from ‘the War Illustrated Deluxe’ volume V page 1544
' General de Castelnau'

Personalia of the Great War

left : portrait
right : de Castelnau is on the left of the page, along with generals Joffre and Pau


Lying on the southern border of the central plateau of France, between the Auvergne highlands and the rugged range of the Cevennes, is the picturesque and largely pastoral department of Aveyron, the ancient home of the Celtic Rutheni. Its climate, like its contour, is trying to the stranger, but its hardy sons, as seems to be the case with hill-folk all the world over, are marksmen almost from their childhood. This the Germans found out to their cost in the early days of the war, when four hundred Aveyron riflemen, cut off during the retreat from the Mouse, sought sanctuary in the friendly fastnesses of the Ardennes.


An Organiser of Victory

More than one distinguished soldier of France has come from the country of the Garonne and its tributaries. Murat, the hero of Marengo, was one. So was another of Napoleon's favourite generals, the Baron de Marbot. The old military glories of this part of France gain fresh lustre from the fact that General de Castelnau, one of the three outstanding organisers of victory under the Tricolour—the other two being Joffre and Pau—is a native of Aveyron. All three men, and de Castelnau not the least of the three, had personal reasons to remember the bitter days of 1870-71.

Born in 1851, of distinguished ancestry, Marie Joseph Edouard de Curieres de Castelnau received his early training in the Jesuit College of Saint-Gabriel. He next entered the famous military school which Napoleon instituted at the instance of Marshal Saint-Cyr on the foundation of the suppressed school for poor girls of good birth that had Madame dc Maintenon as patroness.

Memories of 1870

In young de Castelnau the school of Saint-Cyr found one of its most brilliant pupils. He left it on the memorable day of the Battle of Wissembourg—August 4th, 1870— when the Germans won their first notable victory over the French in Alsace. Then, as in August, 1914, all the cadets were given commissions. There were two hundred and fifty of them, and before leaving the school for the battlefield they assembled in the courtyard, and, in accordance with old custom, baptised their promotion, giving it the name of "the promotion of the Rhine."

In the following October Sub-Lieutenant de Castelnau joined the 36th Regiment. Three weeks later, for rallying a party of fugitives and fighting a small rear-guard action on his own initiative, he was made a captain. Through the fighting in which he took part with the two armies of the Loire he passed unscathed, but later, during the Commune, he owed his life to his presence of mind and his marksmanship when suddenly confronted with a dozen armed Communists, of whom he accounted for five, their companions seeking safety in flight. His next experiences of active service were in Cochin-China, during the difficulties with Siam, and in Algeria.

Defender of Nancy

After passing with distinction through the l’ecole Superieure de Guerre, he took up a Staff appointment as colonel in the Seventeenth Army Corps. Joining the General Staff in 1896, he made his mark as head of the mobilisation department of the War Office. His next appointment was at Nancy, where he commanded the 37th Infantry Regiment in the "Iron Division," the regiment once commanded by Marshal Turenne. In 1906 he was made a Brigadier, and commanded at Belfort and Sedan. Three years later he assumed command of the 13th Division at Chaumont.

Called to Paris in 1913 by General Joffre, he became Chief of the General Staff. When Germany broke the peace in 1914, de Castelnau was placed in command of the Second Army of Lorraine, and in winning the great battle of the Grand Couronne de Nancy he saved Paris.

This memorable battle lasted from August 22nd to September 12th. Three days after the opening of the attack the Crown Prince of Bavaria and General von Heeringen had under their command more than 450,000 men. De Castelnau's forces were in far inferior numbers. They occupied the heights and plateaux running from the Moselle to the Meurthe, and, despite their heavy

losses, inflicted such terrible punishment on the invaders that the Kaiser, who with a glittering escort had watched events from the heights of Eply, first of all in complete confidence of the fall of Nancy, retired discomfited shortly before his " invincible " armies themselves retreated over the Seille. The same day the enemy were vanquished on the Marne, and France was saved.

General Joffre's Right-hand Man

With his reputation as a brilliant strategist fully assured, de Castclnau was now given command of the new Seventh Army, formed for service in Artois, and measured his strength against General von Kluck, holding gallantly the line from Albert to Ribecourt, which was the objective of a series of fierce but unavailing German attacks. Resigning his command to General Petain, who in the spring of 1916 directed the historic defence of Verdun, General de Castelnau was placed at the head of the central group of armies fighting between the commands of Maunoury and Maud'huy, and had a great share in the victory in Champagne.

In December, 1915, when General Joffre took over the supreme command of all the French Armies operating in Europe, he appointed General de Castelnau to be his Chief of Staff. In this capacity the gallant defender of Nancy visited the Balkan front, passing through Italy on his way, and conferring with General Cadorna.

General Gallieni's Tribute

According to one Paris paper, "L'Oeuvre," when President Poincare consulted the veteran General Gallieni with reference to the most likely officer for appointment as successor to General Pau as Chief of Staff, the answer was "Castelnau."

"And as a second, whom would you say?" asked the President.

"Castelnau," was the reply.

"And a third?"

"Castelnau," again answered the War Minister.

Arriving at Salonika on December 20th, he inspected the French and British fronts, approved the defensive measures of General Sarrail (whom he congratulated on his masterly conduct of the retreat from Serbia) and General Mahon, and then visited King Constantine at Athens'.

Three Sons Who Fell on the Field of Honour

Despite his more than three-score years, General de Castelnau struck all observers by his alert military carriage. He made a distinguished figure with his square chin, bold aquiline nose, large, broad forehead, and piercing eyes. Those who knew him well were no less impressed by his high qualities of heart. Spoken of by his officers as "L'Homme de Devoir," as one who throughout his life had subordinated everything to the organisation of victory against the foe of 1870, the soldiers, named by him "Mes enfants," regarded him in return as "Pere General."

Of his five sons, two—Captain Gerald de Castelnau and Lieutenant Xavier de Castelnau—fell quite early in the war. A third—Lieutenant Hugues de Castelnau— was killed in Artois in September, 1915. The story is still told with impressiveness of the news of his son Xavier's death being brought to the General as he was engaged in directing some important tactical movements. He paused a moment, then went on working with his officers. His first duty was to his country. There was no time for a father's feelings.

A Born Leader

Believing in frequent relations with his men, it was General de Castelnau's custom, whenever possible, to visit them in the trenches, to chat with them in that inimitable way beloved of the French, speaking of their homes and families, and keeping bright in their hearts the flame of devotion to their country. It is said that he never forgot a face. Officers and men occupy common ground in describing him as " a leader." The two words imply all that is necessary to describe one of the most experienced and trusted of French commanders.

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