The Retreat to Paris
By Philip Gibbs
of the London Daily Chronicle
[The New York Times/Current History, January 23, 1915]
NEAR AMIENS, Aug. 30.—Looking back on all I have seen during the last few days, I find it difficult to piece together the various incidents and impressions and to make one picture. It all seems to me now like a jigsaw puzzle of suffering and fear and courage and death a litter of odd, disconnected scraps of human agony and of some big, grim scheme which, if one could only get the clue, would give a meaning, I suppose, to all these tears of women and children, to all these hurried movements of soldiers and people, to the death carts trailing back from unknown places, and to the great dark fear that has enveloped all the tract of country in Northwest France through which I have been traveling, driven like one of its victims from place to place. Out of all this welter of individual suffering and from all the fog of mystery which has enshrouded them until now, when the truth may be told, certain big facts with a clear and simple issue will emerge and give one courage.
The French Army and our English troops are now holding good positions in a much stronger and closer line and stemming the tide of the German hordes rolling up to Paris. Gen. Pau, the hero of this war, after his swift return from the eastern front, where he repaired the deadly check at Mülhausen, has dealt a smashing blow at a German Army corps which was striking to the heart of France.
Paris is still safe for the time being, with a great army of allied forces, French, English, and Belgians, drawn across the country as a barrier which surely will not be broken by the enemy. Nothing that has happened gives cause for that despair which has taken hold of people whose fears have exaggerated the facts, frightful enough when taken separately, but not giving any proof that resistance is impossible against the amazing onslaught of the German legions.
I have been into the war zone and seen during the last five days men who are now holding the lines of defense. I have been among their dead and wounded, and have talked with soldiers marching fresh to the front. I have seen the horrid mess which is cleared up after the battle and the grim picture of retreat, but nothing that I have seen or heard from either British or French leads me to believe that our army has been smashed or the Allies demoralized.
It is impossible to estimate our own losses. Our wounded are being brought back into Havre and Rouen, and undoubtedly there are large numbers of them. But, putting them at the highest, it is clear to me, from all information gained during the last five days, that there has been no overwhelming disaster, and that in the terrible actions fought on the four days from the 23d to the 27th, and afterward in the further retirement from the line of Cambrai and Le Cateau, swinging southward and eastward upon St. Quentin, our main forces, which were pressed by enormous numbers of the enemy, succeeded in withdrawing in good order, without having their lines broken, while inflicting a terrific punishment upon the German right.
As I shall show in this narrative, retreats which seem fatal when seen close at hand and when described by those who belong to broken fragments of extended sections, are not altogether disastrous in their effect when viewed in their right perspective, away from the immediate misery which is their inevitable accompaniment.
German audacity of attack against the heroic courage of the French and British forces, who fight every mile of ground during their retirement, is leading the enemy into a position from which there will be no retreat if their lines are broken. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands of people who know nothing of the great issues and who are possessed by the great, blind fear which has driven them from their towns, villages, and homes.
When the Germans swept around Lille they found, to their amazement, that this town, surrounded by forts, had been abandoned, and they had only to walk inside. This easy access to a town which should have been defended to the last gasp opened the way to the west of France.
The left wing of the French, which was to the west of Mons, was supported by the English troops, all too weak to sustain the pressure of the tremendous odds which began to surge against them; and, realizing this perilous state of affairs, the brain at the centre of things, the controlling brain of Gen. Joffre and his Headquarters Staff, decreed that the northwest corner of France was untenable and that the main army of defense should withdraw into a stronger and closer formation.
It was then that the great panic began, increasing in speed and terror during the end of last week. I was in the midst of it and saw unforgettable scenes of the enormous tragedy. It was a flight of hundreds and thousands of families from St. Omer and Roubaix, Bethune, Douai, Valenciennes, and Arras, who were driven away from their northern homes by the menace of approaching Uhlans. They are still being hunted by fear from place to place, where they can find no shelter and no permanent safety. The railways have been choked with them, and in these long fugitive trains which pass through stations there is no food or drink. The poor runaways, weary, filthy, and exhausted, spend long days and nights shunted onto side lines, while troop trains pass and pass, and are held up in towns where they can find no means of existence because the last civilian train has left.
When the troops marched away from Boulogne and left it silent and unguarded I saw the inhabitants, utterly dismayed, standing despondently staring at placards posted up by order of the Governor, which announced the evacuation of the town and called upon them to be ready for all sacrifices in the service of their country. The customs officers left, the civil police disarmed, while a flag with nine black spots was made ready to be hoisted on the fort directly any Uhlans were sighted.
The people of Boulogne could not understand, no Frenchman of the north can understand, why their ports and towns are silent after the tramp of so many regiments who have left a great tract of country open and undefended. In that corner of France the people listen intently for the first clatter of hoofs and for the first cry "Les Uhlans." Rumors came that the enemy has been seen in neighboring towns and villages. Can one wonder that mothers and fathers rush from their houses and wander forth in a blind, unreasoning way to swell the panic tide of fugitives, homeless and without food, dropping here and there on the wayside in utter weariness?
I was lucky in getting out of Boulogne on the last train bound for Paris, though not guaranteed to reach the capital. As a matter of fact, I was even more lucky because it did not arrive at its destination and enabled me to alight in the war zone and proceed to more interesting places.
I will tell at once the story of the French retirement when the Germans advanced from Namur down the valley of the Meuse, winning the way at a cost of human life as great as that of defeat, yet winning their way. For France the story of that retirement is as glorious as anything in her history. It was nearly a fortnight ago that the Germans concentrated their heaviest forces upon Namur and began to press southward and over the Meuse Valley. After the battle of Dinant the French Army, among whom were the Second and Seventh Corps, was heavily outnumbered and had to fall back gradually, in order to gain time for reinforcements to come up.
French artillery was up on the wooded heights above the river and swept the German regiments with a storm of fire as they advanced. On the right bank the French infantry was intrenched, supported by field guns and mitrailleuses, and did deadly work before leaping from trenches which they occupied and taking up a position in new trenches further back, which they held with great tenacity.
In justice to the Germans it must be said they were heroic in courage and reckless of their lives, and the valley of the Meuse was choked with their corpses. The river itself was strewn with the dead bodies of men and horses and literally ran red with blood.
The most tremendous fighting took place for the possession of the bridges, but the French engineers blew them up one after another as they retired southward.
No less than thirty-three bridges were destroyed in this way before they could be seized by the German advance guard. The fighting was extended for a considerable distance on either side of the Meuse and many engagements took place between French and German cavalry and regiments working away from the main armies.
There was, for instance, a memorable encounter at Marville which is one of the most heroic episodes of the war. Five thousand French soldiers of all arms, with quick-firers, engaged 20,000 German infantry. In spite of being outnumbered, the French beat back the enemy from point to point in a fight lasting for twelve hours, inflicting tremendous punishment and suffering very few losses.
The German officer captured expressed his unbounded admiration for the valor of the French troops, which he described as superb. It was only for fear of getting too far out of touch with the main forces that the gallant 5,000 desisted from their irresistible attack and retired with a large number of German helmets as trophies of the victorious action.
Nevertheless, in accordance with the general plan which had been decided on by the Generals, in view of the superior numbers temporarily pressing upon them, the Germans succeeded in forcing their way steadily down the Meuse as far as Mezières, divided by a bridge from Charleville, on the other side of the river. This is in the neighborhood of Sedan and in the "trou," as it is called, which led to the great disaster of 1870, when the French were caught in a trap and threatened with annihilation by the Germans, who had taken possession of the surrounding heights.
There was to be no repetition of that tragedy. The French were determined that this time the position should be reversed.
On Monday the town of Charleville was evacuated, most of its civilians being sent away to join the wanderers who have had to leave their homes, and the French troops took up a magnificent position, commanding the town and the three bridges dividing them from Mezières. Mitrailleuses were hidden in the abandoned houses, and as a disagreeable shock to any German who might escape their fire was a number of the enemy's guns, no fewer than ninety-five of them, which had been captured and disabled by French troops in a series of battles down the river from Namur.
The German outposts reached Charleville on Tuesday. They were allowed to ride quietly across the bridges into an apparently deserted town. Then suddenly their line of retreat was cut off, the three bridges were blown up by a contact mine, and the mitrailleuses hidden in the houses were played on the German cavalry across the streets, killing them in a frightful slaughter.
It was for a little while sheer massacre, but the Germans fought with extraordinary tenacity, regardless of the heaped bodies of comrades and utterly reckless of their own lives. They, too, had brought quick-firers across the bridges, and, taking cover behind houses, trained their guns upon the houses from which the French gunners were firing. There was no way of escape for those heroic men, who voluntarily sacrificed themselves, and it is probable every man died, because at such a time the Germans were not in the habit of giving quarter.
When the main German advance came down the valley, the French artillery on the heights raked them with a terrific fire, in which they suffered heavy losses, the forefront of the column being mowed down. But under this storm they proceeded with incredible coolness to their pontoon bridges across the river, and although hundreds of men died on the banks, they succeeded in their endeavor, while their guns searched the hills with shells and forced French gunners to retire from their positions.
The occupation of Charleville was a German victory, but was also a German graveyard. After this historic episode in what has been an unending battle the main body of French withdrew before the Germans, who were now pouring down the valley, and retired to new ground.
It was a retirement which has had one advantage in spite of its acknowledgment of the enemy's amazing pertinacity. It has enabled the allied armies to draw closer together, its firm front sweeping around in a crescent from Abbeville, around south of Amiens, and thence in an irregular line to the eastern frontier.
On the map it is at first sight a rather unhappy thing to see that practically the whole of France north of Amiens lies open to German descent from Belgium. To break up the German Army piecemeal and lure it to its own destruction it was almost necessary to manoeuvre it into precisely the position which it now occupies. The success of Gen. Pau shows that the allied army is taking the offensive again, and that as a great fighting machine it is still powerful and menacing.
I must again emphasize the difficulty of grasping the significance of a great campaign by isolated incidents, and the danger of drawing important deductions from the misfortunes in one part of the field. I do so because I have been tempted again and again during the past few days to fall into similar mistakes. Perhaps in my case it was pardonable.
It is impossible for the armchair reader to realize the psychological effect of being mixed up in the panic of a great people and the retreat from a battlefield.
The last real fighting was taking place at a village called Bapaume all day Friday. It was very heavy fighting here on the left centre of the great army commanded by Gen. Pau, and leading to a victory which has just been announced officially in France.
A few minutes before midnight Friday, when they came back along the road to Amiens, crawling back slowly in a long, dismal trail, the ambulance wagons laden with the dead and dying, hay carts piled high with saddles and accoutrements, upon which lay, immobile like men already dead, the spent and exhausted soldiers, they passed through the crowds of silent people of Amiens, who only whispered as they stared at the procession. In the darkness a cuirassier, with head bent upon his chest, stumbled forward, leading his horse, too weak and tired to bear him.
Many other men were leading poor beasts this way, and infantry soldiers, some with bandaged heads, clung to the backs of carts and wagons, and seemed asleep as they shuffled by.
The light from roadside lamps gleamed upon blanched faces and glazed eyes, flashed into caverns of canvas-covered carts, where twisted men lay huddled on straw. Not a groan came from the carts, but every one knew it was a retreat.
The carts carrying the quick and the dead rumbled by in a long convoy, the drooping heads of the soldiers turned neither right nor left for any greeting with friends.
There was a hugger-mugger of uniforms, of provision carts, and with ambulances it was a part of the wreckage and wastage of war; and to the onlookers, with the exaggeration, unconsciously, of the importance of the things close at hand and visible, it seemed terrible in its significance and an ominous reminder of 1870.
Really this was an inevitable part of a serious battle, not necessarily a retreat from a great disaster. But more pitiful even than this drift back were scenes which followed. As I turned back into the town I saw thousands of boys who had been called to the colors and had been brought up from the country to be sent forward to second lines of defense.
They were the reservists of the 1914 class, and many of them were shouting and singing, though here and there a white-faced boy tried to hide his tears as women from the crowd ran forward to embrace him. These lads were keeping up their valor by noisy demonstrations; but, having seen the death carts pass, I could not bear to look into the faces of those little ones who are following their fathers to the guns.
Early next morning there was a thrill of anxiety in Amiens. Reports had come through that the railway line had been cut between Boulogne and Abbeville. There had been mysterious movements of regiments from the town barracks. They had moved out of Amiens, and there was a strange quietude in the streets. Hardly a man in uniform was to be seen in the places which had been filled with soldiers the day before.
Only a few people realized the actual significance of this. How could they know that it was a part of the great plan to secure the safety of France? How could they realize that the town itself would be saved from possible bombardment by this withdrawal of the troops to positions which would draw the Germans into the open?
The fighting on the Cambrai-Cateau line seems to have been more desperate even that the terrible actions at Mons and Charleroi. It was when the British troops had to swing around to a more southerly line to guard the roads to Paris that the enemy attacked in prodigious numbers, and their immense superiority in machine guns did terrible work among officers and men.
But on all sides, from the French officers, there is immense praise for the magnificent conduct of our troops, and in spite of all alarmist statements I am convinced from what I have heard that they have retired intact, keeping their lines together, and preventing their divisions from being broken and cut off.
The list of casualties must be very great, but if I can believe the evidence of my own eyes in such towns as Rouen, where the Red Cross hospitals are concentrated, they are not heavy enough to suggest anything like a great and irretrievable disaster.
DIEPPE, Sept. 3.—Let me describe briefly the facts which I have learned of in the last five days. When I escaped from Amiens, before the tunnel was broken up, and the Germans entered into possession of the town on Aug. 28, the front of the allied armies was in a crescent from Abbeville, south of Amiens on the wooded heights, and thence in an irregular line to south of Mezières. The British forces, under Sir John French, were at the left of the centre, supporting the heavy thrust-forward of the main German advance, while the right was commanded by Gen. Pau.
On Sunday afternoon fighting was resumed along the whole line. The German vanguard had by this time been supported by a fresh army corps, which had been brought from Belgium. At least 1,000,000 men were on the move, pressing upon the allied forces with a ferocity of attack which has never before been equaled. Their cavalry swept across a great tract of country, squadron by squadron, like the mounted hordes of Attila, but armed with the dreadful weapons of modern warfare. Their artillery was in enormous numbers, and their columns advanced under cover of it, not like an army, but rather like a moving nation—I do not think, however, with equal pressure at all parts of the line. It formed itself into a battering ram with a pointed end, and this point was thrust at the heart of the English wing.
It was impossible to resist this onslaught. If the British forces had stood against it they would have been crushed and broken. Our gunners were magnificent, and shelled the advancing German columns so that the dead lay heaped up along the way which was leading down to Paris; but as one of them told me: "It made no manner of difference; as soon as we had smashed one lot another followed, column after column, and by sheer weight of numbers we could do nothing to check them."
After this the British forces fell back, fighting all the time. The line of the Allies was now in the shape of a V, the Germans thrusting their main attack deep into the angle.
This position remained the same until Monday, or, rather, had completed itself by that date, the retirement of the troops being maintained with masterly skill and without any undue haste. Meanwhile Gen. Pau was sustaining a terrific attack on the French centre by the German left centre, which culminated on [date omitted]. The River Oise, which runs between beautiful meadows, was choked with corpses and red with blood.
From an eyewitness of this great battle, an officer of an infantry regiment, who escaped with a slight wound, I learned that the German onslaught had been repelled by a series of brilliant bayonet and cavalry charges.
"The Germans," he said, "had the élite of their army engaged against us, including the Tenth Army Corps and the Imperial Guard, but the heroism of our troops was sublime. Every man knew that the safety of France depended upon him and was ready to sacrifice his life, if need be, with joyful enthusiasm. They not only resisted the enemy's attack but took the offensive, and, in spite of their overpowering numbers, gave them tremendous punishment. They had to recoil before our guns, which swept their ranks, and their columns were broken and routed.
"Hundreds of them were bayoneted, and hundreds were hurled into the river. The whole field of battle was outlined by dead and dying men whom they had to abandon. Certainly their losses were enormous, and I felt that the German retreat was in full swing and that we could claim a real victory for the time being."
Nevertheless the inevitable happened, owing to the vast reserves of the enemy, who brought up four divisions, and Gen. Pau was compelled to give ground. On Tuesday German skirmishers with light artillery were coming southward, and the sound of their field guns greeted my ears in that town which I shall always remember with unpleasant recollections in spite of its Old World beauty and the loveliness of the scene in which it is set. It seemed to me that this was the right place to be in order to get into touch with the French Army on the way to the capital. As a matter of fact, it was the wrong place from all points of view; it was nothing less than a death-trap, and it was by a thousand-to-one chance that I succeeded in escaping quite a nasty kind of fate. I might have suspected that something was wrong with the place by the strange look on the face of a friendly French peasant, whom I met. He had described to me in a very vivid way the disposition of the French troops on the neighboring hills. Down the road came suddenly parties of peasants with fear in their eyes. Some of them were in farm carts and put their horses to a stumbling gallop. Women with blanched faces, carrying children in their arms, trudged along the dusty highway, and it was clear that these people were afraid of something behind them. There were not many of them, and when they had passed the countryside was strangely and uncannily quiet. There was only the sound of singing birds above fields which were flooded with the golden light of the setting sun.
Then I came into the town. An intense silence brooded there among the narrow little streets below the old Norman church a white jewel on the rising ground beyond. Almost every house was shuttered with blind eyes; but here and there I looked through an open window into deserted rooms. No human face returned my gaze. It was an abandoned town, emptied of all its people, who had fled with fear in their eyes, like those peasants along the roadway.
But presently I saw a human form; it was the figure of a French dragoon with his carbine slung behind his back. He was stopping by the side of a number of gunpowder bags. A little further away were little groups of soldiers at work by two bridges, one over a stream and one over a road. They were working very calmly, and I could see what they were doing; they were mining bridges to blow them up at a given signal.
As I went further I saw that the streets were strewn with broken bottles and littered with wire entanglements, very artfully and carefully made.
It was a queer experience. It was obvious that there was very grim business being done, and that the soldiers were waiting for something to happen. At the railway station I quickly learned the truth; the Germans were only a few miles away, in great force. At any moment they might come down, smashing everything in their way and killing every human being along that road.
The station master, a brave old type, and one or two porters had determined to stay on to the last. "We are here," he said, as though the Germans would have to reckon with him; but he was emphatic in his request for me to leave at once if another train could be got away, which was very uncertain. As a matter of fact, after a bad quarter of an hour I was put on the last train to escape from this threatened town, and left it with the sound of German guns in my ears, followed by a dull explosion when the bridge behind me was blown up.
My train, in which there were only four other men, skirted the German army, and by a twist in the line almost ran into the enemy's country, but we rushed through the night, and the engine driver laughed and put his oily hand up to salute when I stepped out to the platform of an unknown station. "The Germans won't get us, after all," he said. It was a little risky, all the same.
The station was crowded with French soldiers, and they were soon telling me their experience of the hard fighting in which they had been engaged. They were dirty, unshaven, dusty from head to foot, scorched by the August sun, in tattered uniforms and broken boots; but they were beautiful men for all their dirt, and the laughing courage, quiet confidence, and unbragging simplicity with which they assured me that the Germans would soon be caught in a death-trap and sent to their destruction filled me with admiration which I cannot express in words. All the odds were against them; they had fought the hardest of all actions—the retirement from the fighting line—but they had absolute faith in the ultimate success of their allied arms.
I managed to get to Paris. It was in the middle of the night, but extraordinary scenes were taking place. It had become known during the day that Paris was no longer the seat of the Government, which has moved to Bordeaux. The Parisians had had notice of four days in which to destroy their houses within the zone of fortifications, and, to add to the cold fear occasioned by this news, aeroplanes had dropped bombs upon the Gare de l'Est that afternoon.
There was a rush last night to get away from the capital, and the railway stations were great camps of fugitives, in which the richest and poorest citizens were mingled with their women and children. But the tragedy deepened when it was heard that most of the lines to the east had been cut, and that the only line remaining open to Dieppe would probably be destroyed during the next few hours. A great wail of grief arose from the crowds, and the misery of these people was pitiful.
Among them were groups of soldiers of many regiments. Many of them were wounded and lay on stretchers on the floor among crying babies and weary-eyed women. They had been beaten and were done for until the end of the war. But, alone among the panic-stricken crowd—panic-stricken, yet not noisy or hysterical, but very quiet and restrained for the most part—the soldiers were cheerful, and even gay.
Among them were some British troops, and I had a talk with them. They had been fighting for ten days without cessation, and their story is typical of the way in which all our troops held themselves.
"We had been fighting night and day," said a Sergeant. "For the whole of that time the only rest from fighting was when we were marching and retiring." He spoke of the German Army as an avalanche of armed men. "You can't mow that down," he said. "We kill them and kill them, and still they come on. They seem to have an inexhaustible supply of fresh troops. Directly we check them in one attack a fresh attack is developed. It is impossible to oppose such a mass of men with any success."
This splendid fellow, who was severely wounded, was still so much master of himself, so supreme in his common sense, that he was able to get the right perspective about the general situation.
"It is not right to say we have met with disaster," he said. "We have to expect that nowadays. Besides, what if a battalion was cut up? That did not mean defeat. While one regiment suffered, another got off lightly;" and by the words of that Sergeant the public may learn to see the truth of what has happened. I can add my own evidence to his. All along the lines I have spoken to officers and men, and the actual truth is that the British Army is still, unbroken, having retired in perfect order to good positions the most marvelous feat ever accomplished in modern warfare.
From Paris I went by the last train again which has got through to Dieppe. Lately I seem to have become an expert in catching the last train. It was only a branch line which struggles in an erratic way through the west of France, and the going was long and painful, because at every wayside station the carriages were besieged by people trying to escape. They were very patient and very brave. Even when they found that it was impossible to get one more human being on or one more package into the already crowded train they turned away in quiet grief, and when women wept over their babies it was silently and without abandonment to despair. The women of France are brave, God knows. I have seen their courage during the past ten days gallantry surpassing that of the men, because of their own children in their arms without shelter, food, or safety in this terrible flight from the advancing enemy.
Enormous herds of cattle were being driven into Paris. For miles the roads were thronged with them; and down other roads away from Paris families were trekking to far fields with their household goods piled into bullock carts, pony carts, and wheelbarrows.
Two batteries of artillery were stationed by the line, and a regiment of infantry was hiding in the hollows of the grassy slopes. Their outposts were scanning the horizon, and it was obvious that the Germans were expected at this point in order to cut the last way of escape from the capital.
One of the enemy's aeroplanes flew above our heads, circled around, and then disappeared. It dropped no bombs and was satisfied with its reconnoissance. The whistle of the train shrieked out, and there was a cheer from the French gunners as we went on our way to safety, leaving them behind at the post of peril.
ST. PIERRE DU VAUVRAY, Sept. 6.—England received a hint yesterday as to a change in the German campaign, but only those who have been, as I have, into the very heart of this monstrous horror of war, seeing the flight of hundreds of thousands of people before an overwhelming enemy and following the lines of the allied armies in their steady retirement before an apparently irresistible advance, may realize even dimly the meaning of the amazing transformation that has happened during the last few days.
For when I wrote my last dispatch from Arques-la-Bataille, after my adventures along the French and English lines, it seemed as inevitable as the rising of next day's sun that the Germans should enter Paris on the very day when I wrote my dispatch. Still not a single shot has come crashing upon the French fortifications.
At least a million men that is no exaggeration of a light pen, but the sober and actual truth were advancing steadily upon the capital last Tuesday. They were close to Beauvais when I escaped from what was then a death-trap. They were fighting our British troops at Creil when I came to that town. Upon the following days they were holding our men in the Forest of Compiègne. They had been as near to Paris as Senlis, almost within gunshot of the outer forts.
"Nothing seems to stop them," said many soldiers with whom I spoke. "We kill them and kill them, but they come on."
The situation seemed to me almost ready for the supreme tragedy the capture or destruction of Paris. The northwest of France lay very open to the enemy, abandoned as far south as Abbéville and Amiens, too lightly held by a mixed army corps of French and Algerian troops with their headquarters at Aumale.
Here was an easy way to Paris.
Always obsessed with the idea that the Germans must come from the east, the almost fatal error of this war, the French had girdled Paris with almost impenetrable forts on the east side, from those of Ecouen and Montmorency, by the far-flung forts of Chelles and Champigny, to those of Susy and Villeneuve, on the outer lines of the triple cordon; but on the west side, between Pontoise and Versailles, the defenses of Paris were weak. I say "were" because during the last three days thousands of men have been digging trenches and throwing up ramparts. Only the snakelike Seine, twining into Pegoud loop, forms a natural defense to the western approach to the city, none too secure against men who have crossed many rivers in their desperate assaults.
This, then, was the Germans' chance; it was for this that they had fought their way westward and southward through incessant battlefields from Mons and Charleroi to St. Quentin and Amiens and down to Creil and Compiègne, flinging away human life as though it were but rubbish for deathpits.
The prize of Paris, Paris the great and beautiful, seemed to be within their grasp. It was their intention to smash their way into it by this western entry and then to skin it alive. Holding this city at ransom, it was their idea to force France to her knees under threat of making a vast and desolate ruin of all those palaces and churches and noble buildings in which the soul of French history is enshrined.
They might have done it but for one thing which has upset all the cold-blooded calculations of their staff, that thing which perhaps I may be pardoned for calling the miracle. They might have done it, I think, last Wednesday and Thursday, even perhaps as late as last Friday.
I am not saying these things from rumor and hearsay, I am writing from the evidence of my own eyes after traveling several hundreds of miles in France during the last four days along the main strategical lines, grim sentinels guarding the last barriers to that approaching death which is sweeping on its way through France to the rich harvest of Paris, which it was eager to destroy.
There was only one thing to do to escape from the menace of this death. By all the ways open, by any way, the population of Paris emptied itself like rushing rivers of humanity along all the lines which promised anything like safety.
Only those stayed behind to whom life means very little away from Paris and who if death came desired to die in the city of their life.
Again I write from what I saw and to tell the honest truth from what I suffered, for the fatigue of this hunting for facts behind the screen of war is exhausting to all but one's moral strength, and even to that.
I found myself in the midst of a new and extraordinary activity of the French and English Armies. Regiments were being rushed up to the centre of the allied forces toward Creil, Montdidier, and Noyon. That was before last Tuesday, when the English troops were fighting hard at Creil.
This great movement continued for several days, putting to a severe test the French railway system, which is so wonderfully organized that it achieved this mighty transportation of troops with clockwork regularity. Working to a time table dictated by some great brain which in Headquarters Staff of the French Army, calculated with perfect precision the conditions of a network of lines on which troop trains might be run to a given point. It was an immense victory of organization, and a movement which heartened one observer at least to believe that the German deathblow would again be averted.
I saw regiment after regiment entraining. Men from the Southern Provinces, speaking the patois of the South; men from the Eastern Departments whom I had seen a month before, at the beginning of the war, at Chalons and Epernay and Nancy, and men from the southwest and centre of France, in garrisons along the Loire. They were all in splendid spirits and utterly undaunted by the rapidity of the German advance.
"It is nothing, my little one," said a dirty, unshaved gentleman with the laughing eyes of a D'Artagnan; "we shall bite their heads off. These brutal boches are going to put themselves in a guetapens, a veritable deathtrap. We shall have them at last."
Many of them had fought at Longwy and along the heights of the Vosges. The youngest of them had bristling beards, their blue coats with turned-back flaps were war worn and flanked with the dust of long marches; their red trousers were sloppy and stained, but they had not forgotten how to laugh, and the gallantry of their spirits was a joy to see.
They are very proud, these French soldiers, of fighting side by side with their old foes. The English now, after long centuries of strife, from Edward, the Black Prince, to Wellington, are their brothers-in-arms upon the battlefields, and because I am English they offered me their cigarettes and made me one of them. But I realized even then that the individual is of no account in this inhuman business of war.
It is only masses of men that matter, moved by common obedience at the dictation of mysterious far-off powers, and I thanked Heaven that masses of men were on the move rapidly in vast numbers and in the right direction to support the French lines which had fallen back from Amiens a few hours before I left that town, and whom I had followed in their retirement, back and back, with the English always strengthening their left, but retiring with them almost to the outskirts of Paris itself.
Only this could save Paris the rapid strengthening of the allied front by enormous reserves strong enough to hold back the arrow-shaped battering ram of the enemy's main army.
Undoubtedly the French Headquarters Staff was working heroically and with fine intelligence to save the situation at the very gates of Paris. The country was being swept absolutely clean of troops in all parts of France, where they had been waiting as reserves.
It was astounding to me to see, after those three days of rushing troop trains and of crowded stations not large enough to contain the regiments, how on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday last an air of profound solitude and peace had taken possession of all these routes.
In my long journey through and about France and circling round Paris I found myself wondering sometimes whether all this war had not been a dreadful illusion without reality, and a transformation had taken place, startling in its change, from military turmoil to rural peace.
Dijon was emptied of its troops. The road to Chalons was deserted by all but fugitives. The great armed camp at Chalons itself had been cleared out except for a small garrison. The troops at Tours had gone northward to the French centre. All our English reserves had been rushed up to the front from Havre and Rouen.
There was only one deduction to be drawn from this great, swift movement the French and English lines had been supported by every available battalion to save Paris from its menace of destruction, to meet the weight of the enemy's metal by a force strong enough to resist its mighty mass.
It was still possible that the Germans might be smashed on their left wing, hurled back to the west between Paris and the sea, and cut off from their line of communications. It was undoubtedly this impending peril which scared the enemy's Headquarters Staff and upset all its calculations. They had not anticipated the rapidity of the supporting movement of the allied armies, and at the very gates of Paris they saw themselves balked of their prize, the greatest prize of the war, by the necessity of changing front.
To do them justice, they realized instantly the new order of things, and with quick and marvelous decision did not hesitate to alter the direction of their main force. Instead of proceeding to the west of Paris they swung round steadily to the southeast in order to keep their armies away from the enveloping movement of the French and English and drive their famous wedge-like formation southward for the purpose of dividing the allied forces of the west from the French Army of the East. The miraculous had happened, and Paris, for a little time at least, is unmolested.
That brings me back to the fighting at Creil and Compiègne, which preceded from last Tuesday until two days later. The guns were at work at midnight on Tuesday when I passed the English Headquarters. This battle had only one purpose so far as the Germans were concerned. It was to keep our British soldiers busy, as well as to hold the front of the French allies on our right, while their debordant movements took place behind this fighting screen.
Once again, as throughout the war, they showed their immense superiority in mitrailleuses, which gives them marvelous mobility and a very deadly advantage. They masked these quick-firers with great skill until they had drawn on the English and French infantry and then spilled lead into their ranks. Once again, also, the French were too impetuous, as they have always been, and as they still are, in spite of Gen. Joffre's severe rebuke.
Careless of quick-firers, which experience should have taught them were masked behind the enemy's advance posts, they charged with the bayonet, and suffered needlessly heavy losses. One can only admire the gallantry of men who dare to charge on foot against the enemy's mounted men and who actually put a squadron of them to flight, but one must say again: "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre."
There have been many incidents of heroism in these last days of fighting. It is, for instance, immensely characteristic of the French spirit that an infantry battalion, having put to flight a detachment of German outposts in the forest of Compiègne, calmly sat down to have a picnic in the woods until, as they sat over their hot soup, laughing at their exploit, they were attacked by a new force and cut to pieces.
But let me describe the new significance of the main German advance. Their right army has struck down to the southeast of Paris, through Château Thiery to La Ferté-sur-Jouarre and beyond. Their centre army is coming hard down from Troyes, in the Department of the Aube, and the army of the left has forced the French to evacuate Rheims and fall back in a southwesterly direction.
It would not be right of me to indicate the present position of the British troops or describe the great scenes at their base, which is now removed to a position which enables our forces to hold the eastern approach to Paris. It is a wonderful sight to pass the commissariat camp, where, among other munitions of war, is a park of British aeroplanes, which are of vital importance to our work of reconnoissance.
Looking, therefore, at the extraordinary transformation throughout the field of war in France, one thing stands out clear-cut and distinct. Having been thwarted in their purpose to walk through the western way to Paris by the enormous forces massed on their flanks, the Germans have adopted an entirely new plan of campaign and have thrust their armies deep down into the centre of France in order to divide the western armies of the Allies from the army on the eastern frontier. It is a menacing manoeuvre, and it cannot be hidden that the army of Lorraine is in danger of being cut off by the enemy's armies of the left.
At the same time the German right is swinging round in a southwesterly direction in order to attack the allied forces on the east and south. Paris is thus left out of account for the time being, but it depends upon the issues of the next few days whether the threatened peril will be averted from it by the immense army now protecting it. I believe the spirit of our own troops and their French comrades is so splendid that with their new strength they will be equal to that formidable attack.
Nothing certainly is being left to chance. For miles all around Paris trenches are being dug in the roads, and little sectional trenches on the broad roads of France, first one on this side of the way, and then one on the other side, so that a motor car traveling along the road has to drive in a series of sharp curves to avoid pitfalls.
There was feverish activity on the west side of the Paris fortifications when I passed between St. Germain and St. Denis.
Earthworks are being constantly thrown up between the forts, and the triple curves of the Seine are being intrenched so that thousands of men may take cover there and form a terrific defense against any attack.
Gen. Gallieni, the Military Governor of Paris, is a man of energy and iron resolution, and no doubt under his command Paris, if it has to undergo a siege, (which God avert!) will defend itself well, now that it has had these precious days of respite.
After wandering along the westerly and southerly roads I started for Paris when thousands and scores of thousands were flying from it. At that time I believed, as ail France believed, that in a few hours German shells would be crashing across the fortifications of the city and that Paris the beautiful would be Paris the infernal. It needed a good deal of resolution on my part to go deliberately to a city from which the population was fleeing, and I confess quite honestly that I had a nasty sensation in the neighborhood of my waistcoat buttons at the thought.
Along the road from Tours to Paris there were sixty unbroken miles of people on my honor, I do not exaggerate, but write the absolute truth. They were all people who had despaired of breaking through the dense masses of their fellow-citizens camped around the railway stations, and had decided to take to the roads as the only way of escape.
The vehicles were taxicabs, for which the rich paid fabulous prices; motor cars which had escaped military requisition, farmers' carts laden with several families and piles of household goods, shop carts drawn by horses already tired to the point of death because of the weight of the people who crowded behind pony traps and governess carts.
Many persons, well dressed and belonging obviously to well-to-do bourgeoisie, were wheeling barrows like coasters, but instead of trundling cabbages were pushing forward sleeping babies and little children, who seemed on the first stage to find new amusement and excitement in the journey from home; but for the most part they trudged along bravely, carrying their babies and holding the hands of their little ones.
They were of all classes, rank and fortune being annihilated by the common tragedy. Elegant women whose beauty is known in Paris salons, whose frivolity, perhaps, in the past was the main purpose of their life, were now on a level with the peasant mothers of the French suburbs and with the midinettes of Montmartre, and their courage did not fail them so quickly.
I looked into many proud, brave faces of these delicate women, walking in high-heeled shoes, all too frail for the hard, dusty roadways. They belonged to the same race and breed as those ladies who defied death with fine disdain upon the scaffold of the guillotine in the great Revolution.
They were leaving Paris now, not because of any fears for themselves I believe they were fearless but because they had decided to save the little sons and daughters of soldier fathers.
This great army in retreat was made up of every type familiar in Paris.
Here were women of the gay world, poor creatures whose painted faces had been washed with tears, and whose tight skirts and white stockings were never made for a long march down the highways of France.
Here also were thousands of those poor old ladies who live on a few francs a week in the top attics of the Paris streets, which Balzac knew; they had fled from their poor sanctuaries and some of them were still carrying cats and canaries, as dear to them as their own lives.
There was one young woman who walked with a pet monkey on her shoulder while she carried a bird in a golden cage. Old men, who remembered 1870, gave their arms to old ladies to whom they had made love when the Prussians were at the gates of Paris then. It was pitiful to see these old people now hobbling along together. Pitiful, but beautiful also, because of their lasting love.
Young boy students, with ties as black as their hats and rat-tail hair, marched in small companies of comrades, singing brave songs, as though they had no fear in their hearts, and very little food, I think, in their stomachs.
Shopgirls and concierges, city clerks, old aristocrats, young boys and girls, who supported grandfathers and grandmothers and carried new-born babies and gave pick-a-back rides to little brothers and sisters, came along the way of retreat.
Each human being in the vast torrent of life will have an unforgettable story of adventure to tell if life remains. As a novelist I should have been glad to get their narratives along this road for a great story of suffering and strange adventure, but there was no time for that and no excuse.
When I met many of them they were almost beyond the power of words. The hot sun of this September had beaten down upon them scorching them as in the glow of molten metal. Their tongues clave to their mouths with thirst.
Some of them had that wild look in their eyes which is the first sign of the delirium of thirst and fatigue.
Nothing to eat or drink could be found on the way from Paris. The little roadside cafés had been cleared out by the preceding hordes.
Unless these people carried their own food and drink they could have none except of the charity of their comrades in misfortune, and that charity has exceeded all other acts of heroism in this war. Women gave their last biscuit, their last little drop of wine, to poor mothers whose children were famishing with thirst and hunger; peasant women fed other women's babies when their own were satisfied.
It was a tragic road. At every mile of it there were people who had fainted on the roadside and poor old men and women who could go no further, but sat on the banks below the hedges, weeping silently or bidding younger ones go forward and leave them to their fate. Young women who had stepped out so jauntily at first were footsore and lame, so they limped along with lines of pain about their lips and eyes.
Many of the taxicabs, bought at great prices, and many of the motor cars had broken down as I passed, and had been abandoned by their owners, who had decided to walk. Farmers' carts had bolted into ditches and lost their wheels. Wheelbarrows, too heavy to be trundled, had been tilted up, with all their household goods spilt into the roadway, and the children had been carried further, until at last darkness came, and their only shelter was a haystack in a field under the harvest moon.
For days also I have been wedged up with fugitives in railway trains more dreadful than the open roads, stifling in their heat and heart-racking in their cargoes of misery. Poor women have wept hysterically clasping my hand, a stranger's hand, for comfort in their wretchedness and weakness. Yet on the whole they have shown amazing courage, and, after their tears, have laughed at their own breakdown, and, always children of France, have been superb, so that again and again I have wondered at the gallantry with which they endured this horror. Young boys have revealed the heroic strain in them and have played the part of men in helping their mothers. And yet, when I came at last into Paris against all this tide of retreat, it seemed a needless fear that had driven these people away.
Then I passed long lines of beautiful little villas on the Seine side, utterly abandoned among their trees and flowers. A solitary fisherman held his line above the water as though all the world were at peace, and in a field close to the fortifications which I expected to see bursting with shells, an old peasant bent above the furrows and planted cabbages. Then, at last, I walked through the streets of Paris and found them strangely quiet and tranquil.
The people I met looked perfectly calm. There were a few children playing in the gardens of Champs Elysées and under the Arc de Triomph symbolical of the glory of France.
I looked back upon the beauty of Paris all golden in the light of the setting sun, with its glinting spires and white gleaming palaces and rays of light flashing in front of the golden trophies of its monuments. Paris was still unbroken. No shell had come shattering into this city of splendor, and I thanked Heaven that for a little while the peril had passed.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald