from the book 'the Book of France' edited by Winifred Stephens 1915
'The Background of a Victory'
by Mary Duclaux
a Translation by the Author

Winning the Marne

French troops on the move
for original French text: Les Coulisses d'une Grande Bataille


Brie, September 1914

The soldiers of the north of France are familiar with the fields of Brie—those high- lying, rolling plains that reach from the Marne to the Seine, lifting their gentle eminence above the Valois valleys and the chalky levels of Champagne. If you look on one of those modern maps that mark the scale of heights, you will see this airy table-land float like an island above the lower-lying country, although its modest summit rises but a few hundred feet above the sea. In constitution and soil it is different from the neighbouring regions. In ancient Celtic the name Brie means "arable land"; and the very sound of it evokes, for a French ear, a vision of splendid harvests, of great, white, cheerful farms walled in like fortresses, of picturesque old towns with lovely steeples, all of them famous in the annals of our agriculture which commemorate the roses of Provins, the flocks and cheeses of Coulommiers, the flour of Corbeil, the fowls of Meaux, the fruits of Melun and of Fontainebleau.

The roads, as shady and as straight as royal avenues, cross the plain in all directions; one sees the vast horizon slip between the tree-trunks, an endless champaign of harvest-land, with here and there a round clump of trees, a little wood, compact and slender as is the way of France, and, far away on the horizon, the forests of Etampes and Fon-tainebleau.

But when autumn has gathered in the harvest and set the flocks a-grazing in the stubble, the great, bare, noble plain wears a severer aspect. It then becomes an admirable country for military manoeuvres, and the young soldiers of France— at least those of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th corps d'armee —every two years or so, fight over there again those battles which Napoleon lost a hundred years ago against overwhelming odds. Naturally they correct the great Emperor's mistakes. I was in Brie in September 1914 when they gave us a new and admirable version (and this time in grim earnest) of the Campaign of France.



We had been in Brie since the beginning of July, but at the end near Paris; there the plain dwindles to the merest balcony overhanging the great valley where the Marne glitters and glides between the houses and the trees. I love the pleasant village of Sucy, so simple, set down on the outskirts of the capital like some grey-haired old peasant-farmer resting at the gate of his market-town. You leave the railway-station in the valley and climb the long slope to the church; a few steps farther and the plain spreads out before your eyes its wealth of cornfields, orchards, woods—a characteristic landscape of Brie. . . . Some of our dearest friends have lived for many years in this quiet country, so unlike the usual suburbs of Paris. They were absent that July and had lent us their house—a large white cottage in a lovely wooded park. We lived there in the deepest peace, scarce bespattered by the distant rumours of the Caillaux case, and we took very calmly the European situation. . . . Suddenly one Saturday afternoon—it was the 1st of August—the church bells began to peal fast and furious, while the drums at the neighbouring fort of Sucy beat a strange, sinister tattoo. I had never heard just those sounds before, yet I knew they rang the tocsin,— that they were beating a general alarm, because the country was in danger.

We went into the village, where the bill-stickers were posting up the order of mobilisation. Anxious, red-eyed women with tight lips busied themselves in silence. The men, excited, talking with a sort of forced gaiety, gathered together in little knots and groups. The sombre memory of 1870 hung over the village like a cloud; the soldiers of the morrow, persuaded of Prussian invincibility, had little confidence in their own power to resist the first shock of onslaught. They were determined to sell their lives dear; but one heard ominous murmurs.

"In a month's time they'll be here!" and the older people exhumed their recollections of the great war.

It was only six weeks later that the sense of victory—a full trust in her own strength and in her Allies—was to take possession of France, after the miracle of the Marne; but from the first day she offered herself up in sacrifice, keeping nothing back, pouring out her best on the altar. There is something religious in the patriotism of the French: every son of the soil has in him the stuff of a burnt-offering. And, mingling with this oblation, there was, in the hearts of all these young men, a natural irritation against a wrangling neighbour whose provocations never left them long in peace. "They're always trying to pick a quarrel," said these youths. "Let 'em come on, and, ready or not, we'll fight the thing to a finish." The socialists were just as eager as the others. I see in my mind's eye a tall workman standing on the steps of the public- house and calling out, "We'll settle accounts among ourselves afterwards, but now we must be off."

Meanwhile, hour by hour, the conditions of life around us changed, and, one by one, the commodities of civilisation vanished as a dream. There was no more money; no one would change a cheque or even a bank-note. It became increasingly difficult to move from place to place, for the trains were required for the transport of troops; the horses were taken for the army, and even the motors of the country-houses were requisitioned. No newspapers, no post. A telegram that we sent to some friends twenty-five miles away took some twenty-four hours to reach them. The simplest movements of our daily life had become difficult and complicated. And yet it was necessary that we should slip our moorings! Our friends' cottage is built in the military zone; their park runs right up to the outworks of the fort, and we were warned that the house might be unroofed, or even pulled down, at any moment. On Sunday (August 2) we were fortunate enough to find in the village a sort of baker's cart with an old horse which had been refused by the army; our kind hostess obtained leave to keep her motor-car another day; and, piled into the two vehicles, bag and baggage, half a dozen women, and one of us well over eighty, we set out for Melun, where we had already hired a house for the summer, driving across the plains of Brie, undulating with the tawny wealth of an un-gathered harvest.



The town of Melun was originally built, like Paris, on an island in the Seine; the wide sunny bridges, the poplars by the river, the towers, the fortress walls, remind us still of what must have been the little round city of Saint-Louis. But when you reach Melun from the plains that overhang it (just as the moors overhang the towns in Yorkshire) you see nothing of all this: the eye plunges towards the Seine and discovers neither street nor river. In the foreground stands the old Place de la Prefecture with its stiffly-planted quincunxes of lime-trees, beyond which there rises an ancient, slender belfry, standing out against a vague abyss of blue air and sky; some roofs emerge, a church steeple, and then, far away, the fields and the first dim outskirts of the forest. Melun itself, and the river, and all the bridges are swallowed up, invisible, in the interval of the valley.

The street that drops steeply from the belfry to the river is called the rue Saint Barthelemy. And there every evening, between six and seven, the newsboys come rushing up from the station with their bundles of evening papers. Behind the clock- tower the sunset flushes the sky; and, relieved against this lovely background, the dragoons come hurrying down the street, eager to read the last communiqué. The townspeople open their doors and hail the cyclists, whose packets of Intransigeant and Liberté vanish visibly. In one corner a group of veiled, white Red-Cross nurses make a picture. There are not enough newspapers to go round, so we share them fraternally: a tall captain stoops to read the Patrie over the shoulder of the white- capped chef from the Grand Monarque, and a little boy from the Board School sidles up to me, offering his rumpled journal.

And, as we read, our hearts are disquieted within us, for, between the erasures of the censure and the reticences of the official telegrams, we read no cheerful news: heroic Belgium crucified on her Calvary; the North of France overrun by invading armies; our cities burned; our fields laid waste; Frenchwomen and their little ones driven as beggars into the wilderness—for our peaceful provinces are become a desolation! Terrible invaders, how shall we withstand them? Evidently we have not withstood them! What will be the fate of France? . . . With blurred eyes we read: "We have lost some ground"; "Our troops have given way at one point." The Prefecture no longer conceals from us that there have been "incidents—perhaps accidents." As objects loom larger through a mist, so the disaster that we divine seems still more sinister because we are kept in the dark. A vague fear creeps over us as we realise that the enemy is nearing us hour by hour. The Germans are at Compiegne, at Chantilly, at Senlis, at the very gates of Paris.



A change has come over the spirit of the place: the Sleeping Beauty in the cornfields has woken up with a start; and the roads that used to echo to the rumble of the harvest waggons are crowded now with different passengers.

This morning the soldiers left—the first Reservists. They are chiefly peasants from the neighbouring farms—small, supple men, tanned with the sun in the fields, who walk as if they would march to the end of the world. And as they go they hum under their breath the "Marseillaise." If I shut my eyes I can still see them moving along the white roads lined with their families and their friends; they stoop this way and that, here to press an outstretched hand, and there to kiss a baby that the mother lifts up towards the soldiers. Posies of dahlias, cornflowers, and roses are spiked on the points of their bayonets, and the people throw them flowers as they pass with a swift step and a light springy gait, almost running on the road to battle.

The next morning, to our surprise, there was another departure—not soldiers this time, but lads of seventeen and grizzled men of fifty, just in their working clothes. The authorities are sending them to Albi in the south. Strange, with the still un- garnered harvest lying loose upon the plains, to take away these labourers of the farms and fields! I wondered, for my part, since I did not know the customs of the Prussian hordes, who drive off all the manhood of the provinces they invade, old and young, sound and sick, herding them from town to town like cattle until they can entrain them for their concentration camps in Germany. They are better informed at Headquarters; they husband the last resources of the country. So old and young are off for a change of air on the banks of the Tarn.

It was a Tuesday morning, the first of September, when I saw my first troop of travelling refugees. They were market-gardeners from the neighbourhood of Valenciennes. Within an hour they were followed by a second company: the whole population of a large farm near Saint - Quentin, led by the farmer and the farmer's wife. There were five or six cartloads of them; and there they sat in their little uncovered spring-carts and light country gigs, as neat as print, composed and quiet, accompanied by a quite abnormal quantity of children, who, when I saw them, were playing about in the shade of the trees on the green edges of the road. I wondered how their mothers ever tucked them into the strict compass of those narrow vehicles, piled up already with bales of clean linen and bundles of wraps. I suppose they must have travelled ride and tie. They had been several days upon the road — poor wandering pilgrims as homeless as ever were the migrating nations of an elder world, and yet with such an air of homely tidiness and natural, unruffled dignity! The weather, happily, was splendid still; they only suffered from the heat at midday; but in the drenching rains and wild storms of mid-September I wondered had they reached their journey's end? I thought of them seated in their unsheltered carts, and heard again their quiet drawling voices telling me how the sound of the cannon had surprised them in their fields, succeeded by a sound yet more dreadful and nearer— the blasting, bursting explosion of the village bridge. The English occupied the country in force, they told me, blowing up bridges, ruining the roads, in order to prevent the advance of the Germans; and they, poor things, looked on, a little confused between these foreign friends and these foreign foes who alike brought devastation in their train, until a pleasant-mannered officer politely bade them begone, for their home was about to be blown stone from stone. They were "evacuated"; it was the first time I came in contact with that word which thenceforth, for many days, was to haunt me like a refrain.

Notwithstanding their decent, orderly ways, these bands of refugees alarmed the towns they travelled through. Those I had spoken with were soon followed by a long train, in harvest-wains, spread with straw, in market-carts, in waggons, where the old, the sick, and the little children were installed, while bevies of young girls and women, with a sprinkling of lads, walked by the side. Their flocks and herds accompanied them. Many of them were almost neighbours, farmers from the villages near Meaux and Coulommiers. Later in the day, when I called at the Prefecture, the friendly Conseiller who received me was constantly obliged to interrupt our conversation in order to answer the telephone: it seemed to me that all the Mayors of Seine-et-Marne rang him up to ask if they should chance the arrival of the invaders or take the road at once, with such of their goods and cattle as they could convey to a place of safety. I did not know then (but perhaps the Mayors were better informed) that the valley of the Ourcq was already evacuated,—that the Germans were approaching the banks of the Grand-Morin. The telephone of the Prefecture counselled calm, patience, courage, but in vain; and the incessant stream of fugitives went bleating, lowing, rumbling along the road, in a cloud of dust, constantly traversed by the swifter current of the refugees from Paris, piled in their taxi-cabs, fleeing for dear life from the wrath to come towards Montereau, Orleans, Montargis, or the South. The citizens of Melun swelled the train. Despite the extreme expense and difficulty of securing any means of conveyance, almost all the well-to-do families in the place decamped: "They shoot their dog and poison their cat," said one of them, "and they're off." They did not go so far as to make away with the servants, but, for the most part, they left them to their fate.

The Prefect went where duty called him—to Bordeaux; the Mayor vanished like a beautiful dream; the Red Cross emigrated to Orleans; the Post Office was all packed up in baskets, and the head officials, I believe, were to be met with at Montargis; the three rival Banks, with a touching unanimity, on the self-same afternoon closed their doors and shutters; three-fourths of the shops followed suit; and I recollect the day when the laundress and the milk-woman called to let us know that they too were off. . . . What were we to do, six lone, lorn females? The dusty encumbered road and the drear deserted town looked equally uninspiring. But our little house, hidden behind its high garden walls and sheltered by the flowery shade of two immense acacia-trees across the lane, appeared an asylum of peace—the quietest sanctuary. So we stayed on at Melun with the army, and the kind and plucky mass of the people.



On Wednesday the 2nd the maid who brought my breakfast informed me that the English had arrived in the night. The Staff was there with Sir John French; the aviation camp was already being set out some half a mile beyond the town gates, and the British troops were to be seen in the streets, alert, nimble, brisk, lively, clean and bright, as though they were not still, as it were, singed by the hell-fire of Charleroi and broken by the fatigue of the retreat from Mons. The very sight and sound of them was a tonic. In the twinkling of an eye the reputation of their race was changed: "The English love a laugh!" said the good people of Melun.

In the course of the afternoon I went down into the town, and as I stood on the old market-square that surrounds the ancient church of Saint-Aspais, I talked to some of the townswomen (much heartened by the arrival of the English and politely inclined to attribute it to me), when I felt a sudden change in the moral atmosphere, and saw the women I was talking to rush into their houses muttering in dreadful voices, "Les Allemands! Ce sont maintenant les Allemands." I felt no fear, only an immense strained curiosity; but I must have been at heart far more afraid than they, for I could not have moved or cried. And there, by the old church, round the corner, came the bonny Highlanders! I stood still on the pavement and sang "Scots wha hae" at the top of my old cracked voice, and they (appreciating the welcome and excusing the minstrelsy) waved their hands to me as they passed.

The relief must have been great, for the next morning I woke up with an absurd jingle running in my head:

"Dance since ye're dancing, William, Dance up and doon; Set to your partners, William, We'll play the tune!
"See, make a bow to Paris!
Here's Antwerp toon; Off to the gulf of Riga,
Back to Verdoon,— Ay, but I'm thinking, laddie,
Ye'll use your shoon!
"Dance, since ye're dancing, William, Dance up and doon; Set to your partners, William, We'll play the tune.
"What! Wad ye stop the pipers?
Nay, 'tis ower soon! Dance, since ye're dancing, William,
Dance, ye puir loon! Dance till ye're dizzy, William!
Dance till ye swoon; Dance till ye're dead, my laddie,
We'll play the tune!"



There were by this time three regiments of the English at Melun besides the Staff and the Flying Corps—such brave, bright, orderly, kind young men. Add the French Dragoons of the place and our 31st, and you have a great many soldiers for a small half-empty town! They were always coming and going, never all there at the same time, so that the roads were constantly echoing with the passage of troops. But nothing was so astonishing as the baggage and ammunition; no one can imagine it who has not seen the transport-service of a modern army, especially an English army. We had little or no cannon visible to the naked eye; I think I have seen more at some military funeral under my Paris windows before the quiet church of Saint Francois Xavier; but we had the Flying Corps. And we saw from our windows a long file of enormous motor-waggons, great grey cocoons which held, packed close, the dragon-fly wings of our aerial artillery. But what could fill those endless lorries, drays, motor - omnibuses, cars — hideous things like huge "Black Marias" gone grey with grief—which shook our walls as they passed in a rattle and a rumble of old iron and a smother of dust? Barbed wire and scissors, no doubt, and bayonets and cartridges, and blankets and stretchers, bread, bacon, razors, soap, tea, cake, tobacco, rum, and marmalade! It needs so many things to equip our gallant Tommies!

After these military motors there streamed by a continual flux of commercial autobuses from all parts of the three kingdoms: Carter Paterson, the Glasgow Dairy, the Aberdeen Steam Laundry, the Universal Appetiser — doubtless surprised to find themselves in the steep streets of Melun! As I looked at them I thought that such an excess of luggage must grievously encumber the movements of an army on the march. I was quite wrong! And a week later I perceived that all this luxury of transport could, on occasion, serve more than one end.



All this turmoil of men and things indicated that we were not far from the field of battle. And sometimes I looked at my mother, old and ill; and sometimes I looked at our three pretty maids. The one risked so much in moving along those congested roads! (And who knows what the others risked in staying if, after all, the Germans came!) We had certainly chosen a strange resort for a delicate old lady's autumn holiday! And the question now was whether it would be more dangerous to leave her here or to take her away. Not that she wished to go; my mother was the most courageous of us all, or rather she only dreaded that dusty exodus; but I felt we were deciding without sufficient data, and so one morning I summoned all my courage and went to ask for aid and counsel from our compatriots at Headquarters.

The Staff were installed in a comfortable mansion at the corner of the rue Saint- Louis, where I was received by one of the younger Generals, a slight graceful man with grey hair, who greeted me with that quiet simplicity, that almost comradely kindness which are the good manners of the English. He leant up against a corner of the table and explained the situation.

"I should stay!" said he. "I have told my mother, who is in Paris, to stay there, and Paris is as much exposed as Melun. Privately, I believe the Germans have little chance of getting to either. Of course they may; one can never be sure; we may be defeated. But you must run some risk any way, and I think, for old persons, nothing is so fatal as these terrible roads, unless, of course, you are directly in the firing line."

I laughed: "But that is just the question, General!"

"Well, really, I should stay. Still, I will venture to give you one piece of advice. We shall be leaving soon, and I think you will see no more of us, but if we should return—I don't expect it—then follow us across the bridges! There are mines under them both and, once across, we shall blow them up."

It was the next day, I think, that at the street corner I saw an English soldier kneeling by the kerbstone, mending his bike. He looked up at me with such understanding, friendly eyes that I stopped and spoke to him.

"Are we getting the best of it?" said I. "Is there much danger?"

"Well, Miss," said he, "it's like this: the place is full up with Generals; and I don't know how it is, but I've always noticed where there's so many Generals there's not much danger!"

I went home comforted by this wise saw.



But the next morning (Sunday, September 6) I woke to the muffled roar of distant cannon—the battle was at Coulommiers, at La Ferté, at Provins, more than twenty miles away, but along those rolling plains the sound reverberated uninterruptedly. Throb, thud, plop; the dismal sound seemed to echo in one's heart. But towards noon it ceased. The weather was so lovely one could scarcely believe that all was not well with the world. When my sister came in from church she found us sitting on the verandah, my mother and I, watching the aeroplanes, quantities of them, as they glittered in the sunshine, flitting, apparently, in and out of the white - flowered branches of our great acacias, or suddenly darting to the extremest verge of the horizon. It seemed impossible these graceful lovely birds should be the messengers of death. For the first time my mother, with her dim eyes, had been able to descry them, and we were so pleased that we paid less attention to the battle.

That was a moment's interlude. Soon our minds harked back to the encounter, so close at hand, which doubtless would decide the fate of Paris. I went out into the road and saw there a douce, demure young Highlander taking his Sunday afternoon's walk, as quietly as if he had been in Glasgow.

"How are things going?" said I. "Do you think the Germans are coming?"

"I've been hearing, Matam, that the Chermans will have been hafing a pit of a set- back," said he.

And it was in this modest manner that I heard of the victory of the Marne.



But, in our times, a victory is more than a day's work. We were still to hear, in ever fainter gusts, the hoarse bark of the cannon. The battle still went on. . . . Somehow, it seems, there came to be a weak place in our lines, an empty space which must be filled immediately at any price. Men must be brought at once to stay that dangerous spot. . . . On Wednesday, September 9, I was writing in my room in the afternoon when I heard a long thundering rumble out of doors. Looking out, I saw in the road the whole transport of the English Force, every car covered with clusters and swarms of laughing soldiers, tearing at the utmost rate of their machines in the direction of Coulommiers. The great grey lorries, too heavy for such a pace, pitched and swayed in the most alarming manner; at every instant I thought I should see some of those brave and cheerful Tommies hurled off into space. It was a headlong course, the oddest, most precipitate of chariot-races. Forth and back, back and forth the motors rushed between Melun and (I think) Vareddes, bringing relays of fresh troops right on to the field of battle, just as General Manoury transported the regiments of Paris in the taxi-cabs of the capital. Doubtless it was the efficient promptitude of our motor- service that helped us to win the battle of the Marne! . . . And still they went crashing by, in the most astounding din, half-hidden by the swirling dust, through which one caught a gleam of waving hands and laughing faces. . . . Morituri salutabant! How many of them have left their brave hearts to rot in and enrich the loams of Brie!

"Que de corps le long des fosses,
L'un sur l'autre tout entasses!
Jamais ne fut telle tuerie
Frappant telle chevalerie! "

The plaintive couplets of the ancient Mystère d'Orleans rise in my mind. But whoever pitied the knights of Joan of Arc? No fate, surely, is so worthy of our envy as the glorious death of those who in a joyful sacrifice redeem their country and their race, achieving, not only victory, but the downfall of a tyrant and the triumph of human right and freedom.

Mary Duclaux

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