- from the book At the Front with Three Armies
- 'Back with the French Army'
- by American journalist, Granville Fortescue 1915
The Battlefields of the Marne
French soldiers attacking on the Marne
As there seemed little chance of my being allowed to witness the operations of the German army for some considerable period, I was recalled to London. It would not be just if I did not record the fact that all the time I was on German soil I met only with courtesy and civility from the authorities. I also feel sure that the gentlemen of the Foreign Office made every endeavour to have me attached to the head-quarters in the field. But the military who were in the saddle in German affairs could not be bothered with correspondents at that moment. I regret that I had not the opportunity of seeing the German going into action from his own side. It might have thrown some light on certain of his tactics which seemed entirely unsound.
I did have the chance of making some study of the German supply organization, and their system for the evacuation of the wounded. In general terms these two important factors in an army's success could not be improved upon. In fact the whole German military organization seemed to me to justify all that I have heard our enthusiastic attaches say in praise of the marvellous war machine. If the Prussian fails the fault will not lie here.
When I got back into France I found the whole situation changed. The Battle of the Marne had been fought and the victorious onslaught of the Germans checked. If it were not for the fact that one of the most difficult of military feats is to turn a losing army into a winning one at a moment's notice, I think General Fuchs, when he pierced the German line, might almost have fought his way clean through.
The mix-up along the enemies' front at this time, makes it impossible to come to definite conclusions as to what might have happened if the initial success of the Allies could have been pressed home. At any rate Paris was for the time safe, and the Germans could be defeated. These were the important facts.
I hope I may never see Paris again under the same circumstances. I could not have believed that the light-hearted capital of the French could have been so transformed. It was a veritable morgue. It might have been a city suffering a terrible pestilence. All the shops were closed, the heavy iron windows never being lifted during the twenty-four hours of the day. The few people who passed on the streets hurried by as if they were afraid some one might accost them. The effects of the panic that ensued when the Government deserted the capital, were visible everywhere. Yet behind the despair that showed in the faces of the people was an invincible courage. The French were a people with their backs to the wall.
Such a thing as getting a pass to follow the French armies being entirely out of the question, correspondents had to take all sorts of chances in order to do their duty by their papers. My original modus operandi, which was to place myself where I expected the "front" to come and there await developments, had become more and more difficult. The Germans were no longer advancing. And the French troops had monopolized all the means of communication. When I finally managed to get near the field of operations, I found that the modern battle had two distinct drawbacks. It was too long in time, and too long in space. The battle of the Aisne was still going strong after twelve days of uninterrupted fighting, and it was being fought along a front of one hundred miles. This was fairly early in the combat. How long it finally lasted, and how much ground it covered, I have never been able correctly to decideand the authorities differ. If a correspondent attempted to tell the story of such a battle completely he would fill a large volume. Unfortunately he can only see a limited section of the field, and what he reports is merely of local interest, one might say. If I were a censor I would let all the correspondents get right into, the trenches with the troops. That is, if I wanted them to send back news that could not be of the slightest use to the enemy. The man who attempts to paint word scenes of modern-day battles can only produce miniatures.
After twelve days of continuous fighting, it is not to be expected that infantry will advance with dash. In battle formation they crawl forward. On the Aisne it was approximately five miles from the German gun positions to the French emplacements. The French infantry took a full day to cover half that distance. This was about the rate of progress of the whole French army. During the later operations, when the infantry was in contact all along the front from Belfort to Nieuport, an advance of less than this meant a prolonged battle wherever it was attempted. The armies were like tired wrestlers struggling for each inch of advantage without apparently moving, while they are making the most violent efforts. Seen apart, the engagement one day at Soissons would in any other age have been classed as a considerable battle. To-day it is only an incident in a series.
Under the present conditions of modern warfare, military movements are carried on at a snail's pace. The cavalry soon loses its snap. Luckily, as the lines close it is no longer needed to develop infantry positions. The work of scouting is somewhat relaxed as the general position of the enemy is known. Then soldiers become veterans after a month's fighting of this nature. Everything becomes a matter of dull routine. The man becomes accustomed to warfare. The artillery loses the feverish haste which marked its operations during the earlier days of campaigning. Batteries take their stand to cover infantry advances with deliberation. Pieces are loaded, sighted, fired, and loaded again slowly and mechanically. With the artillery the matter of range-finding has been greatly simplified since the era of the aeroplane. Whenever a battery commander takes position, he turns his glasses skyward to see if he can discover any of his air scouts to spot for him. It is the duty of aviators to hover over the gun position of the enemy, and so disclose the point of fire for their own artillery. When an artilleryman sees one of his own flyers cutting figure eights off on the horizon, he trains his guns below him. Then in a manner most leisurely he opens fire. As with the old system, while the friendly artillery attempts to silence the guns of the enemy, the infantry forms its line of battle. The men go to their positions with just as much hurry as labourers going to work. Once under the protecting salvoes of the artillery, they go forward, but not as the charging mass pictured in the illustrated papers. Rather do they give one the impression of weary men who have a difficult and disagreeable task before them and who are determined to carry it through. These are the impressions of war as one sees it waged to-day.
I found nearly all the doors closed to the writer in France. That is, the writer of the news of the war. How the French Government was able to forbid not only the foreign correspondents but their own journalists in the war zone is beyond understanding. The French are a nation of writers, and here, day by day, material was being produced which would give men with but a modicum of talent the chance to shine as bright lights of literature, yet the French newspapers carried less war news than any in the world, I dare say. Personally I look on this as a great loss. I do not believe that the suppression of the little information which under the censorship in vogue might leak out, would make up to France for what she has lost to literature by forbidding her writers the fields of battle.
In my own case I decided to make myself as inconspicuous as an ant. Yet I fear I hold the record for arrests. Three times have I been held in durance vile, as the phrase goes, and those two words describe the situation accurately.
Remarkable as it seems, I found in all countries where the war was in progress, that the easiest way of getting from place to place was by train. Invariably when I travelled by motor I was stopped. But when I decided on the point which promised the most favourable field, and then bought a ticket to the nearest town on the railroad to that point, I always got there. The train service was kept up as well as could be under the circumstances, which was certainly a godsend to the correspondents. At the time of which I write, the second week in September, much space had been devoted to the battles directly in front of Paris, but little had been written concerning the operations in the East beyond Chalons-sur-Marne. These were grouped together under the title the Battle of the Marne, but they were distinct in result and bearing on the future plan of the Germans. As this had been the country where Napoleon had fought a very interesting campaign, the field was doubly interesting. With the object of covering this field I bought my ticket to Sezanne, and started early one morning for as near the front as circumstances would permit.
French artillery in the field
I remember when I arrived in the unpretentious French town that the landlady said luckily I could have a room. The officer who had occupied it had died the day before, and as the Hotel du Boule d'Or seemed to suit me, I occupied the unfortunate officer's bed, but I don't think I had any bad dreams. The hotel was a sort of unofficial hospital, and I was continually meeting orderlies carrying meals to the upper rooms.
From all sides I heard rumours of the doings of the German Crown Prince, who commanded the invading armies in this section, and for a brief time he, with his staff, had occupied the Chateau de Mondémont. I motored out to the Chateau, which is about ten miles north of Sezanne, and there I was able to compile the story of the repulse of the army of the Crown Prince.
after the fighting - the chateau de Mondément - an Orignal Color Photo
The Chateau of Mondémont was a tornado centre of attack and defence during the battle. When the fighting began it sheltered the staff of the German army. In the next three days it was taken and re-taken four times. Bullet-spattered walls, the shell-rent roof, great craters of fresh-turned earth that peppered the lawn, trees split and shivered across the road, testify to the smothering of shot and shell it had suffered, and gaping round holes four feet in diameter had been opened by the giant projectiles in the Chateau garden walls.
When I was there, blood-stained uniformsthe blue and red of the French and the grey of the Germanstill littered the lawn. Piles of empty cartridge-cases, rifles broken at the stock, bits of leather, and here and there an unexploded projectile, tell a story of fighting more fierce than that which raged around the farm of Hougoumont at Waterloo.
Mounds of newly-turned earth spot the roadside." Crosses, from which a kepi or a casque hang, mark these graves of friend and foe. Such is the grim testimony of their heroism.
Inside the Chateau is evidence of another kind. In every room, amid the debris of fallen plaster and shattered woodwork are dozens of empty champagne bottles. The old concierge who leads me from room to room tells of the nights of revelry enjoyed by the German staff. He describes the dinner of the night before the French attack. The countryside was ravaged to furnish the table of the Germans. I tried to get the old man to describe the Crown Prince, whom he served so often, but he could say no more than that he was very young and very proud.
a French supply column
While the Allied Armies were carrying through the splendid offensive movement at Meaux and Soissons on the left and left centre, the right centre was also advancing irresistibly against the enemy. Roughly, the army of the Crown Prince occupied the front from Fère-Champenoise to a point east of Epernay. The advance guard was on the road Sezanne-Epernay, and the Crown Prince is supposed himself to have slept in the Chateau de Mondémont the night before the French took the offensive. The German army is estimated at five corps d'armée.
The country between Sezanne and Epernay presents problems that would tax the ingenuity of the most astute strategist. Rolling with a few wood-covered hills, here and there villages joined by fair roads, it looks on the surface entirely practicable for all operations. But it is a deathtrap. The valleys are wide swamps. And into these swamps the enemy was finally driven. While I was at the Chateau a dozen starving German soldierssome of whom were wounded, came out of hiding in the marshland and gave themselves up. They had been concealed for days; in the moraines, as the swamps are called, are sunk some forty pieces of German artillery.
According to a copy of the order of battle issued by the commander of the French Army Corps, the "Division du Maroc" had the honour of the assault on Mondémont. The soldier who was my guide over the battlefield ran short of adjectives in describing their bravery. The savagery of war is pure joy to the "Turco."
When the order to assault came, like a pack of wolves they struggled up to the German position. On they pushed, smashed by the rifle fire, but always advancing. As they drew nearer many threw away their guns and rushed at the foe, armed only with the vicious French bayonet. Nothing human could stand before them. Fighting stubbornly the Germans fell back. But no sooner had the French entered the Chateau than they in turn came under the German shell fire. With this protection the enemy came closer and closer. The infantry crept from the bottom to the top of the hill, and slowly the French retired. Every square yard of the walls of Mondémont shows a dozen bullet scars. The wooden shutters of the windows are starred with holes, and these marks of battle are almost equal on the east and west faces of the building. The Germans held the place but an hour, when the French retook it. Then an annihilating gunfire drove them out. But they would not be baulked of their prey. Reforming in sheltered ground, they took up. the counter charge. Now the 75 centimetre guns of the French play havoc with Mondémont. With a yell the gallant " Division du Maroc " charge and retake it. Troops of the second line are rushed to their support. For the second time that day the Chateau is in the hands of the rightful owners.
There is a pause in the fighting. Both armies are literally panting from their labours. The head-quarters of the French corps begins work among the debris of torn papers left behind by the German staff. A new order of battle is issued. Its final words are " Résister à I'outrance "! Such is the spirit of the French in their fighting. But like gluttons for war the enemy comes back to the attack next morning. Under a superbly gauged gunfire the grey-coated light infantry move forward on Mondémont. They outnumber the French. Bit by bit the latter give way. For the third time the enemy holds this key of the battle- ground.
Then the whole story is repeated. Again the "Turcos" dash into the murderous fire coming from the Chateau. The supports from the line regiments follow on their heels. The Germans fall back, the Chateau de Mondémont again flies the tricolour of France.
With this break in the centre the whole line of the enemy wavers. The French press forward at every point. The Germans gradually withdraw, converging on the road Chalons-sur-Marne-Verdun. In this withdrawal they stumble into the swamps.
The artillery dashing across country for the roads in the rear first fall into the quagmires. The horses flounder about in the mud up to their cinches, while caisson follows gun into the marsh. The retreating infantry comes to the assistance of the gunners. They manage to bring a little order out of the chaos. Fighting a rear-guard action, the proud army of the Crown Prince makes good its escape. It had been within sixty miles of Paris when it was defeated.
French soldiers in a forest encampment
I have put together this story of the defeat of the Crown Prince from the testimony of eyewitnesses. Soldiers who were in the fighting, peasants who viewed it from afar, an intelligent curate and the veteran keeper of the Chateau have contributed parts of the picture. The rest I have seen for myself. When there I still saw the debris of battle. Piles of brass cartridge cases marked the artillery positions, empty small-arms shells told where the infantry had fought. In itself, the ruin of the Chateau spoke more vividly of ruthless war than anything I had heretofore seen, except the newly-filled-in trenches marked at both ends with rude crosses. As I stood before one of these reflecting, my soldier guide said in a low voice:
"Sixty of us lie there, monsieur," and this was but one of hundreds of these graves that marked the countryside.
I made a special study of the terrain in this part of the war zone, as the attack here seemed to me of special significance. If the French had not stopped the army of the Crown Prince, Paris would to-day have been in the hands of the Germans as Brussels is. I do not say that the French would have given up the fight. I think they would have retired to Bordeaux, and kept up the struggle just as Belgium is doing. General Joffre, while the Germans were coming through France like a plague of locusts, said, "I shall await them on the Seine." He is supposed to have decided that as his enemy was advancing in an arc, he would wait until that arc was sufficiently extended before giving his decisive counter attack. According to his view the enemy would not be spread enough until his forces had reached the Seine. I think it was a lucky thing for France they were checked at the Marne. In my opinion the first army to be thoroughly whipped on French soil was that of the Crown Prince. This saved Paris. At the time of the victory of Sezanne, the French did not know the extent of the damage they had inflicted on the enemy. In fact they did not make claim to a decisive victory. In the official communication the most they claimed was a drawn battle. Actually they had smashed the flower of the German military power. Of course the Germans have enormous recuperative powers, and with their superb organization they soon recovered from the blow.
I think, contrary to the general impression, that the great battles round Paris did not begin with the defeat of General von Kluck. That commander's misfortunes were due directly to the retirement of the German left wing on the night of September 6-7. The mystery which has surrounded the movements of the German armies disappears when we know that the main body of the Crown Prince's army retired nearly forty kilometres during that night, and the following day. Such a retreat almost amounts to a rout.
In the plan of the German operations the path that promised the greatest glory was reserved for the Crown Prince. This was in accordance with the policy of bolstering the fast-fading popularity of the House of Hohenzollern. Throughout Germany he had been acclaimed as the of Longwy. His futile demonstration against Verdun had been magnified into a series of glorious assaults. In the official bulletins he was declared to have inflicted a serious defeat on the French here. I had read this in the papers while I was in Berlin. As a matter of fact the French army opposed to him had been carrying ou a splendid defensive retirement. Opposing superior numbers they had contested with stubbornness every inch of the ground lost; and the end they assumed the offensive in a most effective manner.
The Germans after the taking of Longwyan obsolete fortadvanced on the line Verdun-Ste. Menehould-Chalons-sur-Marne. There progress was exceedingly rapid. When the Uhlans of von Kluck's forces were in Chantilly the main body of the Crown Prince's army was yet two hundred kilometres away. Then this army was ordered to push on with all speed. The order of march up the Champs Elysées was being drawn up, and as the Crown Prince was to head this historic march, undoubtedly dressed in the uniform of his pet regiment, the Death's Head Hussars, the French troops opposing him must be brushed aside.
The left wing of the Germans gave battle on Sunday, September 6. The fighting began at daybreak and continued with unprecedented fury until dark. The artillery fire went beyond anything the history of warfare has hitherto recorded. Shells were timed to be falling at the rate of thirty in thirty seconds. I have this record from a trustworthy source. In this day's fighting the French guns were served with undeniable superiority. The loss they inflicted on the Germans can never be approximately estimated, but I hardly credit the figures of one hundred thousand as the total German casualties. Great as the French victory was, this loss was not sustained. It is said that twenty thousand were killed in this action round Sezanne, but this probably includes the loss on both sides.
It must be remembered that the German army was advancing on a front nearly forty miles in extent, and the country north-east of Sezanne is the most treacherous in all France. Acres upon acres of marshlands line the valleys. Here, as I have already described, the enemy suffered the most.
But the French also made severe sacrifices.
The famous-----Corps was almost wiped out of existence. Spurred by the knowledge that they were fighting for the very existence of Paris, each French soldier was as three in this battle line. Against such desperation the Germans could do nothing. After the first day's fighting neither army could claim much advantage in position gained. The French had made certain advances, but also they had fallen back at other points. An enormous quantity of ammunition had been used up. The total French expenditure is put at four thousand shellshundreds of caissons were empty.
Then on the night of September 6-7 began the mysterious German retirement. The fighting still went on along the whole front, but the main forces were withdrawing.
From the information at hand there are but two ways of explaining this retreat. First, there may have been a sortie from Verdun. Such an operation put through while the main force was engaged, would have wrought havoc in the German army.
The second theory is that for some unknown reason the German transport service broke down completely. Granting this to have been the case, after the enormous expenditure of ammunition during the first day's action, unless this supply could be immediately replenished, the Crown Prince's army must fall back, or be captured.
The circumstances of their precipitate flight incline me to the last explanation. Of course the fighting on this wing continued for several days, but the Germans were only trying to save what was left of a badly crippled army from complete destruction.
With the Crown Prince retreating, there was nothing else for von Kluck and von Biilow to do but execute the same manoeuvre. This brought about the battle of the Oise, and all the subsequent fighting along the Marne. From that time the French began to achieve certain successes.
It is remarkable to note that from the moment the French took the offensive against the German left wing, that army almost disappeared from the theatre of operations. It is said that it was moved in a body to the extreme right when General Joffre began his extraordinary flanking movement. At any rate this army, which at one time was headed straight for the Avenue de l'Opéra with the purpose of following the footsteps of their fathers in the march of 1870, no longer appears as a factor in the German attack.
While I was at Sezanne I heard constantly the rumour that the Crown Prince had been wounded. I did not believe this. When I questioned the keeper of the Chateau closely about this (he was responsible for the story), I found that his tale did not fit well with the facts. I think he endowed the heir of the Hohenzollerns with a mysterious hurt in order to please popular demand. From the papers published in Berlin the Crown Prince was removed to the Russian theatre of operations shortly after his failure before Paris. It is surmised that he was sent to a field that was supposed to offer better opportunities for potential heroes. But from what happened in Poland it seems that the unfortunate heir- apparent again failed in his ambition.
With the battle of the Marne the tide of German success began to turn. After General von Kluck's first retirement they were never able to regain the ground lost. Corps upon corps was jammed into the angle of the Allies' line at Ribecourt in a desperate attempt to pierce it. But it was a vain effort. Grey-coated soldiers were fed into the French field of fire like corn into a hopper. They were ground to dust.
It was about this time that what I shall call the Siege of Germany began. Many had already marvelled that modern battles could last two weeks without cessation. As a fact fighting continued in the same area for months. It was not the same battle, although some writers delighted to head their stories "the fortieth day of the battle of the Aisne." This conveys a wrong impression to the untechnical. Infantry and cavalry do not advance during such time. What happens is that the troops of the contending armies "dig themselves in" whilst the artillery continues an uninterrupted fire. The men in the trenches are relieved as often as circumstances permit, but this kind of fighting, as one officer described it to me, is "living in hell."
The German field fortifications in the rear of their original line of battle were splendidly planned and painstakingly constructed. Their trenches not only give shelter from the enemy's projectiles but from the elements. Their bombproofs deflect shells and keep out rain and cold. And the weather played an active part in the campaign.
I think the fact that winter was approaching influenced the Germans in attempting the suicidal counter-attacks which characterized the second stage of their operations. Nothing short of the most decisive victory could bring the war to an end, and Germany was willing to make any sacrifice to achieve such a victory. In the beginning of October, despite their genius for organization, the lines of communication began to be seriously congested. The evacuation of the wounded and the return of "empties" interfered with the replenishment of the ammunition supply, and as blood is to man so is ammunition to an army. Then, in addition, the situation was complicated by the necessity of providing the troops with winter kit. When it became imperative to tax an already over-burdened transport with a million blankets for distribution throughout the German front in addition to an uninterrupted ammunition supply, the greatest military advance the world has ever seen, and let us hope ever will see, came to an end.
At this time I saw a vast improvement in the French soldier. The recruit whom I had seen on the Meuse was a veteran on the Marne. When I compared the regiments I met beyond Sezanne with the troops I had seen in Dinant I was astounded. The men were bronzed and looked hardened to a degree. Not only were they physically fit, but they worked smoothly in the grooves of military routine. The improvement in morale was marvellous. The dread of the German military bogey was dead.
a French column on the move
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