The Soul of the War
Part 2 out of 7
no news of the crossing of the Expeditionary Force to France. In the
French and English newspapers no word was said about any British
soldiers on French soil. Was there some unaccountable delay, or
were we fulfilling our bond privately, a great drama being played
behind the scenes, like the secret war?
Then just for a moment the veil was lifted and Lord Kitchener allowed
the British people to know that their soldiers had landed on the other
side. Even then we who knew more than that were not allowed to
mention the places to which they had gone. Never mind. They were
here. We heard quite suddenly the familiar accents of English
Tommies in provincial towns of France, and came unexpectedly upon
khalfi-clad battalions marching and singing along the country roads.
For the first time there rang out in France the foolish ballad which has
become by a queer freak the war song of the British Army: "It's a long
way to Tipperary," learnt with comical accent by French peasants and
French girls, who, in those early days, in the first fine thrill of
enthusiasm, sang it emotionally as though it were a hymn, holding all
their love for England, all their hope of England's help, all their
admiration of these clean-shaven boys going to war in France in a
sporting spirit as though it were a great game. I went back to Paris for
a day when General French arrived, and even now in remembrance I
hear those shouts of "Vive l'Angleterre!" which followed the motor-car
in which our General made his triumphant progress. The shopgirls of
Paris threw flowers from the windows as the car passed. Dense
crowds of citizens thronged the narrow street of the Faubourg St.
Honore, and waited patiently for hours outside the Embassy to catch
one glimpse of the strong, stern, thoughtful face of the man who had
come with his legions to assist France in the great hour of need. They
talked to each other about the inflexibility of his character, about the
massive jaw which, they said, would bite off Germany's head. They
cheered in the English manner, with a "Heep! heep! hooray!"--when
they caught sight for the first time of the khaki uniforms of English
officers on the steps of the Ministry of War. The arrival of English
troops here was red wine to the hearts of the French people. It
seemed to them the great guarantee of victory. "With England
marching side by side with us," they said, "we shall soon be in Berlin!"
A train-load of Royal Engineers came into one of the stations where I
happened to be waiting (my memory of those days is filled with weary
hours on station platforms). It was the first time I was able to talk to
British Tommies in France, and to shake their hands, and to shout
out "Good luck!" to them. It was curious how strong my emotion was
at seeing those laughing fellows and hearing the cockney accent of
their tongues. They looked so fine and clean. Some of them were
making their toilet in the cattle trucks brushing their hair as though for,
a picnic party, shaving before little mirrors tacked up on the planks.
Others, crowding at the open doorways of the trucks, shouted with
laughter at the French soldiers and peasants, who grabbed at their
hands and jabbered enthusiastic words of welcome.
"Funny lingo, Bill!" said one of the men. "Can't make out a bit of it. But
they mean well, I guess!"
It was impossible to doubt that they meant well, these soldiers of
France greeting their comrades of England. One man behaved like a
buffoon, or as though he had lost his wits. Grasping the hand of a
young engineer he danced round him, shouting "Camarade!
camarade!" in a joyous sing-song which was ridiculous, and yet
touching in its simplicity and faith. It was no wonder, I thought, that the
French people believed in victory now that the British had come. A
Jingo pride took possession of me. These Tommies of ours were the
finest soldiers in the world! They went to war with glad hearts. They
didn't care a damn for old Von Kluck and all his hordes. They would
fight like heroes, these clean-limbed chaps, who looked upon war as
a great game. Further along the train my two friends, the Philosopher
and the Strategist, were in deep conversation with different groups. I
heard gusts of laughter from the truck-load of men looking down on
the Philosopher. He had discovered a man from Wapping, I think,
and was talking in the accent of Stratford-atte-Bow to boys from that
familiar district of his youth. The Strategist had met the engineers in
many camps in England. They were surprised at his knowledge of
their business. And what were we doing out here? Newspaper
correspondents? Ah, there would be things to write about! When the
train passed out, with waving hands from every carriage, with
laughing faces caught already by the sun of France, with farewell
shouts of "Good luck, boys!" and "Bonne chance, camarades!" three
Englishmen turned away silently and could not speak for a minute or
two. Why did the Philosopher blink his eyes in such a funny way, as
though they smarted at specks of dust? And why did the Strategist
look so grave all of a sudden, as he stood staring after the train, with
his cap in his hand, so that the sunlight gleamed on his silver-grey
So the British Army had come to France, and a strange chapter was
being written in the history of the world, contrasting amazingly with
former chronicles. English battalions bivouacked by old French
houses which had looked down upon scenes of revolution in 1789,
and in the shadow of its churches which rang for French victories or
tolled for French defeats when Napoleon's generals were fighting
English regiments exactly one hundred years ago. In seaport villages
and towns which smell of tar and nets and absinthe and stale wine I
saw horses stabled in every inn-yard; streets were littered with straw,
and English soldiers sauntered about within certain strict boundaries,
studying picture postcards and giving the "glad eye" to any little
French girl who peeped at them through barred windows. Only
officers of high rank knew where they were bound. The men, devoid
of all curiosity, were satisfied with the general knowledge that they
were "on the continong," and well on the way to "have a smack at the
Germans." There was the rattle and rumble of English guns down
country highways. Long lines of khaki-clad men, like a writhing brown
snake when seen from afar, moved slowly along winding roads,
through cornfields where the harvest was cut and stacked, or down
long avenues of poplars, interminably straight, or through quaint old
towns and villages with whitewashed houses and overhanging
gables, and high stone steps leading to barns and dormer-chambers.
Some of those little provincial towns have hardly changed since
D'Artagnan and his Musketeers rode on their way to great adventures
in the days of Richelieu and Mazarin. And the spirit of D'Artagnan was
still bred in them, in the France of Poincare, for they are the dwelling-
places of young men in the cuirassiers and the chasseurs who had
been chasing Uhlans through the passes of the Vosges, capturing
outposts even though the odds were seven to one.
The English officers and men will never have to complain of their
welcome in France. It was overwhelming--even a little intoxicating to
young soldiers. As they marched through the towns peasant girls ran
along the ranks with great bouquets of wild flowers, which they thrust
into the soldiers' arms. In every market square where the regiments
halted for a rest there was free wine for any thirsty throat, and soldier
boys from Scotland or England had their brown hands kissed by girls
who were eager for hero worship and had fallen in love with these
clean-shaven lads and their smiling grey eyes. In those early days
there seemed no evil in the worship of the women nor in the hearts of
the men who marched to the song of "Tipperary." Every man in khaki
could claim a hero's homage for himself on any road in France, at
any street corner of an old French town. It was some time before the
romance wore off, and the realities of human nature, where good is
mixed with evil and blackguardism marches in the same regiment
with clean-hearted men, destroyed some of the illusions of the French
and demanded an iron discipline from military police and made poor
peasant girls repent of their abandonment in the first ecstasy of their
Not yet did the brutalities of the war spoil the picture painted in khaki
tones upon the green background of the French countryside. From
my notebook I transcribe one of the word pictures which I wrote at the
time. It is touched with the emotion of those days, and is true to the
facts which followed:
"The weather has been magnificent. It has been no hardship to sleep
out in the roads and fields at night. A harvest moon floods the country
with silver light and glints upon the stacked bayonets of this British
Army in France when the men lie down beneath their coats, with their
haversacks as pillows. Each sleeping figure is touched softly by those
silver rays while the sentries pace up and down upon the outskirts of
the camp. Some of the days have been intensely hot, but the British
Tommy unfastens his coat and leaves his shirt open at the chest, and
with the sun bronzing his face to a deeper, richer tint, marches on,
singing a cockney ballad as though he were on the road to
Weybridge or Woking. They are young fellows, many of them--
beardless boys who have not yet been hard-bitten by a long
campaign and have not received their baptism of fire. Before they
have been many days in the fields of France they will not look so
fresh and smart. Those grey eyes of theirs will be haunted by the
memory of battlefields at night, when the stretcher-bearers are
searching for the wounded who lie among the dead. Not yet do these
boys know the real meaning of war. But they belong to the same
breed of men who a hundred years ago fought with Wellington in the
Peninsula. There is no possible need to doubt that they will maintain
the old traditions of their regiments and add new records to their
colours. Before this war is finished these soldiers of ours, who are
singing on their way, in dapper suits of khaki, will be all tattered and
torn, with straw tied round their feet, with stubby beards on their chins,
with the grime of gunpowder and dust and grease and mud and
blood upon their hands and faces. They will have lost the freshness
of their youth: but those who remain will have gained--can we doubt
it?--the reward of stubborn courage and unfailing valour."
Not many days after these words were written, I came upon a scene
which fulfilled them, too quickly. At a French junction there was a
shout of command in English, and I saw a body of men in khaki, with
Red Cross armlets, run across a platform to an incoming train from
the north, with stretchers and drinking bottles. A party of English
soldiers had arrived from a battle at a place called Mons. With French
passengers from another train, I was kept back by soldiers with fixed
bayonets, but through the hedge of steel I saw a number of
"Tommies" with bandaged heads and limbs descending from the
troop train. Some of them hung limp between their nurses. Their
faces, so fresh when I had first seen them on the way out, had
become grey and muddy, and were streaked with blood. Their khaki
uniforms were torn and cut. One poor boy moaned pitiably as they
carried him away on a stretcher. They were the first fruits of this
unnatural harvesting, lopped and maimed by a cruel reaper. I stared
at them with a kind of sickness, more agonized than afterwards when
I saw more frightful things. It came as a queer, silly shock to me then
to realize that in this secret war for which I was searching men were
really being smashed and killed, and that out of the mystery of it, out
of the distant terror from which great multitudes were fleeing, out of
the black shadow creeping across the sunlit hills of France, where the
enemy, whom no fugitives had seen, was advancing like a moving
tide, there should come these English boys, crippled and broken,
from an unknown battle. I was able to speak to one of them, wounded
only in the hand, but there was no time for more than a question or
two and an answer which hardly gave me definite knowledge.
"We got it in the neck!" said the sergeant of the R.F.A. He repeated
the words as if they held all truth. "We got it in the neck!" "Where?" I
He waved his wounded hand northwards, and said: "Mons."
"Do you mean we were beaten? In retreat?" He shrugged his
"We gave 'em what for. Oh, yes, they had to pay right enough. But
they were too much for us. Came on like lice... swarming... Couldn't
kill enough... Then we got it in the neck... Lost a good few men...
Gord, I've never seen such work! South Africa? No more than child's
play to this 'ere game!"
He gave a queer kind of grin, with no mirth in his eyes, and went
away with the other wounded men.
Mons? It was the first I had heard of a battle there And our men were
having a hard time. The enemy were too much for us. Was it a
retreat? Perhaps a rout?
The Philosopher answered these unspoken questions.
"You always get the gloomy view from wounded men. I dare say it's
not an easy thing to stop those blighters, but I've faith in the justice of
God. The Great Power ain't going to let Prussian militarism win out.
It's going to be smashed because of its essential rottenness. It's all
The Strategist was studying his map, and working out military
"Mons. I expect our next line of defence will be Le Cateau and
Cambrai. If we're hard pressed we shall hear something about St.
Quentin, too. It's quite on the cards we shall have to fall back, but I
hope to Heaven in good order and with sound lines of communication."
"It's frightful!" I said. "We are seeing nothing of all this. Nothing!
If only we could get near it!"
It was some time before we heard the guns, but not long before we
saw the effects of war, in blood, anguish, and tears.
The French newspapers, telling little of the truth, giving barely one
single fact to a page full of heroic sentiment, had not let us guess
that, beyond the frontiers of France, the enemy was doing frightful
damage, with a rapidity and ruthlessness which, after the check at
Liege, was a tremendous menace to the Allied armies. I understood
these things better, in a stark nakedness of truth, when I found myself
caught in the tumult of a nation in flight.
I have already touched upon one tide of panic--the stampede of the
pleasure-seekers. That was a mere jest lacking all but the touch of
cruelty which gives a spice to so many of life's witticisms; but the
second tide, overflowing in wave after wave of human misery,
reached great heights of tragedy which submerged all common
griefs. From that day in August until many months of war had passed
I was seldom out of sight of this ruin of Belgium.
I went into the heart of it, into the welter of blood and wreckage, and
stood, expecting death, in the very process of its deadly torture.
Week after week, month after month, I walked and talked with
Belgian fugitives, and drifted in that stream of exiled people, and
watched them in the far places of their flight, where they were
encamped in settled hopelessness, asking nothing of the fate which
had dealt them such foul blows, expecting nothing. But I still
remember my first impressions of war's cruelty to that simple people
who had desired to live in peace and had no quarrel with any Power.
It was in a kind of stupor that I saw the vanguard of this nation in
retreat, a legion of poor old women whose white hairs were wild in this
whirl of human derelicts, whose decent black clothes were rumpled
and torn and fouled in the struggle for life; with Flemish mothers
clasping babies at their breasts and fierce-eyed as wild animals
because of the terror in their hearts for those tiny buds of life; with
small children scared out of the divine security of childhood by this
abandonment of homes which had seemed the world to them, and
terrorized by an unknown horror which lurked in the name of
Germany; with men of all classes and all ages, intellectuals and
peasants, stout bourgeois, whose overload of flesh was a burden to
their flight, thin students whose book-tired eyes were filled with a
dazed bewilderment, men of former wealth and dignity reduced to
beggary and humiliation; with school-girls whose innocence of life's
realities was suddenly thrust face to face with things ugly and
obscene, and cruel as hell.
I think it is impossible to convey to those who did not see this exodus
of the Belgian people the meaning and misery of it. Even in the midst
of it I had a strange idea at first that it was only a fantasy and that
such things do not happen. Afterwards I became so used to it all that
I came to think the world must always have been like this, with people
always in flight, families and crowds of families drifting about
aimlessly, from town to town, getting into trains just because they
started somewhere for somewhere else, sitting for hours on bundles
which contained all their worldly goods saved from the wreckage of
ancient homes, losing their children on the roadside, and not fretting
very much, and finding other children, whom they adopted as their
own; never washing on that wandering, so that delicate women who
had once been perfumed with fine scents were dirty as gipsies and
unashamed of draggled dresses and dirty hands; eating when they
found a meal of charity, sleeping in railway sidings, coalsheds, and
derelict trains shunted on to grass-covered lines; careless as pariah
dogs of what the future held in store now that they had lost all things
in the past.
On the railway sidings near Calais there was one sight that revealed
the defeat of a nation more even than these crowds of refugees.
Hundreds of Belgian engines had been rushed over the frontier to
France to escape from being used in the enemy's service. These
derelict things stood there in long rows with a dismal look of
lifelessness and abandonment, and as I looked at them I knew that
though the remnants of the Belgian army might be fighting in its last
ditch and holding out at Antwerp against the siege guns of the
Germans, there could be no hope of prolonged resistance against
overwhelming armies. These engines, which should have been used
for Belgian transport, for men and food and guns, were out of action,
and dead symbols of a nation's ruin.
For the first time I saw Belgian soldiers in France, and although they
were in small number compared with the great army of retreat which,
after the fall of Antwerp, I saw marching into Dunkirk, their weariness
and listlessness told a tale of woe. At first sight there was something
comical in the aspect of these top-hatted soldiers. They reminded me
of battalions of London cabbies who had ravaged the dustbins for
discarded "toppers." Their double-breasted coats had just the cut of
those of the ancient jehus who used to sit aloft on decrepit "growlers."
Other bodies of Belgian soldiers wore ludicrous little kepis with
immense eye-shades, mostly broken or hanging limp in a dejected
way. In times of peace I should have laughed at the look of them. But
now there was nothing humorous about these haggard, dirty men
from Ghent who had borne the first shock of the German attack. They
seemed stupefied for lack of sleep, or dazed after the noise of battle.
I asked some of them where they were going, but they shook their
heads and answered gloomily:
"We don't know. We know nothing, except that our Belgium is
destroyed. What is the news?"
There was no news--beyond what one could glean from the
incoherent tales of Belgian refugees. The French newspapers still
contained vague and cheerful bulletins about their own military
situation, and filled the rest of their meagre space with eloquent
praise of les braves petits Belges. The war was still hidden behind
impenetrable walls of silence. Gradually, however, as I dodged about
the western side of France, from the middle to the end of August, it
became clear to me, and to my two friends, the Philosopher and the
Strategist, who each in his way of wisdom confirmed my worst
suspicions, that the situation for both the French and the British
armies was enormously grave. In spite of the difficulty of approaching
the war zone--at that time there was no certain knowledge as to the
line of front--we were seeing things which could not be concealed by
any censorship. We saw, too clearly for any doubt, that the war zone
was approaching us, steadily and rapidly. The shadow of its looming
terror crept across the fields of France, though they lay all golden in
the sunlight of the harvest month.
After the struggling tides of fugitive tourists, and overlapping the
waves of Belgian refugees, there came new streams of panic-stricken
people, and this time they were French. They came from the northern
towns--Lille, Roubaix, Tourcoing, Armentieres, and from scores of
villages further south which had seemed utterly safe and aloof from
hostile armies which, with faith in official communiques issued by the
French Ministry of War, we believed to be still checked beyond the
French frontier in Belgium. Lille? Was Lille threatened by the Kaiser's
troops? It had been evacuated? No, that could not be true, unless
treachery had been at work, Lille could hold out, surely, at least as
long as Liege! Had we not read long articles by the military experts of
the French Press describing the strength of that town and the
impregnable position of its forts? Yet here were refugees from Lille
who had heard the roar of German guns, and brought incredible
stories of French troops in retreat, and spoke the name of a French
general with bitter scorn, and the old cry of "Nous sommes trahis!"
The refugees from the north were in as pitiable a state as those who
had preceded them from Belgium. More pitiable, because when they
reached such ports as Calais or Boulogne or Havre, the hotels and
lodging-houses were overcrowded from attic to cellars, the buffets
had been swept clear of food, and committees of relief were already
distracted with the overwhelming needs of a Belgian invasion.
I remember a day and night in Boulogne. The narrow streets--evil with
odours brought forth by a hot sun, were filled with surging crowds
which became denser as new trains arrived from Calais and Dunkirk
and junctions on northern lines. The people carried with them the
salvage of their homes, wrapped up in blankets, sheets, towels and
bits of ragged paper. Parcels of grotesque shapes, containing
copper pots, frying pans, clocks, crockery and all kinds of
domestic utensils or treasured ornaments, bulged on the pavements
and quaysides, where whole families sat encamped. Stalwart
mothers of Normandy and Picardy trudged through the streets with
children clinging to their skirts, with babies in their arms and with big
French loaves--the commissariat of these journeys of despair--
cuddled to their bosoms with the babes. Old grandfathers and
grandmothers, who looked as though they had never left their native
villages before, came hand in hand, with shaking heads and watery
eyes, bewildered by all this turmoil of humanity which had been thrust
out, like themselves, from its familiar ways of life. Well-to-do
bourgeois, shot with frayed nerves, exhausted by an excess of
emotion and fatigue, searched for lodgings, anywhere and at any
price, jostled by armies of peasants, shaggy-haired, in clumping
sabots, with bundles on their backs, who were wandering on the
same quest for the sake of the women and children dragging wearily
in their wake. I heard a woman cry out words of surrender: "Je n'en
peux plus!" She was spent and could go no further, but halted
suddenly, dumped down her bundles and her babies and, leaning
against a sun-baked wall, thrust the back of a rough hand across her
forehead, with a moan of spiritual pain.
"Dieu! ... C'est trop! c'est trop!"
All day long these scenes went on, until I could bear them no longer,
but went indoors to the room which made me feel a selfish monster
because I shared it with only two friends. Boulogne became quiet in
the darkness. Perhaps by some miracle all those homeless ones had
found a shelter. ... I awakened out of a drowsy sleep to hear the
tramp of innumerable feet. A new army of fugitives had come into the
town, I heard voices murmuring below my window, arguing, pleading.
There was a banging at doors down the street.
"C'est impossible! Il n'y a pas de place! Il y a une foule qui dort en
plein air. Voyez! voyez!"
The night porter slammed his own door in a rage. Perhaps there was
pity in his heart as well as rage, but what can a man do when people
demand admittance to an hotel where there are already six people in
the bathroom and sixty on the floor of the salon, and stiff bodies
wrapped in blankets, like corpses in eternal sleep, lying about in the
"There are crowds of people sleeping in the open air," he said, and
when I leaned out of the window, staring into the darkness of the
night and breathing in the cool air which had an autumn touch, I saw
dimly on the pavement below huddled figures in the doorways and
under the shelter of the eaves. A baby wailed with a thin cry. A
woman's voice whimpered just below my window, and a man spoke
"C'est la guerre!"
The words came up to me as though to answer the question in my
own mind as to why such things should be.
"C'est la guerre!"
Yes, it was war; with its brutality against women and children, its
horrible stupidity, its senseless overthrow of all life's decencies, and
comforts, and security. The non-combatants were not to be spared,
though they had not asked for war, and hated it.
The Way Of Retreat
Ominous things were happening behind the screen. Good God! was
France to see another annee terrible, a second edition of 1870, with
the same old tale of unreadiness, corruption in high quarters,
breakdown of organization, and national humiliation after irreparable
The very vagueness of the official communiques and their word-
jugglings to give a rose colour to black shadows advancing rapidly
over the spirit of France suggested horrible uncertainties to those
who were groping in search of plain truth. But not all the severity of
the censorship, with its strangle-grip upon the truth-tellers, could hide
certain frightful facts. All these refugees pouring down from the north
could not be silenced, though none of their tales appeared in print.
They came with the news that Lille was invested, that the German
tide was rolling upon Armentieres, Roubaix, Tourcoing and Cambrai,
that the French and English were in hard retreat. The enemy's
cavalry was spreading out in a great fan, with outposts of Uhlans
riding into villages where old French peasants had not dreamed of
being near the line of battle until, raising their heads from potato fields
or staring across the stacked corn, they had seen the pointed
casques and the flash of the sun on German carbines.
There were refugees who had seen the beginning of battles, taking
flight before the end of them. I met some from Le Cateau, who had
stared speechlessly at familiar hills over which came without warning
great forces of foreign soldiers. The English had come first, in clouds
of dust which powdered their uniforms and whitened their sun-baked
faces. They seemed in desperate hurry and scratched up mounds of
loose earth, like children building sand castles, and jumped down into
wayside ditches which they used as cover, and lay on their stomachs
in the beetroot fields. They were cheerful enough, and laughed as
they littered the countryside with beef tins, and smoked cigarettes
incessantly, as they lay scorched under the glare of the sun, with their
rifles handy. Their guns were swung round with their muzzles nosing
towards the rising ground from which these English soldiers had
come. It seemed as though they were playing games of make
believe, for the fun of the thing. The French peasants had stood
round grinning at these English boys who could not understand a
word of French, but chattered cheerfully all the time in their own
strange language. War seemed very far away. The birds were singing
in a shrill chorus. Golden flowerlets spangled the green slopes. The
sun lay warm upon the hillside, and painted black shadows beneath
the full foliage of the trees. It was the harvest peace which, these
peasants had known all the years of their lives. Then suddenly the
click of rifle bolts, a rapid change in the attitude of the English soldier
boys, who stared northwards where the downs rose and fell in soft
billows, made the French peasants j gaze in that direction, shading
their eyes from the hot sun. What was that grey shadow moving?
What were those little glints and flashes in the greyness of it? What
were all those thousands of little ant-like things crawling forward over
the slopes? Thousands and scores of thousands of--men, and
horses and guns!
"Les Anglais? Toujours les Anglais?" An English officer laughed, in a
queer way, without any mirth in his eyes.
"Les Allemands, mon vieux. Messieurs les Boches!"
"L'enemi? Non--pas possible!"
It only seemed possible that it was the enemy when from that army of
ants on the hillsides there came forth little puffs of white smoke, and
little stabbing flames, and when, quite soon, some of those English
boys lay in a huddled way over their rifles, with their sunburned faces
on the warm earth. The harvest peace was broken by the roar of
guns and the rip of bullets. Into the blue of the sky rose clouds of
greenish smoke. Pieces of jagged steel, like flying scythes, sliced the
trees on the roadside. The beetroot fields spurted up earth, and great
holes were being dug by unseen ploughs. Then, across the distant
slopes behind the smoke clouds and the burst of flame came, and
came, a countless army, moving down towards those British soldiers.
So the peasants had fled with a great fear.
There was an extraordinary quietude in some of the port towns of
northern France. At first I could not understand the meaning of it
when I went from Calais to Boulogne, and then to Havre. In Calais I
saw small bodies of troops moving out of the town early in the
morning, so that afterwards there was not a soldier to be seen about
the streets. In Boulogne the same thing happened, quietly, and
without any bugle calls or demonstrations. Not only had all the
soldiers gone, but they were followed by the police, whom I saw
marching away in battalions, each man carrying a little bundle, like
the refugees who carried all their worldly goods with them, wrapped in
a blanket or a pocket-handkerchief, according to the haste of their
flight. Down on the quay there were no custom-house officers to
inspect the baggage of the few travellers who had come across the
Channel and now landed on the deserted siding, bewildered because
there were no porters to clamour for their trunks and no douane to
utter the familiar ritual of "Avez-vous quelque-chose a declarer?
Tabac? Cigarettes?" For the first time in living memory, perhaps in
the history of the port, the Douane of Boulogne had abandoned its
office. What did it all mean? Why were the streets so deserted as
though the town had been stricken with the plague?
There was a look of plague in the faces of the few fishermen and
harbour folk who stood in groups at the street corners. There was a
haggard fear in their eyes and they talked in low voices, as though
discussing some doom that had come upon them. Even the houses
had a plaguy aspect, with shuttered windows and barred doors. The
town, which had resounded to the tramp of British regiments and to
the tune of "Tipperary," these streets through which had surged a tide
of fugitives, with wave after wave of struggling crowds, had become a
silent place, with only a few shadows creeping through the darkness
of that evening in war, and whispering a fear.
The truth came to me as a shock. The ports of France had been
abandoned. They lay open to the enemy, and if any Uhlans came
riding in, or a German officer in a motorcar with three soldiers to
represent an army, Calais and Boulogne would be surrendered
without a shot.
Looking back upon those days the thing seems inconceivable.
Months afterwards the enemy tried to fight its way to Calais and failed
after desperate attacks which cost the lives of thousands of German
soldiers and a stubborn defence which, more than once, was almost
pierced and broken. "The Fight for Calais" is a chapter of history
which for the Germans is written in blood. It is amazing to remember
that in the last days of August Calais was offered as a free gift, with
Boulogne and Dieppe to follow, if they cared to come for them.
Even Havre was to be abandoned as the British base. It was only a
little while since enormous stores had been dumped here for the
provisioning and equipment of our Expeditionary Force. Now I saw a
great packing up. "K." had issued an amazing order which made
certain young gentlemen of the A.S.C. whistle between their teeth
and say rather quietly: "Ye gods! things must be looking a bit blue up
there." The new base was to be much further south, at St. Nazaire, to
which the last tin of bully beef or Maconochie was to be consigned,
without delay. Yes, things were looking very "blue," just then.
One may afford now to write about mistakes, even the mistakes of
our French Allies, who have redeemed them all by a national heroism
beyond the highest words of praise, and by a fine struggle for
efficiency and organization which were lamentably lacking in the early
days of the war. Knowing now the frightful blunders committed at the
outset, and the hair's-breadth escape from tremendous tragedy, the
miracle of the sudden awakening which enabled France to shake off
her lethargy and her vanity, and to make a tiger's pounce upon an
enemy which had almost brought her to her knees is one of the
splendid things in the world's history which wipe out all rankling
Yet then, before the transformation, the days were full of torture for
those who knew something of the truth. By what fatal microbe of folly
had the French generals been tempted towards that adventure in
Alsace? Sentiment, overwhelming common sense, had sent the
finest troops in France to the frontiers of the "lost provinces," so that
Paris might have its day of ecstasy round the statue of Quand-Meme.
While the Germans were smashing their way through Belgium,
checked only a little while at Liege and giving a clear warning of the
road by which they would come to France, the French active army
was massed in the east from Luxembourg to Nancy and wasting the
strength which should have been used to bar the northern roads, in
pressing forward to Mulhouse and Altkirch. It gave Georges Scott the
subject of a beautiful allegory in L'Illustration--that French soldier
clasping the Alsatian girl rescued from the German grip. It gave
Parisian journalists, gagged about all other aspects of the war zone, a
chance of heroic writing, filled with the emotion of old heartaches now
changed to joy. Only the indiscretion of a deputy hinted for a moment
at a bad reverse at Mulhouse, when a regiment recruited from the
South, broke and fled under the fire of German guns because they
were unsupported by their own artillery. "Two generals have been
cashiered." "Some of the officers have been shot." Tragic rumours
leaked into Paris, spoiling the dream of an irresistible advance.
So far, however, neither Paris nor the French public as a whole had
any inkling of graver things than this. They did not know--how could
they know anything of this secret war?--that on all parts of the front
the French armies' were falling back before the German invasion
which bore down upon them in five great columns of overwhelming
strength; and that on the extreme left, nearest to Paris, the French
army was miserably weak, made up for the most part of old
Territorials who were never meant to be in the first line of defence,
and of African regiments who had never seen shell-fire, so that the
main German attack could only be held back by a little British army
which had just set foot on the soil of France.
Everywhere, from east to west, the French were yielding before the
terrific onslaught of the German legions, who came on in close
formation, reckless of their losses, but always advancing, over the
bodies of their dead, with masses of light artillery against which the
French gunners, with all their skill and courage, could not hold
ground. By a series of strange adventures, which took me into the
vortex of the French retreat, into the midst of confused movements of
troops rushed up to various points of menace and into the tide of
wounded which came streaming back from the fighting lines, I was
able to write the first account which gave any clear idea of the general
situation--sharing this chance with the Philosopher and the Strategist
who were my fellow travellers--and, by good luck again, the censor
was kind to me in England. French officers and soldiers with
bandaged heads and limbs told me their stories, while their wounds
were still wet, and while their clothes still reeked of the smoke of
battle. Women who had fled with empty hands from little chateaux on
the hillsides of France, with empty hearts too because they had no
hope for husbands still fighting in the inferno, described to me the
scenes which still made them pant like wild animals caught after a
chase. And with my own eyes I saw the unforgettable drama of the
French army in retreat, blowing up bridges on its way, shifting to new
lines of defence, awaiting with its guns ready for a new stage of the
Out of a wild confusion of impressions, the tumult of these scenes,
the inevitable contradictions and inconsistencies and imaginings of
men and women drunk with the excitement of this time, I sorted out
some clear threads of fact and with the aid of the Strategist, who
spread out his maps on wayside banks, blotting out the wild flowers,
or on the marble-topped tables outside fly-blown estaminets in village
streets, tracked out the line of the German advance and saw the peril
of the French.
From one of my dispatches I transcribe a narrative which records one
of the most bloody battles in the first phase of the war. Written to the
jolt of a troop train, in which wounded men hugged their bandaged
hands, it tells how five thousand Frenchmen did their best to check a
German army corps.
It was nearly a fortnight ago that the Germans concentrated their
heaviest forces upon Namur, and began to press southwards and
over the Meuse Valley. After the battle of Dinant the French army,
among whom, at this point, were the 2nd and the 7th Corps, were
heavily outnumbered at the time, and had to fall back gradually in
order to gain time for reinforcements to come up to their support. The
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 entrenched, supported by
field guns and mitrailleuses, and did very deadly work before leaping
from the trenches which they occupied and taking up position in new
trenches further back, which they held with great tenacity. In justice to
the Germans, it must be said that they were heroic in their courage.
They were reckless of their lives, and the valley of the Meuse was
choked with their corpses. The river itself was strewn with 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 the other as they retired
southwards. No fewer 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 the French
and German cavalry and regiments working away from the main
There was, for instance, a memorable encounter at Merville which is
one of the most heroic episodes of the war. Five thousand French
soldiers of all arms, with quick-firers, engaged twenty thousand
German infantry. In spite of being outnumbered in this way, the
French dash and "bite," as they call it, was so splendid that they beat
back the enemy from point to point in a fight lasting for twelve hours,
inflicting a tremendous punishment, and suffering very few losses on
their own side. A German officer captured in this engagement
expressed his unbounded admiration for the valour 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 five thousand
desisted from their irresistible attack, and retired, with a large number
of German helmets as trophies of their victorious action.
Nevertheless, in accordance with the general plan which had been
decided upon by the French generals in view of the superior numbers
pressing upon them, the French troops retreated and the Germans
succeeded in forcing their way steadily down the Meuse as far as
Mezieres, divided by a bridge from Charleville on the other side of the
river. This is in the neighbourhood of Sedan, and in the hollow or trou
as it is called which led to the great disaster of 1870, when the French
army was 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 would be reversed.
On Monday, August 24, the town of Charleville was evacuated, most
of its civilians were sent away to join the wanderers who had had to
leave their homes, and the French troops took up magnificent
positions commanding the town and the three bridges dividing it from
Mezieres. 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 the French troops in
the series of battles down the river from Namur. The German
outposts reached Charleville on Tuesday, August 25. They were
allowed to ride quietly across the bridges into the apparently deserted
town. Then suddenly their line of retreat was cut off. The three
bridges were blown up by contact mines, and the mitrailleuses hidden
in the houses were played on to the German cavalry across the
streets, killing them in a frightful slaughter. It was for a little while a
sheer massacre in that town of white houses with pretty gardens
where flowers were blooming under the brilliant sunshine of a glorious
But the Germans fought with extraordinary tenacity, regardless of the
heaped bodies of their comrades, and utterly reckless of their own
lives. They, too, had brought quick-firers across the bridges and,
taking cover behind some of the houses, trained their guns upon
those from which the French gunners were firing their last shots.
There was no way of escape for those heroic men who voluntarily
sacrificed themselves in the service of their country, and it is probable
that every man died, because at such a time the Germans are 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 of fire 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 endeavour while their guns searched the hills with
shells and forced the French gunners to retire from their positions.
The occupation of Charleville was a German victory, but it was also a
After this historic episode in what had been an unending battle, the
main body of the French troops withdrew before the Germans, who
were now pouring down the valley, and retired to new ground.
Meanwhile, on the western side of the battle line, the French army
was holding a crescent from Abbeville, round the south of Amiens,
and the situation was not a happy one in view of the rapid advance of
the enemy under General Von Kluck, before whom the British troops
were already in continual battle.
I shall not soon forget a dreadful night near Amiens, when I saw
beaten and broken men coming back from the firing lines, and the
death-carts passing down the roads. The whole day had been
exciting and unnerving. The roads along which I had passed were
filled with soldiers marching towards an enemy which was rapidly
drawing close upon them, for whom they seemed but ill-prepared--
and by civilians stampeding with wild rumours that the Uhlans were
close upon them.
They were not very far wrong. At Picquigny, they were less than four
miles distant--a small patrol of outposts belonging to the squadrons
which were sweeping out in a fan through the northern towns and
villages of France.
As I passed, French Territorials were hastily digging trenches close to
the railway line. Reports came from stations further along that the line
might be cut at any moment. A train crowded with French and Belgian
fugitives had come to a dead halt. The children were playing on the
banks--with that divine carelessness and innocence which made
one's heart ache for them in this beastly business of war--and their
fathers and mothers, whose worldly goods had been packed into
baskets and brown paper parcels--the poor relics of all that had been
theirs--wondered whether after all their sufferings and struggles they
would reach the town of Amiens and find safety there.
It was obvious to me that there was a thrill of uneasiness in the
military machine operating in the district. Troops were being hurried
up in a north-westerly direction. A regiment of Algerians came
swinging along the road. The sight of the Turcos put some heart into
the fugitives. Those brown faces were laughing like children at the
prospect of a fight. They waved their hands with the curious Arab
gesture of salute, and shuffled along merrily with their rifles slung
behind their backs. Military motor-cars carrying little parties of French
officers swept down the roads, and then there were no more
battalions but only stragglers, and hurrying fugitives driving along in
farmers' carts, packed with household goods, in two-wheeled gigs,
overburdened with women and children, riding on bicycles, with
parcels tied to the saddles, or trudging wearily and anxiously along,
away from the fear where the blood-red sun was setting over France.
It was pitiful to see the children clinging to the women's skirts along
that road of panic, and pitiful but fine, to see the courage of those
women. Then night fell and darkness came across the fields of
France, and through the darkness many grim shadows of war,
looming up against one's soul.
There was une affaire des patrouilles--what the British soldier calls a
"scrap"--along the road at Albert, between Amiens and Cambrai. A
party of German Uhlans, spreading out from a strong force at
Cambrai itself, had been engaged by the French Territorials, and after
some sharp fighting had retired, leaving several dead horses in the
dust and a few huddled forms from which the French soldiers had
taken burnished helmets and trophies to their women folk.
That was on Friday night of August 28. The real fighting was taking
place fifteen kilometres further along the road, at a place called
Bapeaume. All day on Friday there was very heavy fighting here on
the left centre, and a victory was announced by the French Ministry of
I did not see the victory. I saw only the retreat of some of the French
forces engaged in the battle.
It was a few minutes before midnight on that Friday, when they came
back along the road to Amiens, crawling back slowly in a long, dismal
trail, with ambulance wagons laden with dead and dying, with hay-
carts piled high with saddles and accoutrements upon which there
lay, immobile, like men already dead, spent and exhausted soldiers.
They passed through crowds of silent people--the citizens of Amiens--
who only whispered as they stared at this procession in the darkness.
A cuirassier with his head bent upon his chest stumbled forward,
leading a horse too weak and tired to bear him. There were many
other men leading their poor beasts in this way; and infantry soldiers,
some of them with bandaged heads, clung on to the backs of the
carts and wagons, and seemed to be asleep as they shuffled by. The
light from the roadside lamps gleamed upon blanched faces and
glazed eyes--flashed now and then into the caverns of canvas-
covered carts where twisted, bandaged men lay huddled on the
straw. Not a groan came from those carts. There was no shout of
"Vive la France!" from the crowd of citizens who are not silent as a
rule when their soldiers pass.
Every one knew it was a retreat, and the knowledge was colder than
the mist of night. The carts, carrying the quick and the dead, rumbled
by in a long convoy, the drooping heads of the soldiers turned neither
to the right nor to the left for any greeting with old friends; there was a
hugger-mugger of uniforms on provision carts and ambulances. It
was a part of the wreckage and wastage of the war, and to the
onlooker, exaggerating unconsciously the importance of the things
close at hand and visible, it seemed terrible in its significance, and an
ominous reminder of 1870, when through Amiens there came the
dismal tramp of beaten men. Really this was the inevitable part of a
serious battle, and not necessarily the retreat from a great disaster.
I turned away from it, rather sick at heart. It is not a pleasant thing to
see men walking like living corpses, or as though drugged with
fatigue. It is heartrending to see poor beasts stumbling forward at
every step at the very last gasp of their strength until they fall never to
But more pitiful even than this drift back from Bapeaume were the
scenes which followed immediately as I turned back into the town.
Thousands of boys had been called out to the colours, and had been
brought up from the country to be sent forward to the second lines of
defence. 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 to embrace
him. The Marseillaise, the hymn of faith, rang out a little raggedly, but
bravely all the same. The lads--"poor children" they were called by a
white-haired man who watched them--were keeping up the valour of
their hearts by noisy demonstrations; but having seen the death-carts
pass through the darkness between lines of silent and dejected
onlookers, I could not bear to look into the faces of those little ones of
France who were following their fathers to the guns. Once again I had
to turn away to blot out the pictures of war in the velvety darkness of
Early next morning there was a thrill of anxiety in Amiens itself.
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 to be seen in places which had been filled with soldiers the
day before. I think only a few people realized the actual significance
of all this. Only a few--the friends of officers or the friends of
officers' friends--had heard that Amiens itself was to be evacuated.
To these people it seemed incredible and horrible--an admission that
France was being beaten to her knees. How could they believe the
theory of an optimist among them that it was a part of a 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? They only knew that they were undefended, and presently they
found that the civilian trains were being suspended, and that there
would be no way of escape. It was in the last train that by a stroke of
luck I escaped from Amiens. Shortly afterwards the tunnel leading to
the junction was blown up by the French engineers, and the beautiful
city of Amiens was cut off from all communication with the outer
It was on the last train that I realized to the full of its bitterness the
brutality of war as it bludgeons the heart of the non-combatant. In the
carriage with me were French ladies and children who had been
hunted about the country in the endeavour to escape the zone of
military operations. Their husbands were fighting for France, and they
could not tell whether they were alive or dead. They had been without
any solid food for several days, and the nerves of those poor women
were tried to the uttermost, not by any fear for their own sakes, but for
the sake of the little ones who were all they could save from the
wreckage of their lives, all yet enough if they could save them to the
end. One lady whose house had been burnt by the Germans had
walked over twenty miles with a small boy and girl.
For a little while, when she told me her story she wept passionately,
yet only for a few minutes. For the sake of her handsome boy, who
had a hero's courage, and for the tiny girl who clung to her, she
resisted this breakdown and conquered herself.
"That is the real meaning of war, almost the worst tragedy of it" (so I
wrote at the time). "The soldier suffers less than the women and the
non-combatants. His agony perhaps is sharper, but the wound of the
spirit is hardest to bear."
So it seemed to me then, before I had seen greater ghastliness. I was
surprised also by the cheerfulness of some of our wounded soldiers.
They were the "light cases," and had the pluck to laugh at their pain.
Yet even they had had a dreadful time. It is almost true to say that the
only rest they had was when they were carried into the ambulance
cart or the field-hospital. The incessant marching, forwards and
backwards, to new positions in the blazing sun was more awful to
bear than the actual fighting under the hideous fire of the German
guns. They were kept on the move constantly, except for the briefest
lulls--when officers and men dropped, like brown leaves from autumn
trees, on each side of the road, so utterly exhausted that they were
almost senseless, and had to be dragged up out of their short sleep
when once again they tramped on to a new line, to scratch up a few
earthworks, to fire a few rounds before the bugle sounded the cease
fire and another strategical retirement.
On September 2 the Germans had reached Creil and Senlis--staining
their honour in these two places by unnecessary cruelty--and were no
further than thirty miles from Paris, so that the shock of their guns
might be heard as vague vibrations in the capital.
To the population of Paris, and to all civilians in France, it seemed a
stupendous disaster, this rapid incredible advance of that great
military machine of death which nothing, so far, had been able to
stop--not even the unflinching courage and the utter recklessness of
life with which the Allies flung themselves against it. Yet with an
optimism which I could hardly justify, I, who had seen the soldiers of
France, was still confident that, so far from all being lost, there was
hope of victory which might turn the German advance.
I had seen the superb courage of French regiments rushing up to
support their left wing, and the magnificent confidence of men who
after the horrors of the battlefields, and with the full consciousness
that they were always retiring, still, said: "We shall win. We are
leading the enemy to its destruction. In a little while they will be in a
death-trap from which there is no escape for them."
"This spirit," I wrote in my dispatch, "must win in the end. It is
impossible that it should be beaten in the long run. And the splendour
of this French courage, in the face of what looks like defeat, is
equalled at least by the calm and dogged assurance of our English
They repeated the same words to me over and over again--those
wounded men, those outposts at points of peril, those battalions who
went marching on to another fight, without sleep, without rest,
knowing the foe they had to meet.
"We are all right. You can call it a retreat if you like. But we are
retreating in good order and keeping our end up."
Retiring in good order I It had been more than that. They had retired
before a million of men swarming across the country like a vast ant-
heap on the move, with a valour that had gained for the British and
French forces a deathless glory. Such a thing has never been done
before in the history of warfare. It would have seemed incredible and
impossible to military experts, who know the meaning of such fighting,
and the frightful difficulty of keeping an army together in such
When I escaped from Amiens before the tunnel was broken up and
the Germans entered into possession of the town--on August 28--the
front of the allied armies was in a crescent from Abbeville by the
wooded heights south of Amiens, and thence in an irregular line to
the south of Mezieres. The British forces under Sir John French were
on the left centre, supporting the heavy thrust forward of the German
On Saturday afternoon fighting was resumed along the whole line.
The German vanguard had by this time been supported by fresh
army corps, which had been brought from Belgium. At least a million
men were on the move, pressing upon the allied forces with a ferocity
of attack which has never been equalled. Their cavalry swept across
a great tract of country, squadron by squadron, like the mounted
hordes of Attila, but armed with the deadly weapons of modern
warfare. Their artillery was in enormous numbers, and their columns
advanced under the cover of it, not like an army but rather like a
moving nation. It did not move, 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 with its
base at St. Quentin, and advanced divisions at Peronne and Ham. 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."
The railway was destroyed and the bridges blown up on the main line
from Amiens to Paris, and on the branch lines from Dieppe. After this
precaution the British forces fell back, fighting all the time, as far as
Compiegne. The line of the Allies was now in the shape of a V, the
Germans thrusting their main attack deep into the angle.
General d'Amade, the most popular of French generals owing to his
exploits in Morocco, had established his staff at Aumale, holding the
extreme left of the allied armies. Some of his reserves held the hills
running east and west at Beau vais, and they were in touch with Sir
John French's cavalry along the road to Amiens.
This position remained 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 the French troops were sustaining a terrific attack on their
centre by the German left centre, which culminated at Guise, on the
River Oise, to the north-east of St. Quentin, where the river, which
runs between beautiful meadows, was choked with corpses and red
From an eye-witness of this great battle who escaped with a slight
wound--an officer of an infantry regiment--I learned that the German
onslaught had been repelled by the work of the French gunners,
followed by a series of bayonet and cavalry charges.
"The Germans," he said, "had the elite of their army engaged against
us, including the 10th 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 a joyful enthusiasm. They not only resisted the enemy's
attack but took the offensive, and, in spite of their overpowering
numbers, gave them a 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
more hurled into the river, while the whole front of battle was outlined
by the dead and dying men whom they had to abandon. Certainly
their losses were enormous, and when I fell the German retreat was
in full swing, and for the time being we could claim a real victory."
Nevertheless the inevitable happened. Owing to the vast reserves
the enemy brought up fresh divisions, and the French were
compelled to fall back upon Laon and La Fere.
On Tuesday the German skirmishers with light artillery were coming
southwards to Beauvais, and the sound of their field guns greeted my
ears in this 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.
Beauvais lies directly between Amiens and Paris, and it seemed to
me that it was the right place to be in order to get into touch with the
French army barring the way to the capital. As a matter of fact it
seemed to be the wrong place from all points of view.
I might have suspected that something was wrong by the strange
look on the face of a friendly French peasant whom I met at Gournay.
He had described to me in a very vivid way the disposition of the
French troops on the neighbouring hills who had disappeared in the
undulation below the sky-line, but when I mentioned that I was on the
way to Beauvais he suddenly raised his head and looked at me in a
queer, startled way which puzzled me. I remember that look when I
began to approach the town. Down the road came small parties of
peasants with fear in their eyes. Some of them were in farm carts,
and they shouted to tired horses and put them 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--something in the direction of
Beauvais. 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 the 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 standing by
the side of a number of gunpowder bags. A little further away were
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 the 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
It was a queer experience. It was obvious that there was a very grim
business being done in Beauvais, and that the soldiers were waiting
for something to happen. At the railway station I quickly learnt 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. "Nous sommes ici," he said, as though the Germans would
have to reckon with him. But he was emphatic in his request for me to
leave Beauvais if another train could be got away, which was very
uncertain. As a matter of fact, after a mauvais quart d'heure, I was
put into a train which had been shunted into a siding and left
Beauvais with the sound of the German guns in my ears.
Sitting in darkness and shaken like peas in a pod because of
defective brakes, we 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 the
salute when I stepped out to the platform of an unknown station.
"The Germans won't have us for dinner after all," he said. "It was a
little risky all the same!"
The station was Creil, the headquarters, at that time, of the British
forces. It was crowded with French soldiers, and they were soon
telling me their experience of the hard fighting in which they had been
They were dirty, unshaven, dusty from head to foot, scorched by the
heat of the August sun, in tattered uniforms, and broken boots. But
they were beautiful men for all their dirt; and the laughing courage,
the quiet confidence, the un-bragging 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 an admiration which I
cannot express in words. All the odds were against them; they had
fought the hardest of all actions along the way of retreat; they knew
and told me that the enemy were fighting at Senlis, within ten miles of
the Parisian fortifications, but they had an absolute faith in the
ultimate success of their allied arms.
One of the French soldiers gave me his diary to read. In spite of his
dirty uniform, his brown unwashed hands and the blond unkempt
beard which disguised fine features and a delicate mouth, it was clear
to see that he was a man of good breeding and education.
"It may amuse you," he said. "You see, I have been busy as a
It was a record of the blowing up of bridges, and the words had been
scribbled into a small note-book on the way of retreat. In its brevity
this narrative of a sergeant of sappers is more eloquent than long
descriptions in polished prose. One passage in it seemed to me
almost incredible; the lines which tell of a German aviator who took a
tiny child with him on his mission of death. But a man like this, whose
steel-blue eyes looked into mine with such fine frankness, would not
put a lie into his note-book, and I believed him. I reproduce the
document now as I copied it away from the gaze of a French officer
who suspected this breach of regulations:
August 25. Started for St. Quentin and arrived in evening. Our section
set out again next morning for a point twelve kilometres behind, at
Montescourt-Lezeroulles, in order to mine a bridge. We worked all the
night and returned to St. Quentin, where we did reconnaissance
August 27. Germans signalled and station of St. Quentin evacuated.
We were directed to maintain order among the crowd who wished to
go away. It was a very sad spectacle, all the women and children
weeping and not enough trains to save them.
At last we go away, and destroy line and station of Essigny-le-Grand
and at Montescourt, where we destroy bridge already mined.
Arrive in afternoon at Tergnier. Sleep there, and set out on afternoon
of 28th for Chauny and Noyon.
August 29 (morning). We receive order to go back to Tergnier, the
Germans having succeeded in piercing British lines. We pass
Montescourt, and arrive Jussy, where the bridge of the canal being
blown up, we hold up Germans momentarily. Coming from Tergnier,
we were ordered to destroy bridges and stations of the line, which is
main line to Paris.
Work in the evening to sound of cannon. It is pitiable to see the
miserable people on the road with their boxes and children.
In the afternoon set out for Chauny, in direction of Compiegne, where
we arrive in the evening. All along the line were scattered the poor
people. We have twelve on our waggon, and let them eat our food.
We had our own provisions, and we gave them to these people.
August 30 (Sunday). Stationed at Compiegne awaiting orders. One
hears more clearly the sound of the cannon. After the news this
morning I write a line. It appears that the Germans have been
destroyed at St. Quentin.
To-day we have assisted at a duel between a biplane and an
aeroplane. I had nearest me the German aeroplane, which fell in the
English lines. The officer in charge with it had with him a child of six
years old, who was also a German. They were only wounded.
After St. Quentin were with the English troops under the orders of the
English Headquarters Staff.
The rumours which tell of German defeats must be false, because
the English troops retire, and we evacuate Longuart, where we
destroy the station and the railway lines.
The retreat of the British army--it is amazing to think that there were
only 45,000 men who had tried to stem the German avalanche--was
developing into a run. Only some wild fluke of chance (the pious
patriot sees God's hand at work, while the cynic sees only the
inefficiency of the German Staff) saved it from becoming a bloody
rout. It is too soon even now to write the details of it. Only when
scores of officers have written their reminiscences shall we have the
full story of those last days of August, when a little army which was
exhausted after many battles staggered hard away from the menace
of enormous odds seeking to envelop it. It was called a "retirement in
good order." It was hardly that when the Commander-in-Chief had to
make a hurried flight with a mounted escort, when the Adjutant-
General's department, busy in the chateau of a French village,
suddenly awakened to the knowledge that it had been forgotten and
left behind (I heard a personal story of the escape that followed the
awakening), and when companies, battalions, and regiments lost
touch with each other, were bewildered in dark woods and unknown
roads, and were shelled unexpectedly by an enemy of whose
whereabouts they had now no definite knowledge. The German net of
iron was drawing tighter. In a few hours it might close round and
make escape impossible. General Allenby's division of cavalry had a
gallop for life, when the outposts came in with reports of a great
encircling movement of German horse, so that there was not a
moment to lose if a great disaster were to be averted. It was Allenby
himself who led his retreat at the head of his division by the side of a
French guide carrying a lantern.
For twenty miles our cavalry urged on their tired horses through the
night, and along the sides of the roads came a struggling mass of
automobiles, motor-cycles, and motor-wagons, carrying engineers,
telegraphists and men of the Army Service Corps. Ambulances
crammed with wounded who had been picked up hurriedly from the
churches and barns which had been used as hospitals, joined the
stampede, and for many poor lads whose heads had been broken by
the German shells and whose flesh was on fire with frightful wounds,
this night-ride was a highway of torture which ended in eternal rest.
All the way the cavalry and the convoys were followed by the enemy,
and there were moments when it seemed inevitable that the strength
of the horses would give out and that the retreating force would be
surrounded. But as we know now, the enemy was exhausted also.
Their pursuit was a chase by blown horses and puffed men. They
called a halt and breathed heavily, at the very time when a last gallop
and a hard fight would have given them their prize--the flower of the
On that last stage of the retreat we lost less men than any text-book
of war would have given as a credible number in such conditions.
Many who were wounded as they tramped through woods splintered
by bursting shells and ripped with bullets, bandaged themselves as
best they could and limped on, or were carried by loyal comrades
who would not leave a pal in the lurch. Others who lost their way or
lay down in sheer exhaustion, cursing the Germans and not caring if
they came, straggled back later--weeks later--by devious routes to
Rouen or Paris, after a wandering life in French villages, where the
peasants fed them and nursed them so that they were in no hurry to
leave. It was the time when the temptation to desert seized men with
a devilish attraction. They had escaped from such hells at Charleroi
and Cambrai and Le Cateau. Boys who had never heard the roar of
guns before except in mimic warfare had crouched and cowered
beneath a tempest of shells, waiting, terrified, for death. Death had
not touched them. By some miracle they had dodged it, with dead
men horribly mutilated on either side of them, so that blood had
slopped about their feet and they had jerked back from shapeless
masses of flesh--of men or horses--sick with the stench of it, cold
with the horror of it. Was it any wonder that some of these young men
who had laughed on the way to Waterloo Station, and held their
heads high in the admiring gaze of London crowds, sure of their own
heroism, slunk now in the backyards of French farmhouses, hid
behind hedges when men in khaki passed, and told wild, incoherent
tales, when cornered at last by some cold-eyed officer in some town
of France to which they had blundered? It was the coward's chance,
and I for one can hardly bring myself to blame the poor devil I met
one day in Rouen, stuttering out lies, to save his skin, or the two
gunners, disguised in civil clothes, who begged from me near
Amiens, or any of the half-starved stragglers who had "lost" their
regiments and did not go to find them. Some of them were shot and
deserved their fate, according to the rules of war and the stern justice
of men who know no fear. But in this war there are not many men
who have not known moments of cold terror, when all their pride of
manhood oozed away and left them cowards, sick with horror at all
the frightfulness. Out of such knowledge pity comes.
It was pity and a sense of impending tragedy which took hold of me in
Creil and on the way to Paris when I was confronted with the
confusion of the British retreat, and, what seemed its inevitable
consequences, the siege and fall of the French capital.
I reached Paris in the middle of the night on September 2 and saw
extraordinary scenes. It had become known during the day that
German outposts had reached Senlis and Chantilly, and that Paris
was no longer the seat of Government. Quietly and without a word of
warning the French Ministry had stolen away, after a Cabinet meeting
at which there had been both rage and tears, and after a frantic
packing up of papers in Government offices. This abandonment
came as a paralysing shock to the citizens of Paris and was an
outward and visible sign that the worst thing might happen--a new
siege of Paris, with greater guns than those which girdled it in the
A rumour had come that the people were to be given five days' notice
to leave their houses within the zone of fortifications, and to add to
the menace of impending horrors an aeroplane had dropped bombs
upon the Gare de l'Est that afternoon. There was a wild rush to get
away from the capital, and the railway stations were great camps of
fugitives, in which the richest and the poorest citizens were mingled,
with their women and children. The tragedy deepened when it was
heard that most of the lines to the coast had been cut and that the
only remaining line to Dieppe would probably be destroyed during the
next few hours. From the crowds which had been waiting all day for a
chance to get to the guichets in the rear of other and greater crowds,
there rose a murmur which seemed to me like a great sigh from
stricken hearts. There were many old men and women there who
knew what a siege of Paris meant. To younger people they told the
tale of it now--the old familiar tale--with shaking heads and trembling
forefingers. "Starvation!" "We ate rats, if we were lucky." "They would
not hesitate to smash up Notre Dame." "It is not for my sake I would
go. But the little ones! Those poor innocents!"
They did not make much noise in those crowds. There was no loud
sound of panic. No woman's voice shrieked or wailed above the
murmurs of voices. There was no fighting for the station platforms
barred against them all. A few women wept quietly, mopping their
eyes. Perhaps they wept for sheer weariness after sitting encamped
for hours on their baggage. Most of the men had a haggard look and
kept repeating the stale old word, "Incroyable!" in a dazed and dismal
way. Sadness as well as fear was revealed in the spirit of those
fugitives, a sadness that Paris, Paris the beautiful, should be in
danger of destruction, and that all her hopes of victory had ended in
Among all these civilians were soldiers of many regiments and of two
nations--Turcos and Zouaves, chasseurs and infantry, regulars and
Highland British. Many of these were wounded and lay on the floor
among the crying babies and weary-eyed women. Many of them were
drinking and drunk. They clinked glasses and pledged each other in
French and English and broadest Scotch, with a "Hell to the Kaiser!"
and "a bas Guillaume!" A Tommy with the accent of the Fulham Road
stood on a chair, steadying himself by a firm grasp on the shoulder of
a French dragon, and made an incoherent speech in which he reviled
the French troops as dirty dogs who ran away like mongrels, vowed
that he would never have left England for such a bloody game if he
had known the rights of it, and hoped Kitchener would break his
blooming neck down the area of Buckingham Palace. The French
soldier greeted these sentiments with a "Bravo, mon vieux!" not
understanding a word of them, and the drunkard swayed and fell
across the marble-topped table, amid a crash of broken glass.
"Serve him damn well right!" said a sergeant to whom I had been
talking. Like many other English soldiers here who had been fighting
for ten days in retreat, he had kept his head, and his heart.
"We've been at it night and day," he said. "The only rest from fighting
was when we were marching with the beggars after us."
He spoke of the German army as "a blighted nation on the move."
"You can't mow that down. We kill 'em and kill 'em, and still they
come on. They seem to have an endless line of fresh men. Directly
we check 'em in one attack a fresh attack develops. It's impossible to
hold up such a mass of men. Can't be done, nohow!"
This man, severely wounded, was so much master of himself, so
strong in common sense that he was able to get the right perspective
about the general situation.
"It's not right to say we've met with disaster," he remarked. "Truth's
truth. We've suffered pretty badly--perhaps twelve per cent, of a
battalion knocked out. But what's that? You've got to expect it
nowadays. 'Taint a picnic. Besides, what if a battalion was cut up--
wiped clean out, if you like? That don't mean defeat. While one
regiment suffered another got off light."
And by the words of that sergeant of the Essex Regiment I was
helped to see the truth of what had happened. He took the same
view as many officers and men to whom I had spoken, and by
weighing up the evidence, in the light of all that I had seen and heard,
and with the assistance of my friend the Philosopher--whose wisdom
shone bright after a glass of Dubonnet and the arsenic pill which lifted
him out of the gulfs of the black devil doubt to heights of splendid
optimism based upon unerring logic--I was able to send a dispatch to
England which cheered it after a day of anguish.
Because I also was eager to reach the coast--not to escape from the
advancing Germans, for I had determined that I would do desperate
things to get back for the siege of Paris, if history had to be written
that way--but because I must find a boat to carry a dispatch across
the Channel, I waited with the crowd of fugitives, struggled with them
for a seat in the train which left at dawn and endured another of those
journeys when discomfort mocked at sleep, until sheer exhaustion
made one doze for a minute of unconsciousness from which one
awakened with a cricked neck and cramped limbs, to a reality of
We went by a tortuous route, round Paris towards the west, and at
every station the carriages were besieged by people trying to escape.
"Pour l'amour de Dieu, laissez-moi entrer!"
"J'ai trois enfants, messieurs! Ayez un peu de pitie!" "Cre nom de
Dieu, c'est le dernier train! Et j'ai peur pour les petits. Nous sommes
tous dans le meme cas, n'est-ce-pas?"
But entreaties, piteous words, the exhibition of frightened children and
wailing babes could not make a place in carriages already packed to
bursting-point. It was impossible to get one more human being inside.
"C'est impossible! C'est absolument impossible! Regardez! On ne
peut pas faire plus de place, Madame!"
I was tempted sometimes to yield up my place. It seemed a coward
thing to sit there jammed between two peasants while a white-faced
woman with a child in her arms begged for a little pity and--a little
room. But I had a message for the English people. They, too, were in
anguish because the enemy had come so close to Paris in pursuit of
a little army which seemed to have been wiped out behind the screen
of secrecy through which only vague and awful rumours came. I sat
still, shamefaced, scribbling my message hour after hour, not daring
to look in the face of those women who turned away in a kind of
sullen sadness after their pitiful entreaties.
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.
At Pontoise there was another shock, for people whose nerves were
frayed by fright. Two batteries of artillery were stationed by the line,
and a regiment of infantry was hiding in the hollows of the grass
slopes. Out of a nightmare dream not more fantastic than my waking
hours so that there seemed no dividing line between illusion and
reality, I opened my eyes to see those faces in the grass, bronzed
bearded faces with anxious eyes, below a hedge of rifle barrels
slanted towards the north. The Philosopher had jerked out of slumber
into a wakefulness like mine. He rubbed his eyes and then sat bolt
upright, with a tense searching look, as though trying to pierce to the
truth of things by a violence of staring.
"It doesn't look good," he said. "Those chaps in the grass seem to
expect something--something nasty!"
The Strategist had a map on his knees, which overlapped his fellow
passenger's on either side.
"If the beggars cut the line here it closes the way of escape from
Paris. It would be good business from their point of view."
I was sorry my message to .the English people might never be read
by them. Perhaps after all they would get on very well without it, and
my paper would appoint another correspondent to succeed a man
swallowed up somewhere inside the German lines. It would be a
queer adventure. I conjured up an imaginary conversation in bad
German with an officer in a pointed casque. Undoubtedly he would
have the best of the argument. There would be a little white wall,
One of the enemy's aeroplanes flew above our heads, circled round
and then disappeared. It dropped no bombs and was satisfied with its
reconnaissance. The whistle of the train shrieked out, and there was
a cheer from the French gunners as we went away to safety, leaving
them behind at the post of peril.
After all my message went to Fleet Street and filled a number of
columns, read over the coffee cups by a number of English families,
who said perhaps: "I wonder if he really knows anything, or if it is all
made up. Those newspaper men..."
Those newspaper men did not get much rest in their quest for truth,
not caring much, if the truth may be told, for what the English public
chose to think or not to think, but eager to see more of the great
drama and to plunge again into its amazing vortex.
Almost before the fugitives who had come with us had found time to
smell the sea we were back again along the road to Paris, fretful to be
there before it was closed by a hostile army and a ring of fire.
There are people who say that Paris showed no sign of panic when
the Germans were at their gates. "The calmness with which Paris
awaits the siege is amazing," wrote one of my confreres, and he
added this phrase: "There is no sign of panic." He was right if by
panic one meant a noisy fear, of crowds rushing wildly about tearing
out handfuls of their hair, and shrieking in a delirium of terror. No,
there was no clamour of despair in Paris when the enemy came close
to its gates. But if by panic one may mean a great fear spreading
rapidly among great multitudes of people, infectious as a fell disease
so that men ordinarily brave felt gripped with a sudden chill at the
heart, and searched desperately for a way of escape from the
advancing peril, then Paris was panic-stricken.
I have written many words about the courage of Paris, courage as
fine and noble as anything in history, and in a later chapter of this
book I hope to reveal the strength as well as the weakness in the soul
of Paris. But if there is any truth in my pen it must describe that
exodus by one and a half millions of people who, under the impulse of
a great fear--what else was it?--fled by any means and any road from
the capital which they love better than any city in the world because
their homes are there and their pride and all that has given beauty to
In those few days before the menace passed the railway stations
were stormed and stormed again, throughout the day and night, by
enormous crowds such as I had seen on that night of September 2.
Because so many bridges had been blown up and so many lines cut
on the way to Calais and Boulogne, in order to hamper the enemy's
advance, and because what had remained were being used for the
transport of troops, it was utterly impossible to provide trains for these
people. Southwards the way was easier, though from that direction
also regiments of French soldiers were being rushed up to the danger
zone. The railway officials under the pressure of this tremendous
strain, did their best to hurl out the population of Paris, somehow and
anyhow. For military reasons the need was urgent, The less mouths
to feed the better in a besieged city. So when all the passenger trains
had been used, cattle trucks were put together and into them,
thanking God, tumbled fine ladies of France, careless of the filth
which stained their silk frocks, and rich Americans who had travelled
far to Paris for the sake of safety, who offered great bribes to any
man who would yield his place between wooden boards for a way out
again, and bourgeois families who had shut up shops from the Rue
de la Paix to the Place Pigalle, heedless for once of loss or ruin, but
desperate to get beyond the range of German shells and the horrors
of a beleaguered city.
There were tragic individuals in these crowds. I could only guess at
some of their stories as they were written in lines of pain about the
eyes and mouths of poor old spinsters such as Balzac met hiding
their misery in backstairs flats of Paris tenements--they came blinking
out into the fierce sunlight of the Paris streets like captive creatures
let loose by an earthquake--and of young students who had
eschewed delight and lived laborious days for knowledge and art
which had been overthrown by war's brutality. All classes and types of
life in Paris were mixed up in this retreat, and among them were men
I knew, so that I needed no guesswork for their stories. For weeks
some of them had been working under nervous pressure, keeping "a
stiff upper lip" as it is called to all rumours of impending tragedy. But
the contagion of fear had caught them in a secret way, and suddenly
their nerves had snapped, and they too had abandoned courage and
ideals of duty, slinking, as though afraid of daylight, to stations more
closely sieged than Paris would be. Pitiful wrecks of men, and victims
of this ruthless war in which the non-combatants have suffered even
more sometimes than the fighting men. The neuroticism of the age
was exaggerated by writing men--we have seen the spirit of the old
blood strong and keen--but neurasthenia is not a myth, and God
knows it was found out and made a torture to many men and women
in the city of Paris, when the Great Fear came--closing in with a
narrowing circle until it seemed to clutch at the throats of those
There were thousands and hundreds of thousands of people who
would not wait for the trains. Along the southern road which goes
down to Tours there were sixty unbroken miles of them. They went in
every kind of vehicle--taxi-cabs for which rich people had paid
fabulous prices, motor-cars which had escaped the 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 had crowded
behind, pony traps, governess carts, and innumerable cycles.
But for the most part the people were on foot, and they trudged along,
bravely at first, quite gay, some of them, on the first stage of the
march; mothers carrying their babies, fathers hoisting children to their
shoulders, families stepping out together. They were of all classes,
rank and fortune being annihilated by this common tragedy. Elegant
women, whose beauty is known in the Paris salons, whose frivolity
perhaps in the past was the main purpose of their lives, 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
It was a tragic road. At every mile of it there were people who had
fainted on the wayside, and poor old people who could go no further
but sat down on the banks below the hedges weeping silently or
bidding the 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 that they limped along with lines of pain about their lips
and eyes. Many of the taxi-cabs, bought at great prices, and many of
the motor-cars had broken down and had been abandoned by their
owners, who had decided to walk.
Farmers' carts had jolted into ditches and had lost their wheels.
Wheelbarrows, too heavy to trundle, 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.
I entered Paris again from the south-west, after crossing the Seine
where it makes a loop to the north-west beyond the forts of St.
Germain and St. Denis. The way seemed open to the enemy. Always
obsessed with the idea that the Germans would come from the east--
the almost fatal error of the French General Staff, Paris had been
girdled with forts on that side, from those of Ecouen and
Montmorency by the distant ramparts of Chelles and Champigny to
those of Sucy and Villeneuve--the outer lines of a triple cordon. But
on the western side there was next to nothing, and it was a sign to me
of the utter unreadiness of France that now at the eleventh hour
when I passed thousands of men were digging trenches in the roads
and fields with frantic haste, and throwing up earthworks along the
banks of the Seine. Great God! that such work should not have been
done weeks before and not left like this to a day when the enemy's
guns were rumbling through Creil and smashing back the allied
armies in retreat!
It was a pitiful thing to see the deserted houses of the Paris suburbs.
It was as though a plague had killed every human being save those
who had fled in frantic haste. Those little villas on the riverside, so
coquette in their prettiness, built as love nests and summer-houses,
were all shuttered and silent Roses were blowing in their gardens, full-
blown because no woman's hand had been to pick them, and spilling
their petals on the garden paths. The creeper was crimsoning on the
walls and the grass plots were like velvet carpeting, so soft and
deeply green. But there were signs of disorder, of some hurried
transmigration. Packing-cases littered the trim lawns and cardboard
boxes had been flung about. In one small bower I saw a child's
perambulator, where two wax dolls sat staring up at the abandoned
house. Their faces had become blotchy in the dew of night, and their
little maman with her pigtail had left them to their fate. In another
garden a woman's parasol and flower-trimmed hat lay on a rustic seat
with an open book beside them. I imagined a lady of France called
suddenly away from an old romance of false sentiment by the visit of
grim reality--the first sound of the enemy's guns, faint but terrible to
"Les Allemands sont tout pres!"
Some harsh voice had broken into the quietude of the garden on the
Seine, and the open book, with the sunshade and the hat, had been
forgotten in the flight.
Yet there was one human figure here on the banks of the Seine
reassuring in this solitude which was haunted by the shadow of fear.
It was a fisherman. A middle-aged man with a straw hat on the back
of his head and a big pair of spectacles on the end of his nose, he
held out his long rod with a steady hand and waited for a bite, in an
attitude of supreme indifference to Germans, guns, hatred, tears and
all the miserable stupidities of people who do not fish. He was at
peace with the world on this day of splendour, with a golden sun and
a blue sky, and black shadows flung across the water from the tree
trunks. He stood there, a simple fisherman, as a protest against the
failure of civilization and the cowardice in the hearts of men. I lifted my
hat to him.
Close to Paris, too, in little market gardens and poor plots of land,
women stooped over their cabbages, and old men tended the fruits of
the earth. On one patch a peasant girl stood with her hands on her
hips staring at her fowls, which were struggling and clucking for the
grain she had flung down to them. There was a smile about her lips.
She seemed absorbed in the contemplation of the feathered crowd.
Did she know the Germans were coming to Paris? If so, she was not
How quiet it was in the great city! How strangely and deadly quiet!
The heels of my two companions, and my own, made a click-clack
down the pavements, as though we were walking through silent halls.
Could this be Paris--this city of shuttered shops and barred windows
and deserted avenues? There were no treasures displayed in the
Rue de la Paix. Not a diamond glinted behind the window panes.
Indeed, there were no windows visible, but only iron sheeting, drawn
down like the lids of dead men's eyes.
In the Avenue de l'Opera no Teutonic tout approached us with the old
familiar words, "Want a guide, sir?" "Lovely ladies, sir!" The lovely
ladies had gone. The guides had gone. Life had gone out of Paris.
It was early in the morning, and we were faint for lack of sleep and
"My kingdom for a carriage," said the Philosopher, in a voice that
seemed to come from the virgin forests of the Madeira in which he
had once lost hold of all familiar things in life, as now in Paris.
A very old cab crawled into view, with a knock-kneed horse which
staggered aimlessly about the empty streets, and with an old cocher
who looked about him as though doubtful as to his whereabouts in
this deserted city.
He started violently when we hailed him, and stared at us as
nightmare creatures in a bad dream after an absinthe orgy. I had to
repeat an address three times before he understood.
"Hotel St. James... Ecoutez donc, mon vieux!"
He clacked his whip with an awakening to life.
"Allez!" he shouted to his bag of bones.
Our arrival at the Hotel St. James was a sensation, not without alarm.
I believe the concierge and his wife believed the Germans had come
when they heard the outrageous noise of our horse's hoofs
thundering into the awful silence of their courtyard. The manager, and
the assistant manager, and the head waiter, and the head waiter's
wife, and the chambermaid, and the cook, greeted us with the
surprise of people who behold an apparition.
"The hotel has shut up. Everybody has fled! We are quite alone
I was glad to have added a little item of history to that old mansion
where the Duc de Noailles lived, where Lafayette was married, and
where Marie Antoinette saw old ghost faces--the dead faces of
laughing girls--when she passed on her way to the scaffold. It was a
queer incident in its story when three English journalists opened it
after the great flight from Paris.
Early that morning, after a snatch of sleep, we three friends walked
up the Avenue des Champs Elysees and back again from the Arc de
Triomphe. The autumn foliage was beginning to fall, and so
wonderfully quiet was the scene that almost one might have heard a
leaf rustle to the ground. Not a child scampered under the trees or
chased a comrade round the Petit Guignol. No women with twinkling
needles sat on the stone seats. No black-haired student fondled the
hand of a pretty couturiere. No honest bourgeois with a fat stomach
walked slowly along the pathway meditating upon the mystery of life
which made some men millionaires. Not a single carriage nor any
kind of vehicle, except one solitary bicycle, came down the road
where on normal days there is a crowd of light-wheeled traffic.
The Philosopher was silent, thinking tremendous things, with his
sallow face transfigured by some spiritual emotion. It was when we
passed the Palais des Beaux-Arts that he stood still and raised two
fingers to the blue sky, like a priest blessing a kneeling multitude.
"Thanks be to the Great Power!" he said, with the solemn piety of an
infidel who knows God only as the spirit is revealed on lonely waters
and above uprising seas, and in the life of flowers and beasts, and in
the rare pity of men.
We did not laugh at him. Only those who have known Paris and loved
her beauty can understand the thrill that came to us on that morning
in September when we had expected to hear the roar of great guns
around her, and to see the beginning of a ghastly destruction. Paris
was still safe! By some kind of miracle the enemy had not yet touched
her beauty nor tramped into her streets. How sharp and clear were all
the buildings under that cloudless sky! Spears of light flashed from
the brazen-winged horses above Alexander's bridge, and the dome
of the Invalides was a golden crown above a snow-white palace. The
Seine poured in a burnished stream beneath all the bridges and far
away beyond the houses and the island trees, and all the picture of
Paris etched by a master-hand through long centuries of time the
towers of Notre Dame were faintly pencilled in the blue screen of sky.
Oh, fair dream-city, in which the highest passions of the spirit have
found a dwelling-place--with the rankest weeds of vice--in which so
many human hearts have suffered and strived and starved for
beauty's sake, in which always there have lived laughter and agony
and tears, where Liberty was cherished as well as murdered, and
where Love has redeemed a thousand crimes, I, though an
Englishman, found tears in my eyes because on that day of history
your beauty was still unspoilt.
The Turn Of The Tide
The Germans were baulked of Paris. Even now, looking back on
those days, I sometimes wonder why they made that sudden swerve
to the south-east, missing their great objective. It was for Paris that
they had fought their way westwards and southwards through an
incessant battlefield from Mons and Charleroi to St. Quentin and
Amiens, and down to Creil and Compiegne, flinging away human life
as though it were but rubbish for the death-pits. The prize of Paris--
Paris the great and beautiful--seemed to be within their grasp, and
the news of its fall would come as a thunderstroke of fate to the
French and British peoples, reverberating eastwards to Russia as a
dread proof of German power.
As I have said, all the north-west corner of France was denuded of
troops, with the exception of some poor Territorials, ill-trained and ill-
equipped, and never meant to withstand the crush of Imperial troops
advancing in hordes with masses of artillery, so that they fled like
panic-stricken sheep. The forts of Paris on the western side would not
have held out for half a day against the German guns. All that
feverish activity of trench work was but a pitiable exhibition of an
unprepared defence. The enemy would have swept over them like
a rolling tide. The little British army was still holding together, but it
had lost heavily and was winded after its rapid retreat. The army of
Paris was waiting to fight and would have fought to the death, but
without support from other army corps still a day's journey distant,
its peril would have been great, and if the enemy's right wing had
been hurled with full force against it at the critical moment it might
have been crushed and annihilated. Von Kluck had twenty-four hours
in his favour. If he had been swift to use them before Joffre could
have hurried up his regiments to the rescue, German boots might
have tramped down through the Place de la Republique to the Place
de la Concorde, and German horses might have been stabled in the
Palais des Beaux-Arts. I am sure of that, because I saw the beginning
of demoralization, the first signs of an enormous tragedy, creeping
closer to an expectant city.
In spite of the optimism of French officers and men, an optimism as
strong as religious faith, I believe now, searching back to facts, that it
was not justified by the military situation. It was justified only by the
miracle that followed faith. Von Kluck does not seem to have known
that the French army was in desperate need of those twenty-four
hours which he gave them by his hesitation. If he had come straight
on for Paris with the same rapidity as his men had marched in earlier
stages and with the same resolve to smash through regardless of
cost, the city would have been his and France would have reeled
under the blow. The psychological effect of the capital being in the
enemy's hands would have been worth more to them at this stage of
the war than the annihilation of an army corps. It would have been a
moral debacle for the French people, who had been buoyed up with
false news and false hopes until their Government had fled to
Bordeaux, realizing the gravity of the peril. The Terrible Year would
have seemed no worse than this swift invasion of Paris, and the
temperament of the nation, in spite of the renewal of its youth, had
not changed enough to resist this calamity with utter stoicism. I know
the arguments of the strategists, who point out that Von Kluck could
not afford to undertake the risk of entering Paris while an undefeated
army remained on his flank. They are obvious arguments, thoroughly
sound to men who play for safety, but all records of great captains of
war prove that at a decisive moment they abandon the safe and
obvious game for a master-stroke of audacity, counting the risks and
taking them, and striking terror into the hearts of their enemy by the
very shock of their contempt for caution. Von Kluck could have
entered and held Paris with twenty thousand men. That seems to me
beyond dispute by anyone who knows the facts. With the mass of
men at his disposal he could have driven a wedge between Paris and
the French armies of the left and centre, and any attempt on their part
to pierce his line and cut his communications would have been
hampered by the deadly peril of finding themselves outflanked by the
German centre swinging down from the north in a western curve, with
its point directed also upon Paris. The whole aspect of the war would
have been changed, and there would have been great strategical
movements perilous to both sides, instead of the siege war of the
trenches in which both sides played for safety and established for
many months a position bordering upon stalemate.
The psychological effect upon the German army if Paris had been
taken would have been great in moral value to them as in moral loss
to the French. Their spirits would have been exalted as much as the
French spirits would have drooped, and even in modern war victory is
secured as much by temperamental qualities as by shell-fire and big
The Headquarters Staff of the German army decided otherwise.
Scared by the possibility of having their left wing smashed back to the
west between Paris and the sea, with their communications cut, they
swung round steadily to the south-east and drove their famous
wedge-like formation southwards, with the purpose of dividing the
allied forces of the West from the French centre. The exact position
then was this: Their own right struck down to the south-east of Paris,
through Chateau Thierry to La Ferte-sous-Jouarre and beyond; and
another strong column forced the French to evacuate Rheims and fall
back in a south-westerly direction. It was not without skill, this sudden
change of plan, and it is clear that the German Staff believed it
possible to defeat the French centre and left centre and then to come
back with a smashing blow against the army of Paris and the
"contemptible" British. But two great factors in the case were
overlooked. One was the value of time, and the other was the sudden
revival in the spirit of the French army now that Paris might still be
saved. They gave time--no more than that precious twenty-four
hours--to General Joffre and his advisers to repair by one supreme
and splendid effort all the grievous errors of the war's first chapter.
While they were hesitating and changing their line of front, a new and
tremendous activity was taking place on the French side, and Joffre,
by a real stroke of genius which proves him to be a great general in
spite of the first mistakes, for which he was perhaps not responsible,
prepared a blow which was to strike his enemy shrewdly.
I had the great fortune of seeing something of that rush to the rescue
which gave hope that perhaps, after all, the tragedy which had
seemed so inevitable--the capture of the world's finest city--might not
This great movement was directed from the west, the south, and the
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