Verdun to The Vosges Impressions of the War on the Fortress Frontier of France
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General de Castelnau.
VERDUN TO THE
At the beginning of September, 1914, I was commissionedby The Times to go to France as its representativeon the eastern frontier, and it so happensthat, during the war, no other English newspapercorrespondent has been stationed for any length of timeon the long section of the front between Verdun andBelfort. One or two paid flying visits to Lorraine afterI was settled there, but they were birds of passage, andwere off again almost as soon as they arrived. Incollecting the material for my despatches and lettersI was helped more than I can say by my colleague,Monsieur Fleury Lamure, a French journalist who hadalready worked for The Times in Belgium, where hespent some exciting days in August dodging about infront of the armies of von Kluck, von Bulow, and vonHausen as they advanced on Charleroi and Namur.Before the war he had served two years as an engineerofficer in the French and Russian navies, and had alsoworked in Manchuria and the Near East, first as interpreterto General Silvestre, the French military attachéat Kuropatkin’s headquarters, and then as correspondentof the Novoe Vremya, with the Servians, in the secondBalkan war. In the course of our wanderings togetherwe found that the French military and civil authoritieshighly appreciated the fact that the newspaper whichvimost of them consider the greatest of English journalshad associated a Frenchman with me in the work ofwriting about the operations of their frontier force.From the first our path was smoothed by what theylooked upon as a graceful and sensible act on the partof the Editor. At a later stage in the war my Frenchcolleague, who has been twice réformé as unfit for theactive exercise of his profession, offered himself at theAdmiralty in Paris for one of the auxiliary forces, butwas told that the best thing he could do for his countrywas to go on working for The Times.
From September, 1914, to January, 1915, after whichno correspondents were allowed in the zone of the armies,we made our headquarters at Nancy. Between us, atvarious times, we visited a large part of the front fromVerdun to Ferette, close to the Swiss frontier, and onlyfifteen or twenty miles from the Rhine. Sometimeswe were in the trenches, â bout portant of the enemy’srifles, and for four months hardly a day or a night passedwhen we did not hear the sound of the guns. From whatwe saw and from what we heard from those who tookan active part in it, we were able to get what is, I believe,a fairly correct idea of the general run of the fightingon both sides of the frontier. We were well placed, notonly for judging the temper of the civil population ofthe invaded provinces, but also the spirit and fightingqualities of their defenders.
Before we came to Lorraine we had both seen alittle of the early fighting in Belgium—at Namur andMons, and Charleroi and Dinant. But it was at Nancythat I really got to know something of French soldiersand learnt to admire the wonderful cheerfulness andcourage of the XXth Army Corps and the other splendidviitroops who talked with the enemy in the gate of France,and blocked the passage with their dead bodies.
All that is long ago, though not so long as it seemsafter the weary waiting of more than a year’s work inthe trenches. But the end is not yet. Those armycorps, or their successors—for nearly all of the originalofficers and men are dead or wounded—are still steadilypressing the enemy back, almost on the same groundas when we were there, and, though the full story cannotbe told even now, it is neither too late nor too soon foran Englishman to try and give some idea of thedebt which England owes to the French armies ofthe east.
But I should like to say a word about England too.It is always difficult to see ourselves as others see us.Till long after I had gone abroad for this war—to bequite frank, till the end of 1915—I had no real idea ofthe view which other nations held at the beginning ofthe chances of our taking a hand in it. I knew, of course,that many Germans had declared since it began thatthey for their part had never believed that we woulddraw the sword. I knew from Englishmen who were inBerlin two days, and even I believe one day, before wedid declare war, that Englishmen at that time werereceived in the streets with cries of “Vive l’Angleterre,”or rather “Hoch! England!” and that the bitterrevulsion of feeling against us only began when we hadthrown down the glove. But that—as I then thought—extraordinarymiscalculation and misunderstanding ofour national temper, the infuriated reaction from whichfound vent in the “Gott strafe England” campaignand the “Song of Hate,” I put down to an inexplicableblindness peculiar to the German nation, and to theviiisort of fury to which we are all liable when other peopleon important occasions do not act as we wish and expectthat they will. Since then—but only lately—I havelearnt better, from the vantage ground of a neutralnation.
It is a fact that not only the Germanophil but theFrancophil Swiss were genuinely and deeply astonishedwhen they learnt—from the official communiqués—thatwe intended to intervene in the war because thesoil of Belgium had been invaded. When the thingwas done they accepted it as a fact. They were boundto. But they did not anticipate it. They found ithard to believe that with an army, as they thought—andthey were not so far wrong—of only 150,000 men,with nothing to gain and everything to lose, we wouldbe so quixotic as to throw ourselves into a contest inwhich we were not directly concerned, and to send our“contemptible little army” (even smaller than theirown) to fight in a foreign country the battles of anotherstate against the overpowering military might ofGermany.
It is also a fact—and to me a still more astoundingrevelation—that a month after the war had begun therewere people in France, and among them soldiers of highstanding, who were honestly surprised at what we hadalready done in the war, as well as profoundly grateful,and who even then honestly doubted whether we reallymeant to put our backs into it to any purpose.
One can understand their astonishment at whatwe have done since. Even an Englishman may say,without excessive national conceit, that the work ofour Navy, the huge volunteer armies raised in a yearfrom the Mother-country and our Dominions andixColonies and India, and our subsequent if only partialacceptance of the principle of National Service, are noteveryday affairs. But the initial Swiss doubt orscepticism as to our possible action, once the neutralityof Belgium had been violated, and the fears of our friendsin France at the beginning, that having set our hand tothe plough we might turn back before the furrow wasfinished, are not so easy for us Englishmen to comprehend.We had thought that they knew us better.No matter what Government had been in power, oncethe Germans had declared their intention of passingthrough the country of the Belgians, we must inevitablyhave drawn the sword to defend or avenge them; morethan that, even if Belgium had not been invaded, wemust no less have put our sword at the disposal ofinvaded France, for the one wrong was in reality asgreat as the other. And, no matter what Governmentmay be in power to-morrow or the day after, the spiritof England will not change. We stand by the side ofFrance and our other Allies to the end. And by now, Ifancy, the French have found that out.
But do we, even now, realize fully what the warmeans, and what, as a nation, we have got to do beforewe can expect to win it? I have just come back toEngland after an absence of a year and a half. I findthat though Parliament and the great mass of the peoplein all ranks have accepted the principle of NationalService, there are still in some quarters powerful organizationswhich are vehemently opposed to it. I findthat in spite of all the warnings that have been issuedin the Press and by other means as to the imperativenecessity of thrift, and in spite of all the efforts madeby countless individuals and large sections of thexcommunity to model their lives in accordance with thosewarnings, other individuals and other sections of thecommunity pay no attention to them at all. Money isbeing earned in unexampled and hitherto undreamt-ofprofusion, and is being spent with reckless prodigality.Thrift there is on all sides, but cheek by jowl and hand-in-handwith it there is appalling waste.
We have got to get rid of that word thrift altogether.At the best it is an affair of calculation, and can neverinspire us to great deeds or counteract the personal andignoble motives by which human nature, even in thegreatest crises, is too often swayed. There is nothinglofty or idealistic or spiritual about it. We must getinto an altogether higher region than that of economics.We must learn the lesson not of thrift but of self-sacrifice.Only that can save us. Without it, even though wehave the dreaded ships and the splendid men and theall-necessary money too, we shall be in this war assounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. With it, bearingall things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduringall things, we shall move mountains and overcomethe world—the world of the powers of darkness. It isthe lack of it, and nothing but the lack of it, which isat present preventing us from winning the war andputting an end to its intolerable misery and evil.