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From a Front-line Cellar to the Hotel Crillon

Troyan, October 8, 1918

I am writing this by the feeble light of a smelly bicycle lamp in a damp cellar under a ruined house somewhere near the front. By pulling a brick from my barricaded window, and with the aid of a little imagination, anyone can see the voie sacrée, the great Chaussee, the life line of Verdun which the Crown Prince and all his armies have failed to cut. My sergeant tells me the place is called Rottentour and he asserts that it is "rotten all through." I have been here for four days and I am inclined to agree with him.

"All the folks were evacuated before we Americans arrived," he explains, "and you can t find the place on the map. Even the town major does not know its name, so we just call it 'Rotten-all-through.

But we are nor lost; our collection of ruined houses is a short mile from Troyon, the headquarters of the 26th or Yankee Division, the first National Guard division to see service on the fighting front and now forming a part, a very important part (we number over 30,000) of the French Army under General Degoutte.

Difficult as it must be I shall try to explain the vicissitudes of fortune which I have suffered, I must admit gladly, during the last week. As I face the squalor of the humid cellar in which I live, more suitable for the cultivation of mushrooms than for human habitation, and view the sagging cot upon which I recline in my few hours of ease, it is hard to believe that I am the same soldier-diplomat who only a few days ago voiced the sentiments of America at the Congress of Submerged Nationalities[1] and lunched with M. Pichon in the stately precincts of the Quai d'Orsay, sipping rich wines and talking of our experiences in distant Peking in far-off Boxer days. But here goes:

Two days after M. Selves had adjourned the Congress without fixing a definite date for the renewal of our labors, I found myself continually wandering along the boulevards with uncertain step and certainly in a mental quandary. Right in front of the Café de la Paix, the scene of many important meetings that have so often shaped my life lines, I ran into Clarence Edwards, an old friend from the "days of the Empire" in the Philippines. Then he was aide to General Lawton, stood by his side indeed on that unlucky day when Lawton fell mortally wounded in a petty skirmish on the banks of the Pasig River. Now Edwards was a major general and had commanded a fighting division at the active front for a longer period than any of his brother officers. Strangely enough he had come across my name m a memorandum which we had drawn up at the War College a year ago explaining how we could best undermine the loyalty of troops with whom we might be confronted, men whose allegiance to the Central Empire could not be regarded as above suspicion.

"We have the plan in operation now," explained Edwards. "Before me is an Austro-Hungarian division filled with Rumanians from Transylvania and a Prussian Landwehr division of second-line troops. We have editors from Cleveland and Detroit and one from Milwaukee, and whenever the opportunity presents we bombard them with Mr. Wilson's notes translated into their various lingoes. We were getting results, but last week the officer in charge of the unit died of pneumonia and confusion resulted. What are you doing here?"

I told him, and he did not think much of it and, well, before I knew what was up I found that I had agreed to take up the new job. That evening before he returned to the front Edwards arranged all the details; orders and travel orders were forthcoming, and it was agreed that Simpkins, his aide whom I knew, would drive me to Troyon and induct me into my new post.

Forty-eight hours later I was dining very simply but very well at my general s headquarters and for that night at least I slept in his guest chamber which had so often lodged a marshal of France. It was only twenty-four hours later that I subsided into my cellar and got in touch with the propaganda machinery for which the general assigned me greater credit than I deserved.

October 18, 1918

Today the sergeant brought me a message that came over the telephone from headquarters. It was not in the romantic Choctaw that was supposed to baffle the wily Germans, always suspected of listening in, but in plain English. It directed me to present myself to General Edwards as soon as possible. It was about ten-thirty and I had on my desk several rather important letters to be translated, and then - well, I was nearly starving. Our mess arrangements were beneath contempt. If I tarried over my work I could arrange to arrive at the general's at lunchtime. While nothing extravagant or luxurious, I knew from several happy experiences that the general sets an excellent table. I also knew that General Degoutte, our army commander, had recently sent several cases of an excellent petit vin to the headquarters mess. Most of all, I remembered that slogan of my friend Conte in Paris: "On cause mieux, on cause beaucoup mieux, en jéunant."

So I kept on with my translations, only putting my sergeant on the lookout for a passing lorry. In places the mud on the road to Troyon was at least a foot deep, and I did not want to appear before my general as a mudlarker. Like many old soldiers, Edwards has the knack of always looking well groomed. So, acting as a shrewd "rustler" rather than as a smart soldier (I think you have to be that to survive in army circles), I arrived just as the general was going to the mess hall. He took me by the arm and ushered me in:

"This is your last army ration," he said; "you are ordered to Paris to await Colonel House who is coming over to initiate the peace negotiations. Your orders have come by telephone."

"Why," I interrupted him in astonishment, "I did not think anyone but you and Nolan had the remotest idea of where I was."

"Do not speak disrespectfully of the army," said Edwards, trying to look severe but soon relaxing into a broad smile. "But I suppose it is natural. East and West you have been an independent camp follower for years. You had so much seniority in that capacity that when old General Bliss [U. S. military representative at the Peace Conference] heard you had been commissioned a mere major he thought you had been demoted. But demoted or promoted, remember you are in the army now, and what you have just said might mean a court-martial.

"You are to return to Paris and report to Colonel House for special duty on his arrival. Official orders may or may not be here in a few hours, but in any event I authorize you to leave in the morning, especially as I am then sending Simpkins to Bar-le-Duc in my car on an important errand. Going with him you will have the right of way on the cluttered-up road, and that will save you many hours. I am going the rounds of the field hospitals now to cheer up the boys who were wounded or gassed at Marchville. Come along with me. I want to discuss with you the future of your cohort of polyglots, then to supper and you to pack."

"That will not take much time," I admitted, and the general smiled. "Yes, we are all traveling a bit light. You will have to spruce up quite a bit when you reach Paris. After what you have experienced here, peace-talking will be dress parade."


Well, I pulled out of that damp, moss-grown cellar none too soon; for days now I had been coughing with increasing violence and intensity. I once heard the sergeant say in an undertone which, however, reached me, "There s one good thing about the major's cough; it drowns out the artillery fire" a statement that was not quite the truth but certainly approximated it. Simpkins[2] came for me before daylight, and I was glad he had with him the general s chauffeur, because he too was suffering from paroxysms of coughing which, whatever may have been the sergeant s opinion, were even more violent than mine.

All of my detail who were off duty, including the Cleveland and Detroit editors, saw me off and gave me the best of wishes for the best of luck.

Paris, October 20, 1918

In the gray light of a misty morning I had my last glimpse in wartime of the Verdun salient and of the shell-pitted route which had proved to be the life line of France. There were many fires glowing in the beleaguered city, but outside in the shadows the graveyard of half-a-million unburied Germans and as many gallant sons of France was veiled in a heavy mist. Overhead many invisible planes were droning about upon their deadly missions, and the roar of the never-ceasing bombardment made all conversation impossible. At first the road was fairly passable, and shunning shell holes and soft shoulders we progressed at the rate of five miles the hour, although we naturally gave the right of way to ambulances with their sad freight and to the on-coming convoys of munition trucks. But even before Souilly was reached we ran into traffic congestions which the frantic efforts of the exasperated French gendarmes could not straighten out.

Hour after hour we plugged along, enveloped and involved in the confusion and all the disarray in the rear of the armies. Indeed, when but five miles out from Rottentout we were forced to halt, all traffic being blocked by disabled lorries. We skirted through a field that was pitted with fresh shell holes, pushed up a hill, and there upon the crest there came to us a symbol of hope. An old woman was plowing. Harnessed to her unconquerable will and to her plow was an emaciated cow and a little barefooted girl.

"Hein," she said, "I must get in my winter wheat, or else what shall we eat in the spring?" As we looked on, the whole strange outfit capsized into an unsuspected shell hole. We backed up and rescued her. With brief thanks she started another furrow. "I must get in my winter wheat," she repeated. Ar last we got back on the main road, and then simultaneously from Simpkins and myself came the words, "We should have no fear; France cannot die."

Darkness had fallen when we reached the railhead, and but for the major general's pennant flying over our car we would in all probability have spent the night on the road.

October 27, 1918

My new Colonel [House] tiptoed into Paris so softly yesterday morning that I only reported to him today at the house that had been arranged for his reception in the Rue de L'Université. He immediately installed me in his official family on the same familiar footing that I had enjoyed in Berlin three years before:

"The President has given me no instructions; he said I would know what he wanted me to do and then told me to shove off. For the next few days we shall be very busy debating the terms of the Armistice, and you and Frazier and all of us will have to work long hours.[3] Today I am just talking with all and sundry [by this I suppose he referred to the two prime ministers and the three war ministers who were cooling their heels in the anteroom as Frazier passed me through their ranks], but tomorrow we shall get down to brass tacks. Come in at nine, prepared to make a day and perhaps a night of it."

Then a moment later, "I will follow the President s example and give you no definite instructions but just a hazy idea of what I shall expect from you. I think I can handle Lloyd George and the "Tiger" [Clemenceau] without much help, but into your hands I commit all the mighty men of the rest of the world. I shall expect you to call at least once a day and my door will always be open to you. From time to time, if inconvenient to call, send me a memo or better still, leave it with the sailors who will guard my gate."

After a moment s reflection he continued, "You have seen all these strange people with whom Paris now is swarming on their native heaths. Most of them you knew and appraised before they were built up by war propaganda and nationalistic inflation. The war that has destroyed cities has puffed up some little men until they find their hats and their boots too small, much too small for them. I shall count on you to present them to me in their original proportions. That will be an invaluable service."

I went out of the room gasping. It was certainly quite a job I had fallen into by "picking up" Colonel House on the streets of Berlin in March, 1915!

[One winter s afternoon in Berlin, Stephen Bonsal spied a fellow American who seemed lost and confused, unable to extract directions from the hurried German pedestrians who jostled by him without notice. BonsaI came to the rescue, led the stranger to his destination, and in fluent German interpreted for him. Not until the next day at the American Embassy where they met again were they formally introduced. The two became firm friends, and when House was sent abroad to initiate the Armistice negotiations, he cabled General Pershing and asked for Bonsal's services as interpreter. Eventually Bonsal was picked to sit in on the most "graveyard" secret sessions of the Peace Conference and interpret for President Wilson and Colonel House. This diary is the record of such meetings and was used by the President as a reminder of what had taken place from one important session to another.]

October 29, 1918

House received his credentials at the 'White House on October the fourteenth (1918). Several days before that, aware of the mission upon which he was about to set out and impressed with the fact from the day that the Bulgars capitulated to the Army of the East (September 29th) that more local knowledge was needed than he possessed, he sent a cable to Pershing asking that someone familiar with Balkan conditions be attached to his staff. This cable resulted in my recall from the 26th Division and my being attached for duty with the Armistice Commission and the Peace Delegation.

The colonel picked me up exactly where our relations had ended in Berlin:

"I'm afraid I shall want you to be at my beck and call throughout the Armistice proceedings. If this should leave any free time on your hands, which I doubt, I want you to keep in touch with the strange peoples from Southeastern Europe who are assembling in such numbers in Paris in expectation, I fear, of the millennium which may not be so near at hand as we all hope. This is to be your job. Of course when the Germans come, you are to be, as you were in Berlin, my interpreter and intermediary, and then indeed your hands will be full."

[From this and another statement which he made to me a few days later, it is quite clear that House had expected to enter into direct negotiations with the Germans at an early day; and his disappointment that these expectations were not realized was very great. Bearing on this phase of the problem with which be and the other delegates were confronted were these, his often-repeated words:

"It took many of us to win the war, and each one of the powers will have to be consulted in winning the peace. In adjusting these different points of view, our principal difficulty will lie."]

October 29, 1918

A very momentous meeting chez House this morning. Everybody was there, but Foch, the Generalissimo, had the floor and did not seem Inclined to share time with any of the civilian chiefs. Lloyd George remarked in a petulant aside, "I think we are wasting precious hours. The Germans are beaten but not down on their knees as yet. They are not thinking of surrender."

If Foch heard this he paid no attention to it. He described at considerable length the operations that he was planning, that were indeed under way. "In view of the information I have from many quarters and all in agreement as to the morale and the physical condition of the German armies, these operations will undoubtedly prove successful. Your military advisers, I am happy to say, are in complete agreement as to the armistice terms we are prepared to offer, should the Germans ask for them. They do not differ in any way from the terms we would impose upon the Germans after the success of the operations we are about to undertake. [The march to Berlin.] So it is clear that if the Germans accept the terms we are willing to grant them today, when they ask formally for the armistice, il est inutile de continuer la Bataille - nothing would be gained by continuing the fighting."

House made now an inquiry not on his own behalf, he stared, but voicing the views of others who were not present and yet wanted to be heard and informed:

"M. le Field-Marshal, would our victory not be more complete if terms were only granted after the Germans had been expelled from the territory they invaded and driven back across the Rhine?"

"I think not," answered Foch. "The terms which I have drawn up, with the advice and approval of all the Allied commanders, are identical with the terms that I think we should impose if our armies had reached Berlin. The march to the Prussian capital in the present state of affairs would not be difficult, but we would lose men. Why lose them if we secure all we desire without undertaking the march?"

November 4, 1918

Mermeix, the venerable journalist, came in today and gave us some interesting details as to certain aspects of the pending armistice negotiations hitherto unknown to us. In their discussion on October 25, he says, Pétain insisted, as did Foch, upon the complete disarmament of all German troops in France with the exception of what he called carrying arms (I suppose small arms are meant). He further demanded a broad strip of German territory as a protection against a renewal of invasion and as a pledge for carrying out the other stipulations of the capitulation. He insists that the Germans should only be allowed ten days in which to leave French territory. In this way they would be prevented from taking with them their stores and war supplies. He insists that the French armed forces should occupy the left bank of the Rhine and a zone fifty kilometers deep on the right bank. This, he said, was his minimum demand, but he was quite confident that the Germans would not accept it.

Haig,[4] according to Mermeix, expressed his belief that the whole discussion was a waste of time and that the Germans were not ready to accept such enormous demands. He added that if an armistice is really desired at the present moment more modest terms should be offered. While the Allied armies are victorious, they are worn down - and have gotten far ahead of their supplies and have also outrun their communications. And, while the German forces are in a measure disorganized, their spirit of resistance is not entirely broken. As for himself, he contended that the evacuation of Alsace-Lorraine, and of course of all French territory, would seal the victory.

General Pershing, Mermeix reports, was far from enthusiastic for an armistice at this time, but he conceded that he would approve any terms that Foch approved of. Lord Milner, British delegate, expressed great fear of the growing strength of the Bolsheviki and he contended that as the first bulwark against the Red flood Germany should be given sufficient armament to cope with this menace.

November 10, 1918

Here is Colonel Boyd's version as to what really happened, and he ought to know because he is Pershing's brilliant military secretary and interprets for him in all his contacts with French officials. Of course Black Jack [Pershing] wanted to push on to Berlin, as did every soldier in the army, but at the Senlis Conference on October 25 he agreed with Haig and Petain and Bliss that if the Germans asked for an armistice the terms we had agreed upon must be submitted to them. They were, none of them, enthusiastic for the terms that Foch had drawn up, but as they were convinced that the Germans would not accept them, they agreed that it was just as well to let the Generalissimo get the idea out of his system and go on with the war. Pershing was confident, and said so quite frankly, that in view of the defense the Germans were putting up on his, the Sedan, front, it was absurd and worse to think that Ludendorff would accept any terms that we would feel inclined to offer. Haig and Petain were in full agreement that the negotiations had not been opened in good faith, that Ludendorff was simply sparring for tune.

"I think it fair to say," concluded Boyd, "that all the generals bowed to Foch's wishes because they were confident his terms would be rejected - that a rotund `no' would be the answer from the German lines."

However, the generals were mistaken, and soon the impression, the very unwelcome impression, grew that the Germans would accept. It was then that Pershing went back to what was undoubtedly his original thought and tried to block the Armistice, although he knew at the time that the prime ministers, who had been as skeptical as he in the beginning, were now behind the Foch terms if the Germans asked for them.

It was in a letter which reached House on October 30 that Pershing explained his new position and why he had reverted to his original thought on the vital matter. On the twenty-fifth he had agreed with Foch out of courtesy to the Commander in Chief and also because he had been convinced that the Germans would not consider the Allied terms. He again asserted that the Germans were not acting in good faith, that they were hoping by securing a breathing spell of a few days to extricate themselves from their present unfortunate positions.

House cabled the letter and the memorandum on to Washington and also some of the explanatory remarks that Boyd had been authorized to make to me. Not a word was said about continuing the march to Berlin, but of course that was implicit in the Pershing attitude. House also discussed the memo with Clemenceau and with Lloyd George, but the discussion did nor detain them long because the evidence was mounting every hour that whether in good faith or in bad the Germans were preparing to accept the Foch terms.

As a matter of fact, all the civilian leaders were pleased with this conclusion to the long debate. Foch had convinced them all that while the march to Berlin was practicable it would take at least two months time and would be costly in casualties, and that once on the [River] Spree the Allies would not be able to demand, or at least would not be justified in demanding, terms more exacting than those that had been drawn up at Senlis terms approved by men who, however, regarded them as more of a gesture than as the historic instrument that would bring the war to an end.

The changes of thought among the generals and the civilian chiefs are difficult to follow and our of them legends will grow; but I believe that these are the facts, although I am not at all certain they will find their place in the official histories.

November 11, 1918

Colonel House treated us to a bit of acting this morning, which left Frazier and myself abashed and ashamed of our own poor performances. At what seemed to us the crack of dawn, although it was really after eight, General Mordacq appeared. He is the principal military aid of the Tiger; he wore the formal uniform of great occasions and was covered with decorations, and his mien was portentous. "I have come to tell you, at the express orders of the president of the Council of Ministers, that the armistice terms have been accepted and signed. M. Clemenceau wished that you, who have contributed so notably to the happy result of the negotiations, should be first advised and by word direct from him."

As a matter of fact, through our own official channels some hours before we had been advised of all that had happened at the Rethondes meeting, but the Colonel acted as though the news came to him like a bolt from a blue sky. He thanked Mordacq warmly, patted both his hands affectionately, only stopping short of the accolade. When the General left the Colonel explained, "He would have been mortified if after 'deranging himself at this early hour he had seen that the news he brought was a twice-told tale."

November 12, 1918

Suddenly in the hour of victory the President has changed his mind as to where the Peace Conference should be held. He had hitherto openly, indeed even boisterously, favored Lausanne, Geneva, any place in Switzerland. But now he vetoes all these places and plunges for Paris. "In Switzerland," he cables, "the Conference would be saturated by every poisonous element and very accessible to hostile influences." House is amazed and not a little disappointed. He was against Paris as the meeting place; but as to the other cities, he was without a favorite.

With characteristic energy the Colonel sets about carrying out the President s plan, however unwise he may think it. For the last twenty-four hours he has so harassed Northcliffe- -the great editor and British propaganda chief who is over here hoping (against hope, I fear) that Lloyd George will make him one of the delegates that he has abandoned his own personal plan of having the conference meet in Belgium ("Make 'em crawl on their knees to where they disgraced themselves and our civilization," was his slogan) and has submitted to House for his approval an editorial to appear in the London Times which says roundly: "It would be egregious folly to have the Conference convene anywhere but in Paris." The Colonel has a way with the press lords!

Now that the Germans are beaten and the great host that was so formidable ten weeks ago is disintegrating, with many units of the "ever-victorious army" sneaking over the frontiers into Holland, the light-hearted Parisians are saying, "It was easy; no army can stand up to ours." There are some who quite openly seek to minimize the recent achievements of the Allies and above all of the Tiger. They have quite forgotten the dark days when they said, "What is the matter with the Allied armies? After all, the Tiger is not a worker of miracles."

Now that the danger is gone it is forgotten. No one recalls the twenty-eighth of May when the French lost the Chemin des Dames and Paris was again in grave danger. Even the memory of July 15 is effaced, when the Germans advanced on Rheims, crossed the Marne, and Paris was menaced for the third and last time, and no one knew it was to be the last time.

In military history there is no such striking reversal of fortune, and so I suppose it is natural that soldiers and civilians alike fail to comprehend it. How did it happen? The Germans lost men and the reserves were few; and they had lost guns, and replacements were not in sight. But what they had lost, and what in my judgment explains their disaster, is the fact they had lost their morale. Fed upon lies for four years, this "cannon fodder" at long last saw how they had been deceived and caved in by regiments, brigades, and divisions. Only to hold their way of escape and the road home they fought desperately on the Sedan front. The dream of conquest had given way to heimweh.


Today, after a long eclipse through the days of imperial expansion and overseas adventures, I am hearing again the words that foreshadowed a new era which I so often listened to a generation ago in London as they fell from the lips of Kropotkin, the battle-scarred Russian prince, the descendant of Rurik whom the parvenu Romanoffs had driven into exile. I heard them cheered to the echo in the saloons of London s East End and in the meeting place in Hammersmith where the poet William Morris presided over gatherings of exiles from all over Europe and Asia. "All history must be rewritten," Kropotkin would say; "rewritten from the point of view of the people."

Well, here they are, gathered together not only from Dan and Beersheba but from the more spacious if more troubled world of our day. But alas, divergent views are very vocal, and it is quite apparent that the making of history is a difficult task whether undertaken by the philosophers in their closets or by the orators in the market places.

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