I HAVE not been able to make head or tail out of the official bulletins since August fifteenth. Ten days ago the French army entered Belgium by Charleroi and the British troops were disembarked at Ostend. The communiqué of the fifteenth said a decisive battle would be fought within a week. On the sixteenth we read that there was a great success at Dinant, that the Germans were demoralized, that many of them wanted to make themselves prisoners, that the soldiers captured declared the war absurd, told of protests and uprisings in many German cities, and complained of hunger. on the seventeenth the Germans were repulsed on the Meuse in Belgium. on the eighteenth they retreated in disorder from the Vosges, and the communiqué quoted General Joffre as saying that “the Germans were completely disorganized.” on the twentieth Mulhouse was reoccupied by the French; and the Russians inflicted another “crushing defeat” upon the Germans, although there was this mystifying passage in the communiqué: “Within a hundred kilometers around Warsaw there are no more German cavalry…Communication by railway between Warsaw and Kielce is reestablished.” This was the first we had heard of the French withdrawing once from Mulhouse and of the German invasion of Poland ! on the twenty-first the Germans were reported to have fallen back in Alsace upon the Rhine, and only one small French village was in the enemy’s possession.
But on August twenty-second, the change began to come in the news. The French army invading Lorraine “continued to fall back on Nancy before superior forces.” on the twenty-third it seemed that Namur was partially invested, that the Belgian army had withdrawn to Antwerp, and the German scouts were advancing in the direction of Ghent and the French frontier. Last night’s communiqué declared: “It is certain that if our losses in the course of these three last days have been serious, those of the Germans have been equally serious.”
This morning Paris was stirred by the publication of an article in the Matin, signed by Senator Gervais, in which, the French retreat from Lorraine was admitted. More than this, the reason given for the retreat was that a portion of the Fifteenth Division had shown cowardice and had drawn the whole division into a precipitate backward movement. Senator Gervais specifically named the regiments from Toulon, Marseilles, and Aix as those responsible for the retreat. In conclusion, the Senator declared that severe measures of repression had been taken against the soldiers who had dishonored their country and caused disaster.’
I walked blocks to buy a copy of the Matin this morning. Everybody was “out.” All Paris was reading the Matin.
This is the first admission, from an authoritative source, that our armies have suffered defeat. After the rosy hue of the communiqués of the past few days, after the widespread belief in the collapse of Germany’s house of cards, after the prophecies of a triumphal entry into Berlin before Christmas, what a disillusionment for us !
But the attitude of Paris in the face of this first bad news is admirable beyond expression. I believe that no people could have taken their medicine better. Considering that yesterday the talk was all about the invasion of Germany and that today the probability of the German invasion of France is before us, the acceptance by the public of the new situation with calmness and unflinching determination to believe still in General Joffre and his army makes one confident that Paris will keep herself in hand, come what may.
Aside from the fact that the letter of Senator Gervais revealed that all was not well with the French military operations, there was also a grave breach on the part of the Matin of the journalistic pledge to observe the policy of anonymity. A specific di-vision was named and regiments of that division held up for disgrace.
It is bad enough for Senator Gervais to insult unjustly cities of southern France, whose soldiers are as brave as any who are fighting on the battlefields of Europe today. It is worse if “severe measures of repression” are taken against the survivors of the regiments that faltered. The psychology of battles is so delicate that what happened in Lorraine to these regiments might have happened anywhere to any regiments. Stampedes are often caused by accidents beyond the control of the will of the individuals caught in their vortex. It stands to reason that if both sides always, under all circumstances, stuck to their posts to the bitter end, armies would be annihilated and war would not be what it is.
Instead of being made examples of, what these boys of Provence need is an affectionate word from their commanding officers. More effective than shooting them down would be the arm of the officer around the frightened men, and a pat on the back to reassure them. There is no man who at some time in his life has not shown the white feather.’ It is only when it happens twice, and by his own will, that he can be called “coward.”