Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 128.djvu/13

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FRANCE BEFORE THE WAR.

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From Blackwood's Magazine.

FRANCE BEFORE THE WAR.

Paris, October 20, 1875.

It will not perhaps be altogether useless to give an outline of the situation of the French army at the moment when the late war broke out; for, though important changes have been introduced since into the system which then prevailed, old habits still continue to exist in sufficient force to lead a good many onlookers to imagine that some at least of the same results might be produced again by the same causes. As regards the year 1870, very detailed evidence of both causes and results has been supplied to the world; and though that evidence has been brought forward in a fashion which most Englishmen cannot help deploring, it has, at all events, the merit—for the object which is in view here—of unfolding a complete story of what happened.

No foreign spectator has forgotten that, directly the war was over, the French exhibited a fierce desire to localize the blame of their defeat — to remove it from the people at large, and to allot it specifically to certain persons. There was a hot longing in the air to destroy somebody — a resistless need to select victims as a sacrifice to the national pride; so that, when public punishment had been brought down on a few chosen heads, all the rest of the population might soothingly comfort itself with the conviction that it was proved to be innocent of all participation, direct or indirect, in the faults which had brought about the wreck. The idea which was suggested in certain English newspapers, that the causes of disaster might perhaps be, not exclusively individual, but, to some extent at least, national as well — that they might be, in fact, a result of weaknesses and infirmities proper to the generation as a whole — was contemptuously rejected as preposterous. It was declared to be impossible that so utter a discomfiture could be in any way attributable to reasons common to the entire land; it was asserted, with all the confidence of rage, that it resulted solely from the personal incapacity and folly of a few guilty individuals, and a shout arose that those individuals must be discovered and convicted. A variety of measures were adopted in consequence of this clamour: the Bazaine trial and the two parliamentary inquiries into the contracts made during the war, and into the proceedings of the government of the 4th of September, were instituted mainly in order to satisfy it; the nation astonished and afflicted Europe by the savage delight which it seemed to take in dragging into daylight all the secrets of its disgrace; and, to make the confession thoroughly complete, nearly all the more important actors in the war wrote books, describing fully their own merits and each other's sins. By these strange means the whole inner history of the preparations for war was laid bare. It was a sad sight for the friends of France; they have mournfully remembered it: but in France itself it really seems to have become almost forgotten; it appears to have half vanished from popular memory and to have left no manifest trace behind it, except, indeed, some unslaked hatreds which are silently biding their time. In one sense, therefore, the tale has become prematurely old; but as, to foreign eyes, the value of its teaching is in no degree diminished by the indifference with which, according to appearances, the mass of the French have now grown to regard it; as, indeed, to our view, that teaching looks, in some respects, to be almost as much needed by them at this present time as it was before the war, — it may be worth while to group it together a few of the facts which it presents. The revelations made are, however, so extensive, the questions which they raise are so complicated and so varied, that it would be impossible to consider all their aspects here: the insufficiency of military preparation is the only one at which we propose to look; and though the details of it are scattered through a hundred volumes, it will not be difficult to pick out the more important of them.

But in order to obtain a general view. of the material conditions under which France commenced the campaign, it is essential to look back a little and to see what had been passing during the years which preceded 1870. The other wars of