Axidava

The Field Of Glory

The battle of the Marne was fought by the Allies in the direct interest of the city of Paris. The result was the city’s salvation. At the time, only a small percentage of the inhabitants knew anything about it.

But as all the world knows now, the battlefield of the Marne was the first field of glory for the Allied armies in the great European war. When the war is over, the sight-seeing motors will reach it in two hours, probably starting from the corner of the Avenue de l’Opera and the Rue de la Paix—a street that by now might have a different name had it not been for the thousands who died only a few miles away.

On one of the first days of September, 1914, the few journalists who remained in Paris gathered at the Café Napolitain early in the afternoon, instead of at the apéritif hour. The Café Napolitain, around the corner from the sight-seeing motor stand, is the rendezvous for journalists, and always has been. At the apéritif hour—just before dinner—you may see all the best-known figures in the French journalistic world, also the correspondents of the London and New York press, seated on its sidewalk terrasse.

I sat on the terrasse on that never to be forgotten afternoon of September. We were mostly Englishmen and Americans. The majority of our French confrères were serving in their regiments. Some of them, with whom we had argued only five weeks before concerning the trial of Madame Caillaux, were now lying on the fields of Charleroi and Mons. Some of the Englishmen had decided, because of the rumored orders of the Kaiser concerning the fate of captured British journalists, that Bordeaux was a better center for news than Paris, and had followed the Government to their new capital, on the anniversary of Sedan. Several of the Americans had also left town, but in order to better follow the movements of the Allied armies. Owing to the vigorous unemotionalism of General Joffre, none of them was any nearer the “field of operations” than we who sat on the Café terrasse.

I doubt if ever a world capital presented such a scene, or ever will again, as Paris on that afternoon. The day itself was perfect—glorious summer, not hot—just pleasantly warm. The sun hung over the city casting straight shadows of the full leaves, down on the tree lined sidewalk. But there was not an automobile, nor carriage, scarcely even a person in the boulevards. The city was completely still. It had seen in the three days previous probably the greatest exodus in the history of the world. The ordinary population had shrunk over a million. The last of the American tourists left that morning for Havre. The railroad communications to the north were in the hands of the German army. There were no telegraph communications. Even the telephone was rigidly restricted. The censor made the sending of cables almost an impossibility. We were in a city detached—apart from the rest of the world.

That morning, at the headquarters of the military government, we were advised to get out quickly—on that same day in fact—or take our own chances by remaining. Possibly all the bridges and roads leading out of the city might be blown up before next morning. Uhlans had been seen in the forest of Montmorency, only ten miles away. It seemed that Paris, which has supplied so much drama to the world’s history, was about to add another chapter, and the odds were that it would be a final one.

So, as I have said, I sat with my fellow journalists on the terrasse of the Café Napolitain that fateful afternoon—and waited. That is why we were there—to wait. Several times we thought our waiting was rewarded, and we strained our ears. For we were waiting to hear the guns—the guns of the German attack. Through that entire afternoon, not one of us, singly or in partnership, would have offered ten cents for the city of Paris. We felt in our souls that it was doomed. It was an afternoon to have lived—even though nothing happened.

Toward nightfall we learned that the German forces had suddenly diverted their march to the southeast. We sat on our terrasse and wondered. That night every auto-taxi in the city was conveying a portion of General Maunoury’s army out of the north gates, to fall on the enemy’s right flank. The next morning, bright and early, those of us who were astir, heard very faintly—so faintly we could scarcely believe, but we heard nevertheless, the opening guns of the battle of the Marne.

I know only one journalist who actually saw the battle of the Marne. I know several who said they saw it, but I did not believe them, and I know better than to believe them now. Of course there are French journalists who took a military part in the battle, but they have not yet had opportunity to chronicle their impressions—those of them who live. This one journalist saw the battle as a prisoner with his own army; he was lugged along with them clear to the Aisne.

The week following the German retreat to the Aisne, I was permitted to visit the field of glory. It was only after skilful maneuvres and great difficulties that I secured a military pass. And then my pass was canceled after I had been out of Paris only three days—and I was sent back under a military escort. But I saw the battlefield before the hand of the restorer reached it.

The trees still lay where they fell, cut down by shells. Broken cannon and aeroplanes were in the ditches and in the fields. Unused German ammunition and food supplies were strewn about, showing where the enemy had been forced to a hasty retreat. Sentries guarded every cross roads. The dead, numbering thousands, lay unburied and dotted the plain as far as the eye could see. It was still the field of glory. It was still wet with blood.

We who took that trip were thrilled by all the silent evidence of the mighty struggle that had taken place there only a few days—only a few hours before. It was easy for us to picture the mammoth combat, the battle of the millions, across that wonderful, beautifully undulating plain. The war was terrible—true. But it was glorious. The men who died there were heroes. Our emotions were almost too much for us. And in the very near distance the artillery still thundered both night and day.

On the third of February, 1915, five months from the time I sat on the terrasse of the Café Napolitain waiting to hear the guns, I travel for a second time over the battlefield of the Marne.

This time I do not have a military pass. It is no longer necessary. The valley of the Marne is no longer in the zone of operations. I go out openly in an automobile. There are no sentries to block the way. The road is perfectly safe; so safe that I take my wife with me to show her some of the devastations of war. She is probably the first of the visitors to pass across that famous battlefield, perhaps soon to be overrun by thousands.

Our car climbs the steep hill beyond Meaux, which is the extreme edge of the battlefield, about ten in the morning; and during the day circuits about half the area of the fighting, a distance of about seventy-five miles—or a hundred miles.

The “Field of Five Thousand Dead” is what the majority of the tourists will probably call the battlefield of the Marne, because of the tragic toll of life taken on that one particular rolling bit of meadow.

We stop at this field in the morning soon after leaving Meaux. As we look across it we see none of the signs of conflict that I had witnessed in September. There are none of the ruined accouterments of war. No horses lie on their backs, four legs sticking straight in the air. There are no human forms in huddled and grotesque positions in the ravines and on the flat. True, every tree bears the mark of bullets, every wall has been shattered by shells, but these signs are not overpowering evidences of massive conflict. There is nothing to make vivid the fearful charge of the Zouaves against the flower of Von Kluck’s army only five months before.

Yes—there is something. As we look more closely we see far away a cluster of little rude black wood crosses. They are not planted on mounds, they just stick up straight from the level ground. There are other little clusters throughout the field. Each cross marks a grave. Each grave contains from a dozen to fifty bodies. Together the crosses mark the total of five thousand dead.

An old woman hobbles along the main road. She looks at us curiously and stops beside the car. I ask if we can go close to the little black crosses. She replies that we can but that the fields are very muddy. I ask if any of the graves are marked with the names of the fallen soldiers. She shakes her head. No, they are the unknown dead. The regiments that fought across that field are known—that is all. There are both French and German dead. The relatives of course know that their men were in those regiments and they may assume, if they have not received letters from them recently, that they have been buried there—out on that vast, undulating, wind swept plain under one of the little black crosses. But, of course, one can never be sure. They might not be dead at all—only prisoners—or again, they might have died somewhere else. It is all very confusing and vague—what happens to the men who no longer send letters home. It is safe to believe they are just dead—to determine where they died is difficult.

The old woman suggests that we visit the little village graveyard, at the corner of the field. The Zouave officers are buried there—those who were recognized as officers. Some English had also been found and carried there. She is the caretaker of the little graveyard. She will show it to us. She says that it is much more interesting than the field. The field is much too muddy.

The world is as still as the death all around us when we enter that little country graveyard. It has been trampled by a multitude. The five months that have elapsed and the hard work of the little old woman have not destroyed the signs of conflict there. But the time has taken the glory. The low stone wall that surrounds the place has been used as a barricade by the Zouaves. It is pierced with holes for their rifles. In many places portions of the wall are missing, showing where the shells have struck.

In the center of the yard, one of them has opened a grave. It is a child’s grave. I look down into the hole about three feet below the muddy surface of the yard. I see a weather-beaten headstone. It bears the child’s name. A hundred years, according to date, that stone has silently borne witness of the few years of life before death, and then it has been rudely crushed into the earth on a glorious day in September. The graves of the soldiers who died there that same glorious day are all fresh mounds. There are only twenty or thirty mounds, but five hundred dead are buried beneath them. Above the mounds are freshly painted crosses. On some of them are roughly printed the names of the fallen officers. On several are wreaths or artificial flowers—beads in the shape of violets and yellow porcelain immortelles. In one corner under a little cross is inscribed the name of an English lieutenant of dragoons—aged twenty. The old caretaker says that his family may take his body to England when the war is over—but, of course, he is not buried in a coffin—just put into the ground on the spot where he was found clutching a fragment of his sword in his hand.

We drive away to the north. On both sides of the road little clusters of black crosses are planted in the fields. Several times we pass great charred patches on the earth. These are the places where the Germans burned their dead before retreating. There are trenches too—trenches and the dead. There are old trenches and new—those made in a few hours while both armies alternately advanced and retreated, and those which the French engineers have made since for use if the Germans again advance.

We are a dozen miles from the river Aisne when our chauffeur stops. If we go nearer we will be in “the zone of operations” where passes are rigidly required—where if one does not possess a pass one is under rigid suspicion. We do not take the chance of advancing further.

We are in a devastated village. We have passed through many but this one seems worse than the others. The church has been demolished and two-thirds of the houses gutted by shells and fire. The place is almost deserted by the inhabitants. When we halted our car there was not the sound of a living thing. Then a few scare-crow children gathered and examined us curiously. We examine the remnants of the House of God. It has doubtless been used as a fortress. Bloody uniforms are scattered among the tumbled stones. Five bodies are rotting underneath the altar. Our minds have gone morbid by the horror. The chauffeur turns the car about. An old man comes from the ruins of a shop. He asks if we want to buy souvenirs. The word “souvenirs” halts us. We wonder how many thousand will be sold in this village, and in all the villages during the years following the war. I recall that only a few years ago one might buy “authentic souvenirs of the battle of Waterloo.” The old man lugs forth a German helmet and the cartridge of a French shell—one of the famous “seventy-fives.” He asks if we are Americans. Then he places a value of five dollars on the helmet and one dollar for the cartridge. We think that the thrifty inhabitants of these villages may yet triumph over the devastation of war if they lay in sufficient stock of souvenirs. Our chauffeur informs us that we can pick up all we desire in the fields, and we take to the road again.

We stop the car beside a large open meadow a few miles south. The field contains the same clusters of crosses. Part of it is plowed ground and is soggy from the rains. We stumble along it, mud to our shoe tops. We stop beside the crosses. They do not mark all the graves. I suddenly feel my feet sink in the mud. I hastily free myself. My wife asks me what is the matter, and I rush away further into the field. I have accidentally stepped into a grave—the mud being so soft—and have felt my boot touch something. As I looked down I saw a couple of inches of smeared, muddy, gray cloth.

We leave the plowed ground and come into a field of stubble. We stand silent a moment at the top of a knoll. The short winter day is dying rapidly. The horizon for the moment seems lost in cold blue vapors. It seems appropriate to the place—it is like battle smoke.

I stoop over to pick up a shrapnel ball imbedded in the mud. My wife seizes me by the arm. “Listen,” she whispers. The gloom of dusk is creeping about us. “Did you hear?” she asks. Then we hear. “Boom, boo-o-m, boom, boo-o-om.” It is quite as faint as the opening sounds of the battle of the Marne to the early risers in Paris. But it is quite as distinct. We have just heard the guns which are still disputing the possession of the Aisne.

The chauffeur is signaling to us. The wind sweeps over the desolate field with a few drops of rain. We make a detour near a haystack. Close to the base—almost under it, I pick up torn strips of gray uniform. They are covered with blood. There is also a battered brass belt buckle, and a bent canteen—evidence of the ghastly and lonely tragedy enacted there. A few feet away looms through the dark the usual black wood cross of the field of glory.

The chauffeur has lighted the lamps on the car. We hear the sound of the engine as we hasten through the mud. We are surfeited with devastation, with horror, and with the field of glory. We tell him to hasten toward Meaux where we will take the next train for Paris. He drives us swiftly into the coming night over the hill that looks upon the “Field of Five Thousand Dead.” There we stop a moment to see the last struggles of the descending sun tipping the forests on the horizon with rosy flames.

We return by a different road through another devastated village. It is not really a village—just a large farmstead—a model farm it was called before the war. Now the stone walls have crumbled. The buildings are twisted skeletons of iron bars—all that withstood the appetite of the flames. Their outlines are vivid black against the sky. They seem to writhe in the wind.

A man and a woman and little girl stand in the road. The car stops and we get out. The man is the owner of the ruin. The woman and child are his wife and daughter. They had fled when the Germans approached. After the glorious victory they returned to their home. The woman asks us to enter the broken gateway. At one end of the walled yard was the house. A broken portion of it remains. The man had boarded up the holes and the cracks in the walls and the empty window frames. He explains that the place had been taken and retaken four times before the French were finally victorious. He tells us of the toll that death had taken in the yard. The woman tells of bodies found in the house—so many in the parlor—so many in the bedroom—so many lying on the stairs.

We walked back to the road where the side lamps of the car cast flickering flames into the night. The chauffeur turns on the electric head lamps that throw a blinding light fifty feet away. The little girl dances in front of them and across the road to a mound of mud. She laughs. Her mother asks her why she is happy. “Oh, the lights,” she calls back. “It’s like Christmas—and folks are here.” She picks up a stone and throws it toward the mound of mud. I noticed that the mound is regular in form—and oblong, about a dozen by six feet in size. Around it runs a border of flat stones. They are set on the corners and arranged in angular criss-cross lines such as a child builds with his toy wooden blocks. We watch the little girl as she kicks one of the stones loose. Her mother calls to her and she hastily puts it back in position. A tall tree casts a shadow across the center of the mound. Through the top of the tree the rising wind begins to sob, and the rain drops blow into our faces. The mother again calls to the child, who comes back across the road stubbing her toes into the mud.

The chauffeur starts the engine and turns the front of the car so that the headlights are direct on the mound, with its border of stones arranged like toy blocks. The shadow of the tall tree points in another direction. Where it had been—where I could not see before—I now see a black wooden cross. “How many under that?” I asked the man casually. “Eighteen or twenty-two,” he answers, “I forget. We found them here in the road.”

We jump into the car and leave the field of glory in the dark.

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