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Chapter XVI. The Man of Ypres

The sun was high when we reached the little town where General Foch, Commander of the Armies of the North, had his headquarters. It was not difficult to find the building. The French flag furled at the doorway, a gendarme at one side of the door and a sentry at the other, denoted the headquarters of the staff. But General Foch was not there at the moment. He had gone to church.

The building was near. Thinking that there might be a service, I decided to go also. Going up a steep street to where at the top stood a stone church, with an image of the Christ almost covered by that virgin vine which we call Virginia creeper, I opened the leather-covered door and went quietly in.

There was no service. The building was quite empty. And the Commander of the Armies of the North, probably the greatest general the French have in the field to-day, was kneeling there alone.

He never knew I had seen him. I left before he did. Now, as I look back, it seems to me that that great general on his knees alone in that little church is typical of the attitude of France to-day toward the war.

It is a totally different attitude from the English--not more heroic, not braver, not more resolute to an end. But it is peculiarly reverential. The enemy is on the soil of France. The French are fighting for their homes, for their children, for their country. And in this great struggle France daily, hourly, on its knees asks for help.

I went to the hotel--an ancient place, very small, very clean, very cold and shabby. The entrance was through an archway into a cobble-paved courtyard, where on the left, under the roof of a shed, the saddles of cavalry horses and gendarmes were waiting on saddle trestles. Beyond, through a glazed door, was a long dining room, with a bare, white-scrubbed floor and whitewashed walls. Its white table-cloths, white walls and ceiling and white floor, with no hint of fire, although a fine snow had commenced to fall, set me to shivering. Even the attempt at decoration of hanging baskets, of trailing vines with strings of red peppers, was hardly cheering.

From the window a steep, walled garden fell away, dreary enough under the grey sky and the snowfall. The same curious pale-green moss covered the trees, and beyond the garden wall, in a field, was a hole where a German aeroplane had dropped a bomb.

Hot coffee had been ordered, and we went into a smaller room for it. Here there was a fire, with four French soldiers gathered round it. One of them was writing at the table. The others were having their palms read.

"You have a heart line," said the palmist to one of them--"a heart line like a windmill!"

I drank my coffee and listened. I could understand only a part of it, but it was eminently cheerful. They laughed, chaffed each other, and although my presence in the hotel must have caused much curiosity in that land of no women, they did not stare at me. Indeed, it was I who did the gazing.

After a time I was given a room. It was at the end of a whitewashed corridor, from which pine doors opened on either side into bedrooms. The corridor was bare of carpet, the whole upstairs freezing cold. There were none of the amenities. My room was at the end. It boasted two small windows, with a tiny stand between them containing a tin basin and a pitcher; a bed with one side of the mattress torn open and exposing a heterogeneous content that did not bear inspection; a pine chair, a candle and a stove.

They called it a stove. It had a coal receptacle that was not as large as a porridge bowl, and one small lump of coal, pulverized, was all it held. It was lighted with a handful of straw. Turn your back and count ten, and it was out. Across the foot of the bed was one of the Continental feather comforts which cover only one's feet and let the rest freeze.

It was not so near the front as La Panne, but the windows rattled incessantly from the bombardment of Ypres. I glanced through one of the windows. The red tiles I had grown to know so well were not in evidence. Most of the roofs were blue, a weathered and mottled blue, very lovely, but, like everything else about the town, exceedingly cold to look at.

Shortly after I had unpacked my few belongings I was presented to General Foch, not at headquarters, but at the house in which he was living. He came out himself to meet me, attended by several of his officers, and asked at once if I had had dejeuner. I had not, so he invited me to lunch with him and with his staff.

Dejeuner was ready and we went in immediately. A long table had been laid for fourteen. General Foch took his place at the centre of one of the long sides, and I was placed in the seat of honour directly across. As his staff is very large, only a dozen officers dine with him. The others, juniors in the service, are billeted through the town and have a separate mess.

Sitting where I did I had a very good opportunity to see the hero of Ypres, philosopher, strategist and theorist, whose theories were then bearing the supreme test of war.

Erect, and of distinguished appearance, General Foch is a man rather past middle life, with heavy iron-grey hair, rather bushy grey eyebrows and a moustache. His eyes are grey and extremely direct. His speech incisive and rather rapid.

Although some of the staff had donned the new French uniform of grey-blue, the general wore the old uniform, navy-blue, the only thing denoting his rank being the three dull steel stars on the embroidered sleeve of his tunic.

There was little ceremony at the meal. The staff remained standing until General Foch and I were seated. Then they all sat down and dejeuner was immediately served.

One of the staff told me later that the general is extremely punctilious about certain things. The staff is expected to be in the dining room five minutes before meals are served. A punctual man himself, he expects others to be punctual. The table must always be the epitome of neatness, the food well cooked and quietly served.

Punctuality and neatness no doubt are due to his long military training, for General Foch has always been a soldier. Many of the officers of France owe their knowledge of strategy and tactics to his teaching at the Ecole de Guerre.

General Foch led the conversation. Owing to the rapidity of his speech, it was necessary to translate much of it for me. We spoke, one may say, through a clearing house. But although he knew it was to be translated to me, he spoke, not to the interpreter, but to me, and his keen eyes watched me as I replied. And I did not interview General Foch. General Foch interviewed me. I made no pretence at speaking for America. I had no mission. But within my limitations I answered him as well as I could.

"There are many ties between America and France," said General Foch. "We wish America to know what we are doing over here, to realise that this terrible war was forced on us."

I mentioned my surprise at the great length of the French line--more than four hundred miles.

"You do not know that in America?" he asked, evidently surprised.

I warned him at once not to judge the knowledge of America by what I myself knew, that no doubt many quite understood the situation.

"But you have been very modest," I said. "We really have had little information about the French Army and what it is doing, unless more news is going over since I left."

"We are more modest than the Germans, then?"

"You are, indeed. There are several millions of German-born Americans who are not likely to let America forget the Fatherland. There are many German newspapers also."

"What is the percentage of German population?"

I told him. I think I was wrong. I think I made it too great. But I had not expected to be interviewed.

"And these German newspapers, are they neutral?"

"Not at all. Very far from it."

I told him what I knew of the German propaganda in America, and he listened intently.

"What is its effect? Is it influencing public opinion?"

"It did so undeniably for a time. But I believe it is not doing so much now. For one thing, Germany's methods on the sea will neutralise all her agents can say in her favour--that and the relaxation of the restrictions against the press, so that something can be known of what the Allies are doing."

"You have known very little?"

"Absurdly little."

There was some feeling in my tone, and he smiled.

"We wish to have America know the splendid spirit of the French Army," he said after a moment. "And the justice of its cause also."

I asked him what he thought of the future.

"There is no question about the future," he said with decision. "That is already settled. When the German advance was checked it was checked for good."

"Then you do not believe that they will make a further advance toward Paris?"

"Certainly not."

He went on to explain the details of the battle of the Marne, and how in losing that battle the invading army had lost everything.

It will do no harm to digress for a moment and explain exactly what the French did at the battle of the Marne.

All through August the Allies fell back before the onward rush of the Germans. But during all that strategic retreat plans were being made for resuming the offensive again. This necessitated an orderly retreat, not a rout, with constant counter-engagements to keep the invaders occupied. It necessitated also a fixed point of retreat, to be reached by the different Allied armies simultaneously.

When, on September fifth, the order for assuming the offensive was given, the extreme limit of the retreat had not yet been reached. But the audacity of the German march had placed it in a position favourable for attack, and at the same time extremely dangerous for the Allies and Paris if they were not checked.

On the evening of September fifth General Joffre sent this message to all the commanders of armies:

"The hour has come to advance at all costs, and do or die where you stand rather than give way."

The French did not give way. Paris was saved after a colossal battle, in which more than two million men were engaged. The army commanded by General Foch was at one time driven back by overwhelming odds, but immediately resumed the offensive, and making a flank attack forced the Germans to retreat.

Not that he mentioned his part in the battle of the Marne. Not that any member of his staff so much as intimated it. But these are things that get back.

"How is America affected by the war?"

I answered as best I could, telling him something of the paralysis it had caused in business, of the war tax, and of our anxiety as to the status of our shipping.

"From what I can gather from the newspapers, the sentiment in America is being greatly influenced by the endangering of American shipping,"

"Naturally. But your press endeavours to be neutral, does it not?"

"Not particularly," I admitted. "Sooner or later our papers become partisan. It is difficult not to. In this war one must take sides."

"Certainly. One must take sides. One cannot be really neutral in this war. Every country is interested in the result, either actively now or later on, when the struggle is decided. One cannot be disinterested; one must be partisan."

The staff echoed this.

Having been interviewed by General Foch for some time, I ventured to ask him a question. So I asked, as I asked every general I met, if the German advance had been merely ruthless or if it had been barbaric.

He made no direct reply, but he said:

"You must remember that the Germans are not only fighting against an army, they are fighting against nations; trying to destroy their past, their present, even their future."

"How does America feel as to the result of this war?" he asked, "I suppose it feels no doubt as to the result."

Again I was forced to explain my own inadequacy to answer such a question and my total lack of authority to voice American sentiment. While I was confident that many Americans believed in the cause of the Allies, and had every confidence in the outcome of the war, there remained always that large and prosperous portion of the population, either German-born or of German parentage, which had no doubt of Germany's success.

"It is natural, of course," he commented. "How many French have you in the United States?"

I thought there were about three hundred thousand, and said so.

"You treat your people so well in France," I said, "that few of them come to us."

He nodded and smiled.

"What do you think of the blockade, General Foch?" I said. "I have just crossed the Channel and it is far from comfortable."

"Such a blockade cannot be," was his instant reply; "a blockade must be continuous to be effective. In a real blockade all neutral shipping must be stopped, and Germany cannot do this."

One of the staff said "Bluff!" which has apparently been adopted into the French language, and the rest nodded their approval.

Their talk moved on to aeroplanes, to shells, to the French artillery. General Foch considered that Zeppelins were useful only as air scouts, and that with the coming of spring, with short nights and early dawns, there would be no time for them to range far. The aeroplanes he considered much more valuable.

"One thing has impressed me," I said, "as I have seen various artillery duels--the number of shells used with comparatively small result. After towns are destroyed the shelling continues. I have seen a hillside where no troops had been for weeks, almost entirely covered with shell holes."

He agreed that the Germans had wasted a great deal of their ammunition.

Like all great commanders, he was intensely proud of his men and their spirit.

"They are both cheerful and healthy," said the general; "splendid men. We are very proud of them. I am glad that America is to know something of their spirit, of the invincible courage and resolution of the French to fight in the cause of humanity and justice."

Luncheon was over. It had been a good luncheon, of a mound of boiled cabbage, finely minced beef in the centre, of mutton cutlets and potatoes, of strawberry jam, cheese and coffee. There had been a bottle of red wine on the table. A few of the staff took a little, diluting it with water. General Foch did not touch it.

We rose. I had an impression that I had had my interview; but the hospitality and kindness of this French general were to go further.

In the little corridor he picked up his dark-blue cap and we set out for official headquarters, followed by several of the officers. He walked rapidly, taking the street to give me the narrow sidewalk and going along with head bent against the wind. In the square, almost deserted, a number of staff cars had gathered, and lorries lumbered through. We turned to the left, between the sentry and the gendarme, and climbing a flight of wooden stairs were in the anteroom of the general's office. Here were tables covered with papers, telephones, maps, the usual paraphernalia of such rooms. We passed through a pine door, and there was the general's room--a bare and shabby room, with a large desk in front of the two windows that overlooked the street, a shaded lamp, more papers and a telephone. The room had a fireplace, and in front of it was a fine old chair. And on the mantelpiece, as out of place as the chair, was a marvellous Louis-Quinze clock, under glass. There were great maps on the walls, with the opposing battle lines shown to the smallest detail. General Foch drew my attention at once to the clock.

"During the battle of the Yser," he said, "night and day my eyes were on that clock. Orders were sent. Then it was necessary to wait until they were carried out. It was by the clock that one could know what should be happening. The hours dragged. It was terrible."

It must have been terrible. Everywhere I had heard the same story. More than any of the great battles of the war, more even than the battle of the Marne, the great fight along the Yser, from the twenty-first of October, 1914, to the twelfth of November, seems to have impressed itself in sheer horror on the minds of those who know its fearfulness. At every headquarters I have found the same feeling.

It was General Foch's army that reenforced the British at that battle. The word had evidently been given to the Germans that at any cost they must break through. They hurled themselves against the British with unprecedented ferocity. I have told a little of that battle, of the frightful casualties, so great among the Germans that they carried their dead back and burned them in great pyres. The British Army was being steadily weakened. The Germans came steadily, new lines taking the place of those that were gone. Then the French came up, and, after days of struggle, the line held.

General Foch opened a drawer of the desk and showed me, day by day, the charts of the battle. They were bound together in a great book, and each day had a fresh page. The German Army was black. The French was red. Page after page I lived that battle, the black line advancing, the blue of the British wavering against overwhelming numbers and ferocity, the red line of the French coming up. "The Man of Ypres," they call General Foch, and well they may.

"They came," said General Foch, "like the waves of the sea."

It was the second time I had heard the German onslaught so described.

He shut the book and sat for a moment, his head bent, as though in living over again that fearful time some of its horror had come back to him.

At last: "I paced the floor and watched the clock," he said.

How terrible! How much easier to take a sword and head a charge! How much simpler to lead men to death than to send them! There in that quiet room, with only the telephone and the ticking of the clock for company, while his staff waited outside for orders, this great general, this strategist on whose strategy hung the lives of armies, this patriot and soldier at whose word men went forth to die, paced the floor.

He walked over to the clock and stood looking at it, his fine head erect, his hands behind him. Some of the tragedy of those nineteen days I caught from his face.

But the line held.

To-day, as I write this, General Foch's army in the North and the British are bearing the brunt of another great attack at Ypres.[E] The British have made a gain at Neuve Chapelle, and the Germans have retaliated by striking at their line, some miles farther north. If they break through it will be toward Calais and the sea. Every offensive movement in this new warfare of trench and artillery requires a concentration of reserves. To make their offensive movement the British have concentrated at Neuve Chapelle. The second move of this game of death has been made by the other side against the weakened line of the Allies. During the winter the line, in this manner, automatically straightened. But what will happen now?

[Footnote E: Battle of Neuve Chapelle March, 1915.]

One thing we know: General Foch will send out his brave men, and, having sent them, will watch the Louis-Quinze clock and wait. And other great generals will send out their men, and wait also. There will be more charts, and every fresh line of black or blue or red or Belgian yellow will mean a thousand deaths, ten thousand deaths.

They are fighting to-day at Ypres. I have seen that flat and muddy battlefield. I have talked with the men, have stood by the batteries as they fired. How many of the boys I watched playing prisoners' base round their guns in the intervals of firing are there to-day? How many remain of that little company of soldiers who gave three cheers for me because I was the only woman they had seen for months? How many of the officers who shrugged their shoulders when I spoke of danger have gone down to death?

Outside the window where I am writing this, Fifth Avenue, New York, has just left its churches and is flaunting its spring finery in the sun. Across the sea, such a little way as measured by time, people are in the churches also. The light comes through the ancient, stained-glass windows and falls, not on spring finery, not on orchids and gardenias, but on thousands of tiny candles burning before the shrine of the Mother of Pity.

It is so near. And it is so terrible. How can we play? How can we think of anything else? But for the grace of God, your son and mine lying there in the spring sunlight on the muddy battlefield of Ypres!

Mary Roberts Rinehart