blood as the price of victory. Alsace and Lorraine were only romantic memories, kept alive by a few idealists and hotheads, who once a year went to the statue in the Place de la Concorde and deposited wreaths and made enthusiastic speeches which rang false, and pledged their allegiance to the lost provinces—"Quand meme!" There was a good deal of blague in these annual ceremonies, laughed at by Frenchmen of common sense. Alsace and Lorraine had been Germanized. A Frenchman would find few people there to speak his own tongue. The old ties of sentiment had worn very thin, and there was not a party in France who would have dared to advocate a war with Germany for the sake of this territory. Such a policy would have been a crime against France itself, who had abandoned the spirit of vengeance, and had only one ambition—to pursue its ideals and its business in peace.
There was no wild outbreak of Jingo fever, no demonstrations of blood-lust against Germany in Paris or any town of France, on that first day of August, when the people waited for the fateful decision which, if it were for war, would call every able-bodied man to the colours and arrest all the activities of a nation's normal life, and demand a dreadful sacrifice in blood and tears. There was only a sense of stupefaction which seemed to numb the intelligence of men so that they could not reason with any show of logic, or speak of this menace without incoherence, but thrust back the awful possibility with one word, uttered passionately and repeated a thousand times a day: "Incroyable!"
This word was dinned in my ears. I caught the sound of it as I walked along the boulevards. It would come like a refrain at the end of sentences spoken by little groups of men and women sitting outside the cafes and reading every issue of those innumerable newspapers which flung out editions at every hour. It was the answer I had from men of whom I tried to get a clue to the secret movements of diplomacy, and an answer to that question of war or peace. "C'est incroyable!" They found it hard to believe—they would not believe— that without any provocation from France, without any challenge, Germany would deliberately, force this war upon the Triple Entente and make a bloody shambles of European civilization. Beneath this incredulity, this stupefaction, there was among most of the Frenchmen whom I personally encountered a secret dread that France was unready for the great ordeal of war and that its outbreak would find her divided by political parties, inefficient in organization, corrupt in some of her Government departments. The Socialists and Syndicalists who had fought against the three years' service might refuse to march. Only a few months before a deputy had hinted at grave scandals in the provisioning and equipment of the army.
The history of 1870, with its awful revelations of disorganization and unreadiness was remembered now and lay heavy upon the hearts of those educated Frenchmen who, standing outside the political arena, distrust all politicians, having but little faith in their honesty or their ability. Who could tell whether France—the new France she had been called—would rise above her old weaknesses and confront the peril of this war with a strong, pure, and undivided spirit?
On August 1 there was a run on one of the banks. I passed its doors and saw them besieged by thousands of middle-class men and women drawn up in a long queue waiting very quietly—with a strange quietude for any crowd in Paris—to withdraw the savings of a lifetime or the capital of their business houses. There were similar crowds outside other banks, and on the faces of these people there was a look of brooding fear, as though all that they had fought and struggled for, the reward of all their petty economies and meannesses, and shifts and tricks, and denials of self-indulgences and starvings of soul might be suddenly snatched from them and leave them beggared. A shudder went through one such crowd when a young man came to speak to them from the steps of the bank. It was a kind of shuddering sigh, followed by loud murmurings, and here and there angry protests. The cashiers had been withdrawn from their desks and cheques could not be paid.
"We are ruined already!" said a woman. "This war will take all our money! Oh, my God!"
She made her way through the crowd with a fixed white face and burning eyes.
It was strange how in a day all gold disappeared from Paris. I could not see the glint of it anywhere, unless I drew it from my own purse. Even silver was very scarce and everybody was trying to cash notes, which were refused by the shopkeepers. When I put one of them down on a table at the Cafe Tourtel the waiter shook his head and said, "La petite monnaie, s'il vous plait!" At another place where I put down a gold piece the waiter seized it as though it were a rare and wonderful thing, and then gave me all my change in paper, made up of new five franc notes issued by the Government. In the evening an official notice was posted on the walls prohibiting the export of grain and flour. People stared at it and said, "That means war!" Another sign of coming events, more impressive to the imagination of the Parisian, was the sudden dwindling in size of the evening newspapers. They were reduced to two sheets, and in some cases to a single broadside, owing to the possibility of a famine in paper if war broke out and cut off the supplies of Paris while the railways were being used for the mobilization of troops.
The city was very quiet and outwardly as calm as on any day in August. But beneath this normal appearance of things there was a growing anxiety and people's nerves were so on edge that any sudden sound would make a man start on his chair on the terrasse outside the cafe restaurant. Paris was afraid of itself. What uproar or riot or criminal demonstration might not burst suddenly into this tranquillity? There were evil elements lurking in the low quarters. Apaches and anarchists might be inflamed with the madness of blood which excites men in time of war. The socialists and syndicalists might refuse to fight, and fight in maintaining their refusal. Some political crime might set all those smouldering passions on fire and make a hell in the streets. So people waited and watched the crowds and listened to the pulse-beat of Paris.
The sharp staccato of revolver shots heard in the rue Montmartre on the night of July 31 caused a shudder to pass through the city, as though they were the signal for a criminal plot which might destroy France by dividing it while the enemy was on the frontier.
I did not hear those shots but only the newspaper reports which followed them almost as loudly in the soul of Paris. And yet it was only the accidental meeting of a friend which diverted my attention of dining in the Croissant Restaurant in which the crime took place at the very hour when I should have been there. Some years before in Paris, when France was in the throes of a railway strike which developed almost to the verge of revolution, I had often gone to the Croissant at two, three or four in the morning, because it had police privileges to keep open all night for the comfort of journalists. Other night birds had found this roost—ladies who sleep by day, and some of the queer adventurers of the city which never goes to bed. One night I had come into the midst of a strange company—the inner circle of Parisian anarchists who were celebrating a victory over French law. Their white faces had eyes like live coals. They thrust long thin fingers through shaggy hair and spoke passionate orations nose to nose. Their sluttish women shrieked with mirth and gave their kisses to the leader of the gang, who had the face of Christ as painted by Ary Scheffer.
It was in this interesting place, on the very velvet cushions where I used to sit to watch the company, that Jaures was killed on the eve of the war. The veteran orator of French socialism, the man who could stir the passions of the mob—as I had seen more than once—so that at his bidding they would declare war against all the powers of Government, was struck down as he sat with his back to an open window divided from the street by a thin curtain. The young assassin —a patriot he called himself—had been excited to an hysteria of hate for a man who had tried to weaken the military power of France by opposing the measure for a three years' service. It was the madness of war which had touched his brain, and although Jaures had called upon the Socialists of France to march as one man in defence of "La Patrie," this young neurasthenic made him the first victim of that enormous sacrifice of blood which has since reeked up to God. Jaures, an honest man, perhaps, in spite of all his theatrical appeals to mob passion—honest at least in his desire to make life more tolerable for the sweated workers of France—was mortally wounded by those shots through the window blind, and the crimson cushions of his seat were dyed with deeper stains.
For twenty-four hours France was scared by the murder. It seemed possible that the crime might let loose a tide of passion among the followers of the Socialist leader. Placards were hastily posted on the walls by the military governor of Paris professing abhorrence of the assassination of a great Frenchman, promising a just punishment of the crime, and calling upon the people to remain calm in this great national crisis which would decide the destiny of France.
The appeal was not challenged. By a strange irony of fate the death of Jaures strengthened the Government which he bad attacked throughout his life, and the dead body of the man of strife became, on its way to the grave, the symbol of a united France, of obedience to its laws, and of a martial fervour which in the old days of rebellion he had ridiculed and denounced. On a gusty day I saw the Red Flag of revolutionary socialism fluttering across the Place de la Concorde in front of the coffin containing the corpse of its leader. Blood red, flag after flag streamed past, all aglow in the brilliant sunshine, and behind walked the representatives of every party in the State, including all those who had denounced Jaures in life as a traitor, a revolutionist, and the most evil influence in France. For the first time in history the aristocrats and the monarchists, the Conservative Republicans and the Clericals walked in procession behind the blood-red rag.
Part of the active army of France was already on the frontiers. Before the first whisper of war had reached the ears of the people, large bodies of troops had been sent to the frontier towns to strengthen the already existing garrisons. But the main army of the nation was pursuing the ordinary pursuits of civil life. To resist the might of Germany, the greatest military Power in Europe, already approaching the frontiers in vast masses of men and machines, France would have to call out all her manhood which had been trained in military service.
Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons!
The call to arms came without any loud clamour of bugles or orations. Unlike the scenes in the early days of 1870, there were no street processions of civil enthusiasts. No painted beauty of the stage waved the tricolour to the shout of "A Berlin!" No mob orators jumped upon the cafe tables to wave their arms in defiance of the foe and to prophesy swift victories.
The quietness of Paris was astounding, and the first mobilization orders were issued with no more publicity than attends the delivery of a trade circular through the halfpenny post. Yet in hundreds of thousands of houses through France and in all the blocks and tenements of Paris there was a drama of tragic quietude when the cards were delivered to young men in civilian clothes, men who sat at table with old mothers or young wives, or in lowly rooms with some dream to keep them company, or with little women who had spoilt the dream, or fostered it, or with comrades who had gone on great adventures with them between the Quartier Latin and the Mountain of Montmartre. "It has come!"
Fate had come with that little card summoning each man to join his depot, and tapped him on the shoulder with just a finger touch. It was no more than that—a touch on the shoulder. Yet I know that for many of those young men it seemed a blow between the eyes, and, to some of them, a strangle-grip as icy cold as though Death's fingers were already closing round their throats.
I seem to hear the silence in those rooms when for a moment or two young men stared at the cards and the formal words on them, and when, for just that time, all that life and death, means, came before their souls. Was this the summons, Death itself? Somewhere on the German side was a little steel bullet or a bit of shell waiting for the Frenchman to whom it was destined. How long would it have to wait to find its billet? Perhaps only a day or two—a question of hours, slipping away now towards eternity as the clock ticked on. From the old mother, or the young wife, from the little woman whose emotions and quarrels, greediness or self-denial, had seemed all that mattered in life, all that life meant to a young man of twenty-five or so, there came perhaps a cry, a name spoken with grief, or no word at all but the inarticulate expression of foreboding, terror, and a woman's anguish.
"Jean! Mon petit! O, mon pauvre petit!" "C'est pour la patrie... mon devoir... je reviendrai bientot... Courage, ma femme!"
Courage! How many million times was the word spoken that night of mobilization by women who saw the sudden pallor of their men, by men who heard the cry of their women? I heard it in the streets, spoken quite brutally sometimes, by men afraid of breaking down, and with a passionate tenderness by other men, sure of their own strength but pitiful for those whose spirit fainted at the spectre of death which stood quite close.
In the days that followed the Second of August I saw the whole meaning of mobilization in France—the call of a nation to arms—from Paris to the Eastern frontier, and the drama of it all stirs me now as I write, though many months have passed since then and I have seen more awful things on the harvest fields of death. More awful, but not more pitiful. For even in the sunshine of that August, before blood had been spilt and the brooding spectre of war had settled drearily over Europe, there was a poignant tragedy beneath the gallantry and the beauty of that squadron of cavalry that I had seen riding out of their barrack gates to entrain for the front. The men and the horses were superb—clean-limbed, finely trained, exquisite in their pride of life. As they came out into the streets of Paris the men put on the little touch of swagger which belongs to the Frenchman when the public gaze is on him. Even the horses tossed their heads and seemed to realize the homage of the populace. Hundreds of women were in the crowd, waving handkerchiefs, springing forward out of their line to throw bunches of flowers to those cavaliers, who caught them and fastened them to kepi and jacket. The officers—young dandies of the Chasseurs—carried great bouquets already and kissed the petals in homage to all the womanhood of France whose love they symbolized. There were no tears in that crowd, though the wives and sweethearts of many of the young men must have stood on the kerbstone to watch them pass.
At those moments, in the sunshine, even the sting of parting was forgotten in the enthusiasm and pride which rose up to those splendid ranks of cavalry who were on their way to fight foi France and to uphold the story of their old traditions. I could see no tears then but my own, for I confess that suddenly to my eyes there came a mist of tears and I was seized with an emotion that made me shudder icily in the glare of the day. For beyond the pageantry of the cavalcade I saw the fields of war, with many of those men and horses lying mangled under the hot sun of August. I smelt the stench of blood, for I had been in the muck and misery of war before and had seen the death carts coming back from the battlefield and the convoys of wounded crawling down the rutty roads—from Adrianople—with men, who had been strong and fine, now shattered, twisted and made hideous by pain. The flowers carried by those cavalry officers seemed to me like funeral wreaths upon men who were doomed to die, and the women who sprang out of the crowds with posies for their men were offering the garlands of death.
In the streets of Paris in those first days of the war I saw many scenes of farewell. All day long one saw them, so that at last one watched them without emotion, because the pathos of them became monotonous. It was curious how men said good-bye, often, to their wives and children and comrades at a street corner, or in the middle of the boulevards. A hundred times or more I saw one of these conscript soldiers who had put on his uniform again after years of civilian life, turn suddenly to the woman trudging by his side or to a group of people standing round him and say: "Alors, il faut dire Adieu et Au revoir!" One might imagine that he was going on a week-end visit and would be back again in Paris on Monday next. It was only by the long-drawn kiss upon the lips of the woman who raised a dead white face to him and by the abruptness with which the man broke away and walked off hurriedly until he was lost in the passing crowds that one might know that this was as likely as not the last parting between a man and a woman who had known love together and that each of them had seen the vision of death which would divide them on this side of the grave. The stoicism of the Frenchwomen was wonderful. They made no moan or plaint. They gave their men to "La Patrie" with the resignation of religious women who offer their hearts to God. Some spiritual fervour, which in France permeates the sentiment of patriotism, giving a beauty to that tradition of nationality which, without such a spirit, is the low and ignorant hatred of other peoples, strengthened and uplifted them.
Sometimes when I watched these scenes I raged against the villainy of a civilization which still permits these people to be sent like sheep to the slaughter. Great God! These poor wretches of the working quarters in Paris, these young peasants from the fields, these underpaid clerks from city offices had had no voice in the declaration of war. What could they know about international politics? Why should they be the pawns of the political chessboard, played without any regard for human life by diplomats and war lords and high financiers? These poor weedy little men with the sallow faces of the clerical class, in uniforms which hung loose round their undeveloped frames, why should they be caught in the trap of this horrible machine called "War" and let loose like a lot of mice against the hounds of death? These peasants with slouching shoulders and loose limbs and clumsy feet, who had been bringing in the harvest of France, after their tilling and sowing and reaping, why should they be marched off into tempests of shells which would hack off their strong arms and drench unfertile fields with their blood? They had had to go, leaving all the things that had given a meaning and purpose to their days, as though God had commanded them, instead of groups of politicians among the nations of Europe, damnably careless of human life. How long will this fetish of international intrigue be tolerated by civilized democracies which have no hatred against each other, until it is inflamed by their leaders and then, in war itself, by the old savageries of primitive nature?
I went down to the East frontier on the first day of mobilization. It was in the evening when I went to take the train from the Gare de l'Est. The station was filled with a seething crowd of civilians and soldiers, struggling to get to the booking-offices, vainly seeking information as to the times of departure to distant towns of France. The railway officials were bewildered and could give no certain information. The line was under military control. Many trains had been suppressed and the others had no fixed time-table. I could only guess at the purpose animating the individuals in these crowds. Many of them, perhaps, were provincials, caught in Paris by the declaration of war and desperately anxious to get back to their homes before the lines were utterly choked by troop trains. Others belonged to neutral countries and were trying to escape across the frontier before the gates were closed. One of the "neutrals" spoke to me—in German, which was a dangerous tongue in Paris. He was a Swiss who had come to Paris on business for a few days, leaving his wife in a village near Basle. It was of his wife that he kept talking.
"Ach, mein armes Weib! Sie hat Angst fur mich."
I pitied this little man in a shoddy suit and limp straw hat who had tears in his eyes and no courage to make inquiries of station officials because he spoke no word of French. I asked on his behalf and after jostling for half an hour in the crowd and speaking to a dozen porters who shrugged their shoulders and said, "Je n'en sais rien!" came back with the certain and doleful news that the last train had left that night for Basle. The little Swiss was standing between his packages with his back to the wall, searching for me with anxious eyes, and when I gave him the bad news tears trickled down his face.
"Was kann ich thun? Mein armes Weib hat Angst fur mich."
There was nothing he could do that night, however anxious his poor wife might be, but I did not have any further conversation with him, for my bad German had already attracted the notice of the people standing near, and they were glowering at me suspiciously, as though I were a spy.
It was an hour later that I found a train leaving for Nancy, though even then I was assured by railway officials that there was no such train. I had faith, however, in a young French officer who pledged his word to me that I should get to Nancy if I took my place in the carriage before which he stood. He was going as far as Toul himself.
I could see by the crimson velvet round his kepi that he was an army doctor, and by the look of sadness in his eyes that he was not glad to leave the beautiful woman by his side who clasped his arm. They spoke to me in English.
"This war will be horrible!" said the lady. "It is so senseless and so unnecessary. Why should Germany want to fight us? There has been no quarrel between us and we wanted to live in peace."
The young officer made a sudden gesture of disgust.
"It is a crime against humanity—a stupid, wanton crime!"
Then he asked a question earnestly and waited for my answer with obvious anxiety:
"Will England join in?"
I said "Yes!" with an air of absolute conviction, though on that night England had not yet given her decision. During the last twenty-four hours I had been asked this question a score of times. The people of Paris were getting impatient of England's silence. Englishmen in Paris were getting very anxious. If England did not keep her unwritten pledge to France, it would be dangerous and a shameful thing to be an Englishman in Paris. Some of my friends were already beginning to feel their throats with nervous fingers.
"I think so too!" said the officer, when he heard my answer. "England will be dishonoured otherwise!"
The platform was now thronged with young men, many of them being officers in a variety of brand-new uniforms, but most of them still in civilian clothes as they had left their workshops or their homes to obey the mobilization orders to join their military depots. The young medical officer who had been speaking to me withdrew himself from his wife's arm to answer some questions addressed to him by an old colonel in his own branch of service. The lady turned to me and spoke in a curiously intimate way, as though we were old friends.
"Have you begun to realize what it means? I feel that I ought to weep because my husband is leaving me. We have two little children. But there are no tears higher than my heart. It seems as though he were just going away for a week-end—and yet he may never come back to us. Perhaps to-morrow I shall weep."
She did not weep even when the train was signalled to start and when the man put his arms about her and held her in a long embrace, whispering down to her. Nor did I see any tears in other women's eyes as they waved farewell. It was only the pallor of their faces which showed some hidden agony.
Before the train started the carriage in which I had taken my seat was crowded with young men who, excepting one cavalry officer in the corner, seemed to belong to the poorest classes of Paris. In the corner opposite the dragoon was a boy of eighteen or so in the working clothes of a terrassier or labourer. No one had come to see him off to the war, and he was stupefied with drink. Several times he staggered up and vomited out of the window with an awful violence of nausea, and then fell back with his head lolling sideways on the cushions of the first-class carriage. None of the other men—except the cavalry officer, who drew in his legs slightly—took the slightest interest in this poor wretch—a handsome lad with square-cut features and fair tousled hair, who had tried to get courage out of absinthe before leaving for the war.
In the corner opposite my own seat was a thin pallid young man, also a little drunk, but with an excited brain in which a multitude of strange and tragic thoughts chased each other. He recognized me as an Englishman at once, and with a shout of "Camarade!" shook hands with me not once but scores of times during the first part of our journey.
He entered upon a monologue that seemed interminable, his voice rising into a shrill excitement and then sinking into a hoarse whisper. He belonged to the "apache" type, and had come out of one of those foul lairs which lie hidden behind the white beauty of Paris—yet he spoke with a terrible eloquence which kept me fascinated. I remember some of his words, though I cannot give them his white heat of passion, nor the infinite pathos of his self-pity.
"I have left a wife behind, the woman who loves me and sees something more in me than vileness. Shall I tell you how I left her, Monsieur? Dying—in a hospital at Charenton. I shall never see her again. I shall never again take her thin white face in my dirty hands and say, 'You and I have tasted the goodness of life, my little one, while we have starved together!' For life is good, Monsieur, but in a little while I shall be dead in one place and my woman in another. That is certain. I left a child behind me—a little girl. What will happen to her when I am killed? I left her with the concierge, who promised to take care of her—not for money, you understand, because I had none to give. My little girl will never see me again, and I shall never see her grow into a woman. Because I am going to be killed. Perhaps in a day or two there will be no more life for me. This hand of mine—you see I can grasp things with it, move it this way and that, shake hands with you—camarade!—salute the spirit of France with it—comme ca! But tomorrow or the next day it will be quite still. A dead thing—like my dead body. It is queer. Here I sit talking to you alive. But to-morrow or the next day my corpse will lie out on the battlefield, like a bit of earth. I can see that corpse of mine, with its white face and staring eyes. Ugh! it is a dirty sight—a man's corpse. Here in my heart something tells me that I shall be killed quite soon, perhaps at the first shot. But do you know I shall not be sorry to die. I shall be glad, Monsieur! And why glad, you ask? Because I love France and hate the Germans who have put this war on to us. I am going to fight—I, a Socialist and a syndicalist—so that we shall make an end of war, so that the little ones of France shall sleep in peace, and the women go without fear. This war will have to be the last war. It is a war of Justice against Injustice. When they have finished this time the people will have no more of it. We who go out to die shall be remembered because we gave the world peace. That will be our reward, though we shall know nothing of it but lie rotting in the earth—dead! It is sad that to-morrow, or the next day, I shall be dead. I see my corpse there——-"
He saw his corpse again, and wept a little at the sight of it.
A neurotic type—a poor weed of life who had been reared in the dark lairs of civilization. Yet I had no contempt for him as he gibbered with self-pity. The tragedy of the future of civilization was in the soul of that pallid, sharp-featured, ill-nourished man who had lived in misery within the glitter of a rich city and who was now being taken to his death—I feel sure he died in the trenches even though no bullet may have reached him—at the command of great powers who knew nothing of this poor ant. What did his individual life matter? ... I stared into the soul of a soldier of France and wondered at the things I saw in it—at the spiritual faith which made a patriot of that apache.
There was a change of company in the carriage, the democrats being turned into a third-class carriage to make way for half a dozen officers of various grades and branches. I had new types to study and was surprised by the calmness and quietude of these men—mostly of middle age—who had just left their homes for active service. They showed no signs of excitement but chatted about the prospects of the war as though it were an abstract problem. The attitude of England was questioned and again I was called upon to speak as the representative of my country and to assure Frenchmen of our friendship and co-operation. They seemed satisfied with my statements and expressed their belief that the British Fleet would make short work of the enemy at sea.
One of the officers took no part in the conversation. He was a handsome man of about forty years of age, in the uniform of an infantry regiment, and he sat in the corner of the carriage, stroking his brown moustache in a thoughtful way. He had a fine gravity of face and once or twice when his eyes turned my way I saw an immense sadness in them.
As our train passed through France on its way to Nancy, we heard and saw the tumult of a nation arming itself for war and pouring down to its frontiers to meet the enemy. All through the night, as we passed through towns and villages and under railway bridges, the song of the Marseillaise rose up to the carriage windows and then wailed away like a sad plaint as our engine shrieked and raced on. At the sound of the national hymn one of the officers in my carriage always opened his eyes and lifted his head, which had been drooping forward on his chest, and listened with a look of puzzled surprise, as though he could not realize even yet that France was at war and that he was on his way to the front. But the other officers slept; and the silent man, whose quiet dignity and sadness had impressed me, smiled a little in his sleep now and then and murmured a word or two, among which I seemed to hear a woman's name.
In the dawn and pallid sunlight of the morning I saw the soldiers of France assembling. They came across the bridges with glinting rifles, and the blue coats and red trousers of the infantry made them look in the distance like tin soldiers from a children's playbox. But there were battalions of them close to the railway lines, waiting at level crossings, and with stacked arms on the platforms, so that I could look into their eyes and watch their faces. They were fine young men, with a certain hardness and keenness of profile which promised well for France. There was no shouting among them, no patriotic demonstrations, no excitability. They stood waiting for their trains in a quiet, patient way, chatting among themselves, smiling, smoking cigarettes, like soldiers on their way to sham fights in the ordinary summer manoeuvres. The town and village folk, who crowded about them and leaned over the gates at the level crossings to watch our train, were more demonstrative. They waved hands to us and cried out "Bonne chance!" and the boys and girls chanted the Marseillaise again in shrill voices. At every station where we halted, and we never let one of them go by without a stop, some of the girls came along the platform with baskets of fruit, of which they made free gifts to our trainload of men. Sometimes they took payment in kisses, quite simply and without any bashfulness, lifting their faces to the lips of bronzed young men who thrust their kepis back and leaned out of the carriage windows.
"Come back safe and sound, my little one," said a girl. "Fight well for France!"
"I do not hope to come back," said a soldier, "but I shall die fighting."
The fields were swept with the golden light of the sun, and the heavy foliage of the trees sang through every note of green. The white roads of France stretched away straight between the fields and the hills, with endless lines of poplars as their sentinels, and in clouds of greyish dust rising like smoke the regiments marched with a steady tramp. Gun carriages moved slowly down the roads in a glare of sun which sparkled upon the steel tubes of the field artillery and made a silver bar of every wheel-spoke. I heard the creak of the wheels and the rattle of the limber and the shouts of the drivers to their teams; and I thrilled a little every time we passed one of these batteries because I knew that in a day or two these machines, which were being carried along the highways of France, would be wreathed with smoke denser than the dust about them now, while they vomited forth shells at the unseen enemy whose guns would answer with the roar of death.
Guns and men, horses and wagons, interminable convoys of munitions, great armies on the march, trainloads of soldiers on all the branch lines, soldiers bivouacked in the roadways and in market places, long processions of young civilians carrying bundles to military depots where they would change their clothes and all their way of life—these pictures of preparation for war flashed through the carriage windows into my brain, mile after mile, through the country of France, until sometimes I closed my eyes to shut out the glare and glitter of this kaleidoscope, the blood-red colour of all those French trousers tramping through the dust, the lurid blue of all those soldiers' overcoats, the sparkle of all those gun-wheels. What does it all mean, this surging tide of armed men? What would it mean in a day or two, when another tide of men had swept up against it, with a roar of conflict, striving to overwhelm this France and to swamp over its barriers in waves of blood? How senseless it seemed that those mild- eyed fellows outside my carriage windows, chatting with the girls while we waited for the signals to fall, should be on their way to kill other mild-eyed men, who perhaps away in Germany were kissing other girls, for gifts of fruit and flowers.
It was at this station near Toul that I heard the first words of hatred. They were in a conversation between two French soldiers who had come with us from Paris. They had heard that some Germans had already been taken prisoners across the frontier, and they were angry that the men were still alive.
"Prisoners? Pah! Name of a dog! I will tell you what I would do with German prisoners!"
It was nothing nice that that man wanted to do with German prisoners. He indulged in long and elaborate details as to the way in which he would wreath their bowels about his bayonet and tear out their organs with his knife. The other man had more imagination. He devised more ingenious modes of torture so that the Germans should not die too soon.
I watched the men as they spoke. They had the faces of murderers, with bloodshot eyes and coarse features, swollen with drink and vice. There was a life of cruelty in the lines about their mouths, and in their husky laughter. Their hands twitched and their muscles gave convulsive jerks, as they worked themselves into a fever of blood- lust. In the French Revolution it was such men as these who leered up at the guillotine and laughed when the heads of patrician women fell into the basket, and who did the bloody Work of the September massacre. The breed had not died out in France, and war had brought it forth from its lairs again.
These men were not typical of the soldiers of France. In the headquarters at Nancy, where I was kept waiting for some time in one of the guard-rooms before being received by the commandant, I chatted with many of the men and found them fine fellows of a good, clean, cheery type. When they heard that I was a war correspondent, they plied me with greetings and questions. "You are an English journalist? You want to come with us? That is good! Every Englishman is a comrade and we will give you some fine things to write about!"
They showed me their rifles and their field kit, asked me to feel the weight of their knapsacks, and laughed when I said that I should faint with such a burden. In each black sack the French soldier carried—in addition to the legendary baton of a field-marshal—a complete change of underclothing, a second pair of boots, provisions for two days, consisting of desiccated soup, chocolate and other groceries, and a woollen night-cap. Then there were his tin water-bottle, or bidon (filled with wine at the beginning of the war), his cartridge belt, rifle, military overcoat strapped about his shoulders, and various other impedimenta.
"It's not a luxury, this life of ours," said a tall fellow with a fair moustache belonging to the famous 20th Regiment of the line, which was the first to enter Nancy after the German occupation of the town in 1870.
He pointed to the rows of straw beds on which some of his comrades lay asleep, and to the entire lack of comfort in the whitewashed room.
"Some of you English gentlemen," he said, "would hardly like to lie down here side by side with the peasants from their farms, smelling of their barns. But in France it is different. We have aristocrats still, but some of them have to shake down with the poorest comrades and know no distinction of rank now that all wear the same old uniform."
It seemed to me a bad uniform for modern warfare—the red trousers and blue coat and the little kepi made famous in many great battle pictures—but the soldier told me they could not fight with the same spirit if they wore any other clothes than those which belong to the glorious traditions of France.
When I was taken to Colonel Duchesne, second-in-command to General Foch, he gave me a smiling greeting, though I was a trespasser in the war zone, and he wanted to know what I thought of his "boys," what was my opinion of the mobilization, and what were my impressions of the way in which France had responded to the call. I answered with sincerity, and when I spoke of the astonishing way in which all classes seemed to have united in defence of the nation, Colonel Duchesne had a sudden mist of tears in his eyes which he did not try to hide.
"It is sublime! All politics have been banished. We are one people, with one ideal and one purpose—La France!"
Then he came to the business of my visit—to obtain a permit to march with the French troops.
"It is very difficult," said the Colonel. "General Foch would do all he could for you—he loves the English—but no French correspondents are allowed on the frontier, and we can hardly make a distinction in your favour. Still, I will put your appeal before the general. The answer shall be sent to your hotel."
It was while waiting for this reply that I was able to explore Nancy and to see the scenes of mobilization. The town was under martial law. Its food-supplies were under strict supervision by the commandant. Every motor-car and cart had been commandeered for the use of the army, and every able-bodied citizen had been called to the colours. I was the only guest in the Grand Hotel and the manager and his wife attended to my wants themselves. They were astounded to see me in the town.
"You are the only foreigner left," they said, "except those who are under armed guard, waiting to be taken to the Swiss frontier. Look! there go the last of them!"
Through the glass windows of the hotel door I saw about two hundred men marching away from the square surrounded by soldiers with fixed bayonets. They carried bundles and seemed to droop under the burden of them already. But I fancy their hearts were heaviest, and I could see that these young men—waiters and hairdressers and tradesmen mostly of Swiss nationality—were unwilling victims of this tragedy of war which had suddenly thrust them out of their business and smashed their small ambitions and booted them out of a country which had given them a friendly welcome. On the other side of the fixed bayonets were some women who wept as they called out "Adieu!" to their fair-haired fellows. One of them held up a new-born baby between the guards as she ran alongside, so that its little wrinkled face touched the cheek of a young man who had a look of agony in his eyes.
That night I heard the shrill notes of bugle calls and going to my bedroom window listened to the clatter of horses' hoofs and saw the dim forms of cavalry and guns going through the darkness—towards the enemy. No sound of firing rattled my window panes. It still seemed very quiet—over there to the East. Yet before the dawn came a German avalanche of men and guns might be sweeping across the frontier, and if I stayed a day or two in the open town of Nancy I might see the spiked helmets of the enemy glinting down the streets. The town was not to be defended, I was told, if the French troops had to fall back from the frontier to the fortresses of Belfort and Toul.
A woman's voice was singing outside in the courtyard when I awakened next day. How strange that any woman should sing in an undefended town confronted by such a peril. But none of the girls about the streets had any fear in their eyes. German frightfulness had not yet scared them with its nameless horrors.
I did not stay in Nancy. It was only the French War Office in Paris who could give permission for a correspondent to join the troops. This unfortified town has never echoed in the war to the tramp of German feet, and its women's courage has not been dismayed by the worst horrors. But since those days of August 1914, many women's faces have blanched at the sight of blood—streams of blood sopping the stretchers in which the wounded have been carried back from the frontier, which seemed so quiet when I listened at the open window. Those soldiers I talked to in the general headquarters—how many of them are now alive? They were the men who fought in Alsace and Lorraine, when whole battalions were decimated under a withering shell-fire beyond the endurance of human courage, and who marched forward to victories, and backward in retreats, and forward again over the dead bodies of their comrades and corrupting heaps of German dead, in an ebb and flow of warfare which made the fields and the woods one great stench of horror, from which there came back madmen and maimed creatures, and young men, lucky with slight wounds, who told the tale of things they had seen as though they had escaped from hell. I met some of them afterwards and turned sick and faint as I listened to their stories; and afterwards on the western side of the French front, three hundred miles from Nancy, I came upon the dragoons of Belfort who had ridden past me in the sunshine of those August days. Then they had been very fine to see in their clean uniforms and on their glossy horses, garlanded with flowers. At the second meeting they were stained and warworn, and their horses limped with drooping heads, and they rode as men who have seen many comrades fall and have been familiar with the ways of death. They were fine to see again, those dirty, tired, grim-faced men. But it was a different kind of beauty which sent a queer thrill through me as I watched them pass.
Chapter III The Secret War
It was the most astounding thing in modern history, the secrecy behind which great armies were moving and fighting. To a civilization accustomed to the rapid and detailed accounts of news, there was something stupefying in the veil of silence which enshrouded the operations of the legions which were being hurled against each other along the frontiers. By one swift stroke of the military censorship journalism was throttled. All its lines of communication were cut, suddenly, as when, in my office, I spoke from Paris to England, and found myself with a half-finished sentence before a telephone which would no longer "march," as they say across the Channel. Pains and penalties were threatened against any newspaper which should dare to publish a word of military information beyond the official communiques issued in order to hide the truth. Only by a careful study of maps from day to day and a microscopic reading between the lines could one grope one's way to any kind of clear fact which would reveal something more than the vague optimism, the patriotic fervour, of those early dispatches issued from the Ministry of War. Now and again a name would creep into these communiques which after a glance at the map would give one a cold thrill of anxiety and doubt. Was it possible that the enemy had reached that point? If so, then its progress was phenomenal and menacing. But M. le Marquis de Messimy, War Minister of France, was delightfully cheerful. He assured the nation day after day that their heroic army was making rapid progress. He omitted to say in what direction. He gave no details of these continual victories. He did not publish lists of casualties. It seemed, at first, as though the war were bloodless.
One picture of Paris, in those first days of August, comes to my mind now. In a great room to the right of the steps of the War Office a number of men in civilian clothes sit in gilded chairs with a strained look of expectancy, as though awaiting some message of fate. They have interesting faces. My fingers itch to make a sketch of them, but only Steinlen could draw these Parisian types who seem to belong to some literary or Bohemian coterie. What can they be doing at the Ministry of War? They smoke cigarettes incessantly, talk in whispers tete-a-tete, or stare up at the steel casques and cuirasses on the walls, or at the great glass candelabra above their heads as though they can only keep their patience in check by gazing fixedly at some immovable object. Among the gilded chairs and beneath the Empire mirrors which reflect the light there are three iron bedsteads with straw mattresses, and now and again a man gets up from one of these straight-backed chairs and lies at full length on one of the beds. But a minute later he rises silently again and listens intently, nervously, to the sound of footsteps coming sharply across the polished boards. It seems to be the coming of the messenger for whom all these men have been waiting. They spring to their feet and crowd round a table as a gentleman comes in with a bundle of papers from which he gives a sheet to every outstretched hand. The Parisian journalists have received the latest bulletin of war. They read it silently, devouring with their eyes those few lines of typewritten words. Here is the message of fate. Those slips of paper will tell them whether it goes well or ill with France. One of them speaks to his neighbour:
"Tout va bien!"
Yes, all goes well, according to the official bulletin, but there is not much news on that slip of paper, not enough for men greedy for every scrap of news. Perhaps the next dispatch will contain a longer story. They must come again, these journalists of France, to smoke more cigarettes, to stare at the steel armour, to bridle their impatience with clenched hands. This little scene at the Ministry of War is played four times a day, and there is a tremendous drama behind the quietude of those waiting men, whose duty it is to tell France and the world what another day of war has done for the flag.
Another little scene comes to my mind as I grope back to those first days of war. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the Quai d'Orsay, there is more quietude. It is difficult to realise that this house has been the scene of a world-drama within the last few days, and that in one of its reception-rooms a German gentleman spoke a few quiet words, before asking for some papers, which hurled millions of men against each other in a deadly struggle involving all that we mean by civilization. I went to that house and waited for a while in an ante- chamber where the third Napoleon once paced up and down before a war which ended disastrously for France. Presently a footman came through the velvet curtains and said, "Monsieur le President vous attend." I was taken into another room, a little cabinet overlooking a garden, cool and green under old trees through which the sunlight filtered. A stone goddess smiled at me through the open windows. I saw her out of the corner of my eye as I bowed to M. Doumergue, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and, for a time, Prime Minister of France. For some reason my imagination was touched by that garden of peace where a Greek goddess smiled in the green twilight.
But M. Doumergue was smiling, too, with that expression of tout va bien which masked the anxiety of every statesman who had seen behind the veil. After a few preliminary words he spoke of the progress of the war and of its significance to the world.
"Civilization itself," he said, "depends upon the success of our arms. For years Germany has played the part of a bully, basing her policy upon brute force, and thrusting her sword before the eyes of men. She was swollen-headed with her military pride. She preached the gospel of the swashbuckler. And now, after the declaration of this war, which was none of our seeking, how are they behaving, these Germans? Like barbarians. They have treated our Ambassador with infamous discourtesy. They have behaved with incredible insolence and boorishness to our Consuls. The barbaric nature of the enemy is revealed in a way which will never be forgotten. Fortunately, we have European civilization on our side. All the cultured races sympathize with us. They know that Europe would be lost if the German Empire, with its policy of blood and iron, with its military caste and tyranny, should become more dominant and stride across the frontiers of civilized States. But of the ultimate issue of this war there can be no doubt. With Great Britain fighting side by side with France, with Russia attacking on the Eastern front, what hopes can Germany nourish now? The war may be a long struggle; it may lead to many desperate battles; but in the end the enemy must be doomed. Where is her boasted organization? Already our prisoners tell us that they were starving when they fought. It seems as though these critics of French military organization were demoralized at the outset. Ils ont bluffe tout le temps! I can assure you that we are full of confidence, and perfectly satisfied with the way in which the war is progressing."
This Minister of France was "perfectly satisfied." His optimism cheered me, though all his words had not told me the things I wanted to know, nor lifted the corner of that veil which hid the smoke and flash of guns. But the French had taken prisoners and somewhere or other masses of men were fighting and dying. ... As I came back from the Quai d'Orsay and a stroll in the Champs Elysees through the golden twilight of a splendid day, when the lamps of Paris began to gleam like stars through the shimmering haze and the soft foliage of the most beautiful highway in the world, there came a clatter of hoofs and the music of soldiers' harness. It was a squadron of the Garde Republicaine riding on the last patrol of the day round the ramparts of Paris. I watched them gallop through the Arc de Triomphe, their black crinieres streaming backwards like smoke from their helmets. They rode towards the setting sun, a crimson bar across the blue of the sky, and when I walked back slowly to the heart of Paris the boulevards were already quiet, and in the velvety darkness which overtook me there was peace and order. Only the silence of the streets told me that France was at war.
Obviously it was hopeless to stay in Paris waiting for official permission to follow the armies as a correspondent and to penetrate more deeply into the heart of that mystery which was fogged more deeply by the words that came forth every day from the Ministry of War. The officials were very polite and took great trouble to soothe the excited emotions of would-be war correspondents. "In a few days, gentlemen, if all continues to go well." They desired our photographs, in duplicate, a medical certificate of health, recommendations as to our mental and moral qualities, formal applications and informal interviews. But meanwhile the war was being fought and we were seeing nothing.
News of great victory came to Paris when the bulletins announced the advance of French troops in Alsace and the capture of Mulhouse and Altkirch. Instantly there were joyous scenes in the streets. Boulevards, which had been strangely quiet, became thronged with men and women called out from the twilight of their rooms by this burst of sunlight, as it seemed. The news held the magic thrill of an Alsace restored to France. ... It was long afterwards that Paris heard strange and evil rumours of reverses down there, of a regiment which flung down its rifles and fled under a tempest of shells, of officers shot by their own guns, of a general cashiered for grievous errors.
From Liege there came more news. The imagination of Paris, deprived of all sustenance as regards its own troops, fed greedily upon the banquet of blood which had been given to it by the gallant Belgians. In messages coming irregularly through the days and nights, three or four lines at a time, it was possible to grasp the main facts of that heroic stand against the German legions. We were able to perceive from afar the raking fire of the forts around the city, which swept the ground so that the most famous regiments of the German army were mowed down as they advanced with desperate courage.
"If Liege holds out the German troops are in a hopeless position." These words were repeated along the boulevards of Paris, and because Liege held out so long the spirit of Paris was exalted.
But, as a journalist out to see things, I was depressed. It was useless to wait in Paris while the days were slipping by and history was being made. Official permission was delayed, by fair and courteous words. I decided to go in search of the war without permission and to get somehow or other behind the scenes of its secrecy. So my adventures began, and in a little while my eyes became seared with the sight of tragedy and my soul filled with the enormous woe of war.
It was a strange kind of melodrama that experience in the first two months of the war. Looking back upon it now, it has just the effect of a prolonged nightmare stimulated by hasheesh or bang—fantastic, full of confused dreams, changing kaleidoscopically from one scene to another, with vivid clear-cut pictures, intensely imagined, between gulfs of dim twilight memories, full of shadow figures, faces seen a little while and then lost, conversations begun abruptly and then ended raggedly, poignant emotions lasting for brief moments and merging into others as strong but of a different quality, gusts of laughter rising between moods of horrible depression, tears sometimes welling from the heart and then choked back by a brutal touch of farce, beauty and ugliness in sudden clashing contrasts, the sorrow of a nation, the fear of a great people, the misery of women and children, the intolerable anguish of multitudes of individuals each with a separate agony, making a dark background to this too real dream from which there was no awakening.