THE GRANDS BOULEVARDS WERE EMPTY, shop fronts were shuttered, buses, trams, cars, and horse cabs had disappeared. In their place flocks of sheep were herded across the Place de la Concorde on their way to the Gare de l’Est for shipment to the front. Unmarred by traffic, squares and vistas revealed their purity of design. Most newspapers having ceased publication, the kiosks were hung meagerly with the single-page issues of the survivors. All the tourists were gone, the Ritz was uninhabited, the Meurice a hospital. For one August in its history Paris was French—and silent. The sun shone, fountains sparkled in the Rond Point, trees were green, the quiet Seine flowed by unchanging, brilliant clusters of Allied flags enhanced the pale gray beauty of the world’s most beautiful city.
In the vast warren of the Invalides, Gallieni grappled with obstructionism and the hesitancy of officials to take the radical measures necessary to make the words “entrenched camp” a reality. He envisaged the camp as a base of operations, not a Troy holed up for siege. From the experience of Liège and Namur he knew that Paris could not withstand shelling by the new heavy siege guns of the enemy, but his plan was not to wait passively to be invested but to give battle—with the army he did not yet have—beyond the outer ring of fortifications. Study of the Balkan and Manchurian wars had convinced him that a system of deep and narrow trenches protected by earth mounds and logs, flanked by barbed wire and “wolf pits”—wide-mouthed holes fitted at the bottom with up-pointed stakes—and manned by trained and determined troops armed with machine guns would be virtually impregnable. These were what he was trying to construct in the stretches between the artillery posts, although he still did not have the army to man them.
Every day, sometimes two and three times a day, with increasing desperation he telephoned GQG demanding the three active corps. He wrote to Joffre, sent emissaries, hammered at the Minister of War and the President, repeatedly warned them Paris was unprepared. By August 29 he had received under his orders so far one naval brigade whose appearance, marching through the streets in white with high-pitched pipe, delighted the populace, if not Gallieni.
He conceived of the work to be done as tripartite: military defense, moral defense, and provisioning. To accomplish each of these tasks it was necessary to be frank with the public. As much as he despised politicians, Gallieni respected the people of Paris who, he considered, could be counted on to behave sensibly in the face of danger. He believed Poincaré and Viviani did not want to tell the country the truth, and suspected them of preparing a “mummery” to deceive the people. His efforts to obtain authority for demolition of buildings obstructing the forts’ line of fire were hampered by official reluctance to alarm the population. Each destruction of property required a document signed by both the mayor of the arrondissement and the Chief of Engineers fixing the value of indemnity to the proprietor—a process that was a source of endless harassment and delay. Each decision was enmeshed in a further “byzantine” argument by those who contended that Paris as the seat of government could not be a “fortified camp” to be defended militarily. The issue, as General Hirschauer disgustedly remarked, offered a “magnificent field of controversy,” and he feared the proponents of an open city would soon succeed in proving the post of Military Governor itself illegal. “You cannot convince the jurists without a text,” he said.
Gallieni provided one. On August 28 the Zone of the Armies was extended to include Paris and the country on both sides down to the Seine with the result that the municipal government of Paris was brought under the authority of the Military Governor. At 10:00 A.M. Gallieni assembled his military and civil cabinets in a Council of Defense which was held with everyone standing up and was over by 10:15. Members were asked not to discuss whether Paris should be defended but simply to attest that the presence of the enemy required the institution of a “state of defense.” Documents providing the legal basis were already drawn up and lying on the table. Gallieni invited each person to sign his name and immediately declared the Council adjourned. It was the first and last he held.
Ruthlessly he pursued work on the defenses, sparing no time or pity on demurers or the irresolute, on weakness or ineptitude. Like Joffre, he liquidated incompetents, on his first day of office dismissing a general of Engineers and another general two days later. All inhabitants of the suburbs, “even the oldest and least capable,” were impressed for labor with pick and shovel. An order for 10,000 spades and pickaxes to be collected within twenty-four hours was issued; by evening all had been delivered. When on the same occasion Gallieni ordered 10,000 bowie knives for use as tools his purveyor protested it was impossible because their purchase was illegal. “All the more reason,” replied Gallieni, looking at him sharply over his pince-nez, and the knives were obtained.
On August 29 an area around Paris within a radius of about twenty miles, reaching to Melun on the south and Dammartin and Pontoise on the north, was brought under Gallieni’s authority. Preparations were made for dynamiting bridges in the area. For those classified as “works of art” and part of the “national heritage” a system of special guards was arranged to ensure that they were not destroyed until the last extremity. All entries to the city, even the sewers, were barricaded. Bakers, butchers, market gardeners were organized and cattle brought in to graze in the Bois de Boulogne. To hasten the assembly of stocks of ammunition, Gallieni requisitioned transport “by all means available,” including the taxis of Paris, so soon to become immortal. Assigned to the Artillery Staff of the entrenched camp was one already encased in history, former Captain, now Major Alfred Dreyfus, returned to active service at fifty-five.
At the front the First and Second Armies in Lorraine, under the terrible pressure of Rupprecht’s guns, still held fiercely and tenaciously to the line of the Moselle. Their line wavered and bulged, in some places even was pierced by German wedges. Tightly contained by French counterattacks on their flanks, these could not be widened to major openings. The battle went on with Rupprecht’s armies probing for the weakest place and Dubail and Castelnau, losing troops to Joffre’s demands for the west, uncertain how long they could hold or whether they could hold. In the villages taken by the Germans the events of Belgium were re-enacted. In Nomeny on the outskirts of Nancy, “citizens fired on our troops,” declared the German Governor of Metz in a bulletin posted on the walls. “I have therefore ordered as a punishment that the village shall be burned to the ground. Nomeny is thus by now destroyed.”
On Castelnau’s left where the front turned to the west, Ruffey’s Third Army, unbalanced by the removal of Maunoury’s divisions, was falling back behind the Meuse below Verdun. Next to it the Fourth Army, which had rested in position on August 28 to prove the retreat was “strategic” and not a rout, was ordered, to the disgust of General de Langle, to resume its retreat on August 29. Further to the left where the pressure against the French line was the greatest, General Lanrezac’s Fifth Army was completing the turning maneuver preparatory for the counter-attack on St. Quentin which Joffre had imposed upon its unwilling commander. At the extreme end of the line, Maunoury’s Sixth Army was coming into position. Between Maunoury and Lanrezac the BEF was being pulled out by Sir John French despite his knowledge of the battle that would be fought on the morrow.
Almost the process was interrupted by a much-needed deed of Anglo-French cooperation when Haig sent word to Lanrezac that his troops were “perfectly ready to attack and he wished to enter into direct communication and act in concert with the Fifth Army in its planned action at St. Quentin.” One of Lanrezac’s staff immediately hastened to meet him and found Haig standing picturesquely on a little hill, while an orderly held his horse, beside a lance with fluttering white-cross pennon planted in the ground. Haig said his air reconnaissance reported the enemy moving southwest of St. Quentin, “exposing his flank as he advances.”
“Go quickly to your General and give him this information .… Let him act. I am anxious to cooperate with him in this attack.” The offer, conveyed to Lanrezac, gave him “lively satisfaction” and moved him to “say some nice things concerning Sir Douglas Haig.” Arrangements for joint action in the morning were confirmed, subject only to approval by the British Commander in Chief. At 2 A.M. word came from GHQ that Sir John French refused permission on the ground that the troops were “very tired and must have at least one day’s rest,” a requirement which, however true of the IInd Corps, was not true of the Ist Corps whose commander himself had reported them fit and ready. Lanrezac exploded with wrath. “C’est une félonie!” (It’s betrayal!) he shouted, and added what a listener described as “terrible, unpardonable things about Sir John French and the British Army.”
Nevertheless next morning, sandwiched between von Bülow who was moving down against him and Joffre who came up to superintend the offensive, Lanrezac had no choice but to attack. From papers found on a captured French officer, Bülow had learned of the coming attack and was not taken off guard. Doubting Lanrezac’s mood, Joffre arrived early in the morning at Laon, now Lanrezac’s headquarters, to lend him sangfroid out of his own bottomless supply. Laon is built on a high mesa from which the view extends over miles of rolling fields that rise and dip like the swells of a green ocean. Twenty miles to the north in a great semicircle the Fifth Army was drawn up facing northwest toward Guise and St. Quentin. From the tower of the cathedral at the highest point of the town the carved stone heads of cows, instead of gargoyles, gaze in bovine serenity over the landscape. Beneath them in the same silent calm, Joffre sat watching Lanrezac dictate orders and conduct the battle. He stayed for three hours without saying a word until, satisfied that Lanrezac was displaying “authority and method,” he felt able to leave for a good lunch at the station restaurant before proceeding with his racing chauffeur on his next errand.
This was to find Sir John French who, he suspected, had his eyes on the Channel coast and “might be getting out of our line of battle for a long time.” The place he held in the line between Lanrezac’s Army and the gathering Sixth Army of Maunoury was now crucial and yet outside Joffre’s power to control. He could not give orders to Field Marshal French as he did to Lanrezac or force him to fight by sitting behind him in silent surveillance. If, however, he could persuade the British to stand still, he hoped to stabilize a front on the Aisne along a line Amiens-Rheims-Verdun and resume the offensive from there. British Headquarters having taken another backward step the day before, Sir John was now established at Compiègne which was forty miles or—for tired armies—about three days’ march from Paris. While its neighbor, the French Fifth Army, was fighting all during this day at Guise, lifting enemy pressure, the British Army rested. Having retreated without pursuit the day before, it now, after eight hot days of marching, digging trenches, and fighting engagements great and small, at last came to a halt. The IInd Corps made a short march during the evening hours to bring it across the Oise, but the Ist Corps enjoyed a full day’s rest in the Forest of St. Gobain only five miles from where the left wing of Lanrezac’s Army, which had been marching and fighting for fourteen days and was no less tired, was engaged in major battle.
When Joffre reached Compiègne he pleaded with the British Commander to stick fast until the offensive could be resumed at a favorable moment. His arguments seemed to produce no effect. He “distinctly saw” Murray tugging at the Field Marshal’s tunic as if to prevent him from yielding to persuasion. It was a supererogatory effort, for Sir John French kept saying, “No, no,” to Joffre and insisting that in view of his losses his army was in no condition to fight and must have two days to rest and refit. Joffre could not dismiss him on the spot as he would have a French general; he could not even throw a fit of temper to gain his ends as he had with Lanrezac at Marle. With the British backing away from the space between Lanrezac and Maunoury, neither of their armies could hold along the present line and all hope of carrying out General Order No. 2 must be abandoned. Joffre departed, by his own confession, “in very bad humor.”
Sir John French’s intentions were even more drastic than he admitted to Joffre. Without regard for an ally fighting on the threshhold of defeat, he now told his Inspector of Communications, Major General Robb, to plan for a “definite and prolonged retreat due south, passing Paris to the east and west.” Even Kitchener’s instructions could not be blamed for this. Conceived in deep disapproval of Henry Wilson’s commitment to Plan 17, they were designed to restrain a too aggressive Sir John and a too Francophil Wilson from risking the British Army in some French-sponsored scheme of offensive à outrance that could lead to annihilation or capture. They were never intended to suggest such a degree of caution as would lead to actual desertion. But the sweat that comes from fear cannot be controlled, and Sir John was now gripped by fear of losing his army and with it his name and reputation.
His troops were not, as he pretended, a broken army unfit for further effort. By their own account they were in no mood to give up. Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Maurice of the 3rd Division Staff said that despite exhaustion, sore feet, and lack of time for cooked meals “the restorative effect of a hot meal, a good night’s rest and a bath is little short of marvelous, and these were what our army chiefly needed … to enable it to take the field again.” Captain Ernest Hamilton of the 11th Hussars said that after its day of rest on August 29 the BEF was “now in perfect trim to turn and fight at any moment.” General Macready, Adjutant-General in the BEF, said “all they needed was rest and food to make them ready and eager” to show the Germans what they could do.
Nevertheless Sir John French next day sent Joffre definitive notice that the British Army would not be in condition to take its place in the line “for another ten days.” Had he asked for ten days’ time out when fighting with his back to London he would not have survived in command. As it was, Sir John French remained Commander in Chief for another year and a half.
That afternoon, on edge to get his men on the move and away from the vicinity of the enemy, he was anxious to have Lanrezac break off his battle and resume the retreat with him shoulder to shoulder, less out of concern for covering Lanrezac’s flank than to protect his own. In an effort to obtain an order for the Fifth Army to do this, Henry Wilson called GQG and, finding that Joffre had not returned, spoke to General Berthelot who refused to assume authority but arranged to have Wilson intercept Joffre at the Hotel Lion d’Or in Rheims at 7:30 that evening. At mealtimes Joffre’s whereabouts were always known. Wilson, when he found him, argued in vain. All Joffre would say was, “Lanrezac must see it out to the end,” without specifying what end he had in mind. When Wilson returned with this news, Sir John decided not to wait, and gave orders for the BEF to resume the retreat next day.
Meanwhile Lanrezac’s advance on St. Quentin was meeting difficulties. A regiment of the XVIIIth Corps, under orders to take a village down the road, advanced under shrapnel falling like hail. Shells “gutted the road and tore branches from the trees in huge pieces,” wrote a sergeant who survived.
“It was stupid to lie down; one might as well keep moving .… Here and there men lay flat on their stomachs or on their backs. They were dead. One of them, under an apple tree, had all of his face missing; blood drowned his head. On the right drums sounded the bayonet charge followed by the trumpet. Our line advanced marked by the sparkle of the bayonets slanted against a blue sky. The rhythm of the drums quickened. ‘Forward!’ All the men cried ‘Forward!’ It was a superb moment. An electric shiver went through my scalp and contracted the roots of my hair. The drums beat in a rage, the hot wind carried the notes of the trumpet, the men shouted—they were transported! … Suddenly we were stopped. To charge a village 900 yards away against a solid defense was folly. The order came, ‘Lie down, take cover.’”
The attack on St. Quentin was thrown back and, as Lanrezac had anticipated, heavy enemy pressure began to bear down upon his right. Bülow was attacking with all his forces instead of allowing the French to move forward against him so that they might be taken in the rear by the armies of Kluck and Hausen. Believing that the action was no more than the death throes of a broken army, Bülow felt “confident of the outcome.” In one sector the French were driven back across the Oise, and a panic developed when the bridges and narrow roads leading off them became jammed. Displaying “the greatest quickness and comprehension,” in the words of his least sympathetic observer, Lanrezac quickly ordered abandonment of the action at St. Quentin and a new concentration of effort to redeem the situation on the right at Guise.
Franchet d’Esperey, commander of the Ist Corps, the eager, sturdy little general burned by the suns of Tonkin and Morocco whom Poincaré called “a stranger to depression,” was ordered to rally the IIIrd and Xth Corps on his left and right. With the aid of officers riding up and down the front on horseback and bands playing once again the quick bright chords of the “Sambre et Meuse,” he reformed the line by 5:30 P.M. Preceded by a well-prepared artillery action, the French moved forward once more to the attack. The bridge at Guise was piled high with ramparts of enemy dead. On the far side resistance was desultory; the French could feel it weakening. “The Germans were running away,” wrote an observer, and the French, “frantic with joy at the new and longed for sensation were carried forward in a splendid victorious wave.”
At the day’s end when the sergeant who had participated in the attack on St. Quentin returned to the village from which he had started that morning, he was met by a friend who had all the news. “He said it had been a great day. Our check didn’t matter. The enemy was pushed back, we were the winners. The Colonel was killed by a shell; he died while they were carrying him off. Commandant Theron was wounded in the chest. Captain Gilberti was wounded and would not live. Many of the men were dead or wounded. He repeated it had been a good day because the regiment would sleep two nights in the same place.”
The retirement of the Guard Corps—the élite of Bülow’s Army—pulled back its neighbors and gave Lanrezac a tactical victory—at Guise, if not at St. Quentin. But he was now alone and exposed, facing north, while his neighbors on both sides, the British and the Fourth Army, each a full day’s march ahead of him, were continuing their retreat and further uncovering his flanks at every step. If the Fifth Army were to be saved it must immediately break off battle and rejoin its partners. But Lanrezac could get no directive from Joffre who was not at GQG when Lanrezac telephoned.
“Is the Fifth Army to delay in the region of Guise-St. Quentin at the risk of being captured?” Lanrezac asked General Belin, Joffre’s deputy.
“What do you mean, let your army be captured! That’s absurd!”
“You do not understand me. I am here at the express orders of the Commander in Chief .… I cannot take it upon myself to withdraw to Laon. It is for the Commander in Chief to give me the order to retire. Lanrezac was not going to take the blame this time, as at Charleroi.
Refusing to assume authority, Belin said he would report the question to Joffre as soon as he returned. When Joffre did return, although he appeared still confident, still unruffled, his hopes had suffered a second crash even graver than the debacle at the frontiers because now the enemy was that much deeper into France. He had no way of knowing that Lanrezac’s fight had inflicted a sharp check on Bülow’s army because the results did not yet show. He could only recognize that the Fifth Army was in truth left in a dangerous position, that the BEF was backing out, and he could “no longer nourish any hope of holding our Allies on the anticipated line of battle.” The Sixth Army, while still in the process of forming, was under heavy attack from Kluck’s two right-wing corps; the front he had hoped to hold was dissipated; more territory would have to be yielded, perhaps as far as the Marne, perhaps even to the Seine.
During this period, the “most tragic in all French history,” as its chief investigator was to call it, Joffre did not panic like Sir John French, or waver like Moltke or become momentarily unnerved like Haig or Ludendorff or succumb to pessimism like Prittwitz. What went on behind that opaque exterior he never showed. If he owed his composure to a failure of imagination, that was fortunate for France. Ordinary men, Clausewitz wrote, become depressed by a sense of danger and responsibility; if these conditions are to “lend wings to strengthen the judgment, there must be present unusual greatness of soul.” If danger did not strengthen Joffre’s judgment in any way, it did call forth a certain strength of soul or of character. When ruin was all around him, he maintained an even tenor, a stolid control, what Foch, who saw him on August 29, called a “wonderful calm” which held the French Army together in an hour when it most needed the cement of confidence. On one of these days Colonel Alexandre, returning from a mission to the Fifth Army, excused his expression of gloom on the ground of “the bad news I have to bring.”
“What!” answered Joffre, “do you no longer believe in France? Go get some rest. You will see—everything will be all right.”
That night of August 29 at 10:00 P.M. he issued the order for Lanrezac to retire and blow up the bridges of the Oise behind him. General d’Amade was ordered to blow up the bridges over the Somme at Amiens and fall back, along with Maunoury’s Army. On the right the Fourth Army was ordered to retire on Rheims, and General de Langle, who demanded rest for his troops, was told that rest depended on the enemy. As his final bitter act of the night of August 29, Joffre ordered preparations made for leaving Vitry-le-François, “that headquarters of broken hopes and lost illusions.” GQG was to be moved back to Bar-sur-Aube on an eastern tributary of the Seine. The news spread among the Staff, adding, as Joffre disapprovingly noted, to “the general nervousness and anxiety.”
Through a Staff failure, Joffre’s order to the Fifth Army did not reach Lanrezac till early next morning, causing him a long night of unnecessary agony. Fortunately von Bülow did not renew the combat or, when Lanrezac withdrew, follow after. The results of the battle were as obscure to the Germans as to the French, and Bülow’s impressions seem to have been curiously mixed, for he both reported it to OHL as a success and at the same time sent a staff captain to von Kluck to say his army was “exhausted by the battle of Guise and unable to pursue.” Ignorant of this, the French—Joffre as well as Lanrezac—were possessed by a single aim: to disengage the Fifth Army and bring it out of danger and into line with the other French Armies before the Germans could outflank it on the left.
Meanwhile the threat to Paris of the oncoming German right wing was evident. Joffre telegraphed Gallieni to lay charges under the bridges of the Seine immediately to the west of Paris and of the Marne immediately to the east and to post platoons of Engineers at each one to make sure that orders to blow the bridges would be carried out. Maunoury’s Army, in falling back, would cover Paris and be the natural group to provide the army of three corps Gallieni was demanding. But to Joffre and GQG Paris was still a “geographical expression.” To defend it for its own sake and, for that purpose, put Maunoury’s Army at Gallieni’s disposal and under his orders was not Joffre’s intention. Paris, as he saw it, would stand or fall with the result of the battle he intended to fight with the whole field army under his own command. To the men inside Paris, however, the fate of the capital was of more direct interest.
The apparent result of the Battle of St. Quentin and Guise deepened the pall of dismay hanging over them. On the morning of the battle M. Touron, vice president of the Senate and an industrial magnate of the north, rushed into Poincaré’s office “like a whirlwind,” claiming that the government was “being deceived by GQG” and that our left had “been turned and the Germans are at La Fère.” Poincaré repeated the stout assurances of Joffre that the left would hold and that as soon as the Sixth Army was ready the offensive would be resumed, but in the back of his mind he feared that M. Touron might be right. Cryptic messages filtered in, indicating a great battle was in progress. Every hour he received contradictory reports. Late in the afternoon M. Touron burst in again, more excited than ever. He had just been talking over the telephone to M. Seline, a fellow Senator from the Aisne who owned a property near St. Quentin and who had been watching the battle from the roof of his house. M. Seline had seen the French troops advancing and the puffs of smoke and the black shellbursts filling the sky and then, as German reinforcements, like an army of gray ants, were brought up, had seen the French thrown back. The attack had not succeeded, the battle was lost, and M. Touron departed wailing.
The second stage of the battle—at Guise—did not come under the eyes of the Senator on the roof and was even less clear to the Government than to GQG. All that seemed clear was that Joffre’s attempt to check the German right wing had failed, that Paris faced siege and might again eat rats as it had forty years before. The possibility of the fall of the capital, the question whether the government should leave, which had been lurking in ministerial minds since the Battle of the Frontiers, was now openly and urgently discussed. Colonel Penelon, liaison officer between GQG and the President, arrived early next morning, his usually smiling face for once somber, and admitted the situation was “intensely serious.” Millerand as Minister of War at once advised departure to avoid being cut off from the rest of the country. Gallieni, hastily summoned for his opinion, advised telephoning Joffre. Joffre acknowledged the situation was not good; the Fifth Army had fought well but had not accomplished his hopes; the English “had not budged”; the advance of the enemy could not be slowed and Paris was “seriously menaced.” He advised the government to leave so as not, by remaining, to be the means of drawing the enemy upon the capital. Joffre knew well enough that the German objective was the French Armies, not the government, but as the battlefield neared Paris, the presence of the government in the Zone of the Armies would tend to blur the lines of authority. Its withdrawal would remove a source of interference and leave GQG with enhanced power. When Gallieni on the telephone tried to convince him of the necessity of defending Paris as the material and moral hub of the war effort, and again demanded an army to attack the enemy in the field before the city could be invested, he somewhat vaguely promised to send him three corps though not at full strength and largely made up of reserve divisions. He gave Gallieni the impression that he considered Paris expendable and was still unwilling to deplete his forces for its sake.
Then the President of the Republic, appearing “preoccupied and even dispirited,” although as always “cold and reserved,” asked Gallieni how long Paris could hold out and whether the government should leave. “Paris cannot hold out and you should make ready to leave as soon as possible,” Gallieni replied. Desiring, no less than Joffre, to unsaddle himself of the government, he found the advice painless. Poincaré asked him to return later to explain his views to the Cabinet, which in the meantime assembled and passionately argued the question that a bare ten days ago, when the French offensive was launched, would have seemed unthinkable.
Poincaré, Ribot, and the two socialists, Guesde and Sembat, were for staying, or at least awaiting the outcome of the approaching battle. The moral effect of departure, they contended, could produce despair, even revolution. Millerand insisted upon departure. He said a company of Uhlans might penetrate below Paris and cut the railroads to the south, and the government could not take the risk of being shut up inside the capital as in 1870. This time France was fighting as part of an alliance and it was the government’s duty to remain in contact with her Allies and the outside world as well as with the rest of France. Doumergue made a deep impression when he said, “It takes more courage to appear a coward and risk popular disfavor than to risk being killed.” Whether the emergency required reconvening Parliament, as was demanded in excited visits by the presidents of the two chambers, provided a subject for further heated dispute.
Fretting with impatience to return to his duties, Gallieni was kept waiting outside for an hour while the ministers argued. Finally called in, he told them bluntly they were “no longer safe in the capital.” His stern and soldierly appearance and manner and the “clarity and force” with which he expressed himself made a “profound effect.” Explaining that without an army to fight outside the perimeter, he could not ward off assault by the enemy’s siege artillery; he warned that Paris was not in a state of defense and “cannot be put in one … It would be an illusion to believe that the entrenched camp could offer a serious resistance if the enemy should appear in the next few days before our line of exterior forts.” The formation of an army of four or at least three corps to fight under his orders outside the city as the extreme left wing of the French line was “indispensable.” The delay in preparing the defenses, before his appointment as Governor, he charged to influential groups who wanted Paris declared an open city to save it from destruction. They had been encouraged by GQG.
“That’s right,” Millerand interrupted. “It is the opinion at GQG that Paris should not be defended.”
Guesde, the socialist, speaking his first words as minister after a lifetime of opposition, excitedly broke in. “You want to open the gates to the enemy so Paris won’t be pillaged. But on the day the Germans march through our streets there will be a shot fired from every window in the working-class quarters. And then I will tell you what will happen: Paris will be burned!”
After hectic debate it was agreed that Paris must be defended and Joffre required to conform, if necessary under pain of dismissal. Gallieni argued against any rash removal of the Commander in Chief at this stage. As to whether the government should go or stay, the Cabinet remained completely at odds.
Leaving the ministers “overcome with emotion and indecision” and, as they seemed to him, “incapable of coming to a firm resolve,” Gallieni returned to the Invalides, making his way through the crowds of anxious citizens besieging its doors for permits to leave the city, to take their cars, to close essential businesses, and a thousand other reasons. The buzz of anxiety was louder than usual; that afternoon for the first time a German Taube bombed Paris. Besides three bombs on the Quai de Valmy which killed two persons and injured others, it dropped leaflets telling Parisians that the Germans were at their gates, as in 1870, and “There is nothing you can do but surrender.”
Daily thereafter one or more enemy planes returned regularly at 6:00 P.M., dropped two or three bombs, and killed an occasional passerby in an effort, presumably, to frighten the population. The fearful went south. For those who remained in Paris during this period, when no one knew if the next day might not bring the spiked helmets marching in, the flights of the Taube, always at the apéritif hour, provided excitement to compensate for the government’s prohibition of absinthe. That night of its first visit Paris was blacked out for the first time. The only “little gleam of light” to pierce the general gloom, Poincaré wrote in his diary, was in the East where, according to a telegram from the French military attaché, the Russian armies were “developing their offensive toward Berlin.” In fact they were being cut down and surrounded at Tannenberg, and on that night General Samsonov committed suicide in the forest.
Joffre heard a more accurate version when a German radio message, intercepted at Belfort, told of the destruction of three Russian corps, the capture of two corps commanders and 70,000 other prisoners and announced, “The Russian Second Army no longer exists.” This terrible news coming when French hopes were already sinking might have dispirited even Joffre except that it was followed by other news which showed the Russian sacrifice had not been in vain. Intelligence reports revealed the transfer of at least two German corps from the Western Front to the East and were confirmed next day by reports of thirty-two troop trains passing eastward through Berlin. This was Joffre’s gleam of light, this the aid for which all France’s pressure on Russia had been brought to bear. Even so, it hardly counterbalanced the projected loss of the British whose commander’s refusal to remain in contact with the enemy opened the way to envelopment of the Fifth Army. The Fifth was also in danger of being outflanked on its right through the space thinly filled by the Foch Detachment.
Wherever a weak sector needed reinforcement, another sector had to be dangerously depleted. On this same day, August 30, Joffre visited the front of the Third and Fourth Armies to look for forces he could assign to Foch. On the road he passed the retreating columns who had fought in the Ardennes and on the heights of the Meuse. Red trousers had faded to the color of pale brick, coats were ragged and torn, shoes caked with mud, eyes cavernous in faces dulled by exhaustion and dark with many days’ growth of beard. Twenty days’ campaigning seemed to have aged the soldiers as many years. They walked heavily, as if ready to drop at every step. Emaciated horses, with bones sticking out and with bleeding harness sores, sometimes dropped in the shafts, were hurriedly unharnessed by the artillerymen, and dragged off to the side of the road so as not to obstruct the way. Guns looked old and blistered with barely a few patches of their once new gray paint showing through the mud and dirt.
In contrast, other units, still vigorous, had become confident veterans in the twenty days, proud of their fighting skills and eager to halt the retreat. The ultimate compliment was earned by the 42nd Division of Ruffey’s Army which, after holding the rearguard and successfully disengaging, was told by its corps commander, General Sarrail, “You have given proof of cran.” When Joffre ordered this division transferred to Foch, General Ruffey protested violently on the ground of an anticipated attack. Unlike General de Langle of the Fourth Army whom Joffre had just found calm, confident, and “perfectly master of himself”—the one essential duty of a commander in Joffre’s eyes—Ruffey appeared nervous, excitable, and “imaginative to an excessive degree.” As Colonel Tanant, his Chief of Operations, said, he was very clever and full of a thousand ideas of which one was magnificent but the question was which. Like the deputies in Paris, Joffre needed a scapegoat for the failure of the offensive and Ruffey’s conduct decided the selection; he was removed that day from command of the Third Army and replaced by General Sarrail. Invited to lunch next day with Joffre, Ruffey blamed his defeat in the Ardennes on the last-minute removal of the two reserve divisions that Joffre had transferred to the Army of Lorraine. If he had had those 40,000 fresh men and the 7th Cavalry Division, Ruffey said, he could have rolled up the enemy’s left, and “what a success for our arms we might have won!” In one of his terse and mysterious remarks, Joffre replied, “Chut, il ne faut pas le dire.” His tone of voice has been lost, and it will never be known whether he meant, “You are wrong; you must not say that,” or “You are right but we must not admit it.”
On that Sunday, August 30, the day of Tannenberg, the day the French government was warned to leave Paris, England received a shock, since known as the “Amiens dispatch.” Headed, with initial exaggeration, “Fiercest Fight in History,” it appeared with awful impact in a special Sunday edition of The Times on the front page where, ordinarily, discreet columns of advertising screened readers from the news. Subheads proclaimed, “Heavy Losses of British Troops—Mons and Cambrai—Fight Against Severe Odds—Need for Reinforcements.” This last phrase was the key; although the dispatch was to arouse an official storm, provoke a furious debate in Parliament, and earn a scolding from the Prime Minister as a “regrettable exception” to the “patriotic reticence” of the press as a whole, it was in fact published with an official purpose. Instantly seeing its qualities as recruiting propaganda, the Censor, F. E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, passed it and urged it upon The Times, which published it as a patriotic duty with an appended notice as to the “extreme gravity of the task before us.” It was written by a correspondent, Arthur Moore, who had arrived at the front in the midst of the retreat from Le Cateau and the hectic despair at GHQ.
He wrote of a “retreating and a broken army” after the series of engagements “which may be called the action of Mons,” of the French retreat on the flank, of the “immediate, relentless, unresting” German pursuit and its “irresistible vehemence,” of British regiments “grievously injured” though with “no failure in discipline, no panic and no throwing up the sponge.” In spite of everything the men were still “steady and cheerful” but “forced backwards, ever backwards.” He told of “very great losses,” of “bits of broken regiments,” and of some divisions having “lost nearly all their officers.” Evidently infected with the mood of GHQ, he wrote rather wildly of the German right wing, “so great was their estimated superiority in numbers that they could no more be stopped than the waves of the sea.” Britain, he concluded, must face the fact that the “first great German effort has succeeded” and “the investment of Paris cannot be banished from the field of possibility.”
When, in summarizing the need for reinforcements, he spoke of the BEF which “bore the weight of the blow,” he laid the foundations of a myth. It was as if the French Army had been an adjunct somewhere in the offing. In fact the BEF was never at any time in the first month in contact with more than three German corps out of a total of over thirty, but the idea that it “bore the weight of the blow” was perpetuated in all subsequent British accounts of Mons and of the “Glorious Retreat.” It succeeded in planting in the British mind the conviction that the BEF in the gallant and terrible days of its first month of battle saved France, saved Europe, saved Western civilization or, as one British writer unbashfully put it, “Mons. In that single word will be summed up the Liberation of the World.”
Alone among the belligerents Britain had gone to war with no prearranged framework of national effort, no mobilization orders in every pocket. Except for the regular army, all was improvisation and, during the first weeks, before the Amiens dispatch, almost a holiday mood. Up to then the truth of the German advance was concealed by—to use Mr. Asquith’s exquisite phrase—“patriotic reticence.” The fighting had been presented to the British public—as to the French—as a series of German defeats in which the enemy unaccountably moved from Belgium to France and appeared each day on the map at places farther forward. All over England on August 30 as The Times was read at Sunday breakfast tables, people were aghast. “It was as if,” thought Mr. Britling, “David had flung his pebble—and missed!”
In the sudden and dreadful realization that the enemy was winning the war, people, searching for hope, seized upon a tale that had cropped up within the last few days and turned it into a national hallucination. On August 27 a seventeen-hour delay in the Liverpool-London railway service inspired the rumor that the trouble was due to the transport of Russian troops who were said to have landed in Scotland on their way to reinforce the Western Front. From Archangel they were supposed to have crossed the Arctic Sea to Norway, thence come by ordinary steamer to Aberdeen, and from there were being carried by special troop trains to Channel ports. Anyone whose train was held up thereafter knowingly attributed the delay to “the Russians.” In the gloom following the Amiens dispatch with its talk of German numbers like “the waves of the sea” and its cry for “men, men and more men,” thoughts turned unconsciously toward Russia’s limitless manpower, and the phantoms seen in Scotland took on body, gathering corroborative detail as the story spread.
They stamped snow off their boots on station platforms—in August; a railway porter of Edinburgh was known who had swept up the snow. “Strange uniforms” were glimpsed in passing troop trains. They were reported variously to be going via Harwich to save Antwerp or via Dover to save Paris. Ten thousand were seen after midnight in London marching along the Embankment on their way to Victoria Station. The naval battle of Heligoland was explained by the wise as a diversion to cover the transport of the Russians to Belgium. The most reliable people had seen them—or knew friends who had. An Oxford professor knew a colleague who had been summoned to interpret for them. A Scottish army officer in Edinburgh saw them in “long gaily-colored coats and big fur caps,” carrying bows and arrows instead of rifles and with their own horses “just like Scottish ponies only bonier”—a description that exactly fitted the Cossacks of a hundred years ago as they appeared in early Victorian mezzotints. A resident of Aberdeen, Sir Stuart Coats, wrote to his brother-in-law in America that 125,000 Cossacks had marched across his estate in Perthshire. An English army officer assured friends that 70,000 Russians had passed through England to the Western Front in “utmost secrecy.” At first said to be 500,000, then 250,000, then 125,000, the figure gradually settled at between 70,000 and 80,000—the same number as made up the departed BEF. The story spread entirely by word of mouth; owing to the official censorship nothing appeared in the papers except in the United States. Here the reports of homecoming Americans, most of whom had embarked at Liverpool, which was in a furor of excitement over the Russians, preserved the phenomenon for posterity.
Other neutrals picked up the news. Dispatches from Amsterdam reported a large force of Russians being rushed to Paris to aid in its defense. In Paris people hung about the railway stations hoping to see the arrival of the Cossacks. Passing to the Continent, the phantoms became a military factor; for the Germans, too, heard the rumors. Worry about a possible 70,000 Russians at their backs was to be as real a factor at the Marne as the absence of the 70,000 men they had transferred to the Eastern Front. It was only after the Marne, on September 15, that an official denial of the rumor appeared in the English press.
On the same Sunday as the Amiens dispatch appalled the public, Sir John French composed a report that was an even greater shock to Lord Kitchener. GHQ was then at Compiègne, forty miles north of Paris, and the British troops, relieved of pursuit the previous day, had rested while the enemy was engaged by the French. The Operation Order to the BEF that day, bearing Sir John French’s signature, stated that enemy pressure “was relieved by a French advance in force on our right which met with great success in the neighborhood of Guise where the German Guard and Xth Corps were driven back into the Oise.” This ready acknowledgment of the facts being totally irreconcilable with what Sir John then wrote to Kitchener, it can only be supposed that he signed it without reading it.
He informed Kitchener of Joffre’s request to him to hold fast north of Compiègne, keeping in contact with the enemy, but claimed he was “absolutely unable to remain in the front line” and intended to retire “behind the Seine,” keeping “at a considerable distance from the enemy.” His retirement would involve an eight-day march “without fatiguing the troops” and passing west of Paris so as to be near to his base. “I do not like General Joffre’s plan,” Sir John continued, “and would have preferred a vigorous offensive”—a preference he had just refused to exercise at St. Quentin when he forbade Haig to cooperate with Lanrezac in the battle.
Quickly reversing himself in the next sentence, Sir John made it clear that, after ten days of campaign, he was ready to give the French up as beaten and come home. His confidence in the ability of the French “to carry the campaign to a successful conclusion is fast waning,” he wrote, and “this is my real reason for moving the British forces so far back.” Although “pressed very hard to remain in the front line, even in my shattered condition,” he had “absolutely refused to do so” in accordance with “the letter and spirit” of Kitchener’s instructions and insisted upon retaining independence of action “to retire on my base” if necessary.
Kitchener read the report, received on August 31, with astonishment mounting to consternation. Sir John French’s intention to withdraw from the Allied line and separate the British from the French, with its appearance of deserting them in their most desperate hour, he regarded as “calamitous,” from the political as well as the military point of view. As a violation of the spirit, of the Entente, it became a question of policy, and Kitchener asked the Prime Minister to summon the Cabinet at once. Before it met he sent off a restrained telegram to Sir John expressing his “surprise” at the decision to retire behind the Seine and delicately phrasing his dismay in the form of a question: “What will be the effect of this course upon your relations with the French Army and on the general military situation? Will your retirement leave a gap in the French line or cause them discouragement of which the Germans could take advantage?” He closed with a reminder that the thirty-two troop trains moving through Berlin showed that the Germans were withdrawing forces from the Western Front.
When Kitchener, after reading Sir John’s letter to the Cabinet, explained that retirement behind the Seine might mean loss of the war, the Cabinet was, as Mr. Asquith put it in his muffled way, “perturbed.” Kitchener was authorized to inform Sir John of the government’s anxiety at his proposed retirement and its expectation that “you will as far as possible conform with the plans of General Joffre for the conduct of the campaign.” The government, he added, with care for French’s amour propre, “have all possible confidence in your troops and yourself.”
When OHL had learned of General von Prittwitz’s intention to retire behind the Vistula, he was instantly dismissed; but when Sir John French proposed to give up not a province but an ally, the same solution was not applied. The reason may have been that, owing to the ravages left by the Ulster quarrel, there was no replacement upon whom government and army could agree. The government may have regarded dismissal of the Commander in Chief at such a moment as too great a shock for the public. In any event, inspired by Sir John’s aura of irritability, everyone—French as well as British—continued to treat him with the utmost tact while in fact retaining very little confidence in him. “Joffre and he have never yet been within a mile of the heart of each other,” wrote Sir William Robertson, the British Quartermaster General, to the King’s secretary a year later. “He has never really, sincerely and honestly concerted with the French and they consider him as by no means a man of ability or a faithful friend and therefore do not confide in him.” This was not a situation propitious for the Allied war effort. Kitchener, whose relations with Sir John had not been cordial since the Boer War, never regained confidence in him after August 31, but it was not until December 1915 that Sir John’s own machinations against Kitchener, conducted in a manner, as Lord Birkenhead was to say, “neither decorous, fastidious nor loyal,” finally nerved the British government to remove him.
While in London, Kitchener was waiting impatiently for Sir John’s reply, Joffre in Paris was mobilizing the aid of the French government to try to keep the British in the front line. Joffre had by now discovered that at least half of Lanrezac’s battle—the half at Guise—had been a success. Reports showing that the German Guard and Xth Corps had been “severely handled” and that Bülow’s Army was not pursuing, combined with the news of the withdrawal of German troops to the East, encouraged him. He told Poincaré the government might not have to leave after all; he now felt hopeful of checking the German advance in renewed action by the Fifth and Sixth Armies. He sent a letter to the British Commander telling him the Fifth and Sixth now had orders not to yield ground except under pressure. As they could not be expected to stand if there was a gap between them, he “earnestly” requested Field Marshal French not to withdraw and “at least to leave rearguards so as not to give the enemy the clear impression of a retreat and of a gap between the Fifth and Sixth Armies.”
Asked by Joffre to exert his influence as President of France to obtain a favorable reply, Poincaré called the British ambassador, who called GHQ, but all the calls and visits of liaison officers were of no avail. “I refused,” as Sir John later succinctly summarized his reply, and thereby punctured Joffre’s momentary, if illusory, hope.
Sir John’s reply to his own government was awaited so anxiously by Kitchener that he had the decoders read it to him word by word as it came through late that night. “Of course,” it said, there would be a gap in the French line caused by his retirement, but “if the French go on with their present tactics which are practically to fall back right and left of me, usually without notice, and to abandon all idea of offensive operations … the consequences will be borne by them .… I do not see why I should be called upon to run the risk of absolute disaster in order a second time to save them.” This militant misstatement of the truth, after Joffre had just finished telling him the opposite, was the kind of thing that when his book 1914 was published caused his countrymen to search helplessly for a polite equivalent of “lie” and moved even Mr. Asquith to use the phrase, “a travesty of the facts.” Even given Sir John’s limitations of character, the mystery remains how, with Henry Wilson on the Staff with his thorough knowledge of the French language and his acquaintance with senior French officers including Joffre himself, the British Commander in Chief could have arrived at the picture he did of French defeatism.
When Kitchener finished reading the telegram at 1:00 A.M., he decided instantly there was only one thing to do and it could not wait for daybreak. He must go to France himself. As senior Field Marshal, he was head of the army and as such considered himself entitled to give orders to Sir John French on military matters as well as on matters of policy in his capacity as War Minister. Hastening to Downing Street he conferred with Asquith and a group of ministers, among them Churchill, who ordered a fast cruiser for his conveyance to be ready within two hours at Dover. He telegraphed Sir John to expect him and, lest his appearance at GHQ embarrass the sensibilities of the Commander in Chief, asked him to select a place of meeting. At 2:00 A.M. Sir Edward Grey was startled out of his sleep by the apparition of Kitchener walking into his bedroom to say he was going to France. At 2:30 he departed by special train from Charing Cross and by morning of September 1 was in Paris.
Looking “irritated, violent, his face congested, sulky and angry,” Field Marshal French, accompanied by Sir Archibald Murray, arrived at the British Embassy, the meeting place he had selected. He intended it to emphasize the civilian nature of the conference for he insisted on regarding Kitchener as political head of the army only, with no status other than that of any civilian War Minister. His choler was hardly soothed to find Kitchener in uniform, which Sir John instantly took as an attempt to pull rank on him. In fact, after appearing in frock coat and silk hat on his first day at the war office, Kitchener had discarded civilian clothes for the blue undress uniform of a Field Marshal. Sir John took it as a personal affront. Clothes were a matter of the greatest importance to him and he had a tendency to use them to enhance his own dignity in ways his associates considered unorthodox. He offended King George by his habit of “wearing stars in khaki” and “covering himself with foreign baubles”; and Henry Wilson used to say of him, “He is a nice little man in his bath but when he puts his clothes on you can’t trust him; you never know what he will wear.”
When the meeting at the British Embassy in the presence of Sir Francis Bertie, Viviani, Millerand, and several officers representing Joffre became increasingly acrimonious, Kitchener asked Sir John to retire with him to a private room. As Sir John’s version of what was said there, published after Kitchener was dead, is unreliable, only the results of their conversation are known for certain. They were expressed in a telegram from Kitchener to the government stating that “French’s troops are now engaged in the fighting line where they will remain conforming to the movements of the French Army,” which would mean retiring east, not west, of Paris. In a copy sent to Sir John, Kitchener said he felt sure this represented the agreement they had come to, but in any event “please consider it an instruction.” By “in the fighting line,” he said he meant disposing the British troops in contact with the French. In a fatal return to tact he added, “Of course you will judge as regards their position in this respect.” Unmollified, the Commander in Chief retired in a sulk now deeper and more paralyzing than before.
During this and the previous day Kluck’s Army, advancing by forced marches in its haste to envelop the French before they could take a firm stand, had overtaken Compiègne, crossed the Oise, pushing the Allied retreat before it, and on September 1 was in action against rearguards of the French Sixth Army and the BEF thirty miles from Paris.
In preparation for the greatest moment in Teutonic history, the Germans with admirable efficiency had already struck off, and distributed to staff officers for ultimate presentation to the troops, a bronze medal confidently inscribed Einzug d. Deutschen Truppen in Paris (Entry of German Troops into Paris). Beneath appeared the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and, combining proud memory and anticipation, the dates 1871–1914.