- from the War Illustrated Deluxe volume V page 1032
- 'General Maurice Sarrail'
Personalia of the Great War
Born in 1856, about four years after Napoleon III. had been declared Emperor of France, and in the same year as the Prince Imperial, Maurice Sarrail first saw military service as an officer of Chasseurs, the hardy light infantry that have made such a distinguished name for themselves in the Vosges. In 1881 he took part in the expedition to Tunis, which led to the occupation by France of this part of the old Roman province of Africa. He fought with the celebrated Foreign Legion in Algiers. Afterwards he was appointed to the French Staff,- and did much excellent work of an administrative character, enjoying high repute as an accomplished strategist and student of the art of war.
A.D.C. to General Andre
In 1902 General Sarrail was A.D.C. to General Louis Joseph Nicolas Andre, when that officer, one of the few who came out of the Franco-Prussian War with enhanced reputation, was Minister of War in the Cabinet of M. Combesa Cabinet, by the way, which pledged itself to make the spirit of the Revolution triumph in matters of religious policy, and to secure the definite victory of lay society over religious policy, and to secure the definite victory of lay society over monastic disobedience to what was known as the Associations Law. At that time, politically speaking. General de Castelnau and General Sarrail were in opposite camps. It is one of the brighter results of the war that these two great soldiers sank their differences completely in their country's hour of extreme trial.
Prior to the commencement of the European hostilities in August, 1914, General Sarrail was in command successively of the Eighth Army Corps at Bourges, and the Sixth Army Corps at Chalons-sur-Marne. General Ruffey was head of the Third Army, facing heroically the savage Teutonic onslaught through Luxemburg and Lorraine under the direction of the Duke of Wiirtemberg and the Crown Prince of Prussia. General Ruffey's forces extended, roughly, from Montmedy by Sedan to Rocroi. A big battle was fought in this region towards the end of that fateful August, as the result of which certain obsolete fortresses on the Central Meuse, such as Mezieres, were compelled to surrender, and Ruffey retired to the Argonne region, the enemy meanwhile wreaking incendiary vengeance on La Tour, Rossignol, Longuyon and elsewhere. It was a time of surprise for our brave Allies, a day of temporary triumph for our enemies. But it was also the eve of the allied victory of the Marne.
Before, however, this decisive action was fought, General Sarrail had succeeded General Ruffey in the command of the Third Army, and in so succeeding had a highly critical task to perform. "Hold Verdunor do not come back!" said General Joffre to him. Even to-day the magnitude of the problem before him is not adequately realised. But all the world knows how magnificently he responded to the trust imposed upon him, despite the superior forces with which he was confronted. Verdun was at that time the pivot upon which many of General Joffre's manoeuvres turned, and its masterly defence was in no small degree contributory to the German defeat on the Marne.
His Magnificent Defence of Verdun
The stress of his new command was not lessened after the affairs of the Marne. The German attack gained in intensity during the Battle of the Aisne. Once or twice, indeed, the Crown Prince thought himself within sight of success, especially when St. Mihiel was captured. But General Sarrail's engineers fashioned such a series of formidable obstacles to the enemy on the hills around Verdun, that the Germans were thwarted with losses only excelled in extent when the second prolonged attempt was made on this part of the French line in the opening months of 1916, and General Petain emulated so brilliantly the example set him by General Sarrail.
In that trying period of 1914 General Sarrail not only remodelled the torts of Verdun, he remodelled the whole theory of fortification on which the forts had been laid out, doing this in the light of what had happened in Belgium. The defence of Verdun was continued by General Sarrail through the winter of 1914-15, and in March, 1915, he was able to take the offensive across the Meuse. He continued to baffle the Crown Prince's army until well into the summer.
Meanwhile, metaphorically speaking, the flags of St. George and St. Denis were hoisted at Gallipoli, the forces sent by our Allies to that part of the war area being composed of Zouaves, Senegalese, Colonial Infantry, and the Foreign Legion. These forces were under the command, first of all, of General d'Amade, who had won laurels in the West; then of General Gouraud, known as "The Lion of the Argonne" on account of his prowess as a corps leader in General Sarrail's Third Army. When General Gouraud met with his grievous wound, his place was taken by General Bailloud, and then, on August 6th, General Sarrail was appointed French Commander-in-Chief in the Orient.
In October France declared war against Bulgaria, and troops having been landed at Salonika, there took place the allied advance of some fifty miles north of the ancient Greek port. The enemy's strength proving unexpectedly strong, General Sarrail was called from the Dardanelles, and conducted the masterly retreat from the Vardar.
The Strong Man of Salonika
Appointed on January 16th, 1916, to the supreme command of the Franco-British forces at Salonika, General Sarrail, in conjunction with General Sir Bryan Mahon. planned the defences of that place which so commended themselves to General de Castelnau upon the occasion of his visit of inspection as General Joffre's Chief of Staff. He was responsible also for the firm measures taken against the enemy consuls. He issued a solemn warning that on the first act of hostility shown by the enemy on Greek soil he would "take measures of protection dictated by circumstances."
The result was that when German airmen dropped bomb on Salonika, General Sarrail promptly had the German, Austrian and Turkish consuls arrested and shipped off to Marseilles, his action being fully justified by the discoveries made when the enemy consulates were searched. At the same time he made full arrangements for the feeding of the Greek troops when communications had to be cut in accordance with his scheme for the defence of Salonika. Nor did he forget to alleviate the sufferings of the refugees from Asia Minor.
Under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief no less than 17,000 sacks of flour, 2,000 sacks of rice, and eight hundredweight of compressed quinine were distributed free among the homeless. In addition, he caused soup to be distributed to all the refugees who asked for it, and made an allowance of one ton of dried vegetables a day to the ncedv. An Athens paper, the "Patris," was moved to the following representative tribute: " General Sarrail, at the head of hundreds and thousands of the children of the Third Republic, is defending Macedonia against its enemies; a great and decisive victory will crown his work in this struggle of Liberal France in favour of the liberty of Greek Macedonia. General! All welcome is yours!"
General Sarrail and King Constantine
Of General Sarrail's memorable interview in February, 1916, with King Constantine, a statement issued in Athens contained the following passages: " General Sarrail showed that the military, measures taken by the Allies were irresistibly imposed by the situation, and he ventured the opinion that the King himself in similar circumstances would have done the same. He explained, .as a soldier to a soldier, the work accomplished to render Salonika impregnable, gave clear answers to questions, and cleared up several matters which had been the cause of misunderstandings. A situation which had grown almost daily more anxious to the Allies was thus ,happily relieved of its tension.
General Sarrail has been described by those who have known him best as a typical soldier, tall and well set up, keen, cool, with bulldog jaw, piercing eye, and any amount of tenacity. After the war had been in progress some months he touched the humorous vein of his countrymen by becoming suddenly and dramatically young again. Formerly he had a quite patriarchal white beard. This he dispensed with, retaining only a white, soft curled moustache to match the silky white hair that he wore in waves.
Back to Index