Axidava

The Man Of The Marne And The Yser

It was a drippy day—a day when winter overcoats were uncomfortable but necessary to protect against a wind that swept over the plateau of Artois. A party of newspapermen were beginning a war-corresponding de luxe program arranged by the French war office. The Paris-Boulogne express had been commanded to stop at Amiens, where limousines were waiting in charge of an officer of the Great General Staff.

I knew Amiens of old. As an ambulance driver at the beginning of the war, when the unpopularity of correspondents reached the maximum, I had brought wounded to the Amiens hospitals. So I knew the roads in all directions.

I pushed the raindrops from the automobile window. We were not going in the direction of the battle lines but parallel with them, and then bending into a road toward the rear. I communicated this intelligence to my companions. One of them, an old-timer, yawned and said:

“Oh, it is usually this way on the first day of a trip. We are probably on the way to visit some general. It takes a lot of time but we must act as though we liked it.”

“But if the general is a Somebody, it will be worth while, especially if we can interview,” suggested another.

“We cannot,” the old-timer said composedly, “and he probably will not be a Somebody. This is a long battle line. They have a lot of generals. We are probably calling on only a general of brigade. It is possible that we will not remember his name. He will tell us that we are welcome. It is a drawback of modern war corresponding, especially if he invites us to dinner.”

“Why, what would be the matter with that?”

“The dinner will be excellent,” was the answer. “The dinner of a general begins with hors d’œuvres and ends with cordials—two or three different brands. There will be speeches and there will be no visit to the trenches—there will be no time.”

There was no response and our car sloshed along in the rain.

We stopped before a little red brick cottage set back from the road in the midst of a grove of pines. A gravel walk led to the steps of a small square veranda where a sentry stood at salute. We were in the country. No other houses were near.

A young lieutenant ran down the walk and greeted us.

“I don’t know how you will be received inside,” was his strange utterance. “He said he wanted to see you. That is why we sent word to Amiens. But it doesn’t matter whether you are journalists or generals. He treats all comers the same—that is, just according to how he feels. He will either talk to you or he will expect you to do all the talking. I just wanted to tell you in advance to expect anything.”

I climbed out of the car, wondering. I followed the young lieutenant into the building. I stood with the others in a little reception hall where an orderly took our hats and coats. Facing us was a door. On it was pinned a white page torn from an ordinary writing pad. Scrawled in ink, were the words, “Bureau du Général.”

The party was curiously silent. I felt that this visit to a general would be different from anything I had experienced before. We all became a little restless and nervous. I turned toward a table near the wall. On it was a French translation of Kipling’s “Jungle Book.” I picked it up thinking how curious it was to find such a book at the headquarters of a general. I gasped with surprise as I saw the name of the general written on the first page.

A buzzer sounded and an orderly bounded in from the veranda, threw open the door marked with the white writing page, turned to us, saying, “Entrez, Messieurs.”

We entered a large room with many windows, all hung with dainty white lace. Despite the gloomy day the room seemed sunny, for there were at least a dozen vases filled with yellow flowers. Between two dormer windows opening upon a garden was stretched a great yellow map, dotted with lines and stuck all over with tiny tricolored flags. Before this map and studying it closely, with his back half turned toward us, stood a little man. A thick stump of unlighted cigar was between his teeth. His shoulders were thrown back, his hands clutched tightly behind him. He wore the full uniform of a general, with long cavalry boots and spurs. At the sound of our entrance, he swung about dramatically, on one heel. We caught sight of the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor blazing on his breast. He wore no other decorations, and I noted the absence of a sword. The light fell full upon his handsome, but ravaged and aging face. The memory of all that I had heard about him raced across my mind in the short time before I felt him seize my hand, saw his blue eyes boring into mine, heard him asking questions and stating facts directly to me. For this was the man who sent the famous message to General Joffre at the critical moment of the battle of the Marne, that inasmuch as his left was crushed and his right thrown back, he proposed to attack with his center. This was the man who later stemmed the German tide at the Yser, and saved Calais and the Channel ports. This was the man who has ever since commanded the Group of Armies of the North, Belgian, English and French, driving the enemy inch by inch through the Labyrinth and out of Artois. This man, the dashing beau ideal of the French army, the great strategist of the École de Guerre, the nearest of all Frenchmen to approach the “man on horseback” picture of the military hero, this man who was talking to me, and frankly telling me of important things was General Foch.

I found myself answering his questions mechanically. I told him the name of the paper that I represented, also that this was my third visit to the battle front in Artois.

“Ah, yes. I know your paper,” he said. “I read it. It has been one of the great forums for the discussion of the war. You have printed both sides of the question.”

“But we are in favor of the Allies!” I interrupted.

“I know that also—that is why you have come a third time to Artois.”

The next correspondent in the line was a Spaniard. Foch eyed him for a moment. “I know you,” he said. “I met you in Madrid six years ago.” The correspondent bowed with amazement at the general’s memory. He passed along the line, shaking hands. He stopped before a tall Dutchman, the representative of a paper in Amsterdam.

“Ho! Ho!—the big representative of a little nation.” The Dutchman was poked in the ribs with the genial index finger of the General’s right hand. “Don’t you know that if Germany wins, your country will be swallowed up? You have developed a great commerce and valuable industries. Germany will never be your friend. As of old, the big fish will eat the little one.” Then he swung back down the line, in my direction.

“You have already been twice on my battle front. You have seen a great difference between the first and second trips. You will see another great change now. Perhaps you will come here still again—for the last great offensive,—in Artois.”

“What do you mean, mon general?” I asked.

The little man was silent for a moment, chewing the end of his cigar and looking steadily, first at one and then at another of us. I shall never forget his words. They revealed the cardinal necessity for waging modern war.

“We have shown,” he said slowly, “that we can go through them any time we like. The great need is shells. The consumption of shells during the last offensive was fantastic. But still we did not shoot enough.” He stopped, then said still more slowly: “The next time we will shoot enough.”

“And then, mon general?” asked the Spaniard. “And then?”

“And then,” Foch replied, “and then we shall keep on advancing, and the Germans will have to go away.”

He again swung dramatically on his heel, until his back was turned to us. “Au revoir, Messieurs,” he said, and as we filed silently and somewhat dazedly from the room, he was again standing before the huge map, chewing the cigar, his shoulders thrust back, and his hands clasped tightly behind him.

The young lieutenant climbed into our car. He explained that the general had delegated him to the party. He went with us through the trenches on succeeding days and said good-by only when we took the train for Paris. He was a brilliant young officer and before the war had been a foreign correspondent for Le Temps. For that great newspaper he had “covered” campaigns in Asia and Africa. Now he explained that he was to be official historian of the campaigns of General Foch.

“I am the latest comer on his staff,” the lieutenant said, “so there was not much room for me and he has given me a holiday with you. He has not a large staff, but the house as you see is very little. So I have the room that a baby occupied before the war.” The young man smiled and looked down at his stalwart frame. “There was only a little cot and a rocking horse in the room. I sleep on the floor. I shall keep the cot for the baby.”

This conversation took place on the last day of our trip, amidst the ruins of Arras. The lieutenant talked continually of his general. He explained how the general had told him in detail, and illustrated by making a plan with matches, the great movement of troops during the battle of the Marne that started the German retreat.

“The general broke all his own rules of war,” he explained; “all those rules that he taught so long in the École de Guerre. He moved an entire division—half of the famous Forty-second Corps, while it was under fire—he stretched out the remainder of the corps in a thin line across its place, and moved the division behind his entire army, then flung them against the Prussian Guard as it was beginning the attack on the center. The moving of troops already engaged with the enemy had never been done in any war before.”

“But he staked his whole reputation—his military career on it?” I asked.

The Lieutenant smiled. “Oh, yes,” he replied, “but after he gave the order, he went for a long walk in the country with a member of his staff, who told me afterwards that not once was the war mentioned, and they were gone three hours. All that time they talked about Spanish art and Spanish music. When they returned to headquarters, the general merely asked if there was any news, knowing well that perhaps he might hear news which would make his name hated forever. He was told the tide had turned and we were winning the battle. He merely grunted and lighted a fresh cigar.”

We all remained silent and then a number of desultory questions were asked about the position of the troops. The lieutenant again explained with matches. “The general showed it to me with matches, as I have already shown.” He spoke reverently, his voice almost a whisper. “And I have those matches that the general used.”

In Arras there was just one house left where we could take luncheon—a fine old mansion belonging to a friend of our guide from the Great General Staff. We brought our food and soldiers served it in a stately room with a massive beamed ceiling and stags’ antlers decorating the walls. A tapestry concealed one wall. The officer pulled it aside to show that we sat in only half a room; the other half had been entirely destroyed by shells. From the cellar an orderly brought some of the finest burgundy in France. There was a piano in one corner of the room. When coffee was served, our Captain sat at the instrument and played snatches of Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven.

The discussion at the table turned to music. At the same moment a shell burst a few hundred yards down the street.

“Play Wagner,” some one asked.

A member of our party who had been in Russia said:

“Do you permit German music? In Russia it is forbidden.”

The officer replied:

“How stupid! Things which are beautiful remain beautiful,” and he played an air from “Tristan” as a shell went screaming overhead.

The young lieutenant, handsome and debonair, turned to me:

“This is fine,” he said. “Here we are in the last house in Arras where this scene is possible, and perhaps to-morrow this place will all be gone—perhaps in ten minutes.” He laughed and the piano was silenced by the explosion of another shell.

We climbed into our automobiles and hurried out of town along a road in plain sight of the German guns. I thought of what General Foch had said: “We can go through them any time we desire.” I got out my military map and looked at the German line, slipping gradually from the plateau of Artois into the plain of Douai—the plain that contains Lens, Douai and Lille and sweeps away across the frontier of Belgium. That was the place to which General Foch referred when he said the Germans “must keep on going away.” I turned to an officer beside me in the car. I said: “When the French guns are sweeping that plain it means the end of the Germans in Northern France?” He smiled and nodded, while I offered a silent prayer that on that day I might be permitted by the military authorities to make my fourth visit to Artois, to see the decisive victory of French arms that I believe will take place there under the command of General Foch, and that will help largely to bring this war to a close.

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