Paris - The Cafe Strategists
( Originally Published 1915 )
VIOLENT newspaper attacks on "les embusques," as M. Clemenceau calls the hosts of seemingly able-bodied men who are not at the front, have made thousands of sincere patriots very uncomfortable. It is true that you see constantly in the offices of the various ministries men of military age performing tasks that might possibly be left to those whom physical disability or age bars from the army. You see them in the police bureaus. You meet them in every post office and at every railway station. Most bewildering of all, the streets are fuller of young men than under normal circumstances.
I put to one side the soldiers in uniform conducting automobiles for ladies travestying the Red Cross uniform. There are yellow dogs in every kennel. But, for practically all the men between twenty and thirty-five who do not wear the red trousers there is undoubtedly a good excuse. Few men in France are shirking, or want to shirk, their duty today. If they have not gone to the front, it is from no lack of will on their part.
Post office and railway employees are retained against their will. They feel their position keenly. They beg in vain to be transferred from a desk stool or a train to the battle line. They are told that the work they are doing for France could not be done by untrained men, and that they are aiding the national defense as effectively as if they had rifles in their hands. They are given official brassards (arm-bands) to show the world that they also are serving the State. But when the invader is in France, a brassard is a poor substitute for a uniform to a young man with red blood in his veins.
Then there are those who cannot show the brassards. If the streets are more alive with young men than in ordinary times, it is because work is scarce, and they have nothing to do. Should they stay at home? Should they hide themselves because circumstances beyond their control have kept them out of the army?
When one sees on the street a young man under thirty-five without uniform or brassard, it may be taken for granted that he is either a foreigner or physically unfit. The police drag net was out during the three weeks of mobilization. No man in Paris was able to escape challenge as to why he had failed to respond to the call to arms. Many a time I was stopped, and asked to show my papers. There were gimlet eyes at every corner.
It takes a time like this to make one realize how hard it is to detect physical unfitness. The tailor and the bootmaker do wonders to remove signs of deformity. Disabilities of heart, of lungs, of ear, and of eye are not generally noticeable. Often even the one impaired is not always himself aware of his disability until a physician has carefully looked him over. Foreigners are comparatively few. I frequently feel uncomfortable under the scrutiny of questioning eyes. It seems to me that they are asking, "What in the world can be the matter with that man?" The multitude of the rejected is a revelation of how many there are in the world who are not integer vitae. Those who are fit are blind to the fact that there are others less fortunate than them-selves, and never think of their own freedom from handicap as a boon to be thankful for. They accept health as a matter of course. Let us pity the man not at the front.and learn the lesson of his being still in our midst !
But what about the man who is fit, who never felt better or stronger in his life, who never was in better shape, and who is not called to aid in the national defense merely because he happens to have celebrated a certain number of birthdays? A man between thirty-five and sixty, say the military authorities, makes a fine officer. But they don't want any soldiers over forty ! In the name of heaven, why? It is a stupid notion, stupid because it is false. I know many a father who is the physical equal of his grown son. Even if he isn't, he has more sense, and that helps a lot in fighting.
When the Germans drew nearer and nearer to Paris, and the reason given was that they had a larger army, a hundred thousand men in Paris answered, "If that be true, take us !" They began to volunteer, but were discouraged when they found that volunteering would mean being sent to a garrison town in the Midi.
Perforce the fathers have to join the grandfathers in becoming cafe strategists. This is the distraction par excellence of Paris today. The official communiqués are devoid of information. The people of Paris know absolutely nothing about the operations whose end is to defend their city. When one has no news he invents it. When one is kept in the dark he makes light for himself.
In a cafe where I usually dine, there is a large map on the wall. Gathered around several tables are some of the habitués. They have appointed themselves an extraofficial "General Staff" of the French army. Pencils sketch on the marble table tops what each considers should have been last week, and ought to be next week, the proper line of march.
After we have listened deferentially to the résumé of General Joffre's errors of the previous day by the Veteran of 1870, who always has the first,and generally the last word.
This evening I got a little tired of "If only General Joffre had done this," "Now if only General Joffre would do this," and, "I wish General Joffre could realize how wise it would be to make this move."
I retired for relief to my Figaro. My eye caught a citation from Livy. It was the speech Livy put into the mouth of Paulus AEmilius, before his departure to take command of the Roman army for the campaign that ended in the victory of Pydna, 168 B. C.
"In every gathering, and may the Gods pardon me, at every meal, one finds people who are deciding upon the march against Macedonia, who know in what places we ought to camp, what positions it is good for us to seize, at what moment and by what pass there is the best opportunity to penetrate the country, how we shall transport our provisions by land or by sea, the circumstances in which it is necessary to take the offensive, and those in which it is better to remain inactive. And, not only do they sketch the plan of campaign to follow, but of everything that has not been done according to their idea they make a crime, accuse the Consul, and almost establish themselves a court to judge him.
"It is not that I pretend that the generals do not need advice, but this advice must be given by men who have some practice and knowledge of military affairs, who are on the spot, within reach of seeing the enemy and the opportunities, and who, so to speak, are embarked upon the same vessel and are sharing the same dangers. But if a man believes that the quiet and peace of the city are preferable to the fatigues of a war, let him not have the presumption to want to hold the rudder while he rests on the bank.
"The life of the capital offers enough subject for conversation. Limit to this domain your gossip, and know that the advice which we receive from those in the camp is sufficient for us."
Is there anything new under the sun?