People who know me are possibly aware of my interest in military history. A while back, I read Major-General Sir Edward Spears’ memoir Liaison, 1914 – the general’s account of his experiences as a British cavalry lieutenant (and intelligence officer), assigned to the staff of the French Fifth Army during the opening campaign of World War I.
Despite his (then) junior rank, Spears had tremendous influence: his credibility with both the British and French high commands doing much to insure these allies cooperated, after a fashion, in the early days of the war. Spears continued, in one position or another, as a liaison officer between British and French high commands throughout the First World War; ending it as cabinet liaison between the French and British war cabinets. During all this activity, he was wounded four times, mentioned in dispatches, and found time to marry an American heiress.
Spears, a great friend and supporter of Sir Winston Churchill, played a similar role in the Second World War, serving for a time as the go-between between the Churchill government and DeGaulle’s Free French.
In any case, Spears was a superb writer. Liaison, 1914, is his account of the opening campaign of World War I. I will have a fuller review later, perhaps, but for now, to give you a flavor for Spears, his times, and his writings, I will leave you with part of his visit to the town of Craonne, between the rivers Aisne and Ailette, northwest of Paris, in Champagne, during the “Great Retreat” of 1914:
I shall never forget arriving at dusk, at Craonne…It was quite impossible to get into the town except on foot, and that was not easy. An endless column of motionless cavalry completely blocked the road. The great towering cuirassiers, clumsy and massive in helmets and breastplates, sat impassive on their horses. Not a man dismounted. In the still evening air, the booming of the guns seemed very near. A gust of wind animated the horsetail plumes that hung down each man’s back, then the long steel-clad column was still again. . .Headquarters was installed in the small Chäteau where Napoleon stayed, so it was said, a hundred years ago when attempting to stem the tide of another invasion.
I went on the terrace where dinner was being served. It was an ideal situation and a perfect night. The view extended over the Aisne and across the plain to where the lights of Reims could be seen gleaming 20 miles away. . .
There was a faint clatter outside, a metallic jingle, the beat of iron-shod hoofs on the steep street of the little town; the cuirassiers were moving off at last. . .On every road leading south the endless columns marched on and on without halt and without rest.
Over Paris a German aeroplane dropped a message announcing the arrival of the enemy in three days’ time. . .
Years later, when the war was over, I found myself in the same neighbourhood, but there was no trace of Craonne to be seen. Not a wall, not a stone where the pretty little town had stood. I came on a post to which a board was affixed which bore the word “Craonne”. That board, and those green mounds and hummocks, were all that was left of the place through which the great retreat had once swept.
Maj.Gen., Sir Edward Spears, Liaison 1914 (Da Capo 2000, 316-18).