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The Spectator at war

The Spectator at war: Push on to Paris?

1 September 2014

8:30 AM

1 September 2014

8:30 AM

The Spectator, 5 September 1914:

SEDAN Day has passed, but there has been no second Sedan, as the Germans so fondly hoped. Indeed, as far as one can yet learn, the day passed without any memorable action, for it would be absurd to count as memorable the pleasant little capture of ten German guns by the British cavalry near Compiegne. Granted reliance on Fabian tactics for the present—and we fully recognize that these are the right tactics to adopt in existing circumstances— we are well satisfied with the situation. The Germans, no doubt, are pressing on while we write, for their outposts were reported on Thursday to be only some forty miles from the outer circle of the Paris defences, and in all probability before these pages are in our readers’ hands they will have actually reached those defences and have exchanged shots with the girdle of star forts. As a consequence of this rush forward the Allied troops in the western theatre of the war have had to fall back continuously, so continuously, indeed, that our line is now facing almost west. That is a position of some peril for us, but it may also prove, if we can reinforce our line, as we believe we can, a position of grave anxiety for the Germans. If they now turn sharp east and try to throw us back in a north-easterly direction, and if they are successful in this, we shall have a very hard time of it. But this operation must delay the advance south upon Paris, and, if it is unsuccessful, or only partially successful, there will be a considerable menace to the German right wing. Enveloping strategy is magnificent, but it also offers many temptations to recklessness, and therefore involves many risks. Besides, looked at from the other side, it can be translated into terms of movement on interior lines.

Let us, however, assume that the worst will happen in the course of the next week—namely, that the Germans will push back the line of the Allies so far west that the road to Paris will be absolutely uncovered, and that not only will the northern defences of Paris be invested, but that the German troops will be in a position to cross the Seine west of Paris, say at Saint Germain, and east in the neighbourhood, say, of Meaux. Such a forward movement may, no doubt, oblige the French right and centre to retire also, and in another fortnight we may see the greater part of the northern and north-eastern departments in the hands of the Germans. In another three weeks, indeed, the Germans may be in possession of all the departments north of a line drawn from Pontarlier on the Swiss frontier, through Dijon and Paris, to Havre. But suppose this to have happened, and the whole eighty miles of the enceinte of the Paris fortifications to be also invested, what will the Germans do next ? What will they have achieved ? Granted, as we, of course, are granting, that they have not yet destroyed the field armies of France by surrenders like that at Sedan or by driving them into pens as at Metz, all they will have accomplished, and at enormous loss of life and material, will be the military occupation of about one-sixth of France. The other five-sixths will be intact. Can any one after two months of war—we are trying to envisage the situation at about the beginning of October, a situation, that is, worse than the present, for at present not one-tenth of France is occupied—regard such a position as desperate ? It would be nothing of the kind, and nobody would dream of considering it so if it were not for the curious accident that Paris is what may be described as a frontier capital.

If the capital were at Limoges or Clermont-Ferrand, or at Bordeaux, which has now become the seat of Government, every one not only in France but here would feel very differently about the situation. Paris in the past has always stood for so much in the minds not only of Frenchmen but of the whole world, that we are all of us inclined to think that Paris is France. As a matter of fact, whatever it may have been in former years, it is not so now. All Frenchmen are proud of Paris, no doubt, but it does not dominate France morally, intellectually, or politically in the way it used to do. No sort of paralysis will fall upon the country owing to the investment, or, if you will, the capture, of Paris. It is absolutely certain that the French people will show not less but even more courage than they showed in 1870, and instead of being depressed as then by not possessing an ally in the world and distracted by internal troubles, they will have their Russian allies in the north and their English allies in the west to comfort and succour them. Remember, too, what influence sea-power will have upon this war.

We have not yet, however, answered our main question as to what the Germans are to do next if they have invested Paris and occupied one-sixth of France. Are they to stand on the defensive, or are they to push on ? If they stand on the defensive, there are plenty of things that the French can do to put them in jeopardy. Suppose the German line of steel from Havre to Pontarlier is too strong to be pierced, though probably it will in places be a very thin line when it has got so far south as that. It may be quite possible to bring, not a mere raiding expedition, but a very large French force, round in transports to the German flank. But such movements will tempt the Germans, or, rather, force them, to push on in order to punish and break up the expeditions preparing for their discomfiture, and this again must involve them in all sorts of fresh troubles. To occupy another sixth of France must take another million men and another six weeks, and where are the Germans to get them from? Even if they do get them, they are again faced with the dilemma of a stand or of a further advance. To put the matter in a nutshell, Paris is not France, and the Germans would have accomplished very little from the military point of view if they were to carry its defences by assault in the first week of investment. What they have got to do is to conquer the whole of France and to destroy the whole of the French armies, and this, we venture to say, they will not accomplish, even if the Russian advance is so slow that Germany is given six months, or even a year, in which to perform the task. What Germany could not do even in 1870 she is not going to do now. Germany’s only hope would be in a sudden quenching of the French spirit, and in a movement in France to force the Govern- ment to make the best terms they could. But a French Government with a Poincare as President, and with such men as Millerand, Delcasse, Briand, and Viviani in the Cabinet, is not going to break down. They will fight the matter out on these lines not only “all winter,” but all spring and all summer, and in the end they will win. Truly for the Germans it may be said :— “Each fatal triumph brings more near the inevitable end.”

They can prolong the war, with untold misery for themselves, for France, and for us, but they cannot win if the French stand firm—and the French will stand firm.

No doubt the Germans can see this as well as we can.

Why, then, do they not despair ? Because they think they will be able to drive us to desert France, or, at any rate, to give them counsels of despair, and because they think they will be able to stir up trouble for us in India and in Egypt. That is nonsense. They will utterly fail to stir up trouble in India, for no Indian is mad enough to wish to change our mild rule for the rule of the German jack- boot. Even if they can induce the Turks to invade Egypt and temporarily wrest it from our hands, they will have accomplished nothing in the way of putting pressure upon us. If necessary, we shall find it perfectly easy to reconcile ourselves to the temporary loss of Egypt. That is a piece which can be picked up when the war is over without any sort of difficulty. If the Egyptian population prove disloyal at first, they will get all the punishment that we can possibly wish for them out of a Turkish occupation. The Turks if they go to Egypt will not have the slightest hesitation in plundering their fellow Mohammedans. No little counter-irritants of this kind will avail for an instant to make us leave hold of the main object, and that is the ultimate beating of the Germans by land and sea. Therefore we would ask our readers to be of good courage however many and dreadful the blows that may fall upon us and the Allies in the course of the next month or six weeks. We and the French have got the wolf by one ear and the Russians have got him by the other, and though he may use his teeth with terrible effect, if we have the hardihood and patience to hold on we shall finish him in the end. And we shall have the hardihood and the patience. We shall “stick it out,” though no doubt it will be for us, as for the rest of the world, a process of great misery—a rending of the heartstrings.

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