No Naked Ads -> Here!
No Naked Ads -> Here! $urlZ
Fall of giants, p.13
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Fall of Giants, p.13

         Part #1 of The Century series by Ken Follett
slower 1  faster
Chapter 13

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN - September to December 1914

  The sound of a woman crying woke Fitz.

  At first he thought it was Bea. Then he remembered that his wife was in London and he was in Paris. The woman in bed beside him was not a twenty-three-year-old pregnant princess, but a nineteen-year-old French bar girl with the face of an angel.

  He raised himself on his elbow and looked at her. She had blond eyelashes that lay on her cheeks like butterflies on petals. Now they were wet with tears. "J'ai peur," she sobbed. "I'm frightened. "

  He stroked her hair. "Calme-toi," he said. "Relax. " He had learned more French from women such as Gini than he ever had at school. Gini was short for Ginette, but even that sounded like a made-up name. She had probably been christened something prosaic such as Françoise.

  It was a fine morning, and a warm breeze came through the open window of Gini's room. Fitz heard no gunfire, no stamp of marching boots on the cobblestones. "Paris has not yet fallen," he murmured in a reassuring tone.

  It was the wrong thing to say, for it brought forth fresh sobs.

  Fitz looked at his wristwatch. It was half past eight. He had to be back at his hotel by ten o'clock without fail.

  Gini said: "If the Germans come, will you take care of me?"

  "Of course, cherie," he said, suppressing a guilty pang. He would if he could, but she would not be his top priority.

  "Will they come?" she asked in a small voice.

  Fitz wished he knew. The German army was twice as numerous as predicted by French intelligence. It had stormed across northeast France, winning every battle. Now the avalanche had reached a line north of Paris-exactly how far north, Fitz would find out in the next couple of hours.

  "Some say the city will not be defended," Gini sobbed. "Is it true?"

  Fitz did not know that either. If Paris resisted, it would be mauled by German artillery. Its splendid buildings would be wrecked, its broad boulevards cratered, its bistros and boutiques turned to rubble. It was tempting to think the city should surrender, and escape all that. "It might be better for you," he said to Gini with false heartiness. "You will make love to a fat Prussian general who will call you his Liebling. "

  "I don't want a Prussian. " Her voice sank to a whisper. "I love you. "

  Perhaps she did, he thought; or perhaps she just saw him as a ticket out of here. Everyone who could was leaving town, but it was not easy. Most private cars had been commandeered. Railway trains were liable to be requisitioned at any moment, their civilian passengers thrown out and stranded in the middle of nowhere. A taxi to Bordeaux cost fifteen hundred francs, the price of a small house.

  "It may not happen," he told her. "The Germans must be exhausted by now. They've been marching and fighting for a month. They can't keep it up forever. "

  He half believed this. The French had fought hard in retreat. The soldiers were worn out, starving and demoralized, but few had been taken prisoner and they had lost only a handful of guns. The unflappable commander in chief, General Joffre, had held the Allied forces together and withdrawn to a line southeast of Paris, where he was regrouping. He had also ruthlessly sacked senior French officers who did not come up to scratch: two army commanders, seven corps commanders, and dozens of others had been mercilessly dismissed.

  The Germans did not know this. Fitz had seen decrypted German messages that suggested overconfidence. The German high command had actually removed troops from France and sent them as reinforcements to East Prussia. Fitz thought that might be a mistake. The French were not finished yet.

  He was not so sure about the British.

  The British Expeditionary Force was small-five and a half divisions, by contrast with the seventy French divisions in the field. They had fought bravely at Mons, making Fitz proud; but in five days they had lost fifteen thousand of their one hundred thousand men, and had gone into retreat.

  The Welsh Rifles were part of the British force, but Fitz was not with them. At first he had been disappointed to be posted to Paris as a liaison officer: he yearned to be fighting with his regiment. He felt sure the generals were treating him as an amateur who had to be sent someplace where he could not do much harm. But he knew Paris and spoke French, so he could hardly deny that he was well-qualified.

  As it turned out, the job was more important than he had thought. Relations between the French commanders and their British opposite numbers were dangerously bad. The British Expeditionary Force was commanded by a touchy fusspot whose name, slightly confusingly, was Sir John French. He had taken offense, early on, by what he saw as a lack of consultation by General Joffre, and had gone into a sulk. Fitz struggled to maintain a flow of information and intelligence between the two Allied commanders despite the atmosphere of hostility.

  All this was embarrassing and a bit shameful, and Fitz as a representative of the British was mortified by the ill-disguised scorn of French officers. But it had got dramatically worse a week ago. Sir John had told Joffre that his troops required two days' rest. The next day he had changed his requirement to ten days. The French had been horrified, and Fitz had felt deeply ashamed of his own country.

  He had remonstrated with Colonel Hervey, a sycophantic aide to Sir John, but his complaint had met with indignation and denial. In the end Fitz had spoken by phone to Lord Remarc, a junior minister in the War Office. They had been schoolboys at Eton together, and Remarc was one of Maud's gossipy friends. Fitz had not felt good about going behind the backs of his superior officers this way, but the struggle for Paris was so finely balanced that he felt he had to act. Patriotism was not so simple, he had learned.

  The effect of his complaint had been explosive. Prime Minister Asquith had sent the new minister of war, Lord Kitchener, hotfoot to Paris, and Sir John had been carpeted by his boss the day before yesterday. Fitz had high hopes that he would shortly be replaced. Failing that, at least he might be jerked out of his lethargy.

  Fitz would soon find out.

  He turned away from Gini and put his feet on the floor.

  "Are you leaving?" she said.

  He stood up. "I have work to do. "

  She kicked off the sheet. Fitz looked at her perfect breasts. Catching his eye, she smiled through her tears and parted her legs invitingly.

  He resisted temptation. "Make some coffee, cherie," he said.

  She put on a pale-green silk wrap and heated water while Fitz got dressed. Last night he had dined at the British embassy in his regimental mess kit, but after dinner he had shed the conspicuous scarlet military jacket and substituted a short tuxedo to go slumming.

  She gave him strong coffee in a big cup like a bowl. "I will wait for you tonight at Albert's Club," she said. The nightclubs were officially closed, as were theaters and cinemas. Even the Folies Bergere was dark. Cafes closed at eight, and restaurants at nine thirty. But it was not so easy to shut down the nightlife of a great city, and enterprising types such as Albert had been quick to open illicit joints where they could sell champagne at extortionate prices.

  "I'll try to get there by midnight," he said. The coffee was bitter but it washed away the last traces of sleepiness. He gave Gini a gold British sovereign. It was a generous payment for one night, and in such times gold was greatly preferred to paper money.

  When he kissed her good-bye, she clung to him. "You will be there tonight, won't you?" she said.

  He felt sorry for her. Her world was collapsing and she did not know what to do. He would have liked to take her under his wing and promise to look after her, but he could not. He had a pregnant wife, and if Bea was upset she could lose the baby. Even if he had been a single man, to have encumbered himself with a French tart would have made him a laughingstock. Anyway, Gini was only one of millions. Everyone was frightened, except those who were dead. "I'll do my best," he said, and extracted himself from her embrace.

  His blue Cadillac was parked at the curb. A small Union Jack flew fro
m the bonnet. There were few private cars on the streets, and most had a flag, usually a tricolor or a red cross, to show they were being used for essential war work.

  Getting the car there from London had taken ruthless use of Fitz's connections and a small fortune in bribes, but he was glad he had taken the trouble. He needed to move daily between British and French headquarters, and it was a relief not to have to beg the loan of a car or a horse from the hard-pressed armies.

  He pressed the automatic crank, and the engine turned over and fired. The streets were mostly empty of traffic. Even the buses had been commandeered for supplying the army at the front. He had to stop for a huge flock of sheep crossing town, presumably on their way to the Gare de l'Est to be sent by train to feed the troops.

  He was intrigued to see a small crowd gathered around a poster freshly pasted to the wall of the Palais Bourbon. He pulled up and joined the people reading it.



  Fitz's eye went to the foot of the notice and he saw that it was signed by General Gallieni, the military governor of the city. Gallieni, a crusty old soldier, had been brought out of retirement. He was famous for holding meetings at which no one was allowed to sit down: he believed people reached decisions faster that way.

  The body of his message was characteristically terse.

  The members of the Government of the Republic have left Paris to give new impetus to the national defense.

  Fitz was dismayed. The government had fled! There had been rumors for the last few days that ministers would decamp to Bordeaux, but the politicians had hesitated, not wanting to abandon the capital. However, now they had gone. It was a very bad sign.

  The rest of the announcement was defiant.

  I have been entrusted with the duty of defending Paris against the invader.

  So, Fitz thought, Paris will not surrender after all. The city will fight. Good! That was certainly in British interests. If the capital had to fall, at least the enemy should be made to pay heavily for their conquest.

  This duty I shall carry out to the last extremity.

  Fitz could not help smiling. Thank God for old soldiers.

  The people around seemed to have mixed feelings. Some comments were admiring. Gallieni was a fighter, someone said with satisfaction; he would not let Paris be taken. Others were more realistic. The government has left us, a woman said; that means the Germans will be here today or tomorrow. A man with a briefcase said he had sent his wife and children to his brother's house in the country. A well-dressed woman said she had thirty kilos of dried beans in the kitchen cupboard.

  Fitz just felt that the British contribution to the war effort, and his part in it, had become even more important.

  With a strong sense of doom, he drove on to the Ritz.

  He entered the lobby of his favorite hotel and went into a phone booth. There he called the British embassy and left a message for the ambassador, telling him about Gallieni's notice, just in case the news had not yet reached the rue du Faubourg St. -Honore.

  When he came out of the booth he ran into Sir John's aide Colonel Hervey.

  Hervey looked at Fitz's tuxedo and said: "Major Fitzherbert! Why the devil are you dressed like that?"

  "Good morning, Colonel," said Fitz, deliberately not answering the question. It was obvious that he had been out all night.

  "It's nine o'clock in the bloody morning! Don't you know we're at war?"

  This was another question that did not require an answer. Coolly Fitz said: "Is there something I can do for you, sir?"

  Hervey was a bully who hated people he could not intimidate. "Less of your insolence, Major," he said. "We've got enough to do, with interfering bloody visitors from London. "

  Fitz raised an eyebrow. "Lord Kitchener is the minister for war. "

  "The politicians should leave us to do our job. But someone with friends in high places has stirred them up. " He looked as if he suspected Fitz, but did not have the courage to say so.

  "You can hardly have been surprised at the War Office being concerned," Fitz said. "Ten days' rest, with the Germans at the gates!"

  "The men are exhausted!"

  "In ten days the war might be over. What are we here for, if not to save Paris?"

  "Kitchener took Sir John away from his headquarters on a crucial day of battle," Hervey blustered.

  "Sir John wasn't in much of a hurry to get back to his troops, I noticed," Fitz rejoined. "I saw him dining here at the Ritz that evening. " He knew he was being insolent but he could not help himself.

  "Get out of my sight," said Hervey.

  Fitz turned on his heel and went upstairs.

  He was not as insouciant as he had pretended. Nothing would make him kowtow to idiots such as Hervey, but it was important to him to have a successful military career. He hated the thought that people might say he was not the man his father was. Hervey was not much use to the army because he spent all his time and energy patronizing his favorites and undermining his rivals, but by the same token he could ruin the careers of men who concentrated on other things, such as winning the war.

  Fitz brooded as he bathed, shaved, and dressed in the khaki uniform of a major in the Welsh Rifles. Knowing that he might get nothing to eat until dinner, he ordered an omelette sent up to his suite with more coffee.

  At ten o'clock sharp his working day began, and he put the malign Hervey out of his mind. Lieutenant Murray, a keen young Scot, arrived from British headquarters, bringing into Fitz's suite the dust of the road and the morning's aerial reconnaissance report.

  Fitz rapidly translated the document into French and wrote it out in his clear, swooping script on pale blue Ritz paper. Every morning British planes overflew German positions and noted the direction in which enemy forces were moving. It was Fitz's job to get the information to General Gallieni as quickly as possible.

  Going out through the lobby he was called by the head porter to take a phone call.

  The voice that said: "Fitz, is that you?" was distant and distorted, but to his astonishment it was, unmistakably, that of his sister, Maud.

  "How the devil did you manage this?" he said. Only the government and the military could phone Paris from London.

  "I'm in Johnny Remarc's room at the War Office. "

  "I'm glad to hear your voice," Fitz said. "How are you?"

  "Everyone's terribly worried here," she said. "At first the papers printed nothing but good news. Only people who knew their geography understood that after each gallant French victory the Germans seemed to be another fifty miles inside France. But on Sunday The Times published a special edition. Isn't that odd? The everyday paper is full of lies, so when they tell the truth they have to bring out a special edition. "

  She was trying to be witty and cynical, but Fitz could hear the fear and anger underneath. "What did the special edition say?"

  "It spoke of our 'retreating and broken army. ' Asquith is furious. Now everyone expects Paris to fall any day. " Her façade cracked, and there was a sob in her voice as she said: "Fitz, are you going to be all right?"

  He could not lie to her. "I don't know. The government has moved to Bordeaux. Sir John French has been told off, but he's still here. "

  "Sir John has complained to the War Office that Kitchener went to Paris in the uniform of a field marshal, which was a breach of etiquette because he is now a government minister and therefore a civilian. "

  "Good God. At a time like this he's thinking about etiquette! Why hasn't he been sacked?"

  "Johnny says it would look like an admission of failure. "

  "What will it look like if Paris falls to the Germans?"

  "Oh, Fitz!" Maud began to cry. "What about the baby Bea is expecting-your child?"

  "How is Bea?" Fitz said, remembering guiltily where he had spent the night.

  Maud sniffed and swallowed. More calmly, she said: "Bea looks bonny
, and she no longer suffers from that tiresome morning sickness. "

  "Tell her I miss her. "

  There was a burst of interference, and another voice came on the line for a few seconds, then disappeared. That meant they might get cut off any second. When Maud spoke again, her voice was plaintive. "Fitz, when will it end?"

  "Within the next few days," Fitz said. "One way or the other. "

  "Please look after yourself!"

  "Of course. "

  The line went dead.

  Fitz cradled the phone, tipped the head porter, and went out into the Place Vendome.

  He got into his car and drove off. Maud had upset him by speaking of Bea's pregnancy. Fitz was willing to die for his country, and hoped he would die bravely, but he wanted to see his baby. He had not yet been a parent and he was eager to meet his child, to watch him learn and grow, to help him become an adult. He did not want his son or daughter raised without a father.

  He drove across the river Seine to the complex of army buildings known as Les Invalides. Gallieni had made his headquarters in a nearby school called the Lycee Victor-Duruy, set back behind trees. The entrance was closely guarded by sentries in bright blue tunics and red trousers with red caps, so much smarter than the mud-colored British khaki. The French had not yet grasped that accurate modern rifles meant that today's soldier wanted to disappear into the landscape.

  Fitz was well known to the guards and walked straight in. It was a girls' school, with paintings of pets and flowers, and Latin verbs conjugated on blackboards that had been pushed out of the way. The rifles of the sentries and the boots of the officers seemed to offend against the gentility of what had gone before.

  Fitz went straight to the staff room. As soon as he walked in he sensed an atmosphere of excitement. On the wall was a large map of central France on which the positions of the armies had been marked with pins. Gallieni was tall, thin, and upright despite the prostate cancer that had caused him to retire in February. Now back in uniform, he stared aggressively at the map through his pince-nez glasses.

  Fitz saluted, then shook hands, French style, with his opposite number, Major Dupuys, and asked in a whisper what was going on.

  "We're tracking von Kluck," said Dupuys.

  Gallieni had a squadron of nine old aircraft that he was using to monitor the movements of the invading army. General von Kluck was in command of the First Army, the nearest German force to Paris.

  "What have you got?" Fitz asked.

  "Two reports. " Dupuys pointed at the map. "Our aerial reconnaissance indicates that von Kluck is moving southeast, towards the river Marne. "

  This confirmed what the British had reported. On that trajectory, the First Army would pass to the east of Paris. And, since von Kluck commanded the German right wing, that meant their entire force would bypass the city. Would Paris escape after all?

  Dupuys went on: "And we have a report from a cavalry scout that suggests the same. "

  Fitz nodded thoughtfully. "German military theory is to destroy the enemy's army first, and take possession of cities later. "

  "But don't you see?" said Dupuys excitedly. "They are exposing their flank!"

  Fitz had not thought of that. His mind had been on the fate of Paris. Now he realized that Dupuys was right, and this was the reason for the air of exhilaration. If the intelligence was right, von Kluck had made a classic military error. The flank of an army was more vulnerable than its head. A flank attack was like a stab in the back.

  Why had von Kluck made such a mistake? He must believe the French to be so weak that they were incapable of counterattack.

  In which case, he was wrong.

  Fitz addressed the general. "I think this will interest you greatly, sir," he said, and handed over his envelope. "It's our aerial reconnaissance report of this morning. "

  "Aha!" said Gallieni eagerly.

  Fitz stepped up to the map. "If I may, General?"

  The general nodded permission. The British were not popular, but all intelligence was welcome.

  Consulting the English-language original, Fitz said: "Our people put von Kluck's army here. " He stuck a new pin in the map. "And moving in this direction. " It confirmed what the French already believed.

  For a moment, the room was silent.

  "It's true, then," said Dupuys quietly. "They have exposed their flank. "

  General Gallieni's eyes glittered behind his pince-nez. "So," he said, "this is our moment to attack. "


  Fitz was at his most pessimistic at three o'clock in the morning, lying next to Gini's slim body, when sex was over and he found himself missing his wife. Then he thought dispiritedly that von Kluck must surely realize his mistake and reverse course.

  But next morning, Friday, September 4, to the delight of the French defenders, von Kluck continued southeast. That was enough for General Joffre. He gave orders for the French Sixth Army to move out from Paris the following morning and strike at von Kluck's rearguard.

  But the British continued to retreat.

  Fitz was in despair that evening when he met Gini at Albert's. "This is our last chance," he explained to her over a champagne cocktail that did nothing to cheer him up. "If we can seriously rattle the Germans now, when they are exhausted and their supply lines are fully stretched, we may bring their advance to a halt. But if this counterattack fails, Paris will fall. "

  She was sitting on a bar stool, and she crossed her long legs with a whisper of silk stockings. "But why are you so gloomy?"

  "Because, at a time like this, the British are retreating. If Paris falls now, we will never live down the shame of it. "

  "General Joffre must confront Sir John and demand that the British fight! You must speak to Joffre yourself!"

  "He doesn't give audience to British majors. Besides, he would probably think it was some kind of trick by Sir John. And I would be in deep trouble, not that I care about that. "

  "Then speak to one of his advisers. "

  "Same problem. I can't walk into French army headquarters and announce that the British are betraying them. "

  "But you could have a quiet word in the ear of General Lourceau, without anyone knowing about it. "


  "He is sitting over there. "

  Fitz followed her gaze and saw a Frenchman of about sixty in civilian clothes sitting at a table with a young woman in a red dress.

  "He is very amiable," Gini added.

  "You know him?"

  "We were friends for a while, but he preferred Lizette. "

  Fitz hesitated. Once again he was contemplating going behind the backs of his superiors. But this was no time for niceties. Paris was at stake. He had to do whatever he could.

  "Introduce me," he said.

  "Give me a minute. " Gini slid elegantly off her stool and walked across the club, swaying slightly to the ragtime piano, until she came to the general's table. She kissed him on the lips, smiled at his companion, and sat down. After a few moments' earnest conversation she beckoned to Fitz.

  Lourceau stood up and the two men shook hands. "I'm honored to meet you, sir," Fitz said.

  "This is not the place for serious conversation," the general said. "But Gini assures me that what you have to say to me is terribly urgent. "

  "It most certainly is," Fitz said, and he sat down.


  Next day Fitz went to the British camp at Melun, twenty-five miles southeast of Paris, and learned to his dismay that the Expeditionary Force was still retreating.

  Perhaps his message had not got through to Joffre. Or perhaps it had, and Joffre simply felt there was nothing he could do.

  Fitz entered Vaux-le-Penil, the magnificent Louis XV chateau Sir John was using as headquarters, and ran into Colonel Hervey in the hall. "May I ask, sir, why we are retreating when our allies are launching a counterattack?" he said as politely as he could.

  "No, y
ou may not ask," said Hervey.

  Fitz persisted, suppressing his anger. "The French feel they and the Germans are evenly balanced, and even our small force may tip the scales. "

  Hervey laughed scornfully. "I'm sure they do. " He spoke as if the French had no right to demand the help of their allies.

  Fitz felt himself losing self-control. "Paris could be lost because of our timidity!"

  "Do not dare to use such a word, Major. "

  "We were sent here to save France. This may be the decisive battle. " Fitz could not help raising his voice. "If Paris is lost, and France with it, how will we explain, back home, that we were resting at the time?"

  Instead of replying, Hervey stared over Fitz's shoulder. Fitz turned to see a heavy, slow-moving figure in French uniform: a black tunic that was unbuttoned over the large waist, ill-fitting red breeches, tight leggings, and the red-and-gold cap of a general pulled low over the forehead. Colorless eyes glanced at Fitz and Hervey from under salt-and-pepper eyebrows. Fitz recognized General Joffre.

  When the general had lumbered past, followed by his entourage, Hervey said: "Are you responsible for this?"

  Fitz was too proud to lie. "Possibly," he said.

  "You haven't heard the last of it," Hervey said, and he turned and hurried after Joffre.

  Sir John received Joffre in a small room with only a few officers present, and Fitz was not among them. He waited in the officers' mess, wondering what Joffre was saying and whether he could persuade Sir John to end the shameful British retreat and join in the assualt.

  He learned the answer two hours later from Lieutenant Murray. "They say Joffre tried everything," Murray reported. "He begged, he wept, and he insinuated that British honor was in danger of being forever besmirched. And he won his point. Tomorrow we turn north. "

  Fitz grinned broadly. "Hallelujah," he said.

  A minute later Colonel Hervey approached. Fitz stood up politely.

  "You've gone too far," Hervey said. "General Lourceau told me what you did. He thought he was paying you a compliment. "

  "I shan't deny it," Fitz said. "The outcome suggests that it was the right thing. "

  "You listen to me, Fitzherbert," Hervey said, lowering his voice. "You're fucking finished. You've been disloyal to a superior officer. There's a black mark against your name that will never be erased. You won't get promotion, even if the war goes on for a year. Major you are and major you will always be. "

  "Thank you for your frankness, Colonel," said Fitz. "But I joined the army to win battles, not promotions. "


  Sir John's advance on Sunday was embarrassingly cautious, Fitz felt, but to his relief it was enough to force von Kluck to meet the threat by sending troops he could not easily spare. Now the German was fighting on two fronts, west and south, every commander's nightmare.

  Fitz woke up on Monday morning, after a night on a blanket on the chateau floor, feeling optimistic. He had breakfast in the officers' mess, then waited impatiently for the spotter planes to return from their morning sortie. War was either a mad dash or futile inactivity. In the grounds of the chateau was a church said to date from the year 1000, and he went to look at it, but he had never really understood what people saw in old churches.

  The reconnaissance debriefing took place in the magnificent salon overlooking the park and the river. The officers sat on camp chairs at a cheap board table with lavish eighteenth-century decor all around them. Sir John had a jutting chin and a mouth that seemed, underneath the white walrus mustache, to be permanently twisted into an expression of injured pride.

  The aviators reported that there was open country ahead of the British force, because the German columns were marching away north.

  Fitz was elated. The Allied counterattack had been unexpected, and the Germans had been caught napping, it seemed. Of course they would regroup soon, but for now they seemed to be in trouble.

  He waited for Sir John to order a rapid advance but, disappointingly, the commander simply confirmed the limited objectives set earlier.

  Fitz wrote his report in French, then got into his car. He drove the twenty-five miles to Paris as fast as he could against the flow of trucks, cars, and horse-drawn vehicles leaving the city, crammed with people and piled high with luggage, heading south to escape the Germans.

  In Paris he was delayed by a formation of dark-skinned Algerian troops marching across the city from one railway station to another. Their officers rode mules and wore bright red cloaks. As they passed, women gave them flowers and fruit, and cafe proprietors brought them cold drinks.

  When they had passed, Fitz drove on to Les Invalides and took his report into the school.

  Once again, the British reconnaissance confirmed the French reports. Some German forces were retreating. "We must press the attack!" said the old general. "Where are the British?"

  Fitz went to the map and pointed to the British position and the marching objectives given by Sir John for the end of the day.

  "It's not enough!" said Gallieni angrily. "You must be more aggressive! We need you to attack, so that von Kluck will be too busy with you to reinforce his flank. When will you cross the river Marne?"

  Fitz could not say. He felt ashamed. He agreed with every caustic word Gallieni uttered, but he could not admit it, so he merely said: "I will emphasize this to Sir John most strongly, General. "

  But Gallieni was already figuring out how to compensate for British lassitude. "We will send the 7th Division of the 4 Corps to reinforce Manoury's army on the Ourcq River this afternoon," he said decisively.

  Immediately his staff began to write out orders.

  Then Colonel Dupuys said: "General, we don't have enough trains to get them all there by this evening. "

  "Then use cars," said Gallieni.

  "Cars?" Dupuys looked baffled. "Where would we get that many cars?"

  "Hire taxis!"

  Everyone in the room stared at him. Had the general gone off his head?

  "Telephone the chief of police," said Gallieni. "Tell him to order his men to stop every taxi in the city, kick out the passengers, and direct the drivers here. We will fill them with soldiers and send them to the battlefield. "

  Fitz grinned when he realized Gallieni was serious. This was the kind of attitude he liked. Let's do whatever it takes, just so long as we win.

  Dupuys shrugged and picked up a telephone. "Please get the chief of police on the phone immediately," he said.

  Fitz thought: I have to see this.

  He went outside and lit a cigar. He did not have long to wait. After a few minutes a red Renault taxi came across the Alexander III Bridge, drove around the large ornamental lawn, and parked in front of the main building. It was followed by two more, then a dozen, then a hundred.

  In a couple of hours several hundred identical red taxis were parked at Les Invalides. Fitz had never seen anything like it.

  The cabbies leaned against their cars, smoking pipes and talking animatedly, waiting for instructions. Every driver had a different theory as to why they were there.

  Eventually Dupuys came out of the school and across the street with a loud-hailer in one hand and a sheaf of army requisition slips in the other. He climbed on the bonnet of a taxi, and the drivers fell quiet.

  "The military commander of Paris requires five hundred taxis to go from here to Blagny," he shouted through the megaphone.

  The drivers stared at him in incredulous silence.

  "There each car will pick up five soldiers and drive them to Nanteuil. "

  Nanteuil was thirty miles east and very close to the front line. The drivers began to understand. They looked at one another, nodding and grinning. Fitz guessed they were pleased to be part of the war effort, especially in such an unusual way.

  "Please take one of these forms before you leave and fill it out in order to claim payment on your return. "

  There was a buzz of reac
tion. They were going to get paid! That clinched their support.

  "When five hundred cars have left, I will give instructions for the next five hundred. Vive Paris! Vive la France!"

  The drivers broke into wild cheering. They mobbed Dupuys for the forms. Fitz, delighted, helped distribute the papers.

  Soon the little cars began to leave, turning around in front of the great building and heading across the bridge in the sunshine, sounding their horns in enthusiasm, a long bright red lifeline to the forces on the battlefront.


  The British took three days to march twenty-five miles. Fitz was mortified. Their advance had been largely unopposed: if they had moved faster, they might have struck a decisive blow.

  However, on the morning of Wednesday, September 9, he found Gallieni's men in an optimistic mood. Von Kluck was retreating. "The Germans are scared!" said Colonel Dupuys.

  Fitz did not believe the Germans were scared, and the map offered a more plausible explanation. The British, slow and timid though they were, had marched into a gap that had appeared between the German First and Second armies, a gap made when von Kluck pulled his forces westward to face the attack from Paris. "We've found a weak point, and we're driving a wedge into it," Fitz said, and there was a tremor of hope in his voice.

  He told himself to calm down. The Germans had won every battle so far. On the other hand, their supply lines were stretched, their men were exhausted, and their numbers had been reduced by the need to send reinforcements to East Prussia. By contrast the French in this zone had received heavy reinforcements and had virtually no supply lines to worry about, being on home ground.

  Fitz's hopes went into reverse when the British halted five miles north of the river Marne. What was Sir John stopping for? He had encountered hardly any opposition!

  But the Germans seemed not to notice the timidity of the Brits, for they continued to retreat, and hopes rose again in the lycee.

  As the shadows of the trees lengthened outside the school windows, and the last reports of the day came in, a sense of suppressed jubilation began to permeate Gallieni's staff. By the end of the day the Germans were on the run.

  Fitz could hardly believe it. The despair of a week ago had turned to hope. He sat on a chair that was too small for him and stared at the map on the wall. Seven days ago the German line had seemed like a springboard for the launch of their final attack; now it looked like a wall at which they had been turned back.

  When the sun went down behind the Eiffel Tower, the Allies had not won a victory, exactly, but for the first time in weeks the German advance had ground to a halt.

  Dupuys embraced Fitz, then kissed him on both cheeks; and for once Fitz did not mind at all.

  "We have stopped them," said Gallieni, and to Fitz's surprise, tears gleamed behind the old general's pince-nez. "We have stopped them. "


  Soon after the Battle of the Marne, both sides began to dig trenches.

  The heat of September turned into the cold, depressing rain of October. The stalemate at the eastern end of the line spread irresistibly west, like a paralysis creeping through the body of a dying man.

  The decisive battle of the autumn was over the Belgian town of Ypres, at the westernmost end of the line, twenty miles from the sea. The Germans attacked fiercely in an all-out attempt to turn the flank of the British force. The fighting raged for four weeks. Unlike all previous battles this one was static, with both sides hiding in trenches from each other's artillery and coming out only for suicidal sorties against the enemy's machine guns. In the end the British were saved by reinforcements, including a corps of brown-faced Indians shivering in their tropical uniforms. When it was over, seventy-five thousand British soldiers had died, and the Expeditionary Force was broken; but the Allies had completed a defensive barricade from the Swiss border to the English Channel, and the invading Germans had been stopped.

  On December 24 Fitz was at British headquarters in the town of St. -Omer, not far from Calais, in a gloomy frame of mind. He remembered how glibly he and others had told the men they would be home for Christmas. Now it looked as if the war could go on for a year or even more. The opposing armies sat in their trenches day after day, eating bad food, getting dysentery and trench foot and lice, and desultorily killing the rats that thrived on the dead bodies littering no-man's-land. It had once seemed very clear to Fitz why Britain had to go to war, but he could no longer remember the reasons.

  That day the rain stopped and the weather turned cold. Sir John sent a message to all units warning that the enemy was contemplating a Christmas attack. This was entirely imaginary, Fitz knew: there was no supporting intelligence. The truth was that Sir John did not want the men to relax their vigilance on Christmas Day.

  Every soldier was to receive a gift from Princess Mary, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the king and queen. It was an embossed brass box containing tobacco and cigarettes, a picture of the princess, and a Christmas card from the king. There were different gifts for nonsmokers, Sikhs, and nurses, all of whom would get chocolate or candy instead of tobacco. Fitz helped distribute the boxes to the Welsh Rifles. At the end of the day, too late to return to the relative comfort of St. -Omer, he found himself at the headquarters of the Fourth Battalion, a damp dugout a quarter of a mile behind the front line, reading a Sherlock Holmes story and smoking the small, thin cigars he had taken to. They were not as good as his panatelas, but these days he hardly ever got time to smoke a big cigar. He was with Murray, who had been promoted to captain after Ypres. Fitz had not been promoted: Hervey was keeping his promise.

  Soon after nightfall he was surprised to hear scattered rifle fire. It turned out that the men had seen lights and thought the enemy were trying a sneak attack. In fact the lights were colored lanterns with which the Germans were decorating their parapet.

  Murray, who had been on the front line for a while, talked about the Indian troops defending the next sector. "Poor sods arrived in their summer uniforms, because someone told them the war would be over before the weather turned cold," he said. "But I'll tell you something, Fitz: your darkie soldier is an ingenious blighter. You know we've been asking the War Office to give us trench mortars like the ones the Germans have, that lob a grenade over the parapet? Well, the Indians have made their own out of odd pieces of cast-iron pipe. Looks like a bit of bodged plumbing in a pub toilet, but it works!"

  In the morning there was a freezing fog and the ground underfoot was hard. Fitz and Murray gave out the princess's gifts at first light. Some of the men were huddled around braziers, trying to get warm, but they said they were grateful for the frost, which was better than the mud, especially for those suffering from trench foot. Some spoke to one another in Welsh, Fitz noticed, although they always used English with officers.

  The German line, four hundred yards away, was hidden by a morning mist the same color as the German uniforms, a faded silver-blue called field gray. Fitz heard faint music: the Germans were singing carols. Fitz was not very musical, but he thought he recognized "Silent Night. "

  He returned to the dugout for a grim breakfast of stale bread and tinned ham with the other officers. Afterward he stepped outside to smoke. He had never been quite so miserable in all his life. He thought of the breakfast that was being served at that moment in Tŷ Gwyn: hot sausages, fresh eggs, deviled kidneys, smoky kippers, buttered toast, and fragrant coffee with cream in it. He longed for clean underwear, a crisply ironed shirt, and a soft wool suit. He wanted to sit by the blazing coal fire in the morning room with nothing better to do than read the stupid jokes in Punch magazine.

  Murray followed him out of the dugout and said: "You're wanted on the telephone, Major. It's headquarters. "

  Fitz was surprised. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to locate him. He hoped it was not on account of some quarrel that had flared up between the French and the British while he had been handing out Christmas presents. With a worried frow
n he ducked inside and picked up the field telephone. "Fitzherbert. "

  "Good morning, Major," said a voice he did not recognize. "Captain Davies here. You don't know me, but I've been asked to pass you a message from home. "

  From home? Fitz hoped it was not bad news. "Very kind of you, Captain," he said. "What does the message say?"

  "Your wife has given birth to a bouncing baby boy, sir. Mother and son are both doing fine. "

  "Oh!" Fitz sat down suddenly on a box. The baby was not due yet-it must be a week or two early. Premature babies were vulnerable. But the message said he was in good health. And so was Bea.

  Fitz had a son, and the earldom had an heir.

  "Are you there, Major?" said Captain Davies.

  "Yes, yes," said Fitz. "Just a bit shocked. It's early. "

  "As it's Christmas, sir, we thought the news might cheer you up. "

  "It does, I can tell you!"

  "May I be the first to offer my congratulations. "

  "Most kind," Fitz said. "Thank you. " But Captain Davies had already hung up.

  After a moment Fitz realized the other officers in the dugout were staring at him in silence. Finally one of them said: "Good news or bad?"

  "Good!" said Fitz. "Wonderful, in fact. I have become a father. "

  They all shook his hand and slapped his back. Murray got out the whisky bottle, despite the early hour, and they drank the baby's health. "What'll he be called?" Murray asked.

  "Viscount Aberowen, while I'm alive," Fitz said, then he realized that Murray was not asking about the baby's title, but his name. "George, for my father, and William for my grandfather. Bea's father was Petr Nikolaevich, so perhaps we'll add those as well. "

  Murray seemed amused. "George William Peter Nicholas Fitzherbert, Viscount Aberowen," he said. "Quite enough names to be going on with!"

  Fitz nodded good-humoredly. "Especially as he probably weighs about seven pounds. "

  He was bursting with pride and good cheer, and he felt an urge to share his news. "I might go along to the front line," he said when they had finished their whisky. "Pass out a few cigars to the men. "

  He left the dugout and walked along the communication trench. He felt euphoric. There was no gunfire, and the air tasted crisp and clean, except when he passed the latrine. He found himself thinking not about Bea but about Ethel. Had she had her baby yet? Was she happy in her house, having extorted the money from Fitz to buy it? Although he was taken aback by the tough way she had bargained with him, he could not help remembering that it was his child she was carrying. He hoped she would deliver her baby safely, as Bea had.

  All such thoughts flew from his mind when he reached the front. As he turned the corner into the frontline trench, he got a shock.

  There was no one there.

  He walked along the trench, zigzagging around one traverse, then another, and saw no one. It was like a ghost story, or one of those ships found floating undamaged with not a soul aboard.

  There had to be an explanation. Had there been an attack that somehow Fitz had not been told about?

  It occurred to him to look over the parapet.

  This was not to be done casually. Many men were killed on their first day at the front because they took a quick look over the top.

  Fitz picked up one of the short-handled spades called entrenching tools. He pushed the blade gradually up over the edge of the parapet. Then he climbed onto the fire step and slowly raised his head until he was looking out through the narrow gap between the parapet and the blade.

  What he saw astonished him.

  The men were all in the cratered desert of no-man's-land. But they were not fighting. They were standing around in groups, talking.

  There was something odd about their appearance, and after a moment Fitz realized that some of the uniforms were khaki and others field gray.

  The men were talking to the enemy.

  Fitz dropped the entrenching tool, raised his head fully over the parapet, and stared. There were hundreds of soldiers in no-man's-land, stretching as far as he could see to left and right, British and Germans intermingled.

  What the hell was going on?

  He found a trench ladder and scrambled up over the parapet. He marched across the churned earth. The men were showing photographs of their families and sweethearts, offering cigarettes, and trying to communicate, saying things like: "Me Robert, who you?"

  He spotted two sergeants, one British and one German, deep in conversation. He tapped the Brit on the shoulder. "You!" he said. "What the devil are you doing?"

  The man answered him in the flat guttural accent of the Cardiff docks. "I don't know how it happened, sir, exactly. Some of the Jerries got up on their parapet, unarmed, and shouted, 'Happy Christmas,' then one of our boys done the same, then they started walking towards one another and before you could say chips everyone was doing it. "

  "But there's no one in the trenches!" Fitz said angrily. "Don't you see this could be a trick?"

  The sergeant looked up and down the line. "No, sir, if I'm honest, I can't say that I do see that," he said coolly.

  The man was right. How could the enemy possibly take advantage of the fact that the frontline forces of both sides had become friends?

  The sergeant pointed to the German. "This is Hans Braun, sir," he said. "Used to be a waiter at the Savoy Hotel in London. Speaks English!"

  The German sergeant saluted Fitz. "Glad to make your acquaintance, Major," he said. "Happy Christmas. " He had less of an accent than the sergeant from Cardiff. He proffered a flask. "Would you care for a drop of schnapps?"

  "Good God," said Fitz, and walked away.

  There was nothing he could do. This would have been difficult to stop even with the support of the noncommissioned officers such as that Welsh sergeant. Without their help it was impossible. He decided he had better report the situation to a superior and make it someone else's problem.

  But before he could leave the scene he heard his name called. "Fitz! Fitz! Is that really you?"

  The voice was familiar. He turned to see a German approaching. As the man came close, he recognized him. "Von Ulrich?" he said in amazement.

  "The very same!" Walter smiled broadly and held out his hand. Automatically Fitz took it. Walter shook hands vigorously. He looked thinner, Fitz thought, and his fair skin was weathered. I suppose I've changed too, Fitz thought.

  Walter said: "This is amazing-what a coincidence!"

  "I'm glad to see you fit and well," Fitz said. "Though I probably shouldn't be. "


  "What are we going to do about this?" Fitz waved a hand at the fraternizing soldiers. "I find it worrying. "

  "I agree. When tomorrow comes they may not wish to shoot at their new friends. "

  "And then what would we do?"

  "We must have a battle soon to get them back to normal. If both sides start shelling in the morning, they'll soon start to hate each other again. "

  "I hope you're right. "

  "And how are you, my old friend?"

  Fitz remembered his good news, and brightened. "I've become a father," he said. "Bea has given birth to a boy. Have a cigar. "

  They lit up. Walter had been on the eastern front, he revealed. "The Russians are corrupt," he said with disgust. "The officers sell supplies on the black market and let the infantry go hungry and cold. Half the population of East Prussia are wearing Russian army boots they bought cheap, while the Russian soldiers are barefoot. "

  Fitz said he had been in Paris. "Your favorite restaurant, Voisin's, is still open," he said.

  The men started a football match, Britain versus Germany, piling up their uniform caps for goalposts. "I've got to report this," said Fitz.

  "I, too," said Walter. "But first tell me, how is Lady Maud?"

  "Fine, I think. "

  "I would most particularly like to be remembered to her. "

tz was struck by the emphasis with which Walter uttered this otherwise routine remark. "Of course," he said. "Any special reason?"

  Walter looked away. "Just before I left London. . . I danced with her at Lady Westhampton's ball. It was the last civilized thing I did before this verdammten war. "

  Walter seemed to be in the grip of emotion. There was a tremor in his voice, and it was highly unusual for him to mix German with English. Perhaps the Christmas atmosphere had got to him too.

  Walter went on: "I should very much like her to know that I was thinking of her on Christmas Day. " He looked at Fitz with moist eyes. "Would you be sure to tell her, old friend?"

  "I will," said Fitz. "I'm sure she'll be very pleased. "

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Add comment

Add comment