In what mood, I say, did the defenders of the European story enter the last and most perilous of their debates? We must be able to answer that question if we are to understand even during the course of the war its tendency and its probable end.
By the same road, the valley of the Oise, which had seen twenty times before lesser challenges of the kind, the North had rushed down. It was a gauge of its power that all the West was gathered there in common, with contingents from Britain in the heart of the press.
The enemy had come on in a flood of numbers: the defence, and half as much as the defence, and more again. The line swung down irresistible, with the massy weight of its club aimed at Paris. If the eastern forts at Toul and at Verdun and the resistance before Nancy had held back its handle, that resistance had but enabled it to pivot with the freer swing. Not only had there fallen back before its charge all the arrayed armies of the French and their new Ally, but also all that had counted in the hopes of the defenders had failed. All that the last few years had promised in the new work of the air, all that a generation had built up of permanent fortified work, had been proved impotent before the new siege train. The barrier fortresses of the Meuse, Liege and Namur, had gone up like paper in a fire. Maubeuge was at its last days. Another week’s bombardment and the ring of Verdun would be broken.
The sweep has no parallel in the monstrous things of history. Ten days had sufficed for the march upon the capital. Nor had there been in that ten days a moment’s hope or an hour of relaxation.
No such strain has yet been endured, so concentrated, so exact an image of doom.
And all along the belt of that march the things that were the sacrament of civilization had gone. Rheims was possessed, the village churches of the “Island of France” and of Artois were ruins or desolations. The peasantry already knew the destruction of something more than such material things, the end of a certain social pact which war in Christendom had spared. They had been massacred in droves, with no purpose save that of terror; they had been netted in droves, the little children and the women with the men, into captivity. The track of the invasion was a wound struck not, as other invasions have been, at some territory or some dynasty; it was a wound right home to the heart of whatever is the West, of whatever has made our letters and our buildings and our humour between them. There was a death and an ending in it which promised no kind of reconstruction, and the fools who had wasted words for now fifty years upon some imagined excellence in the things exterior to the tradition of Europe, were dumb and appalled at the sight of barbarism in action—in its last action after the divisions of Europe had permitted its meaningless triumph for so long. Were Paris entered, whether immediately or after that approaching envelopment of the armies, it would be for destruction; and all that is not replaceable in man’s work would be lost to our children at the hands of men who cannot make.