The Cross and Flag: World War I Experiences – By George Ridout

Chapter 5

Doing Field Work on Historic Soil

I was assigned by the director of religious work in Paris, to do some preaching and lecture work up the Marne where Joffre and Foch made history in 1914. On my way up by train, as we arrived at Chalons, I saw my first daylight battle in the skies. At London and Paris I had been thrust into air raids but it was night and there was nothing visible. Here at Chalons the enemy was visible and he certainly was given a race for his life by the French. Chalons is a famous old French city. Here the Huns under Attila, the “scourge of God,” in the Fifth Century was defeated; 165,000 combatants lay dead on the field of battle and Attila was sent back into Germany.

It was close to here in the early days of our late war that the Germans suffered their great initial defeat and setback by Joffre and Foch. It was the first battle of the Marne and was fought out for seven days, Sept. 5-12. The Germans had 900,000, the French and British 700,000. The British forces only being one-thirtieth of the whole as their army at this period was a very small one.

On the night before the opening battle Joffre issued to his troops this message: “When the battle begins in which the fate of the country begins, every man must be reminded that the time is past for looking behind. When a unit can no longer advance it must keep at all costs the ground gained and die where it stands rather than fall back. No flinching can be tolerated.”

I was preaching at Mailly, also at Hausemuth, and in going between the two places I had to pass through Somme Sous. It was here I was told that Foch broke the backbone of the Germans in this great battle of the Marne. It was a death struggle. If the Germans had won, here they would have captured Paris next day. Paris knew this and did a most extraordinary thing. The Governor of Paris, Gallieni, requisitioned every taxi cab, automobile and such like that he could lay his hands on — l,000 of them — and, contrary to orthodox military strategy, emptied his garrison of troops and sent them on to help Joffre win the battle of the Marne.

What saved the day for the French (and for the Allies) was Foch discovering a break in the German line and driving a wedge through it. After three days of terrific fighting in which he had been beaten back time and again, he sent this cheerful message to Joffre who was then in charge of the French forces: “The situation is excellent, my right is driven back, so is my left, I am pushing my center forward.” It was by pushing his center forward that he won the battle.

As I rode through this piece of country, graves of French and German dead were on both sides of the road, sad reminders of the bloody struggle. It was while preaching in this section that I met for the first time some soldier boys who were students at Taylor University. It was a delight to meet them and talk of old times. One young fellow, the son of a preacher out West, was especially desirous of meeting me and talking over some of his difficulties. We talked after the service. I counseled him as best I could, and then under the pine trees we bowed together in prayer to the Mighty God whom we felt to be as near to us in France as in America.

I remember my messages were based largely, during this trip, on Romans 1:16 and Acts 25:19. Before the evening service I took tea with the Major and Chaplain. Both of them were devout men. The Major was a constant attendant upon religious services and the Chaplain was a man who had the religious interests of the men at heart. The YMCA Secretary at this hut was Mr. Fitt, son-in-law of the great Moody. It was just after Passion Week I visited this section, and all through Passion Week Mr. Fitt held nightly religious services.