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   Chapter 7 THE POSITION OF FRANCE

The Audacious War By Clarence W. Barron Characters: 9415

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Iron Hand of War-Paris offered in Sacrifice-Faulty

Mobilization-The French Army-The Joffre Strategy-The German Retreat.

The position of France to-day cannot be compared with that of any other country in the war. The French people have a distinctive genius all their own. They are still the greatest people in art in the world. Nothing in sculpture or painting in the outside world yet rivals the skill of France. Politically the French are trusting children, vibrating between empires and republics, and following only the rule of success. In finance they were accounted great a generation ago. In savings they have been regarded as world-leaders.

When the stern reality of military necessity suddenly confronted France five months ago, there was the same old story of graft, fraud, and a deceived people.

But the war authorities gripped France with an iron hand. The military traitors and grafters are in jail. The weaklings in the official line have been cashiered. The politically undesirable have been given foreign missions.

There was political as well as military wisdom in the return of the government from Bordeaux to Paris. The French people were shocked when they learned that the boasted military defences of Paris, "the most extensive fortifications in the world," embracing 400 square miles, were unprovisioned and indefensible, that the government had fled, and that there was no army to save the city.

Indeed, the authorities had determined to sacrifice Paris to save France. General Joffre had no men to spare to be bottled up in the city. He determined that his armies should be kept free on the field.

You may ask anywhere in France, Belgium, or England why the French did not come to the relief of Belgium, why Paris was undefended, and what saved it after Von Kluck had led seven armies of 1,000,000 men down to its very gates, and you will get no satisfactory answer.

But when you have studied the situation and the record, you will see that no simple answer can be readily given. A brief one would be: French mobilization plans were imperfect, and, therefore, Belgium could not be defended by the French. But motor-busses did what the railroads were unprepared to do, and finally saved Paris and France.

The French had been warned many months publicly and privately that their mobilization plans would be found faulty in case of sudden hostilities. The railways moved perishable goods at the rate of thirty miles a day while German and Austrian railways bore military trains at the rate of thirty miles an hour.

So ill prepared were the French in their mobilization plans that they actually summoned to arms the men who were to man the railways, and the railways themselves were deficient in rolling-stock to move the troops. The citizens responded promptly enough, but France had no bureaucracy or military plans to match those of Germany, and, as throughout French history, the leaders of the people failed at the crucial moment. The plodding English had to help out the French railway plans, and then had to turn around and find their own railroad defects. When England first sounded the call to arms, men deserted the railroad service to go into training to such an extent that the authorities had to stop it and maintain transportation as, of course, an important arm of the war-service.

The history of the unpreparedness of both England and France has yet to be written. It would not be useful to print much that is already known. There are two political sentiments in both countries, and political issues will rise again in both after the war.

A little contemplation here will show the extravagance of many estimates of the number of men to be put in the field in time of war. Many estimates have taken little account of the number of men required to handle a modern transportation service, and the supply organization to back up an effective army at the front. Transportation and war-supplies are on such an expanded basis as was not dreamed of a few years ago. The war plans of one generation cannot be the war plans of another either on land or sea. That France had 4,500,000 men capable of bearing arms did not mean that she could hold 4,000,000 men in fighting array at any one time.

After five months of war France had only 1,500,000 men at the front, and from the camps and military organizations she expects to have ready a fresh army of another million in the spring. But she mobilized nearly 4,000,000 men. Paris industry, trade, and commerce could shut down in a day, but there was no organization that could make in a day or a week the men of France into an army at the front. Her 600,000 regular troops were, of course, alw

ays in position to be thrown on the defensive at the German frontier. None of the nearly 4,000,000 additional men could be got with arms and munitions of war into Belgium, to meet effectively the trained troops of Germany.

The German troops were "moving" as early as July 25, while all the governments of Europe, including Austria, were negotiating for and hopeful of peace. When war was declared against France, she promptly offered Belgium five French army corps for defence. King Albert declined, saying there had been no invasion of Belgium by Germany, and that Belgian neutrality was guaranteed by treaty. Within two days the German guns were firing on Belgium; but when King Albert then called upon France for protection, the response was that the French troops which had been offered had been placed elsewhere. The regular troops probably had. The new troops were not mobilized, and the French transportation system, to say the least, had not been as responsive as expected.

France paid dearly for her unpreparedness. Her richest provinces were invaded by the Germans and are still held by the Germans in considerable part.

Caught unprepared, there was only one safe thing for General Joffre to do-let the Germans expand far from their base while the French concentrated between the German border and Paris, to strike back at the opportune moment against an extended and weakened line.

The march of the armies of Von Kluck-"General One O'clock," they called him, and said his fiercest attacks were at one o'clock-is considered a masterpiece of military precision. The strategy of General Joffre which foiled him is praised throughout France.

The plan of the Germans was to hold the north of France with the army of Von Kluck while the Crown Prince moved from Luxemburg straight to Paris. This was theatrical, dramatic, and Kaiserlike; but the French would not consent. They persisted in holding Verdun and defeating the armies of the Crown Prince.

The English are the greatest fighters in the world in retreat, while the French can fight best in a forward movement. The little expeditionary army of England, originally 100,000 men but at this time 180,000 men, held the right flank of Von Kluck in the retreat from river to river, from hill to hill, although pounded by 350,000 trained German troops massed on this flank. This retreat put the stamp of English bravery and dogged determination, as before, on the map of Europe. Paris was open and exposed to any entry which the Germans wished to make. The government had retired, the gold reserves of the banks had been moved, the people in large numbers had fled.

Indeed, I may say what has never before been printed, that President Poincaré summoned the "architect" of the city to the American embassy and, with tears streaming down his face, told him whence he must take his orders in the future.

Then in a flash went the orders of Joffre along his whole concentrated line of troops: "The retreat has ended, not another foot; you die here or the enemy goes back!" He had chosen the psychological moment. The French and English had burned and broken the bridges as they retreated, and with the recoil the German communications were in danger.

A fresh force of 50,000 held in reserve near Paris flew by motors and motor-busses against the right wing of Von Kluck, which the English in retiring had been punishing so heavily. Von Kluck had been drawn too far into France with no support on his left from the army of the Crown Prince, which the French had held at bay but with a tremendous sacrifice of men. The German ammunition and supply-trains were broken and the armies of Von Kluck were hurled back from Paris about as rapidly as they had come forward.

Then the Kaiser took a hand and cried, "Now for the English; take the Channel ports; forward against Calais!" and again, as at Liége, the blood of the Germans soaked the soil of Belgium. The Allies dug themselves into the ground behind the rivers and canals, and drowned the Germans out in front; and when an advance by the seacoast was attempted, the English naval guns spilled havoc into the German battalions. Four nationalities grappled in a death-struggle, but the wall of the Allies held from Switzerland to the sea. The Allies worked most harmoniously. Belgian knowledge of topography proved superior to the German general-staff maps. The English buttressed the French financially and in transportation and food-supplies. Indeed, Kitchener at one time fed two French army corps, or 80,000 troops, for eleven days without a hitch.

Although England had not the trained men, she had the fundamental military organization, transportation, food, and finance.

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