top ad banner top ad banner top ad banner

Page 10, 27th October 1956

27th October 1956
Page 10
Page 11
Page 10, 27th October 1956 — BELLOC AND THE WAR
Close

Report an error

Noticed an error on this page?
If you've noticed an error in this article please click here to report it.

Tags


Share


Related articles

Books Of The Week

Page 12 from 2nd February 1957

The Tablet Notebook

Page 16 from 12th January 1974

" Belloc And The War" Sir,—the Article "belloc And The

Page 19 from 17th November 1956

Hilaire Belloc S Family And Friends

Page 9 from 3rd November 1956

Et Cietera

Page 20 from 15th June 1929

BELLOC AND THE WAR

"Land and Water" By ROBERT SPEAIGHT

nN September 9, 1914, Belloc was visited at King's Land • -• by a rich Australian, Murray (commonly known as "Jim") Allison, who had the main control of Land and Water. Allison was advertisement manager on The Times and later on the Daily Telegraph. He became a close friend and neighbour of Belloc, at Rodmell near Lewes, until his early death between the wars. Land and Water was a new weekly journal, as yet only projected, to deal exclusively with the war, and planned to appear on August 22 (1914). After a discussion lasting three hours Belloc signed a contract to write a weekly article on the military situation. These were completed on a Wednesday evening, corrected or amplified up to noon on Thursday, and were in the hands of the public by Friday morning. Later, the paper went to press earlier and the copy had to be in by Monday. In January 1915, Belloc was elected President of the Royal Geographical Society, and he would use the offices of the Society in St. James's Square to make his maps. The naval articles were contributed by Fred Jane and afterwards by Arthur Pollen. Belloc's articles brought him a wider fame than any earned by his previous writings. Land and Water reached a circulation of 100,000 and the articles were discussed by men in every street, club, railway train or mess. People read Belloc on the war who had never read him on anything else. Yet there is no aspect of his public life on which it is more difficult to get an objective valuation. The articles were at once a tonic and a corrective to the layman, who still hoped that the Allies would be in Berlin by Christmas but who could not help observing that the Germans were making it unexpectedly difficult for them to get there. They were richly informative for the same layman who had not the slightest idea what Continental war was really like, and they were based on an exact knowledge of the terrain over which the western campaign was being fought.

.Belloc had a personal acquaintance with the methods, and also with the men, of the French Army, not only through his service as a conscript but through his following of the annual manoeuvres. Of course he was occasionally wrong, but this generally happened when he was ignorant of the lie of the land ; the wadis of the Egyptian desert were less familiar to him than the valleys of Champagne. He was accused, later, of lending himself to ludicrous prophecies. But if you study the articles, you will find that his prophecies are nearly always conditional. He never states categorically that this or that will happen ; he only says •that if this or that happens, a certain result will follow. His chief mistake was in underestimating the man-power of the Central Alliance. It was surely rash to say in October 1914 that 'the Germanic powers have put their last recruits and their last reserves into the field '; but when he freely declared, in April 1917, that the Allies would be fighting on German soil before the year was out, he was not alone in failing to see the completeness, or the consequences, of the Russian collapse. However, the day came when the readers of Land and Water were disconcerted to realize that Belloc was not infallible. The soldiers fighting the battles made a ribald play upon his name : a mysterious note-book, What I Know about the War, by Blare Hilloc, was circulated by a business house and was found to contain nothing but blank pages ; and some people wondered why the war was still going on if as many Germans were being killed as he pretended. On September 6, 1915, posters appeared in the streets bearing the words Belloc's Fables.' These advertised an article in Northcliffe's Daily Mail, which convicted Belloc of various errors. Belloc, replying in Land and Water, not only admitted the mistakes but added, for the benefit of his readers, a number 4 other points on which he had been proved wrong.

The point about these admissions was not the degree to which Belloc had been misled, but the fact that under the conditions of war such errors were unavoidable. Every writer on military affairs was calculating in the twilight, and for much of the time in the dark.

Now a distinction must be drawn between military journalism and military history. The man writing from day to day, or from week to week, is at a disadvantage compared with the man who can see the campaign in retrospect, check the rumours and distortions of the moment, rely upon assembled documents and collated evidence, and discuss the part in relation to the whole. Belloc, in these first few critical weeks of August-September 1914, had nothing to go on but the official communiqués and his own military commonsense. The science of public relations was still at a rudimentary stage, and there was the further difficulty of translating the communiqués of the respective combatants. The French announced, for example, that the British line had been nowhere " r&llement entamee," and when this was translated as really pierced,' justifiable alarm was excited. Belloc was able to point out that 'entamee' does not mean 'pierced,' or anything like it. Again, the Press Bureau announced that in their advance over the Marne the French had captured the whole of a 'corps artillery' and estimated this at 160 guns. Belloc, as an artilleryman himself, was able to remind his readers that a 'corps artillery' did not mean all the artillery belonging to a corps, but only those guns not allocated to a particular division. The numbers captured, therefore, were more likely to be thirty-six than 160.

Only very occasionally did Belloc betray his deeper feelings. The French army was "engaged in this war upon the stupendous task of saving the culture of Christendom from dissolution" and "historic France from final disaster"; the sacrifice of Belgium promised the redemption of Europe since it had imposed a delay of ten days upon the German advance. Belloc knew in his bones, as well as in his heart and mind, what was at stake when the German pressure at Vitry-le-Francois threatened to break the French line before the mass of manoeuvre from behind Paris could threaten von Kltick and force a general retirement. It was along these river valleys---the Marne, the Meuse, the Grand and Petit Morin—and across the bare plateau of Champagne-Pouilleuse and looking eastward to the wooded ridge of the Argonne, that he himself had driven the guns in the summer manoeuvres of '92, a conscript in the same army that was now battling for survival. He could imagine it all, as clearly as if he had been there ; the trees untouched by autumn, the harvest gathered. And as he imagined it, history took hold upon him.

. . . Even as I write these lines upon the Wednesday of the week I do not know, for there is no immediate news in England, whether this effort of the invader upon the French centre at Vitry has succeeded. But I know that he is marching over sacred ground where there rise against him the influences 'of the dead. Not so far away, a day's march behind the defending line, ig the house that nourished Danton. If that line is pierced the invader may burn the house, still standing, where Joan of Arc was born.

The effort, as we know, failed and a week later Belloc imagined himself on a certain hill, called 'Mont Airne,' which formed part of the escarpment bounding the Champagne-Pouilleuse on the west.

On this height I could wish to have stood last Friday in the south-westerly gale watching the long lines threading northward across the flats and knowing that these were the columns of the invaders in retreat.

But such passages were rare. For the most part Belloc's articles were pure analysis, and only descriptive when description was necessary to aid an understanding of the campaign. They were clear by dint of bard repetition and numerous maps and diagrams. They were also exceedingly long, often running to eight thousand words in a single number. Belloc maintained a close contact throughout with people who were vaguely, or precisely, 'in the know.' He often stayed with Sir Herbert and Lady Jekyll, near Godalming, where Reginald and Pamela McKenna, their son-in-law and daughter, were constant guests. 'The politicians,' he remarks in his diary, 'say that England is all right and everyone else is in the soup.' He noted a particular dislike of the French and a conviction that the war would not 'cost so much as to burden the finance of the country." But McKenna showed him confidential documents which explained the strength of the German forces in Poland, and gave him the details about Verdun just,after they had been given to the Cabinet. On other visits to the same house he would discuss politics with Haldane, whom he found 'comfortable and cynical ' ; or walk through the woods with Harold Baker, listening to his views on Hesiod. His chief friend among the military was General Sir David Henderson, who was in r:ommand of British Aviation H.Q. in France. Belloc paid :veral visits to these H.Q., to which Maurice Baring was rttached ; and on one of them he lectured to the officers. kle was frequently in Paris where he would dine with Berthelot, head of the Quai d'Orsay, and obtain information from the Press Bureau. In February 1916 he had an interview with Joffre at French G.H.Q. at Chantilly and was given secret documents by the Deuxieme Bureau. He saw the Arsenal at Le Creusot and was lent a staff car to visit the battlefields of the Marne. Two further visits followed in December 1916 and in June 1917. On the second of these he went to Compiegne, where the French had moved their H.Q., and saw Main at some length. He again had the fullest information from the Deuxieme Bureau, and dined at Moricourt with General de Castelnau, whose son was a gunner in Belloc's old regiment. In Paris he met Foch at the Invalides.

A really delightful man, full of genius and movement. He confirmed me in what I had said of the Marne and drew a little rough plan for me, which will be the most precious possession when I have it framed in my house.'

The sketch was hung in Belloc's •study, and remained there until the end of his life. It bore the following inscription :

This sketch was drawn for me in the Invalides by General Foch on Saturday the 23rd June 1917 to illustrate his manoeuvre when he brought the 42nd Division down and broke the German centre at 5 p.m. Wednesday 9th September 1914.

The sketch shows in rapid and simple diagram, the Prussian Guard advancing in rectangular formation, and Foch moying to meet it from behind the marshes of St. Gond.

Belloc made two journeys further afield._ in his efforts to know what was going on and to give his neivs to those who only knew a particular sector of the War fronts. The first of these was to Lyons, where he lectured to the University at the request of the Foreign Office ; and the second was to the Italian front in June 1916. Then he went on to Rome. There had been general discontent in Allied circles over the lack of sympathy shown for their cause by the Vatican, and neither the efforts of Sir Henry Howard, head of the British mission to the Holy See, nor those of Cardinal Gasquet, the only English-speaking Cardinal in Curia, had modified this hostility. Little as it liked the Hohenzollerns, the Vatican had some reason for bolding to the Austrian connection. Neither the Masonic governments of France and Italy, nor the Liberal government presided over by Mr. Lloyd George, gave much ground for hoping that the rights of Catholic populations would be respected in the post-war settlement, should the Allied Powers prove victorious. Quite early in the War, a Catholic friend in the Foreign Office, J. D. Gregory, had mooted the idea that Belloc should go out and see the Pope. He was at all times ready to do what could, and the

• visit to the Italian front gave him an easy opportunity. He

arrived in Rome on June 3, and two days later he was writing to Miss Hamilton from a room in the Vatican, on Vatican notepaper, with the complaint that he had just had fiftythree pounds stolen in a Post Office. As he was finishing this letter, Mgr. Pacelli came into the room ; and the man whom he was later to see crowned as Pius XII informed him that Benedict XV would receive him in private audience. He gave his impressions of this in a letter to Charlotte Balfour, written from Paris on July 11.

I had a long, long talk with him. He is a thoroughly good man, which is not what I had been led to expect ! 1 had thought to see one of those rather subtle and very born& Italian officials—bureaucrates. Instead of that he has something like Holiness in his expression and an intense anXious sincerity. He spoke of individual conversion as opposed to political Catholicism in a way which—with my temperament all for the Collective Church—profoundly impressed me. I was exceedingly glad to have seen him and to have got his blessing.

. . . I spoke to him at great length on Poland ; that is the key after the war. Only, as all plain wisdom demands clear action and the re-erection of Poland, it will be too much to expect of the modern world. But such as men are they may do something towards that end. Such conditions make me long for momentary power.

All this talk about Poland presupposed that the Allies would win. 'But do you think they will, Mr. Belloc ? ' the Pope asked With kindly scepticism. It was proposed that Belloc should pay him a second visit in 1917:

I shook him badly and took many thousands of prisoners and guns from him a year ago, and some think I might, by repeating the attack under the much more favourable conditions of this moment, compel a general retreat.'

But this idea came to nothing.