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Title: In the Field (1914-1915) - The Impressions of an Officer of Light Cavalry
Author: Dupont, Marcel, 1879-1964
Language: English
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IN THE FIELD (1914-1915)

The Impressions of an Officer of Light Cavalry

by

MARCEL DUPONT

Translated by H. W. Hill



London
William Heinemann
London: William Heinemann, 1916.



TO

GENERAL CHERFILS

A TRIBUTE OF

SINCERE GRATITUDE



PREFACE


In the following pages the reader will find no tactical studies, no
military criticism, no vivid picture of a great battle. I have merely
tried to make a written record of some of the hours I have lived
through during the course of this war. A modest Lieutenant of
Chasseurs, I cannot claim to form any opinion as to the operations
which have been carried out for the last nine months on an immense
front. I only speak of things I have seen with my own eyes, in the
little corner of the battlefield occupied by my regiment.

It occurred to me that if I should come out of the deathly struggle
safe and sound, it would be a pleasure to me some day to read over
these notes of battle or bivouac. I thought, further, that my people
would be interested in them. So I tried to set down my impressions in
my intervals of leisure. Days of misery, days of joy, days of
battle.... What volumes one might write, if one were to follow our
squadrons day by day in their march!

I preferred to choose among many memories. I did not wish to compose
memoirs, but only to evoke the most tragic or the most touching
moments of my campaign. And, indeed, I have had only too many from
which to choose.

I shall rejoice if I have been able to revive some phases of the
tragedy in which we were the actors for my brothers-in-arms.

Further, I gladly offer these "impressions" to any non-combatants they
may interest. They must not look for the talents of a great
story-teller, nor the thrilling interest of a novel. All they will
find is the simple tale of an eyewitness, the unschooled effort of a
soldier more apt with the sword than with the pen.


         M.D.



  _The Editor of SOLDIERS' TALES will be glad to read diaries or
  notebooks of those returning, in any capacity whatsoever, from the
  Front with a view to inclusion in the Series. Contributions must
  be strictly truthful and should be written with no effort at fine
  writing. They are intended to tell truthfully the experiences and
  the feelings of the writers. They should be sent by registered
  post to the Editor, "Soldiers' Tales," 21, Bedford Street, W.C.,
  and they may be accompanied by sketches and photographs. All
  contributions printed will be well paid for. Contributions should
  be of 30,000 words and upwards in length._



CONTENTS



CHAP.                                                    PAGE

   I. HOW I WENT TO THE FRONT                              1

  II. THE FIRST CHARGE                                    57

 III. RECONNOITRING COURGIVAULT                           76

  IV. THE JAULGONNE AFFAIR                               102

   V. LOW MASS AND BENEDICTION                           152

  VI. A TRAGIC NIGHT IN THE TRENCHES                     178

 VII. SISTER GABRIELLE                                   226

VIII. CHRISTMAS NIGHT                                    258



I. HOW I WENT TO THE FRONT


The train was creeping along slowly in the soft night air. Seated on a
truss of hay in the horse-box with my own two horses and that of my
orderly, Wattrelot, I looked out through the gap left by the unclosed
sliding door. How slowly we were going! How often we stopped! I got
impatient as I thought of the hours we were losing whilst the other
fellows were fighting and reaping all the glory. Station after station
we passed; bridges, level crossings, tunnels. Everywhere I saw
soldiers guarding the line and the bayonets of the old chassepôts
glinting in the starlight. Now and again the train would suddenly pull
up for some mysterious reason. The three horses, frightened at being
brought into collision with each other, made the van echo to the
thunder of their hoofs as they slipped, stamped, and recovered their
balance. I got up to calm them with soothing words and caresses. By
the light of the wretched lantern swinging and creaking above the door
I could see their three heads, with pricked ears and uneasy eyes. They
were breathing hard and could not understand why they had been brought
away from their comfortable stable with its thick litter of clean
straw. _They_ were not thinking about the war, but they seemed to
understand that their good times were over, that they would have to
resign themselves to all sorts of discomforts, march unceasingly, pass
nights in camps under the pouring rain, keep their heavy equipment on
their backs for many days together, and not always get food when they
were hungry.

Then the train would set off again with a noise of tightened couplings
and creaking waggons. Whilst I was mechanically looking out at the
darkness, dotted here and there with the coloured lights of the
signals placed along the line, my straying thoughts would wander to
the fields of battle and try to picture the scene on my arrival at the
Front.

It was the 28th of August, nearly a month after the order had been
given for mobilisation. And the armies had been fighting for some days
already. What had happened? We could only glean part of the truth from
the short official announcements. We knew there had been hard fighting
at Charleroi, at Dinant, and in the direction of Nancy. But the result
had not been defined. I thought I could guess, however, that these
battles had not been decisive, but that they had cost both sides dear.
I was tempted to rejoice, fool that I was, to think that the first
great victories would not be won before I joined my regiment. I had
not yet been able to console myself for the ill-fortune that prevented
me from starting with the squadrons of the first line. And yet I had
to submit to regulations. The colonel was inflexible, and answered my
entreaties by quoting the inexorable rule: In every cavalry regiment
the sixth lieutenant in order of seniority must stay at the depôt to
help the major and the captain of the 5th squadron. They must
assemble, equip, and train the reserve squadrons of the regiment.

I shall never forget what those days were to me. Days of overwhelming
work, when, in a tropical heat, I was busy from sunrise to sunset,
entering the names of thousands of men, registering the horses, giving
certificates, and providing food for the lot. It needed some skill to
find billets for them all; the horses were lodged in stables, riding
establishments and yards, the men in every corner and nook of the vast
district. It was tiresome work, and would have been almost impossible
but for the general goodwill and admirable discipline. But all the
time I was thinking of the fellows away in Belgium boldly
reconnoitring the masses of Germans and coming into contact with the
enemy.

At last, at eleven o'clock on the 28th of August, the colonel's
telegram came ordering me to go at once and replace my young friend,
Second-Lieutenant de C., seriously wounded whilst reconnoitring. At
six o'clock in the evening I had packed my food, strapped on my kit,
and got my horses into the train. I set off with a light heart, and my
fellow-officers of the Reserve and of the Territorials, who were still
at the depôt, came to see me off.

But how slowly the train travelled, and what a long way off our little
garrison town in the west seemed to me when I thought of the firing
line out towards the north! I made up my mind to try to imitate my
faithful Wattrelot, who had been snoring in peace for ever so long. I
stretched myself on the golden straw and waited impatiently for the
dawn, dozing and dreaming.

At about eight o'clock in the morning the train stopped at the
concentration station of N. What a crowd, and yet what order and
precision in this formidable traffic! All the commissariat trains for
the army muster here before being sent off to different parts of the
Front. The numerous sidings were all covered with long rows of trucks.
In every direction engines getting up steam were panting and puffing.
In the middle of this hurly-burly men were on the move, some of them
calm, jaded and patient. These were the railwaymen, who went about in
a business-like way, pushing railway vans, counting packages, carrying
papers, checking lists, and giving information politely and willingly.
The rest were soldiers, lost, bewildered in the midst of this
entanglement of lines which seemed inextricable. They were asking each
other questions, swearing, laughing, protesting, and then they got
into a train and were promptly hauled out and sent to another. But,
with all this, there was no disorder, no lack of discipline.
Everywhere the same admirable composure reigned that I had already
noticed at the station of my little garrison town.

With Wattrelot's help, I tidied myself up for a visit to the military
authorities of the station. After many difficulties, and after passing
through the hands of a number of sentries and orderlies on duty, I
came into the presence of a kindly captain, to whom I stated my case:
"These are my marching orders, Captain; I am to join the ---- Light
Cavalry. Do you know where it is just now?"

The captain raised his hands to Heaven with a look of despair: "How am
I to know where any regiment is now? You can't expect it. All I can do
for you is to couple your truck on to the commissariat train of your
army corps. It will take you as far as the terminus, and there you
must see what you can do."

I went back to my horses. After various excursions hither and thither
which took up the whole morning I at last managed to get my horse-box
coupled to the train. Wattrelot and I, together with the Territorial
section that served as guard, were the only passengers. The whole
train was composed of vans stuffed with food supplies and mysterious
cases, packed into some separate vans carefully sealed. Our departure
was fixed for two o'clock, and meanwhile I had a chat with the
Territorial lieutenant who commanded our escort. I tried to find out
from him what had happened at the Front. He did not know any more than
I did, and merely told me how sorry he was for his own ill-luck: "You
know, our job is no joke. We start after luncheon, travel all the rest
of the day and part of the night, sleep where we can, and the next day
we go back again in the empty train. It takes still longer to get
back. And the day after we begin all over again."

And the worthy man quietly folded his hands on the "fair roundness" of
his figure. He looked a good sort of fellow. He did his job
conscientiously; put his men into the third-class compartments
assigned to them; saw that they had their cartridges, and gave them
some fatherly counsel; and then he invited me into the second-class
compartment reserved for him. But I declined, as I preferred to travel
with my horses. The train jolted off. The heat was tropical. We had
pushed our sliding-door wide open, and, seated on our packages, we
contemplated the smiling summer landscape as it passed slowly before
us. And I came to the conclusion that we had found out the pleasantest
way of travelling:--to have a railway carriage to yourself, where you
can stand up, walk about and lie down; to go at a pace that allows
you to enjoy the scenery of the countries you pass through; and to be
able to linger and admire such and such a view, such and such a
country mansion or monument of olden days! That is a hundred times
better than the shaking and rush of a _train de luxe_.

I was delighted and touched by the sympathetic interest shown in us by
the people. Everywhere old men, women and children waved their
handkerchiefs and called out, "Good luck!... Good luck!"

The worthy Territorials answered back as best they could. One felt
that all hearts were possessed with one and the same thought, wish,
and hope,--the hearts of the men who were going slowly up to battle,
and those of the people who watched them pass and sent their good
wishes with them.

At one station where we stopped a group of girls dressed in white were
waiting on the platform under the burning rays of the sun. With
simplicity, grace, and charming smiles they distributed chocolate,
bread, and fruit to all the men. The good fellows were so touched
that tears came to their eyes. One of them, an elderly man with a
small grey pointed beard, could not help saying: "But _we_ aren't
going to fight, you know. We are only here to take care of the train."

"That doesn't matter. That doesn't matter. Take it all the same. You
are soldiers, like the others.... _Vive la France!_" And all the
thirty Territorials, in deep and solemn tones, repeated "_Vive la
France!_"

What a change had come over these men who, people feared, were ripe
for revolt, undisciplined, and reckless! What kindness and grace in
the women who stay at home and suffer! An old railwayman said to me:
"It has been like that, Sir, from the first day of the mobilisation.
These girls pass their days and nights at the station. It is really
very good of them, for they won't make anything by it." The old
working man was right: "They won't make anything by it." And yet I am
sure that many soldiers who have passed that station on their way to
the Front will keep the same grateful remembrance that I still have.
I shall never forget the group of girls in white on the sunny platform
of the little station; I shall never forget the simple grace with
which they prevailed upon the men to accept the good things they
offered and even forced upon them. I thanked them as best I could, but
awkwardly enough, trying to interpret the thoughts of all those
soldiers. And when the train had started again on its panting course,
I felt sorry I had not been more eloquent in my speech; that I had
already forgotten the name of the little station, and never thought of
asking the names of our benefactresses.

We were now getting near the fighting zone, and I already felt that
there was a change in the state of mind of the people. They still
called out to us: "Good luck!... Good luck!" But earlier in the day
this greeting had been given with smiles and merry gestures; now it
was uttered in a serious and solemn tone. At the station gates and the
level crossings, the eyes of the women who looked at us were more sad
and profound. They fixed themselves upon ours, and seemed to speak to
us. And even when their lips did not move their eyes still said "Good
luck!... Good luck!"

We saw motor cars rushing along the roads, and could distinguish the
armbands on the men's sleeves, and rifles in the cars or lying in the
hoods. And yet daily life was going on as usual. There were workers in
the fields, tradespeople on the doorsteps of their shops, groups of
peasants just outside the hamlets. But yet a peculiar state of mind
was evident in each one of these people who were going on with their
daily work. And all these accumulated cares, all these stirred
imaginations, produced a strange atmosphere which infected everything,
seemed to impregnate the air we breathed, and quenched the gaiety of
the men in our train. Wattrelot and I were overcome by a kind of
religious emotion; we felt as though we were already breathing the air
of battle.

At about six o'clock we arrived at the station of L., where the train
stopped for a few minutes. The platforms were crowded with Staff
officers. A soldier assured me that the chief Headquarters were here.
I wanted to question some one and try to get some authoritative
information as to what was happening at the Front. It seemed to me
that I had a right to know, now that I was on the point of becoming
one of the actors in the tragedy in progress a few leagues off. But
directly I came up to these officers I felt my assurance fail me. They
looked disturbed and anxious. There was none of that merry animation
that had reigned in the interior and that I had expected to find
everywhere.

And then a strange and ridiculous fear came over me; the fear of being
looked upon as an intruder by these well-informed men who knew
everything. I imagined that they would spurn me with scorn, or that I
should cause them pain by forcing them to tell me truths people do not
like to repeat. It also occurred to me that I was too insignificant a
person to confront men so high in office, and that I should appear
importunate if I disturbed their reflections. But I was now quite sure
that the official announcements had not told us all. Without having
heard one word, I felt that things were not going so well as we had
hoped, as every day in our little town in the west we tried
passionately to divine the truth, devouring the few newspapers that
reached us.

A pang shot through me. I now felt alone and lost amongst these men
who seemed strangers to me. Crossing the rails, I got back to our
train, drawn up at some distance from the platforms. The sun was on
the horizon. In the red sky two monoplanes passed over our heads at no
great height. The noise of their engines made everybody look up. They
were flying north. And I felt a desire to rush upwards and overtake
one of them and take my seat close to the pilot, behind the propeller
which was spinning round and sending the wind of its giddy speed into
his face. I longed to be able to lift myself into the air above the
battlefields, and there, suspended in space, try to make out the
movements of the clashing nations.

I resolved to have a talk with the engine-driver of a train returning
to Paris empty. He told me in a few words that the French army was
retreating rapidly, that it had already recrossed the Belgian
frontier, and that at that moment it was fighting on French soil. He
told me this simply, with a touch of sadness in his voice, shaking his
head gently. He added no comments of his own, and I did not feel equal
to any reply. Full of foreboding, I returned to my train and
Wattrelot. He had heard what the engine-driver had told me, and he
said not a word, but looked out into the distance at the fiery sky. We
sat down side by side and said nothing.

So we were retreating. Then all our calculations and dreams were
shattered. All the fine plans we officers had sketched out together
were folly. We were wasting time when, bending over our maps, we
foresaw a skilful advance on the heels of Belgium's invaders, followed
by a huge victory, dearly bought, perhaps, but one that would upset
the German Colossus at a single blow. The whole thing was an illusion.
And I thought what a fool I had been. I thought of my regiment. How
much of it was there left? How many of those good fellows were lying
dead on foreign soil? How many friends should I never see again? For I
imagined things to be worse than they really were. I felt absolutely
despondent. What my mind conjured up was no longer a retreat in good
order but a rout.

The train had begun to move again. The sun had set, and over the
horizon there was but a streak of pale yellow sky lighting up the
country. I sat down in the open doorway with my legs dangling outside,
and as I breathed the first few whiffs of fresh air I felt somewhat
relieved. The calm around was such as to make one forget that we were
at war. Darkness came on by degrees.

Suddenly my heart began to beat faster, and I rose with a nervous
movement. Wattrelot too had started up from the straw he had been
lying on. We both exclaimed in one breath: "Cannon!" It was a mere
distant growl, hardly audible, and yet it was distinct enough to be a
subdued accompaniment to the thousand noises a train makes as it goes
along. We could not distinguish the shots, but gradually the dull
sound became louder and seemed to be wafted towards us by a gust of
air. Then it seemed to be further off again, and almost to die away,
and again to get louder. There is no other earthly sound like it. A
thunderstorm as it dies away is the only thing that could suggest the
impression we felt. It sends a kind of shiver all over the surface of
the body. Even our horses felt it. Their three heads were raised
uneasily, their eyes shone in the twilight, and they snorted noisily
through their dilated nostrils.

Leaning out, I saw the heads of the Territorials thrust out of the
windows. They, too, had heard the mysterious and stirring music. No
one spoke or joked. Their bodies, stretching out into space, seemed to
be asking questions and imploring to know the truth. We came nearer
to the sounds of the guns and could now distinguish the shots
following one another at short intervals. The air seemed to be shaken,
and we might have thought we were but a few paces off.

The train had pulled up sharply in the open country. It was still
light enough for us to make out the landscape--meadows covered with
long pale grass, bordered by willows and tall poplar trees gently
swaying in the evening breeze. In the background a thick wood shut in
the view. The railway line curved away to the right and was lost to
view in the growing darkness. Now that the train was motionless the
impressive voice of the cannon could be heard more distinctly. The
long luminous trails of the search-lights passed over the sky at
intervals.

Impatient at the delay, I got down and walked along the line to the
engine. It had stopped at a level crossing. At the side of the closed
barrier, on the doorstep of her hut, with the light shining upon her,
sat the wife of the gatekeeper, a child in her arms. She was a young
woman, fair and pale. She seemed somewhat uneasy, and yet had no idea
of quitting her post. She was talking in a low voice to the engine
driver and stoker of our train. I tried to get some information from
her. "_Mon Dieu, monsieur_," she said, "I know nothing, except that
the guns have been firing all day long since yesterday, and even at
times during the night. The sound comes chiefly from the direction of
G. Some soldiers, who went by just now with carts, told me the
Prussians got into the town yesterday, but that it was to be retaken
to-day; and that there were a great many dead and wounded."

My hopes revived a little. I saw at once in my mind the German attack
stopped on the river Oise, our armies recovering, drawing together and
driving the enemy back across the frontier. Our engine-driver
explained to me that we had come quite close to the terminus, but that
we should have to wait some time before we could get in. Other trains
had to be unloaded and shunted to make room.

I went back to my van. Night had fallen, and it must have been about
nine o'clock. The guns had suddenly ceased firing. Our lantern had
burnt itself out, and the rest of our wait was made more tedious by
darkness. An empty train passed us, and then silence fell once more
upon the spot where we waited anxiously to be allowed to go forward
towards our brothers-in-arms. Oh! how I longed to join them, even if
it were only in the middle of a bloody and difficult retreat; how I
longed to be delivered from my solitude!

At last, at about eleven o'clock, the train set off again without
whistling, and very slowly. It went along timidly, so to speak, and as
though it was afraid of coming into some unknown region which might be
full of mysteries and ambuscades. In the distance I saw some signal
lamps waved, and suddenly we stopped. What I then saw astounded me. I
had thought we should draw up at a large platform where gangs of men
would be waiting, in perfect order, to unload the train, sort out the
packages, and pile them up in their appointed places for the carts to
take them quietly away.

Instead of this the train stopped at some little distance from a small
station standing by itself in the open country. I could make out some
buildings, badly lighted, and around them a crowd of shadowy forms
moving about. And drawn up alongside of our train were countless
vehicles of all sorts and kinds in indescribable disorder, made all
the more confusing by the darkness. Some of them were drawn up in some
sort of a line. Others tried to edge themselves in and get a vacant
place among the entanglement of wheels and horses. The drivers were
abusing each other in forcible language. Every now and again there was
an outburst of laughter interspersed with oaths.

All this time officials were running down the platform with papers in
their hands, trying to read what was chalked on the vans. Enquiries
and shouts were heard:

"Where is the bread?"

"Over here."

"No, it's not."

"Where is the officer in charge?"

Matches were struck. The few lighted lanterns there were were snatched
from one hand by another. And in spite of all this apparent disorder
the work went rapidly forward. Men climbed in through the open doors.
Sacks and heavy cases were passed along. Porters, bending under their
loads, slipped through the maze of vans and carts to the one they
wanted and deposited their burdens.

After giving Wattrelot orders to prevent any one from invading our
horse-box I slipped out and went towards the station office to look
for the military commissary. I had great difficulty in making my way
through the crowd of men who seemed to be rushing to take the train by
assault in the darkness. Then I had to avoid breaking my neck in
getting across the maze of rails, the signal wires, and the open
ditches.

I got to the station. A number of wounded were there lying on the
platforms; about a hundred of them, with their clothes torn, and
covered with dust. They presented a sad picture. They were, it is
true, only slightly wounded; but it cuts one to the heart to see
soldiers in that plight, hauled out upon the ground without straw to
lie upon or any doctor to attend to them. However, they had all had
first-aid dressings. Below the bandages that bound their heads their
feverish eyes gleamed in the light of the lanterns. Their bandaged
arms were supported by pieces of linen tied behind their necks.
Several of them were sitting on baskets, casks and packages of all
kinds, and they were talking eagerly. Each man was relating, with
plenty of gesticulation, the great deeds he had taken part in or seen.
As I passed, I heard scraps of their conversation: "They were in the
first line of houses.... Then, old chap, our lieutenant rushed
forward.... You should have seen them scuttle...."

I was delighted to see that the _moral_ of those fine fellows didn't
seem in the least affected. To hear them you would have thought the
Germans had been driven back at all points.

I got a porter to tell me where the military commissary was. He
pointed out an Artillery lieutenant, in a cap with a white band,
talking to a group of officers. I introduced myself, and asked him if
he knew anything about the state of affairs. Like everybody else, he
could only give me very vague information. "However," he added, "I can
confirm what you have heard about G. The First Corps has just retaken
the town, which was defended by the Prussian Guard. It appears that
our fellows were wonderful, and that the enemy has suffered enormous
losses. However"--the lieutenant's voice trembled slightly, and the
shrug of his shoulders betrayed his despair--"I have orders to
evacuate the station, with all my men and my papers, so soon as the
last train has been unloaded. I am to fall back towards L. How is one
to understand what all this means?"

We looked at each other, without a word. Everybody felt dejected and
doubtful. Not to understand!... To have to obey without understanding
why! It was the first time I had really felt the grandeur of military
service. You must have a soul stoutly tempered to carry out an
order--no matter what, even if that order seems incomprehensible to
you. There must have been in that corner of France, on the edge of
that frontier which we had sworn should never be violated--there must
have been thousands of officers, thousands of soldiers who would have
given their lives rather than yield up one inch of ground. Then why
abandon that station? Why say so bluntly, "To-morrow you will have no
need to go so far north to bring supplies. We shall come nearer to
you; _we_ shall withdraw ..."?

There I was again, allowing my mind to wander and to suffer. I tried
to learn by what means I could get some information about my regiment.

"Well, it's very simple," said the Artillery lieutenant, very kindly.
"Your commissariat officer will certainly have to come with his convoy
to fetch supplies. Try to get hold of him. He will tell you all about
it."

I grasped his hand and went off, glad indeed at the thought of seeing
my regiment's uniform once more. And Providence seemed to guide me,
for I thought I saw the very man I was looking for in the little
booking office. But I had some difficulty in recognising him. He
looked aged and worn. His beard had grown quite grey. Bending over the
sill of the ticket office, he was in the act of spreading the contents
of a box of sardines upon a slice of bread. Yes, it was he. How tired
and disheartened he looked! I pushed the door open and rushed in:

"_Bonjour! Comment va?_"

"Ah!... It's you! What have you come here for, my poor fellow? Ah!
Things aren't looking very rosy...."

I plied him with questions, and he answered in short incoherent
sentences:

"Charleroi? Don't talk of it!... Our men? Grand!... A hecatomb....
Then ... the retreat ... day and night.... The Germans daren't.... Ah!
a nice business, isn't it? We're retreating."

He told me where the regiment was, in a huge farm a long way off. He
said he could take my canteen in one of his vans. As for me, I should
have to manage as best I could next day to join my comrades. It would
take some time to get my horses detrained, as the only platform was
still being used for the vans not yet unloaded. "Thanks," said I.
"Well, it's quite simple. To-morrow I go straight towards the cannon.
Good-night." And I went off to finish my sleepless night, lying beside
my horses. With my eyes fixed on the chink of the door, I waited, hour
after hour, for the daylight....

When dawn broke I had already got Wattrelot and a couple of railwaymen
who were still in the station to bring my horse-box up to the
platform. The three horses were quickly saddled and ready to start.
The freshness of the morning and the joy of feeling firm ground under
their feet again made them uncommonly lively. Indeed, Wattrelot came
near feeling the effects of their good spirits somewhat uncomfortably
as he was getting into the saddle.

At last we started at a quick trot along a white and dusty road which
led straight across fields still bathed in shadow. I went first in the
direction my friend had vaguely indicated the night before. Wattrelot
followed, leading my spare horse. The horses' footsteps resounded
strangely in this unknown country where nothing else could be heard.
Were we really at war? Everything seemed, on the contrary, to breathe
perfect tranquillity. What a change from the feverish bustle of the
station the evening before!

We rode through a rich and fertile countryside. The fields stretched
out one after another without end, covering the rounded flanks of the
undulating ground with their stubble, dotted with stacks and golden
sheaves. A few hedges and some clumps of trees broke the monotony of
the landscape. Here and there farms of imposing proportions appeared
among the foliage. No shots were to be heard, nor any sound of
marching troops. And this made me so uneasy that I began to wonder
whether something had not happened during the night to shift the scene
of the fighting without my knowledge. But I was about to see something
which was to remind me, better than the noise of cannon, that the
scene of the strife was not far off.

As the daylight became gradually brighter we distinguished figures
moving round some straw-stacks--folks who had collected there to pass
the night sheltered as much as possible from the cold and the morning
dew. I thought they were soldiers who had lost touch with their
regiments and had taken their brief night's rest in the open air. But
I soon saw my mistake. As by enchantment, as soon as the first rays of
the sun appeared the sleepers got up, and I saw that they were
civilians, mostly women and children. They were the unfortunate
country-folk who had fled before the barbarian hordes. They had
preferred to forsake their homes, to leave them to the invader, rather
than fall into his hands. They had fled, carrying with them the most
precious things they possessed. They had come away not knowing where
they would stop, nor where they could pass the night. And as soon as
the twilight came and found them exhausted on the interminable roads,
they had dropped down by the stacks grateful for a humble bed of
straw. There they had stretched their aching limbs, the mothers had
carefully made up little beds for their babies, families had nestled
closely together, and often whole villages had gathered in the same
fields and around the same stacks.

And when the daylight appeared they had got up hurriedly and the roads
were already crowded with mournful pilgrims seeking refuge further and
further inland. I must confess that I had not expected to see such a
sight. It made my heart ache. I was seized with a fury and longed to
be able to rush upon the enemy, drive him back across the frontier,
and restore the dwellings forsaken by these poor folks.

What human being, however cold-hearted, could help feeling deep pity
at the sight of those poor, weak and inoffensive creatures fleeing
before invasion? There were pitiable sights on every hand. A mother
pushing a perambulator containing several small children, whilst five
or six others were hanging on to her dress or trotting along around
her. Poor invalids, dragged, pushed, carried by all possible means,
sooner than be left in the hands of the Prussians. Old men helped
along by boys; infants carried by old men. And as they passed they all
cast a look of distress at the officer who rode quickly by, averting
his eyes. I thought I saw a reproach in those glances: they seemed to
say to me: "Why haven't you been able to defend us? Why have you let
them come into our country? See how we are suffering. Look at our
little children, who cannot walk any further. Where are we to go now
that, by your fault, we have left the homes of our childhood, and of
our fathers and our fathers' fathers? Is that what war is?" I urged
on my horse to get them out of my sight and to reach the fighting line
as quickly as I could.

Suddenly the report of a gun sounded straight in front of me. Further
off a few rifle shots were audible, and then guns again, accompanied
by concentrated rifle fire. A kind of shiver passed through my whole
body.

My first battle! I was going to take part in my first battle! I felt
really mad and intoxicated at the thought of at last realising the
dream of my life. But other feelings were mingled with it. I
reflected: "What effect will it have upon me? I expect I shall come
into the middle of the fight when I get over that ridge. Shall I duck
my head when I hear the bullets whistling and the shrapnel bursting
around me? I am determined to play the man. I know Wattrelot is close
by, trotting behind me. He mustn't see the least symptom of
nervousness in me."

The noise of the guns became louder. "By the way!... I wonder what
Wattrelot feels like!" I turned to look at him, and found his face a
bit pale; but directly he saw me glance at his blue north-country
eyes, his face lit up with a broad smile.

"Here we are, sir."

"Yes, Wattrelot, here we are. I'm sure you don't know what fear is!"

"Oh! no, sir."

"That's all right. Forward then! To the guns!"

We passed through a hamlet full of waggons and motors. Some orderlies
were loading them up with rations and boxes. On one of these I
happened to see the number of my own army corps. "I'm all right then,"
thought I, and turned to an adjutant of the Army Service Corps, who
was superintending the work.

"Do you know where the Staff of the ---- Corps is?" I asked.

The man shrugged his shoulders to show that he didn't, and that he
didn't care. What did it matter to him? His job was to get the goods
loaded, forget nothing, and then to go to his appointed post where he
would have to wait for further orders to unload his stuff in the
evening. He had enough to do. What did anything else matter to him?
However, he pointed in a vague manner: "They went over there...."

Off I started again over the wide undulating plain. The noise of the
cannonade became louder and louder, and I now perceived traces of the
work of death. At a turning of the road there were a couple of dead
horses that had been dragged into the ditch. I cannot say how painful
the sight was to me. Apparently a dead horse at the seat of war is a
trifle, and no doubt I should very soon see it with indifference. But
these were the first I had seen, and I could not help casting a glance
of pity at them. Poor beasts! A month before they had been showing off
their fine points in the well-kept stables of the artillery barracks.
When I saw them their stiffened corpses bore traces of all their
sufferings. Their harness had rubbed great sores in their flesh, in
more places than one. Their glazed eyes seemed to be still appealing
for pity. They had fallen down exhausted, finding it impossible to
keep up with their fellows. They had been quickly unharnessed, so as
not to block up the road; had been dragged on to the sunburnt grass,
and it was there no doubt the death-agony that had already lasted for
some hours had come to an end.

We went on, and, in the distance, here and there on the plain, which
now stretched before us for miles, we saw more of them. I wondered how
it was that so many horses had fallen in so short a time. It was not a
month since mobilisation had been ordered, and hardly ten days since
operations had begun. What a huge effort then the army must already
have made!

But I soon forgot the poor beasts, for we were nearing the scene of
the struggle. Behind the shelter of every swell in the ground were
ammunition waggons. I went up to one of these and was astonished at
what I saw. The limbers, which are always so smart in the
barrack-yard, with their grey paint, were covered with a thick coating
of dust or of hardened mud. The horses, dirty and thin, seemed ready
to drop. Their necks were covered with sores, and they were hanging
their heads to eat, but seemed not to have strength enough to take
their food. Drivers and non-commissioned officers were sprawling
about, sleeping heavily. Their cadaverous faces, beards of a week's
growth and drawn features showed even in their sleep how exhausted
they were. I could hardly recognise the original colour of their dingy
uniforms under the accumulation of stains and dust.

It was now eight o'clock in the morning. The sunshine was beating hot
upon the sleepers, but they seemed indifferent to this. They had
simply pulled the peaks of their caps over their eyes and were snoring
away, with their noses in the air and their mouths open. Beasts and
men together formed a group of creatures that seemed utterly depressed
and worn out. I could never have believed it possible to sleep under
such conditions, with the guns booming unceasingly in all directions.

I went up the nearest ridge and thence got a glimpse of a corner of
the battle. I had expected to see a sight similar to that which had
delighted us at manoeuvres; troops massed in all the depressions of
the ground, battalions advancing in good order along the roads, and
mounted men galloping about on the higher ground. But there was
nothing of the sort.

In front of me, about 600 yards off, and under cover of the brow of a
hill carpeted with russet stubble, I saw two batteries of artillery,
firing their guns. I looked intently. The pieces were in perfect line
and the gunners at their posts. The shots were fired at regular
intervals and with cool deliberation. The gunners took their time, and
seemed to be working very casually. I had expected to see them fairly
excited: the men running under a hail of shells, teams brought up at a
gallop as soon as a few salvoes had been fired, and the guns whirled
off at full speed and lined up in battery again some hundreds of
yards further off.

On the contrary, these guns seemed to be planted there for good. The
limbers, which were massed to the rear under cover of a slope, looked
very much like the sections of munitions I had seen just before. The
men were sleeping in the shadows of their horses, and the horses were
asleep on their feet in their appointed places. The only man standing
was a stout-looking adjutant who was walking up and down with his
hands in his pockets. With his eyes on the ground he seemed to be
counting his steps. And meanwhile, the two batteries went on firing
salvoes of four at a time. When one was finished there was a pause of
two or three minutes. Then the other battery took it up.

But Wattrelot interrupted my reverie: "Look over there, sir.... _Ça
barde!_" I looked in the direction he was pointing out. And now I no
longer felt the uneasy feeling that had come over me at the sight of
what was going on here. Above a height that overtopped the hill on
which I was, and about 1,500 yards away, the German shells were
bursting incessantly. We could distinctly hear the sharp sound of the
explosions. In the clear blue of the sky they made little white puffs
which vanished gradually and were replaced by others. Their gunners
could not have been firing with the same coolness as ours, for the
white puffs increased in number. The noise they were making on the
spot must have been deafening. From where I was we heard the
explosions following one upon another without intermission.

But what was most thrilling was to watch one of our own batteries in
action under this avalanche of projectiles. The slope on which it was
placed was in shadow still. Against this blue-grey background short
flames could be seen flashing for a second at the muzzles of the guns.
And the four reports reached us almost at the same moment. The gunners
could be seen just as calm under fire as the others here. The German
shells, that tried to scatter death among them, burst too high. They
were trying to annihilate this battery, which was no doubt causing
terrible ravages among their men. But the broken fragments fell wide,
and our gunners worked their pieces gallantly. This was something that
more than made up for my touch of disappointment at first. My hope
revived, and I started off at a trot straight in front of me, getting
past the ridge, under cover of which the pair of batteries were plying
their guns.

No sooner had I gained the further slope than I understood that what I
had seen hitherto was only the background of the battle. From this
spot a violent rifle fire was heard in every direction. In the meadows
were a large number of infantry sections crouching behind every
available bit of cover. On the opposite slope long lines of
skirmishers were deployed. And dotted about everywhere, above their
heads, rose puffs of smoke--white, black, and yellow--the German
shells bursting. The noise of them was incessant, and the spot where
we were seemed to me very quiet, in spite of the firing of the two
batteries close behind us.

Everything was wonderfully coloured by the sunshine. The red trousers
of the soldiers, lying in the grass, showed up brightly. The mess-tins
on their knapsacks and the smallest metal objects--buttons,
bayonet-hilts, belt-buckles--glittered at every movement. On my left,
in a dip of ground with a little river running down it, a gay little
village seemed to be overflowing with troops. I rode towards it in
haste, hoping to find a Staff there which could give me some
information.

The streets were, in fact, full of infantry, lying about or sitting
along the houses on both sides. In the middle of the main road was a
crowd of galloping orderlies, cyclists and motor-cyclists. I felt
rather bewildered in all this bustle. However, these people seemed to
know where they were going. They were, no doubt, carrying orders or
information. And yet I could see no chief officer who appeared to be
busying himself about the action or directing anything. Those who
were not sleeping were chatting in little groups. The soldiers of
different arms were all mixed together, which had, perhaps, a
picturesque effect, but was disconcerting.

Suddenly I heard some one call me by my name. I turned round and
hesitated a moment before I recognised in an artillery captain with a
red beard, a former friend who had been a lieutenant in a horse
battery at Lunéville. Yes, it was he. I recognised him by his grey
eyes, his hooked nose, and his ringing voice.

"Eh, _mon cher!_ What are you doing here? You look fresh and fit!...
What are you looking for? You seem to be at sea."

I explained my position to him, and asked him to tell me what had
happened.

"Oh! that would take too long. Your fellows were at Charleroi with us;
they had some experiences! But hang it if I know what they are doing
with us. We beat them yesterday, my friend. Our men and our guns did
wonders. And now there's talk of our retreating further south. I
don't understand it all. Ah! we have seen some hot work, and you will
make a rough beginning.... Looking for your regiment, are you? I
haven't seen it yet to-day. But you see that Staff right over there
behind those stacks?... Yes, where those shells are bursting....
That's General T. He can help you; only, you see, he's not exactly in
clover. T. has been splendid; always under fire, cheering on his men.
They say he wants to get killed so as not to see the retreat...."

I knew General T. well. He commanded a brigade in our garrison town of
R. And a kindly chief he was, clear-minded, frank, and plain-spoken. I
soon made up my mind to go to him and see what help I could get to
enable me to rejoin my regiment. It would be a pleasure, too, to see
him again.

I measured the distance with my eye--a kilometre, perhaps. There was
no road, and to go across the fields would not be very easy, as there
were walls and hedges round the meadows. I took the other way out of
the village, and just as Wattrelot and I were leaving it we saw some
wounded men arriving. They came slowly, helped along by their
comrades, and there were such a number of them that they blocked the
road. Those faces tied up with bandages clotted with perspiration,
dust, and blood; those coats hanging open; those shirts torn, and
showing lint and bandages reddened with blood; those poor bandaged
feet that had to be kept off the ground--all this made a painful
impression on me. No doubt this was because I was not accustomed to
such sights, for others hardly took any notice of it.

"The ambulance! Where is the ambulance?" cried the men who were
helping them along.

"At the station," answered some soldiers, hardly looking round; "go
straight on, and turn to the left when you get to the market-place."

And the sad procession went its way. I jumped the ditch at the side of
the road, and struck across the fields, spurring straight for General
T. At that moment the rifle fire became more violent. Some forward
movement was certainly beginning, for the infantry sections, that were
lying in cover at the bottom of the valley, began to climb up the
slope of the ridge on which I was galloping. Suddenly my horse swerved
sharply. He had just almost trodden upon a body lying on the other
side of the low wall of loose stones that I had just jumped. I drew
rein. A sob burst from my lips. Oh! I did not expect to see that so
suddenly. A score of corpses lay scattered on that sloping
stubble-field. They were Zouaves. They seemed almost to have been
placed there deliberately, for the bodies were lying at about an equal
distance from one another. They must have fallen there the day before
during an attack, and night had come before it had been possible to
bury them. Their rifles were still by their side, with the bayonets
fixed. The one nearest to us was lying with his face to the ground and
was still grasping his weapon. He was a handsome fellow, thin and
dark. No wound was visible, but his face was strikingly pale under
the red _chéchia_ which had been pulled down over his ears.

I looked at Wattrelot. The good fellow's eyes were filled with tears.
"Come!" thought I, "we must not give way like this."

"Wattrelot, my friend, we shall see plenty more. You know, they were
brave fellows who have been killed doing their duty. We must not pity
them...."

Wattrelot did not answer. I galloped off again towards the big rick by
which stood General T.'s Staff. I had already forgotten what I had
seen, and my attention was fixed upon that small group of men standing
motionless near the top of the ridge. German shells kept bursting over
them from time to time. We were now about 100 yards off, so I left
Wattrelot and my spare horse hidden behind a shattered hovel and went
alone towards the rick.

But just as I was coming up to it I heard a curious hissing noise
which lasted about the twentieth part of a second, and, above my
head--how high I could not quite tell--vrran!... vrran!--two shells
exploded with a tremendous noise. I ducked my head instinctively and
tried to make myself as small as possible on my horse. A thought
passed through my mind like a flash: "Here we are! Why on earth did I
come up here? My campaign will have been a short one!" And then this
other thought followed: "But I'm not hit! That's all their shells can
do! I shan't trouble to duck in future."

And yet I was disagreeably impressed: a soldier who had been holding a
horse just before about 30 yards from me ran down the slope, whilst
the horse was struck dead and lay in a pool of blood, his body torn
open.

But I was now close to the officers composing the Staff of the T.
Brigade. They came towards me, supposing, probably, that I was
bringing some information or an order. One of them was known to me, an
infantry captain who had been in garrison at R. with me. We shook
hands, and I explained the object of this unusual visit. He replied:

"Your regiment? You will find it to the left of the Army Corps. It's
the regiment that ensures our _liaison_ with the ---- Corps."

"Well, Captain, it seems our troops are advancing. Things are going
well!"

He shrugged his shoulders sharply. His eyes were hard and sombre as he
gazed fixedly at the horizon in the direction of the enemy, and then
said in an exasperated tone:

"Certainly, they are advancing. See those lines of skirmishers working
along there to the right of the village. And those others further off,
there where you see those puffs of yellow smoke. But that won't
prevent us from beginning our retreating movement at noon. There are
express orders. We must move together with the whole army. We shall
sleep to-night 20 kilometres from here ... and not in the right
direction!"

We looked at one another in silence. I didn't like to ask any further
questions, nor to express my disappointment and the angry feeling that
was becoming stronger in me. The sight of General T. calmed me at
once. It seemed to tell me what my duty was, and to impose silent
obedience and firm faith in our chiefs.

Standing alone, 100 yards in advance of his officers, whom he had told
to remain concealed behind the enormous stack, the General was
observing the struggle. He stood perfectly still, with his back
slightly bent and his hands behind him. He had allowed his beard to
grow, and it formed a white patch on his slightly tanned face. In
front of him, at some little distance, two shells had just burst,
falling short. The General had not stirred. He looked like a statue of
sadness and of duty. I had thought of going and introducing myself;
but I now felt that I was too insignificant a being to intrude myself
upon a chief who was watching the advance of his brave soldiers, as a
father watches over his children.

I turned and went away, quietly and slowly, with a feeling of
oppression.

So I made my way back again, skirting the firing line behind the
ridge, often obliged to pull up to allow troops to pass to reinforce
the line. Now and then it seemed that the fighting had ceased at the
spot I happened to be in, but I soon found myself again in the thick
of the artillery and rifle fire. On all the roads I crossed there was
a continual stream of wounded men limping along and stretcher-bearers
carrying mutilated bodies. The heat had become tropical. It was nearly
twelve o'clock. My head began to swim. My shako seemed gradually to
get tighter and to press on my temples till they were ready to burst.
I thought I should never find my regiment--never....

I came to a small village, and decided to stop and get some food for
ourselves and for my horses, as they showed signs of distress. There,
too, the streets were full of infantry, but, to my astonishment, none
of them belonged to any of the regiments of my Corps. So I supposed I
had passed its left wing without knowing it. Bad luck! I rode up the
steep alleys, looking for some inn where I could put up, but all the
inns were filled with hot, footsore soldiers, who seemed thankful for
a moment's rest. They were sitting about wherever there was any shade
to be found. With their coats unbuttoned, their neckties undone and
shirts open, they were trying to recover their vigour by greedily
devouring hunks of bread they had in their wallets, spread with the
contents of their preserved meat tins.

At the door of the vicarage, near the pretty little church which could
be seen from the surrounding country, I saw an old priest who was
distributing bottles of white wine to an eager crowd of troopers. I
heard him say in a gentle voice:

"Here, my lads, take what there is. If the Prussians come, I don't
want them to find a drop left."

"_Merci, ... merci, Monsieur le Curé_."

All at once there was a frightful explosion quite close to us, which
made the whole church-square quiver. A German "coal-box" had fallen on
to the roof of the church, making an enormous hole in it, out of which
came a thick cloud of horrible yellow smoke. A shower of wreckage
fell all around us and made a curious noise. The windows of all the
houses came clattering down in shivers. In a twinkling the little
square in front of the vicarage was empty. A few men who were wounded
fled moaning. The rest slung their rifles and went off quickly in a
line close under the shelter of the houses. I was left alone face to
face with the white-haired priest who still held a bottle of golden
wine in his hand. We looked at each other greatly distressed.

"_Tenez, Monsieur l'Officier_," he said suddenly; "take some more of
this. I am going to break all the remaining bottles, so that they
shall not drink any of it.... Ah! the savages! Ah! the wretches!... My
church!... My poor church!..."

And he went across his little garden quickly, without listening to my
thanks. I handed the bottle to Wattrelot, who stuffed it into his
wallet with a smile of satisfaction.

But a second "coal-box" soon followed the first. It was certainly not
the place to stay in, so I decided to be off and postpone my luncheon
until I could find a rather more sheltered dining-room. As I left the
village I saw one of our batteries moving briskly away. It was the one
that had been in action close to the village, and had probably been
the target of the German gunners. It went rapidly down the slope. The
drivers brandished their whips and brought them down upon the haunches
of their jaded animals. They had to make haste, for the position had
become untenable. The German guns were concentrating their fire on the
hapless village and the neighbouring ridge. The formidable shells
burst in threes. The ground shook. It was evident that very soon
nothing would be left there but ruins.

I resumed my wanderings. I saw then that what the captain had told me
was true. The retreating movement was beginning to be obvious. Whilst
the firing grew more intense along the whole line small parties of
infantry marched across the fields in an opposite direction to the one
they had taken two hours previously.

So we were beating a retreat. However, I had seen it with my own eyes;
not only had we held our ground along the whole line, but at several
points our soldiers were making headway. And then suddenly, and
without any apparent reason, we had to withdraw. It was enough to make
one mad. We had to retreat over the soil of our France and give it up,
little by little, to the hordes which followed on our heels.... I had
slackened rein, and was allowing my horse to go as he liked over the
country strewn with troops. He seemed to understand what was
happening, and with his head lowered, as though he did it reluctantly,
he slowly followed the direction the immense army was taking. I was
seized with a deep feeling of hopelessness. I doubted everything; our
men, of whose bravery and tenacity I had just seen proof; and our
leaders, whose courage I knew. My head seemed to be on fire.

But I heard a ringing voice behind me, calling me by my name. I
turned, and my sadness gave way to joy as I recognised two light-blue
tunics with red collars. I had found the uniform of my regiment! and
my hope revived. I felt I was no longer alone, and that we might yet
accomplish great things.

In front of a score of our Chasseurs rode two good friends of mine,
Lieutenant B. and Lieutenant of Reserve de C. What a pleasure it was
to shake their hands, and to see their bronzed faces and dusty
garments.

We now went on together, chatting merrily. C. knew the village where
the regiment was to be billeted. We went straight for it at a trot. It
was there that, at nightfall, I was going to find my chiefs again, my
comrades and my men; and I should at last take my part in the
fighting. I could not know what the days to follow had in store for
me, but I did know that none could be so cruel for me as the day when
I went to the Front. I was now in the bosom of my military family, and
I looked forward to taking my share of danger at the head of the brave
Chasseurs I knew so well. Doubtless I should now know where we were
going; why we had to advance, and why to retire.

It seems that moral suffering is less keen when it can be shared with
others. I shall never suffer again what I suffered that day.



II. THE FIRST CHARGE



        _September 4._


Six o'clock in the evening.

The atmosphere was heavy and stifling. The regiment had been formed
into two columns, to the right and the left of the high-road from
Vauchamps to Montmirail. The men, tired out, their faces black with
dust, had hardly dismounted when they threw themselves on the ground
and slept in a field of cut corn. The officers chatted together in
groups to keep themselves awake. Nights are short when you are on
campaign. The bivouac was pitched at midnight and was to be struck at
three o'clock in the morning.

And since six o'clock the battle had been raging, for the enemy had
engaged our rearguard almost immediately. This had happened each day
of that unforgettable retreat, begun at the Sambre and pushed beyond
the Marne. Each day we had had to fight. Each day the enemy was
repulsed. Each day we were obliged to retire.

Brother-soldiers!--you who came through those painful hours--shall you
ever forget them? Shall you ever forget the anguish that wrung your
hearts when, as the sun was sinking, you, who had seen so many of your
comrades fall, had to give up a further portion of our sweet France;
to deliver up some of our lovely hamlets, some of our fields, our
orchards, our gardens, some of our vineyards, to the barbarians?...
You were ordered to do so. We have learnt, since then, how important
such sacrifices were. But, at the time, we did not know ... and doubt
came into our minds. We passed through cruel days, and nothing will
ever efface the impression of physical and moral prostration that
overcame us then.

The regiment was sleeping--tired out.

Alone, calm, phlegmatic, the Colonel kept watch, standing in the
middle of the road. With his pipe between his teeth, beneath his ruddy
drooping moustache, his cap pulled over his eyes, his arms crossed on
his light-blue tunic, he seemed to be the ever-watchful shepherd of
that immense flock. At such moments the chief must be able to seem
unconscious of the self-abandonment, the disorder and the exhaustion
of his men. Human powers have their limits. They had been expended for
days without stint. Every moment of cessation from actual fighting had
to be a moment of repose. The important thing is that the chief should
keep watch. Brave little Chasseurs! sleep in peace; your Colonel is
watching over you.

I looked at the men of my troop, on the ground in front of their
horses. How could I recognise the smart, brilliantly accoutred
horsemen, whose uniforms used to make such a gay note in the
old-fashioned streets of the little garrison town?

Under the battered shakoes with their shapeless peaks, the tanned and
emaciated faces looked like masks of wax. Youthful faces had been
invaded by beards which made them look like those of men of thirty or
more. The dust of roads and fields, raised by horses, waggons, and
limbers, had settled on them, showing up their wrinkles and getting
into eyes, noses, and moustaches.

Their clothes, patched as chance allowed during a halt under some
hedge, were enamels of many-coloured pieces. A few more days of such
unremitting war, and we should have vied with the glorious
tatterdemalions of the armies of Italy and of the Sambre et Meuse, as
Raffet paints them.

With their noses in the air, their mouths open, their eyes half shut,
my Chasseurs lay stretched out among the legs of their horses and
slept heavily. Poor horses! Poor, pretty creatures, so delicate, so
fiery, in their glossy summer coats! They had followed their masters'
fortunes. How many of them had already fallen under the Prussian
bullets; how many had been left dying of exhaustion or starvation
after our terrible rides! They seemed to sleep, absorbed in some
miserable dream of nothing but burdens to carry, blows to bear, and
wounds to suffer. They were hanging their heads, but had not even the
strength to crop the green blades growing here and there among the
stalks of corn.

I felt uneasy, wondering whether they would still be equal to an
effort for the fight that was always likely and always desired.

Suddenly, from the ridge some 800 yards behind us, coming down like a
bolt, I saw a horse, at full gallop. Its rider was gesticulating
wildly. Strange to say, though not a word had been said, as though
awakened by an electric current, every man had got up and had fixed
his astonished eyes on the newcomer. He was an artillery
non-commissioned officer; his face was crimson, his hair unkempt, his
cap had come off his head and was dangling behind by the chin-strap.
With a violent jerk he pulled up his foaming horse for a second:
"Where is the Colonel--the Colonel?" With one voice the whole squadron
replied: "There, on the road. What's the matter?"

He had already set off again at full speed, had reached the Colonel,
and was bending down towards him. Even at that distance we could hear
some of his words: "Uhlans ... near the woods, ... our guns, our
teams...."

Then it was like a miracle. Without any word of command, without any
sign, in a moment the whole regiment was on horseback, sword in hand.
The Colonel alone had remained standing. With the greatest calmness he
asked the sergeant in an undertone for some information; and the man
answered him with emphatic gestures. All eyes were fixed upon the
group. Everybody waited breathlessly for the order which was going to
be given and repeated by five hundred voices, by five hundred men
drunk with joy.

We believed the glorious hour was at last come, which we had been
awaiting with so much impatience since the opening of the campaign.
The charge! That indescribable thing which is the _raison d'être_ of
the trooper, that sublime act which pierces, rends, and crushes by a
furious onslaught--wild gallop, with uplifted sword, yelling mouth,
and frenzied eyes. The charge! The charge of our great ancestors, of
those demi-gods, Murat, Lasalle, Curély, Kellermann and so many
others! The charge we had been asking for, with all our hearts, ever
since the opening of the campaign, and which had always been denied
us!

Ah! that famous German cavalry, that set up its doctrine of pushing
the attack to the death, what hatred and what contempt had we
conceived for them! We had one desire, and one only--to measure
ourselves with them. And every time we had seen their squadrons the
result had been either that they had turned and retired in good order
behind their lines of infantry, or they had drawn us into some
ambuscade under the pitiless fire of their deadly machine-guns.

Were we at last to meet them and measure our swords with their lances?

       *       *       *       *       *

The regiment moved off in one body behind the Colonel, who, riding a
big chestnut horse and as calm as at manoeuvres, led us at a gentle
trot skirting the little clumps of trees that dotted the plain. A
troop had gone forward in a halo of glittering dust to act as an
advance guard.

Our horses seemed to have understood what we were about. Or was it we
who had passed on to them the fighting spirit that fired us? I felt
behind me the thrill that ran through my men. The first rank could not
manage to keep the correct distance, the yard and a half, which ought
to separate it from its leader. Even the corporal in the centre
allowed his horse to graze the haunches of mine, "Tourne-Toujours," my
gallant charger, the fiery thoroughbred which had so often maddened me
at the riding schools of the regiment and at manoeuvres, by his
savageness and the shaking he gave me. "Tourne-Toujours" gave evident
signs of excitement. By his pawing the ground every now and then he,
an officer's horse, seemed to resent the close proximity of mere troop
horses. And certainly, under ordinary circumstances, I should have
fallen foul of the rider imprudent enough to ride close to his heels.
But on that occasion I merely laughed in my sleeve, knowing that in a
few minutes, when the charge had begun, "Tourne-Toujours" would soon
have made them all keep their proper distance, and something more.

I took a pleasure in looking at the faces of the men of the third
squadron, whose troops were riding in column abreast of us. Their
chins were raised, their eyes wide open, intent, under the shade of
their cap-peaks, upon the slightest irregularities of the ground
ahead. Their hands grasped their sword-hilts tightly. Major B.,
leaning well forward, and riding between the two squadrons, was
practising some furious cutting-strokes. What a grand fight it was
going to be! How we should rejoice to see the curved sabres of our
comrades rising against the clear sky to slash down upon the leather
_schapskas_ of our foe! We waited for the word that was to let loose
the pent-up energy of all those tense muscles.

A trooper came back from the advance guard at full speed, and brought
up his horse with the spur beside the Colonel. He reported in short
sentences, which we could not hear. The Colonel turned towards our
Captain, who was behind him, leaning forward over his horse, all
attention, with his sword lowered, receiving the orders given in an
undertone. We only heard the last sentence: "I shall support you with
the rest of the regiment."

"Thank Heaven!" thought I; "it is we; it is our dear squadron that is
to have the honour of attacking first." Every man pulled himself
together. Every man felt conscious of all the glory in store for us.
Every man prepared to perform exploits which, we felt sure, would
astonish the rest of the regiment, of the army, and of France.
Forward! Forward! Forward!

The troops had already ridden past the Colonel at an easy gallop, and
we suddenly found ourselves strangely isolated in that vast tract of
country which, a few minutes before, we had passed over in a body.
There was a succession of yellow or green fields, with here and there
some leafy thicket. On our left, surrounded by orchards, rose the grey
and massive buildings of the farm of Bel-Air. In front of us, some few
hundred yards off, there was a dark line of wood, the lower part of
which was hidden from us by a slight rise in the ground.

Hardly had the first troop reached the top of the brow when some shots
were fired at us. We at once understood. Again we were to be deprived
of the pleasure of measuring ourselves with their Uhlans at close
quarters. We saw distinctly on the edge of the wood, kneeling and
ready to fire, some fifty sharp-shooters in grey uniform and round
caps without peaks. We recognised them easily.

It was one of their cyclist detachments that had slipped into the wood
and had been quietly waiting for us with rifles levelled. As usual,
their cavalry had retired under cover of their line.

What did it matter to us? The wood was not thick enough to prevent
our horses from getting through, and the temptation to let the fellows
have a taste of our steel was too strong. I rejoiced at the thought of
seeing their heavy boots scuttle away through the trees. I resolved to
have a thrust at the skirts of their tunics, to help them on a bit.

The Captain understood the general feeling. "Form up!" he cried.

In a twinkling a moving wall had been formed, to the music of merrily
clinking stirrups and scabbards and jangling metal; and the gallop
towards the wood began.

Just at that moment its skirts were outlined by a circle of fire, and
a violent fusillade rang out. Bullets whistled in all directions, and
behind me I heard the heavy sound of men and horses falling on the
hard ground. In my troop a horse without a rider broke away and came
galloping towards me. What did it matter? Forward! Forward!

We were about 200 yards off. We spurred our horses and got into our
stride.

Suddenly a horrible fear took the place of the martial joy that had
urged us to the fight. We were all struck by the same discouragement,
the same feeling of impotence, the same conviction of the uselessness
of our sacrifice. We had just realised that the edge of the wood was
surrounded with wire, and that it was behind this impassable barrier
that the Prussians were calmly firing at us as at a target. What was
to be done? How could we get at them and avenge our fellows who had
fallen? For one second a feeling of horror and impotent rage passed,
like a deep wave, over the squadron. The bullets whistled past us.

But the Captain adopted the wisest course. He saw that retreat was
necessary. He had, behind him, more than a hundred human lives, and
felt they must be saved for better and more useful sacrifices. With a
voice that rose above the noise of the firing, he shouted: "Follow me,
in open order!" And he spurred in an oblique direction towards the
nearest depression in the ground. But the movement was badly carried
out. The men, disheartened, instead of spreading out like a flight of
sparrows, rushed off in so compact a body that some more horses were
knocked over by the Prussian bullets. How long those few seconds
seemed to us! I wondered by what sort of miracle it was that we did
not lose more men. But what an uncanny tune the innumerable bullets
made in our ears as they pursued us like angry bees!

At last we got under cover. Following a gully, the squadron reached a
little wood, behind which it was able to re-form. The sweating horses
snorted loudly. The men, sullen-mouthed and dejected, fell in without
a word and dressed the line.

In the fading light the roll was called by a non-commissioned officer
in a subdued voice, whilst I looked on distressfully at the sad
results of the useless charge. And yet our losses were not
great--three troopers only, slightly wounded, who, far from grumbling
at their mishap, seemed proud of the blood that stained their tunics
and their hands. The men whose horses had fallen had already come up
jogging heavily over the field of lucerne that stretched out before
us. One man alone was absent; Paquin, a good little fellow, energetic
and well disciplined, whose good humour I found especially attractive
both under fire and in camp. But he would come in, no doubt. Cahard,
his bed-fellow, told me that his horse had stumbled and thrown him. He
thought he had even seen him get up again directly the charge had
passed.

"_Mon Lieutenant, ... mon Lieutenant_, your horse is wounded."

I had dismounted in a moment, and tears came to my eyes. I had
forgotten the anger and impatience that "Tourne-Toujours'" savage
temper had so often caused me. What had they done to my brave and
noble companion-in-arms? A bullet had struck him inside the left thigh
and, penetrating it, had made a horrible wound, as large as my hand,
from which the blood was streaming all down his leg. Two other bullets
had hit him, one in the flank, the other in the loins, leaving two
small red holes. The noble animal had brought me back safely, and
then, as he stood still on his four trembling legs, his neck raised,
his nostrils dilated, his ears pricked, he fixed his eyes on the
distance and seemed to look approaching death in the face. Poor
'Tourne-Toujours,' you could not divine the pain I felt as I patted
you, as gently as I should touch a little suffering child!

But I had to shake off the sadness that wrung my heart. The day was
gradually sinking, and Paquin had not come in. Two of the men quickly
put my saddle on the horse of one of the wounded troopers. Whilst
Surgeon-Major P., in the growing dusk, attended to the seriously
wounded men stretched on the grass, I made up my mind to go out and
see whether my little Chasseur was not still lying out on the scene of
the charge.

"Cahard, Finet, Mouniette, Vallée, I want you."

At a gentle trot we sallied out from the cover of the wood. My four
men, dispersed at wide intervals to my right and left, stood up in
their stirrups from time to time to get a better view.

The guns were silent. Now and again one or two isolated shots were
heard. Night had almost fallen. On the horizon a long reddish streak
of light still gave a feeble glow. Everything was becoming blurred and
mysterious. In front of us stretched the disquieting mass of the wood
that so lately had rained death on us. Above our heads flocks of black
birds were wheeling and croaking.

"Paquin!... Paquin!... Paquin!..."

My Chasseurs shouted their comrade's name; but no voice answered. We
were certainly on the ground the squadron had ridden over. Every now
and then we came across the body of a horse, marking our mournful
course. A poor mare with a broken leg neighed feebly, as if appealing
for help to her stable-companions.

"Paquin!... Paquin!... Paquin!..."

No response. We had to turn back and rejoin the others. War has many
of those moments of pain when we have to control our feelings--forget
those we love, those who are suffering, those who are dying--and think
of nothing but our regiment, our squadron, our troop. Paquin's name
would be marked on the roll as "missing"--a solemn word which means so
many things, a word that leaves a little hope, but gives rise to so
many fears.

Over the fields, under a brilliant moon, the squadron retired in
silence. Those who have served in war know that solemn moment when,
after a day's fighting, each corps arrives at its appointed place of
rest. It is the moment when in normal life nature falls asleep in the
peace of evening. It is the moment when in villages and farms lights
appear in the lower windows, behind which the family is seated around
the steaming soup-tureen after the day's work.

It is some time now since we have tasted the exquisite peace of those
moments. Instead, we have grown used to hearing over the wide country
a monotonous and barbarous uproar caused by the thousands of cannon,
limbers, vans, and vehicles of every kind which are the very life of
an army. All these things rumble along methodically in the dark,
clanking and creaking, towards a goal invisible and yet sure. Above
this huge chaos voices rise in various keys: soldiers astray asking
their road; van-drivers urging on their foot-sore teams; words of
command given by leaders striving, in the dark, to prevent confusion
among their units. This is the reverse of the shield of battle, the
moment when we feel weariness of mind and body and the infinite
sadness of remembering those who are no more....

Away in the distance two villages were in flames, luridly lighting up
some corners of the scene. That evening seemed to me sadder and more
distressing than ever....



III. RECONNOITRING COURGIVAULT



        _September 5th._


The provisional brigade which had just been formed, with our regiment
and the _Chasseurs d'Afrique_ (African Light Cavalry), was paraded at
dawn by our Colonel, who had taken command of it. The united regiments
had been formed up under cover of a line of ridges, on the summit of
which the watchful scouts stood out against the sky, looking north.
The sun was already shining on the motley picture formed by the light
uniforms of the dismounted troopers and the motionless rows of horses.
They were all half asleep still.

The Colonel had drawn up the officers of the brigade in front of the
squadrons. He held a paper in his hand and read it to us in a resonant
voice, full of unfamiliar vibrations. On hearing the first few
sentences we drew closer around him as by instinct. We could not
believe our ears. It was the first time we had heard anything like it
since the outbreak of the war.

When he had finished we were all amazed. Had we not been told the day
before--when, together with the ---- Corps, we crossed the Grand Morin
closely pressed by the enemy's advance guard--had we not been told
that we were going to retire to the Seine? And now in a few noble,
simple words the Commander-in-Chief told us that the trials of that
hideous retreat were over, and that the day had come to take the
offensive. He asked us all to do our duty to the death and promised us
victory.

We returned to our squadrons in animated groups. Our delight was
quickly communicated to the troops, who understood at once. The men
exchanged jests and promises of fabulous exploits. They had already
forgotten the fatigues of the fortnight's retreat. What did they care
if their horses could hardly carry them further, and if many of them
would be incapable of galloping?

What did it matter?

My fellow-officers and I were already making wonderful plans. Those of
d'A., who had just finished his course of instruction as lieutenant at
Saumur with honours, comprised vast movements of complicated strategy.
They culminated in a prodigious but inevitable envelopment of the
German armies, De F., more prosaic than the other, dreamt of
Pantagruelian repasts liberally furnished with Rhine wines. O., a
sub-lieutenant, just fresh from the Military College--which he had
left with a No. 1, mind you--seemed like a young colt broken loose;
his delight knew no bounds. As for our captain, Captain de la N., our
kind and sympathetic chief, he was transfigured. The horrors of the
retreat had affected him painfully, but the few lines that had been
read to us had sufficed to restore all his joyous ardour.

"Captain, the Colonel wants an officer."

"Hurrah!" It was my turn for duty.... Just a few words of
congratulation, some hands stretched out to me, and I went, leaving a
general feeling of envy behind me. Here was I in the presence of the
Colonel, who, with a map in his hand and surrounded by the superior
officers, explained in a few short sentences what he required of me.

"Take the direction of Courgivault. Reconnoitre and find out whether
the village is occupied. You will report to me on the road which leads
straight from here to the village. The brigade will follow you in an
hour by the same road. I am sending two other parties towards such and
such villages."

And a few minutes afterwards I was on the road to Courgivault.

I chose from my troop a corporal and four reliable fellows who had
already given a good account of themselves. In advance I sent
Vercherin, as scout, well mounted on his horse "Cabri," whose powerful
haunches stood out above the tall oats. I had full confidence in his
vigilance and his shrewdness. I knew his clear blue eyes, and that, if
there were anything to be seen, he would see it better than any one
else. I knew also that I should have no need to spur his zeal.

On either side of me Corporal Madelaine, Finet, a sapper, Lemaître,
and my faithful orderly, Wattrelot, rode along in silence in extended
order at a considerable distance from one another. We had learnt by
experience since the beginning of the campaign. We were on our guard
now against Prussian bullets. We knew what ravages they made directly
our troopers were imprudent enough to cluster together. Thus we ran
fewer chances of being taken by surprise.

The weather was splendid. How delightful, thought I, would it have
been to walk over the fields, on a morning like this, with a gun under
my arm, behind a good dog, in quest of partridges or a hare. But I had
other game in view--no doubt more dangerous, but how much more
exciting!

The air was wonderfully clear, without the least trace of mist. The
smallest detail of hedge and ditch could be easily distinguished. Our
lungs breathed freely. We foresaw that the heat would be oppressive in
a few hours' time, but the fresh air of the night still lingered, and
bright pearls of dew still lay on the lucerne and stubble. What a joy
to be alive in such delicious surroundings, with the hope of victory
in one's heart!

I fancy that those who have not been in this war will not be able to
understand me, for I have not the skill to explain clearly what I feel
by means of written words. A more practised pen than mine is needed
for such a task, a mind more accustomed to analyse feelings.

I seem to have within me the inspiration of a strange power that makes
me light as air, and inclined to talk aloud to myself. And if I wanted
to speak I certainly should not find the words I wanted. Perhaps it is
that I simply want to shout, to cry "Hurrah!" again and again. It must
be that, for I find myself clenching my teeth instinctively to prevent
myself from giving way to such an untimely outburst.

Nevertheless, it would be a relief to be able to shout at the top of
my voice and sing hymns of glory confronting the enemy. I should like
to hear the whole army following my example behind me, to hear all the
bands and all the trumpets accompanying our advance with those
matchless war-songs which thrill the soul and bring tears to the eyes.

Here I was, on the contrary, in conditions of absolute calm, of the
most impressive silence conceivable. Until that day the country, at
that hour of the day, had echoed with the innumerable noises made by
an army in retreat. Thousands of cannon, limbers, and convoys had been
passing along all the roads and all practicable by-ways monotonously
and ceaselessly. Often, too, the first shots exchanged by the cavalry
scouts of both the hostile armies could be heard.

We heard nothing that day. In front nothing stirred: the country
seemed deserted; the fields forsaken. Not a living creature showed
itself.

Behind us, too, there was complete silence. But I knew that an entire
army was there, waiting for us to send information, before advancing
to the fight. That information would direct its blows.... I knew my
brigade was behind that rise in the ground, and that all, officers and
troopers alike, were impatient to rush upon my tracks to the attack. I
knew that behind them, lying by sections in the plough-land, thousands
and thousands of infantrymen had their eyes fixed in the direction I
was taking, and that hundreds and hundreds of guns were ready to pour
out death. But that disciplined multitude was silent and, as it were,
holding its breath, waiting for the order that was to hurl it forward.
I felt in excellent spirits.

It was upon _me_, and upon a few comrades, that the confidence of so
many soldiers rested. It was to be by _our_ directions that the
regiments were to rush forward, some here, some there, carrying death
and receiving death with, for the first time, the certainty of
conquering; since for the first time the Commander-in-Chief had said
that conquer they must. And not for an instant had I any fear of not
being equal to my task. On the contrary, it seemed to me that I had
been destined from all eternity to command this first offensive
reconnaissance of the campaign in France.... I felt my men's hearts
beating close to mine and in unison with mine.

I had consulted my map before breaking into a trot, and had noticed
that the road leading to Courgivault passed through two woods, not
very deep, but of considerable extent. I soon came in sight of one of
them, at about 500 yards distance, below a ridge which we had just
passed. I called out to Vercherin, who had begun to spur his horse
towards the wood, to stop. I knew that numbers of men had fallen by
having acted in this way--a way we have at manoeuvres, when the enemy
are our comrades with white badges on their caps, and when harmless
blank cartridges are used instead of bullets. We had very soon learnt
from the Germans themselves the way to reconnoitre a wood or a
village, and also how they must be held.

How much more dashing it would have been, more in the light cavalry
style, to ride full gallop, brandishing my sword, with my five little
Chasseurs into the nearest copse! But I knew then that if it were
occupied by the enemy their men would be lying down, one with the
soil, using the trees and bushes as cover, till the last moment. Then
not one of us would have come out alive.

We were reduced to employing against them their own tactics of mounted
infantry. The good old times of hussar charges are past--gone,
together with plumes, pelisses waving in the wind, Hungarian braiding,
and sabretaches. It would be senseless to continue to be a horseman in
order to fight men who are no longer cavalrymen and do not wish to be
so. We should fight at a disadvantage, and since the opening of the
campaign too many brave soldiers have paid with their lives for their
delight in epic fights _à la_ Lasalle.

I searched the edge of the wood carefully with my field-glasses.
Before entering it I wanted to be quite sure whether any movement
could be discovered, whether any of the brushwood showed signs of
being drawn aside by sharpshooters too eager for a shot. My men were
on the watch, crouching in attitudes that would have pleased Neuville,
their carbines ready, looking with all their eyes and listening with
all their ears. Nothing! I called Vercherin with a low whistle. The
silence was such that he heard it. He understood the sign I made him,
and, holding his carbine high, he went slowly towards the wood and got
into it quickly by the road.

My heart beat for a moment when I saw my scout getting near the thick
border-line of trees; but now I breathed again. We went in after him,
each one by a different opening, and we passed through it as quickly
as the horses' legs and the difficulties of the ground would allow. On
arriving at the further side I was glad to see my four companions
emerging, almost at the same moment, from the thick woody tangle. I
could see their grave and confident faces turned towards me. On the
ridge in front of us, near a solitary tree, stood Vercherin, clear
against the sky and motionless.

We had soon rejoined him, and from this height we saw on the next hill
the second wood which hid the village of Courgivault from our view,
about a kilometre further off. I feared very much that this second
barrier might be used by the enemy as a formidable line of defence,
and on that account I ordered the approach to be made with still
greater precautions than before. But, as in the first case, we found
it empty, and passed through without let or hindrance.

I expected to see Courgivault at once, but a rise in the ground hid it
still. I took advantage of this natural cover for getting my men
forward without risking a shot. Then, still preceded by Vercherin, we
debouched on the plateau on which the village stood.

Those who have found themselves in a similar situation know by
experience the sudden emotion that is felt when one sees a few
hundred yards off the objective of one's mission, the decisive point
one has to reach, cost what it may; the point where one is almost sure
to find the enemy in hiding, where one has a suspicion that he sees
one, is watching one, silently following all one's movements, and only
waiting for the opportunity of picking one off by an unerring shot.

I stopped my men for a moment. Surrounded by green meadows and
stubble-fields dotted with apple-trees, lay the grey outskirts of the
village It was a very ordinary collection of houses, some of them big
farms, others humble cottages. The tiled roofs formed a reddish mass,
and above them rose the squat church tower. With my glasses I could
distinguish the clock-dial, and could see the time--a quarter past
six.

But this clock seemed to be the only thing in the village with any
life in it. I looked in vain into the gardens and orchards, which
formed a belt of flowers and foliage, for signs of the peaceful
animation of country life. And yet it was the time of day when one
usually sees housewives coming out of the cowsheds, with their sleeves
tucked up and their feet in clogs, carrying pails full of fresh
milk--the time when the heavy carts and reaping machines lumber slowly
along the brown roads on their way to the day's work. Was it the war
that had driven away all those poor village folk, or was it the rough
fist of the Teuton that kept them prisoners locked up in their cellars
and threatened with revolvers?

And yet, from where I stood, nothing could lead me to suppose that the
village was occupied by the enemy. I could not distinguish any work of
defence. There did not seem to be any barricade protecting the
entrance. No sentinel was visible at the corners of the stacks or
under the trees.

To the south of the village, pointing in our direction, the imposing
bulk of a large farm protruded, like the prow of a ship. It seemed to
form an advanced bastion of a fortress, represented by Courgivault.
Its walls were high and white. At the end a strong round tower was
planted, roofed with slates; and this enhanced the likeness to a
miniature donjon. The road we had followed, winding between the
fields, passed, so far as we could judge, in front of its principal
entrance. Opposite this entrance there was apparently another road at
right angles to the first, its direction marked by a line of trees
which bordered it. Along this road, separated by short intervals, a
dozen big stacks had the appearance of a threatening line of battle
facing us, so as to bar our approach to the village.

All these things were steeped in the same atmosphere of silence, which
certainly had a more tragic effect than the din of battle. I was
impressed with the idea that the two armies had withdrawn in opposite
directions, and that we were left behind, forgotten, at 100 kilometres
distance from both of them.

But we had to come to the point. At a sign from me Vercherin reached
the first tree of a long row of poplars. The row started from the farm
and bordered the road we were following up to about 100 yards from
the outer wall. By slipping along from one tree to another he would be
able to get near in comparative safety. Suddenly I saw him stop
quickly and, standing up in his stirrups, look straight ahead towards
the stacks.

There was no need for him to make any sign to me. I understood that he
saw something, and I galloped up to him at once. He was as calm as
usual, only his blue eyes were a little more dilated, and he spoke
more rapidly, with an accent I had not heard before.

"_Mon Lieutenant_, ... there behind that stack, it seemed to me ... I
thought I saw a head rise above the grass...."

I looked in the direction he pointed to with his carbine, which he
held at arm's length. I saw nothing but the silent and peaceful
village; I had the same impression of a hateful and depressing void.
And, strange to say, our two horses, whose reins had been hanging
loose on their necks, appeared to be suddenly seized with a
simultaneous terror, and both at once turned right round. I managed
to bring mine back by applying the spur, and while Vercherin, who was
carried further, came back slowly, I used my glasses again, to make a
closer inspection of all the points of the village.

Then, at the very moment that I was putting the glasses to my eyes, I
saw, at less than 100 yards distance, a whole line of sharpshooters,
dressed in grey, rise quickly in front of me. For one short moment a
terrible pang shot through us. How many were there? Perhaps 300. And
almost at the same time a formidable volley of rifle shots rang out.
They had been watching us for a long time. Lying in the grass that
lined the road leading to the farm or else behind the stacks, with the
admirable discipline which makes them so formidable, they had carried
out their orders. Not one of them had shown himself. The _Hauptmann_
(captain) alone, no doubt, put up his head from time to time in order
to judge the favourable moment for ordering them to fire. It was he,
no doubt, very fortunately for us, who had been perceived by
Vercherin just for one moment. If it had not been for the prudence
which we had gained by experience not one of us would have escaped.
Fortunately every one of my men had kept the place exactly that I had
assigned him. Not one of them flinched under the storm. And yet,
Heaven knows what sinister music the bullets played around our ears!
We had to be off.

I made a sign which was quickly understood. We all turned and galloped
off towards the little depression we had emerged from just before. The
bullets accompanied us with their hateful hissing, which made us duck
our heads instinctively. But inwardly I rejoiced at their eagerness to
lay us low, for in their hurry they aimed badly.

We had almost reached our shelter when I suddenly saw to the right of
me "Ramier," Lemaître's horse, fall like a log. As I was trying to
stop my mare, who showed an immoderate desire to put herself out of
danger, I saw both horse and rider struggling for a moment on the
ground, forming a confused mixture of hoofs in the air and waving
arms. Then "Ramier" got up and set off alone, neighing sadly, and with
a limping trot that did not look very promising.

But Lemaître was already on his legs, putting his crushed shako
straight on his head. A bit stunned, he seemed to collect his ideas
for an instant, and then I saw his good-natured ruddy face turned
towards me. It lit up with a broad grin.

"Any damage, old fellow?" I asked.

"Nothing broken, sir."

"Hurry up, then."

And there was Lemaître, striding along with his short legs and heavy
boots, jumping ditches and banks with a nimbleness of which I declare
I should not have thought him capable. It is curious to note the
agility the report of a rifle volley lends to the legs of a dismounted
trooper. Lemaître came in to the shelter in the valley as soon as I
did; and almost at the same time Finet, the sapper, brought in his old
road-companion "Ramier," which he had been able to catch. It was
painful to see the poor animal; his lameness had already become more
marked. He could only get along with great difficulty, and his eyes
showed he was in pain.

I glanced hurriedly at the spot where the bullet had struck him. The
small hole could hardly be seen against the brown skin, just at the
point of the left buttock.

"Just wait here for us; I shall be back in a moment."

I wanted to see if to the east of the village I could note anything
interesting, and I turned round towards my other troopers, whose
horses were panting behind us. I was horrified to see Corporal
Madelaine's face streaming with blood.

"It is nothing, sir ...; it passed in front of my nose."

He wiped his face with the back of his hand. It had indeed been grazed
by a bullet. One half-inch more, and the good fellow's nose would have
been carried off. Fortunately the skin was hardly broken. Madelaine
went on:

"It's nothing; ... but my mare...."

He had dismounted, and with a look of distress showed me his horse's
blood-stained thigh. "Attraction" was the name of his pretty and
delicate little grey mare, which he loved and cared for passionately.
A bullet had pierced her thigh right through, and the blood had flowed
down her leg. I calmed him by saying, "Come, come; it will be nothing.
Go on foot behind that wood, and get quietly under cover with
Lemaître. I will soon come and join you."

And I went off with Vercherin, Finet, and Wattrelot. I tried to get
round to the right of Courgivault. But now that the first shots had
been fired we were not allowed to come nearer. As soon as we appeared
a violent fusillade burst from the outskirts of the village, which
forced us to beat a rapid retreat. There was no longer any doubt about
it; Courgivault was occupied, and occupied in strength.

Under the shelter of a bank I quickly dismounted, and Wattrelot took
my horse's bridle. Whilst I knelt on one knee and on the other wrote
my report for the Colonel, Vercherin and Finet, at an interval of 100
yards, kept a good look-out on the ridge for the enemy's movements. I
handed my message to Wattrelot:

"Take this to the Colonel, and quickly. I will wait here for the
brigade."

I then rode slowly to the corner of the wood, where Madelaine and
Lemaître were posted, whilst Wattrelot went off at a trot across the
stubble. But a sad sight was awaiting me.

Lemaître was standing in great grief over poor "Ramier," lying inert
on the ground and struggling feebly with death. His eyes were already
dull and his legs convulsed. Every now and then he shuddered
violently.

I looked at Lemaître, who felt as if he were losing his best friend.
And, indeed, is not our horse our best friend when we are
campaigning--the friend that serves us well to the very last, that
saves us time and again from death, and carries us until he can carry
us no longer? I dismounted and threw the reins to Lemaître:

"Don't grieve, my good fellow; it is a fine end for your 'Ramier.' He
might, like so many others, have died worn out with work or suffering
under some hedgerow. He has a soldier's death. All we can do is to cut
short his sufferings and send him quickly to rejoin his many good
comrades in the paradise of noble animals. For they have their
paradise, I am sure."

But Lemaître hardly seemed convinced. He shook his head sadly, and
said:

"Oh, _mon Lieutenant_! I shall never be able to replace him. Such a
good animal! such a fine creature! He jumped so well.... And his coat
was always so beautiful; he was so sleek and so easy to keep.... No, I
shall never find another like him."

"Oh! yes, you will."

However, I must confess my hand trembled as I drew my revolver. One
horse the less in a troop is somewhat the same as one child the less
in a family. And, besides, it means one trooper unmounted and the loss
of a sword in battle. Lemaître was right. "Ramier" was a good old
servant, one of the kind that never goes lame, can feed on anything or
on nothing, and never hurts anybody. It was hard to put an end to him;
but since he was done for....

I put the muzzle of my revolver into his ear. I did not wish him to
feel the cold metal; but his whole body shuddered, and his eye,
lighting up for a moment, seemed to reproach me. Paff! A short, sharp
report, and "Ramier" quivered for a moment. Then his sufferings
ceased, and his stiffening carcase added one more to the many that
strewed the country.

Whilst Lemaître slung his heavy package on his shoulders and went off
to return to the regiment with Corporal Madelaine, who was leading
"Attraction," I went back to my observation post, not far from Finet
and Vercherin. Silence and gloom still hung over Courgivault.

Suddenly, behind me, coming out of the wood, I saw a cavalry troop in
extended order, riding in our direction. They were _Chasseurs
d'Afrique_. I recognised them by the large numbers of white horses,
which made light patches upon the dark green of the thicket, and
almost at the same moment a dull report resounded in the distance. A
curious humming noise was heard above our heads, and a shell fell and
burst at the foot of the stacks in the possession of the Prussian
infantry. It came from one of our batteries of 75-millimetre guns,
which was already getting the range of Courgivault.

My message had reached the Colonel. The battle of the Marne had begun.

       *       *       *       *       *

Under a superbly clear sky, lit up by myriads of stars, the brigade,
in a high state of delight, crossed the battlefield on returning to
camp. Above our heads the last shells sent by the enemy were bursting
in bouquets of fire. We paid no attention to them. Meeting some
battalions of infantry on their way to reinforce the line, we were
asked for news, and shouted: "Courgivault, Montceau ... taken, lost,
then retaken with the bayonet by the brave infantry of the M.
Division. Enemy's regiments annihilated by our artillery, which has
done magnificently...."

Little by little the firing died away along the whole line. Fires,
started by the shells, lit up the battlefield on every side, like
torches set ablaze for our glory. All hearts were filled with joy. It
hovered over the blood-stained country, from which arose a kind of
intoxication that took possession of our souls.

How splendid is the evening of a first victory!



IV. THE JAULGONNE AFFAIR


On September 9, at about eight o'clock in the evening, our advanced
scouts entered Montigny-les-Condé at the moment when the last dragoons
of the Prussian Guard were leaving it at full speed. Our pursuit was
stopped by the night, which was very dark. Large threatening clouds
were moving across the sky, making it impossible to see ten paces
ahead. Whilst the captains were hastily posting guards all round the
village, whilst the lieutenants were erecting barricades at all the
outlets and setting sentries over them, the quartermasters had all the
barns and stables thrown open. With the help of the inhabitants they
portioned out, as well as they could, the insufficient accommodation
among the men and the horses of the squadrons. In each troop camp
fires were lighted under shelter of the walls so that the enemy should
not see them.

What a dinner we had that evening! It was in a large room with a low
open roof supported by small beams. The walls were smoke-blackened and
dirty. On a chest placed near the door I can see still a big pile of
ration loaves, thrown together anyhow; and leaning over the hearth of
the large fireplace, lit up by the wood fire, was an unknown man who
was stirring something in a pot. Round the large table a score of
hungry and jaded but merry officers were fraternally sharing some
pieces of meat which the man took out of the pot.

The Captain and I ate out of the same plate and drank out of the same
metal cup, for crockery was scarce. The poor woman of the house ran
round the table, consumed by her eagerness to make everybody
comfortable. And in the farthest corner, away from the light, a very
old peasant, with a dazed look and haggard eyes, was watching the
unexpected scene. The company heartily cheered Captain C. for his
cleverness in finding and bringing to light, from some nook or other,
a large pitcher of rough wine.

For three days we had been pursuing and fighting the German army, and
we were tired out; but we had not felt it until the evening on
stopping to give our poor horses a little rest. Before the last
mouthful had been swallowed several of us were already snoring with
their heads on their arms upon the table.

The rest were talking about the situation. The enemy was retreating
rapidly on the Marne. He must have crossed it now, leaving as cover
for his retreat the division of the Cavalry of the Guard which our
brigade had been fighting unceasingly ever since the battle of
September 6. Would they have time to blow up all the bridges behind
them? Should we be obliged to wait until our sappers had built new
ones before we could resume our pursuit?

We were particularly anxious about two fine officers that our Colonel
had just sent out that night on a reconnaissance--F., of the
_Chasseurs d'Afrique_, and my old friend O., of our squadron. We
wondered anxiously whether they would be able to perform their
task--to get at all costs as far as the Marne, and let us know by dawn
whether the river could be crossed either at Mont Saint Père,
Jaulgonne, Passy-sur-Marne, or Dormans. Nothing could have been more
hazardous than these expeditions, made on a dark night across a
district still occupied by the enemy.

The night was short. Before day dawned the horses were saddled and the
men ready to mount. And as soon as the first rays of morning filtered
through, my squadron, which had been told off as advance guard of the
brigade, rapidly descended the steep slopes which commanded the small
town of Condé. A.'s troop led. My business was to reconnoitre the
eastern part of the town with mine, whilst F., with his troop, was to
see to the western quarters.

With sabres drawn, our Chasseurs distributed themselves briskly, by
squads, through the streets of the old city. The horses' hoofs
resounded cheerily on the paved streets between the old grey houses.
The inhabitants ventured out upon their doorsteps, in spite of the
early hour, with some hesitation at first, but glad indeed when they
saw our light-blue uniforms; they cheered, crying: "They are gone!...
they are gone!" But some old folk replied more calmly to my questions:
"_Monsieur l'Officier_, have a care. They were here an hour ago with a
large number of horses and guns. There was even a general, with his
whole staff, lodged at the great house up there.... We would not swear
that some of them are not there still."

I collected my troop, and then went quickly to the château which stood
at the northern entrance of Condé. It was rather a fine building, but
I had not time to notice its architectural style. Haste was necessary,
for the brigade behind me was due to arrive. As far as I remember, the
château formed a harmonious whole, and the different parts of it
showed up cheerfully against the dark foliage of the park, which was
still glittering after the night's rain. The building was in the form
of a horseshoe, and in the centre there was a kind of courtyard
bordered by two rows of orange trees in tubs.

I at once posted two guards, one on the road to provide against any
surprise and the other at the park entrance to prevent egress, in case
any fugitive should attempt to pass. Then, with the rest of my men, I
rode through the large gilded iron gates at a trot. In the avenue
which led to the house two men were standing motionless. One of them,
dressed in black and clean-shaven, appeared to be some old servant of
the family, the other must have been one of the gardeners. Their pale
faces and red eyes showed that they had had little sleep that night.

"Well, my friend," said I to one of them, "is there anybody left at
your place?"

"Sir," he answered, "I couldn't tell you; for I have not set foot in
the house since they left it. What I do know is that they feasted all
night and got horribly drunk. They have drunk the whole cellar dry,
and I shouldn't be surprised if some of them are still under the
table."

But when I asked him to come in with me, to act as guide for our
visit, he refused with a look of horror. He trembled all over at the
thought of seeing perchance one of the guests who had been forced upon
him. As there was no time to be lost, I told my men to dismount at
once, and gave orders to one corporal to search the right wing of the
building, to another to reconnoitre the left wing. I myself undertook
to see about the central block with the rest of my troop. We had to
make haste, so I instructed my subordinates to go quickly through the
different rooms and not to inspect them in detail.

The entrance door was wide open. Taking my revolver in my hand, I
entered the hall, which was in indescribable disorder. Orderlies had
evidently slept and had their meals there, for the stone floor was
littered with straw, and empty bottles, sardine-boxes, and pieces of
bread were lying about. But when I opened the door of the dining-room
I could not help pausing for a moment to look at the strange sight
before me. The grey light of that September morning came in through
four large windows and shone dimly upon the long table. The officers
of the Guard had certainly made their arrangements well. They had
levied contribution upon all the silver plate that could be found,
which was hardly necessary, for, as they had arrived too late to have
a proper meal prepared, they had to be content with what they had
brought with them. The contrast between the rich plate, some of it
broken, the empty silver dishes, and the empty tins of preserved meat
was strange indeed. But they had solaced themselves in the cellar.
Innumerable bottles, both empty and full, were piled upon the
furniture. Costly glasses of all shapes and sizes, some empty, others
still half full, were standing about in every direction. The white
tablecloth was soiled with large purple stains. The floor was littered
with bits of smashed glass. By the table, the chairs that had been
pushed back or overturned showed the number of drinkers to have been
about ten. An acrid smell of tobacco and wine hung about this scene
of an overnight orgy.

One thing I specially remember: the sight of an officer's cap, with a
red band, hanging from one of the branches of the large chandelier in
the centre of the room. And I could not help picturing to my mind the
head of the man it had belonged to, some _Rittmeister_, with an
eyeglass, fat pink cheeks and neck bulging over the collar of his
tunic. What a pity he had been able to decamp! That is the kind of
countenance we should so much have liked to see closer and face to
face.

But I could not wait. We rushed hastily through drawing-rooms turned
upside down, and bedrooms where the beds still bore traces of summary
use by heavy bodies. But we found no forgotten drunkard in them.

My two corporals were already waiting for us when we returned to the
courtyard. They had not found any one in their search. Quickly we
mounted, and passed rapidly out by the gilded gates. The old servant
and the gardener were still on the same spot, standing silent and
depressed. They said not a word to us, nor did they make any sign;
they seemed to be completely unhinged and incapable of understanding
what had happened.

I had hardly returned to the squadron when I saw a sight I can never
forget. At a turn in the road three horsemen came towards us covered
with blood. I recognised F., the officer of _Chasseurs d'Afrique_, who
had been sent out to reconnoitre the evening before. He had lost his
cap, and had his head bound up with a blood-stained handkerchief. His
left arm was likewise slung in an improvised bandage tied round his
neck. He was followed by two men who were also covered with wounds.
Their eyes shone bright and resolute in their feverish faces. One of
them, having no scabbard, was still holding his sword, which was
twisted and stained with blood. We pulled up instinctively and
saluted.

"I haven't been able to reach the Marne," said F., with disappointment
in his voice. "But, being fired upon by their outposts in the dark,
we charged and got through, and then charged through two villages
under a hail of bullets; and again we had to charge their outposts to
get back. You see, ... I have brought back two men out of eight, and
all my horses have been killed.... These horses"--pointing to his
own--"are those of three Uhlans we killed so as not to have to come
home on foot."

Certainly they were not riding the pretty little animals that make
such excellent mounts for our _Chasseurs d'Afrique_, but were perched
on three big mares with the heavy German equipment.

"But," F. repeated in a tone of vexation, "I wasn't able to get to the
Marne.... There were too many of them for us."

We pressed his unwounded hand warmly. Poor F.! Brave fellow! Not many
days afterwards he was to meet a glorious death charging once more,
with three Chasseurs, to rescue one of his men who had been wounded. A
more perfect type of cavalryman--I might say, of knight--was never
seen. He sleeps now, riddled with lance wounds, in the plains of
Champagne.

We had hardly left him when we caught sight of the reconnoitring party
of my comrade O., and were overjoyed to find that he had come back
unscathed with all his men. And yet he had had to face a fair number
of dangers--attacks by cyclists and pursuit by cavalry. At Crézancy,
where he arrived at three o'clock in the morning, he found the village
occupied and strongly held. There is only one bridge over the railway
there, and that is at the other end of the village. By good luck he
was able to get hold of one of the inhabitants; and he forced him, by
holding his revolver to his head, to guide him by all sorts of byways
so as to make a circuit without attracting attention and get to the
bridge. There he set forward at a gallop, and passed, in spite of
being fired on by the guard. At last he reached the Marne. The only
bridge he found intact for crossing the river was the bridge at
Jaulgonne, a slender, fragile suspension-bridge, but one that we
should be very glad to find if there was still time to use it. He then
hurried back through the woods, but not without having to run the
gauntlet of rifle fire several times more. He brought back information
which was to guide our advance.

It was seen at once that there was not a minute to lose. The Captain
detached me immediately, with my troop, to act as a flank-guard along
the line of wooded crests by which the road on the right was
commanded, whilst F., with his troop, crossed the Surmelin and the
railway which runs alongside of it, and went to carry out the same
task on the other side of the valley.

My job was difficult enough. In fact, the heights, which look down
upon the course of the Surmelin to the east, consist of a series of
ridges separated by narrow ravines at right angles to the river, and
these we had to cross to continue our route towards the north. The
enemy seemed to have withdrawn completely from this region, and the
cannon fire in the distance towards the east could hardly be heard.
At last, at about seven o'clock in the morning, we debouched upon the
valley of the Marne.

Whilst I sent some troopers along the road which winds by the Surmelin
to keep in touch with my Captain, I carefully inspected the right bank
of the Marne with my glasses. The scene would have tempted a painter,
and the labours of war do not prevent one from enjoying the charm of
such delightful pictures. The sun was gradually dispersing the mist of
the sullen morning, and was beginning to gild the wooded heights which
look down upon the two banks of the river. Everywhere a calm was
reigning, which seemed to promise a day of exquisite beauty. We might
have fancied that we were bent on some peaceful rural work favoured by
a radiant autumn morning. The Marne in this region winds in graceful
curves. It flows limpid and clear through a narrow valley carpeted
with green meadows and bordered, right and left, by gentle hills
dotted with woods. At our feet, peeping from the poplars and beeches
on the bank, we saw the white houses of dainty villages--Chartèves,
Jaulgonne, Varennes, and Barzy.

I directed my attention more particularly towards Jaulgonne, because
it was in that direction that the attempt to cross the river would be
made. The heights immediately above Jaulgonne rise steeply on the
north bank, and almost stand in the river. On the other hand, to the
south, on our side, the left bank of the Marne is bordered by
extensive meadows crossed by the railway and the high-road to Épernay.
The position therefore would have been very strong for the Germans, if
they had crossed to the other side of the river, for we should have
been obliged, before we could reach the bridge, to traverse a vast
open expanse which they could have kept under the fire of their
artillery. My Chasseurs, prompt to grasp the reason of things,
scrutinised the opposite bank no less intently than I. No movement
could be seen; nothing suggested the presence of troops among the
russet thickets which covered the sides of the silent hill. Could
they have already retired farther off? Could they have abandoned this
formidable position without any attempt to defend it?

At that moment one of my Chasseurs appeared, coming by the steep path
which led from the road to the wooded ridge on which we were. His
horse was panting, for the declivity was stiff, and he had had to
hasten. He brought me orders.

"_Mon Lieutenant_, the Captain has sent me to tell you to join him as
quickly as possible at the other end of the bridge. The first troop
has already crossed, but some of the enemy's horse have been seen on
the other side of the village."

As he said these words we heard some firing in the distance, which
sounded very distinct and sharp in the radiant peace of that beautiful
September morning. "Come, so much the better," thought I. "We have
engaged them. We shall have a good time." My men had already begun to
joke and to be more alert and abrupt in their movements. It was a
kind of joyous reaction which always affects troopers when they begin
to hear the guns and look forward to a good hard ride in which they,
like the rest of us, are always certain of getting the best of it.

In single file we went quickly down towards the plain by the stony,
slippery path. We soon reached the high-road, and then turned to the
left and came upon the long causeway bordered by poplars which led to
the bridge. Quite close to the bank I saw a small group of dismounted
cavalrymen, and soon recognised our Colonel with his Brigade Staff. He
was giving his orders to the Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the
_Chasseurs d'Afrique_. I went up to him to report, and learnt that the
first squadron had already crossed the river and occupied the village
on the other side. Some parties of German cavalry had been seen on the
neighbouring heights.

I got ready to rejoin my comrades at once. But patience was required
if the Marne was to be crossed. The bridge appeared to be a delicate
sort of toy hovering over the water. How could they dream of sending
thousands of men, horses, and guns over a thing so slender that it
looked as though it were supported by the fragile meshes of a spider's
web? Captain D. gave me the Colonel's precise orders: not to pass more
than four troopers at a time, and these at walking pace.

Taking the initiative in the movement, I started with my first four
Chasseurs. The bridge rang strangely under our horses' hoofs, and
seemed to me to oscillate in an alarming manner. Fortunately the enemy
was not on the other side; if he had been, our passage would have cost
us dear.

As I was making these reflections a violent fusillade burst out from
the edge of the woods overlooking Jaulgonne to the east. It must have
been directed upon the village, for no bullets whistled around us, so
it was probably our first squadron engaging the German cavalry. When I
got to the other end of the bridge my impatience increased. It was
torture to think of the time it would take to collect my thirty men
and hurry forward to help the others; and I noticed the same
impatience in my men's looks. Those who were on the bridge, walking
slowly and gently across, seemed to implore me to let them trot; but I
pretended not to understand, and the horses' feet continued to trample
heavily over the echoing bridge. At last all my men were over.

We fell in and reached Jaulgonne at a trot. On passing through it we
found several of the inhabitants on their doorsteps:

"_Monsieur l'Officier_, ... _Monsieur l'Officier_, will they come back
again?"

"Never!" I shouted, with conviction.

I stopped an orderly, who told me that the German cavalry were firing
on the exit from the town. How many of them he could not say, as they
were hidden in the woods. He told me, too, that the first squadron was
holding all the entrances to the north and east of the village except
the one on the river bank on the road to Marcilly, where my comrade F.
had posted his troop. I decided then to put myself at the disposal of
the party defending the chief exit from the village, the one that
opened into the road to Fismes. It was the most important one, for it
was in that direction that the Germans were retiring.

The village had been prevented from spreading further to the north by
the heights, which formed an abrupt barrier. It is built astride the
road to Fismes, which thus becomes its principal, if not its only,
street. I had then to go right through Jaulgonne before I could get
out of it in the direction of the firing. I soon did this, and found
the horses of the first squadron massed in the short alleys leading
out of the main street. I ordered my troop to dismount in a yard much
too small and very inconvenient. But the first thing to do was to
clear the causeway and shelter our horses from bullets, which might
enfilade the street if the fighting bore away towards the left. Then,
whilst a non-commissioned officer collected the squads for the action
on foot, I ran as far as the furthest houses of the village to
reconnoitre the ground and get orders.

I spied Major P. in a sheltered nook, still mounted, and he told me
of his anxiety about the situation. The enemy riflemen were invisible,
and were riddling the outskirts of the village, while we were unable
to reply; and some guns had been seen which were being got into
position. He advised me to go and see the captain of the first
squadron, who had been ordered to defend that entrance of the village,
and to place myself at his disposal in case of need.

Whilst we were talking, my troop, led by its non-commissioned officer,
came to the place where we were, edging along by the walls. The men,
calm and smiling, with their carbines ready, waited in silence for the
signal to advance. I signed to them to wait a little longer, and then
going round the wall I found myself suddenly in the thick of the fray.
I must say the reception I got startled me. The bullets came rattling
in hundreds, chipping the walls and cutting branches from the trees.
On our side there was absolute silence. Our men, on their knees or
lying flat behind any cover they could find, did not reply, as they
could see nothing, and waited stoically under the shower of bullets
until their adversaries chose to advance.

I looked for Captain de L., who commanded the first squadron. There he
was, standing with his face to the enemy, and his hands in his
pockets, quietly giving his orders to a non-commissioned officer. On
my asking him if he wanted me, he explained the situation: the enemy,
numbers unknown, was occupying the woods overlooking Jaulgonne to the
east. It was impossible for us to debouch just yet. The essential
thing was to hold the village, and consequently the bridge, until our
infantry could come up. He told me that the first troop of my
squadron, led by Lieutenant d'A., had just advanced, in extended
order, into the vineyards, orchards, and fields stretching between the
road and the river. He was going to reconnoitre the woods and see what
kind of force was holding it.

"You see, dear fellow, for the present I don't want the help of your
carbines; I have my whole squadron here, and they can't get a shot.
So long as the enemy sticks to the wood all we can do is to wait and
keep our powder dry."

I put my troop under shelter in a small yard, and directed my
non-commissioned officer to keep in touch with me, in case I might
want him. Then I went back to the outskirts of the village to examine
the ground. I then joined my friend S. behind a large heap of faggots:
he commanded the nearest troop of the first squadron, and we could not
help laughing at the curious situation--being formed up for battle,
fronting the enemy, under a hail of bullets, and not able to see
anything.

During the campaign S. had become a philosopher, and he deserved some
credit for it; for the great moral and physical sufferings we had
endured must have been even still more insupportable to him than to
any of us. In the regiment, S. was considered preeminently the Society
officer. He went to all the receptions, all the afternoon teas, all
the bridge parties, all the dinners. He was an adept at tennis and
golf and a first-rate shot. His elegance was proverbial, and the
beautiful cut of his tunics, breeches, jackets, and coats was
universally admired. The way his harness was kept and the shape of his
high boots were a marvel. To say all this is to give some idea of the
change he suddenly experienced in his habits and his tastes during
those demoralising days of retreat and merciless hours of pursuit.
But, in spite of all, he had kept his good humour and never lost his
gay spirits. He still accompanied his talk with elaborate gestures,
and seemed to be just as much at ease behind his heap of wood,
bombarded with bullets, as in the best appointed drawing-room. His
clothes were stained and patched, his beard had begun to grow, and yet
under this rough exterior the polished man of the world could always
be divined.

He explained the beginnings of the affair with perfect clearness and
self-possession; how the scouts sent up to the ridge by d'A. and
driven off by the Germans had fallen back upon Jaulgonne; how the
first squadron had come to barricade and defend the village, and in
what anxiety they were waiting to know what had become of d'A.'s
troop, which had started out to reconnoitre the wood.

We hoisted ourselves to the top of the faggot-stack and peeped over
carefully. The glaring white road wound up the flank of the slope
between fields dotted with apple trees. At a distance of 800 yards in
front of us stretched the dark border of the wood, from which the
fusillade was coming. To our right, at the edge of the water, on the
road leading to Marcilly, F. must have been able to see the enemy, for
we could distinctly hear the crackle of his carbines.

Our attention was drawn to a man of F.'s troop running along under the
wall, bending almost double to escape the attention of the sniper, and
endeavouring to screen himself behind the high grass. As soon as he
came near enough we called out:

"What is it?"

"The Lieutenant has sent me to say that the enemy has just placed
some guns in position up there, in the opening of the wood."

Saying which, he pointed vaguely in a direction where we could see
nothing. However, we knew that F. would not have warned us if he had
not been quite certain of the fact, so for some unpleasant minutes we
wondered what the enemy's objective was. We longed to know, at once,
where the projectiles were going to burst. Would it be on F.'s troop,
or on the bridge, or on the infantry, which, perhaps, were beginning
to debouch, or, perhaps, on that portion of the brigade that had
remained dismounted on the left bank, drawn up for action? The
uncertainty was worse than the danger itself. But we were not long in
doubt. Two shrieks of flying shells! Two explosions about 300 yards in
front of us! Two puffs of white smoke rising above the green fields!
This showed they had an objective we had not considered, namely,
d'A.'s troop, for the shrapnel had burst in the direction he had just
taken with his men.

Our anxiety did not last long. We soon made out our Chasseurs, coming
back quietly, not running, and in good order. They took to the ditch,
a fairly deep one, which ran along on the left side of the road, and
covered them up to the middle. The German shells were badly aimed, and
exploded either in front of them or higher up on the hillside. But our
anxiety became more intense every minute. Had a shell fallen on the
road or in the ditch, we should have seen those brave fellows knocked
over, mown down, cut to pieces, by the hail of bullets. When we are
fighting ourselves we hardly have time to think about our neighbours
in this way. We have our own cares, and our first thought is the
safety of the men who form our little family, the troop. But when one
is safe, or fairly so, it is torture to watch comrades advancing under
the enemy's fire without any protection. At that moment the Germans
were concentrating their fire upon that small line of men we were
looking at, 200 yards away from us. The shells succeeded one another
uninterruptedly, but without any greater precision. We watched our
friends coming nearer until they had almost reached our barricade, and
noticed that two of the Chasseurs were being supported by their
comrades. In our anxiety, we got up out of shelter, but d'A. shouted:
"It's nothing; only scratches...."

At last they got in, and whilst our good and indefatigable
Assistant-Surgeon P. took charge of the wounded men we pressed round
the officer and questioned him as to what he had seen. "Are there many
of them?" "Was there any infantry?" we asked. But his daring
reconnaissance had not been very fruitful. He had had to stop when the
artillery had opened fire on him, and had not been able to see how
many adversaries we had to deal with.

Acting on the advice of Major P., our Captain, who had just rejoined
us with the third troop, gave orders to mount. We were only in the way
here, where there were too many defenders already, so recrossed the
bridge to put ourselves at the Colonel's disposal. I led with my
troop, and we passed through Jaulgonne by the main street. The
inhabitants thought we were beating a retreat and became uneasy. Some
women uttered cries, begging us not to leave them at the mercy of the
enemy. We had to calm them by saying that they need not fear, that we
were still holding the Germans, that our infantry would soon arrive,
and that in an hour the foe would have decamped.

To tell the truth, we were not quite so sure of it ourselves. The
enemy was in some force, and he had guns. Our infantry had at least 15
kilometres to march before their advance guard even could debouch on
the bridge at Jaulgonne. If they had not started before dawn they
would not arrive before eleven o'clock, and it was then barely nine.
The German artillery was already beginning to fire upon the village.

Suddenly, as we reached the market-place, we saw a group of three
dismounted Chasseurs emerging from an alley that ran down steeply to
the Marne. They belonged to F.'s troop. Two of them were supporting
the third, whom we at once recognised. It was Laurent, a fine fellow,
and a favourite with the whole squadron. It went to our hearts to see
him. His left eye was nothing but a red patch, from which blood was
flowing freely, drenching his clothing. He was moaning softly and,
blinded by the blood, allowed himself to be led like a child. The
corporal with him explained: "A bullet went in just over his eye. I
don't know if the eye itself was hit."

The Captain sprang off his horse. "Cheer up, Laurent, it shall be
attended to at once. Perhaps it will be nothing, my man. Come with me,
we will take you to the Red Cross ambulance close by."

Then between his groans the wounded man said a thing I shall not
easily forget: "_Mon Capitaine_, ... haven't they taken away their
guns yet?"

He still took an interest in the battle. I heard afterwards that F.
had sighted the German guns, and that the fire of his troop had been
directed upon them. Laurent would have liked to hear that they had
been driven away. He was carried off to the ambulance. I went on
towards the bridge; the cannon and rifle fire still raged fiercely,
but none of the shots reached the bank where we were. We had to repeat
the trying process of crossing the swaying bridge by fours at walking
pace. I led off with four troopers. It was not so tedious this time,
as my eyes were distracted by the view of the green meadows on the
opposite side.

The Colonel had disposed the brigade in such a way that he could
concentrate his fire upon the bridge and the opposite bank in case we
could not maintain our position there. A squadron on our left,
concealed in a sand quarry, was directing its fire upon the heights
where the German artillery was posted. Both up and down stream the
_Chasseurs d'Afrique_ lined the river banks, making use of every scrap
of cover. Peeping out over trunks of fallen trees, banks, and ditches
inquisitive heads could be seen wearing the khaki _taconnet_. But my
troubles were not yet over. Just as I was going to step ashore from
the bridge, Captain D. brought me the Colonel's orders to recross the
river with my whole squadron and occupy a clump of houses to the left
of the bridge. It was evidently a wise precaution. Although no firing
had come from this direction, it was quite possible that some of the
enemy might have slipped through the woods that come half-way down the
slopes. But I did not expect such a bad time as I was going to have.

At the very moment when I was turning back, and was beginning the
hateful passage for the third time, the enemy gunners, changing their
objective, aimed at the bridge, and the shrapnel bullets began their
disturbing music once more. Could any situation be more execrable than
ours--to be upon a bridge as thin as a thread, hanging as by a miracle
over a deep river, to see this bridge enfiladed by heavy musketry fire
and to be obliged to walk our horses over the 200 yards which
separated one bank from the other? If we had been on foot, so that we
could have run and expended our strength in getting under
cover--since we could not use it to defend ourselves--we should not
have complained. But to be mounted on good horses, which in a few
galloping strides could have carried us behind the rampart of houses,
and to be obliged to hold them back instead of spurring them on, was
very unpleasant, and made us feel foolish.

I looked at the four brave Chasseurs in front of me. They
instinctively put up their shoulders as high as they could as if to
hide their heads between them. But not one of them increased his pace.
Not one of them looked round at me to beg me to give orders for a
quicker advance. And what a concert was going on all the time! Whilst
the horses' hoofs were beating out low and muffled notes, the bullets
flew above us and around us, with shrill cracklings and whistlings
which were anything but harmonious. Happily the firing was distant and
disgracefully bad, for at the pace we were travelling we must have
offered a very convenient mark. Another 20 yards! Ten more! At last
we were safely under cover!

I communicated the Colonel's orders to the Captain, who came to join
us, and directed us to occupy the little garden of a fair-sized house
situated just on the edge of the Marne and the most advanced of the
small group of buildings on the left-hand side of the bridge. After
lodging the horses in an alley between the house and an adjoining
shanty I went to reconnoitre my ground. The house was a rustic
restaurant, which in the summer no doubt afforded the inhabitants an
object for a walk. On passing along the terrace leading to the river I
found the disorder usual in places that have been occupied by the
Germans; tables overturned, bottles broken, the musty smell of empty
casks, and broken crockery.

The little garden did not offer much protection for my men. However,
crouching behind a kind of breastwork of earth, which shut it off from
the woods, they were able, at least, to hide themselves from view. I
at once posted my sharpshooters, sent out a patrol on foot as far as
the entrance to the wood, and then turned my attention to what was
happening near the bridge.

Whilst I was busy carrying out the Captain's orders I had not noticed
that the situation had undergone a decided change, and that our
chances of being able to complete our task thoroughly had increased
considerably. The German guns were no longer aiming at the village.
Their fire had become more rapid, and their shrapnel flew hissing over
the brigade. We could see them bursting much further off, on the other
side of the water, in the direction of the woods crowning the heights
whence, in the morning, I had admired the smiling landscape. I
inferred then that the advance guard of our corps was debouching. In
half an hour it would be there, and the German cavalry, we felt sure,
would not hold out much longer.

But our fine infantry had done more than this. They had, no doubt,
found good roads, or perhaps the German gunners, hypnotised by the
village, had not spied them. For I had now the pleasure of witnessing
one of the most exhilarating spectacles I had seen since the opening
of the campaign.

From where I stood on the bank I could see the thin line of the bridge
above. I did not think that any one would risk crossing it now that it
was known to be a mark for the enemy's fire, but suddenly I saw five
men appear and begin to cross it. I could distinguish them perfectly;
they were infantry soldiers, an officer and four men. The officer
walked first, calmly, with a stick under his right arm, and in his
left hand a map which formed a white patch on his blue coat, and
behind him the men, in single file, bending slightly under their
knapsacks, their caps pushed back and holding their rifles, marched
firmly and steadily. They might have been on parade. Their legs could
be distinguished for a moment against the blue sky. Their step was so
regular that I could not help counting: one, two; one, two, as their
feet struck the bridge. But just at the moment when the little group
had got half-way across, a hiss, followed by a deafening explosion,
made our hearts beat, and we heard the curious noise made by
innumerable bullets and pieces of shell striking the water. The
Germans had seen our infantry beginning to cross the river, and they
were now pouring their fire upon the bridge. I looked again at the
men, and saw they were there, all five of them, still marching with
the same cool, resolute step: one, two; one, two. Ah! the brave
fellows! How I wanted to cheer them, to shout "Bravo!" But they were
too far off, and the noise of the fusillade would have prevented them
from hearing me.

No sooner had they reached the bank than another little group stepped
on to the narrow bridge, and then, after them, another; and each was
saluted by one or two shells, with the same heavy rain of bullets
falling into the water. But Providence protected our soldiers. The
outline of the bridge was very slight, and the gunners of the German
cavalry divisions were sorry marksmen. Their projectiles always burst
either too far or too near, too high or too low. And as soon as a
hundred men had got across, and the first sharpshooters had clambered
up the heights that rise sheer from the river and begun to debouch
upon the plateau, there was a sudden silence. The enemy's cavalry had
given way, and our _corps d'armée_ was free to pass the Marne by the
bridge of Jaulgonne.

The entire battalion of the advance guard then began to pour over the
bridge on their way to the plateau. Our brigade was quickly got
together, and our Chasseurs hastened to water their horses. Out came
the nosebags from the saddlebags. A few minutes later no one would
have suspected that fighting had taken place at this spot. The men
hurriedly got their snack, for we knew the halt would not last long,
and that the pursuit had to be pushed till daylight failed. Our troop
was in good heart and thankful that the squadron's losses had been so
small. F. had just seen Laurent, the one wounded Chasseur of his
troop, and said the doctors hoped to save his eye; so we had no reason
to grumble.

Saddlebags were now being buckled and horses rebridled. I was to go
forward to replace the troop that had led the advance guard. The
Colonel sent for me and ordered me to proceed at once along the road
to Fismes, search the outskirts of the village carefully, and take up
a position on the heights overlooking the valley.

My troop got away quickly, and I rejoiced again at the sight of my
fellows, radiant at the thought of having a dash at the enemy. We had
to hasten and get ahead of the foremost parties of infantry, which
also halted now for a meal. I detached my advance scouts. Their eager
little horses set off at a gallop along the white road, and I was
delighted to see the ease and decision with which my Chasseurs flashed
out their swords. They seemed to say, "Come along, come along ...; we
are ready." As for me, I rode on in quiet confidence, knowing that I
had in front of me eyes keen enough to prevent any surprise.

One squad climbed nimbly up the ridge to the left. The horses
scrambled up the steep ground, dislodging stones and clods of earth.
They struggled with straining hocks hard to get up, and seemed to
challenge each other for a race to the top. Their riders, in extended
order, showed as patches of red and blue against the grey stubble. Up
they went, further and further, and then disappeared over the crest.
Only one was still visible, but this one was my guarantee that I had
good eyes, keen and alert, on my left. Should any danger threaten from
that quarter I knew well that he would pass on to me the signal
received from his corporal, and I should only have to gallop to the
top to judge of the situation myself. I could see the man against the
blue sky, the whole outline of his body and that of his horse; the
equipment and harness, the curved sword, the graceful neck, the sinewy
legs, the heavy pack. I recognised the rider and knew the name of his
horse. They were both of the right sort. Yes, I felt quite easy about
my left.

On the right the ground dropped sheer to a narrow valley, at the
bottom of which flowed a stream of clear water. Among the green trees
were glittering patches here and there, on which the sun threw
metallic reflections. And on the other side rose heights covered by
the forest of Riz. On the edge of this forest I could see the stately
ruins of a splendid country mansion. I questioned a boy who was
standing on the side of the road, looking at us half timidly, half
gladly.

"Tell me, child, who burnt that château over there?"

"_M'sieur_, _they_ did; and they took everything away--all the
beautiful things. They even carried everything off on big carts, and
then they set fire to the house. But everything isn't burnt, and a lot
of them came back again this morning with some horses, and they went
on looking for things."

I sent off another squad towards the château, telling them first to
follow the edge of the wood and to be careful how they approached it.
The men got into the wood by the spaces in the bank along the road and
scattered in the thickets that dotted the side of the spur we were
turning. I was thus protected on my right.

I went up at a trot to the place where the road reached the plateau,
and just as I was on the point of reaching it we were met by a crowd
of village folk--men, women, and children--coming along, looking
radiant. I saw some of them questioning my advance scouts and pointing
in the direction of the north-east. It was the whole population of Le
Charmel that had come out to meet us.

Le Charmel is a small village that stands at the meeting of two roads,
one leading towards Fismes, the other towards Fère-en-Tardenois. It
has the appearance of hanging on to the hillside, for whilst the road
to Fère-en-Tardenois continues to follow the plateau, that to Fismes
dips abruptly at this place and disappears in the valley. The houses
of Le Charmel are perched between these two roads. Thus the people of
the village had a good view of the enemy's retreat, and everybody
wanted to have his say about it. I turned to a tall man, lean and
tanned, with a grizzled moustache, who had something still of a
military air, and seemed to be calmer than the others around him. From
him I was able to get some fairly clear information.

"_Mon Lieutenant_, it was like this.... They went off this morning
early, with a great number of cannons and horses. The artillery went
straight on towards Fismes by the road. The cavalry cut across the
fields, and disappeared over the ridge you see over there on the other
side of the valley. Then towards eight o'clock some of them came back.
How many? Well, two or three regiments perhaps, and some guns; and
they went down again towards Jaulgonne. I believe they wanted to
destroy the bridge. But just as they got to the turn of the hill, pan!
pan!--they were fired at. Then, of course, we got back to our houses
and shut them up, as the guns began to fire. But when we heard no more
reports we came out again, and saw them making off across the fields
like the others and in the same direction. But it is quite possible
that some of them stayed in the woods, or in the farms, on the other
side of the forest of Riz...."

He was interrupted by my non-commissioned officer:

"_Mon Lieutenant_, the scouts ... they are signalling to you...."

I galloped up to them, when they pointed out to me, at about 1,500
yards distance, on the opposite ridge, a small group of cavalrymen
near a stack, and, on the side of the slope, a patrol of German
dragoons, pacing slowly with lances lowered and stopping every now and
then facing in our direction.

I took my glasses and looked carefully at the stack. And then I saw a
sight which sent a shiver of joy through me. The horsemen had
dismounted and put their horses behind the stack. Three of the men
then separated themselves from the rest and formed a little group. I
could not distinguish their uniforms, but saw very clearly that they
were looking through their glasses at us. Now and again they put their
heads together, and consulted the map, as it seemed. A man then came
out from behind the stack on foot, and could be distinctly seen,
against the sky, sticking into the ground by his side a square pennon
which flapped gently in the breeze. As far as I could see it was half
black and half white. There could be no doubt that we were confronting
a Staff. So the division was not far off; it had halted, and perhaps
intended this time to fight at close quarters. I told my men what I
thought, and they were overjoyed at the idea that, after all, there
was a hope of realising our dream. There was not one of them who
doubted that the Division of the Guards had been kind enough to stop
its flight, and that our brave light brigade would attack it without
any hesitation and cut it to pieces. I dismounted quickly, and lost
not a moment in drawing up my report. I wrote down what I had seen and
what I had learnt from the inhabitants and then called one of my
Chasseurs:

"To the Colonel, full gallop!"

At the touch of the spur the little chestnut turned sharp round and
flew down the dusty road like a whirlwind. Meanwhile I carefully
posted my men, threw out scouts over the plateau and up to the forest
of Fère, and formed patrols under my non-commissioned officers. I then
took up my observation post under a large tree which, to judge by its
venerable look, must have seen many generations pass and many other
wars. The village folk collected around me in such numbers that I was
obliged to have them thrust back by my men to Le Charmel. To console
them I said: "You must go away. The enemy will take you for armed
troops and fire guns at you."

I kept my eye upon my "Staff," and wished my glasses could help me to
distinguish more clearly what men I had to deal with. I longed to see
what they were like--to examine the faces of these haughty _Reiters_
who for the last four days had been fleeing before us and always
refusing a real encounter. I fancied that among them might be found
that _Rittmeister_ with the bulging neck and pink cheeks, who, after
the orgy of that night at the Château de Condé, had left behind him
the cap that I had found hanging from the chandelier in the
dining-room. How I longed to see the brigade debouch, and to receive
instructions from the Colonel!

I had not long to wait. My messenger soon came back, trotting up the
road from Jaulgonne. But the instructions were not what I had
expected. I was to stay where I was until further orders, to continue
to observe the enemy, and keep a look-out in his direction.

I learnt some details from the man. The greater part of the infantry
had already crossed the bridge, and there was also some artillery on
this side of the river. As he said this a clatter of wheels and chains
caused me to turn my head, and I saw behind us, in the stubble-fields
of the plateau, two batteries of 75's taking up positions. Ah! ah! we
were going to send them our greetings then, a salute to the pompous
General over there, and to his aide-de-camp, the stiff and obsequious
_Rittmeister_, whom I imagined to be at his side. I looked on gaily
with my Chasseurs at the laying of the guns. How we all loved that
good little gun, which had so often come up to lend us the support of
its terrible projectiles at critical moments! And those good fellows
the gunners loved it too; the men we saw jumping nimbly down from
their limber, quickly unhitching their piece, and pointing it with
tender care towards the enemy.

Standing on a bank, with his glasses to his eyes, the officer in
command gave his orders which were passed from man to man by the
markers. And then suddenly we heard four loud, sharp reports behind
us. The whistling of the shells, which almost grazed our heads, was
impressive, and, though we knew there was no danger, we instinctively
ducked. But we recovered ourselves at once to see what effect they had
produced.

What a pity! They had fallen a bit short. We distinctly saw four small
white puffs on the side of the hill just below the group of German
officers. Ah! They didn't wait for another! I saw them make off in hot
haste whilst the troopers, stationed behind the stack, galloped off
the horses. The man with the flag was the last to go, closing the
procession with rather more dignity. But in ten seconds the whole lot
had decamped, and the only men we could see were the dragoons of the
patrol, who rode back to the ridge at full speed.

But just as they reached it the second battery opened fire, and this
time the sighting was just right. The four white puffs appeared
exactly over the spot where the Staff had stood a minute before--two
to the right and two to the left of the stack. And all we now saw of
the patrol was two riderless horses galloping madly towards the woods.
Then the two batteries pounded away with a will.

When I had received orders to resume the forward movement and my good
Chasseurs had taken up the pursuit again, the gunners had lengthened
their range with mathematical precision, and the shells burst on the
farther side of the ridge. I took a grim pleasure in imagining what
must have been happening there, where, no doubt, the division was
drawn up, and whilst I continued to direct my vigilant and expert
scouts I amused myself by picturing the brilliant troopers of the
Prussian Guard in headlong flight.



V. LOW MASS AND BENEDICTION


One morning in the middle of September, 1914, as we raised our heads
at about six o'clock from the straw on which we had slept, I and my
friend F. had a very disagreeable surprise: we heard in the darkness
the gentle, monotonous noise of water falling drop by drop from the
pent-house roof on to the road.

Arriving at Pévy the evening before, just before midnight, we had
found refuge in a house belonging to a peasant. The hostess, a good
old soul of eighty, had placed at our disposal a small bare room paved
with tiles, in which our orderlies had prepared a sumptuous bed of
trusses of straw. The night had been delightful, and we should have
awaked in good spirits had it not been for the distressing fact
noticed by my friend.

"It is raining," said F.

I could not but agree with him. Those who have been soldiers, and
especially cavalrymen, know to the full how dispiriting is the sound
of those few words: "It is raining."

"It is raining" means your clothes will be saturated; your cloak will
be drenched, and weigh at least forty pounds; the water will drip from
your shako along your neck and down your back; above all, your high
boots will be transformed into two little pools in which your feet
paddle woefully. It means broken roads, mud splashing you up to the
eyes, horses slipping, reins stiffened, your saddle transformed into a
hip-bath. It means that the little clean linen you have brought with
you--that precious treasure--in your saddlebags, will be changed into
a wet bundle on which large and indelible yellow stains have been made
by the soaked leather.

But it was no use to think of all this. The orders ran: "Horses to be
saddled, and squadron ready to mount, at 6.30." And they had to be
carried out.

It was still dark. I went out into the yard, after pulling down my
campaigning cap over my ears. Well, after all, the evil was less than
I had feared. It was not raining, but drizzling. The air was mild, and
there was not a breath of wind. When once our cloaks were on it would
take some hours for the wet to reach our shirts. At the farther end of
the yard some men were moving about round a small fire. Their shadows
passed to and fro in front of the ruddy light. They were making
coffee--_jus_, as they call it--that indispensable ration in which
they soak bread and make a feast without which they think a man cannot
be a good soldier.

I ran to my troop through muddy alleys, skipping from side to side to
avoid the puddles. Daylight appeared, pale and dismal. A faint smell
rose from the sodden ground.

"Nothing new, _mon Lieutenant_," were the words that greeted me from
the sergeant, who then made his report. I had every confidence in him;
he had been some years in the service, and knew his business. Small
and lean, and tightly buttoned into his tunic, in spite of all our
trials he was still the typical smart light cavalry non-commissioned
officer. I knew he had already gone round the stables, which he did
with a candle in his hand, patting the horses' haunches and looking
with a watchful eye to see whether some limb had not been hurt by a
kick or entangled in its tether.

In the large yard of the abandoned and pillaged farm, where the men
had been billeted they were hurrying to fasten the last buckles and
take their places in the ranks. I quickly swallowed my portion of
insipid lukewarm coffee, brought me by my orderly; then I went to get
my orders from the Captain, who was lodged in the market-square. No
word had yet been received from the Colonel, who was quartered at the
farm of Vadiville, two kilometres off. Patience! We had been used to
these long waits since the army had been pulled up before the
formidable line of trenches which the Germans had dug north of Reims.
They were certainly most disheartening; but it could not be helped,
and it was of no use to complain. I turned and went slowly up the
steep footpath that led to my billet.

Pévy is a poor little village, clinging to the last slopes of a line
of heights that runs parallel to the road from Reims to Paris. Its
houses are huddled together, and seem to be grouped at the foot of the
ridges for protection from the north wind. The few alleys which
intersect the village climb steeply up the side of the hill. We were
obliged to tramp about in the sticky mud of the main road waiting for
our orders.

Passing the church, it occurred to me to go and look inside. Since the
war had begun we had hardly had any opportunity of going into the
village churches we had passed. Some of them were closed because the
parish priests had left for the army, or because the village had been
abandoned to the enemy. Others had served as marks for the artillery,
and now stood in the middle of the villages, ruins loftier and more
pitiable than the rest.

The church of Pévy seemed to be clinging to the side of the hill, and
was approached by a narrow stairway of greyish stone, climbing up
between moss-grown walls. I first passed through the modest little
churchyard, with its humble tombs half hidden in the grass, and read
some of the simple inscriptions:

"Here lies ... Here lies ... Pray for him...."

The narrow pathway leading to the porch was almost hidden in the turf,
and as I walked up it my boots brushed the drops from the grass. The
damp seemed to be getting into my bones, for it was still drizzling--a
fine persistent drizzle. Behind me the village was in mist; the roofs
and the maze of chimney tops were hardly distinguishable.

Passing through a low, dark porch, I opened the heavy door studded
with iron nails, and entered the church, and at once experienced a
feeling of relaxation, of comfort and repose. How touching the little
sanctuary of Pévy seemed to me in its humble simplicity!

Imagine a kind of hall with bare walls, the vault supported by two
rows of thick pillars. The narrow Gothic windows hardly allowed the
grey light to enter. There were no horrible cheap modern stained
windows, but a multitude of small white rectangular leaded panes. All
this was simple and worn; but to me it seemed to breathe a noble and
touching poetry. And what charmed me above all was that the pale light
did not reveal walls covered with the horrible colour-wash we are
accustomed to see in most of our village churches.

This church was an old one, a very old one. Its style was not very
well defined, for it had no doubt been built, damaged, destroyed,
rebuilt and repaired by many different generations. But those who
preserved it to the present day had avoided the lamentable plastering
which disfigures so many others. The walls were built with fine large
stones, on which time had left its melancholy impress. There was no
grotesque painting on them to mar their quiet beauty, and the dim
light that filtered through at that early hour gave them a vague soft
glow.

No pictures or ornaments disfigured the walls. The "Stations of the
Cross" were the only adornment, and they were so simple and childish
in their execution that they were no doubt the work of some rustic
artist. And even this added a touching note to a harmonious whole.

But my attention was attracted by a slight noise, a kind of soft and
monotonous murmur, coming from the altar. The choir was almost in
darkness, but I could distinguish the six stars of the lighted
candles. In front of the tabernacle was standing a large white shadowy
form, almost motionless and like a phantom. At the bottom of the steps
another form was kneeling, bowed down towards the floor; it did not
stir as I approached. I went towards the choir on tip-toe, very
cautiously. I felt that I, a profane person, was committing a
sacrilege by coming to disturb those two men praying there all alone
in the gloom of that sad morning. A deep feeling of emotion passed
through me, and I felt so insignificant in their presence and in the
mysterious atmosphere of the place that I knelt down humbly, almost
timidly, in the shadow of one of the great pillars near the altar.

Then I could distinguish my fellow-worshippers better. A priest was
saying mass. He was young and tall, and his gestures as he officiated
were slow and dignified. He did not know that some one was present
watching him closely; so it could not be supposed that he was speaking
and acting to impress a congregation, and yet he had a way of
kneeling, of stretching out his arms and of looking up to the humble
gilded cross in front of him, that revealed all the ardour of fervent
prayers. Occasionally he turned towards the back of the church to
pronounce the ritual words. His face was serious and kindly, framed in
a youthful beard--the face of an apostle, with the glow of faith in
his eyes. And I was surprised to see underneath his priest's vestments
the hems of a pair of red trousers, and feet shod in large muddy
military boots.

The kneeling figure at the bottom of the steps now stood out more
distinctly. The man was wearing on his shabby infantry coat the white
armlet with the red cross. He must have been a priest, for I could
distinguish some traces of a neglected tonsure among his brown hair.

The two repeated, in a low tone by turns, words of prayer, comfort,
repentance, or supplication, harmonious Latin phrases, which sounded
to me like exquisite music. And as an accompaniment in the distance,
in the direction of Saint Thierry and Berry-au-Bac, the deep voice of
the guns muttered ceaselessly.

For the first time in the campaign I felt a kind of poignant
melancholy. For the first time I felt small and miserable, almost a
useless thing, compared with those two fine priestly figures who were
praying in the solitude of this country church for those who had
fallen and were falling yonder under shot and shell.

How I despised and upbraided myself at such moments! What a profound
disgust I felt for the follies of my garrison life, its gross
pleasures and silly excesses! I was ashamed of myself when I reflected
that death brushed by me every day, and that I might disappear to-day
or to-morrow, after so many ill-spent and unprofitable days.

Without any effort, and almost in spite of myself, pious words came
back to my lips--those words that my dear mother used to teach me on
her knee years and years ago. And I felt a quiet delight in the almost
forgotten words that came back to me:

"Forgive us our trespasses.... Pray for us, poor sinners...."

It seemed to me that I should presently go away a better man and a
more valiant soldier. And, as though to encourage and bless me, a
faint ray of sunshine came through the window.

_"Ite, missa est...."_ The priest turned round; and this time I
thought his eyes rested upon me, and that the look was a benediction
and an absolution.

But suddenly I heard in the alley close by a great noise of people
running and horses stamping, and a voice crying:

"Mount horses!... Mount horses!"

I was sorry to leave the little church of Pévy; I should so much have
liked to wait until those two priests came out, to speak to them, and
talk about other things than war, massacres and pillage. But duty
called me to my men, my horses, and to battle.

Shortly afterwards, as I passed at the head of my troop in front of
the large farm where the ambulance of the division was quartered, I
saw my abbé coming out of a barn, with his sleeves tucked up and his
_képi_ on the side of his head. He was carrying a large pail of milk.
I recognised his clear look, and had no doubt that he recognised me
too, for as our eyes met he gave me a kindly smile.

My heart was lighter as I went forward, and my soul was calmer.

       *       *       *       *       *

For the last six days we had been quartered at Montigny-sur-Vesle, a
pretty little village half-way up a hillside on the heights, 20
kilometres to the west of Reims. There we enjoyed a little rest for
the first time in the campaign. On our front the struggle was going on
between the French and German trenches, and the employment of cavalry
was impossible. All the regiment had to do was to supply daily two
troops required to ensure the connection between the two divisions of
the army corps.

What a happiness it was to be able at last to enjoy almost perfect
rest! What a delight to lie down every evening in a good bed; not to
get up before seven o'clock; to find our poor horses stabled at last
on good litter in the barns, and to see them filling out daily and
getting sleeker!

For our mess we had the good luck to find a most charming and simple
welcome at the house of good Monsieur Cheveret. That kind old
gentleman did everything in his power to supply us with all the
comforts he could dispose of. And he did it all with such good grace
and such a pleasant smile that we felt at ease and at home at once.
Madame Cheveret, whom we at once called "Maman Cheveret," was an
alert little old lady who trotted about all day long in quest of
things to do for us. She put us up in the dining-room, and helped our
cook to clean the vegetables and to superintend the joints and sweets.
For Gosset, the bold Chasseur appointed to preside over our mess
arrangements, was a professional in the culinary art, and excelled in
making everything out of nothing; so, with the help of Maman Cheveret,
he accomplished wonders, and the result of it all was that we began to
be enervated by the delights of this new Capua. And how thoroughly we
enjoyed it!

We shared our Eden with two other squadrons of our regiment, a section
of an artillery park, and a divisional ambulance. We prayed Heaven to
grant us a long stay in such a haven of repose.

Now one morning, after countless ablutions with hot water and a clean
shave, I was going, with brilliantly shining boots, down the steep
footpath which led to the little house of our good Monsieur Cheveret,
when my attention was drawn to a small white notice posted on the door
of the church. It ran:


         "THIS EVENING AT SIX O'CLOCK,
   BENEDICTION OF THE MOST HOLY SACRAMENT."


It occurred to me at once that this happy idea had been conceived by
the Chaplain of the Ambulance, for until then the church had been kept
locked, as the young parish priest had been called up by the
mobilisation. I made haste to tell our Captain and my comrades the
good news, and we all determined to be present at the Benediction that
evening.

At half-past five our ears were delighted by music such as we had not
been accustomed to hear for a very long time. In the deepening
twilight some invisible hand was chiming the bells of the little
church. How deliciously restful they were after the loud roar of the
cannon and the rattle of the machine-guns! Who would have thought that
such deep, and also such solemn, notes could come from so small a
steeple? It stirred the heart and brought tears to the eyes, like
some of Chopin's music. Those bells seemed to speak to us, they seemed
to call us to prayer and preach courage and virtue to us.

At the end of the shady walk I was passing down--whose trees formed a
rustling wall on either side--appeared the little church, with its
slender steeple. It stood out in clear relief, a dark blue, almost
violet silhouette against the purple background made by the setting
sun. Some dark human forms were moving about and collecting around the
low arched doorway. Perhaps these were the good old women of the
district who had come to pray in this little church which had remained
closed to them for nearly two months. I fancied I could distinguish
them from where I was, dignified and erect in their old-fashioned
mantles.

But as soon as I got closer to them I found I was mistaken. It was not
aged and pious women who were hurrying to the church door, but a group
of silent artillerymen wrapped in their large blue caped cloaks. The
bells shook out their solemn notes, and seemed to be calling others to
come too; and I should have been glad if their voices had been heard,
for I was afraid the Chaplain's appeal would hardly be heeded and that
the benches of the little church would be three-parts empty.

But on gently pushing the door open I found at once that my fears were
baseless. The church was in fact too small to hold all the soldiers,
who had come long before the appointed hour as soon as they heard the
bells begin. And now that I had no fears about the church being empty
I wondered how I was going to find a place myself. I stood on the
doorstep, undecided, on tip-toe, looking over the heads of all those
standing men to see whether there was any corner unoccupied where I
could enjoy the beauty of the unexpected sight in peace.

The nave was almost dark. The expense of lighting, had no doubt to be
considered, for for several days past no candle or taper was to be
had for money. And no doubt the kindness of a motorist of the Red
Cross had been appealed to for the supply of all the candles which lit
up the altar. This was indeed resplendent. The vestry had been
ransacked for candlesticks, and the tabernacle was surrounded by a
splendid aureole of light. All this increased the touching impression
I felt on entering.

Against the brilliant background of the choir stood out the black
forms of several hundreds of men standing and looking towards the
altar. Absolute silence reigned over the whole congregation of
soldiers. And yet no discipline was enforced; there was no superior
present to impose a show of devotion. Left to themselves, they all
understood what they had to do. They crowded together, waiting in
silence and without any impatience for the ceremony to begin.

Suddenly a white figure came towards me through the crowded ranks of
soldiers. He extended his arms in token of welcome, and I at once
recognised the Chaplain in his surplice. His face was beaming with
pleasure, and his eyes shone behind his spectacles. He appeared to be
supremely happy.

"This way, _Monsieur l'Officier_, this way. I have thought of
everything. You must have the seat of honour. Follow me."

I followed the holy man, who elbowed a way for me up the crowded
aisle. He had reserved all the choir-stalls for the officers. Before
the war they had been occupied, at high mass, by the clergy, the
choir, and the principal members of the congregation. He proudly
showed me into one of them, and I felt rather embarrassed at finding
myself suddenly in a blaze of light between an artillery lieutenant
and a surgeon-major.

The low vestry door now opened and a very unexpected procession
appeared. In front of a bearded priest walked four artillerymen in
uniform. One of them carried a censer, and another the incense-box.
The other two walked in front of them, arms crossed and eyes front.
The whole procession knelt before the altar with perfect precision,
and I saw beneath the priest's vestments muddy gaiters of the same
kind as those worn by the gunners.

At the same time we heard, quite close to us, strains of music which
seemed to us celestial. In the dim light I had not noticed the
harmonium, but now I could distinguish the artist who was enchanting
us by his skill in drawing sweet sounds from a poor worn instrument.
He was an artillery captain. At once all eyes were turned towards him;
we were all enraptured. None of us dared to hope that we should lift
our voices in the hymns.

The organist seemed unconscious of his surroundings. The candle placed
near the keyboard cast a strange light upon the most expressive of
heads. Against the dark background of the church the striking features
of a noble face were thrown into strong relief: a forehead broad and
refined, an aristocratic nose, a fair moustache turned up at the ends,
and, notably, two fine blue eyes, which, without a glance at the
fingers on the keys, were fixed on the vaulted roof as though seeking
inspiration there.

The Chaplain, turning to the congregation, then said:

"My friends, we will all join in singing the _O Salutaris_."

The harmonium gave the first notes, and I braced myself to endure the
dreadful discords I expected from this crowd of soldiers--mostly
reservists--who, I supposed, had come together that evening mainly out
of curiosity.

Judge of my astonishment! At first only a few timid voices joined the
Chaplain's. But after a minute or so a marvel happened. From all those
chests came a volume of sound such as I could hardly have believed
possible. Who will say then that our dear France has lost her Faith?
Who can believe it? Every one of these men joined in singing the hymn,
and not one of them seemed ignorant of the Latin words. It was a
magnificent choir, under a lofty vault, chanting with the fervour of
absolute sincerity. There was not one discordant note, not one voice
out of tune, to spoil its perfect harmony.

Who can believe that men, many of them more than thirty years old,
would remember all the words unless they had been brought up in the
faith of their ancestors and still held it?

I could not help turning to look at them. In the light of the candles
their faces appeared to be wonderfully transfigured. Not one of them
expressed irony or even indifference. What a fine picture it would
have made for a Rembrandt! The bodies of the men were invisible in the
darkness of the nave, and their heads alone emerged from the gloom.
The effect was grand enough to fascinate the most sceptical of
painters; it soothed and charmed one and wiped out all the miseries
that the war had left in its wake. Men like these would be equal to
anything, ready for anything; and I myself should much have liked to
see a Monsieur Homais hidden away in some corner of that church.

Meanwhile the sacred Office was proceeding at the altar. At any other
time we might have smiled at the sight of that soldier-priest served
by choristers of thirty-five in uniform; at that ceremony it was
inexpressibly touching and attractive, and it was especially
delightful to see how carefully and precisely each performed his
function that the ceremony might not lack its accustomed pomp.

When the singing had ceased the Chaplain went up to the holy table. In
a voice full of feeling he tried to express his gratitude and
happiness to all those brave fellows. I should not imagine him to be a
brilliant speaker at the best of times, but on that occasion the
worthy man was completely unintelligible. His happiness was choking
him. He tried in vain to find the words he wanted, used the wrong
ones, and only confused himself by trying to get them right. But
nobody had the least desire to laugh when, to conclude his address, he
said with a sigh of relief:

"And now we will tell twenty beads of the rosary; ten for the success
of our arms, and the other ten in memory of soldiers who have died on
the field of honour.... _Hail! Mary, full of grace_...."

I looked round the church once more, and every one's lips were moving
silently accompanying the priest's words. Opposite us I saw the
artillery captain take a rosary out of his pocket and tell the beads
with dreamy eyes; and when the Chaplain came to the sentence "Holy
Mary, Mother of God, ..." hundreds of voices burst forth, deep and
manly voices, full of fervour which seemed to proclaim their faith in
Him Who was present before them on the altar, and also to promise
self-sacrifice and devotion to that other sacred thing, their Country.

Then, after the _Tantum ergo_ had been sung with vigour, the priest
held up the monstrance, and I saw all those soldiers with one accord
kneel down on the stone floor and bow their heads. The silence was
impressive; not a word, not a cough, and not a chair moved. I had
never seen such devotion in any church. Some spiritual power was
brooding over the assemblage and bowing all those heads in token of
submission and hope. Good, brave soldiers of France, how we love and
honour you at such moments, and what confidence your chiefs must feel
when they lead such men to battle!

       *       *       *       *       *

We sat at table around the lamp, and good Maman Cheveret had just
brought in the steaming soup. Right away towards the east we heard the
dull roll of the cannon. Good Monsieur Cheveret had just brought up
from his cellar a venerable bottle of his best Burgundy, and, at the
invitation of the Captain, he sat down to drink a glass with us,
smoking his cherry-wood pipe and listening with delight to our merry
chat.

Gosset was in his kitchen next door preparing a delicious piece of
beef _à la mode_ and at the same time telling the admiring Maman
Cheveret about his exploits of the past month.

We heard the men of the first troop cracking their jokes in the yard
as they ate their rations and emptied their pannikin of wine under a
brilliant moon.

Down in the valley on the banks of the murmuring Vesle, songs and
laughter floated up to us from the artillery park.

And the village itself, shining under the starlit sky, seemed bathed
in an atmosphere of cheerfulness, courage and confidence.



VI. A TRAGIC NIGHT IN THE TRENCHES



        _November 3, 1914._


Imagine a little tiled room, some 16 feet by 9, in which for over a
fortnight passing soldiers have been living, sleeping, and eating;
imagine the furniture overturned, the broken crockery strewn on the
floor, the doors and drawers of the cupboards pulled out, their modest
contents scattered to the four corners of the house; add to this
windows without glass, doors broken in, rubbish of every kind lying
about, brought no one can tell whence or how; and yet note that one or
two chromo-lithographs, a few photographs of friends and relatives and
certain familiar objects, still cling to the walls, evoking the life
that animated this home but a short time ago, and you will get some
idea of the place where my Major, my comrades of the squadron and I
were lodged on that memorable November evening.

It was five o'clock, and night was already falling, the cold, damp,
misty night of Flanders following on a dreary autumn day. Outside the
guns were roaring far away. The Battle of the Yser was going on.

Our regiment had just been brought by rail from the Reims district,
where it was, to the North of France, and thence to Belgium. Our
chiefs had said: "You must leave your horses, you must forget that you
ever were cavalrymen, you must make up your minds cheerfully to your
new calling and become infantrymen for the time being. We are short of
infantry here, and the Germans are trying to rush Dunkirk and Calais.
Your country relies upon you to stop them." Our good Chasseurs left
their horses at Elverdinghe, 10 kilometres from here. They came on
foot, hampered by their heavy cavalry cloaks, dragging their riding
boots through the atrocious mud of the ruined roads, carrying in their
packs, together with their ration of bread and tinned meat, the huge
load of one hundred and twenty cartridges; they arrived here in the
firing line, and quite simply, as if they had never been accustomed to
anything else, did wonders there and then.

Yesterday, I grieve to say, I was not at the head of my troop. I was
unable to take part in the epic battle round Bixschoote, the poor
Belgian village which was retaken and then abandoned by us for the
twentieth time. I was not present at the heroic death of the gallant
and charming Colonel d'A., of the ---- Chasseurs, the author of those
heart-stirring pages--and among them "The Charge"--which bring tears
to the eyes of every cavalryman. He died facing the enemy, leading his
regiment to the attack under terrific fire, and when his men carried
him away they ranged themselves round him to make a rampart of their
bodies for the chief they adored. I was not able to share the danger
of my young comrade, Second-Lieutenant J., who fell bravely at the
head of his marksmen, in the middle of my beloved regiment, in which
fresh gaps have been made by the enemy's bullets. My seniority had
marked me out as officer of _liaison_ to the General commanding our
division. But this morning at dawn I came back to take my place in the
firing line, and I think I shall be able to make up for lost time.

The day has been absolutely quiet, however. After the fighting of the
day before, and a night of sleeplessness and incessant alarms in the
trenches, three of our squadrons, mine among them, were relieved
before dawn and placed in reserve. They found billets in little
forsaken farms some 600 yards from the firing line. Our men rested as
well as they could all day, making beds of the scanty supplies of
straw they found, washing themselves in pools, and renewing their
strength in order to relieve the troops which had remained in the
trenches; a squadron of our regiment, a squadron of the ----
Chasseurs, and a section of infantry Chasseurs.

Seated on a broken box, I was doing my best to write a letter, while
Major B. and my brother officers O. and F., together with Captain de
G., of the third squadron, took their seats at a rickety table and
began a game of bridge. Here, by the way, is a thing passing the
understanding of the profane, I mean the non-bridge player. This is
the extraordinary, I might almost say the immoderate, attraction which
the initiated find in this game, even at the height of a campaign.
What inexhaustible joys it must offer to make its adepts profit by the
briefest moments of respite in a battle to settle down anywhere and
anyhow and give themselves up to their mysterious practices!

I pause for a moment in my letter-writing to enjoy the sight, which
has its special charm. Two or three kilometres off, towards
Steenstraate, the cannon were working away furiously, while only a few
paces from our shanty a section of our 75's was firing incessantly
over the wood upon Bixschoote; overhead we heard the unpleasant roar
of the big German shells; and in the midst of the racket I saw my
bridge players dragging their table over to the broken window. Day was
dying, and we had not seen a gleam of sunshine since morning. The sky
was grey--a thick, dirty grey; it seemed to be very low, close upon
us, and I felt that the night would come by slow degrees without any
of those admirable symphonies of colour that twilight sometimes brings
to battlefields, making the combatant feel that he is ending his day
in apotheosis.

But those four seemed to hear nothing. In the grey light I watched the
refined profile of the Major bending over the cards just dealt by F.
He no doubt has to speak first, for the three others looked at him, in
motionless silence, as if they were expecting some momentous
utterance. Then suddenly, accompanied by the muffled roar of the
battle music, the following colloquy took place, a colloquy full of
traps and ambushes, I suppose, for the four officers cast suspicious
and inquisitorial glances at each other over their cards:


    "One spade."
    "Two hearts."
    "Two no trumps."
    "I double."
    "Your turn, Major."


But all of a sudden paf! paf! The four players had thrown down their
cards, and we all looked at each other without a word. Suddenly we had
just heard above us that strange and indefinable crackle made by
bullets fired at close range as they tear through the air just above
one. No doubt was possible; something extraordinary was happening near
the trenches, for the crackling increased mightily, and hundreds and
hundreds of bullets began to whistle round us. F. sent the table
rolling to the other end of the room with a kick, and we all rushed
out after the Major.

There is no more depressing moment in warfare than when one finds
oneself exposed to violent fire from the enemy without being able to
see whence it comes, or what troops are firing, and what is its
objective. Obviously the attack was not directed against us, for
between the trenches and the houses where we were there was a thick
wood which entirely concealed us from the sight of the enemy. But on
the other hand the shots could not have been fired from the trenches
the Germans had hitherto occupied opposite us, for had they been the
bullets must have passed high over our heads, and we should have heard
only the characteristic whistle of shots fired at long range.

For a moment, only a moment, we were full of dread. What had happened?
What had become of the comrades who were in the firing-line? Grouped
together in the little enclosure bordered with quick-set hedges where
there were still traces of what had been the kitchen-garden of our
farm, we strained our eyes to see without uttering a word. In front of
us was the dark line of the wood. We scrutinised it sharply, this
silent mass of trees and bushes on which autumn had already laid the
most splendid colours of its palette. In spite of the dull light, what
an admirable background it made to the melancholy picture of the
devastated landscape! First, quite close to the ground, was a tangle
of bushes and brambles, its russet foliage forming a kind of
impenetrable screen, which, in bright sunshine, would have been a
curtain of purple and gold. Then, pointing up into the misty sky, came
the denuded trunks of the trees, surrounded by a maze of myriads of
delicate branches, their ramifications stretching a violet-tinted veil
across the sky. In spite of the tragic present I could not but admire
the marvellous setting Nature offered for the drama in which we were
destined to be the actors.

The bullets continued their infernal music, whistling in thousands
over our heads. At the same time the fire of the German mortars
redoubled in intensity, and their great "coal-boxes" (big shells)
burst with a deafening din a few hundred yards behind us, seeking to
silence our guns. These, concealed in a hollow, answered vigorously.

But what did it all mean? What was happening? We longed to shout, to
call, to implore some one to answer us, to tell us what had been
taking place behind the thick curtain of the wood. But the curtain
remained impenetrable.

In the few seconds we spent below that deserted house in the little
trampled garden-close, under the rain of bullets that was falling
around us, one dread oppressed us, and lay so heavy on our hearts that
it made us dumb and incapable of exchanging our thoughts, or, rather,
the one thought that haunted us all. "What has become of the second
squadron? What has become of our Colonel, who had stayed in command?
What has become of all our dear fellows there on the other side of the
wood?" Uncertainty is indeed the worst of all miseries, because it
makes its victims believe and imagine every horror.

From our post we could see at the windows and doors of the little
houses scattered among the fields the anxious and inquiring faces of
our men. They, too, were tortured by uncertainty. They stood huddled
together, looking in our direction, waiting for a sign or an order.

Suddenly our doubts were dissipated.

"To arms!" cried our Major, in a ringing voice that echoed above the
crackling of the bullets and was heard by the whole squadron.

He had no need to repeat the order. In the twinkling of an eye my
troop had formed behind me, in squads. My men waited in absolute
silence, their eyes fixed upon me, kneeling on one knee, and leaning
on their rifles. I seemed to hear all their hearts beating in unison
with mine; and knew their wills ready to second mine.

The Major gave the word of command. We disposed our men in skirmishing
order in the ditch of the road that passed in front of our farm,
parallel with the skirts of the wood. Our squadrons thus formed a line
of from 300 to 400 yards, capable of holding the enemy in check for
some time, if they had succeeded in taking our trenches and were
already pushing through the thicket. Kneeling on the road behind them,
I looked at my men. They were lying flat on the ground on the slope of
the ditch; they had loaded their rifles, and I could not distinguish
the slightest trace of fear or even of emotion in any one of them.

They were all looking straight before them trying to see whether some
helmeted soldier were emerging from the bushes in the gathering
shadow. What splendid soldiers the war has fashioned for us! They are
no longer merely the diligent and conscientious cavalrymen we took
pleasure in commanding, and whose smartness we admired in peace time.
The stern experience of the battlefield has hardened, strengthened and
ennobled them. Their faces are manlier; their discipline, far from
relaxing, has become more thorough; their courage has developed, and,
in most of them, now verges on temerity.

I have had two new men in my troop for a short time: Ladoucette and
Roger. They are Territorials, men of from thirty-eight to forty, who,
wearying of the depôt and envying their juniors in the field, asked
and obtained leave to rejoin the regiment at the Front. They
fascinated me at once by their high spirits, their jovial chaff, and
the cheerfulness with which they undertook the most laborious tasks.
But I had not yet seen them under fire.

I looked about for them in the line of skirmishers. I tried to
distinguish them among all the backs and necks lying before me. And I
very soon guessed that they were at the extreme right of the troop,
for I heard smothered laughter at that corner; evidently Ladoucette
was cracking some of the highly-spiced jokes characteristic of him.
Yes, I saw his head lifted above the grass on the slope, his bristling
moustache, his brilliant eyes, and sarcastic mouth. I could not hear
what he was saying, for the firing was still furious, but I saw from
the smiling faces of his neighbours that he had, as usual, found the
right word for the occasion, the word that provokes laughter under
bullet fire and makes men forget danger. Not far from him his
inseparable chum, Roger, guffawed appreciatively, and seemed to be
enjoying himself thoroughly. I rejoiced to think that I had got two
first-rate recruits, worthy to fight side by side with the fine
fellows of my brave troop.

Suddenly a dark figure emerged from the wood, then two more, then
another three, then more. Was it the enemy? Without waiting for the
word of command some of the men pointed their rifles at the mysterious
shadows running in single file towards us.


        "Don't fire! Don't fire!"


We had, fortunately, recognised the uniform of our infantry Chasseurs.
But this increased rather than allayed our anxiety. We naturally
imagined the direst catastrophes and feared the most terrible
consequences when we saw those in whom we had trusted, those who
occupied the trenches nearest to Bixschoote, beating a retreat. The
first of the fugitives came up to us. They seemed completely
demoralised. Haggard, ragged, and black with dust, they crossed the
road at a run. We tried in vain to stop them. As they passed us they
shouted something unintelligible, of which we could catch nothing but
the words:

"They're coming, ... they're coming."

Together with O., I succeeded in stopping two men, who were going
along less rapidly, supporting a wounded comrade who was groaning and
dragging himself on one leg.

"Our flank was turned; there are thousands of them. They came through
the village and enfiladed us. We had a great many killed ... our
officer wounded. We must get back further to the rear."

As they went off haltingly with their comrade, whose groans were
pitiable to hear, the tall figure of a lieutenant of foot Chasseurs
rose suddenly before us. He looked like a ghost, and for a moment we
thought he was about to fall, an exhausted mass, at our feet. His face
was covered with blood. The red mask in which the white of the eyes
formed two brilliant spots was horrible to see. His torn tunic and all
his clothing were saturated with blood. He was gesticulating wildly
with the revolver he clutched in his hands, and seemed absolutely
distraught.

As he passed the Major seized him by the arm:

"Halt! halt! Look here, you must rally your men. We can put up a good
defence here."

The officer wrenched himself free, and went off with hasty strides,
calling to us without turning his head:

"I know what I must do.... We can't hold a line here.... I am going to
form up by the artillery."

Two more men came by, depressed and silent, bent down by the weight of
their knapsacks. They crossed the ditches by the roadside with
difficulty, and were presently lost to sight in the fields amidst the
gathering shadows.

There was no laughter now in our ranks. The same thought was in every
mind, the same despair chilled every heart. The Germans must have
taken our trenches, and our brave comrades had all chosen to die
rather than to retreat. And the enemy must be there before us, in that
wood; they must be stealing up to us noiselessly. I fancied I could
see them, gliding from tree to tree, holding their rifles high, trying
to deaden the sound of their footsteps among the dead leaves.
Presently they would reach the dark line that stretched before us,
mute and mysterious; they would mass their dense reserves in the rear,
and suddenly thousands of lightning flashes would illuminate the
fringe of the thicket. I looked at my men again. There was no sign of
wavering; not a word was spoken; their faces looked a little pale in
the waning light. Above us thousands of shells and bullets filled the
air with their strange and terrible music.

A man came out of the wood and walked quietly towards us. It was not
light enough to distinguish his uniform, but his calm and placid
bearing was in marked contrast to that of the infantry Chasseurs. He
must have recognised the little group formed by the Major, my
comrades, and myself in the middle of the road, for he made straight
for us.

When he got to within twenty paces of us we recognised to our joy
Sergeant Madelin, a non-commissioned officer of our second squadron,
the squadron that had stayed in the trenches with the Colonel and the
machine-gun section. I cannot describe the relief we felt at the sight
of him. Though we could not tell what he was going to say, his
attitude dispelled our fears at once. He gazed at us with wide
astonished eyes from under the peak of his shako, and came on quietly,
as if he were taking a walk, his hands in his pockets, murmuring in a
tone of stupefaction:

"What on earth is the matter?"

"Well, really, this is a little too much!" exclaimed the Major;
"that's just what _we_ want _you_ to tell _us_!"

"But I have nothing to tell you, Major. The trench of the infantry
Chasseurs was taken. We are all right. But the Colonel has sent me to
say that there are signs of a German counter-attack on the left, and
he wants you to reinforce him on that side with your three
squadrons."

He spoke so calmly and with such an air of astonishment that we all
felt inclined to laugh. Madelin had already given proof of his
courage, he had even been mentioned in orders for his valour, but we
had never seen him so placidly good-humoured under fire as on this
occasion. All our fears were at once put to flight, and we thought
only of one thing; to fly to the help of our comrades and win our
share of glory.


        "Forward!"


The officers had advanced in front of the line of skirmishers. All the
men sprang up in an instant, and the three squadrons dashed forward
full speed.

But at the exact moment when our men, springing out of the ditches,
began their advance towards the wood, the enemy's artillery,
shortening its range, began to pour a perfect hail of shrapnel on our
line. It was now almost pitch dark, and there was something infernal
in the scene. The shells were bursting at a considerable height above
us, some in front, some behind. They made a horrible kind of music.
There must have been at least two batteries at work upon us, for we
could no longer distinguish even the three characteristic shots of the
German batteries in _rafale_ fire. The noise was incessant, and each
shell as it burst illumined a small section of the battlefield for a
second. It just showed a tree trunk, a bit of wall, a strip of hedge,
and then the darkness fell again over this point, while another was
illuminated by the crash of a new explosion.

At one moment a sudden horror gripped me. To my left a shrapnel shell
fell full on the line of the third squadron. This time the flash of
the explosion had not only lighted up a corner of landscape; I had had
a glimpse of a terrible sight.

You must imagine the intense and rapid light cast by a burning
magnesium wire, accompanied by a deafening noise, and in this brief
light the figures of several men, weirdly illuminated, in the
attitudes induced by the terror of certain death, and you will get a
faint impression of what I saw. Then, suddenly, everything fell back
into darkness, a darkness that seemed more intense than before after
the glare of the explosion. I dimly discerned bodies on the ground,
and shadows bending over them.

I did not stop, but I heard the voice of the Major calmly giving
orders:


        "Pick him up! Gently...."


But the wounded man shrieked, refusing to allow himself to be touched;
his limbs, no doubt, were shattered. No matter! Forward! Forward! We
rushed on towards the wood, where we hoped to get some protection from
the avalanche of shells. A voice called out names behind me:

"Corporal David killed! Sergeant Flosse wounded; leg broken."

My men were running forward so impetuously that presently they were on
a level with me. What fine fellows! I half regretted that some hostile
troop was not waiting for us ambushed in the wood. We might have had a
splendid fight! But would there have been a fight at all? Would the
Prussians have ventured to measure themselves against these
dare-devils, whom danger excites instead of depressing? Well, we were
at the edge of the wood at last, waiting till the Major came up with
us.

Leaning against the trees, my Chasseurs took breath after their race.
I passed swiftly along the line to make sure that all my men were
safe. They were all there, and I was relieved to find that I had no
losses to deplore. The joys and sorrows of war had forged a bond
between us that nothing could break. I had soon learnt to know each
one of them, with his virtues and his faults, and I felt them to be,
without exception, worthy fellows and brave soldiers. Each time death
struck down one of them, I suffered as at the loss of a beloved
brother, and I believe they repaid my affection for them by perfect
trust.

The Major had now rejoined us. We were not to lose a moment in
responding to our Colonel's summons, and we were to remember that our
comrades of the second squadron were bearing the brunt of the enemy's
attack alone.


        "Forward!"


We resumed our headlong advance. It was more difficult in the darkness
of the wood than on the soft earth of the fields. We stumbled over
roots, and got entangled in brambles; men fell, picked themselves up
again, and went on with an oath. There was no more chaff; all minds
were strung up to fever pitch, and strength was giving out, while the
storm of shrapnel continued overhead, cropping the branches, and
lighting up the tangle of leafless trees and bushes at intervals as if
with fireworks.

Suddenly I heard on my right, not far behind me, screams and calls for
help, rising above the turmoil of battle. I saw my men stop for a
moment, looking round. But they hurried on again at my orders without
a word.


        "Forward!"


Time was precious. Every minute might be fatal to our brothers in
arms. We could now hear the familiar sound of our cavalry carbines
quite close to us. We were approaching the trenches where the second
squadron was making its heroic stand.


        "Forward! Forward!"


We were all breathless from our frantic rush. But no one thought of
slackening speed. I turned round to some one who was trotting behind
me. It was my non-commissioned officer. Without a moment's loss of
time he had run to see what had caused the cries we had heard, and now
he had come back at the double to report to me.

"Sir, in the third troop, Sergeant Lagaraldi...."

"Well?"

"He's killed, ... and Corporal Durand too!"

"Ah!"

"And there are many wounded."

I made no answer. Oh! it was horrible! Two poor fellows so full of
life and spirits not an hour ago! In spite of myself I could not help
thinking for a few minutes of the two shattered, quivering bodies
lying among the grasses of the forest. But I thrust away the gruesome
vision resolutely. We could only think of doing our duty at this
supreme moment. Later we would remember the dead, weep for them, and
pray for them.

The darkness was no longer so dense. The tangle of trees in front of
us was less thick, the branches seemed to be opening out, we were near
the edge of the wood. And at the same time, in spite of the mad
beating of my heart and the buzzing in my ears, I was conscious that
the cannonade had ceased, at least in our direction, and that the
bullets were no longer coming so thickly. The German attack was
probably relaxing; there was to be a respite. So much the better! It
would enable us to pass from the wood to the trenches without much
danger, thanks to the darkness.

We had arrived! One by one our men slipped into the communication
trench. What a sense of well-being and of rest we all had! The little
passage in the earth, so uninviting as a rule, seemed to us as
desirable as the most sumptuous palace. We drew breath at last. We
felt almost safe. But still, there was no time to be lost.

While the Major hurried off to take the Colonel's orders I climbed up
on the parapet. Night had now fallen completely, but the moon was
rising. Indeed, it would have been almost as light as day but for a
slight mist which was spreading a diaphanous veil before our eyes. In
the foreground to the right I could barely guess the dim outline of
the battered mill and the burnt farm flanking the trench occupied by
the foot Chasseurs. Further off, however, I could vaguely distinguish
the row of trees that marked the first line of German trenches, about
250 yards away from us. To the left the mist had a reddish tinge. No
doubt yet another house was burning in the unhappy village of
Bixschoote.

There was a sudden silence in this little corner of the great
battlefield, as if our arrival in the firing line had been a
prearranged signal. On our right, too, the intensity of the fire upon
the trenches occupied by the ---- Territorials diminished. To the
left, on the other hand, the gun fire and rifle fire were incessant
in the direction of the bridge of Steenstraate, defended by the ----
Brigade of mounted Chasseurs. It seemed evident that the Germans,
having failed in their attempt to cross the Yser canal near us, were
making a fresh effort further to the north. However, it is not safe to
rely too absolutely even upon the most logical deductions, for very
often the event upsets the most careful calculations and frustrates
the wisest plans.

The moon was now shining with extraordinary brilliance, and the fog,
far from veiling its lustre, seemed to make it more disconcerting.
Persons assumed strange forms and the shapes of things were modified
or exaggerated. Our dazzled eyes were mocked by depressing
hallucinations; the smallest objects took on alarming proportions, and
whenever a slight breeze stirred the foliage of the beetroot field in
front of us we imagined we saw a line of snipers advancing.

I had great difficulty in preventing my men from firing. It was
necessary to eke out our cartridges with the utmost care, for, owing
to some mistake in the transmission of orders, our supplies had not
been replenished since the day before, and we had used a great many in
the fighting round Bixschoote. A like prudence was not, however,
observed all along the line, for every now and then the trenches would
be suddenly illuminated at a point where for a few seconds a useless
volley would ring out. Then everything relapsed into darkness and
immobility.

Towards Steenstraate, too, the firing seemed to be dying down. I
looked at my watch. It was half-past six. This was the hour when as a
rule our men began to feel hungry, and when in each troop the
Chasseurs would set out, pannikin in hand, towards the smoking
saucepan where the cook awaited them wielding his ladle with an
important air. But on this particular evening no one thought of
eating. We seemed all to feel that our work was not yet over, and that
we had still a weighty task on hand. It was certainly not the moment
to light fires and make soup; no doubt the Prussians were brewing
something for us of a different kind, and it would never do not to
return their compliments promptly.

Ready? Yes, we were ready. I turned and looked back into the trench.
All my brave fellows were standing, their eyes turned to me, and
seemed bent on divining by my attitude or gestures any new effort I
might be about to ask of them. The pale light of the moonbeams struck
full on their faces, leaving their bodies shrouded in the darkness of
the trench. What a strange and comforting spectacle it was! In every
eye I read calm courage and absolute confidence.

Whenever I feel weary or depressed, inclined to curse the slowness of
our advance and the thousand miseries of war, I need only do what I
did that evening. I need only turn to my Chasseurs and look into their
eyes without a word; there I read so many noble and touching things
that I am ashamed to have felt a momentary weakness.

They do not ask the why and the wherefore of things. They live from
day to day, weighed down by hard work. To them the actual fighting is
a rest and a delight. As soon as it is over they have to resume the
hard life of cavalrymen on active service, spend all their time
looking after their horses, fetching rations and forage, often from a
considerable distance, cleaning harness and arms, and every night
contriving some sort of quarters for themselves and their beasts in
the squalor of half-destroyed or abandoned villages, quarters they
must leave on the morrow. Yet nothing seems to depress them. They
preserve all the eagerness of the first few days and that imperishable
French gaiety which is an additional weapon for our troops.

That evening I felt them vibrating in unison with me more keenly than
ever.

There was little doubt that I should have to appeal to their courage
again presently, for something unusual was happening in front of us.
It was maddening not to be able to pierce the luminous mist, behind
which the enemy would be able to form up and take new positions
without our knowledge. Down behind the line of willows we could now
barely distinguish, we were aware of mysterious sounds, making a kind
of distant murmur. They must come from the rattle of arms, orders
given in whispers, footsteps slipping on the fat soil of plough-lands.
Listening heads craned over our parapets. Each man was trying to hear,
to understand, to see, and to divine, and each felt intuitively that
the enemy was about to renew his assault. The most absolute silence
and the most impressive calm reigned in our trenches. Yes, we were
ready for them! Let them come!

Then suddenly from the enemy's camp there rose a solemn, harmonious
hymn sung by hundreds of manly voices. We could not distinguish the
words uttered in the barbarian tongue. But the music was perfectly
audible, and I must confess that nothing caused me so much surprise
throughout this eventful evening. With what ardour and unanimity, and
also, I am bound to admit, with what art, these men proclaimed their
faith before rushing on death! One could imagine no more magnificent
temple for the prayers of soldiers about to offer up their lives than
the spacious firmament above and the luminous night around. We
listened, touched and delighted. The hymn continued for some time, and
the music seemed to me noble and inspiring; the voices were true and
the execution admirable. But, above all, the singing conveyed a
disturbing impression of disciplined and ordered piety. To what
lengths these men carry their love of command and obedience!

Suddenly the hymn broke off abruptly in a formidable uproar, above
which rose thousands of voices shouting:

"Hurrah! Hurrah! Cavalry! Cavalry!"

Then, dominating the tumult, we heard their trumpets sounding the
short, monotonous notes of the Prussian charge.

I leaped back into the trench.


        "Independent fire!"


The whole French line burst into a violent and deafening fusillade.
Each man seemed full of blind rage, of an exasperated lust for
destruction. I saw them take aim rapidly, press the trigger, and
reload in feverish haste. I was deafened and bewildered by the
terrible noise of the firing in the narrow confines of the trench. To
our left, the machine-gun section of my friend F. kept up an infernal
racket.

But the German line had suddenly dropped to the ground. I could barely
distinguish a swarm of grey shadows running about in the fog. Then not
a single dark figure was visible on the pale background of the tragic
scene. How many of the bodies we could no longer make out must have
been lying lifeless, and how horrible their proximity must have been
to the living stretched side by side with them!

Our men had ceased firing of their own accord, and a strange silence
had succeeded to the deafening din. What was about to happen? Would
they dare to come on again? We hoped so with all our hearts, for we
felt that if we could keep our men in hand, and prevent them from
firing at random, the enemy could never get at us. But, above all, it
was essential to economise our ammunition, for if we were short of
cartridges, what resistance could we offer to a bayonet charge with
our little carbines reduced to silence?

The Germans must have been severely shaken, for they seemed afraid to
resume the attack. Nothing was moving in the bare plain that stretched
before us. During this respite an order came from the officer in
command, passing from mouth to mouth:

"Hand it on: No firing without the word of command."

Then silence fell on our trenches, heavy and complete as on the
landscape before us. Suddenly, on the place where the enemy's riflemen
had thrown themselves on the ground, we saw a slim shadow rise and
stand. The man had got up quietly, as if no danger threatened him.
And, in spite of everything, it was impossible not to admire the
gallantry of his act. He stood motionless for a second, leaning on his
sword or a stick; then he raised his arm slowly, and a hoarse voice
yelled:


        "_Auf!_" [Up!]


Other voices repeated the word of command, and were answered by
renewed "hurrahs!" Then the heavy line of riflemen sprang up and again
rushed towards us:


        "Fire! Fire!"


Once more our trenches belched forth their infernal fire. We could now
plainly see numbers of them fall; then they suddenly threw themselves
on the ground just as before. But instead of crouching motionless
among the beetroot they began to answer our fire. Innumerable bullets
whistled about us. I noted with joy that my men remained perfectly
steady; they were aiming and firing deliberately, whereas at other
points the fusillade was so violent that it cannot have been
efficacious. I was very glad not to have to reprove my brave
Chasseurs, for the uproar was so terrific that my voice would not have
carried beyond the two men nearest to me. I calculated the number of
cartridges each of them must have in reserve; twenty-five, perhaps
thirty. How would it all end? I was just thinking of ordering my troop
to cease firing, in order to reserve my ammunition for a supreme
effort, if this should be necessary.

But something happened which checked this decision. F.'s machine-guns
must have worked fearful havoc among our assailants, for suddenly,
without a cry and without an order, we saw them rise and make off
quickly right and left in the fog.


        "Silence!"


I was obliged to intervene to subdue the joyous effervescence caused
in my troop. The men began to discuss their impressions in tones of
glee that might have become dangerous. Ladoucette's voice was heard,
as usual, above the din, calling upon his absent wife to admire his
exploits:

"Madame Ladoucette, if you could have seen that!"

But we had to be on the _qui vive_. The German attack had been
checked, but it might be renewed.

We were fully alive to the courage and tenacity of our enemies.

I could distinguish nothing ahead in the increasingly thick white fog.
All I could hear was the sound of pickaxes on the ground and the thud
of falling clods. The enemy had, no doubt, decided not to attack again
and were digging new trenches. They no longer uttered their
contemptuous guttural cries of "Cavalry! Cavalry!" They had learnt to
their cost that these French cavalrymen, at the sight of whom their
own are so ready to turn back, could hold their own equally well
against German infantry. I thought we might count on a little respite.
The battlefield was silent, save for the faint cries occasionally
uttered by the wounded.

I hastily detached two troopers to man the listening-posts, and they
slipped away silently. Then, as our Captain had unfortunately been
summoned to Elverdinghe that day on special duty, I went to look for
the Major to make my report to him. My men had seated themselves on
the rough ledges cut in the slope of the trench, their carbines
between their knees, and were talking together in low tones. As I
passed a friendly smile lit up their faces. I walked slowly along the
narrow trench, careful not to tread on the feet of the talkers.

As I approached a point where the trench, following the direction of
the wood, formed an abrupt angle, I heard two familiar voices
exchanging the following words:


        "Fifty-two!... Tierce major...; three aces!"
        "Capital!"


This was really the limit! I turned the corner and came upon Major B.
and F. seated on the ledge, quietly playing cards by the brilliant
moonlight. As their tiny retreat could not accommodate four players,
they were solacing themselves with a game of piquet.

Oh, all you who are of necessity far from the scene of conflict, good
Frenchmen and valiant Frenchwomen, how I should have liked you to see
this picture! No doubt you often wonder whether those who are
defending your homes against the accursed invader will be able to bear
the sufferings of this war to the bitter end; you fear that they may
be losing their good humour and their dashing spirits; you imagine
them brooding with careworn faces and anxious souls when, the
excitement of the encounter dying down, they think of what the morrow
may bring forth. How I wish you could have seen Major B. and the
gallant Lieutenant F. playing piquet in the trench where they had just
repulsed a furious German attack, which might have been renewed at any
moment!

I left them to go on with their game, and went in search of my comrade
O. I found him in the middle of his troop, talking amicably with his
men. After the enemy had ceased firing he had sent a party of sappers
to dig the graves of the two non-commissioned officers who had fallen
in the wood. We retired into a corner of the trench, and there he told
me of the grief he felt at this loss, a grief he was doing his best to
hide, so as not to injure the _moral_ of his troop. Lagaraldi had
just got his promotion, and was a soldier of the highest promise;
Durand was the model corporal, clean, cheerful, and active. And, even
if they had been but mediocre troopers, I knew too well what we
officers feel when we lose even a passable Chasseur, to wonder at the
melancholy of my charming young comrade.

Time went on, and there were no signs of a fresh attack. The enemy's
artillery seemed to be neglecting us, and to be bent upon the
destruction of the Boesinghe bridge, by which we had crossed the Yser.
His great shells flew over our heads with a sinister roar, and a few
seconds later we heard the explosion far behind us. The German
trenches in front of us were silent. A single shot fired at intervals
alone reminded us that they were not forsaken.

"_Mon Lieutenant_, it's all ready."

A corporal had come out of the wood to tell O. that the graves were dug.
When we had sent word to our chiefs, and placed our non-commissioned
officers in temporary command, our strange, sad procession of mourners
left the trenches and slipped through the thicket in single file. There
were four officers, the Lieutenant-Colonel, Major B., O., and myself and
four non-commissioned officers. It would have been dangerous to deplete
the firing line further.

With heavy hearts we retraced our steps through the wood we had so
lately passed through in all the exaltation of our advance. We knew
the moral anguish we were about to feel in rendering this last service
to our young brothers-in-arms. It was unhappily by no means the first
time we had held such a ceremony, but never had I been present at one
in such tragic circumstances, nor in such impressive surroundings. We
hurried along, almost running in our anxiety to return quickly to our
men. The branches caught at us and slashed our faces, the dead leaves
and twigs crackled under our tread. Above us the shells still sang
their funeral song.

We had now come in sight of the burial-ground. In the moonlight, at
the edge of the wood close to the spot where our gallant fellows had
fallen, we could distinguish newly-dug earth, and four silent men
standing beside it, their tunics thrown off, leaning on spade and
pickaxe. It was there.

In a little ravaged garden-plot, at the foot of great trees which
would guard these graves, they had dug two holes, which, by night,
looked extraordinarily deep and dark.

Ought we to lament or to envy the touching and simple burial rite of
soldiers? To me, nothing could be more beautiful than such a last
resting-place. Why should we desire richer tombs, sepulchral stones,
and sculptured monuments? We are all equal upon that field of death,
the battlefield at the close of day. And there can be no fitter shroud
for him who has fallen on that field than his soldier's cloak. A
little earth that will be grass-grown and flower-spangled again in the
spring, a simple cross of rough wood, a name, a regimental number, a
date--all this is better than the most splendid obsequies. And what
can be more touching than the poor little bunches of wild flowers
which the friends of the dead gather on the banks of ditches, and
which are to be seen days afterwards, faded and yet so fair, hanging
on the humble crosses? Such was to be the portion of Lagaraldi and
Durand. Why should we pity them? We will weep for them, we will not
pity them.

They were there, lying side by side in their cloaks, the turned-up
capes of which shrouded their heads, and we bared our own in silence.
Each of us, consciously or unconsciously, breathed a prayer, each set
his teeth and tried to restrain his tears.

But we were not destined to pray in peace to the end. At the moment
when the Lieutenant-Colonel was about to express our sorrow and
pronounce the last farewell the enemy's mortars, suddenly changing
their objective, began to bombard the part of the wood on the edge of
which we were standing.

What was their idea? Did they think our reserves were massed in the
wood? However this may have been, a formidable avalanche descended
above and around us. The first salvo literally cleared the wood close
by us. A great tree, cut through the middle, bent over for an instant
and then rolled gently to the ground with a great crackling of broken
boughs. At the same time the German bullets began to whistle round us
by thousands, apparently determined to draw us into their frenzied
saraband. Death seemed for a moment inevitable. We could not hesitate;
we had to take cover, or to be mown down by shot or shell.

Then--I shall remember the gruesome moment to my dying hour--we all
leaped into the only available shelter--crouching together in the
newly-dug graves. We were just in time.

Bullets flew past us; the great "coal-boxes" burst without
intermission. The uproar was tremendous, beyond anything we had ever
heard. It would be impossible to describe the horror of those minutes.
Those graves, all too spacious for the poor bodies we were about to
commit to them, were too small to shelter us. We pressed one against
the other in the strangest positions, hiding our heads between the
shoulders of those who were lying in front of us; we thought every
moment that the network of projectiles would be drawn more tightly
round us, and that one would fall into our holes, transforming them
into a ghastly charnel-house.

This idea occurred to me suddenly and obsessed me. Yes, yes, presently
the great snorting, whistling, pitiless thing would fall between O.
and me. We should feel nothing; there would be no pain. We should be
only a little heap of bloody clay, and to-morrow at daybreak our
comrades would but have to throw a few spadefuls of earth upon it.
They would put a plain wooden cross above, with our names and ranks,
the number of our regiment, a date: "November 3, 1914." And it would
be better than any sumptuous monument.


        "Hush! Listen!"


Between two explosions, in spite of the noise of the German bullets,
we distinctly heard the crack of our carbines.


        "Our men are fighting!"


We all understood, and with one bound we were up and running
frantically through the wood. How was it that none of us were killed?
How did we manage to escape the shells and bullets which were cropping
the branches and felling the trees around us? I shall never understand
or forget this experience.

When at last we sprang breathless into our trench after what had
seemed an interminable race, the tumult had died down again and only
occasional shots broke the nocturnal calm. The reason of the sudden
renewal of the fighting was given at once by F.

"Bravo!" he cried; "we have retaken the infantry Chasseurs' trench!"

This was a great consolation to us, for we were all full of regret at
the loss of this little piece of ground. It had prevented us from
feeling quite satisfied with our day.

Now all was well. Our task was accomplished.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the following day, November 4, at three in the morning, a battalion
of the ---- Regiment of the Line came to relieve us. It formed part
of that glorious 20th Corps, which has covered itself with glory ever
since the beginning of the war, and fought all along the front from
Lorraine to Flanders, always arriving at the moment when picked men
were needed to make a last desperate effort. It had come up that
evening, and was at once on the spot.

In the cold, luminous night, the heavily laden infantrymen defiled
into the narrow trench, calm, silent, and serious.

The officer who was to take my place presented himself smartly, as if
on the parade-ground.

"Lieutenant X."

I gave my name.

"My dear fellow," he said, "I am delighted to shake hands with you.
Allow me to say how much we all admire your regiment. Your General has
just told us how your Chasseurs have behaved. Accept my
congratulations. We could not have done better ourselves. The cavalry
is certainly taking first place as a fighting force. Your regiment is
to be mentioned in despatches, and you deserve it. Good-night. Good
luck!"

"Thank you! Good luck!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Once more we passed through the wood to take up our position in
reserve. Our men were beginning to feel the fatigue of those two days
without sleep and almost without rest.

But joy, stronger than bodily fatigue, predominated. It hovered over
our harassed troops. Above all, they were proud of having been
appreciated and congratulated by their brothers-in-arms of the crack
corps which is the admiration of the whole army.

Each man forgot his tortured nerves, his aching head, his weary legs,
repeating to himself the magic words:

"Your regiment is to be mentioned in despatches!"



VII. SISTER GABRIELLE


It was a very dark night. How were we to find our way about the little
unknown town of Elverdinghe, near which our regiment had just been
quartered? We could hardly make out the low houses with closed windows
and long roofs of thatch or slate, and kept stumbling on the greasy
and uneven cobble-stones. Now and again the corner of a street or the
angle of a square was lit up dimly by a ray of light filtering through
half-closed shutters. I went along haphazard, preceded by my friend B.
We were quite determined to find beds, and to sleep in peace.

After our four days' fighting near Bixschoote we had been sent to the
rear, ten kilometres away from the line of fire, to get twenty-four
hours' rest; had arrived at nightfall, and found much difficulty in
putting up our men and horses in the small farms around the town. But
no sooner had they all found places, no sooner had the horses got
their nose-bags on and the kitchen fires been lighted, than B., who
was always anxious about the comforts of his board and lodging, said
to me:

"There is only one thing for us to do. We are to rest. We must find a
bed and a well-furnished table. I had rather go to bed an hour later,
and sleep between sheets after a good meal, than lie down at once on
straw with an empty stomach. Listen to me. Let us go on to that nice
Belgian town over there, only a few steps farther. It is hardly ten
o'clock. It will be devilish bad luck if we can't find a good supper
and good quarters. We need not trouble about anything else. Let us
think first of serious matters."

So we started for the little town which seemed to be wrapped in sleep.
We knocked at the doors, but not one opened; no doubt the houses were
all full of soldiers. No one offered us any hospitality, in spite of
all B.'s objurgations, now beseeching, now imperious. In despair, I
suggested at last that we should go back to our squadron, and lie down
by our horses; but B. would not hear of it, and still clung to his
idea: to have a good dinner, and sleep in a bed.

Just then, we saw a dark figure creeping noiselessly along under the
wall. B. at once went up to it, and caught it by the arm. It was a
poor old woman, carrying a basket and a jug of milk. Said he:

"_Madame, madame_, have pity on two poor weary, half-starved
soldiers...."

But she couldn't give us any information. Speaking in bad French,
interspersed with Flemish, she gave us to understand that the little
town was full of troops, and, at that hour, everybody was asleep.

"And what is there in that large white building, where the windows are
alight?"

The good woman explained that it was a convent, where nuns took in the
old people of the country. They could not give lodging to soldiers.
But B. had already made up his mind; that was where we were to sleep.
Leaving the old woman aghast, he went with long strides to the iron
railing which surrounded a little garden in front of the convent. I
tried in vain to make him understand that we could not invade these
sacred precincts.

"Leave it to me," he said, "I'll speak to them."

He pushed the iron gate, which opened with a creak, and I shut it
after him. I felt somewhat uneasy as I followed B., who crossed the
garden with a rapid stride. I felt uneasy at the thought of his
essentially military eloquence, and of the use to which he proposed to
put it. But I knew, too, that he was not easily induced to abandon a
resolution he had once taken. True, he did not often make one, but
this time he seemed to be carrying out a very definite plan. The best
thing was to submit, and await the result of his attempt. We went up
three steps, and felt for the knocker. "Here it is," said B., and he
lifted it and knocked hard. What a dismal sound it made in that
sleeping town! I felt as though we had just committed an act of
sacrilege. We listened, and heard, through the door, the noise of
chairs dragged over the stone floor; then a light footstep
approaching, a sound of keys and bolts, and the door was gently opened
and held ajar.

"Sister," said B., with a bow, "what we are doing is, I know, most
unusual; but we are dying of hunger and very tired, and, so far,
nobody has been willing to open their door to us. Could we not have
something to eat here, and sleep in a bed?"

The Sister looked at us and appeared not to understand. However, I was
more at ease when I saw she was neither frightened nor displeased. She
was a very old nun, dressed in black, and held in her hand a little
lamp which flickered in the night breeze. Her face was furrowed with
deep wrinkles, and her skinny hand, held before the lamp, seemed
transparent. She made up her mind at once. Her face lit up with a kind
smile, and she signed to us to come in, with words which were probably
friendly. This was a supposition, for the worthy nun only spoke
Flemish, and we could not understand anything she said. She carefully
pushed the bolts again, placed her lamp on the floor, and made a sign
to us to wait. Then she went away with noiseless steps, and we were
left alone.

"You see," said B., "it is all going swimmingly. Now that we have got
in, you must leave everything to me."

The flickering lamp lighted the hall dimly. The walls were bare, and
there was no furniture but some rush chairs set in a line against the
partition. Opposite the door, there was a simple wooden crucifix, and
the stretched-out arms seemed to bid us welcome. A perfume of hot soup
came from the door the old Sister had just shut.

"I say!" said B., "did you smell it? I believe it is cabbage soup, and
if so, I shall take a second helping."

"Just wait a bit," I replied; "I'll wager they are going to turn us
out."

From the other side of the door, by which the portress had just
disappeared, we heard a voice calling:

"Sister Gabrielle!... Sister Gabrielle!..."

And a moment after, the same door opened, and another nun came in very
quietly, and rather embarrassed, as it seemed to me. She came towards
us.

Sister Gabrielle, your modesty will certainly suffer from all the good
I am going to say of you.... But I am wrong, you will not suffer, for
you certainly will never read the pages I have scribbled during the
course of this war, at odd times, as I could, in bivouacs and billets.
But I have vowed to keep a written record of the pictures which have
charmed or moved me most during this campaign. If I ever survive it, I
want to be able to read them again in my latter days. I want to have
them read by those who belong to me, and to try to show them what kind
of life we led during those unforgettable days. And it is not always
the battles which leave the most lively impressions. How many
delightful things one could relate that have happened outside the
sphere of action! What memories of nights passed in the strangest
places, as the chances of the march decreed, nights of bitterness
during the retreat, nights of fever during the advance, nights of
depression in the trenches! What kindly welcomes, what beautiful and
what noble figures one might describe!

Sister Gabrielle, as you will never read this, and as your modesty
will not suffer, let me tell the story of the welcome my friend B. and
I received that evening at the Convent of Elverdinghe.

Sister Gabrielle came towards us. How pretty she was, in the coif that
framed her face! How large her blue eyes looked! They really were so,
but a touch of excitement made them seem larger still. Above all, she
had an enchanting smile, a smile of such kindness that we at once felt
at ease and sure of obtaining what we wanted. She spoke in a sweet and
musical voice, hesitating just a little in her choice of words,
although she spoke French very correctly.

"The Sister Superior has sent me to you," she said, "because I am the
only one here who can speak French.... _Messieurs les officiers_,
welcome."

She said it quite simply, and stood quite straight in her black dress,
her arms hanging beside her. She might have been a picture of other
days, an illuminated figure from a missal. We looked at each other and
smiled too, happy to find so unexpected a welcome. B. was now quite
self-possessed.

"Sister Gabrielle," he said, "see what a wretched state we are in; our
clothes covered with mud, our faces not washed since I don't know
when. We have just gone four days without sleep, almost without food,
and we have never stopped fighting. Could you not take in two weary,
famished soldiers for one night?"

Sister Gabrielle retained her wonderful smile. Without moving her
arms, she slightly raised her two hands, which showed white against
the black cloth of her dress. Those hands seemed to say: "I should
like to very much, but I cannot." And at the same time the smile
said: "We ought not to, but it shall be managed nevertheless."

"Come," she said; "in any case, we can give you something to eat."

And she took up the little lamp. She went first, opened the door at
the end of the passage, and we followed her, delighted. We were
dazzled as we came into this new room by the brilliance of the lamps
that lit it. It was the convent kitchen. How clean and bright
everything was! The copper saucepans shone resplendently. The black
and white pavement looked like an ivory chessboard. Two Sisters were
sitting peeling vegetables which they threw into a bowl of water. An
enormous pot, on the well-polished stove, was humming its inviting
monotone. It was this pot which exhaled the delicious smell that had
greeted us when we entered the house. The whole picture recalled one
of Bail's appetising canvases. The two Sisters raised their eyes,
looked at us and--yes, they smiled too. B., feeling eloquent, wanted
to make a speech; but Sister Gabrielle hurried us on:

"Come, come," she said. "It is not worth while; they wouldn't
understand you."

She opened another door, and we went into a small rectangular room.
Whilst our guide hastened to light the lamp hanging above the table,
we laid our kits on the window-sill: our revolvers, shakoes, binocular
glasses and map-cases; and how tarnished and dirty the things were,
after those three months of war! We ourselves felt fairly ashamed to
be seen in such a state. Our coats worn and stained, our breeches
patched, our huge boots covered with mud, all formed a strange
contrast to the room we were in. It was provided throughout with large
cupboards in the walls, the doors of which reached to the ceiling.
These doors were of polished wood, and shone like a mirror. The floor
was like another mirror. That indefatigable chatterer B. began another
speech:

"Sister, please excuse the costumes of fighting men. We must look like
ruffians, but we are honest folk. If our faces do not inspire much
confidence, it is simply because our stomachs are so empty. And no one
more resembles a vagabond than a poor wretch who is dying with hunger.
You will not know us again after we have had a few words with the pot
which gave out such a savoury smell as we passed."

Sister Gabrielle did not cease to smile. With wonderful rapidity and
skill she opened one of the cupboards, and, from the piles of linen,
picked out a checkered red and white tablecloth with which she covered
the table. In a moment she had arranged places for two, opposite each
other.

"Sit down," she said, "and rest. I will go and fetch you something to
eat."

B. followed her to the door.

"Sister Gabrielle," he said, "we have found a Paradise."

But she had already shut the door, and we heard her in the kitchen
stimulating the zeal of the other two nuns in Flemish. We sat down,
delighted. What a long time since we had enjoyed such comfort!
Everything there seemed designed to charm our eyes and rest our minds.
There was no noise in the street, and the convent itself would have
seemed wrapped in sleep had it not been for the voices in the next
room. But the distant roar of the guns still went on, and seemed to
make our respite still more enjoyable.

We hardly heard Sister Gabrielle when she came in and put down the
steaming soup before us. The delicate perfume of the vegetables made
our mouths water. For many days past we had had nothing to eat but our
rations of tinned meat, and all that time we had not been able to
light a fire to cook anything at all. So we fell to eagerly upon our
well-filled plates. B. even lost the power of speech for the moment.

Meanwhile the pretty little Sister, without appearing to look at us,
was cutting bread, and then she brought a jug of golden beer. What a
treat it was! Why couldn't it be like this every day? In that case
the campaign would have seemed almost like a picnic. Whilst I was
eating I could not help admiring Sister Gabrielle; she looked so
refined in her modest black clothes. Her slightest movements were as
harmonious as those of an actress on the stage. But she was natural in
all she did, and the grace of every movement was instinctive. As she
placed before us an imposing-looking _omelette au lard_, that rascal
B., who had already swallowed two plates of soup and four large
glasses of beer, began to maunder thus:

"Sister Gabrielle, ... Sister Gabrielle, I don't want to go away
to-morrow. I want to end my days here with the old people you look
after. Look at me. I am getting old too, and have been severely tried
by life. Why shouldn't I stay where I am? I should have a nice little
bed in the old people's dormitory, with nice white sheets, go to bed
every evening on the stroke of eight, and you, Sister, would come and
tuck me up. I should sleep, and eat cabbage soup, and drink good
beer--your health. Sister!--and I shouldn't think any more about
anything at all.... How nice it would be! No more uniform to strap you
up after a good dinner; no more shako to squeeze your temples; no more
bullets whistling past you; no more 'coal-boxes' to upset your whole
system, and every evening a bed, ... a nice bed, ... and to think
about nothing!..."

"Hush! Listen," said Sister Gabrielle with a finger on her lips.

At that moment the noise of the firing became louder. The Germans had
no doubt just made a night attack either on Bixschoote or on
Steenstraate, and now every piece was firing rapidly all along the
line. So fast did the reports follow one another that they sounded
like a continuous growl. However, the noise seemed to be dominated by
the reports that came from a battery of heavy guns ("long 120's") two
kilometres from Elverdinghe, which made all the windows of the convent
rattle, I shuddered as I thought of those thousands of shells,
hurtling through the darkness for miles to reduce so many living
human beings to poor broken and bleeding things. And I pictured to
myself our Prussians of Bixschoote sprawling on the ground, with their
teeth set and their heads hidden among the beetroot, waiting until the
hurricane had passed, to get up again and rush forward with their
bayonets, cheering! Sister Gabrielle had the same thought, no doubt.
She looked still whiter than before under her white coif, and clasping
her hands and lowering her eyes, she said in a low voice:

"_Mon Dieu, ... Mon Dieu!_ ... It is horrible!"

"Sister Gabrielle," continued the incorrigible B., "don't let us talk
of such things. Let us rather discuss this omelette, a dish worthy of
the gods, and the bacon in it, the savour of which might imperil a
saint. Sister Gabrielle, you tempt us this evening to commit the sin
of gluttony, which is the most venial of all sins. And I will bear the
burden of it manfully."

I kicked B. under the table, to stop his incongruous remarks. But
Sister Gabrielle seemed not to have listened to him. She went on
serving us smilingly; changed our plates, and brought us ham and
cheese. B. went on devouring everything that was put before him; but
this did not put a stop to his divagations.

"Tell me, Sister Gabrielle, you are not going to turn us out of the
house now, are you? It would be an offence against God, who commands
us to pity travellers. And we are poor wretched travellers. If you
drive us away, we shall have to sleep on the grass by the roadside,
with stones for our pillows. No, you couldn't treat us so cruelly. I
feel sure that in a few minutes you will show me the bed in the
dormitory you will keep for me when I come to take up my quarters with
you after the war."

Sister Gabrielle's smile had disappeared. For the first time, she
seemed really distressed. She stopped in front of B., and looked at
him with her large clear eyes. She made the same gesture as before;
lifted up both her hands, in token of powerlessness, and seemed to be
thinking how she could avoid hurting our feelings. Then she said, in a
disheartened tone:

"But we have not a single spare bed."

A long silence followed this sentence, which seemed to plunge B. into
despair. The guns continued their ominous booming, making the windows
rattle terribly. I too thought now that it would be dreadful to leave
the house, go and look for our troops in the dark, and put our men to
the inconvenience of making room for us on their straw, so I too
looked at Sister Gabrielle imploringly. All at once she seemed to have
decided what to do. She began by opening one of the cupboards in the
wall, took out of it two small glasses with long tapering stems, and
placed them before us, with a goodly bottle of Hollands. She had
recovered her exquisite smile, and she hurried, for she seemed anxious
to put her idea into execution.

"There, drink. It's good Hollands, ... and we give it to our poor old
people on festivals."

"Thank you. Sister, thank you."

But she had already run out of the room, and we were left there, happy
enough, sipping our glass of Hollands, and enjoying the luxurious
peace that surrounded us. The guns seemed to be further off; we only
heard a distant growling in the direction of Yprès. Our eyelids began
to droop, and it was almost a pleasure to feel the weariness of our
limbs and heads, for now we felt sure that Sister Gabrielle would not
send us away.

She came back into the room, with a candle in her hand.

"Come," she said.

She was now quite rosy, and seemed ashamed, as though she were
committing a fault. We followed her, enchanted, and went back through
the kitchen, now dark and deserted. The flickering light of the candle
was reflected here and there on the curves of the copper pots and
glass bowls. The house was sleeping. We crossed the hall, and went up
a broad wooden staircase, polished and shining.

What a strange party we were, the youthful Sister, going in front,
treading so softly, and we two soldiers, dusty, tattered and squalid,
trying to make as little noise as possible with our heavy hobnailed
boots! The nun's rosary clinked at each step against a bundle of keys
that hung from her girdle.

I was walking last and enjoying the curious picture. The light fell
only on Sister Gabrielle. As she turned on the landing, the feeble ray
from below threw her delicate features into relief: her fine nose, her
childish mouth, with its constant smile; our own shadows appeared upon
the wall in fantastic shapes. Certainly we had never yet received so
strange and unexpected a welcome.

We passed a high oak door, surmounted by a cross and a pediment with a
Latin inscription. Sister Gabrielle crossed herself and bowed her
head.

"The chapel," she said in a low voice.

And she went quickly on to the accompaniment of her clinking rosary
and keys. As we began to go up the second flight of stairs B. resumed
his monologue in a whisper:

"Sister Gabrielle, ... Sister Gabrielle, you are an angel from
Paradise. Surely God can refuse you nothing. You will pray for me this
evening, won't you? for I am a great sinner."

"Oh, yes, of course I shall pray for you," she answered, softly, as
she turned towards us.

We came out on a long passage, bare and whitewashed. Half a dozen
doors could be distinguished at regular intervals, all alike. Sister
Gabrielle opened one of them, and we followed her in. We found
ourselves in a small room, austerely furnished with two little iron
bedsteads, two little deal tables, and two rush chairs. Above each bed
there was a crucifix, with a branch of box attached to it. Each table
had a tiny white basin and a tiny water-jug. All this was very nice,
and amply sufficient for us. Everything was clean, bright, and
polished.

"Thank you, Sister; we shall be as comfortable as possible. But, one
thing, we shall sleep like tops. Will there be any one to wake us?"

"At what time do you want to get up?"

"At six, Sister, punctually, as soldiers must, you know."

"Oh! then I will see to it. We have Mass at four o'clock every
morning."

"At four o'clock!" exclaimed B. "Every morning! Very well, Sister, to
show you we are not miscreants, wake us at half-past three, and we
will go to Mass too."

"But it isn't allowed. It is our Mass, in our chapel. No, no, you must
sleep.... Get to bed quickly. Good-night. I will wake you at six
o'clock."

"Good-night, Sister Gabrielle; good-night.... We shall be so
comfortable. You see, you had some spare beds, after all."

"Oh, yes, we had. One can always manage somehow."

And she went off, shutting the door behind her.

And now B. and I thought of nothing but the luxury of sleeping in a
bed. How delightful it would be after our sleepless nights in the fogs
of the trenches!

But what was that noise resounding through the convent? What was that
knocking and those wailing cries? There was some one at the door,
hammering at the knocker, some one weeping and sobbing in the dark. I
opened my window, and leant out. But the front door had already been
opened, and a figure slipped in hurriedly. The sobs came up the stairs
to our door, and women's voices, Sister Gabrielle's voice, speaking
Flemish, then another voice, sounding like a death-rattle, trying in
vain to pronounce words through choking sobs. How horrible that
monotonous, inconsolable, continual wail was! It went on for a short
time, and then doors were opened and shut, the voices died away, and
suddenly the noise ceased.

B. had already got into bed, and, from under the sheets, he begged me,
in a voice muffled by the bed-clothes, to put the candle out quickly.
But I was haunted by that moaning, though I could not hear it any
longer. I wanted to know what tragedy had caused those sobs. I could
not doubt that the horrible war was at the bottom of it. And yet we
were a long way from the firing line. My curiosity overcame my
fatigue. I put on my jacket and went out, taking the candle with me. I
ran down the two staircases, and my footsteps seemed to wake dismal
echoes in the silent convent.

Just as I came to the hall Sister Gabrielle also arrived, with a small
lantern in her hand. I must have frightened her, for she started and
gave a little scream. But she soon recovered, and guessed what had
disturbed me. She told me all about it in a few simple sentences; a
poor woman had fled from her village, carrying her little girl of
eighteen months. As she was running distractedly along the road from
Lizerne to Boesinghe a German shell had fallen, and a fragment of it
had killed her baby in her arms. She had just come six kilometres in
the dark, clasping the little corpse to her breast in an agony of
despair. She got to Elverdinghe, and knocked at the door of the
convent, knowing that there she would find a refuge. And all along the
road she had passed convoys, relief troops and despatch-riders; but
she took no heed of them; she was obsessed by one thought; to find a
shelter for the remains of what had been the joy and hope of her life.

"Just come," said Sister Gabrielle. "I will let you see her. We have
put the poor little body in the mortuary chamber, and Sister Elizabeth
is watching there."

I followed Sister Gabrielle, who opened a small door, and went down a
few steps; we crossed a paved court. Her lantern and my candle cast
yellowish gleams upon the high walls of the buildings. Heavy drops of
rain were falling, making a strange noise on the stones. And a kind of
anguish seized me when I again heard the continuous wailing of the
unhappy mother. Sister Gabrielle opened a low door very gently, and we
went in.

I must confess that I had been much less moved when, after the first
day of the Battle of the Marne, we passed through a wood where our
artillery had reduced a whole German regiment to a shapeless mass of
human fragments. Here I realised all the horror of war. That men
should kill each other in defence of their homes is conceivable
enough, and I honour those who fall. But it passes all understanding
why the massacre should include these poor weak and innocent
creatures. And sights such as the one I saw in that little mortuary
chapel inspire a fierce thirst for vengeance.

On a kind of large table, covered with a white cloth, the poor body
was laid out. It bore no trace of any wound, and the little white face
seemed to be smiling. The good nuns had covered the shabby clothes
with an embroidered cloth. Upon that they had crossed the little
hands, which seemed to be clasping a tiny crucifix. And over the whole
they had strewn an armful of flowers. On each side they had placed
silver candlesticks, and the reddish candle-light made golden
reflections in the curly locks of the little corpse. Crouching on the
ground by the side of it, I saw a shapeless heap of clothes which
seemed to be shaken by convulsive spasms. It was from this heap that
the monotonous wailing came. It was the young mother, weeping for her
little one. One felt that nothing could console her, and that words
would only increase her suffering. Besides, she had not even raised
her head when we went in. It was best to leave her alone, since they
say that tears bring comfort.

On the other side a young Sister was kneeling at a _prie-Dieu_,
telling her rosary. Sister Gabrielle knelt down on the ground beside
her. I longed to do something to lessen that grief, and help the poor
woman a little. She must have come there in a state of destitution:
her clothes revealed her poverty. But I durst not disturb either her
mourning or their prayers, and I came out quietly on tiptoe.

Outside, the rain, which was now falling heavily, refreshed my fevered
head somewhat. I crossed the courtyard quickly; but my candle went
out, and I had some trouble in relighting it, which was very
necessary, as I had to find my way in a maze of doors and passages. At
last I reached my staircase, and passed the landing and the Sisters'
chapel. I heard a distant clock strike midnight, went up another
storey, and opened our door noiselessly. I thought that B. would
perhaps be waiting for me impatiently, anxious to learn the reason of
all the noise.

But B. was snoring with the bed-clothes over his ears.

At six o'clock some one knocked at our door, and I opened my eyes.
Daylight showed faintly through the only window. I wondered where I
was, and suddenly remembered ... Elverdinghe ... the convent....

"Is it you, Sister Gabrielle?" I asked.

"Oh, yes, it's I. Get up. I have been knocking for more than an hour."

B. sat up in his bed. I did the same, and told him what I had seen the
evening before. He shook his head mournfully, and concluded:

"Well, ... it's war.... I hope they'll have a good breakfast ready for
us."

We hurried through our dressing and ablutions, for we had to get back
quickly to our quarters. As we came out of our room, lively and
refreshed, we met Sister Gabrielle, who seemed to have been waiting
for us. She asked us how we had slept, and, to stop the flood of
eloquence that B. was on the point of letting loose, she said:

"That's right. You shall thank me later on. Come down now; your
breakfast is waiting for you. It will get cold."

But, on passing the chapel, B. would insist on seeing it. Sister
Gabrielle hesitated a moment, and then gave way, as you would to a
child for the sake of peace. She opened the outer door, and smiled
indulgently, as if anxious to humour all our whims. We passed through
an anteroom, and then entered the chapel. It was quite small, only
large enough to hold about twenty people. The walls were white,
without any ornament, and panelled up to about the height of a man.
The altar was extremely simple, and decorated with a few flowers. Some
rush chairs completed the plenishings of the sanctuary where the good
Sisters of Elverdinghe assembled every morning at four o'clock for
prayers.

And, as we came out of this humble chapel, I noticed two mattresses,
laid in a corner of the little anteroom.

"Who sleeps here, then, Sister?" I asked.

Sister Gabrielle turned as red as a poppy. I had to repeat my question
twice, when, lowering her eyes, she answered:

"Sister Elizabeth--Sister Elizabeth ... and I."

"Sister Gabrielle, ... Sister Gabrielle, then that little room and
those two little beds where we slept, were yours?"

"Hush! Please come to breakfast at once."

And, light as a bird, she disappeared down the staircase, so quickly
that her black veil floated high above her, as though to hide her
confusion.

       *       *       *       *       *

And we saw no more of Sister Gabrielle. It was a very old woman--one
of the inmates--who brought us our hot milk and coffee, our brown
bread and fresh butter, in the dining-room with the high cupboards of
polished wood. She explained that at this hour the nuns were busy
attending to their old folk. It was of no use begging to see our
little hostess again. We were told it would be against the rules, and
we felt that the curtain had now indeed fallen upon this charming act
of the weary tragedy.

Only, just as we were passing out of the convent gate for the last
time, the old lady put into our hands a big packet of provisions
wrapped up in a napkin. She had brought it hidden under her apron.

"Here, she told me to give you this, and ... to say that she will pray
for you."

Our hearts swelled as we heard the heavy door close behind us. And
whilst we went away silently along the broken, muddy road, we thought
of the sterling hearts that are hidden under the humble habits of a
convent.

Sister Gabrielle! I shall never forget you. Never will your delicate
features fade from my memory. And I seem to see you still, going up
the great wooden staircase, lit up by the flickering flame of the
candle, when you and Sister Elizabeth gave up your beds so simply and
unostentatiously to the two unknown soldiers.



VIII. CHRISTMAS NIGHT


"_Mon Lieutenant mon Lieutenant_, it's two o'clock."

My faithful Wattrelot held the flickering candle just in front of my
eyes to rouse me. What torture it is to be snatched from sleep at such
an early hour! It would not be anything in summer; but it was the 24th
of December, and it was my turn to go on duty in the trenches. A nice
way of keeping Christmas!... I turned over in my bed, trying to avoid
that light that tormented me; I collected my thoughts, which had
wandered far away whilst I was asleep, and had been replaced by
exquisite dreams, dreams of times of peace, of welfare, of good cheer,
and of gentle warmth.

Then I remembered: I had to take command of a detachment of a hundred
troopers of the regiment, who were to replace the hundred now in the
trenches. It was nearly a month since we had joined our Army Corps
near R., and every other day the regiment had to furnish the same
number of men to occupy a sector of the trenches. It was my turn, on
the 24th of December, to replace my brother-officer and good friend
Lieutenant de la G., who had occupied the post since the 22nd.

I had forgotten all this.... How cold it was! Brrr!...

Whilst Wattrelot was taking himself off I braced myself for the
necessary effort of getting out of the warm sheets. Like a coward, I
kept on allowing myself successive respites, vowing to rise heroically
after each.

"I will get up as soon as Wattrelot has reached the landing of the
first floor.... I will get up when I hear him walking on the pavement
of the hall, ... or rather when I hear the entrance-door shut, and his
boots creaking on the gravel path...."

But every noise was hushed. Wattrelot was already some way off, and I
still shied at this act, which, after all, was inevitable: to get out
of bed in a little ice-cold room at two o'clock in the morning.
Through the window, which had neither shutter nor curtain, I saw a
small piece of the sky, beautifully clear, in which myriads of stars
were twinkling. The day before, when I came in to go to bed, it was
freezing hard. That morning the frost, I thought, must be terrible.

"Come, up!" With a bound I was on the ground, and rushed at once to
the little pitch-pine washstand. Rapid ablutions would wake me up
thoroughly. Horror! The water in the jug was frozen. Oh! not very
deeply, no doubt; but all the same I had to break a coating of ice
that had formed on the surface. However, I was happy to feel more
nimble after having washed my face. Quick! Two warm waistcoats under
my jacket, my large cloak with its cape, my fur gloves, my campaigning
cap pulled over my ears, and there I was, with a candle in my hand,
going down the grand staircase of the château.

For I was quartered in a château. The very word makes one think of a
warm room, well upholstered, well furnished, with soft carpets and
comfortable armchairs. But, alas! it was nothing of the sort.... The
good lady whose house it was had provided for all contingencies; the
family rooms had been prudently dismantled and double-locked. A
formidable _concierge_ had the keys, and I was happy indeed when I
found the butler's room in the attics. His bed, with its white sheets,
seemed to me very desirable. And then, as we say in time of peace, one
must take things as they come.

The open hall-door let in a wave of cold air, which struck cold on my
face. But I had not a minute to lose. The detachment was to start at
half-past two punctually, and it had, no doubt, already formed up in
the market-place. I hurried into the street. The tall pines of the
park stood out black against the silver sky, whilst the bare branches
of the other trees formed thousands of arabesques and strange patterns
all round. Not the slightest noise was to be heard in the limpid,
diaphanous night, in which the air seemed as pure and rare as on the
summits of lofty mountains. Under my footsteps the gravel felt soft,
but, once I had got outside the iron gate, I found myself on ground as
hard as stone. The mud formed by recent rains and the ruts hollowed by
streams of convoys had frozen, and the road was a maze of furrows and
inequalities which made me stumble again and again.

In front of the Hôtel des Lacs a certain number of the men had already
lined up, in front of their horses. Huddled in their cloaks, with
collars turned up, they were stamping their feet and blowing into
their hands. It must have been real torture for them too to come out
of their straw litter, where they were sleeping so snugly a few
moments before, rolled up in their blankets. They had got a liking for
the kind of comfort peculiar to the campaigner, and had invented a
thousand and one ingenious methods of improving the arrangements of
their novel garrison. Sleeping parties had been gradually organised,
and sets of seven or eight at a time enjoyed delightful nights,
stretched on their clean straw. Many of them would certainly not be
able to get to sleep if they suddenly found themselves in a real bed.
And then it is less difficult to get up when one has gone to bed with
one's clothes on, and when the room is not very warm. Not one of them
complained; not one of them grumbled. We can always count on our brave
fellows.

"All present, _mon Lieutenant!_"

It was the senior non-commissioned officers of the two squadrons
assembled there who reported. Every one had got up and equipped
himself at the appointed hour; not one was missing at roll-call; they
had all assembled of their own accord; the corporals had not needed to
knock at door after door to wake the sleepers. Our Chasseurs had very
quickly established simple customs and rules of their own which
ensured the regularity of the service without written orders. This
intelligent and spontaneous discipline is one of the most admirable
features of this campaign. It has grown up by degrees, without any
special orders or prescriptions from above, with the result that the
hardest labours are carried out almost without supervision, because
each man understands the end in view and the grim necessities which it
involves.

They understood at once that this early hour was the only one at which
the relief could be effected. And every other day, just as on that
December morning, twenty-five men out of each squadron get up at
half-past one, equip themselves, and saddle their horses, whilst the
cooks warm up a good cup of coffee for each man. Then, without any
hurry, but at the exact moment, they form up in fighting order at the
appointed spot, and when the officer arrives, in the dark, rain, wind,
snow, or frost, he is sure of receiving the same report:

"All present, _mon Lieutenant!_"

Quick! Mount. We shall feel the cold less trotting over the hardened
roads this bright night and under this brilliant moon. Two and two, in
silence, we issued from the village in the direction of R. I knew that
I should find a little further on, at the cross-roads where the
crucifix stands, the fifty men of the first half-regiment and
Second-Lieutenant de G., who serves under me.

Yes, there he was, coming to meet me on the hard road. It was a joy to
me that chance had given me this jolly fellow for my trench companion.
I hardly knew him, for he had not been with us more than a few days.
Taken from the Military College directly war was declared, he had
first been sent to a reserve squadron, and had only just been
appointed to an active regiment. But I already knew, through my
comrades of the first squadron, that he was a daring soldier and a
merry companion. So much the better, I thought. War is a sad thing,
and one must learn to take it gaily. A plague on gloomy spirits and
long faces! True, we can no longer wage the picturesque war of the
"good old days." We shall never know another Fontenoy, or Rivoli, or
Eylau. But that is no reason why we should lose the jovial humour of
our forefathers. Thank Heaven! we have preserved their qualities of
dash and bravery. But it is more difficult to keep a smiling face in
this hideous mole warfare, which is imposed even upon us troopers. All
the more reason for liking and admiring the cheery officers who keep
our spirits up, and G. is one of them.

We shook hands without speaking, for it seemed to us that if we opened
our mouths the frost would get into our bodies and freeze them, and we
set off at a sharp trot along the narrow by-road which, crossing the
high-road to Paris, leads to C. There we should have to leave our
horses, cross the zone of the enemy's artillery fire, and get to the
trenches on foot. The horses snorted with pleasure, happy to warm
themselves by rapid movement. Some of them indulged in merry capers,
which were repressed, not too gently, by their more sedate riders.
Their hoofs struck the uneven ground with a metallic ring which must
have echoed far; and the clink of bits and stirrups also disturbed the
sleeping country. Before us the road ran straight amidst the dark
fields, a long pale grey ribbon. No one thought of laughing or
talking; sleep seemed still to hover over the column, and every one
knew that the two days of trench duty would be long and hard to get
through even if the Prussians left us in peace.

We passed a cross, which shone white on the side of the road under the
pale light of the moon, and saluted it. We had known it from the first
days, and had its inscription by heart:


       80 NON-COMMISSIONED OFFICERS,
          CORPORALS, AND SOLDIERS
     OF THE 39TH AND 74TH REGIMENTS OF
                 INFANTRY,
             KILLED IN ACTION.
               PRAY FOR THEM.


We dimly discerned the modest wreaths of green leaves, now faded and
yellow, and the little nosegays of withered flowers attached to the
arms of this cross, left there after the departure of the regiment and
undisturbed by any sacrilegious hand.

We crossed the Paris road, with its double row of trees, which, in the
night, appeared gigantic, and, after answering the challenge of the
Territorial guarding the approach to C., we entered the village.

It appeared to be completely empty, and yet there were two battalions
of the ---- Territorials quartered there. The moon seemed to be
amusing itself by casting the shadows of the houses on one side of the
street upon the walls of the other side in fantastic shapes.

"Dismount."

We had reached the spot where we were to leave our horses. The men
quickly unbuckled the blankets which were to help them to endure the
weary hours of the following night. They slung them over their
shoulders, and we set off towards the towing-path of the canal. We
went very slowly, as we had at least seven or eight kilometres before
us, and a walk of eight kilometres for troopers laden and dressed as
we were is no light matter.

We found the towing-path. Walking at that hour of the night is
certainly not very alluring. However, the view was not lacking in
grandeur. On either side of the canal the dark silhouettes of tall
trees stood out against the sky. Their shadows were reflected in the
water, which gleamed with a metallic lustre in the moonshine. How calm
and silent it was! Who would have thought we were at war? Not a
cannon-shot, not a rifle-shot, disturbed the peace of the night. Yet,
as a rule, there were no long intervals between the reports which
reminded us of the serious work on hand.

That day it seemed as though some agreement had been come to by both
sides to stop killing or trying to kill. However touching such an
agreement might be, it would also be somewhat disturbing, for one must
always beware of an enemy who resorts so freely to tricks and traps of
every kind. It was as well not to celebrate Christmas too obtrusively.
Besides, I did not think we were the only ones keeping vigil at that
hour.

From time to time we passed small groups of infantry, haggard, dusty,
and heavily laden, marching in ranks with their arms slung, by threes
or fours, without speaking, striding slowly, as though they were
trying to measure the length of the road. Some of them were carrying
curious objects fastened to sticks: pots or big cans, perhaps baskets.
Where they were going or what they were doing we did not ask. Every
man has his own job; if those fellows were going that way they had
their orders, and nobody troubled himself about their object. All was
well. The clattering of the Chasseurs on the uneven road lent a little
life to the picture. Perhaps they were talking together; but, if so,
it was in an undertone, a whisper almost.

And suddenly the enemy let us know that he was also keeping watch. Far
ahead of us, near C., a rocket went up into the clear sky and then
fell slowly, very slowly, in the form of an intensely brilliant ball,
lighting up all the surrounding country wonderfully. We knew them
well, those formidable German rockets, which seemed as though they
would never go out and shed a pallid and yet blinding light. We knew
that as soon as they were lighted everybody who happened to be within
range of the enemy's rifle fire had at once to lie flat on the ground,
and not move or raise his head so long as the light was burning.
Otherwise shots would be fired from all directions, mowing down the
vegetation and cutting up the earth all around him. This time we were
well outside the range, and we watched the dazzling star in front of
us without halting.

"The shepherds' star," said G. solemnly.

Strange shepherds indeed must they have been who carried carbines as
their crooks, and were provided with cartridges enough to send a
hundred and twenty of their fellow-creatures into the next world. The
star seemed to hang for a moment some yards from the ground; then
slowly, slowly, as though exhausted by its effort, it fell to the
ground and went out. The night seemed less clear and less diaphanous.

We had now reached the glass-works and it was there that we were to
leave our cooks. No one would have supposed that this large factory
lay idle, and that the hundreds of workmen employed there were
dispersed. On the contrary, it seemed to have retained all the
animation of the prosperous enterprise it had been before the war.

It was a large square of massive buildings, almost a miniature town,
planted on the side of the canal, like an outlying bastion of the
suburbs of R. The low white walls, crowned with tiles, had the stunted
appearance of military works. But a nearer view gave rather the
illusion of the life in a busy factory at night-time. The gateway
opened on a courtyard, with furnace fires shining here and there.
Shadowy forms passed backwards and forwards, enlivening the dim scene
with the bustle of a hive. Men came out by fives or sixes, laden with
different kinds of burdens, and disappeared into the darkness, making
for mysterious goals. In front of the open gate other figures were
unloading heavy cases from vans. These quondam glass-works were now a
depôt for the Army Supply service, and a huge kitchen, which
administered and fed the whole sector of trenches, of which ours
formed a part.

The Germans knew this. So every day and many times a day their guns
fired a few salvoes of shells on the huge quadrilateral. But our good
troopers were none the worse. Instead of working in the large
buildings, part of which had already been destroyed by shells, they
utilised the vast basements of the factory. There were the stores, and
there they had their kitchens, where they worked day and night to
supply their comrades in the trenches with the hot abundant food which
twice a day made them forget for a few minutes the hardships of the
cold, the rain, and the mud.

Our column halted under the bleak wall. At the wide gateway a sentinel
was on duty, standing motionless, muffled in a heavy grey cloak; and
through it our cooks passed, disappearing into the darkness, under the
guidance of the _liaison_ orderly of the preceding detachment. Whilst
waiting for his return from the journey through the labyrinth our
Chasseurs had a short rest before beginning the most difficult part of
their journey--the last stage on the way to the trenches we were to
occupy.

I took the opportunity of talking with an infantry captain who was
there, walking up and down with his face buried in a thick muffler and
his hands in the pockets of his heavy overcoat, on the sleeves of
which three small pieces of gold lace were just discernible.

"_Eh bien, mon Capitaine!_ Anything new?"

"Oh! nothing, except my opinion that you will not be disturbed either
to-day or to-morrow. Since yesterday evening they have not fired one
shot, and they were singing hymns till midnight. You may be pretty
sure they'll redouble their _Oremus_ this Christmas night, so you may
sleep soundly."

"Unless all this is merely a feint, and to-night ..."

"Yes, you're right, unless to-night ..."

The column started, and, guided by the _liaison_ orderly, we followed
the high-road for some hundred yards. The shells had transformed it
into a series of gorges, peaks, ravines, and hills. We had to jump
over big branches cut from the trees by the projectiles. It was a road
that would not be a cheerful one on moonless nights. Fortunately for
us, that particular night was extremely bright. Everything around us
could be distinguished; we could even divine about fifteen hundred
yards to our right the "solitary tree," the famous tree, standing
alone in the middle of the vast bare plain, which marked the centre of
our sector of trenches, and where I knew I should find the "dug-out"
belonging to the officers of our regiment. I was very much tempted to
jump the ditch at the side of the road and cut across the fields to
the final point of our march. It would have taken about twenty
minutes, and have saved us the long difficult journey through the
communication trench. But our orders were very precise: we were not to
take short cuts even on dark nights, much less on starlit nights. Our
chiefs do well to be cautious on our behalf, for it is certain that,
though fully alive to the danger of such a route, there was not one of
my hundred fellows who would have hesitated to dash across country
just to save himself a few hundred yards.

We came to the mouth of the approach trench, four or five huge steps
cut in the chalky clay. The frost had made them slippery, and we had
to keep close to the edge of the bank to avoid stumbling. Behind me I
heard some of the men sliding down heavily, and a din of mess-tins
rolling away amidst laughter and jokes. "A merry heart goes all the
way," and I knew my Chasseurs would soon pick themselves up and make
up for lost time. This was essential, for the approach trench had
ramifications and unexpected cross-passages which might have led a
laggard astray.

We went forward slowly. The communication trench was at right angles
to the enemy's trenches. To prevent him from enfilading it with his
shells, it had been cut in zigzags. And I hardly know of a more
laborious method of progression than that of taking ten paces to the
right, making a sharp turn, and then again taking ten paces to the
left, and so on, in order to cover a distance which, as the crow
flies, would not be more than fifteen hundred yards. The passage was
so narrow that we touched the walls on either side. The moonlight
could not reach the ground we trod on, and we stumbled incessantly
over the holes and inequalities caused by the late rains and hardened
by the frost. Now and again we slid over ice that had formed on the
little pools through which our comrades had been paddling two days
before. And this was some consolation for the severity of the frost,
preferable a hundred times to the horrors of the rain.

At last we debouched into our trenches, where our predecessors were
impatiently waiting for us. Two days and two nights is a long time to
go without sleeping, without washing, without having any other view
than the walls of earth that shut you in. They were all eager to go
back over the same road they had come by two days before, to get to
their horses again, their quarters, their friends--in short, their
home. So we found them quite ready to go, blankets rolled up and slung
over their shoulders, and knapsacks in their places under their
cloaks.

Whilst the non-commissioned officers of each squadron went to relieve
the men at the listening posts, I brushed past the men lined up
against the wall, and went towards the "solitary tree," which seemed
to be stretching out its gaunt arms to protect our retreat. I had to
turn to the right in a narrow passage which went round the tree, and
ended in three steep steps cut in the earth, down which I had to go to
reach the dug-out.

My old friend La G. was waiting for me at the bottom of this den,
stretched on two chairs, warming his feet at a tiny iron stove perched
upon a heap of bricks. By the light of the one candle he looked
imposing and serious. His tawny beard, which he had allowed to grow
since the war, spread like a fan over his chest, and gave him a look
of Henri IV. I knew that this formidable exterior concealed the
merriest companion and the most delightful sly joker that ever lived.
So I was not much impressed by his thoughtful brow and his dreamy eye.

"Well, what's the news?" I asked.

"We are all freezing," he replied.

I rather suspected it. Besides this fact, which we had discovered
before him, La G. could only confirm what the infantry captain had
told me shortly before:

"You are going to have a most restful night, my dear fellow; and I
advise you to have a Christmas manger arranged at the foot of the
'solitary tree,' and at midnight to sing 'Christians, awake,' in
chorus.... We know some hymns as well as the Germans."

I had no lack of desire to put this proposal into action, but such
pious customs as these would not perhaps have been quite in harmony
with the tactical ideas of our commanding officer. Still I promised
La G. I would do my best for the realisation of his dream.

"Good-bye and good luck!" he said.

"Good-bye," I replied.

And he went away into the darkness. At the end of the little passage
that led to the trench I could see the men who had just been relieved
passing in single file going towards the communication trench by which
we had come. Their dark forms defiled in closely and rapidly. Having
completed their task, they were happy to be free to get back to their
squadrons, and as they passed they cracked their jokes at the others
who had to stay. These answered back, but not in the most amiable
manner. Then, little by little, silence settled down upon the scene.
Every man was at his post: some kept watch, others walked about at the
bottom of the trench or busied themselves with repairing or improving
the indifferent shelters their predecessors had left them.

G. had gone to take the watch on which the junior officers of the
units defending the sector relieved each other every three hours. So
there I was alone, alone in the midst of my brave Chasseurs, with the
duty of guarding those five hundred yards of trenches--a very small
piece at that time of the immense French line. Behind us thousands of
our fellows were sleeping in perfect confidence, relying upon the thin
rampart we formed in front of them; and farther away still there were
millions of Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, who, under their family roof or
under that of their hosts, were resting in peace because of our
sleepless nights, our limbs stiffened by the cold, our carbines
pointed through the loopholes of the trenches.

Thus were we to celebrate the merry festival of Christmas. There was
no doubt that far away among those who were keeping the sacred vigil
more than one would think of us and sympathise with us.... No doubt
many a one among us would feel a touch of sadness that evening,
thinking of his home. But none, not one, I felt sure, would wish to
quit his post to get away from the Front. Military honour! glorious
legacy of our ancestors! Who could have foreseen that it would be
implanted so naturally and so easily in the young souls of our
soldiers? Within their youthful bodies the same hearts were already
beating as those of the immortal veterans of the epic days of France.
Men are fashioned by war.

Ten o'clock came on Christmas Eve to find that our day had passed in
almost absolute calm. It had been a glorious winter day, a day of
bright sunshine and pure clear air. The Germans had hardly fired at
all. A few cannon-shots only had replied to our artillery, which let
off its heavy guns every now and then upon their positions from the
heights behind us.

And then night came. B. and I had just finished our frugal meal. We
had promised to pay a visit to the Territorials who occupied the
trenches right and left of ours. Our Chasseurs had been posted in that
particular section so that in case of attack they might form a solid
base for the Territorials to rely upon. They did not conceal their
confidence in our men or their admiration for them; and their officers
had no scruples in asking for our advice when difficult cases arose.
In fact, that very afternoon the captain commanding the company to our
right had come to my dug-out to arrange with me about the patrols that
had to be sent that night in advance of the line.

Wrapped in our cloaks, we came out of our warm retreat. The night was
just like the previous one, starlit, bright, and frosty, a true
Christmas night for times of peace. In our trenches one half of the
men were awake, in obedience to orders. Carbines were loaded and
placed in the loopholes, and the guns were trained upon the enemy. In
front of us, at the end of the narrow passages which led out to the
listening posts, I knew that our sentries were alert with eye and ear,
crouching in their holes in pairs. No one could approach the broad
network of wire which protected us without being immediately perceived
and shot. At the bottom of the trenches the men on watch were talking
softly together and stamping on the ground to combat the intense
cold.

Those who were at rest, lying close together at the bottom of the
little dug-outs they had made for themselves in the bank, were
sleeping or trying to sleep. More than one of them had succeeded, for
resounding snores could be heard behind the blankets, pieces of tent
canvas and sacking, and all the various rags with which they had
ingeniously stuffed up the entrances to their rustic alcoves. One
wondered how they could have overcome the sufferings the cold must
have caused them so far as to be able to sleep calmly. The five months
of war had hardened their bodies and accustomed them to face cold,
heat, rain, dust, or mud, with impunity. In this hard school, better
than in any other, men of iron are fashioned, who last out a whole
campaign and are capable of the supreme effort when the hour comes.

We arrived at the Territorials' trench.

"_Bon-soir, mon cher camarade._"

It was the Second-Lieutenant whom I met at the entrance. He was a man
of forty-two, thin, pale, and bearded. In the shadow his eyes shone
strangely. Under the skirts of his great-coat he had his hands buried
in his trouser pockets. His elbows stuck out from his body, his knees
were bent, his teeth chattered, and he was gently knocking his heels
together.

"It isn't warm, eh?" I asked.

"Oh, no; and then, you see, this sort of work is hardly the thing for
fellows of our age. Our blood isn't warm enough, and, however you
cover yourself up, there's always a chink by which the cold gets in.
The worst of all is one's hands and feet; and there's nothing to be
done for it. Wouldn't it be much better to trust to us, give us the
order to fix bayonets and drive those Boches out of their trenches
over there? You'd see if the Territorials couldn't do it as well as
the Regulars.... And then one would have a chance of getting warm."

I felt sure that he spoke the truth, and that his opinion was shared
by the majority of his companions. But our good comrades of the
Territorial Force have no conception of the vigour, the suppleness,
and of the fulness of youth required to charge up to the enemy's line
under concentrated fire and to cut the complex network of barbed wire
that bars the road. Our chiefs were well advised in placing these
troops where they were, in those lines of trenches scientifically
constructed and protected, where their courage and tenacity would be
invaluable in case of attack, and where they would know better than
any others how to carry out the orders given to us: "Hold on till
death." Leave to the young soldiers the sublime and perilous task of
rushing upon the enemy when he is hidden behind the shelter of his
_fougades_, his parapets, and his artificial brambles; and entrust to
the brave Territorials the more obscure but not less glorious work of
mounting guard along our front.

I could make them out in the moonlight, standing silent and alert, in
groups of two or three. Perched on the ledge of earth which raised
them to the height of the parapet, they had their eyes wide open in
the darkness, looking towards the enemy. Their loaded rifles were
placed in front of them, between two clods of hardened earth. They
neither complained nor uttered a word, but suffered nobly. They
understand that they must. Ah! where now were the fine tirades of
pothouse orators and public meetings? Where now were the oaths to
revolt, the solemn denials and the blasphemies pronounced against the
Fatherland? All was forgotten, wiped out from the records. If we could
have questioned those men who stood there shivering, chilled to the
bone, watching over the safety of the country, not one of them,
certainly, would have confessed that he was ever one of the renegades
of yore. And yet if one were to search among the bravest, among the
most resigned, among the best, thousands of them would be discovered.
Heaven grant that this miracle, wrought by the war, may be prolonged
far beyond the days of the struggle, and then we shall not think that
our brothers' blood has been spilt in vain.

We brushed past them, but they did not even turn round. Eyes, mind,
and will were absorbed in the dark mystery of the silent landscape
stretching out before them. But the night, though it was so bright,
gave everything a strange appearance; transformed all living things
and increased their size; made the stones, the stacks, and the trees
move, as it seemed to our weary eyes; cast fitful shadows where there
were none; and made us hear murmurs which sounded like the muffled
tramp of troops marching cautiously. Those men watched because they
felt that there was always the danger of a surprise attack, of a
sudden rush of Teutons who had crawled up through the grass of the
fields. They had piled on their backs empty sacks, blankets, and old
rags, for warmth, and wound their mufflers two or three times round
their necks; they had taken all possible precautions for carrying out
their duty to the very last. And although our hearts had been
hardened by the unprecedented miseries of this war, we were seized
with pity and admiration. Presently one of them turned round and said
to us:

"Hallo! They are lighting up over there now."

I jumped up on to the ledge and saw, in fact, lights shining in three
different places some way off. After looking attentively I guessed the
meaning of this quite unusual illumination in the rear of the
trenches. The lights came from some large fir-trees, placed there
under cover of night, and beautifully lighted up. With my glasses I
could make them out distinctly, and even the figures dancing round
them; and we could hear their voices and shouts of merriment. How well
they had arranged the whole thing! They had even gone as far as to
light up their Christmas trees with electricity, so as to prevent our
gunners from using them as an easy target. In fact, every few minutes
all the lights on a tree were suddenly put out, and only appeared some
minutes afterwards.

We had thrilled instinctively. Suddenly there arose, all over the wide
plain, solemn and melodious singing. We still remembered singing of a
similar kind we had recently heard at Bixschoote on a tragic occasion;
and here were the same tuneful voices again, singing a hymn of the
same kind as those they sang further to the north before shouting
their hurrahs for the attack. But we did not fear anything of that
kind now. We had the impression that this singing was not a special
prayer in front of our little sector of trenches, but that it was
general, and extended without limits over the whole of our provinces
violated by the enemy: over Champagne, Lorraine, and Picardy,
resounding from the North Sea to the Rhine.

The Territorial trench was full of noiseless animation. The men came
up out of their little dug-outs without a word, and the whole company
was soon perched upon the ledge. There was a silence among our men, as
if each man felt uneasy or perhaps jealous of what was going on over
there. Then, as if to order, along the line of the German trenches
other hymns rang out, and one choir seemed to answer the other. The
singing became general. Quite close to us, in the trenches themselves,
in the distance, round their brightly lighted trees, to the right, to
the left, it resounded, softened by the distance. What a stirring,
nay, grandiose, impression those hymns made, floating over the vast
field of death! I felt intuitively that all this had been arranged
long before, that they might celebrate their Christmas with religious
calm and peace.

At any other time, no doubt, many a clumsy joke would have been made,
and no little abuse hurled at the singers. But all that has been
changed. I divined some regret among our brave fellows that we were
not taking part in a similar festival. Was it not Christmas Eve? Had
we not been obliged by our duty to give up the delightful family
gathering which reunites us yearly around the symbolic Yule-log? This
year our mothers, our sisters, and our children were keeping up the
time-honoured and pious custom alone. Why did not our larger family of
to-day join in singing together around lighted fir-trees? Our
Territorials did not speak; but their thoughts flew away from the
trenches, and the regrets of all were fused in a common feeling of
melancholy.

Little by little the singing died away, and absolute silence fell once
more upon the country.

       *       *       *       *       *

I went with G. as far as his watch-post. He had to resume his duty as
officer of the watch from eleven o'clock in the evening to two o'clock
in the morning. The post consisted of a kind of small blockhouse,
strongly built and protected by two casemates with machine-guns placed
so as to command the enemy's trenches. A machine-gunner was always on
guard, and could call the others, at the slightest alarm, to work the
gun. These men were quartered in a kind of tunnel hollowed out close
by, and at the first signal would have been ready to open fire with
their terrible engines of destruction. In the centre of the
block-house a padded sentry-box was arranged made of a number of
sand-bags, in which, by means of a loophole, the officer of the watch
could observe the whole sector entrusted to us; and by means of a
telephone station, close at hand, he could communicate at any moment
with the commander of the sector at the glass-works.

G. had put on the goatskin coat handed to him by the officer he
relieved. This officer was a Second-Lieutenant of Territorials, and
looked completely frozen.

"Here, my dear fellow," he said, "I leave you the goatskin provided
for the use of the officer on duty. I should have liked to give it you
well warmed, but I feel like an icicle myself."

G. was nevertheless glad to have it. After wishing him good luck, I
left him to get back to my hut, for, in spite of my cloak, the frost
was taking hold of me too. The faithful Wattrelot had done his best to
keep our little stove going. Profiting by La G.'s example, I
stretched myself on two chairs, with my feet towards the fire. I
gradually got warmer, and at the same time somewhat melancholy. What a
curious Christmas Eve! Certainly I had never passed one in such a
place. The walls were made of a greyish, friable earth, which still
showed the marks of the pick that had been used for the excavation.
The furniture was simple and not very comfortable. At the back was the
bed, made out of a little straw already well tossed over by a number
of sleepers. This straw was kept in by a plank fixed to the ground and
forming the side of the modest couch. Against the wall, opposite the
stove, was the table. This table, which had to serve for writing and
feeding, and perhaps for a game of cards, this table, which was
required to fill the part of all the tables of all the rooms of any
house, was, strange to say, a night-table. I wondered who had brought
it there, and who had chosen it. But, such as it was, it served its
purpose pretty well. We used it for dinner, and found it almost
comfortable, and upon it I signed a number of reports and orders.
Together with the two chairs, the stove, the bed, and some nails to
hang my clothes on, that table completed the furniture of the "home"
where I meditated on that December night. The candle, stuck in a
bottle, flickered at the slightest breath, and threw strange shadows
on the walls.

It was the hour of solitude and silence, the hour of meditation and of
sadness too now and then. That evening dark thoughts were flying about
in that smoky den, assailing me in crowds, and taking possession of my
mind; I could not drive them away. It was one of those moments--those
very fleeting moments!--when courage seems to fail, and one gives way
with a kind of bitter satisfaction. I remembered that months and
months had passed since I had seen any of those belonging to me, and I
conjured up in my mind the picture of the Christmas Eve they were
keeping, too, at that same hour, at the other end of France. And the
dear, good friends I had left in Paris and in Rouen--where were they
at that moment? What were they doing? Were they thinking of me? How I
should have liked to enjoy the wonderful power possessed by certain
heroes in the Arabian Nights, which would have allowed me to see at
that moment a vision of the loved ones far away. Were they talking
about me, sitting together round the fire? I thought that this war had
been a splendid thing to us Chasseurs as long as we were fighting as
cavalry, scouring the plains, searching the woods, galloping in
advance of our infantry, and bringing them information which enabled
them to deal their blows or parry those of the enemy, trying to come
up with the Prussian cavalry which fled before us. But this trench
warfare, this warfare in which one stays for days and days in the same
position, in which ground is gained yard by yard, in which artifice
tries to outdo artifice, in which each side clings to the ground it
has won, digs into it, buries itself in it, and dies in it sooner than
give it up! What warfare for cavalry! We have devoted ourselves to it
with all our hearts, and the chiefs who have had us under their
orders have never failed to commend us; but at times we feel very
weary, and during inaction and solitude our imaginations begin to
work. Then we recall our regiment in full gallop over field and plain;
we hear the clank of swords and bits; we see once more the flash of
the blades, the motley line of the horses; we evoke the well-known
figures of our chiefs on their chargers. That night my mind became
more restless than ever before; it broke loose, it leapt away, and
lived again the unforgettable stages of this war: Charleroi, Guise,
the Marne, the defence of the Jaulgonne bridge, Montmirail, Reims, ...
Belgium, Bixschoote; and then it fell back into the gloomy dug-out
where the flame of the single candle traced disquieting shadows on the
wall.

Suddenly a cold breath of air blew into my retreat. The door opened
abruptly, and at the top of the steps a man, stooping over the floor
of the passage, called me in an undertone:

"_Mon Lieutenant_, come and see.... Something is happening...."

With a bound, I sprang from my shelter and climbed up the ledge.

"Listen, _mon Lieutenant_."

That night in the trenches was destined to overwhelm me with
astonishment, and this one surpassed all that I could imagine. I
should like to be able to impart the extraordinary impression I felt;
but one would have to have been there that night to be capable of
realising it. Over that vast and silent plain, in which everything
seemed to sleep and where no other sound was heard, there resounded
from afar a voice whose notes, in spite of the distance, reached our
ears. What an extraordinary thing it was! That song, vibrating through
the boundless night, made our hearts beat and stirred us more than the
most perfectly ordered concert given by the most famous singers.

And it was another hymn, unknown to us, coming from the German
trenches far away on our left. The singer must have been standing out
in the fields on the edge of their line; he must have been moving,
coming towards us, and passing slowly along all the enemy's positions,
for his voice came gradually nearer, and became louder and clearer.
Every now and then it ceased, and then hundreds of other voices
responded in chorus with some phrases which formed the refrain of the
hymn. Then the soloist began again and came still nearer to us. He
must have come from a considerable distance, for our Chasseurs had
already heard him some time before they decided to call me. Who could
this man have been, who must have been sent along the front of the
troops to pray, whilst each German company waited for him, so as to
join with him in prayer? Some minister, no doubt, who had come to
remind the soldiers of the sanctity of that night and the solemnity of
the hour.

Soon we heard the voice coming from the trenches straight in front of
us. In spite of the brightness of the night, we could not distinguish
the singer, for the two lines at that point were four hundred yards
apart. But he was certainly not hiding himself, for his deep voice
would never have sounded so rich and clear to us had he been singing at
the bottom of their trenches. Again it ceased. And then the Germans
directly in front of us, the soldiers occupying the works opposite
ours, those men whom we were bound to kill so soon as they appeared,
and whose duty it was to shoot us so soon as we showed ourselves--those
men calmly took up the refrain of the hymn, with its sweet and
mysterious words. They too must have come to the edge of their trench
and struck up their hymn with their faces towards us, for their notes
came to us clearly and distinctly.

I looked along the line of our trench. All our men too were awake and
looking on. They had all got on to the ledge, and several had left the
trench and were in the field, listening to the unexpected concert. No
one was offended by it; no one laughed at it. Rather was there a trace
of regret in the attitudes and the faces of those who were nearest to
me. And yet it would have been such a simple matter to put an end to
that scene; a volley fired by the troop there, and it would all stop,
and drop back into the quiet of other nights. But nobody thought of
such a thing. There was not one of our Chasseurs who would not have
considered it a sacrilege to fire upon those praying soldiers. We felt
indeed that there are hours when one can forget that one is there to
kill. This would not prevent us from doing our duty immediately
afterwards.

The voice drew farther away, and retreated slowly and majestically
towards the trenches situated at the place known as the "Troopers of
C.'s" ground, where our two lines approached each other within a
distance of fifty yards. How much more touching the sight must have
been from there! I wished my post had been in that direction, so that
I might have been present at the scene, might have heard the words and
distinguished the figure of the pastor walking along the parapets
made for hurling out death, and blessing those who the next day might
be no more.

Ping! A shot was heard....

The stupid bullet which had perhaps found its mark? At once there was
dead silence, not a cry, not an oath, not a groan. Some one had
thought he was doing well by firing on that man. A pity! We should
gain nothing by preventing them from keeping Christmas in their own
way, and it would have been a nobler thing to reserve our blows for
other hecatombs. I know that the barbarians would not have hesitated
had they been in our place, and that so many of our priests had fallen
under their strokes that they could not reasonably have reproached us.
There are people who will say that our hatred should embrace
everything German; that we should be implacable towards everything
bearing that name, and spare none of the execrated race which has been
the cause of so many tears, so much blood, so much mourning. Never
mind!... I think in this case it would have been better not to have
shot....

A shot fired, not far from us, on our left brought me up from my
shelter. It seemed strange after the complete calm of that night. It
was seven o'clock. The sun was magnificent, and had already bathed the
deserted plain, the fields, the heights of S., and the ruined village.
In the distance, towards the east, the towers of the cathedral of R.
stood out proudly against the golden sky. I looked and saw all my
Chasseurs standing on the ledges watching with interest a scene which
seemed to be going on in front of the trenches occupied on our left by
the Territorials.

I got up by the side of one of them, and he explained to me what was
happening.

"_Mon Lieutenant_, it's the infantry fellows who have just killed a
hare that ran between the two lines, and they're going to fetch
it...."

And in fact I saw this strange sight: two men had gone out in full
daylight from their trenches and were advancing with hesitating steps
towards the enemy's. Behind them were a hundred inquisitive heads,
looking out above the embrasures arranged between the sacks of earth.
A few soldiers, who had come out of the trench, were even sitting on
the bank of chalky earth. It was certainly such a scene as I had
hardly expected to witness. What was the captain of the company
occupying the trench doing?

But my astonishment became stupefaction when I saw the hundreds of
heads that fringed the enemy's trenches. I at once sent G. and a
non-commissioned officer with the following order to all our men:

"No one is to show himself.... Every man to his fighting post!...
Carbines loaded and ready to fire!"

The Germans opposite became suspicious on seeing our line so silent,
and no man showing himself; they, too, waited on the alert behind
their loopholes. But along the rest of their front their men kept on
coming out from their trenches unarmed, and making merry and friendly
gestures. I became uneasy, and wondered how this unexpected comedy
might end. Ought I to have those men fired upon who were not quite
opposite to us, and whose opponents seemed rather inclined to make a
Christmas truce?

Our two infantrymen had come to the spot where the hare had fallen,
very nearly half-way between the French and the German lines. One of
them stooped down and got up again proudly brandishing his victim in
the enemy's faces. At once there was a burst of applause from the
German lines. They called out: "Kameraden! Kameraden!"

This was going too far. I saw two unarmed Prussians leave their trench
and come forward, with their hands raised towards the two Frenchmen,
so I consulted G.: "Ought we to fire? I confess it would be rather
unpleasant for me to order our fellows to fire upon these unarmed men.
On the other hand, can we allow the least intercourse between the
barbarous nation that is still treading our soil and our good
brothers-in-arms who are pouring out their blood every day to
reconquer it?"

Fortunately, the officer who commanded the Saint Thierry artillery,
and who had observed this scene with his glasses, spared me a
decision which would have been painful to me.

Pong! Pong! Pong! Pong!

Four shells passed, hissing, over our heads, and burst with admirable
precision two hundred yards above the German trenches. The artillery
officer seemed to have placed with a delicate hand the four little
white puffs of smoke which, equidistant from each other, appeared to
mark out the bounds in the heavens of the frontier line he wished to
forbid the enemy to pass on the earth. The Germans did not fail to
understand this graceful warning. With cries of rage and protest, they
ran back to their shelters, and our Frenchmen did the same.

And, as though to mark the intentional kindness of what he had just
done, hardly had the last of the spiked helmets disappeared behind the
parapets, when again the same hissing noise was heard, and, pong!
pong! pong! pong! four shells dropped, this time full upon the whitish
line formed along the green plain by the upturned earth of their
trenches. In the midst of the smoke, earth and rubbish of all kinds
were seen flying. Our Chasseurs cried "Bravo!" Everyone felt that the
best solution had been found, and rejoiced at this termination of the
brief Christmas truce.

And now our minds were free to rejoice in the great day itself in
company with our good troopers. In the night there had arrived, well
packed in smart hampers, the bottles of champagne which Major B. had
presented to his men, and we were looking forward to the time, only a
few hours hence, when the soup would be upon the table, and we should
keep our Christmas by letting off the corks in the direction of the
German trenches.

Our young fellow-officers were already anticipating this peaceful
salvo, which would certainly be heard by the enemy.



Bradbury, Agnew, & Co. Ld., Printers, London and Tonbridge.



       *       *       *       *       *


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    | Typographical errors corrected in text:                      |
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