Monday, 15 December 2014

The Marne - Part 2 Joffre meets French, and the role of Edward Spears

One of the fascinations of WW1 is learning about the features (and flaws) of the key players - and not always the obvious key players. On the German side, the extraordinary role played by Hentsch comes up in part 4. In this part, meet Edward Louis Spears, another amazing guy. Many years ago I read 'Assignment to Catastrophe' by Spears - an account of the fall of France in 1940. I little realised at that time he had held such a central role in the Western Front dramas of 1914.  I now have his book Liaison 1914 on order, although he is widely quoted in many other books about this period. Joffre, French and the enigmatic Gallieni were the senior military men calling the shots, and Spears was the liaison officer - only 28yrs old - enabling the interactions that took place.     
Edward Louis Spears
He appears to have been highly intelligent; a brilliant linguist, and an inventive, courageous officer. On one occasion he presented a full evening report to Sir John French and retired from the C-in-C's presence before collapsing from blood loss caused by a bullet in the side received during his hazardous journey to HQ.

Gen Joseph Gallieni
Gallieni had waived his claims upon France’s supreme command back in 1911, deferring to Joffre. He was, in the words of Lloyd George, who met him in those days, ‘evidently a very ill man; he looked sallow, shrunken and haunted. Death seemed to be chasing the particles of life out of his veins.’ Gallieni had retired from the army that April, but when recalled to the colours in this supreme emergency he summoned up reserves of energy, resolution and insight – not to mention wit – which served France well. He was appointed Governor of the defence of Paris, and had nominal control of the new 6th Army led by Maunoury, although he needed to argue his case to amend any of Joffre's orders to Maunoury. He was the instigator of the famous 'taxi-cabs of the Marne' legend. However, even as troops poured out of Paris towards the front and Maunoury’s men took up their new positions, uncertainty persisted about the exact deployments of Fifth and Sixth Armies and the BEF.

Gen Joseph Joffre French C-in-C 1914-16
Sir John French British C-in C 1914-15

On the afternoon of September 4th, Joffre drove to the château of le-Pénil, at Melun, where Sir John French was billeted. The story of what followed, vividly recounted by Spears, is a great picture of this vital moment of 1914. Entering the hall, Joffre exchanged greetings with the small group of French and British officers present, all the men still standing. ‘At once,’ wrote Spears, ‘he began to speak in that low, toneless, albino voice of his, saying that he had felt it his duty to come to thank Sir John personally for having taken a decision on which the fate of Europe might well depend.’ The British field-marshal bowed. Then Joffre expounded his plan. We hung on his every word. We saw as he evoked it the immense battlefield over which the corps, drawn by the magnet of his will, were moving like pieces of intricate machinery until they clicked into their appointed places. We saw trains in long processions labouring under the weight of their human freight, great piles of shells mounting up by the sides of the ready and silent guns … Joffre seemed to be pointing the Germans out to us – blundering blindly on, hastening to their fate, their huge, massive, dusty columns rushing towards the precipice over which they would soon be rolling. As a prophet he was heard with absolute faith. We were listening to the story of the victory of the Marne, and we absolutely believed … Then, turning full on Sir John, with an appeal so intense as to be irresistible, clasping both his own hands so as to hurt them, General Joffre said: ‘Monsieur le Maréchal, c’est la France qui vous supplie.’ His hands fell to his sides wearily. The effort he had made had exhausted him. French witnesses attributed different words to Joffre: ‘Il y a de l’honneur de l’Angleterre, Monsieur le Maréchal!’ This phrase warned that Britain’s honour was at stake. What is beyond doubt is that Joffre appealed passionately to Sir John. The British C-in-C struggled to say something in response in the Frenchman’s own language. Then, abandoning the attempt, he turned to a staff officer: ‘Damn it, I can’t explain. Tell him that all that men can do our fellows will do.’ On that note, the two commanders-in-chief parted.

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