August 3, 1918. The holy angels were at Mons; British soldiers saw them there. A Russian army was in England in 1914; everybody knew someone who had seen it. And Joan of Arc, in shining armour, has returned to the aid of the French. These and even graver symptoms warn us that we may not be in that state of equanimity which is useful when examining evidence. Only this week, in the significant absence of the house-dog, a mysterious hand thrust through my letter-box a document which proved, as only propaganda may, that this war was thoroughly explored in the Book of Daniel. Why were we not told so before? Why was Lord Haldane reading Hegel when there was Daniel? What did we pay him for? And that very same night I stood at the outer gate with one who asked me why, when there were stacks of jam in our grocer s shop, we could not buy any because the Food Controller had omitted to put up the price. I had no time to reason this out, because at that moment we heard a loud buzzing in the sky. We gazed up into the velvet black night, that was like a skullcap over the world. The buzzing continued. "Perhaps," said my companion, "what we can hear is our great big Bee."
That buzzing overhead did not develop. It merely waned and increased. It was remarkable but inconsequential. It alarmed while giving no good cause for alarm. In the invisible heavens there might have been One who was playing Bogie to frighten poor mortals for fun. I went in to continue my reading of Charles le Goffic's book, General Foch at the Marne. This was all in accord with the Book of Daniel, and the jam that was uneatable because it was not dear enough. My reading continued, as it were, the mysterious buzzing.
I can give, as a rule, but a slack attention to military history, and my interest in war itself is, fundamentally, the same as for cretinism and bad drains. I merely wonder why it is, and wish it were not. But the Marne, I regret to say, holds me in wonder still; for this there is nothing to say excepting that, from near Meaux, I heard the guns of the Marne. I saw some of its pomp and circumstance. I had been hearing the guns of the War for some weeks then, but the guns of the Marne were different. They who listened knew that those foreboding sounds were of the crisis, with all its import. If that thundering drew nearer .
The Marne holds me still, as would a ghost story which, by chance, had me within its weird. I want to know all that can be told of it. And if there is one subject of the War more than another which needs a careful sorting of the mixed straws in our beards, it is the Battle of the Marne. In the case of my own beard, one of the straws is the Russian myth. In France, as in England, everybody knew someone who had seen those Russians. One huge camp, I was told, was near Chartres, and in Paris I was shown Cossack caps which had come from there. That was on the day Manoury's soldiers went east in their historic sortie of taxicabs against von Kluck. I could not then go to Chartres to confirm that camp of Cossacks; nor--and this is my straw--could the German Intelligence Staff. I did not believe that the Russians were in France, but I could not prove they were not, nor could the German generals, who, naturally, had heard about those Russians. Now the rapid sweep of the German right wing under von Kluck had given the enemy a vulnerable flank which, in a certain situation, might admit disaster. The peril of his western flank must have made the enemy sensitive to the least draught coming from there.
It is on such frailties as this that the issue of battle depends, and the fate of empires. War as a means of deciding our luck is no more scientific than dicing for it. The first battle of the Marne holds a mystery which will intrigue historians, separate friends, cause hot debate, spawn learned treatises, help to fill the libraries, and assist in keeping not a few asylums occupied, for ages. If you would measure it as a cause for lunacy, read Belloc's convincing exposition of the battle, and compare that with le Goffic's story of the fighting of the Ninth Army, under General Foch, by Fère Champenoise and the Marshes of St. Gond. Le Goffic was there.
Why did Fate tip the beam in the way we know? Why, for a wonder, did the sound of gunfire recede from Paris, and not approach still nearer? I myself at the time held to an unreasonable faith that the enemy would never enter Paris, in spite of what Kitchener thought and the French Government feared. Yet when challenged I could not explain why, for I was ill, and the days seemed to be biased to the German side. To have heard the guns of the Marne was as though once one had listened to the high gods contending over our destiny.
Historians of the future will spell out le Goffic on the fighting round the Tower on the Marshes at Mondement. It was the key of the swamp of St. Gond, the French centre. The Tower was held by the French when, by every military rule, they should have given it up. At length they lost it. They won it again, but because of sheer unreason, so far as the evidence shows, for at the moment they regained it Mondement had ceased to be anything but a key to a door which had been burst wide open. Foch, by the books, was beaten. But Foch as we know was fond of quoting Joseph de Maistre: "A battle lost is a battle which one had expected to lose." In this faith, while his battalions were reduced to thin companies without officers, and the Prussian Guard and the Saxons were driving back his whole line, Foch, who had sent to borrow the 42nd Division from the general on his left, kept reporting to Headquarters "The situation is excellent." But the 42nd had not yet arrived, and he continued to retire.
Contradicting Belloc and the usual explanations, M. le Goffic says that Foch was unaware of any gap in the German line. What he did was to thrust in a bleak venture the borrowed division against the flank of the advancing Prussians, who were in superior force. The Prussians retired. But had they not been preparing to retire? Yet for what reason? When all seemed lost, Foch won on the centre.
On the extreme French left, where Manoury was himself being outflanked by von Kluck, the fatigued and outnumbered French soldiers were resigned to the worst. They had done all that was possible, and it seemed of no avail. They did not know that at that time the locomotives in the rear of the German armies were reversed; were heading to the north. What happened in the minds of the directing German generals--for that is where the defeat began--is not clear; but the sudden and prolonged resistance of the French at the Marne may have disrupted with a violent doubt minds that had been taut with over-confidence. The fear to which the doubt increased when Manoury attacked and persisted, the baffling audacity in the centre of the defeated Foch, who did everything no well-bred militarist would expect from another gentleman, and the common fervour of the French soldiers who fought for a week like men possessed, at last caused something to give way in the brain of time enemy. He could not understand it. This was not according to his plan. He could not find it in his books. He did not know what more he could do, except to retire into safety and think it over afresh. The unexpected fury of the human spirit, outraged into desperation after it was assumed to be subdued, and bursting suddenly, and regardless of consequences, against the calm and haughty front of material science assured of its power, checked and deflected the processes of the German intelligence. I have seen an indignant rooster produce the same effect on a bull.