Two Collaborators of General Joffre
General De Castelnau And General Foch
By Captain X
[Scribner's Magazine, June 1916]
I. GENERAL DE CASTELNAU
In the early days of September, 1914, and simultaneously with the battle of the Maine, the Germans made a formidable attempt to get the better of our army in Lorraine. They were determined, at no matter what price, to seize Nancy. The Kaiser came in person to Dieuze. Near by, on the frontier, a glittering regiment of white cuirassiers stood in readiness; he intended to place himself at their head and make Nancy the scene of one of those preannounced spectacular entries which, throughout this war, the God of battles has consistently denied him.
With Nancy as a centre, and taking a radius of twenty to twenty-five kilometres, an arc traced from the banks of the Moselle, near Pont-à-Mousson, to those of the Meurthe, near Dombasle, would correspond approximately with the heights of the Grand-Couronné. This is the name given to an almost unbroken line of considerable hills which form a huge half-circle round Nancy from the Meurthe to the Moselle. These heights command striking glimpses of distant landscape. On a clear day the cathedral of Metz is clearly visible: so also is the Côte de Delme, which the Germans have strongly fortified and made into one of the important points of their lines of defense. At the foot of the hills meanders the Seille, a little tributary of the Moselle. This stream forms the frontier.
The Germans, impatient for a decision, threw themselves recklessly against the Grand-Couronné. Their attacks upon the bill of Ste.-Geneviève on the north and upon the Grand-Mont d'Amance at the centre were particularly violent. Entire battalions of men were sacrificed without a thought. Indeed, at that moment of the war this was the customary German method. Secure in the belief that the war would be a matter of weeks or, at most, of months, they felt no need to economize the lives of their soldiers. But, in spite of these unsparing efforts, the Grand-Couronné stood firm. The great Mont d'Amance alone received more than twenty thousand shells without material injury. The French troops holding the foot of the slopes had to defend the valley through which the main road to Nancy runs. The fate of the capital of Lorraine was in their hands. These troops were proof against every attack. They fought to the extreme limit of human endurance. The Germans, exhausted and disheartened, were forced to let go their hold and beat a retreat. Nancy was saved. On the night before their departure the enemy attempted a cruel, cowardly, and typically Teutonic revenge upon the city they had failed to seize. Some forty shells were dropped on Nancy from one of their long-distance batteries; but only the suburbs of the town were reached.
The splendid resistance offered by the army of Lorraine contributed directly to the victory of the Marne, and enabled us to reap the full fruit of our success. Had the army of Lorraine been shaken, had Nancy fallen, the very pivot of all our forces might have been imperilled.
In fact, the more one considers the battle of the Marne, the more clearly it shows itself as a gigantic unity, a perfectly contrived whole, where all the elements were dovetailed into each other, without the smallest gap between, where each of the great actors called upon the stage fulfilled to the exact letter the part he had to play.
The commander of the army of Lorraine, and the soul of this magnificent resistance, was General de Castelnau, one of the close collaborators of General Joffre. Hardly was the contest over and calm restored to this portion of the line when General de Castelnau was suddenly sent to a new and hotly contested section of the battle-front. After the retreat of the Marne the first effort of the Germans was a turning movement against our left wing. Violent engagements took place in the neighborhood of Péronne and Amiens: each of the opposing armies tended to shift their forces from east to west. Here, as elsewhere, the German attacks came to the same result. They were entirely repulsed.
General de Castelnau, who had led a single army to the most brilliant success, and under conditions of the utmost difficulty, was promoted by General Joffre to the command of a group of armies. In this capacity he exercised the high control of our great offensive in Champagne in September, 1915. Here, once more, he added a new achievement to his former successes. Not long afterward, when General Joffre was appointed commander-in-chief of all the armies of France, on the Balkan front as well as the French, General de Castelnau was made the chief of his General Staff. He thus finds himself the generalissimo's right-hand man, sharing in every moment of his work.
General de Castelnau was born at St.-Affrique in the Aveyron, Somewhat short in stature, but well proportioned, thick-set, and solidly built, with a bronzed complexion, quick gestures, and a frank, alert expression, he is a vigorous offshoot of a race which unites southern vivacity with the sturdiness of a mountain stock: a race of hot blood and cold brain. The rough soil of the table-lands of Languedoc and Gascony has, in fact, produced a notable line of warriors. Typical of them is Montluc, a man with whom General de Castelnau presents more than one point of likeness. Montluc, too, was hard: hard on others, but harder still on himself, ardent in the cause of his service, possessed of an unfailing imagination, a fluent and vivid gift of language, distinguished for his prowess in the field, and no less for his power to recount the story of that prowess to the delight of his contemporaries and of posterity. The "Commentaries" of Montluc are certainly among the books to which, in the course of this war, many Frenchmen, and many who are not French, must most-willingly have returned. It is good to repeat the proud and splendid words with which those "Commentaries" open: "As there are certain lands wherein some fruits do copiously abound, that elsewhere rarely flourish, so also, in infinite number, does our Gascony customarily bear great and valiant captains as a fruit proper and natural to itself." Languedoc's fruitfulness in military leaders was far from exhausting itself in Montluc. In. the wars of the empire alone, Murat, Bessières, Marbot—all men of Gascon birth—stand in the very foreground of the picture.
General de Castelnau's family had long been settled in the Rouergue, at the foot of the Gausses. His father, a lawyer of great ability, well-known and greatly esteemed in those parts, was for many years the may or of St.-Affrique. He had three sons: the eldest entered the Polytechnic School and is now a brilliant engineer; the second followed his father's profession and became deputy for the Aveyron; the third, who chose the profession of arms, is Édouard de Castelnau, our general. He was born in 1851 and is now sixty-four years of age.
We have here a perfect type of old French bourgeois family. In it, to the full, are seen the finest and strongest qualities of our race: its sense of duty, its love of industry, its spirit of sacrifice. General de Castelnau is the father of ten children. Since the beginning of the war three have been killed—two in the earliest months of the fighting, the third at the time of the French offensive of last September. In spite of these heavy losses he has pursued his great task without allowing himself a single moment's distraction from the great cause intrusted to him. Families like these—and they are more numerous than foreigners usually suppose—form the backbone of our nation: it is they who have done most to save France.
The foreigner, however intelligent and discerning, has seldom any opportunity of becoming acquainted with people of this type. It is not only the idle and unobservant tourist who comes to spend a few weeks in Paris, treating it as the best watering-place in the world, and seeking, rigorously and exclusively, for just those distractions and those impressions which a watering-place can give, to whom families of this kind are unknown. Even those who come frequently to France, or establish themselves there, have the utmost difficulty in obtaining a deeper insight into French life than Paris society gives. Paris society is in no sense typical of France; and in a great crisis, such as war, it is another France that is suddenly disclosed—the true France, unknown and unsuspected. It is no wonder that many who have never known this France are amazed at the sudden revelation.
Édouard de Castelnau began his education in the Jesuit college of his native town. At the age of eighteen he passed into the military school of St.-Cyr, where French cavalry and infantry officers receive their training. This was in 1869. A year later the Franco-German War broke out. The young men of St.-Cyr, whether of senior or junior standing, were immediately given commissions as second lieutenants and distributed among the regiments. Second Lieutenant de Castelnau served through the whole of this disastrous campaign. It was a terrible first experience of life, which could not but leave its impress on the minds of the young men who underwent it.
In spite of all the deficiencies in our military preparations, our troops came, no less than three or four times, within an inch—nay, within a hair's breadth—of routing the German armies. Then, as always, the moral and military qualities of the race were wonderful. It was the higher command which was inadequate. Under different leaders this or that disastrous defeat would, without a doubt, have been changed into a brilliant victory, and Prussia would ultimately have been beaten. Unhappily our leaders were what they were, and Germany came out of the war a victorious and immensely aggrandized power.
Young de Castelnau, in the course of this campaign, was promoted, first to the rank of lieutenant, and then to that of captain. For him, as for all who served with him, there was only one task: to set about reorganizing the military power which had been shattered in this disaster and to give France an army.
On this patriotic labor, this national reconstruction, all Castelnau's efforts were henceforth concentrated. His military life had begun with an unsuccessful war with Germany; it is crowned by another German war from which we have every assurance of coming out victorious. The interval between these two wars—a period of forty-four years of hard study and hard thinking—was devoted by him, and by our other chiefs, to one single problem—that of fitting our army for a conflict which each one of them, in spite of all the illusions of pacifists and politicians, knew in his heart to be inevitable. Forty-four years concentrated upon a single purpose gives a wonderfully harmonious unity—tenor vitæ, the Romans called it—to a human life. And a great and deeply satisfying reward for their efforts and their labors has come to the men who, like Joffre and Castelnau, have had but one thought all their lives—to prepare the army of France for victory.
Castelnau mounted the successive grades of a military career and at each stage received the recognition due to him. He passed into the École de Guerre, was promoted to a divisional staff, to the staff of an army corps, and thence to the Great General Staff, from time to time, at each of these stages, putting in his periods of command with the troops.
It was in 1906 that he became general, and from that moment his rise was very rapid. When, in 1913, General Joffre was designated as commander-in-chief of the armies in the field in case of war, he lost no time in calling General de Castelnau to his side as chief of staff. The confidence which General Joffre reposes in him is unbounded. The two great chiefs have for long been accustomed to work together and with one accord, and in continuous collaboration they studied one by one all the difficult problems of a future war. This collaboration, begun and continued in times of peace, was to become closer still upon the field of battle, where it has come to fruition. After eighteen months of war we find General de Castelnau acting as second to the généralissime, living and working beside him, and placing his whole intelligence and his whole activity at the service of his great chief.
II. GENERAL FOCH
At the end of August, 1914, our great retreat was in progress. It was the eve of the battle of the Marne. The tenth division was retreating from the northeast of Charleville, on the Belgian frontier, in the direction of Rethel and Reims, covering the left wing of the fourth army. This retreat, however, did not prevent it from dealing some heavy thrusts at the enemy. On August 28, near Signy l'Abbaye, it overthrew an entire corps of Saxons forming part of Von Husen's army, and, in spite of a heavy inferiority in numbers, won an incontestable victory in the field. Nevertheless, in obedience to general orders, it became necessary in the middle of the night to turn and continue the retreat. But our soldiers retained a very clear consciousness of having just beaten the Germans; and, in spite of this-backward movement, their tone and confidence were unimpaired.
Some days later at Bertoncourt, near Rethel, they once more got the better of the German invader. Two battalions of colonial infantry stormed this village at the point of the bayonet. The Saxons who occupied it had descended to the unspeakable foul play of hiding behind a screen of civilians, to shield themselves from the rifle-fire of our troops. This fact is attested in official documents by a hundred depositions each more crushing than the last.
On the 30th August—it was a morning of dog-day heat—a general was walking to and fro in front of the Hôtel de Ville in the market-place of Attigny on the Aisne, a small town a little above Rethel. His manner was abrupt and jerky; his air was anxious, his expression grave. From time to time a staff-officer would arrive bringing him information and presenting him with reports. He would snatch each paper that was brought to him, cast a rapid eye over it, and resume his walk. A number of German prisoners were marched past, marshalled by our soldiers with fixed bayonets. They, were a wretched band, bare-headed, dishevelled, panting, covered with dust and sweat. The general hardly turned his eyes in their direction. The road and the market-place were packed with an agitated throng. Batteries, munition sections, endless convoys, succeeded one another without a pause. The neighboring guns grew louder and louder, as if the battle were drawing nearer. A regiment passed. One of the men noticed the general and nudged his companion: "Look at the boss," he said. "I shouldn't care to tackle him to-day."
"The boss" (le patron} was General Foch. He had just assumed command of a new army, expressly created for his control.
The placing of Foch's army in the centre of our line, and of Manoury's army near Paris, were two master-strokes of General Joffre, admirably carried out by his subordinates—two strokes in which our whole victory on the Marne was already implied. The German menace in Belgium was becoming every moment graver and more pronounced; our left army and the British force were giving way. A new and rapid distribution of our forces was imperative. Some of our army corps were therefore passed from east to west. In the Paris sector an army under the command of General Manoury was created behind the intrenched camp, ready at a given moment to hurl itself on von Kluck and threaten to envelope his troops. Similarly, in the centre, between our fourth and fifth armies, a new army was formed and intrusted to General Foch, who, in Lorraine, had brilliantly distinguished himself in command of one of our finest corps—the 20th of Nancy.
Events were not slow in proving the wisdom and insight of the measures taken by General Joffre in the full agitation of retreat. A few days later the retreat was at an end and the battle of the Marne had begun.
The Germans recognized the deadly threat upon their left, where von Kluck; sharply attacked by Manoury, was compelled to expose himself to two fronts at a time. They attempted to get out of the danger by a vigorous offensive directed on our centre. The Prussian Guard, and other of their crack corps, made a violent attack in the neighborhood of Fère Champenoise and the marshes of St.-Gond. It was at this point that General Foch was situated. So spirited was the onslaught of the Germans that they succeeded in shaking part of Foch's troops. His entire right was driven back to the south of Fère Champenoise. His army no longer lined up horizontally with our general front; it had become a vertical line, an elbow. Happily, the divisions on his left held firm. At Mondement, at the southern extremity of the marshes of St.-Gond, they clung to their positions and offered a dogged and heroic resistance.
But, though the right of this army gave way, the general in command of it, Foch, did not give way an instant. Energy, tenacity, resistance are his conspicuous qualities. Victory is above all things a question of will; and it was by sheer force of will that victory was destined to be wrested from the enemy's hands. The general communicated his- confidence to all around him. The word of command was to hold on; to hold on whatever happened and at "whatever price. And this was not enough. He achieved far more: he attacked. He accomplished a tour de force, almost a miracle: with an army three-fourths defeated he passed to the offensive.
A general who had been placed under Foch's command came to report that his men were tired out: his troops were at the end of their tether. The rebuff was sharp: "Tired out!" replied the general. "So are the Germans. You are to attack."
Yet there was a moment, during the last two days of the great battle, when General Foch's position was highly critical. One of his army corps and a reserve division were beaten back beyond Fère Champenoise. On his left, which up to now had held firm, the Germans after a terrible attack succeeded in occupying the Château de Mondement. At nightfall, on the evening of the 8th, the great plain, seen from the height of the cliff of Broyes, presented a prodigious spectacle—a veritable vision of the Apocalypse. Cloud upon cloud of gleaming red and bronze rolled over it; the last rays of the sun lit up the storms of dust raised by the guns and by the great host of horse and foot; the bursting shells flashed incessantly; and over the whole scene rose the flames of mighty conflagrations. The Germans had only to reach a little beyond Mondement to become immediate masters of the entire cliff, from the summit of which their heavy artillery could blast our forces, in the plain unhindered and turn our retreat into a rout. General Foch demanded a final effort of heroism from his sorely tried army, and the army answered to his call. The Château of Mondement, which the Germans had just seized, was retaken by our troops after three successive attacks. The last of these, more violent than the rest, was made at nightfall with the help of two guns daringly moved up to within four hundred yards in order to shell the defenders of the place. At the most critical moment of the conflict General Foch improvised and executed an amazingly skilful manoeuvre to which our final victory was due. The Germans had driven themselves into our army like a wedge; their front took the form of an elbow. General Foch was inspired to turn to our own advantage a position which appeared wholly favorable to the enemy. He slipped one of his divisions abruptly from left to right, in such a way as to throw it suddenly upon the German flank. The movement took the enemy by surprise. On a smaller scale it was the same skilful manoeuvre as that by which General Joffre threw Manoury's army on the flank of Von Kluck. In each case the result was admirable. The two manoeuvres were the deciding cause of the German retreat and won us the victory of the Marne.
Every frontal attack which the Germans had attempted had completely failed. They were gravely menaced on their flank, their troops were totally exhausted, their munitions at an end. This was the situation which faced the German General Staff. They recognized that to go on was to run the risk of a complete disaster. The Kaiser in person signed with his own hand the memorable order to retreat. France and its capital were saved.
To this brilliant end General Foch had largely contribued. General Joffre recognized the fact a few days later, in the congratulations which his ordre du jour offered to his brilliant collaborator.
Three weeks passed. The Germans, having failed to take Paris or destroy the French army, now tried to outflank us on their right. They pushed their forces farther and farther toward Amiens and Arras. But their stroke was parried; and they found us ready-with an answer. Our army corps were moved from right to left and from east to west. These two strategic movements, or "oquades," on the French and German sides developed parallel to one another. The Germans were as incapable here as they had been elsewhere of making the least advance or gain. The two armies extended their fronts more and more to the north. They climbed toward Lille and the Yser. This is the phase which has been called "the race for the sea." And when at length the North Sea was reached at Nieuport the two adversaries must needs come to a halt.
Just before this the Germans, through their crushing superiority in heavy artillery, were enabled to seize Antwerp. The little Belgian army made a fortunate escape toward Ghent and Furnes, They were enabled to do this by the heroic resistance of the French naval brigade under the command of Admiral Ronarc'h, which, step by step, contested the enemy's advance. The English army began to move northward toward Ypres from the positions on the banks of the Aisne which it had occupied since the battle of the Marne. The Germans thereupon decided to make a terrific effort to overturn the English army, the Belgian army, and the French troops which lay between them. This was the signal for the battle of the Yser.
The violence of that battle and the fury of the German assaults can never be described. The Kaiser, after failing to take Paris, must have his revenge, and the revenge must be dazzling. He decided that at any cost Calais must be his. Now was the moment when all Germany abandoned itself to a hatred for England that amounted to frenzy. Lissauer had just composed, in hatred of England, that amazing and monstrous song, destined surely to remain in human history as a typical example of the degree of aberration and criminal folly to which a self-infatuated people can attain.
Those who ruled the counsels of Germany were convinced that if Calais could be reached their strength in submarines would enable them to establish a close blockade against England, isolate her, and hold her at their mercy. The Kaiser, wishing to inflame the fury of his troops and to obtain from them a superhuman effort of courage and energy, came in person to take part in the attack which he believed would prove decisive. He established himself at Roulers; he passed his troops in review and exalted their enthusiasm. The Germans, who desired to break through at whatever cost, attacked in great masses, as though with the stroke of a club. On one day they threw no less than seven divisions, one upon the other, against the French and English lines. The English, left to themselves, must have bent before this terrific onslaught. It was absolutely necessary to support them. Some of our best army corps were abruptly taken from certain parts of our front, sent in rapid succession by rail, and thrown upon the Yser. It was a human dike raised to stay the German inundation.
These strategic movements, far superior in scale to anything imagined before the present war, were carried out with great rapidity and perfect order. Yet one need only cast an eye on the map to realize that this concentration of forces upon the Yser involved far greater difficulties on our side than on the enemy's. The front from the North Sea to the Vosges makes almost a right angle running north and south to Compiègne, and afterward east and west. The Germans are within the angle; we outside it. It follows that they are more readily able than ourselves to send rapid reinforcements to one or other of their wings.
In the first days of October General Foch, who directed his army in the centre of the general line, had been transferred to our left wing and given a far more important command. All our armies of the north were placed at his orders. He had, moreover, the delicate task of achieving a complete unity and co-ordination of effort with the English and Belgian armies. He was, in short, the commander-in-chief of all the troops which resisted the German onslaught on the Yser: a heavy task which was once again to yield him a brilliant success.
The battle opened. The Germans called up continual reserves and forced the pace of their attack. But General Foch's confidence remained unbroken: it communicated itself to all who came near him. As each battalion arrived it was thrown into the furnace. Not a day, not an hour, could be lost. Every gap had to be filled, and reinforcements flung incessantly to strengthen our tottering line.
The whole flat region between the Yser and the sea is typical of the Low Countries: water, water encroaching and submerging, is everywhere. Scratch the soil and water appears. It is a fat and fertile country, saturated and oozing with humidity, blankly monotonous to look upon. Before the war a dense population crowded this rich land of Flanders. How much more crowded was it then, when through every village and hamlet the stream of Belgian refugees had overflowed in thousands! And where should room be found for all these army corps of French soldiers arriving one after the other, ceaselessly? It was lucky that these men and their officers were the easiest and most good-natured in the world. And after all, the human race is capable of infinite compression.
Our troops did not limit themselves to the defensive. From time to time they passed to the counter-attack with great spirit. They attempted to seize the Château of Dixmude to gain space for the bridge-head which we hold at that point. It was a dark and gloomy winter's day, such as is frequent in that region, with a thick mist and a depressing sooty sky. Quite near us this foggy atmosphere was cleft by the forked fire of bursting shells, for here at the bridge of Dixmude the Germans were scarcely a thousand yards away.
From Nieuport to Thann, from the North Sea to the Vosges, many cities have been destroyed in the course of this war. But Dixmude endured the heaviest bombardment that a town can suffer. There is not a house unstruck, not a road that has not been pitted by shells. And what pits they are! One of them measured eight yards in diameter, and three and a half yards in depth. A carriage and horses, a whole section of infantry, could be hidden in it. Indescribably melancholy, in the dismal winter twilight, are the roads and squares of the little town where the tempest of war has raged. It is an empty city, overtaken by death.
When one thinks of the battle of the Yser, the violence of the attacks which the Germans renewed week after week, their unceasing efforts, their reckless sacrifice of human life, one wonders how any resistance was possible. Our battalions were hardly out of the train before they were thrown into the thick of the fighting; the country was unknown to them; their trenches, hastily contrived, were far from perfect; night and day they straggled in the mud. Yet, in spite of all, they held firm. At every point the German thrust was checked.
The same qualities of endurance and tenacity, the same heroism which won for us the battle of the Marne, secured for General Foch and the excellent troops he commanded this successful issue on the Yser. General Foch's attitude during these hard days must have recalled to many some words which he spoke at the École de Guerre with all the emphasis of a vigorous faith. He quoted a phrase of Joseph de Maistre: "A lost battle is a battle one believes oneself to have lost; in a material sense no battle can be lost." And he added: "A battle, then, can only be lost morally. But, if so, it is also morally that a battle is won." One might add to this aphorism another: A battle won is a battle in which you refuse to acknowledge defeat.
The conduct of General Foch on the Yser and in the region of Fère Champenoise corresponded exactly with his professions in the École de Guerre. For Foch, before putting the art of war into practise on the field of battle, had already taught it in his lectures and published works. His is the deeply interesting case of a famous professor of strategy called by the turn of events to give his theories and his teaching a living application. It is worth while to examine how this came about. How, and in what circumstances, were the theories fitted to the facts?
General Foch was born in 1851, the son of a civil servant at Tarbes. He is thus an exact contemporary of General de Castelnau and General Joffre. As soon as he entered college his teacher in mathematics declared: "His genius is for geometry; he has the makings of a polytechnician." And, in fact, General Foch, making good this prediction, entered the École Polytechnique, from which, in due course, he graduated as an artilleryman. While holding the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he was appointed professor in strategy and general tactics at the École de Guerre. Ten years later, after holding commands in various arms, he was made director of this same school.
He has condensed the drift of his teaching into two now celebrated books, "The Principles of War" and "The Conduct of War." Here may be found his whole theory of war illustrated with a prodigal abundance of facts and instances. He starts with the principle that it is an absolute mistake, in war, to take nothing but the material factors into account. Over and above the "earthly" element of military art remains what Napoleon called the "divine" element. Hence war is not an exact science, but a terrific and passionate drama where man with his moral and physical faculties is cast for the principal part.
Instruction in war is, however, necessary, because for most men the realities of the battle-field are not favorable to inspiration. Most often they have a paralyzing effect. Under fire it is all one can do to carry out what one has learned, to act up to the knowledge which a long and difficult training has built up. The smallest success in military action presupposes long preparation in thought and study. Genius is not universal, and in its absence a general can rise to the height of his task only by method and by science. The function of the long military education is to give officers the right reflex actions on the field of battle. But these are only to be acquired by sustained and constant effort.
"Modern war," says General Foch; "is a national war." The end it sets itself is not the conquest or maintenance of a province but the defense or propagation of principles: spiritual ends and philosophical ideas. It brings into play the feelings and passions of every soldier. When Bonaparte in his famous proclamation to the army of Italy based his appeal on those passions he inaugurated a new era in war.
On the subject of the intellectual discipline of commanders General Foch has written several pages which rank among the best that the ideal of military duty has ever inspired. "In war, except for the commander-in-chief, every officer is a subordinate. Every one of them, in seeking to command must seek to obey. But obedience is a difficult art. Many circumstances—to say nothing of the enemy—interfere with the execution of the order received. To conquer these circumstances demands a mental discipline that is intelligent and alert. A commander, then, should first and foremost be a man of character, but he should also be capable of the comprehension and resource necessary for obedience.... Discipline involves a mental activity—an activity of reflection: it is not a matter of immobility, like the silence of the ranks. Discipline, in a commander, does not mean merely the execution of orders within convenient, just, rational, or even possible limits. It means a frank entry into the thoughts and intentions of whoever is in supreme command, and the adoption of every possible means to satisfy them. Discipline does not mean a silent acquiescence that limits itself to whatever can be undertaken without compromising oneself; it is not the art of avoiding responsibilities. It is the art of acting in the spirit of a given order, and calls us, to that end, to find in our intelligence a means of executing the order, and in our character the energy to take the necessary risks."
General Foch illustrates these definitions by the case of General de Failly, who on the 4th and 6th of August, 1870, was either unable or unwilling to carry out his orders to go first to Bitche and then to Reichshoffen, with the result that he failed to take part in the battle where the army of Alsace was overwhelmed, and where his presence would assuredly have changed the issue. And General Foch continues: "At a time like ours, which believes itself able to neglect ideal elements, which pretends to live realistically, rationally, positively, and to avoid abstractions, when everything is reduced to terms of science and to a more or less ingeniously contrived empiricism, we are left with but one resource against error and disaster. That resource—and it is both sure and fertile in results—lies in abandoning ourselves to the service of two abstractions of a moral order, duty and discipline. And this service, if it is to lead to success, must be backed up by science and good sense." Such are the governing ideas of General Foch.
In daily life the general is a man of few words. He speaks with mathematical conciseness, and his conversation is always full of vigor. Cold, calm, and self-possessed, he is conspicuous for just the qualities which the English most prize. Add to these his close knowledge of the English army, along with his keen sense of the national temperament and character, and we shall easily comprehend the influence he exerts over every Englishman who comes in contact with him. To this influence is due in large measure the perfect understanding and cohesion which has existed between the French and English armies from the very beginning of the war. It was, indeed, far from being the simplest of tasks to insure this cohesion. Great delicacy and tact were obviously called for. General Foch, by the force of character which every Englishman recognizes in him, achieved it without the smallest difficulty.
Superficially, at any rate, the trench warfare in which the two armies have now been so long rooted is very different from the kind of war that General Foch has written of and taught. It was open to the Germans, after the battle of the Marne, to continue the free-moving warfare from which alone rapid and decisive results can be obtained. They preferred to dig themselves in. This course, it is true, has enabled them thus far to hold firm. But by this course, it is no less true, they are renouncing the possibility of beating us, of putting us once for all out of action. Trench warfare for them was not, and can never be, more than a pis-aller. The enemy well know that this state of siege, by its very nature, and in proportion to its length, must necessarily work out to their disadvantage, since Germany, cut off as it is from all use of the sea, plays the part of the besieged, while France and England are the besiegers. Consequently, the mere fact that the Germans have chosen or accepted this kind of war upon the western front is in itself an admission of impotence and defeat.
Moreover, whether we fight in trenches or in the open, it is still by the moral qualities of the belligerents that victory will finally be decided. From this point of view we have no cause for uneasiness, for the moral superiority is ours. And here the confidence of General Foch in the ultimate issue is unequalled. To him, as to General de Castelnau, the war has brought heavy private sorrows. His son and his son-in-law were killed in the earliest months. He has said nothing of his own grief, but has given an example to all by redoubling his efforts and his perseverance.
In this war battles, which used to be a matter of hours or of days, are now prolonged to months and years. Many onlookers are so struck by the paradox of this slow development that they are tempted to disbelieve in any final decision or rupture of the equilibrium. But we, who live among the actors in the drama, have, on the contrary, a mathematical certainty that the rupture will come and that it will come in our favor, and that on an enfeebled Germany the Allies by a common effort will one day deliver their united stroke.
© 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