* * * * *
Tuesday, September 8th. I spent yesterday and today at the Embassy superintending the card-indexing of the German internes. Think of card catalogues! and the battle, perhaps the world's greatest battle, raging no farther away than one might reach in an hour by automobile!
* * * * *
Wednesday, September 9th. Mr. Breckenridge, the American Assistant Secretary of War, has arrived in Paris, and with him came also Colonel Allen of the General Staff of the United States Army. Just as I reached the limit of endurance in card-indexing, release came.
Through the energy and activity of Mr. Breckenridge, a permit has been obtained allowing Colonel Allen, Captain Parker, and myself to leave the city and view the battle which is raging outside. We are to observe and study as much of the operations as possible, in order to gather information useful to our army in America.
We are allowed to take our own chauffeur, and Melvin Hall, at my suggestion, has been chosen for this position. We hope to stay a week and shall leave tomorrow, if the machine can be made ready for so long a trip in so short a time.
* * * * *
Thursday, September 10th. I had this morning a long talk with Richard Harding Davis. He has just arrived from Belgium and is at present striving to get permits to see the war in France. He said that never in his previous war experiences had he seen such unspeakable atrocities as the Germans have committed in Belgium. He speaks nearly as vehemently about it as does Dr. Louis Seaman. He is the first person with whom I have had opportunity to talk who has actually been in Belgium and saw the details of the violation of that country by Germany.
Hall was today unable to complete the preparations on his automobile. On this trip, running through a region devastated by war, we dare not count on finding gasoline, tires, or food, but must start well stocked with all these essentials. We wish to keep going at least five or six days and probably shall find during that time no opportunity to refit. Hall is, therefore, loading up every spare corner of his automobile with food, tires, and gasoline cans.
The great cry of the troops at the front is for matches, cigarettes, and newspapers. I have purchased one hundred boxes of matches, one hundred and sixty newspapers, and six hundred cigarettes to distribute among them as chance offers.
It has been raining almost constantly this week. One cannot help wondering what effect it has had upon the great battle out yonder, the battle about which we still know so little, and of which we think so anxiously.
THE BATTLE OF THE MARNE
Friday, September 11th. It still continues to rain much of the time. Today it developed into a drenching, pelting, soaking downpour, which continued all day long.
Colonel Allen, Captain Parker, and I had luncheon at the Grand Hotel. Hall arrived with the machine at two o'clock. He had packed into it, or tied to it, an immense stock of canned goods, biscuits, and bread, an incredible amount of gasoline, with a heavy overcoat and small satchel for each one of us, until the car looked more like a commissariat wagon than a touring car. We were bidden God-speed by Major Henry, Captain Barker, and Lieut. Hunnicutt and by Frederick Palmer and Richard Harding Davis, when just before half-past two we shot out from the porte-cochere into the rain, prepared if necessary to stay away a week.
We ran rapidly to Lagny along an unobstructed route, where only a few days ago Hall and I had continually been held up by the barriers and troops of the defensive zone. We had then not been permitted to travel half a mile without being halted. Today what a change! We saw no troops at all in this defensive zone and with a thrill we thus realized that the battle must be going favorably for the Allies.
Between the Porte de Vincennes and Lagny our papers were examined only once, by a solitary sentry on the bridge at Bry-sur-Marne. It is evident that the Germans have either been beaten back or have chosen to retire from the neighborhood. From Lagny we passed rapidly to Villeneuve-le-Comte, which was now totally devoid of troops. At Crecy we came upon the first signs of war. Here we saw a big park of British reserve ammunition. All along the roads were the remains of a German field telephone line, which had doubtless been constructed about the time Hall and I had been in Villeneuve on Sunday.
* * * * *
All day the rain continued to pour in torrents.
* * * * *
Our machine rolled over the brow of a hilltop and below us in a hollow we saw the little village of Rebais. The road straight before us gently sloped down to the hamlet, passing through it as its principal street. Yesterday there had been heavy fighting in and around the town; French troops had entered it and advanced through it under heavy fire. There were great black holes in the roofs and walls and the ground was littered with bits of glass and slate. The village lay very still and motionless in the pelting rain. We glanced up each of its lanes as we glided by, and in each the bodies of numerous dead French soldiers lay sodden in the mud, with their red legs sticking out in attitudes of ludicrous ghastliness. A line of ammunition wagons half a mile long was parked at the side of the village street and the horses were picketed in long lines in the adjacent gardens and fields.
On the right there was a level mowed field along the edge of which the teamsters were huddled over campfires, cooking. Beginning a few yards behind them the field was strewn with dead soldiers lying monstrously conspicuous on the bare ground. On the far side of the field half a mile away was a jumble of houses, trees, and fences, and here German infantry supported by two batteries had the day before taken up a position. A battalion of the 17th French Line Regiment had charged across the flat field into their teeth. We were told that in this charge they had lost fifty per cent. of their men but had gone on undaunted, and had "got home" a la bayonette, capturing the position and a number of prisoners.
We walked silently among the dead. Where the casualties had been heaviest, we counted seventeen bodies within a circle thirty paces in diameter. Every man of the group had fallen forward with his bayonet pointing straight out in front of him. Some had been running with such elan that in falling their shoulders had fairly plowed into the soft ground. They had nearly all been killed by shrapnel fire, which in most cases had killed cleanly. We found one, however, who had been badly mashed by a shell which had burst in the ground at his feet, making a deep, oblong hole six feet long into which his shattered body had fallen. The metal identification tags, one of which every soldier wears, had not been collected. These are removed by the burying squad, and sent home as announcers of the decease. This group had all been so recently killed that their faces were very lifelike. One found oneself repeating "How natural they look!" and one could pretty well judge what sort of men they had been in life. Here was a slight smooth-faced blond-haired boy, who must have been dearly beloved by the women of his family. Here again a serious, kindly, middle-aged man whose face bore a curious expression of preoccupation. I caught myself thinking, "I should like to have known him." We found one who in his dying agony had evidently taken from his pocket a letter which now lay a sodden mass in his dead hand. We could not resist that mute appeal, but picked the letter carefully from his stiff fingers to be dried out later and delivered, if possible, to the woman to whom it was addressed.
As one looked at all these useless, cumbersome bits of carrion which no one in the rush of war had had time to remove, one could not but remember how each one had been suddenly wrenched from a useful life and in death had somewhere left a broken family. The dead do not have the tragic expressions with which painters credit them. Those who have been instantly killed generally wear grotesque expressions. Some look bored—others have a silly look of surprise, as if a practical joke had just been played upon them. These grotesque expressions are much more frightful than could be any indicative of suffering. Those who have died slowly are usually propped up against something in a sitting posture, and their faces express happiness or perfect peace.
* * * * *
We passed beyond the position which the Germans had recently held. Here beside the road was a farmer's house with a great hole in its roof. In the door stood a very old man gazing stupidly at the landscape. In front of his house lay side by side three dead Germans. They lay on their backs; the coat and shirt of each had been torn open at the neck and their bare breasts were marred by a clotted mass of closely grouped bullet marks. Further inspection showed that their arms were tied behind them and we knew that we were witnessing the results of a military execution. The old man against whose house they had been shot explained that they had been among the prisoners taken in the charge of the French infantry the day before and that their fate had been the penalty for what was revealed when their pockets had been searched.
* * * * *
We cross-questioned several inhabitants of the little village of Boissy, who told us that the Germans had held the place for five days and had left only two days ago, on Wednesday evening. Fleeing at the approach of a heavy force of the British, they had retired in a northeasterly direction. We judged from the description given by the peasants that the force which had occupied the neighborhood consisted of a division of cavalry with a strong force of artillery. In entering Boissy the Germans had cornered a patrol of about twenty British cavalrymen and had killed them all, the last three having defended themselves in a little brick house where they had been shot down one by one. The Germans had burned this house and the two adjoining ones in order to make sure that no more troopers were in hiding. We saw only one other building in the village which had been damaged. The inhabitants explained that it was a jewelry shop and that the invaders had wrecked it hoping to find hidden valuables. We did not have time to investigate this statement. There had been no fighting in the streets other than the battle with the British patrol and we considered the condition of the place a credit to the force which had occupied it. The inhabitants, indeed, protested that all food supplies had been confiscated but agreed that no civilians had been injured and that no women had been molested.
As we approached Montmirail, we passed a beautiful monument, dedicated to Napoleon, who had directed a battle from that spot in 1814, one hundred years ago. A golden eagle surmounted a column which stood upon a stepped base. The fields about were plowed by shells and yesterday one shell had knocked a big chunk off the side of the column about half-way up. Leaning against the base, in an attitude of infinite weariness, sat a dead French soldier.
* * * * *
Much of the dismal aftermath of battle seems to be concentrated along the highways, which are punctuated by dead men and dead horses thrown into the gutters to be out of the way. Long trains of horse-drawn wagons plod wearily along toward the front; the towns through which they pass are battered and nearly deserted; the poplars which line the roads are broken and gashed by shells, and the fields on either side are marred by shell craters and by the trenches of the burying squads.
We entered the shattered town of Montmirail at nightfall. Long lines of ammunition wagons were encamped for the night just outside and the town itself was packed with troops. The place had been for eighteen consecutive hours under a heavy artillery bombardment. The houses were battered, the streets were pitted by shells, and there remained in the whole village not a single unbroken window. There had been much fighting in the streets and the place had been alternately taken and retaken by Germans and French.
All accommodation in the town had by one blanket order been requisitioned for the military. We plowed our way through rain and mud to the office of the Mayor who kindly assigned us to rooms, giving us written orders on the owners, who turned out to be a quaint old French shirtmaker and his wife. Hall and I went scouting around through the place and managed to get hold of a fourteen-sou loaf of bread and two bottles of wine which served as supper, thus saving our own precious supplies for future emergencies. Before returning, we visited two cafes which were jammed with soldiery, from whom we managed to glean a lot of very interesting information. They all spoke with the greatest respect, admiration, and affection of their field artillery, "le soixante-quinze."
* * * * *
Provisions were very scarce. We saw a Turco, who had apparently lost his regiment and who spoke scarcely any French, vainly trying to find some food. He walked about through the cafes waving a one hundred franc note in each hand and ceaselessly demanding something to eat.
* * * * *
After supper a council of war was held in order to decide upon our course of action for the morrow. Captain Parker was eager to hunt for a vortex of the battle where, he held, the primary decision must have been lost and won and the fighting would have been most intense; while the action on all the other parts of the line must have been contingent upon the results at this "tactical center." This "focus" could not have been to the north or west of Paris, because the great bodies of French troops are to the east; nor was it on the battle line nearest Paris, for everything we saw today in and behind the zone of operations testified to the contrary. In all the actions we have so far observed, the Germans were retiring deliberately in a retreat evidently determined by some ulterior cause. We noted many places where severe fighting had taken place, but in every case it bore the unmistakable signs of being merely a hotly contested rearguard action. We so far have neither seen nor heard of any great German defeat such as must somewhere have occurred in order to start a general retreat, and to force such numerous rearguard actions. A victorious German army does not suddenly begin to retire unless compelled to do so by a gigantic and crushing defeat at some one point; such a defeat must mean days of losses so frightful that the beaten army is physically exhausted and its morale shaken.
From a military point of view it was of vital importance to discover this spot and to study the battlefield for lessons in tactics. Captain Parker maintained that it would be more profitable to find this center than to give way to our inclination to go forward into the actual fighting; that if we could locate it, it would be best to stay upon the abandoned field of the German defeat to study how the battle had been fought. He pointed out that the opportunity would be equivalent to being upon the field of Waterloo or Gettysburg the day after action ceased. As a result of the conference, it was finally decided to accept Captain Parker's contention and hunt for the battlefield of the great and decisive French victory, rather than to turn north toward the constant booming of cannon. We shall, therefore, continue to work our way to the eastward toward Chalons-sur-Marne, beating back and forth across the country and carefully covering all the ground.
* * * * *
At the Front, Saturday, September 12th. We slept last night in beds which had recently been occupied by German officers and spent a very chilly night therein on account of the cold, wet wind which blew in through the many shattered windows. We woke to the rumbling of distant cannon, which might more correctly be called a trembling of the air rather than a true sound. Still hoarding our provisions, we ate a frugal breakfast of stale bread and of tea made from the dried leaves of linden trees. We started off at half-past seven, receiving a very friendly God-speed from our aged host and hostess.
All morning we made our way in an easterly direction, beating back and forth across the country in order to cover as much ground as possible. When we turned to the north the sound of cannon became louder and when we swung to the south it grew fainter. We studied the country carefully and, when possible, talked with any of the Allied officers we chanced to meet. They usually knew thoroughly the events which had taken place in the particular neighborhood in which they had operated, but were astonishingly ignorant of what had gone on at any distance. What they told us was always very valuable, because it assisted us to piece together the fabric of the campaign as a whole.
* * * * *
Beyond Vauchamps we came upon a scene where there had been heavy artillery fighting. The fields were plowed up by innumerable shells and many dead horses were strewn along the gutters, with here and there a dead soldier who had fallen in the road and been hurriedly thrown aside so that he should not hinder traffic.
The highway was elevated a bit above the level country which stretched on either side, and at one spot we saw where two German guns had fought from behind this slight protection. They had been placed in holes sunk a few inches into the ground, and the loose earth had been piled up to form a little mound in front, preventing bullets from flying under the gun shield. Empty cartridge cases were strewn about and a pile of unused ammunition was stacked up like cordwood. The German guns had been in sight of a French battery across the fields and a direct-fire artillery duel had taken place between the two. The craters of thirty-two French shells were within twenty paces of the emplacements and the ground was strewn with splinters and shrapnel cases. There were several very dead German artillerymen who had evidently been working the guns when direct hits had been made upon the material of the battery. No limbers or caissons had been with the guns, but a caisson had been placed in a field about two hundred yards behind, and men ran up and down across the field carrying ammunition in wicker baskets, each of which holds three shells. We picked up four of these shell baskets as curiosities and managed to find room for them in our machine.
* * * * *
As we advanced we became more and more convinced of the correctness of Capt. Parker's theory that there had been a big focal center of the battle somewhere still to the east of us, and that the actions along the rest of the line of contact from Paris to Lorraine had occurred with reference to this vortex.
It is characteristic of the limited knowledge which troops in battle have of what goes on outside of their immediate geographical vicinity, that we ran almost into the great battle area for which we were searching before anyone gave us a hint of its location. It was at Vertus that we were told by a French officer that terrific fighting had taken place in the upland plateau to the south of us, around a place called Fere Champenoise; that the Germans had there made their main attack with close to a quarter of a million men; that a frightful battle had raged, a battle in which the Germans were at first, during some thirty-six hours, victorious, but that, with the arrival of reinforcements, the Ninth French Army under General Foch had turned the tide and finally routed them. The officers said that the fighting and slaughter had been frightful; that the combined casualties of the two sides were close to two hundred thousand on a front of something over twenty miles and a depth of about fifteen miles. They said that the battle area was contained roughly within a circumference drawn through the villages of Champaubert, Coligny, Pierre-Morains, Clamanges, Sommesous, Gourgancon, Corroy, and Sezanne.
As we conferred with the officers a constant stream of reinforcements for the French army was passing, coming from Fere Champenoise and marching toward Ay and Epernay; regiments of infantry, ammunition trains, caissons, transports, and cavalry, all marching endlessly toward the booming guns to the northward.
We turned our machine to the south with a feeling of the greatest awe at the thought of what two hundred thousand casualties must mean. We were silent for some minutes as the machine sped along, and then Captain Parker remarked: "At Gettysburg or at Waterloo the total forces engaged amounted to only about one hundred and sixty thousand!"
We ran toward the slope of the plateau, passing slowly an endless, unbroken line of transports. Beyond Bergeres-Les-Vertus an infantry brigade was resting beside the road and the tired men were cooking and eating.
* * * * *
We tried to comprehend the battle as a whole by studying a great many fields, any one of which would a few years ago have been considered an entire battle in itself. The dead were scattered far and wide; and in the fields and among the grain-stacks the wounded cried out their piteous faint appeals. Little groups of German stragglers were hiding in the forests, and squads of alert French soldiers hunted them down, beating through the cover as eager setter dogs search for grouse. In one field of about six acres lay nine hundred German dead and wounded; across another, where a close-action fight had raged, two hundred French and Germans lay mixed together, all mashed and ripped. Here was the curious sight of a German and Frenchman lying face to face, both dead, and each one transfixed by the other's bayonet.
The very birds of the air and the beasts of the field lay dead and rotting amid the general destruction. We saw feathers and bits of chickens and halves of cows. On one occasion Hall maintained that "it" had been a cow, while I thought "it" was a horse, and no piece large enough for a certain identification could be found. Of some of the villages which had been peaceful and beautiful a week ago, there remained now only chimneys, ashes, and bits of walls rising from smouldering gray debris. A French village wrecked by battle looks very much wrecked indeed, in contrast with its habitual orderly and toy-like appearance.
I was not so horrified in viewing these ghastly sights as I had expected, because I could not put from me a sense of their unreality. The human mind is incapable of comprehending to the full such terrible happenings. One kept endlessly saying to oneself: "Can all this which we are seeing really have taken place in this once quiet French countryside, almost within the suburbs of Paris? It seems impossible—unbelievable!"
* * * * *
In the little upland village of Clamanges was a field hospital which had been established by the Germans when they first occupied the place on the night of September 7th. They had held it until their retreat on the 10th, when their retirement was so precipitate that they had been unable to take with them their wounded.
In this war it is the custom to convert the village churches into hospitals. The chairs and benches are thrown out into the graveyard and the floor is covered with straw upon which the wounded are laid in long rows extending the length of the nave. The altar is converted into the pharmacist's headquarters and bottles and medicaments are piled thereon, while bandages, for want of room, are sometimes hung upon the statue of the Virgin, who has, in this unique service, an air of sublime and compassionate contentment. An operating room is usually established in the vestry or in the Parish House and a Red Cross flag is hung from the steeple. Any shell holes in the roofs and walls are stopped with sections of tenting. As we approached Clamanges, we detected a sickening, subtle, sweetish odor which crept stealthily to us through the air and filled us with an insinuating disgust. The Colonel said simply, "That is gangrene."
The streets of the village were muddy and littered, and there were innumerable ominous flies everywhere. The town was crammed with German wounded. In the church long rows of them, touching feet to head and arm to arm, so that the attendants had to step gingerly between as they made their slow way about. The neighboring peasant houses were packed full with the overflow. In the halls lay the bodies of men who had died of gangrene, and as no one had time to attend to the dead, the piles of them grew and increased. We were told that there were thirteen hundred wounded in the village, among whom labored sixty attendants. They were all severely wounded, since the Germans had dragged with them all their slightly wounded, these being good assets.
What had once been a little rose garden was piled high with a gigantic heap of bloody accoutrements which had been taken from wounded men as they were brought in. Under a tree in a corner of the churchyard a surgeon had set up a big kitchen table which he used for operations; the ground underneath was black and caked. In a near by corner of the church walls was a great pile of boots and stained clothes which had been cut from shattered limbs, and I expect one might have discovered even more ghastly objects had one ventured to turn over the rags. The attendants were nearly all French, although two German doctors and several German orderlies had stayed behind with their wounded. All worked heroically to cope with their great task.
In the rush of battle it had been impossible to obtain food for the wounded, so that for days these men had gone hungry, and one heard the agonizing sound of dying men crying piteously for bread. The French attendants themselves went hungry in order to give their charges such small pittances of food as were obtainable. We watched an orderly who entered the church with a single loaf of bread which had just been secured and which was to be divided among several hundred wounded. He used a great knife as if he hoped to make up for the smallness of the supply by the largeness of the implement. Slowly and with sober care he cut slice after slice, each one so thin that the light shone through it. Every head was turned toward him and each burning pair of eyes was fixed upon the precious bread with an expression of animal dumbness, which reminded one of the intent eyes of a hungry dog as it watches a hoped-for morsel. As he advanced step by step, the wounded stretched up shriveled hands, or propped themselves on one elbow to make more appealing gestures, their faces all contorted by the pains the movement caused them. They made no sound, for their attention was too intently fixed upon that bread. One, however, who had been overlooked, burst into screams and wailings until the mistake had been properly remedied. We Americans held a Council of War and unanimously decided to contribute our jealously hoarded supply of provisions; we thereby became as angels in the eyes of those poor creatures. A French attendant remarked as he handed a sliver of our only loaf of bread to a shattered man: "Il va mourir tout a l'heure, mais cela lui fera grand plaisir en mourant!"
The dying are frightful sights, and parts of them are often already mortified, as they lie in the straw, entirely occupied with breathing. They breathe eternally little short breaths, a hundred or a hundred and ten to the minute, like some sort of pump. They wish passionately not to die, and yet they know with desperate certainty that they are going to die. They lie down there in a tiny, little black hell of their own and fight with all their might and main, feeling that they will die instantly if they skip one little short breath. (I was going to say they fight with all their soul and body, but they no longer really possess either of these). They have no time to speak, or listen, or move, or be helped, as every particle of energy must be used for the next respiration. A jumbled heap lies in the straw covered with a blanket to keep off the flies. An attendant looks at its side in search of the fluttering little pulsation of breath. If it is there, "he" is living; if all is still, "it" is dead, and they carry it out and dump it in the hall with the other bodies.
* * * * *
The little village of Ecury-le-Repos had been deserted by every one but its Mayor, who mistook us for Germans, and as such faced us bravely and with dignity. He very correctly refused to believe that we were not of the enemy until he had examined our papers. His village was not a pleasant sight. He said that it had been taken and retaken many times and that there had been fighting in its streets as recently as yesterday; its houses were battered and rent by shells and many had burned down and still smouldered; no earthquake could have ruined them more thoroughly. The narrow village streets were littered ankle deep with a muddy, rotting pot-pourri in which one detected broken glass, bits of brick, cartridges, roof slates, broken bottles, shreds of clothing, shells, fragments, shrapnel cases, and kepis. Dead men lay in the gutters, covered with filth to such an extent that one almost failed to recognize what they were.
In their last retreat the Germans had dragged their desperately wounded into halls and doorways in order that they might be out from under foot, and there they still lay. Half of them were mercifully already dead. We looked into one hallway only. Here amidst a stifling stench, five Germans were propped up; three were dead and the other two barely alive; all were covered black with flies and the living and the dead were eaten by white, weaving masses of maggots.
Ecury-le-Repos is situated in a little circular hollow, with elevated table-lands all around. Here where the table-lands begin to dip down, the Germans had defended themselves against the advancing French. As they faced southward toward the oncoming enemy, they had the village in its cup-like hollow at their backs. At one point German infantry to the number of about two hundred had been placed on the crest facing across the bare level plateau, while in front of them some two hundred and fifty paces distant was a pine wood through which the French were advancing. The Germans had evidently had no time to entrench but had quickly lain down in skirmish order in the outer edge of a potato field; each soldier had then pushed up in front of him, as protection, a little heap of potatoes and loose earth. A hundred paces to the right of this German skirmish line, two mitrailleuses had been skillfully thrust forward some fifty yards in advance, and concealed in small trenches hurriedly dug. They could thus fire across the front of their own infantry and take in the flank any French who advanced. This action was one of a series which had taken place along this line of hills. The German flanks were not unprotected, but owing to the fact that the country was much broken and obscured by woods, such a force would be partly hidden from its neighbors to the right and left, and largely independent in repelling any attack made against it.
A body of French infantry three to four hundred strong had advanced to the edge of the woods, facing the Germans, and had there taken up a skirmish position. The opposing bodies had then fired at each other a collective total of about twenty-five thousand rounds across a perfectly flat field. We were able to estimate the number of men engaged on either side from the impressions which their feet, elbows, and bodies had made in the soft earth, and we could judge how many rounds per man had been fired by counting the little piles of empty cartridges which had accumulated beside each rifleman. When we arrived upon the scene the wounded had nearly all been removed, but the dead were still untouched, and we were able to see that, as a result of this fusillade of twenty-five thousand rounds, only three Germans and six Frenchmen had been killed outright.
After this rifle contest, the French had made a bayonet charge across the open. The Germans had fired until the French had advanced about half way and had hit a score, after which they temporarily ceased firing and the French then promptly "charged home." The two German mitrailleuses were unperceived by the advancing French, and as the French passed them in flank, the mitrailleuses opened fire; at the same moment the Germans suddenly fired a scattering rifle volley. Attacked in front and on the flank, every Frenchman but one was hit, and sixty dead still lay in a row across the field as if cut down by a mowing machine. The sole survivor of the fatal cross-fire was a boy with a tiny black moustache. Undaunted, he had charged alone in among the Germans and had received many bayonets in his heroic body. He lay on his back among the German cartridges fifty yards ahead of the row of his dead comrades.
Behind the crest of the plateau we could see the emplacements of four guns at intervals of about forty yards, but they had not been used in this engagement and may have been shelling some more distant objective.
Before leaving this field we gathered a quantity of potatoes and put them in the German shell baskets which we had picked up earlier in the day, in order that our gift to the field hospital might not leave us totally without food. We felt rather unhappy at not being able to pay for them, but "a la guerre comme a la guerre."
* * * * *
Just outside of Fere Champenoise on the road running west toward Broussy-le-Grand, we came upon the scene of an action in which the casualties had been exceedingly heavy. The neighborhood was absolutely deserted and as the wounded had been removed and there were no peasants about we could find no one to elucidate for us what had taken place. The action was not easy to unravel and the following conclusions were unverified by any eyewitnesses.
We, however, judged by the condition of the dead and other circumstantial evidence that the fight had taken place at the very beginning of the great battle—that is, on the morning of Tuesday, the 8th, when the French were slowly pushed back from the vicinity of Fere Champenoise. The road ran through the middle of an open field, with heavy forests on either side, some three hundred yards away to the north and south. A French regiment had evidently taken up a defensive position to the left of the road and parallel with it, thus facing the woods to the north and some four hundred yards away. These woods were held by a regiment of Imperial Guard and a battery of artillery had been placed some three hundred yards behind them. The Guards had advanced one hundred and fifty yards into the open and then formed a firing-line. In some inexplicable manner they had accomplished this manoeuvre without casualties.
The two firing-lines were thus facing one another across two hundred and fifty yards of open field; the men lying shoulder to shoulder were plainly visible to their opponents. The German firing-line was marked by nine dead. The shooting of the Guard was excellent and thus in marked contrast to the poor shooting of other German organizations which we had observed. The French position was marked by more than three hundred dead, and the roots and lower branches of some pine saplings near by were riddled with bullets; indeed, some of these had actually been cut down by rifle fire, and I estimated that there was on an average at least one bullet for every two square inches of bark. Nearly all the French must have been put out of action before the Germans finally charged, for the latter had only some twenty men killed in crossing the open to the French position. This is such a small loss to suffer when pushing home a bayonet charge, that the only explanation would be that few French were left to resist this final dash. In one place there was a pile of eleven dead Frenchmen who had evidently been killed in a desperate last stand.
Throughout this action the French had manifestly stood their ground very stubbornly, despite desperate losses, and had at no time broken or retreated. There were only ten dead behind their firing-line and these had been killed with the bayonet while fighting in the open. Another French regiment adjacent to them, in some woods farther west, had suffered no less heavily, and the woods were here literally dotted with the bodies of the dead. Our conclusion was that all the Frenchmen had been put out of action. It should be remembered that the ratio of wounded to killed is at least four to one. Colonel Allen said that he could not imagine worse destruction than these two regiments suffered. Evidently it was part of the price the French army so willingly paid for their great victory.
* * * * *
We followed along the Petit Morin and the marshes of St. Gond. Here not far from Soizy-aux-Bois had been a furious bayonet fight in which a French colonial brigade had carried the German positions. At one point a regiment of Turcos had advanced across the Petit Morin and charged to the bare hill toward a long well-made trench held by a battalion of German infantry whose fire had not deterred them. As the Turcos closed in, the Germans jumped out of their trench and re-formed in a line behind it, but broke at the first shock of the Africans, who came on screaming, their knives and bayonets much in evidence. A scene of frightful carnage ensued as the rout spread along the hill. The Turcos chased the Germans over the fields and through neighboring woods, killing them right and left. The total casualties in the neighborhood must have been more than three thousand, the Germans being much the heavier losers.
I have read of such bayonet fights, but have always doubted their possibility in modern war. I have supposed that in close-range fighting a few men might be bayoneted, but that the majority of the casualties would be from gunshot wounds. In this melee, however, most of the wounds were inflicted with the bayonet, and frightful wounds they were. Many on both sides had been pierced through the face, neck, and skull. The head of one German officer who had not fled with his men, but had bravely fought on single-handed, had been completely transfixed by a bayonet, which had entered through the eagle on the front of his helmet and passed through his skull and out behind.
* * * * *
After passing through many scenes of horror, we arrived at the castle of Mondemont which is near Allemant, and caps the summit of a steep wooded hill overlooking the marshes of St. Gond. It was a Louis XV. chateau, but is now a mass of shattered ruins. Around it had been elaborate gardens with many paths, alleys, carp ponds, flower-beds, hedges, and walls. From its elevated position it commanded the valleys beneath. It had without much difficulty been captured by the Germans as they advanced southward, and when they later retreated to the north again they had left here a rearguard to hold back the victorious French.
All through the disastrous afternoon of Wednesday the 9th, these Germans had defended Mondemont against a furious cannonade and in the face of infantry assaults which, in some cases, had to be repulsed with the bayonet. Meanwhile, the main German armies retreated many miles until on Thursday morning this heroic rearguard found itself hopelessly surrounded on all sides. The French commanders summoned the place to surrender, explaining that further resistance was madness, but were met by a firm refusal, whereupon the Germans were subjected to a most terrific bombardment by cannon, large and small. In all at least ten thousand shells were fired at the chateau until it was reduced to a pile of rubbish. Even the garden walls remained standing only in isolated spots, and the surrounding forest was so completely wrecked that great boughs and whole trees lay criss-crossed in an inextricable tangle.
Near the chateau there was a field several acres in extent and in it alone we counted about a thousand craters which had been made by big shells. The road which passed in front of the chateau was full of great holes twenty feet in circumference blown out of the solid macadam. After this bombardment, a desperate infantry assault rolled up the hill and captured it, but only after a frightful melee in which the defenders fought and died to the last man. I noticed a shutter remaining upon one window of the chateau which had been pierced by fifty-two bullets. By a singular chance there was one room which had been little damaged. In it as we entered there stood a table at which the German officers had been eating when interrupted by the final attack; their knives and forks lay on the plates, which still held meat and carrots, partly eaten, and wine half filled the glasses; two of the chairs had been hurriedly pushed back from the table, while a third, overturned, lay upon its side.
* * * * *
Sunday, September 13th. We spent the night at Bar-sur-Seine, sleeping in the hallway of a little hotel, and next morning went to the headquarters of General Joffre which, during the battle, were at Chatillon-sur-Seine.
* * * * *
We returned to the battlefields in the neighborhood of Fere Champenoise early in the afternoon.
* * * * *
We entered Fere Champenoise for the second time after dark, meaning to spend the night there. The town was packed with transport wagons and troops. All the houses were dark, the only illumination being from lamps on wagons and automobiles which stood in the market-place and along the main highway through the town.
It had rained nearly all day and was still raining, and although we were loath to sleep outdoors or in the automobile, we at first saw no possibility of finding lodgings elsewhere. Captain Parker and I left the machine and started to reconnoitre through the side streets. The rain, the low-hanging clouds, and the high walls of the houses, all combined to make the bottom of the deep narrow streets blacker than any blackness I have ever experienced. The darkness was so dense that it seemed to have body and solidity, and one walked as if totally blind. The streets were alive with invisible soldiers, whom one heard breathing in the damp darkness and with whom one continually collided. High above the roofs of the houses a distant glow was reflected upon the falling rain by fires where they were burning the dead.
Few of the inhabitants had yet returned to the town and we were unable to find anyone who could tell us where to locate the Mayor. All the houses were tightly shuttered and nearly all were empty, though occasionally a faint suggestion of light showed through the crack under the door. When we beat a summons on such an entrance we never gained anything more satisfactory in the way of a response than a gruff and muffled statement that "la maison est deja toute pleine de soldats." We persevered, however, and our efforts were finally rewarded, for we at last met an old woman to whom we could explain our dilemma. She seemed interested in our plight and, pointing to a man who was approaching and whom we discerned by the faint light of a dingy lantern which he was carrying, said: "Voila mon patron. Je lui expliquerai ce que c'est!" A whispered conversation followed, and then we were introduced to M. Achille Guyot, one of the leading citizens of the town, a champagne manufacturer of prominence and a man who proved to be a splendid example of French fortitude and chivalry.
In the darkness we groped for each other's hands, and M. Guyot, with the greatest politeness, said that he would be charmed to have us sleep beneath his roof. He apologized because he had little but the roof to offer since "Les Allemands ont tout bouleverse." He suggested hesitatingly that we should also sup with him before retiring, and again apologized, saying: "Les Allemands ont tout pris." We remarked that we possessed a great many potatoes and would gladly contribute them to increase the bulk of the repast. This greatly relieved his mind, as he confessed that he had almost nothing to offer, but since we had so many potatoes they would be gratefully accepted.
We followed him to his residence, which proved to be a very large mansion with a great garden in front and a larger one behind. As we entered the house the rays of the lantern revealed a most extraordinary sight. All the villagers who had remained in town agreed that this house had been occupied by German officers and that in leaving they had carried out much loot. The Teuton taste has been chiefly for enamels and lingerie. The interior of the house looked more like a pig-sty than a human dwelling. The Germans had broken all locks and emptied the contents of all bureaus, closets, and desks upon the floor, the more easily to pick and choose what they wanted. The floors were covered ankle-deep in the resulting litter which was composed of everything from lace to daguerreotypes, from bric-a-brac to hosiery. The relics and treasures of past generations of the owner's family carpeted the house, until each room seemed in a worse state than the last, and the whole was altogether a most superlative mess. M. Guyot had shoveled paths through the different rooms as one shovels through several inches of newly fallen snow.
We stood in amazement that anyone could so completely have turned upside down an orderly house. As an example of absolute disorder, the dining-room was a veritable work of art. The German orderlies had evidently prepared and served four or five meals to their officers. Each time they had set the table with fine linen and old china and then as soon as the repast was over had taken up the tablecloth by its edges and corners and had thrown it with the china, bottles, linen, tableware, dirty dishes, and remnants of food, into a corner of the room. At each succeeding meal the process had been repeated with a new setting of china and fresh linen from the nearly inexhaustible supplies with which the house was furnished. This was housekeeping reduced by German "efficiency" to its simplest terms. The same "efficiency" had been employed in the kitchen where each meal had been prepared with a fresh set of cooking utensils which, after use, had been piled up under the tables and sinks, together with such debris as potato peels and coffee grounds. Perhaps a good housekeeper would have been most disgusted by the condition of the kitchen; to me the dining-room, where the post-mortems of meals were added to the results of pillaging, seemed the more shocking.
The house contained a dozen large bedrooms and all the beds had been slept in by Germans, some of whom had not taken pains to remove their boots. M. Guyot told us we might sleep where we chose and showed us where the fresh linen was kept, apologizing for the fact that we would be obliged to make up our own beds.
He introduced us to three French aviators who were already quartered in the house and who came in as we were preparing to depart for supper. They were Captain B——, Chevalier de la Legion, Lieutenant the Vicomte de B——, and their orderly. The officers immediately took possession of the lantern and conducted us out into the gardens to behold the piles of broken bottles which the Germans had strewn about. They informed us that these were some of the remains of fifteen thousand bottles of champagne which had been taken by the invaders from the warehouse cellars of our host alone. M. Guyot had not volunteered this information, but now confirmed that fact and added with simplicity that his champagne business and the prosperity of his house would be much curtailed for some time to come.
Our host's residence was in such disorder that he suggested that the supper table should be laid at the house of one of his employees who lived near-by in the village, and we all started together through the darkness, taking stock of our provisions as we walked. The French officers had tea and two loaves of bread which they had obtained from the Commissariat; M. Guyot, in the expectation of having guests, had managed to amass three pigeons, five eggs, and several tomatoes, and we Americans excavated such endless quarts of potatoes from our automobile that the Frenchmen amidst roars of laughter had cried "Assez! Assez!"
Our host and his friends decided that the repast should be called a dinner and should be given in honor of the new France and of the glorious victory just won, the first to rest upon the French arms in more than sixty years. What more fitting, they asked, than that we neutrals should witness this celebration? The Vicomte de B—— busied himself with reciting the menu: entree, omelette parmentier; game, pigeon roti; plat de resistance—pommes de terre Marseillaise; Salade, tomate—not to speak of toast and tea. M. Guyot hinted darkly and mysteriously that he would attend to the wine list; we should have laughed at this had we not realized that a wine merchant who has lost his entire store of wine is not a fit subject for jest.
When we took our places at dinner, our host sat at one end of the table and Colonel Allen at the other. The former then explained that a little cellar where he kept his most precious wines had been undiscovered by the invaders and that the wine list would include the precious champagne of '93 and a very old Bordeaux. His aged employee, who had served the meal, then entered amid loud acclamations, her arms full of bottles, and we drank to "La France" in Bordeaux of the color of a ruby.
The table was set with wooden-handled knives and forks, as no others remained, and was lighted by candles set in bottles and broken candlesticks; no gas, electricity, or kerosene having survived the invasion. The French aviators had in their possession five spiked helmets which they had taken as trophies from the heads of dead Germans. It was suggested that since all ordinary means of lighting had been destroyed by these same Germans, their casques might fittingly be used as candlesticks, and each bear a taper upon its point. This suggestion was about to be put into effect when M. Guyot, whose business had been so recently ruined and whose house had been ruthlessly pillaged by these invaders, quietly made objection and said that it was not fitting or proper that the headgear of fallen soldiers should be used as candelabra.
* * * * *
Monday, September 14th. One's respect and affection for horses is greatly increased after seeing them in war. They are there so essentially necessary. They share so patiently and faithfully on almost equal terms the good and ill fortune of the men; they work with their masters, go into battle with them, and the two die side by side, killed by the same shell. It is a stirring example of unity to see men and horses straining and striving and pulling together to get a gun out of difficulties. The horses do not understand what it is all about and going to war was not of their choice, but the same things may usually be said of the men beside whom they live and die.
The feeling which the French soldiers on the firing-line have for the Germans is very different from the bitterness one finds in the civilian population of France. We have heard more than one French soldier say in a voice tinged with admiration, "Ah, ce sont de bons soldats!" At the front and in the trenches one gets down to basic principles and realizes that "the other man" is a fellow human being and not something with horns and a forked tail. The French soldier is grimly determined to go through the war to the bitter end and to accept nothing short of a complete victory, but at the same time he realizes that this mutual slaughter is indeed a sorry business. I shall never forget the face of a serious French Territorial soldier of forty with whom I spoke today. He was one of a burying squad on the scene of the charge of the African brigade near Soizy-aux-Bois. Nine hundred dead were being buried in one big trench and as I came to inspect it, my Territorial and a comrade were about to pick up a dead German who lay face down in a muddy field, with arms outstretched. A hundred others lay close about us. I offered the Territorial cigarettes and, as he took one, he indicated the field about us with a sweep of his arm and said sadly: "If Guillaume could have foreseen all this, do you think that he, one man, would have begun this war?" And he looked down with an expression full of sorrow and brotherly compassion at the dead German who lay at his feet.
* * * * *
In the four days of our trip we have had innumerable punctures and six blow-outs, in consequence of which we were finally forced to return to Paris today. The Germans raided all the wine cellars throughout this whole region and when they retreated left broken bottles along all the streets and roads.
ANALYSIS OF THE BATTLE OF THE MARNE
Monday, September 14th. The equipment of the German soldier is in every detail a marvel of perfection. This impresses me more than any other single element of the war excepting only the bravery of the French, and the imperturbable sang froid of the English. A striking example of this perfection is the spiked helmet. Contrary to appearance, it is not heavy, weighing indeed scarcely more than a derby hat. Everyone who picks one up for the first time exclaims in astonishment, "How light it is!" These helmets are made of lacquered leather, are nearly indestructible, shed water perfectly, and give excellent ventilation to the head by means of a clever arrangement of holes under the flange of the spike. They also shield the eyes and the back of the head from the sun, and are strong enough to break a heavy blow.
The German uniforms are of a light gray with a slight green tinge, and are virtually invisible against the greenish mist-gray fields of Europe, excepting only when the sun is behind to project a deep shadow.
The German bayonet is a formidable weapon with a heavy double-edged blade twenty inches long. Both edges are extremely sharp. I easily sharpened pencils with one which I picked up.
The German knapsacks are made of cowhide with the hair left on, the grain of the hair pointing downward to shed rain. The hair may get wet, but the leather seldom and the contents never.
The German military boot comes half-way up the calf of the leg and the trouser is tucked into its top. They are without laces and pull on to the foot like the American "rubber boot." They are made of heavy, undyed leather, singularly soft and pliable, and thoroughly waterproof. The soles are shod with hobnails, but the boot is not very heavy. We often noted dead Germans who were bootless, their footgear having been appropriated by some victorious Frenchman, who had left near-by his own less desirable shoes.
The three-compartment wicker shell-containers in which field-gun shells are carried from caisson to gun are as carefully and neatly made as an expensive tea-basket. We saw thousands of them lying about the battlefields and carefully examined scores, sliding shells in and out of them as a test. Invariably we found that the shells went in and out smoothly and without effort, and yet always fitted snugly. There was never either the slightest friction or the least loose-play. This nicety meant that the variation in an interior diameter of three inches was certainly less than one thirty-second of an inch. Wicker-work constructed with such unvarying accuracy is truly marvelous.
* * * * *
Paris, Tuesday, September 15th. Back in Paris, we are trying to piece bits of evidence together into a clear picture and to draw sound conclusions from what we have seen. We do not yet know what the battle which we have studied will be named, but we ourselves call it the Battle of Fere Champenoise. This is, however, an unsatisfactory title, as it is too cumbersome and not comprehensive enough, for Fere Champenoise was only the most intense and critical point in a series of actions extending from Chantilly to Verdun, over a varied and winding front of about one hundred and ninety miles. We have no means of knowing how far the Germans have been driven back, but they are across the Aisne and other Attaches tell us that frightful fighting is going on at Soissons where the pursuing Allies are attempting to throw large forces across the river. On our way home yesterday, moreover, we ourselves heard much shooting in the direction of Rheims.
My personal conclusions about the battle are based upon a thousand bits of information carefully pieced together into a mosaic. First of all we ourselves examined the territory included between the Marne, the Seine, and a line from Mery-sur-Seine through Arcis to Vitry-le-Francois, and made certain digressions across the Marne to the northeast of Paris. We examined the battlefields while they were comparatively fresh, and supplemented our observations by innumerable conversations with the French troops and civilians, and with German prisoners. At the Embassy we obtained from other Attaches many bits of reliable information about the fighting directly north of Paris and about the rearguard actions between the Marne and the Aisne.
Up to the time of this battle the German plan of campaign had worked out almost perfectly. The Franco-German border is due east of Paris, and the French mobilization took place there behind the fortresses of Verdun, Toul, Epinal, and Belfort.
The Belgian frontier is north of Paris and the unexpected and treacherous advance of the German armies through that neutral country brought them immediately behind the French line of mobilization. The violation of Belgium permitted the Germans to advance into France before the Allies could reorganize into an effective resistance against this unexpected attack. It is to be remembered that a mobilization which it has taken years to plan out and which involves millions of men and their equipment cannot be changed at a moment's notice. Had the Germans attacked across the Franco-German border, they would have found the French army awaiting them behind the fortresses of Verdun, Toul, and Epinal, and it is almost certain that they would never have arrived within two hundred marching miles of Paris. No one knew this better than the German General Staff.
Had it not been for the unexpected and heroic resistance of Belgium, and the masterly retreat of the small British army, Germany's foul blow might have resulted in the capture of Paris toward the end of August. These two things, combined with a desperate retarding action executed along the Aisne by several French corps, delayed the Germans long enough to enable General Joffre to organize and fight a single battle upon which everything was staked. To lose it would have meant utter ruin, for France has faced no such crisis since Charles Martel repelled the Saracens at Tours in 732. To win would mean that the Teutons' blow-below-the-belt had been survived and that a recommencement of the war upon something like even terms would be possible.
In preparing for the battle the French placed powerful forces in the great fortress of Verdun, and also in and around the entrenched camp of Paris. Their field army extended between the two from Paris through La Ferte, Esternay, Sezanne, and Sommesous to Vitry-le-Francois, and from thence bent northeastward to Verdun. Thus their two flanks were strong and menacing and their center, about one hundred and eighty miles in length, bent southward and was slightly concave.
It is evident that in this battle the Germans could gain nothing by making their main attack against Paris or Verdun, but that if they could rout the field army between the two, they might as an aftermath sweep round behind each city and attack it from all sides, using for the purpose the heavy artillery which had under similar circumstances and with such celerity battered down Liege, Namur, Longwy, and Maubeuge. Therefore, the logical thing was for the Germans to attempt to break the French center. This operation was somewhat hazardous as there was danger that the French might launch a powerful flank attack from either Verdun or Paris. To attack the center was, in effect, something like thrusting a dagger into a lion's mouth in the effort to cut his throat. It was necessary to hold back the jaws Verdun and Paris, whilst attacking the vulnerable throat at Fere Champenoise.
To accomplish this, Verdun was kept so busy by violent attacks made upon three sides that its army had no time to think of any offensive movement. The German defense against the French right thus in reality took the form of an active attack, a feasible method because Verdun is near the Franco-German frontier, being in fact less than forty miles from the German fortress and mobilization center of Metz.
To protect their right from any flank attacks which might be hurled against it from Paris, the Germans placed a strong army under von Kluck in front of that city to hold the French left in check, as a boxer in a clinch holds back his opponent's left arm. Von Kluck fought his way to a position approximately defined by a line through Creil, Senlis, Nanteuil-le-Haudouin, and Lizy-sur-Ourg. His cavalry advanced even to Chantilly and Crecy. His army was not intended to have any part in the main German offensive, its sole duty being to protect the German right from any attack in flank which might be prepared and launched from the entrenched camp of Paris. Von Kluck was not to attack Paris, but to protect the Germans from Paris, and this he successfully did.
No greater mistake can be made than to suppose that the German retreat to Soissons and Rheims was precipitated by any victory over von Kluck. A violent and heavy attack was, it is true, launched against him on or about the evening of September 6th and was steadily maintained from that time forward. At first he was pushed back for a number of miles by the violence of this assault, but his counter attacks soon regained most of the ground lost. Thus he advanced on the 5th, was pushed back a little on the 7th, but advanced again on the 8th, driving the Allies before him. On the 9th his left flank was threatened by the British and he again retreated a little to consolidate his position. While so doing he received news that the German army assigned to carry out the main offensive in the neighborhood of Fere Champenoise had been repulsed and was already beginning the retreat which later at many points turned into a rout, and he then continued his own retreat until he reached the Aisne.
Von Kluck advanced or retreated short distances as the fortunes of the battle varied, but on the whole successfully maintained his ground and only retreated for good when the Germans' principal attack had thus been defeated at another and distant point. After the 6th he was at all times heavily engaged and his losses and those of his opponents were excessively heavy.
Since the battle of the Marne there has been an almost universal tendency to declare that von Kluck was defeated and that Paris was thereby saved. This verdict, though erroneous, is easily explained. Von Kluck was nearest Paris, "everyone" was in Paris, and in an action extending over hundreds of miles "everyone" saw only what was nearest to him and drew his conclusions from that alone. The losses in von Kluck's army and in the armies opposed to it were so heavy that it is small wonder people concluded that they waged the main battle. In truth, these losses were probably heavier than those of any previous battle since ancient times. I wish to emphasize again that von Kluck did not attack Paris and had no intention of so doing, but that Paris attacked him and that he held this attack in check until it was no longer necessary to do so, since the German strategy had failed at other points.
* * * * *
Let us now consider the main German offensive and its repulse. The French center had taken a position on a plateau of rolling hills in many places covered with pine forests, while several large swamps lay in front of them. This country was for several weeks defended by Napoleon in his despairing campaign of 1814. He had appreciated its strategic value and somewhat developed its defensive possibilities. In recent years the French had often held manoeuvres in this area and had a permanent manoeuvre camp at Mailly, which was actually within the battlefield of Fere Champenoise.
The German troops which were to make the great offensive movement against the French center crossed the Marne in the section from Epernay to Chalons without serious opposition. Their main attack was launched against the Ninth Army of the French under General Foch along a front of about fifteen miles, and probably close to a quarter of a million Teutons were engaged. We saw dead Germans belonging to the 10th, 12th, 19th, 10th Reserve, and a Guard Corps.
The first contact took place at Fere Champenoise at three o'clock on the morning of the 8th, when heavy forces advancing through the night along the roads from Vertus and Chalons fell upon the French who were encamped in the town and drove them out. The Germans continued victorious throughout the day of the 8th, driving the stubbornly resisting French back from the line through Sommesous, Fere Champenoise, and Sezanne until, when the battle lulled late at night after eighteen hours of combat, the French held a line through the villages of Mailly, Gourgancon, Corroy, and Linthelles.
The fighting was very fierce, and terrible losses were sustained by both sides as the possession of every foot of territory was hotly contested. The French showed steadiness, determination, and efficiency under the most trying conditions and under the most violent and overwhelming attacks. We saw few signs or indications of any disorder or weakness on their part. The Germans experienced particularly heavy losses in driving the French from positions near the villages of Oeuvy and Montepreux, while the French suffered most heavily in the neighborhoods of Gourgancon and Corroy. Very little entrenching was done by either side, as both armies were constantly shifting, and the few trenches which were constructed had evidently been hurriedly built at night.
On the 9th the Germans began the day with further successes and apparently had forced a marked French retreat. At noon they considered the battle as good as won. They had, however, apparently had no time to entrench or to consolidate their forces, when, early in the afternoon, General Foch suddenly ordered an attack by all his forces. For six weeks the French had labored through a losing campaign and had just fought through thirty-six hours of steady defeat, and yet they turned about on the instant and attacked the astonished Germans with a dash which could not have been surpassed by the troops of the First Empire at the height of a victory. They would not be denied, but attacked and attacked until the Germans were overwhelmed. We saw fields where charging battalions had apparently been put out of action up to the last man without deterring that last man from advancing. By evening the French had retaken all the ground which they had lost in the previous thirty-six hours, and on the morning of the 10th their offensive was resumed with unabated fury and unfaltering self-sacrifice. No number of casualties could stop them and in places the retreat of the Germans became a rout. They left their wounded upon the battlefields and abandoned their hospitals, caissons, and supplies. Especially furious rearguard actions were fought in the neighborhood of Pierre-Morains and Coizard and at Mondemont.
On the night of the 10th the German army pulled itself together, and on the 11th, under the protection of magnificently executed rearguard actions which held up the determined pursuit of the French, retreated in good order to the Marne and across it. On the 12th they reached the Aisne and have since been endeavoring to make a stand on the farther side of Rheims.
The most conservative French officers with whom we talked estimated that the total casualties of both sides in the fighting near Fere Champenoise amounted to at least one hundred and fifty thousand. Some thought it was as high as two hundred thousand, and I am inclined to this latter figure. Perhaps we saw the field in its entirety more thoroughly than did they. Certainly they were busy with many other affairs, whereas we had nothing other to do than study and estimate.
Had the German attack succeeded in breaking the French center, the French army would have been cut in two and both remnants would have been compelled to retreat in order to save themselves from ruinous flank attacks. In retreating they would have been obliged to leave Verdun and Paris each to take care of itself, and the German armies could have swung about to surround and lay siege to either or both of them.
As far as we could observe, the German attack at Fere Champenoise had been unsupported by any heavy artillery. This was probably a contributing cause of their defeat, as was also their arrogant over-confidence in themselves and their under-estimation of their enemy. The French won the battle because their field artillery was superior and because, man for man, they outfought the Germans. Having staked the fate of their families and of their beloved patrie upon a single throw, the French gained one of the most desperate battles in the world's history by the coolness and dogged determination of their chiefs and by the sublime tenacity and self-sacrifice of their soldiers. These outdid the best traditions of their race. At command they threw their lives away as a man throws away a trifle, and to meet new conditions they developed new qualities with which they have not previously been credited, qualities of stubborn scientific stolidity. They out-Germaned the Germans in the way their organization withstood the shock and wrack of battle. It was the German machine which broke down first. On that field a new France was born. Let no German ever again say that she is effete. It was purely a French victory. This is no aspersion upon the Belgians and the British; the slight part which they played in this battle is explained by their small numbers. At Liege and Namur, at Mons and St. Quentin they helped win for France a fighting chance behind the Marne. All hail to them for that!
During our trip we found no evidence of German acts deserving to be called "atrocities." The word "atrocity" has been so carelessly used that it will be useful to re-define what that word means in relation to war. It should be limited to instances where unnecessary violence is used toward the enemy's soldiers and civilians. It has a meaning distinct from the inevitable destruction and vandalism which seem to be necessary integral parts of all wars. The burning and destroying of buildings by shell-fire or for reasons of military expediency and the confiscation of food supplies for military purposes are allowed by all rules of war. The use of the word "atrocity" should be limited to such acts as the killing of prisoners, the mutilation of civilians, and the violation of women. Of such deeds we personally found no instance, although we carefully cross-questioned the inhabitants of many towns which had been occupied by Germans.
Food and wine had been pretty generally confiscated, a thing to be expected; also we found several instances of pillaging in which especially desirable articles had been carried off. Wanton breakage was rare and not extensive, and in most cases appeared to have been more mischievous than malicious. It was probably due to a somewhat too liberal use of pillaged wine. In general, the worst charges against the Germans in France were that they had been exceedingly rude and boorish. There were, however, some instances which came to my notice where German officers had shown consideration for the civilians, had politely apologized for their unwelcome but "necessary" intrusion into French families, and had carefully paid for their board and lodging. We talked with several French surgeons who were captured early in the war and had since, according to The Hague rules, been returned to France. These all acknowledged the consideration and good care which their captured wounded had received from the Germans.
* * * * *
When the Germans were retreating northward towards Rheims after their defeat in the Battle of the Marne, notices (about twenty by thirty inches) printed on green paper were posted in the streets of the city, of which the following is a literal translation:
"In case a combat should take place today or in the immediate future in the environs of Rheims or within the city itself, the inhabitants are forewarned that they must remain absolutely inactive and must not attempt in any way to take part in the battle. They must not attempt to attack either isolated German soldiers or detachments of the German army. It is hereby officially forbidden to construct barricades, or to tear up the streets in such a manner as to hamper the movements of our troops. In a word, it is forbidden to undertake any act whatsoever which might be in any manner a hindrance to the German army.
"In order thoroughly to insure the security of the German troops and to act as sureties for the inactivity of the population of Rheims, the personages named below have been seized as hostages by the General commanding the German army. At the least sign of disorder these hostages will be hanged. Also the city will be entirely or partly burned and its inhabitants hanged if any infractions whatsoever of the above orders are committed.
"On the other hand, if the city remains absolutely quiet, the hostages and inhabitants will be protected by the German army.
"By order of the German Authorities,
"The Mayor, DR. LAUGHT.
"Rheims, September 12, 1914."
Below was appended a list of names and addresses of ninety-one leading citizens, officials, and ecclesiastics, and, as if that were not enough, this list was finished by the words "and others."
* * * * *
Paris, Thursday, September 17th. During my absence at the Battle of the Marne last week, the powers-that-be at the Embassy decided that I was too much needed in Paris for the German-Austrian affairs to be allowed to go to the front again.
Therefore, when another expedition departed today, I was not permitted to be one of the party.
On our trip I took rough field notes during the daytime and sat up at night into the early morning hours in order to expand these jottings into an accurate and comprehensive diary. I am now arranging this material into a report to be forwarded to Washington.
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The whole "deuxieme etage" of the Chancellerie is now given over to the Austrian, German, and Hungarian affairs. The arrangement of rooms is the same as in the American Chancellerie on the floor below. Mr. Percival Dodge, ex-first-assistant Secretary of State, is now head of the department and occupies the room over Ambassador Herrick. I have the room over the First Secretary, and Mr. Hazeltine the room over the Second Secretary. Lieutenant Donait is to be chief of the office staff, which consists of three stenographers and two messengers. We have, in addition, three personal stenographers. This arrangement will be a great improvement, as our rooms on the ground floor were much too cramped for the volume of business.
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Monday, September 21st. The immense amount of effective work accomplished under Mr. Herrick would have been impossible had he not been so ably supported by the two Secretaries of the Embassy, Mr. Bliss and Mr. Frazier, past-masters of the intricate technique of their profession. In the emergency of the war crisis the usefulness of the numerous subordinate members of the Embassy staff absolutely depended upon the skill and patience with which these two Secretaries trained them for the work of the various departments to which they were assigned, and prevented any divergence from correct diplomatic methods. It is most fortunate that our foolish American habit of replacing Ambassadors whenever some one else has a stronger political "pull" does not extend to our first and second secretaries.
Five of the younger men of the Embassy have formed a little luncheon club for the purpose of exchanging news and discussing and studying the military situation. They are Lieut. Boyd of the Cavalry, Lieut. Hunnicutt of the Artillery, Harry Dodge, the Ambassador's private Secretary, Lieut. Donait of the Infantry and Ordnance Departments, and myself. We meet each noon at a little pension near the Embassy and there we argue and debate for an hour or more. These daily conferences give us a much better comprehension of the war as a whole and a more exact knowledge of its important details. We have all been more or less at the front and usually some one of us has just returned with first-hand data as to what is going on at the moment. Whenever any outsider is discovered who has recent war news of value, we invite him to luncheon and proceed to cross-question him in general and in particular.
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Wednesday, September 23d. A little sadly I took supper this evening at the Cafe du Commerce where the members of the atelier used to meet in the days of student life. As I was eating, who should walk in and sit down beside me but my friend Daumal, sous-massier of the atelier when war broke out, whom I had not seen since he departed for the front as a private.
He is now Sergeant Daumal of the First Line Regiment, wounded at Longwy and just out of the hospital, homeward bound on a two weeks' convalescent leave. As he described it, "une de ces marmites a 28-centimetres" had exploded a little distance from him. Although he had not been struck by any fragments, the shock had rendered him so thoroughly unconscious that for a day he had been passed over by the ambulance orderlies as dead and had finally been discovered by a burying squad to be not in need of a grave but of a hospital.
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The bombardment of Rheims Cathedral has stirred France to indignation, but apparently not nearly as much as it has stirred the outside world. The capacity of the French for being "stirred to indignation" has lost some of its elasticity by this time. It is an action so vivid, so neat, so concise, that it turns the sympathies of neutrals more than a thousand "routine" accounts of burnings and killings. They bombarded Rheims Cathedral! These four words need no elaboration. I myself find it difficult to keep that neutral equilibrium which is necessary in an Attache who wishes to observe as much and as correctly as possible. Whitney Warren, the architect, and several Attaches are to be sent to Rheims in a day or two to make an investigation.
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Sunday, September 27th. I examine indigent Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians every morning, and during the afternoon take special cases to the police, and write up accounts.
Today Paris had another visit from a German aeroplane which threw the usual three bombs. One of them fell in the Avenue du Trocadero near the Embassy. It just missed demolishing the Ambassador and Mr. Frazier who were in an automobile on their way to inspect the buildings and grounds of the German Embassy. They had driven over the spot only two minutes before the bomb struck. I was at the same time on my way to the Embassy, having met them near the Pont d'Alma. I passed along the avenue a minute later and had just turned the corner when the bomb fell, killing an old man and tearing a leg off a little girl. The day was very cloudy and the aviator was above the clouds; for this reason no one seems to have discovered him and he must have thrown his bomb at random.
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Monday, September 28th. At lunch today in the Cafe Royal I overheard a Frenchman remark that although he and all his compatriots greatly esteemed Mr. Herrick, it would nevertheless have been an excellent service against the enemy had he tactfully allowed himself to be annihilated by the German bomb which missed him yesterday. Later in the afternoon I took tea with Mr. Herrick at the Chancellerie, and he was much amused when I recounted to him this example of a somewhat equivocal good-will.
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Tuesday, September 29th. The damage to Rheims Cathedral was largely the result of fire. The Germans had, during the time they held the city, converted it into a hospital; they had stacked the chairs against the walls and covered the floor deep with straw upon which to lay their wounded. During the spring and summer the front facade had been undergoing repairs and was covered with heavy wooden scaffolding similar to that which has for several years disfigured St. Sulpice in Paris. The Cathedral was very famous for its choir-stalls and other wood-carving, of which there was a great quantity, and the roof which covered the vaulting was held up by a forest of great timbers many centuries old.
After the Germans had been driven out of the city they bombarded it from the hills outside, and their shells lit the straw on the Cathedral floor. Over it the fire ran swiftly, ignited the chairs piled against the walls, and then spread to the great masses of carved woodwork; finally the scaffolding and roof caught fire and the famous old Cathedral burned in one great conflagration. It has been particularly famous for three things: its woodwork, its front facade, and its stained-glass windows. The woodwork went up in smoke, the front facade was all scorched and disintegrated by the intense heat so that the surface of the stone detail is blowing off in fine dust, while the glass to the last particle was shattered by the concussions of bursting shells. The Cathedral stands like a great skeleton of its former self. Its flesh, as it were, is gone although few of its bones are broken.
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Saturday, October 3d. This is the first war in modern times in which whole nations have gone to battle; in this conflict every man in a nation is a soldier. In Napoleon's day France had about the same population—forty millions—that she now has, but Napoleon's professional armies numbered, at most, only two hundred thousand men, while today France has put fifteen or twenty times as many in the field. In the present war, when an army sustains a 10 per cent. loss it is not merely 10 per cent. of the army, but actually of the able-bodied men of the nation.
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Wednesday, October 7th. A German aeroplane again threw bombs on Paris today.
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Thursday, October 8th. Another Taube came today and threw bombs in the neighborhood of the Gare du Nord. These machines in flight look very much like sparrow-hawks and have a singularly sinister appearance.
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Sunday, October 11th. We had a record-breaking flock of Taubes today when a number came together and dropped about twenty bombs. Their combined score was twenty-two people killed and wounded; as usual, all women, children, and old men.
THE BATTLE OF THE AISNE
Paris, Monday, October 12th. In writing about the German, Austrian, and Hungarian subjects of whom we have had charge, I have spoken of them en masse. In reality there have been many cases in whom I have been personally interested and to whose safety I have given much time. Their history alone would fill a book. One of these is the case of the Countess X., member of an old and powerful Hungarian family.
The Count, her husband, was desperately ill in Paris when the war broke out and he was kept alive only through the devoted care of his wife. We arranged with the French authorities that the Countess might remain in Paris with her husband, although all other Hungarian people were, without exception, being shipped off to detention camps. Later the Countess twice received notice from the Prefecture that she was to be immediately imprisoned, and each time by enlisting the personal assistance of Ambassador Herrick I managed to have the decree delayed.
The children of the family, of whom there were seven under ten years of age, were living at a chateau on the French coast, at Paris-Plage, near Boulogne. When the German army began to sweep towards the coast in a seemingly irresistible flood, the Countess came to me to say how fearful she felt for the safety of her children, left in the care of servants and governesses. Yesterday, when the fall of Antwerp was confirmed and when even the official announcements went so far as to talk of fighting in the neighborhood of Arras, she came again. I went to Mr. Herrick and asked if I might be allowed to go to the coast and bring the children back to Paris. The permission was the more readily granted because there were several other errands to be done in the same direction, notably to carry communications to our Consular Agent in Amiens, who had remained in that city during the German occupation and from whom little had since been heard.
The necessary permits have been obtained and these will incidentally allow me to see something of the front on my way north. I expect to leave this evening.
Two machines will be needed to bring back the children and their attendants. There are several young Americans who have given their services and the use of their private automobiles for Embassy service. On all previous expeditions I have been conducted by Melvin Hall. He is at present assigned to other business, but I have secured the services of another volunteer chauffeur, Francis Colby. I shall travel in his touring-car and bring back in it the older children and their English governess. The second machine, a large limousine, will be driven by the French chauffeur of Countess X., and into it I shall pack the smaller children and their two nurses.
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The condition of the front along which we must pass for eighty miles is as follows: the battle of the Aisne has now turned into a race for the coast; each army is trying to outflank the other, the Germans, according to present indications, getting much the better of the contest. Everyone's attention seems to be concentrated for the moment on Calais, and the Allies evidently feel that the chief danger point is there. I notice with special concern, however, that farther south the German army is at Bethune thrusting out a wedge toward Abbeville, on the coast, only thirty-eight miles away. If they can advance these thirty-eight miles they will win not only all the triangle containing Nieuport, Calais, and Boulogne, but will cut off such of the Allied armies as are now concentrated in this area, and also radically shorten their own lines. Their front, as it now extends from Compiegne to Holland, measures nearly two hundred miles. If reorganized from Compiegne to the coast at Abbeville, it would be less than sixty-five miles. Of course the Allies fully appreciate this danger and are guarding against it as best they can, but I agree with Countess X. that the sooner we snatch her children out of the threatened area the better.