After The Battle Of The Marne
( Originally Published 1915 )
THE anxious week is over.
I would be the last in the world to claim that it has not been an anxious week. The Paris that works, and that stuck bravely to its work, did not lose its grip. Nor did it lose its original traditional lightheartedness. But the lightheartedness of Paris is not indicative of the feelings that lie beneath the surface. To be good-humored, to be cheerful, to be happy, is a habit. The Parisian is incapable of not smiling, of not feeling that the world is good and that there is, in spite of every reason to think otherwise, an overflowing joie de vivre:
There has been reasonable ground for believing that the Germans might come to Paris, and that the defense of the city would have been impossible. We knew that von Kluck had passed through Compiègne, through Creil, and through Chantilly. Then we heard the cannon at Meaux.
This was the first indication that something had gone wrong with the German raid, or that the plan of attacking Paris had been for the moment given up. Rumors were plentiful; news was scarce. What were the Germans up to? We could only make surmises : we knew nothing.
Last night, at the Closerie des Lilas, I dined with the Lawyer and the Officer of Zouaves, who had been wounded at Charleroi and was impatiently waiting for the order to rejoin his regiment. The soup was excellent; the biftek aux pommes done to a turn and no more; the camembert just ready to overflow like the Seine after the melting of the spring snows in the uplands; and the pears and peaches—oh, what a summer this has been for fruit! To be eating a meal like this, and the Germans only thirty kilometers away it seemed incredible. But why borrow trouble? Siege rations begin only when the siege comes. We have had more than enough these days, thanks to the froussards whose sudden disappearance since the beginning of the month has resulted in a supply greater than the demand in the Halles Centrales.
The Officer of Zouaves insisted upon showing his patriotism in a less convincing manner than he had done at Charleroi, if we could judge from the eloquent testimony of his arm in splints and the huge pieces of court plaster sticking out from bandages which covered half his head. He raised glass after glass to the health of General Joffre and the men who had ceased retreating and were making the stand on the Marne.
"Why did von Kluck turn aside at Chantilly'? Why did he go to Meaux instead of coming in to St. Denis? He was afraid. He is a big bluff, like all the Germans. He does n't know what he 's doing ! But Joffre knows, and he will save Paris, God bless him!"
The Officer of Zouaves called once more for the garcon.
The Lawyer has been my daily companion at the evening meal this past week. We have no longer our Temps: for the Temps, too, has gone to Bordeaux. So newspapers in whose dispatches he and I have faith, are lacking. Consequently, there has been little for us to "go on" in talking of the campaign, and we have grown tired of disagreeing with each other.
Now I saw the old gleam of combat come into the Lawyer's eyes. He raised his eyebrows, dilated the pupils of his eyes, and wrinkled his nose to readjust his eyeglasses. This is the habitual gesture that heralds a judicial announcement.
"God bless General Joffre ! I say that too. And I believe that he has the situation in hand and knows what he is doing. He left Paris undefended because he knew it ought not to be defended. But von Kluck was not afraid to come here. Nor was his march to Chantilly a bluff. He could not come, because there was that French and British army falling back towards the southeast, standing much better between Paris and the Germans than if it had stupidly fallen back upon the forts of the city."
"You are right," I commented. "General von Kluck could have come to Paris. He could be here with his army at this very minute, and we know well enough that nothing would have stopped him. As you say, General von Kluck knew that if he came, leaving General Joffre's army intact in the field, he would have been caught here like a rat in a trap."
"That 's understood!" cried the Lawyer. "But, if it 's understood, what do you mean by saying he could have come?"
"I mean that the way to the city was open before him, and that no power could have prevented his entry, here during this last week."
The Lawyer eyed me with cold disgust.
"That's the way you 've got it in your head, is it? You stand on the balcony of your apartment, and look down into the Boulevard du Montparnasse. You could jump off into the boulevard instead of going down the staircase. You could, all right, all right."
The Officer of Zouaves, who claimed to have learned English once in Canada but had forgotten all of it as far as I could ever find out, looked up with a gleam of intelligence. He knew the Lawyer's last words all right.
"All right, all right !" he exclaimed. "Let us have another drink."
Serious conversation was no longer possible.
This afternoon, as the Lawyer and I always try to take a half holiday on Saturdays, we planned to go out of the city. Neither of us had been farther beyond the fortifications than the Bois de Boulogne since the war started. Firmly opposing for once the Lawyer's bachelor habit of keeping in a rut, I led the way to the Bois de Vincennes.
"I am tired of the same old thing," I remonstrated. "We are not adventurous youths any longer, and I am not thinking of the battlefield. But at least we can take some suburban tramway to the end of the line, and we may get within hearing distance of the fighting. No, that has receded now—at least we shall be nearer things than sticking in the city."
Outside the Porte de St. Mande, we found a train for Champigny that took us through the Bois de Vincennes. We passed acres of cattle pens. Thousands of cattle and thousands of bales of hay were in the Bois beyond the fort. If there were to be a siege, fresh milk and fresh meat had been provided for us by the military authorities.
At Champigny, scene of the celebrated battle in the war of Soixante-Dix and of the annual pilgrimage of Deroulède, we found the people just as uninteresting as they always are in these little towns on the outskirts of Greater Paris.
When we crossed the bridge toward the railway station, we stopped to speak to the octroi man. We asked him about the fighting, concerning which information had been so meager in Paris.
"Cannon heard here? Bien sûr, very plainly, and only fifteen kilometers away. But that was six days ago. You ought to have come out last Sunday afternoon. We were just full of Parisians then, and the rear guard posts of our army were only three kilometers away. They were n't busy looking after the Germans, but after the Parisians. They had to turn them back to keep them from trying to walk out towards the battle. La-la, but that was a day ! Why did n't you come then'? We were expecting the Uhlans to walk in any minute, and this bridge on which you are standing would have gone up in smoke at the first alarm. But now the Germans have been pushed back over the Marne. They have had their chance, and could n't make a go of it. That I am sure of."
We felt that the octroi man was right. Every slight indication that had come to us through the communiqués during these days of tension pointed to a German reverse, to an irretrievable check.
At the railway station we inquired if there were a train back to Paris, and found to our delight that, while the suburban service was not running, an express train from the direction of Compiègne was expected after another hour.
It was a cold, chilly afternoon, and we welcomed the thought of a hot drink at the cafe across from the station. There we sat, watching train after train of soldiers pass, and trucks loaded with cannon and mud bespattered munition wagons. When the train stopped at the station, Red Cross girls and Boy Scouts gave the soldiers hot coffee and sandwiches. The supply seemed unlimited.
We felt victory in the air. Talk about telepathy ! The Lawyer and I were just bubbling over with happiness. So was every one round us. Something good had happened somewhere!
While we waited, a train from Paris passing by dropped bundles of the afternoon papers with the three o'clock communiqué. Talk about your crazy, frenzied mobs. I had never been in anything like it since the Bowl-Rush of college days.
To get a paper, I abandoned my change. My eyes sought the communiqué. Joy of joys! Like a madman I ran back to the terrace, where the Lawyer, wiser than I, had already bought a Liberté from a camelot that had not tried to sell to the crowd.
The battle of the Marne was over. The Germans were in full retreat. Paris was saved !
We went home that night on a train that started from Montdidier. Most of the compartments were full of wounded soldiers, who had been able to escape from the battlefield near Noyon, and found this train for Paris. They had not yet heard the result of the engagement between the Marne and the Ourcq. In exchange for our news, they brought us the good word that the Germans had been checked also on the north, and had fallen back from Amiens. The battle was still raging less than two kilometers away from where this train started. There was no timetable. The train had started when it was filled. The stop at Champigny was from habit, luckily for us.
At the Gare du Nord, our elation suddenly left us. We had been full of the joy of victory. Now we came face to face with its cost. In our compartment the soldiers were only slightly wounded, but from other compartments in the same train inanimate forms were being lifted. Doctors, nurses and orderlies were so few that the unfortunates had to be laid out upon the station platform to wait for attention. Baggage trucks were commandeered, for stretchers were lacking. The cries and moans that had been hushed by the movement of the train were now audible. Many were in agony. Others must have come to the end of their sufferings while we, in the same train, were joyously laughing and talking of victory. Blankets, hastily pulled from knapsacks, covered those who had given their life from the profane gaze of those for whom the life had been given.
We went to Kepler's in the Place de Clichy for dinner. The salons were filled. The victory of the Marne was being boisterously celebrated by the unfit who, not having had to suffer, were oblivious of suffering. All joy is born of pain. Why is it that those who experience the joy are not always those who have experienced the pain?