General Joffre: The Victor of the Marne
By Captain X,
of the French Staff (Raymond Recouly)
[Scribner's Magazine, October 1915]
It was in the early days of last September, those stirring and crowded days that preceded the great battle of the Marne. My division, retreating from Belgian Luxembourg by way of Mézières and Rethel, had just reached Vitry-les- Reims, some five miles north of Rheims.
"This," I said to myself, "marks the end of our retreat. The Rheims forts, old as they are, will give us a fairly good base; and protected by them we shall give battle and win."
Notwithstanding our steady retirement, nothing could have been better than the morale of our army. Twice already our division had been pitted in serious and bloody battle against the Saxon army of von Hausen. On each occasion, though confronted by forces superior to our own, we had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy and remained the uncontested masters of the field. Nevertheless, after each battle the order to retreat (dictated, as we well knew, by considerations based on the situation along the entire front) had been given two or three hours later; and off we had started in the night, down the dark country roads, through the sleeping villages, abandoning to the invader yet another portion of the sacred soil of France.
"This time at least," said I to myself, "we shall stand firm and keep a solid grip above Rheims."
And now, at about eleven o'clock at night, the head of the staff suddenly sent for me. "We are to evacuate Rheims," he said, "and continue our retreat. You must start at once for Tauxières and get our staff quarters ready. The division will begin to march at midnight."
I listened with a heavy heart. But there is this much good in the soldier's trade, that it leaves no time for discouragement. I had only ten minutes in which to wake my orderly and my chauffeur, to pack my belongings, and be off.
It was a moonless night, but beautifully, divinely clear. The air trembled with soft, warm breezes. I took my place beside the chauffeur to help him find the road, which neither of us knew. Not a soul was stirring in the streets of Rheims. In the deep silence of the night not even a footfall awakened the deserted squares, and there were no lights in any of the houses. It was like an abandoned town. In my perplexity as to the right road I aimed for the cathedral, whose huge yet slender mass stained the night sky with a darker shadow. The lofty towers seemed almost to touch the stars, and a mysterious serenity, emanating from them, enveloped the ancient city.
I stopped at the door of one of the hotels in front of the cathedral and rang the bell. After a long delay the sleepy porter appeared. I asked him to show me the road, and he pointed it out, and then asked: "Captain, are our troops falling back? Are the Germans coming?" I had not the heart to lie to the poor fellow after waking him up at that hour. "The Germans will be here to-morrow evening," I said. "But we shall come back and drive them out again."
As we climbed the slope among the famous vineyards, through Verzenay and Verzy, and began to cross the great forest of Rheims, my mind was full of dark thoughts, and of feelings of doubt and anguish. Should we succeed in holding our own against this terrible foe, who had prepared his campaign down to the smallest details, who was spending men and ammunition recklessly, hurling against us ten, even a dozen, times in succession the close formations of his battalions, spreading panic in the country by ruthlessly burning every village in his path and shooting down the harmless inhabitants? In proportion as we retreated and as he advanced, his military strength and his certainty of victory were both bound to increase, like an avalanche gathering bulk as it sweeps down the mountainside. And as to our own soldiers, would not this continuous retreat finally affect their spirits and destroy the self-confidence, the obstinate invincible faith in the destinies of France, which, was the one condition of victory whenever the great battle began?
These disquieting thoughts continued to haunt me as we drove on through the night. But little by little, with the first approach of dawn, my sombre presentiments vanished. What mattered a few leagues of countryside, a few villages, and even towns, temporarily abandoned to the enemy? France, I saw, was not a mere expanse of territory, not only groups of houses or monuments of stone. The France of to-day is her army, and the army's spirit remains unsubdued. Never had indifference to fatigue, to suffering, and even to death, complete self-effacement, complete surrender of one's self, attained a higher degree in officers and in men. Never had the flower of heroism so magnificently bloomed. And the spirit of the average citizen at home was the same as the soldier's. From Paris, where one hears the very heart-beat of France, one of our comrades had sent me the day before the report of a little incident that had struck me as worthy of the great traditions of Greece and Rome. As my friend came out of the church of the Madeleine and paused on the upper steps of the portico, a poorly but neatly dressed little boy, not more than ten years old, came up to him and pushed into his hand a bit of paper on which was written: " We must not despair; France cannot be beaten." My friend ran after the child and asked who had told him to distribute the paper. He learned that for two days and nights the boy's whole family—his mother, his two sisters and an aged relative—had been steadily at work in their poor lodgings, writing several thousands of the papers which the lad was handing to passers-by.
From the-humblest soldier to the highest chiefs the entire French army has complete unflinching faith in its commander-in-chief. From the very first engagements his firm and resolute hold upon the reins had inspired his troops with courage and confidence. The result of our first encounters with the enemy had not been what we had hoped. The incompleteness of our organization, our lack of heavy artillery, our inadequate information as to the German army, all these deficiencies were cruelly evident in the early battles. Nor did all our generals display in the same degree the qualities of intelligence and energy required of a great military leader—for the simple reason that in times of peace it is all but impossible to prognosticate a general's worth in war. Only the test of battle gives the true measure of a general's merits. This or that brilliant reputation, won during the big manoeuvres, falls to pieces with the first crack of the rifle and the bursting of the first shells; while an officer on whom only slight hopes have been founded may display at the first test the qualities of a born leader.
From the outset, whenever General Joffre detected in his generals the slightest weakness of character or talent he promptly and pitilessly removed them. It mattered not if the delinquents were among his oldest comrades, his closest friends: they were at once replaced by those among their subordinates who, during the first battles, had established their military aptitude and their general superiority; and the entire army, by its silent verdict, its mute approbation, never failed to ratify these appointments.
One of my chiefs had seen General Joffre at the general headquarters two days before our retreat from Rheims. He had brought back from the visit an impression of absolute confidence. "I mean to deliver the big battle," the general had said to him, "in the most favorable conditions, at my own time, and on the ground I have chosen. If necessary I shall continue to retreat. I shall bide my time. No consideration whatever will make me alter my plans."
I recalled all this as the motor rushed along through the night, and as I repeated to myself the words of the commander-in-chief, glorious with their hint of hope, our retreat seemed less unbearably painful. Since wait we must, we would wait. We had not to wait long. Three days later, on the morning of September 5th, just as we reached a point a little to the north of Fère-Champenoise, a sensational order was brought to us. The retreat of the French armies was at an end. That very evening preparations for a general attack were to be made, and on the morrow the whole army, from Paris to the Vosges, was to assume the offensive.
The morning of the 6th of September marks a capital date in the history of the world. It was the beginning of the great battle of the Marne. That morning General Joffre issued to our soldiers the great Order of the Day, which, was read along the entire front. It reveals the unshakable confidence of the chief in his soldiers, and of the soldiers in their general:
"At the moment of engaging a battle on which the fate of the country hangs it is necessary to remind every one that the time has passed for looking backward. Every effort must be made to attack and to drive back the enemy. Troops that can no longer advance must at all costs stand their ground, and let themselves be killed on the spot rather than retreat. In the present circumstances no weakness can be tolerated."
For four days and four nights the battle raged. On the evening of the fourth day every one of the German armies was in full retreat. At certain points the retreat had turned into a rout. General Joffre and his army had won the biggest victory of all time.
It is not too much to assert that a victory so complete, a recovery so startling, is without a parallel in military history. The only analogy it suggests is that of a wrestler, already down, with shoulders all but touching, who, leaping suddenly to his feet, takes his antagonist by the throat, throws him, and makes him, bite the dust. It is not surprising that some people believed in a miracle. But there are no miracles in battle. Miracles in war are due, nine times out of ten, or even ninety-nine times out of a hundred, to the heroism of the men and the genius of their chiefs.
General Joffre plays an open game. He is never afraid to show his hand. When he had won the victory of the Marne he himself undertook to show how he had won it. He has just published the series of his "General Orders'" during the days before the great battle, from the 25th of August to the 6th of September, 1914. These despatches are official documents of indisputable authenticity and authority. They contain the irrefutable and naked truth, and they confirm the contention that the great battle of the Marne was clearly foreseen, and planned in all its details, by the commander-in-chief. The first of General Joffre's orders is dated August 25th; but before dwelling on its importance and significance it is necessary to outline briefly the respective situations, at that date, of the French and German armies.
The French War Office was well aware of the plan of the German general staff, which consisted in making a violent attack through Belgium, with the purpose of turning our left flank. All our officers knew that the German army would violate the neutrality of Belgium; but the enveloping movement of the German armies was made on a scale, and with an offensive dash, that entirely exceeded our expectations. We had not supposed it possible that the Germans, on the first day, could bring their entire reserves into action. But that was what they did; and the striking force of their army corps was thereby more than doubled. Their reserve corps were ready to support the active army; and these reserves were exactly as well trained, as well equipped, and as abundantly provided with heavy artillery as their active force.
For years past the German Government had been spending at least twenty millions of marks a year to maintain, among their continental neighbors, and especially in France, a horde of spies who had penetrated everywhere and ferreted out all the secrets of our War Office. A country as peaceful and republican as France has neither the money nor the resources, even if it had the inclination, to indulge in such extravagances of espionage. The German aim was to finish with 'France within a few weeks, in order to have a free hand to deal with Russia, while the latter country was still struggling with the difficulties of mobilization. At the outset, therefore, the Germans left a relatively small force on the Russian frontier: four corps of the active army (out of twenty-five and a half) and a few formations of the reserve. All the rest—that is to say, about fifty army corps, or two million five hundred thousand men—were thrown at once against France.
France, owing to her inferior population, was unable to provide so big an army to face this formidable onset. The fact of this inferiority is one which cannot be too insistently dwelt upon. The French forces, at the opening of the war, must have been numerically inferior by at least a million men; while the British army, at the same-date, numbered three divisions, or from seventy to eighty thousand men at the most.
What, in presence of the German plan, was to be the French retort? A plan based on the principle of the immediate offensive was held to be best suited to our national temperament and the well-known dash of our soldiers. Four simultaneous attacks were contemplated. The first was through upper Alsace toward Mulhouse; and Mulhouse was captured by us, then lost, and then a third time retaken. But this was only a secondary episode of the war.
Our second attack was through Lorraine and the passes of the Vosges, in the direction of Saarbourg and Saverne. After some successes on this frontier our troops, in the region of Morhange, came upon largely superior forces and very strong positions which the Germans had had ample time to fortify. Heavy artillery, with which the enemy was abundantly provided, played an important part in these early engagements. We had to retire. Luneville was taken and Nancy threatened by German guns.
Our third plan of attack was through Belgian Luxembourg, and here too we had to beat a retreat.
Finally, our army on the left wing, supported by the British, was to assume the offensive in Belgium, and make a flanking attack on the German army, while the latter sought, by an enveloping movement to cross the Meuse between Liège and Namur. A little delay in carrying out this plan threw away our chance of success. The battle of Charleroi, where the Anglo-French armies were engaged against very large forces, was a virtual defeat. Germany had pitted against us the main bulk of her forces, and the English and French armies were compelled to begin a rapid retreat. This released Von Kluck's army, which was left free to plunge headlong, fifty kilometres at a stride, on its march to Paris.
Such was the general situation about the 22d of last August; such the imminent peril which General Joffre had to face. No heavier burden, no more formidable responsibility, ever weighed on human shoulders. A moment's discouragement, an instant's hesitation, and France would have been lost, and Europe and the rest of the world left to discover the meaning of such a disaster as the triumph of Germany.
General Joffre did not have that moment's hesitation. He showed himself the immediate master of a situation of unparalleled danger. He might have chosen to dispute with the invader every inch of French territory; but such a plan would have entailed the gravest risks. It would have necessitated giving battle at once and in the most unfavorable conditions. Our army on the left, operating with the British army, would not have had time to pull itself together; and, given the immense number of men that the Germans were able to put into the field, our forces would have been exposed to an overwhelming defeat.
The commander-in-chief s plan was of a much, higher kind. He decided squarely to refuse battle both with his left wing and his centre and, while withdrawing these two armies, to carry out a fresh concentration of his forces which should quietly shift them from the east to the west. While Von Kluck was rapidly pushing southward, Joffre, with the object of turning his right flank, as rapidly formed a fresh army under the command of General Maunoury. Here is the order of the day (dated August 25) which embodies this project.
"In the region of Amiens a fresh group of forces will be created by the units transported by rail (Seventh Corps), the Fourth Division of Reserves, and perhaps another active army corps, formed between the 22d of August and 2d of September."
Such was the origin of the army of Maunoury, which, by menacing Von Kluck's forces, played so important a part during the battle of the Marne. The creation of this army was entirely due to the foresight of General Joffre. Two days later, on August 27, the commander-in-chief formed, at the very centre of the line, another army, which he placed under the command of one of our most eminent chiefs, General Foch. The creation of the Maunoury army on the left, and of the Foch army in the centre—these are the two acts which contain in germ the victory on the Marne.
It will be seen by the indisputable evidence of the dates above given that, ten days before the great battle, General Joffre had made all his preparations for it. The fresh shifting of our forces, the mobilization by rail of the various army corps, was affected without a hitch, and it only remained to await developments. Once Von Kluck had advanced sufficiently to uncover his right wing, thus exposing it to the attack of Maunoury's army, the battle could begin.
The right moment arrived on the 4th of September. On that day cavalry reconnoissances and the reports of the aviators showed that Von Kluck had turned southeast, toward Meaux and Coulommiers, well off the straight road to Paris. Instantly, on the afternoon of September 4, General Joffre gave the order to attack. The main lines of this order are as follows:
I. Advantage must be taken of the precarious situation of the first German army (Von Kluck) to bring to bear against it the forces of the Allied armies on the extreme left. All arrangements will be made on September 5, in view of an attack on the 6th.
II. The disposition of forces to be effected on the evening of the 5th of September will be:
(a) All the forces at the disposal of the sixth army (Maunoury), northeast of Meaux, must be ready to cross the Ourcq between Lizy-sur-Ourcq and May-en-Multien, in the general direction of Chateau-Thierry. For this operation the elements of the first cavalry corps in the neighborhood will be placed under General Maunoury's orders.
(b) The British army on the Changis-Coulommiers front facing eastward will be ready to attack in the general direction of Montmirail.
(c) The fifth army (General Franchet d'Espérey), in slightly closer formation on the left, will take its position along the general line Courtacon-Isternay-Sézanne ready to attack in the general direction of south-north. The second cavalry corps will secure the connection between the British and the fifth army.
(d) The ninth army (General Foch) will cover the right of the fifth army and hold the southern approaches of the Marshes of St. Gond. A portion of its forces will take up their position on the plateau north of Sézanne.
III. The offensive will be taken by these various armies on the morning of the 6th of September.
(Signed) J. Joffre.
On the morrow the fourth army, under General Langle de Cary, and the third army, under General Sarrail, received instructions in harmony with these general orders.
All preparations had been made and all the orders given. Everything which it was humanly possible for a great commander to do in anticipation of a great battle had been done. The result depended on the capacity of the chiefs and the valor of the troops.
Picture for a moment what must have been the state of mind of General Joffre on the 6th of September, the tragic hour on the eve of the great battle! Here was a man of great moral elevation, of pure and ardent patriotism, intensely alive to the terrible responsibility weighing upon him; a character of the old heroic mould, modest and reticent, disdainful of vulgar ambition and self-advertisement; and this man was aware that in the battle which was to be fought on the morrow the very existence of France was, at stake. If the battle was lost, Paris would be taken and France conquered for all time.
General Joffre knew the tragic and desperate nature of the crisis confronting him. With the fullest consciousness of that crisis, and moved by intense emotion, he despatched to the government at Bordeaux a telegram which, when it is made public, will show France that her chief is made of the stuff of Plutarch's men.
The gist of the message was as follows: General Joffre informed the President of the Republic that he had done all he could to save the state, that the die was cast, and that it only remained to await results. His tone was calm and confident. He affirmed his conviction that the impending battle would be fought under conditions favorable to France. He described the enemy as being held in a vice between Paris and Verdun; he declared that the spirit of the troops had never been better, and he summed up by saying that the preponderance of chances was on our side.
The wonderful forecast embodied in this despatch was soon to be realized. At the appointed moment all our armies opened a simultaneous attack. Maunoury's army on the Ourcq so completely shattered one of Von Kluck's divisions that the German commander, threatened with immediate envelopment, was suddenly compelled to shift his forces to meet the British army. The British army and that of General Franchet d'Esperey, taking advantage of this retreat, plunged straight ahead, drove the German corps back by a vigorous thrust, and in this way gained a good deal of ground toward the north. At the same time all our armies were advancing along the entire line from west to east, each army fastening itself to the one preceding it with the successive forward jerks of a parrot climbing along a stick.
Those were soul-thrilling days. We who lived through them, in actual contact with them, knew that they marked a dividing line in our experience, and, that henceforward all we did and were would gravitate about that central moment of our lives.
The Germans instantly saw the danger menacing them. They made a frantic effort to break through the centre of our line, between Sézanne and Fère Champenoise, in the region of the marshes of St. Gond. The Imperial Guard and all the picked troops were massed at that point. Their object was to overthrow Foch's army. By a serious of repeated onslaughts, led with the most reckless violence, they attempted to pierce our lines and cut our armies in two. Once this result obtained, they would only have had to fall back against our left and right to compass our defeat. At one time, on the third day and on the morning of the fourth (September 8 and 9), it looked very much as if they might succeed. They had pushed back the whole right wing of the army of Foch. The Guard had occupied Fère Champenoise. But the left of Foch's army still clung desperately to the outskirts of the plateau overlooking the marshes of St. Gond. In vain the Germans multiplied their attacks and wore themselves out in prodigious onslaughts. The Moroccan division, under General Humbert, held fast to every inch of ground, replying to each German thrust by a still more furious assault. Not for a single instant did General Foch admit the possibility of retreat. At a critical moment one of his officers came to him. "General, my troops are worn out!"
"So are the Germans. Attack!" was the curt reply.
At the most crucial period of the struggle General Foch conceived and executed a manoeuvre which, together with Maunoury's movement, was one of the determining causes of victory. The right of Foch's army had given way, while the left was still holding out. Instantly he transferred an excellent division from left to right, taking the Germans by an unexpected flanking movement and checking their advance.
The Germans, far from being able to pierce our centre, were by this time in the gravest peril. On their right wing the situation of Von Kluck's army was becoming more and more critical: it was in imminent danger of envelopment. Everywhere the Germans' losses had been terrible—some of their regiments lost a third of their strength. More than once I have heard General Joffre say that this prodigious slaughter was one of the main causes of the German retreat.
On the evening of September 9 the Kaiser was compelled to sign the general order for the retreat of the whole of his armies. Good-by to Paris, and the hope of a triumphal entry! The very troops which, a few days before, had swept so arrogantly through our villages now traversed them again with lowered heads. In many instances the retreat turned into a veritable rout. The German troops seemed astounded by the sudden disaster—the repulse was a staggering one. Two days after the battle the proprietor of the principal hotel at Chalons-sur-Marne told me a characteristic anecdote. A German general staff had taken up its quarters in the hotel, which happens to be well known for its cellar. The general was a Royal Highness who was treated by the staff with the profoundest deference. On the evening of September 9 the officers had all gone to bed after an excellent dinner and much riotous drinking. Toward midnight there were hurried steps in the passages and the prince and his staff, hastily roused, rushed out of their rooms in their night-clothes. "We must be off at once!" shouted his Highness. "Order the motors! The French are here!" In fifteen minutes the hotel was empty—the whole general staff had vanished, forgetting, in their panic, several cases of champagne of a vintage they had found greatly to their taste. The moral of the story is that the French troops arrived only two days later.
The victory of the Marne is immense, gigantic in character. It took place along a front of four hundred kilometres, which should be viewed as a whole—that is to say, from Paris to the Vosges—and not be studied at any isolated point of the line. The tendency to view it in that way has misled many people ignorant of all the facts of the campaign. They think only of the army of Maunoury and its manoeuvre. They forget all the other elements at work, and imagine it was that single manoeuvre which determined the victory. To do this is like looking through the small end of a telescope. It is as if some one at a concert, who happened to be seated close to the violin or the violoncello, should conclude that the merits of the symphony were due to those two instruments alone. As a matter of fact, the applause is due to the leader of the whole orchestra, that is to say, to General Joffre. This is the inevitable inference to be drawn from any rational examination of the facts.
It is also said that but for Von Kluck's inexplicable manoeuvre in turning to the southeast on September 4, instead of immediately attacking Paris, the victory of the Marne could not have been won, the capital would have fallen, and the war soon afterward have come to a disastrous end. All these assertions are equally mistaken. If Von Kluck was really in a position, on September 4, to end the war at a single blow, and did not do it, he is undoubtedly the most inefficient general who has ever commanded a German army. And, if this is the case, it is hard to see why the Kaiser keeps him in command and showers honors and decorations on him, when he ought obviously to have been court-martialed and shot.
It implies an unparalleled ignorance of military matters to suppose that the general at the head of one of the six or seven German armies then invading France was free to make so important a move without first getting into touch with the German general staff. The truth is, Von Kluck could not dream of besieging Paris before getting well rid of those of our forces, in front and on his flank, which would have certainly fallen on him while he was engaged in the attack on the capital. He could not, and he had no right to, act otherwise than he did. It is an absolute rule of German strategy that the enemy's army must first be destroyed before the investment of a fortified place is attempted. In the present instance this rule was imperative. For (as will some day be known) there was already too big a gap, there was in fact a veritable hole, between the army of Von Kluck and the other German army on his left. General Joffre, as has been seen, has not hesitated to publish the series of his military orders previous to the battle of the Marne. Whenever his example is followed in Germany, and the orders of the German general staff are published, it will be seen which of the two series of documents is distinguished by clearness and precision, and which is confused and vague.
The German orders given before the battle of the Marne happen to be in the possession of our staff, and I have had the privilege of reading them. At that time the German general staff used ciphered radiograms, and as we had discovered the cipher all the communications of the German headquarters were immediately known to us. In the early days of the war the German War Office had but one purpose—to act rapidly and to strike hard. Strategic scruples did not hamper the German generals any more than diplomatic scruples hampered the German statesmen. The different German armies were engaged in a sort of steeplechase toward the centre of France. The fastest was to win the prize. The Germans were so confident in the force of their momentum that they fancied they could overwhelm and shatter everything they encountered. This confidence naturally grew in proportion as the French armies retreated. The Germans believed they were driving the French before them, in headlong rout. They have never been brilliant psychologists, and the fine shades of the French temperament escaped their perspicacity, and doubtless always will. The fact is illustrated by the attitude and the utterances of Von Kluck on Sunday, September 6, at Coulommiers. The picture is curious enough to claim a moment's attention, and we possess definite proof of its accuracy. Never have German pride and self-sufficiency broken out with finer effect. It is really worth while to record the attitude of Von Kluck on the day of the battle of the Marne.
The French soldiers had evacuated Coulommiers the night before. During the night the German troops arrived, battalion after battalion, and were immediately sent on toward the south. It was Sunday afternoon. The few inhabitants left in the little town had shut themselves into their houses. Suddenly a hundred or more German soldiers carrying revolvers rushed into the main street, knocking at all the doors and shouting: "Shut the windows, the staff is coming!" A quarter of an hour later, in a magnificent 60 h.p. car, his Excellency General von Kluck arrived. He took up his quarters in the finest house in the town. One of his officers, who had preceded him, had already ordered dinner: two dishes of meat, peas and pork (his Excellency's favorite dish), washed down with champagne, and a good deal of it. The general enjoyed his dinner and, when it was over, settled himself down in a big armchair in the doorway. He summoned the fine military band which always accompanies him. "Some French airs," he commanded: "Only French airs—Carmen, La Mascotte." The band played La Mascotte and Carmen, and Von Kluck's satisfaction increased. "Why don't the people turn up to listen to my band? They've never heard a better one!" He sent an imperious summons to his aged hostess, who presented herself in fear and trembling. "Don't be afraid, madam," he said affably. "Where are your husband and children?" The poor woman said that her husband was dead and that her three sons were in the army. "Oh, well, they'll be Germans," returned Von Kluck consolingly; "and so will you. The half of France is going to be German, and it's the best thing that could happen to it. You'll see what we'll make of you when you've had a course of German discipline and culture. You French have a lot of showy qualities: what you want is discipline. We're going to defeat your army—the job is half done now—and by the end of the week we shall be in Paris." With this he allowed the poor lady to retire.
The entire German army, from the soldiers to the generals, share the views of this typical chief. This is why it has made such a reckless expenditure of energy, striking right and left to the point of exhaustion in its uncontrollable frenzy of destruction. At the outset of the war the whole German army shared Von Kluck's conviction that everything would be over in a few weeks. One day our regiment had been fighting from dawn until sunset, withstanding seven or eight German attacks. Our men were utterly done up—they hardly had the strength to prepare their evening meal. We were all sure that that night the Germans, who were bound to be as tired as we were, and who had suffered enormous losses, would leave us time to get a few hours' sleep. But at about ten o'clock a terrible fusillade burst out suddenly all along the line of outposts—the quick-firing guns had begun the music which is so like the staccato notes of a mowing-machine bent on business. And thereupon there followed an astounding, terrifying impression—a great shower of luminous fuses burst out from beyond the German lines, shedding over the entire battle-field the fantastic shifting gleams of Bengal fires. Then searchlights, suddenly unmasked, sent a flood of blinding light along our front; and at the same moment we saw a German column, at least three battalions strong, charging toward our lines. The men advanced in close formation, four by four, as if on parade. We saw distinctly the subalterns and the officers, driving forward with the flat of their swords some soldiers who had fallen out of line. The regimental band was playing, fifes screaming, drums rolling. The whole astounding spectacle—the music, the illuminations, the brilliant search-lights, and the massed battalions—called forth from the colonel who was standing at my side: "It's the finest show I ever saw in my life!"
Our outposts had hastily retired. Almost instantly our machine-guns opened an infernal fire against this magnificent target. The rifles came to the aid of the machine guns and were joined by our "75," which was still trained for action. Every shot made its mark in those serried columns. We saw whole lines go down: it was like a gigantic game of nine-pins. This attack, for all its insane temerity, was absolutely without result, and almost the whole regiment must have been wiped out. During the four days and four nights of the battle of the Marne the Germans again and again rushed on death in the same way—the losses they suffered were appalling. Military critics, in Germany as well as in France, hold it to be an axiom that a troop which has lost by fire a quarter of its men is incapable of continuing the struggle, and the case of the Prussian Guard at St. Privat is often cited as an instance. The cautious and reasonable Joffre is no spendthrift of his soldiers. At the battle of the Marne he indulged in no such luxury of hecatombs, and his self-restraint did not deprive him of victory.
Photographs and portraits have made the face of the commander-in-chief familiar to the whole world. The impression he produces is one of massive force and vigor. He is tall and robustly built, and there is great straightforwardness and kindness in his calm face crowned with white hair. I have often seen him at the general headquarters. They are situated in a delightful little town not far from Paris a town known to all Americans who come to France; and the general staff is lodged in a famous building familiar to visitors from overseas. The first impression received on entering the headquarters is one of quiet and repose. Once I was summoned there at the very moment when a great battle was being fought in Flanders. From the particular spot in which I stood all orders were being sent out and there all the information from the whole front converged. The general staff headquarters is both the heart and the brain of that gigantic organism, an army of three million men. One would have expected a scene of intense activity, a general sense of hurry and confusion; but nothing could less resemble what I saw. In the hall a few officers were passing to and fro with bundles of papers under their arms. In one corner a group of soldiers, bent over a table, were sealing some big envelopes. A lift took me to an upper story. I went down a narrow passage where two orderlies were on duty, and was ushered into the office of General Pellé, who is the right arm of the commander-in-chief. . He wore the khaki of our Moroccan troops, whom he commanded before the war, and his handsome face looked somewhat thin and drawn from prolonged vigils and overwork.
General Pellé was for some time our military attaché in Berlin. He is thoroughly acquainted, not only with the German army, but with the German people. Our "Yellow Book" contains a report by him, written in 1912, which is a marvel of perspicacity, and even of prophetic insight. After a few moments talk, he told me that General Joffre would receive me at once, and without further ceremony he opened a door on the opposite side of the room and led me into the great general's presence. The room was very small and furnished like an ordinary sitting-room in a small hotel. "The four feet square of my cabinet," said Richelieu; Joffre, too, might speak of his "four feet square."
The commander-in-chief was sitting at a small table on which there were two or three sheets of paper and a map. There is a look in his steel-blue eyes that all his photographs and portraits fail to show. It is a look that admits of no reply: there is finality in his glance. The minute and searching precision with which he questioned me about the object of my visit showed me that he knew in its smallest details every sector of the interminable front extending from the North Sea to the Vosges, from Nieuport almost up to Mulhouse. He listened attentively to my explanations, and put into a few words, the fewest possible, his observations and orders; then, with a vigorous handshake, he turned to other duties.
General Joffre gets up every morning at five o'clock and is always in bed by nine in the evening. Strict orders are given not to wake him except in cases of emergency. Self-command and insight are the dominant qualities of a great military chief, and neither of these qualities is possible without a good sleep. As often as possible the general gets away from his headquarters to visit the front and inspect his troops. I recall a day, two weeks after the victory of the Marne, when we were near Rheims, at the fort of Montbré. From the outworks, which formed a splendid observatory, we had a view of the entire battle-field. As we were watching the results of our gun-fire on the German trenches just across the valley, suddenly, without warning, General Joffre arrived with General Foch. He had come to congratulate our chief, General H——, on his magnificent conduct during the battle of the Marne, and a few cordial moving words conveyed his joy in his officer's achievement.
Two powerful limousines for his officers and a third motor for detectives form the entire escort of the commander-in-chief. On his arrival at any particular point he reviews with the utmost care and precision the battalions under arms. He inspects everything, questions the soldiers, bestows decorations, showing an unflagging diligence in the fulfillment of this part of his duties, which brings him in constant personal contact with his men. After these inspections and reviews General Joffre and a dozen or more officers meet at a short military luncheon in some small town. The talk on these occasions is perfectly free from constraint, all the officers present, frankly exchanging their impressions. The general himself does not say much—he has often been called "Joffre the Silent." But he does not dislike to hear others talk and has no objection to laughter and gayety; in fact, he is not without his own quiet sense of humor. I once heard it remarked in his presence that the moustaches and hair of many of our generals had grown suddenly white since the war. "It's the worry, the fatigue, the responsibility," somebody suggested. "No doubt," the chief agreed; "and perhaps also the lack of certain indispensable toilet articles."
The conclusion to be drawn from all the conversations and all the isolated sayings of General Joffre is that he possesses an unshakable belief in the successful issue of the present war. This robust faith emanates from him, like a powerful current. It is a pity that all those who criticise and lament—their number in France is luckily not great—all the fault-finders and unbelievers— cannot be given a bath of confidence at our general headquarters. They would come back cured.
General Joffre does not admit for an instant that there can be the slightest doubt as to our victory, our complete and comprehensive victory. And his faith in the outcome is based on the fact that, over and above the daily incidents and accidents of the struggle, he perceives its deep realities and profound determining causes. These causes are all in our favor. Even taking matters at the worst, as far as we are concerned, even supposing that we never succeed in breaking through the German lines and in driving the enemy back a kilometre; even in that case (and it is unthinkable) there remains for Germany the certainty of ultimate defeat and disaster. To consider only the question of reserves of soldiers, leaving aside the whole matter of money and other economic considerations, the resources of Germany and Austria are strictly limited. The day is at hand when these resources will be exhausted. Those of the Allies, on the contrary, are almost infinite; and victory is mathematically assured to them. Germany, seventeen years ago (the calculation should be made from that date, since it is impossible to enlist soldiers under seventeen years of age) had fifty-five millions of inhabitants: in other words, a third more than France. Since the beginning of the war she has formed twice as many army corps as we have, and this virtually means that, relatively to the figure of her population, she has accomplished a far greater military effort than we. For instance, while France out of a thousand inhabitants enlisted one hundred soldiers, Germany out of the same number enlisted from a hundred and twenty-five to a hundred and thirty.
These figures are indisputable. Germany has drawn much more largely on her reserves than France, and they are bound to be much sooner exhausted.
During the first months of the war the force left by Germany on the Russian front was relatively small—it represented scarcely an eighth part of her total strength. But as the Austrian army began to weaken and the menace of the Russian invasion of Hungary became more pressing, Germany had to come to the rescue of her ally. It was impossible for her to withdraw any considerable number of troops from the western front, as she has been inaccurately said to have done. She transferred only some cavalry divisions which were not particularly useful to her, and a certain amount of heavy artillery; but she placed on the Russian front a considerable portion of the fresh formations then being created in Germany. It is only necessary to consider the furious onslaughts in Poland and in Galicia, where battles last for more than a month, to know that relatively few of those fresh troops will ever be in a condition to be brought back to the French or the Italian frontiers. In fact, by August or September every time we kill or wound a German soldier on our front Germany will have increasing difficulty in finding a substitute; and the time will eventually come when it will be impossible for her to find any. That moment will strike the hour of her defeat.
The whole aggressive plan of campaign of Germany was based on a short sharp assault lasting a few weeks or a few months. That was why she did not scruple to expend her maximum force at the outset. At the very first shock she utilized everything she could dispose of; and hereafter her strength, instead of increasing, must steadily diminish. Our own, on the contrary, is in almost all respects as steadily increasing. We have abundant reserves of men, since, in contradistinction to the German method, we have made only a small number of new formations. The English army is constantly growing, Italy is flinging into the mêlée her fresh troops, numbering, at the minimum, one million five hundred thousand men; and there still remains the inexhaustible reservoir of Russia. We are manufacturing more and more shells, and every day proves more emphatically the preponderating part which ammunition plays in the present war. Finally, our heavy artillery, which was deficient at the outset, is daily becoming more considerable.
These are only some of the reasons, all as solid as granite, on which the robust optimism of General Joffre is based. When people speak to him in discouraging tones he merely shrugs his broad shoulders and smiles. The one thing to beware of, in his opinion, is impatience. Germany is virtually a besieged citadel. She is holding firm to the very last moment, she seems to be making light of her enemies, she never ceases to proclaim her invincibility. But some day the citadel will fall, and all will be over.
Immediately after our victory on the Marne the Germans took to the trenches. That fact was of itself more than a half-confession of failure. For it should be noted that they might have retreated a little farther (as we ourselves had done two weeks before), and then manoeuvred in such a way as to deliver a new battle which, if they had won it, would have given them decisive results. Instead of that they condemned themselves to the wearing-out process of trench warfare, which precluded all possibility of a quick and resounding success. The hope of such a success is over for all time. It is no longer within their power to inflict on us the violent shattering blow they were so confident of dealing. All the attacks they have attempted since the battle of the Marne have been checked: the effort to invest Verdun at the end of September, the advance on Calais, the battle of the Yser in September and October, the offensive movement against Soissons in January. Since this last attack, that is to say for more than six months, they have not made a single serious assault against the French front. Since January they have left to us the initiative and held themselves strictly and entirely on the defensive. They explain this inactivity by saying that they want to finish with the Russians once for all in order to be free to return with all their forces against the French. This explanation may satisfy the credulity of strategists beyond the Rhine, but two minutes' reflection will show what it is worth. There is no such thing as finishing "once for all" with the Russians. However badly they may now and then be beaten (and Germany has inflicted more than one serious defeat on them), the Russian forces invariably pull themselves together again and are ready almost at once to begin the struggle all over again. As Prince von Bülow has put it, "Fighting the Russians is like pounding a pillow."
The Austro-Germans have just driven the Russians back about two hundred kilometres in Galicia. There can be no doubt as to the reality of the victory, but it is a victory that can have no lasting consequences. The Russians, instead of giving battle on the Dunajetz, are fighting on the Dniester; that is all! Now, suppose that instead of this advance of two hundred kilometres on the eastern front Germany had been able to progress, say, some fifteen kilometres on the French front; that she had been able, for instance, to take Compiègne or Amiens. Would not the moral and material consequences of such an advance have been of a very different importance? Obviously, if Germany has not tried to do this, it is because she feels she is in no position to undertake it.
Such considerations as these determine the confidence of General Joffre. Whenever he speaks (and he talks as little as possible) it is with such arguments as these that he develops his views, which may be summed up thus: "We have only to keep to the path that we are now lowing to be sure of victory." For more than a month now, in the region about Arras, our armies have had an unbroken series of successes. It is true that they have been merely local successes; but some day one of these local successes will suddenly assume the character of a general success; and once Germany begins to be beaten her defeat will be rapid. The battle of the Marne marked the first short act of the war; the second act, played in the trenches, is a painful business, and is continuing longer than one would have supposed; but it is possible that the third and last act will be as short as the first.
In the solitude of St. Helena Napoleon, who was not entirely without experience in such matters, often put to himself the question: "What are the qualities that make a great general?" It is rare—so he concluded—to find in one and the same man all the necessary attributes. The first essential for a general is that his intelligence or talent should be in stable equilibrium, with his character or courage. The general (to use Napoleon's phrase) should be "carré," that is, "foursquare"; by which he meant that he should be well-balanced. It was another of Napoleon's sayings that a general who has more intelligence than character resembles a ship which carries too much sail: at the slightest whiff of wind it risks capsizing. He often cited as an instance his adopted son, Eugène Beauharnais, whom he sought, by advice and by daily correspondence, to form for a military career. According to Napoleon, Prince Eugène was not marked by any exceptional gifts; but his faculties were so evenly balanced that he was nevertheless an excellent general.
Nothing could be truer than these observations; and they are marvellously applicable to General Joffre. The striking thing in his character is just this admirable balance, typically French. His moral and intellectual qualities, his brains and his character, are in perfect equilibrium; and he is above all, and to the full extent of the word, what our seventeenth century called a "grand honnête homme." He is quite without ambition, utterly disinterested, and without any desire for popularity or self-advertisement. His one dream, when he has beaten Germany and given back to France her former frontiers, with the place due to her among nations, is to retire to his little home in the Pyrenees and end his days in peace. Among the German generals who have been pitted against him none can for a moment be compared with him. Joffre won the victory of the Marne. Apart from their partial successes at the outset, the German generals who have fought in France have secured not one single victory. Only one German general has to his credit certain really big successes: Marshal von Hindenburg has more than once terribly beaten the Russians. But if Hindenburg is compared to Joffre an impartial judgment must give the French general the palm. The Russian army, when it is opposed to the German army, is in many important respects in a condition of unquestionable inferiority. It has at its disposal only a very rudimentary system of railways, and the railway is of capital importance in modern warfare. Its supply of ammunition has also, up to the present time, been utterly inadequate; and, owing to this double superiority, Hindenburg has been able securely and rapidly to concentrate his army corps against the Russians, and then to break through their lines by crushing them under a rain of shells. These considerations should never be left out of account in estimating his military merit. Hindenburg, if I may use a French phrase, has always "played on velvet," whereas Joffre has had to deal at every point with an army much better organized and infinitely better prepared than the French army. This fact proportionately enhances the praise to which he is entitled.
PARIS, June, 1915.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald