'After the Marne'
by Arthur Ruhl, American journalist

The German Tide Turned at the Gates of Paris

a French grave at Barcy : all photos are original color photos taken in 1914 - 1915


At the end of the village the road climbed again from the ravine and emerged on open fields. A wall of timber, dark and impenetrable as the woods round an old chateau, rose at the farther end of these fields — the road cutting through it like a tunnel — and on the brow of the ravine, commanding the road and the little plain, was a line of trenches. Here evidently they had fought.

We walked on down the road. Below the northern horizon, where they were fighting now along the Aisne, rolled the sullen thunder of artillery, as it had been rolling since daylight. And the autumn wind, cold with the week of equinoctial rain, puffing out of thickets and across ravines, brought, every now and then, the horrible odor of death.

Ahead, to the right, one caught the glint of a French infantry's red trousers. A man was lying there, face downward, on the field. Then across the open space appeared another — and another — they were scattered all over that field, bright as the red poppies which were growing in the stubble and as still. They were in various positions. One lay on his back, with one knee raised like a man day-dreaming and looking up at the sky. Another was stretched stiff, with both hands clinched over his chest. One lay in the ditch close beside us, his head jammed into the muddy bank just as he had dived there in falling; another gripped a cup in one hand and a spoon in the other, as if, perhaps, he might have tried to feed himself in the long hours after the battle rolled on and left them there.

All these were French, but just at the edge of the thick timber was a heap — one could scarcely say of Germans, so utterly did the gray, sodden faces and sodden, gray uniforms merge into anonymity. A squad of French soldiers appeared at a turn in the road. Two officers rode beside them, and they were just moving off across the fields carrying shovels instead of rifles. Looking after them, beyond the belt of timber, one could see other parties like theirs on the distant slopes to the left, and here and there smoke. Two more French soldiers appeared pushing a wheelbarrow filled with cast-off arms. With the boyish good nature which never seems to desert these little men in red and blue, they stopped and offered us a few clips of German cartridges. They were burying their own men, they said, burning the Germans. The dead had been lying here for nearly a fortnight now while the battle line rolled northward, clear across France.

We turned back toward Crepy, passing again through the shattered village of Betz. For three days it had been the centre of a battle, the two forces lying outside it and shelling each other across the town. The main street, now full of French soldiers, was in ruins, the church on the edge of the ravine smashed and gaping, and a few peasant women stood about, arms folded patiently, telling each other over and over again what they had seen.


an improvised French burial plot in the foreground


Past fields, where the wheat still waited to be stacked and thrashed, past the carcasses of horses sprawled stiff-legged in the ditch or in the stubble, we tramped on to Crepy-en-Valois. The country was empty, scoured by the flood that had swept across it, rolled back again, and now was thundering, foot by foot, farther and farther below the horizon to the north. The little hotel across from the railroad station in Crepy had kept open through it all. It was the typical Hotel de la Gare of these little old towns — a bar and coffee-room down-stairs, where the proprietor and his wife and daughters served their fleeting guests, a few chambers up-stairs, where one slept between heavy homespun sheets and under a feather bed. They were used to change, and the mere coming of armies could not be permitted to derange them.

Within a fortnight that little coffee-room of theirs had been crowded with English soldiers in retreat; then with Germans — stern, on edge, sure of being in Paris in a few days; then with the same Germans falling back, a trifle dismayed but in good order, and then the pursuing French. And now they were serving the men from the troop-trains that kept pouring up toward the Aisne, or those of the wounded who could hobble over from the hospital trains that as steadily kept pouring down.

Sometimes they coined money, and, again, when the locomotive unexpectedly whistled, saw a roomful of noisy men go galloping away, leaving a laugh and a few sous behind. Madame would come in from the kitchen, raise her arms and sigh something about closing their doors, but, after all, they knew they should keep right on giving as long as they had anything to give. One of their daughters, a strapping, light-hearted colt of a girl, told us some of the things they had seen as she paused in the hall after preparing our rooms. Her sister stood beside her, and together they declaimed in an inimitable sort of recitative.

How the English soldiers had come in, all laughing, and the young officers so handsome; but the German soldiers were all like this — and the young woman gave a quick gesture as of one taking nose and mouth in her hand and pulling it stiffly down a bit. The French officers and their men were like fathers and sons, but the Germans had a discipline you would not believe — she had seen one officer strike a man with his whip, she said, because he was not marching fast enough, and another, when a soldier had come too near, had kicked him. And they all thought surely they were going into Paris — "Two days more," they had laughed as they drank down-stairs, "Paris, and then — kaput!"


French soldiers clearing the streets in a small village


You can imagine that gray horde rolling through the streets — narrow, cobblestoned streets, with steep-roofed stone houses and queer little courts, and the air over all of having been lived in for generations on generations. There is the remnant in Crepy of one of the houses that used to belong to the Dukes of Valois, and at the end of one winding street you find your- self unexpectedly looking through a grilled iron gateway into the ordered stateliness of an old-time chateau. On the outward side the walls of the chateau garden drop a sheer thirty or forty feet to the edge of the ravine. What a place to wait for an approaching enemy, one thinks, walking underneath; and the Germans evidently thought so too, for from this part of town they carefully kept away. They burned one house, that of a dressmaker so unfortunate as to live next door to a shop in which arms were sold, they pillaged the houses whose owners had run away, and they ordered the town to pay them one hundred thousand francs, but those townspeople who had the fortitude to stay behind were not molested. The enemy were even polite, one woman told us — "Pas peur!" said the officer who visited her house, taking off his hat. On the gate of another house was scrawled in German script, "Sick Woman — keep away!" and as we passed the open windows, sure enough there was the pale young mother lying propped up in bed just as she had been when the Germans came.

On another door we read, also in German script, "Good people — they give everything!" and on several were orders to leave those within alone. And there was a curious and touching irony in that phrase: "Gute Leute — Schonen!" chalked in stiff script by those now fighting for their lives to the north of us and likely never to see their fatherland again.

Crepy-en-Valois, more fortunate than some of the towns, whose mayors were dismissed for revealing "a lamentable absence of sang-froid," had a mayor who stuck to his post. He was there when three-fourths of the village had fled and, getting up from a sick-bed to receive the German commander, he saw that the latter's orders were carried out, and signed the order for the town's ransom while his daughter held smelling-salts under his nose.

Whether the mayor of the old town of Senlis, a few miles west of Crepy, was in any way tactless is scarcely of importance now, in so far as it concerns him for he and the other hostages were shot, and, however little good it may have done anybody, he at least gave France his life. It is said that his order to the townspeople to turn in their arms was not completely obeyed. It was also said — and this several people of Senlis told us — that a few Senegalese, lagging behind as the French left, fired on the Germans as they approached, and that it was possible that one or two excited civilians had joined in.

Granting that civilians did fire after hostages had been given, there remains the question of reprisal. It was the German commander's idea that Senlis should be taught a lesson, and this consisted of shooting the mayor and the hostages, and sacking and burning the main street — a half mile, perhaps — from end to end. The idea was carried out with thoroughness, and men ran along from house to house feeding the flames with petroleum and even burning a handsome new country house which stood apart at one end.

A nice-looking, elderly gentleman whom we met in front of the ruined Hotel du Nord said that the Germans came there and, finding champagne in the cellar after the maitre d'h6tel had told them there wasn't any, set fire to the hotel, and, as I recall it, shot him. How true such stories are I cannot say, but there was no doubt that Senlis had been punished. At least half of the old city on the banks of the wistful Nonette — it is a much larger place than Crepy, with a cathedral of some consequence — was smashed as utterly as it might have been by a cyclone or an earthquake. The systematic manner in which this was done was suggested by the fact that, in the long street running parallel to the one picked for destruction, nearly every door still carried its chalked order to "Schonen." One house spared was that of a town fireman. "I've got five little children," he told the German soldiers. "They're one, two, three, four, five years old, and I'm expecting another." And they went on.

These were common sights and sounds of that gracious country north of Paris — deserted, perhaps demolished, villages; the silent countryside, with dead horses, bits of broken shell, smashed bicycles or artillery wagons along the road; and the tainted autumn wind. Along the level French roads, under their arches of elms or poplars, covered carts on tall wheels, drawn by two big farm horses harnessed one behind another, and loaded with women, children, and household goods, were beginning to move northward as they had moved south three weeks before. Trains, similarly packed, were creeping up to within ear-shot of the constant cannonading, and it was on one of these trains that we had come.

In Paris, recovered now from the dismay of three weeks before, keen French imaginations were daily turning the war into terms of heroism and sacrifice and military glory. Even editors and play- writers fighting at the front were able to send back impressions now and then, and these, stripped by the censorship of names and dates, became almost as impersonal as pages torn from fiction. Sitting comfortably at some cafe table, reading the papers with morning coffee, one saw the dawn coming up over the Oise and Aisne, heard the French "seventy-fives" and the heavy German siege-guns resume their roar; saw again, for the hundredth time, some hitherto unheard-of little man flinging away his life in one brief burst of glory. And these thrills, repeated over and over again, without sight or sound of the concrete facts, in that strange, still city whose usual life had stopped, produced at last a curious sense of unreality. Meaux became as far away as Waterloo, and one read words that had been spoken yesterday exactly as one reads that the old guard dies but never surrenders.

A man could leave the Café de la Paix and in two hours be under fire, where killing was as matter of fact as driving tacks. And in between these two zones — the zone where war was at once a highly organized business and a splendid, terrible game, and that in which its disjointed, horrible surfaces were being turned into abstractions, into ideas, poetry, rhetoric — was this middle ground through which we were now tramping, where one saw only its silence and ruin and desolation.

We returned to Crepy. All that night the trains went clanking through the station, pouring more men — Frenchmen, Englishmen — into the sodden trenches along the Aisne. For a week it had rained, cold shower following cold shower. In Paris shivering concierges closed their doors in the middle of the day in mournful attempts to keep warm — autumn's quick sequel to the almost torrid heat in which the armies had fought across this same country a fortnight before. It was into trenches half filled with water that the new men were going — Frenchmen trundling over to the bar in big overcoats, with their air of good little boy, to go galloping back with a bottle of red wine and a long loaf of bread; Englishmen, noisy, laughing, trying to talk French with their fingers and wanting a nip of brandy or hot water for their tea.

There were Highlanders among them, men with necks like towers and straight, flat backs and a swing of the shoulders — like band music going past. One watched them stride back to their cars with a sort of pang. What grotesque irony that men like these, who in times when war was man's normal business might have fought their way through, must now, with all the diseased and hopeless bodies encumbering the earth, be cut off by a mere wad of unthinking lead!

All that night it rained, and, through the rain and dark, trains kept pouring on up into the terrible north. Once I heard cattle lowing as their cars clanked past, and again, in the gloomy clairvoyance of night, saw the faces on the field at Betz, beaten on by the rain that had beaten them for days. And just before a feeble daylight returned again, the steady rumble of artillery.

After noon there was a break in the clouds, and we started on foot for Villers-Cotterets, some fifteen kilometres away. The hard macadam road was no more than dampened, and ambulances and motor-trucks went scooting by as on a city street. Occasionally there was an abandoned trench, once a broken caisson, and the wreck of an aeroplane, but the wheat was harvested and stacked. Beyond Vaumoise the country grew more hilly, and the caves and quarries, which the Germans were making such effective use of along the Aisne, began to appear.

And all this time the cannon were thundering — so close that it seemed each hilltop would bring them into view, and as the detonation puffed across the landscape, one even fancied one could feel the concussion in one's ear. Up from a field ahead of us an aeroplane rose and, in a wide spiral, went climbing up the sky, now almost cleared, and presently disappeared in the north. Then, after satisfying a sentry that our papers were correct — such things could be done in those first days — we got into Villers-Cotterets. Instead of deserted houses we found that nearly every house was quartering soldiers. There were infantrymen, dragoons, flyers, Senegalese, Algerians in white turbans and burnooses on their desert horses, and everywhere officers. We had stumbled into a headquarters!

With somewhat the sensation of walking a tight rope, we sought the mayor to ask for permission to stay in town — finally to ask for safe-conducts to Soissons. The charming old gentleman, undisturbed by war's alarms, politely made them out.


civilian refugees


Presently in a hotel full of officers we came on three civilians calmly eating dinner. They had arrived by train, although there were no trains for civilians; they were now dining at a long table set for officers from which we had a moment before been turned away; and we were rescued by a mysterious being at the head of the table — a dark, bald, bright-eyed, smiling, sanguine gentleman, who might have been an impresario or a press agent, and continually had the air of saying, as from time to time he actually said: "Ssst! Leave it all to me!"

He was an American, he said, but spoke vernacular French. The other two civilians were a London chartered accountant and a Canadian volunteer — a young Oxford man — waiting for his regiment. Across the table, a big French dragoon, just in from the firing-line, his horsetail helmet on the chair beside him, was also dining. This man was as different from the little infantrymen we had so often seen as the air of that town was different from deserted Paris. Just as he was, he might have stepped — or ridden, rather — from some cavalry charge by Meissonier or Détaille; a splendid fellow — head to spurs, all soldier.

After weeks of newspaper rhetoric and windy civilian partisanship, it was like water in the desert to listen to him — straight talk from a professional fighting man, modest, level-headed, and, like most fighting men, as contrasted with those who stay at home and write about fighting, ready to give a brave enemy his due. The German retirement was not at all a rout. When an army is in flight it leaves baggage and equipment behind, guns in the mud. The Germans had left very little; they were falling back in good order. Their soldiers were good fighters, especially when well led. They might lack the individual initiative of Frenchmen, the nervous energy with which Frenchmen would keep on fighting after mere bone and muscle had had enough, but they had plenty of courage. Their officers — the dragoon paused. Yesterday, he said, they had run into a troop of cavalry. The German officer ordered his men to charge, and instead they wavered and started to fall back. He turned on them. "Schweinhunde!" he shouted after them, and, flinging his horse about, charged alone, straight at the French lances.

"Kill him?" asked the man at the head of the table.

The dragoon nodded. " It was a pity. Joli garçon he was" — he ran a hand round a weather- beaten cheek as if to suggest the other's well-made face — "monocle in his eye — and he never let go of it until it fell off — a lance through his heart."

As we talked two secret-service -men entered, demanded our papers, examined them, and directed us to call at the Maine for them next morning at eight o'clock. Now, indeed, we were walking a tight rope. Following the genius who had got us our suppers, we emerged into the dark street, walked down it a few doors, entered a courtyard full of cavalry horses, where men in spurred boots were clanking up and down stairs. He thrust a heavy key into a lock, opened a door and ushered us into an empty and elegantly furnished house.

Here was a sombre dining-room with decanters and glasses, bedrooms with satin down quilts spread over the foot of the bed, and adjoining one of them a dressing-room with pomades and perfumes and rows of boots just as its owner had left it. Who he might be, why we should be here, how our mysterious, conductor — who knew no one in Villers-Cotteret and had but landed there himself that night — had arranged this occupation, was beyond finding out. At the moment, with military motor-trucks rumbling past outside, soldiers coming and going in the court and tramping about in the room overhead — an extension of the adjoining house — one scarcely thought of trying to find out. One merely accepted it, enchained by that uplifted finger and "Leave it to me!" For a time we talked under the dining-room light, with doors bolted and wooden shutters on street and courtyard closed, as if we were conspirators in Russian melodrama, and then we slept.

The Germans were evidently much nearer than Paris had supposed, and we should not have been greatly surprised to find them in the streets next morning. It was an Algerian horseman, however, muffled up in his dingy white and looking rather chilly, who was riding past the window as I first looked out.

We went to the Mairie — not the grandfatherly old mayor this time, but a sharp-eyed special commissioner of police.

"After all," said he, when we had put our case, "you want to get as near the front as possible."

True, I answered, we did.

"Well," he said, with a gesture at once final and wholly French, "you are already farther than that. You are inside the lines." He crossed out the safe-conduct and on the laissez-passer wrote: "Good for immediate return to Paris," and carefully set down the date. Half an hour later we were well on the road to Crepy, with the thunder which had drawn us hither rolling fainter and fainter in the north.


hasty earthworks, graves and destruction

present-day photos of the same sites as in the above 1914 photos
the temporary grave is now a permenent monument, Barcy church rebuilt


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