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Title: My .75 - Reminiscences of a Gunner of a .75mm Battery in 1914
Author: Lintier, Paul
Language: English
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MY ·75



  MY ·75

  _REMINISCENCES OF A GUNNER
  OF A ·75m/m BATTERY IN 1914_

  FROM THE FRENCH OF

  PAUL LINTIER

  WITH A PREFACE BY

  FRANCES WILSON HUARD

  [Illustration]

  NEW YORK
  GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY



PREFACE

BY FRANCES WILSON HUARD

_Author of "My Home in the Field of Honour"_


All during the three weary years of this great war _real_ pleasures
have been few for those of us whom Fate has destined to be more or less
closely associated with the daily tide of events.

As I look back at present I feel that one of my first treats was when
I came upon Paul Lintier's newly published volume called "Ma Piece." I
read it, reread it and recommended it to those of my American friends
who, able to read French, clamoured for some real human document; the
war as seen by an actual participant.

Aside from the clear, concise style, devoid of any pretentious literary
flourishes, the incidents were what gripped me. They were the direct
answer to those thousand and one questions that we, the civilians shut
up in the army zone, tortured by fear and anguish, asked ourselves and
asked each other a hundred times a day.

Soldiers and diplomats, critics and littérateurs, wives and sweethearts
all over the fair land of France devoured and discussed the book. And
little did I dream that it would one day be my privilege to write a
preface introducing to my compatriots this _chef d'oeuvre_ already
recognised by the French Academy, the winner of the Prix Montyon.
This I may truly say is the greatest pleasure yet fallen to my lot.
Pleasure, alas! not unmixed with pain, for were it not a nobler task
to extol the virtues of the living than sing the praises of those gone
before?

It was not my fortune to have known Paul Lintier. He fell in the very
flower of his manhood, unmindful of the sacrifice for country, ignoring
his glorious contribution for the safety of future generations. But
with his passing on the Field of Honour, something besides a son, a
soldier, and a poet was lost to France--lost to us all. It is such
spirits as his that make a country great, make the world worth while.
It is for such reasons that we should treasure all the more carefully
his only contributions to posterity.

His name, yesterday unknown, now justly stands graven on the records
of all time. This humble artilleryman lost in the masses of the
combatants, jotted down on his knees a work that shall stand as one of
the most immutable witnesses of the conflict; a book that long after
we have gone will remain; an incomparable document, a magnificent
offering to those who later on shall study the souls and gestures of a
generation of heroes by whom France was saved.

Some one has said, and wisely, that what most pleases us when perusing
a book is to find the author corroborating our own thoughts,--giving
voice to our unborn sentiments--providing us with material for
comparison. If this be true, then there is no reason why "My ·75"
should not live on forever.

Further than a really great literary talent, this book reveals the
profound and generous soul of the entire "Jeunesse Française" ready
to sacrifice itself without counting, for the highest ideal that ever
inflamed a people.

The admirable patience, the great good humour, the intelligent
cleverness and heroic devotion together with the plain, simple courage,
all the deep-rooted, undreamed of qualities of the French Race, are to
be found within its covers, making it a monument to stoic virtue.

How we love them, all the "Camarades"--Hutin, Deprès, Bréjard,
Lieutenant Hély d'Oissel--and the others--the four million others who
on August second, nineteen hundred and fourteen, stood willing, ready,
to perish for their ideal, glad to offer their lives with a smile.

The dedication to "Captain Bernard de Brissoult, whose glorious death
facing the enemy, drew from eyes burned by powder and long vigils,
the terrible tears of soldiers," is one of the most touching things
I know, and I should like to feel that all those of my compatriots
who close the book have shed a tear of admiration and regret for Paul
Lintier, who died for France, March sixteenth, nineteen sixteen, in the
twenty-third year of his age.

  New York,

  July, Nineteen hundred and seventeen.



I. MOBILIZATION


War! Every one knows it, every one says so. It would be madness not to
believe it. And yet, in spite of all, we hardly feel excited; we don't
believe it! War, the Great European War--no, it can't be true!

But why shouldn't it be true?

Blood, money, and more and more blood! And then we have so often heard
people say: "Now there'll be war," and nevertheless we remained at
peace. And it will be so this time. Europe is not going to become a
shambles because an Austrian Archduke happens to have been murdered.

And yet, what are we hourly expecting as we sit here in nervous
idleness in the barracks, unless it is the order for general
mobilization? Sergeants of all ages arrived yesterday at Le Mans, and
every train to-day has brought others. Since réveillé a man dressed in
coarse corduroy has stood at the window watching the artillerymen and
horses coming and going in the square. Every now and then he takes a
brandy-flask from his pocket and has a pull at it.

I was lying on my bed. Hutin, the chief layer of the first gun, was
spread-eagled on his, smoking, his knees in the air and his heels
drawn up under him. Noticing that my pack was crooked, I got up,
mechanically, and put it straight.

"Hutin!"

"Yes?"

"Come and have a drink!"

"All right!"

The barrack square was less noisy than usual. There were no drivers
just returned from the polygon unharnessing their teams in front of the
stables. No word of command was heard from officers directing firing
practice underneath the plane-trees. In a corner one of the guards of
the artillery park was oiling his guns. A cavalryman, both hands in
his pockets and the reins slung over one arm, was leading his horse to
the trough or the forge. Over by the wall of the remount stables, in
the full glare of the sun, a few orderlies were grooming their horses
in a listless fashion. A continuous stream of men on their way to and
from the canteen--like a black line of insects crossing a white gravel
path--marked out one of the diagonals of the square. In front of the
canteen there was a scramble for drinks. It was hot.

       *       *       *       *       *

Midday, and we are still waiting for news. Suppose all this should only
turn out to be another false alarm!

White-clad gunners, with nothing to do as there is no firing practice,
are strolling about the courtyard in search of news. In the Place de
la Mission inquisitive onlookers press close up to the railings; it is
difficult to say why. The majority of them are women. In front of them
a few gunners pass with a smile and a swagger, already assuming the air
of brave defenders.

Near the guard-house which serves as a visitors' room, but where no
visitors are allowed to enter on account of the fleas which infest
it at this time of year, wives, mothers, sisters, and friends have
come to see their soldiers. All make a brave attempt to hide their
feelings. But their expression betrays their anxiety, which has lined
their foreheads and sharpened their features. There are dark rings
round their eyes, and the eyes themselves are restless and sunken.
They continually avert their gaze, lest the fears and forebodings
which no one can banish should be read in their faces. When they go
away, through the little door under the chestnut-trees, after having
watched the soldiers disappear down the passage at the end of the
barracks, their feelings suddenly find vent in a sob, at which they
are themselves surprised. Rapidly, and almost shamefacedly, pressing
a rolled-up handkerchief to their lips, they turn aside into the Rue
Chanzy, as if all the men there did not understand their trouble....

       *       *       *       *       *

At four o'clock I went out with Sergeant Le Mée by special permission
of the Captain. We went to my room in the Rue Mangeard to leave Le
Mée's outdoor uniform there, together with a bag and some papers.

We were about to have dinner. I had just uncorked a bottle of old
claret, when Le Mée caught hold of my arm.

"What's that?"

Up from the street a loud murmur came through the open window. At the
same moment something magnetic, indefinable and yet definite, shot
through both of us. We looked at each other, I with the bottle held to
the brim of the glass.

"At last!"

Le Mée nodded assent, and we hurried to the window. In the street
below, near the artillery barracks, surged a dense crowd. All faces
reflected the same expression of stupor, anxiety, and bewilderment.
In the eyes of all shone the same strange gleam. Women's voices were
heard--voices that quavered and broke....

"Well, Le Mée, here's to your health and let's hope that in a few
months we shall have another drink together!"

"Here's luck to us both!"

Grasping our swords we ran back to the barracks. That night we once
again slept in our beds.


  _Sunday, August 2_

My kit was ready. I had rolled up some handkerchiefs in my cloak.

A sergeant came in:

"Now then, all of you go to the office!"

The sergeant began distributing the record books and identity discs.

On one side of mine was inscribed: "Paul Lintier," and, underneath,
"E.V. (engagé volontaire) Cl. 1913"; on the other: "Mayenne 1179."

A fly was buzzing about in the office. For one moment there rose up
before me a vision of a battlefield--with dead men lying stretched
out on the edge of a pit, and a non-commissioned officer hastily
identifying them before burial.

The "Great Event" had at last come to break the monotony of our barrack
life, and no one thought of anything else. It was almost as if a
sort of blindness prevented us from looking ahead and confined each
man's attention to the preparations for departure. This indifference
astonished me, and yet I myself shared it.

Was it decision or courage? To a certain extent, perhaps.... Did we
really believe there was going to be war? I am not too sure of it. It
was impossible to realize what war would be--to gauge the whole horror
of it. And so we were not afraid.

From one of the barrack windows I saw the following scene:

A young man, promptly called up by the general mobilization, had just
come out of a house opposite. He was walking backwards, shading his
eyes from the sun in order to see the face of some one dear to him who
stood at one of the second-floor windows. A fair-haired woman, very
young and extremely pale, watched him with longing eyes from behind the
muslin curtains, doubtless afraid to let him see her distraught face
and tear-stained cheeks. She was standing close behind the curtains,
her hand on her breast, with the fingers spasmodically stretched out
in an attitude eloquent of grief. As he was about to disappear from
view in a bend of the road, she suddenly opened the window wide, and
showed herself for an instant. The man could not see her. She took two
unsteady steps backwards, and sank into an arm-chair, where she sat
huddled up, her face in her hands, and her shoulders shaken with sobs.
Then, in the semi-darkness of the room, I caught sight of a servant
with a Breton cap carrying a baby to her....

       *       *       *       *       *

At noon we left the barracks in order to take up the quarters which had
been assigned to us a little way down the Avenue de Pontlieue.

The 10th and 12th Batteries of the 44th Regiment of Field Artillery
were to assemble upon a war footing in the cider-brewery known as
Toublanc.

We had nothing to do except shake down straw bedding. A gas-engine was
throbbing with an incessant double beat which got on one's nerves after
a while. On the doors of the available buildings were crudely chalked
the numbers of the regiments to which they were allotted.

The stables were installed in a shed open on one side, at one end of
which casks containing harness were piled up. These stables would have
been quite comfortable if they had not smelt so horribly owing to the
dirty lavatories adjoining them.

The men's quarters had been arranged in a kitchen garden full of black
currant-bushes and peach-trees, and consisted of an old, tumble-down
outhouse, which seemed to have escaped complete destruction solely
owing to the vines and virginia creepers growing over it, which, in
a clinging embrace of closely woven branches and tendrils, held its
crumbling walls together. The grapes were already large and fat,
promising a fine harvest. I wondered where we should be when the time
came for them to be gathered.

       *       *       *       *       *

No one troubled to ascertain whether war had been declared. After all,
the declaration only meant a few words already spoken, or about to be
spoken, by diplomatists. The war was already a reality. We felt it. The
only question which occupied our minds was when we were to start, and
this nobody could answer.

The men were cheerful, unconcerned, and much less nervous than
yesterday. Personally, I did not feel weighed down under the
intolerable burden of anxiety which I had expected to crush me at
such a time. I wanted to ask all my comrades whether they really
believed that in a few days we should be under fire. And if they had
answered "Yes," I should have admired them, for, if I remained cool and
collected before the yawning chasm opening out before us, it was merely
because I had not yet realized its depths.

I kept repeating to myself: "It is war--ghastly, bloody war ... and
perhaps you will soon be dead." But nevertheless I did not feel in the
least afraid; I did not believe that I should be killed. I realize now
that it is true that, in the presence of a dead person one has loved,
one does not at first believe that he (or she) is dead.

       *       *       *       *       *

I have written these notes sitting on a packing-case, using the bottom
of an upturned barrel as a table. A stable-guard, after eyeing me a
moment or two, came and looked over my shoulder.

"Lord!" said he, "you've got it badly!"


  _Monday, August 3_

We don't yet know whether war has been declared, but Metz is reported
to be in flames and some even say taken. Some French aeroplanes and
dirigibles are said to have blown up the powder magazines there. There
is also a rumour that Garros has destroyed a Zeppelin manned by twenty
officers, and that on the frontier our airmen have been tossing up as
to who shall first try to ram an enemy airship. The Germans are said to
have crossed our frontier yesterday in three places. But yesterday we
heard that our soldiers, in spite of their officers, had broken through
on to German soil. The rumours going about are numberless, and the most
likely and unlikely things are said in the same breath.

What are we to believe? Nothing, of course. That is best.

But we thirst for news, and yet, when any is brought in, we shrug our
shoulders incredulously. Nevertheless, when a success is reported we
are so anxious to believe it that the majority of sceptics only require
a sufficiently vigorous affirmation in order to accept it as true.

I intend to note down every day both fables and facts. But at present
I am not in a position to distinguish between what is true and what is
false.

I am only endeavouring, in these hurriedly scribbled pages, to give
some idea of the different elements which go to form the state of mind
of an individual soldier lost among a crowd of others. In this sense
fact and fable are the same thing; but later on, if this notebook is
not buried with me in some nameless grave out yonder, these notes may
perhaps serve to form a history of legend. A history of legend--that is
as much as I dare hope to achieve!

       *       *       *       *       *

I have an hour or two free for writing, and am using a bench as a desk.
Behind me the horses keep stamping intermittently on the cement floor
of the shed. It would not be so bad if these lavatories did not smell
so abominably.

We have been informed that we are to start on Friday. To Berlin! To
Berlin!

Berlin! That's the objective. It was in everybody's mouth! But did
we not mark time to the same refrain in 1870, almost at this time of
year? And what happened afterwards? The recollection made me shiver.
Superstition!

Is England going to come into line with us against Germany? England is
the great unknown quantity at the present moment. Nevertheless, she is
hardly mentioned here.

To Berlin! To Berlin!

The cry echoes on all sides.

       *       *       *       *       *

Although I had begun to convince myself of the reality of events, the
excitement of departure and the irritation caused by knowing nothing
definite had set my nerves jangling and prevented me from realizing to
the full the approaching horror.

We had harnessed our horses and formed the gun-teams.

A gun in a 75 mm. battery is composed of the gun itself and ammunition
wagon, each with its limber, and each drawn by six horses harnessed
in pairs. The detachment consists of six drivers, six gunners, a
corporal, and a sergeant, who is the gun-commander. But my gun, the
first of the 2nd battery, is also accompanied by the section-commander,
the battery-leader, a trumpeter, and the Captain's orderly with his
two horses. In all, eighteen men and nineteen horses. Of the eighteen
men, seventeen are serving their time. For nearly a year now they have
led the same life; each day they have executed the same manoeuvres
together. One detachment, therefore, is a real entity, and forms a
little society by itself, with its habits, likes and dislikes.

Bréjard, the section-commander, really commands it himself, as he did
before the general mobilization. So nothing seems changed. Hubert, the
new gun-commander, a reservist, has his thoughts centred on his young
wife, whom, after only a few months of married life, he has had to
leave at his farm, where the corn is still standing.

Bréjard, who must be about twenty-four, is tall and spare, with
unfathomable grey eyes, an obstinate chin, and rather strong features.
He enlisted when very young, and, by dint of hard and methodical work,
passed into Fontainebleau high up in the list.

Corporal Jean Déprez affords a contrast to Bréjard. Dreamy and
imaginative, bored by regimental life, and far from reconciled to
the prospect of many months of war, Déprez, as far as the Service is
concerned, is a weakling to whom any exercise of his authority, small
though it is, goes against the grain. He has momentary flashes of wit,
and, although as a rule very unenthusiastic and rather moody, he is
nevertheless an amusing conversationalist at times, and is a staunch
friend. The lack of work in the barracks has for some part thrown us
together, and both were pleased to find ourselves side by side when the
moment came to take the field.

With Corporal Déprez on one hand, and Gun-layer Hutin on the other, I
had not the least feeling of loneliness in the tremendous excitement
of mobilization, and the hourly expectation of the breaking of the
storm.

Hutin is a little fellow with a thick crop of black hair and a
moustache. His regular features are lit up by a pair of attractive dark
brown eyes of rather roguish expression. Energetic, quick-tempered,
fairly ambitious, intolerant, quick to make up his mind, and extremely
intelligent, capable of real friendship and even devotedness, I have
grown fond of his spontaneous and varied character.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the Avenue de Pontlieue the commandeered horses were standing in
line. There were hundreds of them, heavy, pot-bellied, docile animals,
with splendid manes and shaggy fetlocks. They were held by men in
smocks, standing motionless on the curb, chafing at the delay and
longing for their dinner. Near-by, along the wall of the artillery
barracks, was collected a heterogeneous medley of carts and lorries,
also requisitioned.

A motley crowd was thronging the avenue--women in light-coloured summer
dresses and soldiers in uniform and canvas clothing presenting an
incongruous appearance. Reservists were arriving in groups. Almost all
looked quiet and undisturbed, and some even wore a cheerful air. One
or two were obviously drunk, and others looked as though they were.
I only saw one who was crying. He was sitting on a heap of straw,
engaged in fixing a brand-new yellow strap to his revolver-holster, and
tears were falling on his clumsy fingers as he fumbled with the stiff
leather. I put a hand on his shoulder, whereupon he half turned round
and said, with a jerk of his head:

"Oh, my God! My wife died in childbed last week.... There's the
baby-girl--only eight days old--left all alone with nobody to look
after her!"

"What have you done with her?"

"Well, the only thing I could ... took her to the Infants' Home."

       *       *       *       *       *

It is when the post comes in that the men look saddest.

       *       *       *       *       *

We are confined to quarters, but the non-commissioned officers are
allowed to take the men, two or three at a time, to the _abreuvoir_ as
the café opposite is called.


  _Tuesday, August 4_

Yesterday evening at nine o'clock, by way of a purely theoretical
roll-call, the Lieutenant opened the door of our den.

"Every one all right in there?"

"Yes, sir, thank you! Warm as pies!"

"Nothing you want?"

"Yes, sir, we'd like to start!"

"Oh! to start, would you?"

This morning Pelletier, the trumpeter, a Parisian who seems able
to turn his hands to almost anything, began sharpening our swords.
Standing in front of a bench in his shirt-sleeves, he worked an
enormous file with a horrible screeching noise which sent cold shudders
down one's spine and set one's teeth on edge. From time to time he
paused in his work, and, with furious thrusts and slashes, tried the
points and edges by cutting up some old deal cases lying in a corner.

From the depths of our quarters, where we live in an atmosphere
alive with the most ridiculous rumours, waiting for orders to
entrain, the tumult of the general mobilization in the streets and
on the neighbouring Paris-Brest railway line sounds like incessantly
reverberating thunder in an atmosphere charged with electricity.

One of my fellow-countrymen, Gaget, who is clerk to the Artillery
Staff, told me that war has not yet been declared. He is in a position
to know. His mother has written to him from Mayenne saying that my
family believe me to be already at Verdun. I wonder if my letters are
not being delivered....

       *       *       *       *       *

This afternoon Déprez went to the laundry to get his washing. In the
shop a young woman, the wife of a corporal of artillery who joined the
colours this morning, threw her arms round his neck and began to cry.

He came back much upset.

       *       *       *       *       *

Some of the men have gone with their horses to bring back our war
material from the station. The park is arranged on the wide footpath of
the Avenue de Pontlieue, where the plane-trees shelter our 75 mm. guns
and ammunition wagons. Women stop to look at them, and some shake their
heads despondently.

It appears that we are to entrain to-morrow evening. We are beginning
to get thoroughly bored here, and do not know how to fill in our
time. I am going to get some sleep in our den at the farther end of
the kitchen garden, where it is cool and shady. The sun, through the
open door, only lights up a large rectangle of straw, covered with
haversacks and gleaming weapons. The weather has been splendid to-day,
fine and clear, and, now that twilight is near, the air is beginning
to hum with those midges which fly round and round in circles and are
supposed to herald fine weather.

I was able to get out for a moment. Some women, their eyes swollen with
crying, looked at us with pity, and spoke to us--the first young men to
go--in voices full of sympathy:

"When do you start?"

"To-morrow--perhaps the day after."

"Where are you going?"

"We're not sure--either Verdun or Maubeuge."

"Well, the best of luck!"

"Thanks so much.... Good-bye!"

Good luck!... I hope so!... It is a sort of lasting farewell they bid
us, out of the fullness of their hearts, before we start for the Great
Unknown.


  _Wednesday, August 5_

War has been declared since the 3rd, and fighting is in progress all
along the frontier.

Serious losses have already been reported. Eleven thousand French
and eighteen thousand Germans are said to have fallen in the opening
engagements. Whether these figures mean killed or injured I do not know.

The news, true or false, damped our spirits for a few moments. But
our extraordinary indifference soon gained the upper hand. Besides,
has there ever been a more favourable occasion for revenge--for the
_Revanche_--than this.


  _Thursday, August 6_

The Germans have entered Belgium, in spite of the convention of
neutrality. I don't think this will surprise anybody. But what does
astonish us, and what must also astonish the enemy, is the fierce
resistance the Belgians are making.

The Germans have just failed in a massed attack on Liége. If the
Belgian Army alone has managed to worst them, what hopes dare we not
entertain?

England is joining us. That is now certain. With the French, English,
Russians, Belgians, and Serbians allied, we ought soon to see the last
of this military Power which is supposed to be so formidable. The news,
official this time, made us all the more impatient to leave Le Mans and
the wearying quarters in which we live.

On the Paris-Brest railway trains full of infantry, cavalry, and
equipment have been passing incessantly. Grinding and screeching they
laboriously roll over the bridge which spans the Avenue de Pontlieue,
and which is heroically guarded by obese Territorials, wearing dirty
canvas suits, and armed with Gras rifles with fixed bayonets. A crowd
of women with children in their arms or clinging to their skirts are
waiting there beneath the noontide sun. They stand for hours on end,
watching the procession of military trucks decorated with greenery
and illustrated with crude chalk drawings. Clusters of soldiers are
to be seen on the foot-boards, and in the brake and guards' vans. In
the avenue clouds of dust are raised by commandeered horses which,
harnessed to forage wagons, are being tried there, and which, under
the unaccustomed yoke, become refractory, lash out, and finally get
entangled in the traces. The women separate hurriedly, dragging their
children with them, in order to avoid a prancing horse or the oncoming
wheel of a wagon. But nevertheless, obstinate, excited, and as if
intoxicated with the noise, light, and continual movement, they stay
there in spite of all discomfort. Whenever a train passes a broadside
of shrill cries rises from their groups, which collect, separate,
disperse, and are again encompassed by the dangers of the avenue.

In front of the Toublanc cider-brewery flowers and ribbons in bunches,
sprays, and cascades carpet the pavement and smother the gun-carriages,
ammunition wagons, and limbers. Women and girls arrive with armfuls of
hortensias, iris, and roses. Their faces lit up by the sun and by the
excitement of the moment, appear and disappear among the flowers. As
the sentinels are not allowed to let any one approach too close, they
throw their bouquets from a distance. Artillerymen, who have nearly
finished loading up their trucks, thank them by blowing kisses which
put them to flight.

I saw one girl fastening a huge tricolour bunch on the bayonet of
one of the sentinels--evidently her lover. The steel shone amid the
blossoms.

       *       *       *       *       *

Women timidly bar the way to the horsemen in order to decorate their
bridles and saddle-bags with garlands. And overhead the splendid August
sun beats down, shedding a golden light on the dust of the roadway and
the green of the trees, and lighting up the faces of the women and the
flowers.


  _Friday, August 7_

For some time now I have observed the first gesture of a soldier who
has just received a letter. He tears it open hurriedly, and, without
pulling it out of the envelope, rapidly fingers it to see whether it
contains a postal order....

I was out to-night with Déprez, when a woman, powdered and painted,
with podgy cheeks and a chest and stomach forming an undivided mass of
shaking fat, accosted us:

"Forty-fourth?"

"Yes."

"Do you know Corporal X? Give him the best wishes from Alice. He'll
know.... Alice is my name.... You won't forget?... Poor old Joe!..."

Then, as we prepared to go on our way:

"Won't you come in?" she said, with the usual glance of invitation.

"No, thanks," answered Déprez politely, "we haven't got time."

After we had gone a little farther, he added:

"That's a message which I'm shot if I'll deliver!"


  _Saturday, August 8_

At last we have received orders to entrain. Our first taste of war
has been a sort of flower-show. A crowd of women and grey-haired men
were waiting for us under the trees on the other side of the avenue.
Children, their tiny arms full of flowers, ran up to us; their
mothers waved their hands and smiled. But how sad the smiles of these
women were! Their swollen eyes told a tale of tears, and the lines
lurking round their lips, despite their smiles, showed that another
breakdown was not far off. The younger children--and quite tiny ones
came toddling across the street--were obviously finding the day's
proceedings finer than a circus. They laughed and clapped their hands
with delight.

We passed the fag-end of the morning getting the limbers and wagons
ready and furbishing up the harness. Twelve o'clock struck. As the hour
of departure approached the tumult in the avenue calmed down, and the
crowd waiting in the shade became gradually quiet.

There was almost complete silence when the Captain gave the order, in
clear resonant tones:

"Forward!"

Like an echo there rose from the crowd a loud hurrah, through which I
nevertheless distinctly heard two heartrending sobs.

Never was there a brighter August day. The limber-boxes and gun-wheels,
the straps and hooks of the harness--even the muzzles of the guns
themselves--were festooned with flowers and ribbons, the bright hues
of which were blended together in a harmony of colour against the
iron-grey background of the guns.

This morning the Captain, Bernard de Brisoult, said to us:

"Take the flowers they offer you, and decorate your guns with them.
They are the only send-off the women can give you. And, whatever you
do, keep calm! Then they'll be much braver when you go off."

The streets, through which we proceeded at a walking pace, were gay
with flags and bunting. The departure of the soldiers, many of whom
would never return, was attended with a degree of composure and good
order which was really admirable. The gunners, sitting motionless on
the limber-boxes or walking beside the horses, smiled and laughed
merrily as the women by the wayside waved them farewell. We felt moved,
of course, but it was rather the emotion of the crowd in the street
which affected us than any feeling born in our inner selves.

       *       *       *       *       *

Entraining was effected easily and expeditiously. As it was very hot,
the gunners hoisting the material on to the trucks had discarded
their vests, and, with red faces, their shoulders to the gun-wheels,
they united their efforts whenever the gun-commanders gave the word
"Together!" which was echoed down the whole length of the train. The
drivers had great difficulty in getting their teams into the boxes. The
old battery horses were used to the manoeuvre, but the commandeered
animals resisted obstinately. Girths were slung round them, two by
two, and they were hauled by force on to the foot-bridges. Once in the
vans they had to be turned round and backed into position so that four
could stand on each side. This operation was accompanied by a deafening
din of iron-shod hoofs on the wooden floors and partitions. The horses
once safely installed and secured face to face in their places by
picket-lines, the stable-pickets began to arrange the harness and
forage in the space between the two lines.

       *       *       *       *       *

Just as the train was starting I was attacked by a sort of dizziness.
Something in my chest seemed to snap, and I felt almost choked by a
sudden feeling of weakness and fear. Should I ever come back? Yes! I
felt sure of it! And yet, I wonder why I felt so sure!

       *       *       *       *       *

CONNERRÉ-BEILLÉ. I am sitting on a truss of hay between my
eight horses. At every moment, in spite of my whip, they bite at the
forage and nearly pull away my seat. The door of the van is opened
wide on the sunny country.


  _Sunday, August 9_

The train rumbled on for fifteen to eighteen hours. A long journey like
this is best passed as a stable-guard. I made myself comfortable on
some shaken-up hay, and, cushioning my head in a well-padded saddle,
eventually fell asleep.

The horses, almost all of which were suffering from strangles,
slobbered and sneezed over me, and eventually woke me up. It was
already day. A thick summer mist was floating over the fields at a
man's height from the ground. The sun, breaking through it in places,
lit up myriads of shimmering grass-blades, dripping with dew.

Sitting at the open doors of the vans, their legs dangling over the
side, the gunners watched the country flit past. The empty trains
passing us in the opposite direction frightened the horses, which
neighed and whinnied. No one--not even our officers--knew whither we
were bound, and the engine-driver himself said that he didn't know, but
that he was to receive orders on the way.

The Territorials guarding the line greeted us as we passed by holding
out their rifles at arm's length. We waved our whips in answer.

"Morning, old chap!"

"Good luck to you, boys!"

       *       *       *       *       *

RHEIMS. First the canal, then a glimpse of the town, and then
open country again, with fields of ripe corn yellow in the morning
sun. There were only a few sheaves to be seen. The crops were standing
almost everywhere, motionless in the heat, casting golden lights on
the gently rolling hills and quiet beauty of the countryside. I felt
as though I could not see enough of it. In a few days, perhaps, I
should no longer be able to see the splendour of the sun-kissed corn
and the gorgeous mantle it throws over the symmetrical slopes of the
harvest-land like a drapery of old lace lightly shrouding a graceful
Greek form.

The train rolled slowly on towards Verdun. In each village, from the
gardens adjoining the railway-line, girls and children threw kisses to
us. They threw flowers, too, and, whenever the train stopped, brought
us drinks.

It was already dusk when, after passing the interminable sidings and
platforms of Verdun, with its huge bakeries installed under green
awnings, the train finally came to a standstill at Charny. We had
been travelling for more than thirty hours. Before we had finished
detraining it was quite dark.



II. APPROACH MARCHES


We were crossing the Meuse. The sun had gone down and the river,
winding its way between its reedy banks and marshy islands in the
afterglow of the crimson western sky, looked as though it was running
with blood. To-morrow, or perhaps the day after, the appearance may
have become reality. I do not know why these blood-red reflections in
the water affected me so much as this last moment of the evening, but
so it was.

Night fell--a clear night, in which I uneasily sought for searchlights
among the stars. By the wayside, in one of the army cattle parks,
countless herds lay sleeping. The country would have been absolutely
still and silent had it not been for the muffled rumble of our column
as we marched along. The last reflections of the daylight and the first
beams of the moon, just rising in the east, were welded together in a
weird, diffused light.

We were marching eastwards, and, as the road skirted the dark mass of
a steep hill, the moon rose clear ahead over the gloomy pine-trees,
which stood out like silhouettes on the horizon. Soon the battery
entered a dark wood, where the drivers had difficulty in finding the
way. Nobody spoke. Occasionally the moon peeped through the trees, and
showed up a horseman. It almost seemed as if the yellow light threw off
a palpable golden powder; the brasswork of the equipment and the tin
mugs of the men shone as though they were gilded. One man passed, then
another, and the shadows, clear cut on the road, seemed to form part of
the silhouettes of the horsemen and magnify them. Of the rest of the
column, lost in the night of the forest, nothing could be seen.

We had been told that the enemy was not far off, somewhere in the
plain stretching beyond the hills. At every cross-roads we were afraid
lest we should take the wrong turning and find ourselves in the German
lines. Besides, this first march of the campaign, at night-time,
had something uncanny about it which scared us a little in spite of
ourselves.

The column came to a halt just outside a village. Troops were camping
on both sides of the road, and lower down, in one of the fields a
gloomy artillery park had been formed. Despite the hour--nearly
midnight--the heat was oppressive, and the stars were lightly veiled by
a thin mist. The bivouac fires cast flickering shadows of soldiers in
varying stages of undress, some of them naked to the waist.

A little farther on, in a meadow where the 10th Battery was already
encamped for the night--men and horses lying in the damp grass--we
parked our guns.

We had to lie on the bare ground, and between drivers and gunners
a competition in cunning at once arose as to who was to have the
horse-cloths. Most of the men stretched themselves out under the
ammunition wagons and guns, where the dampness of the night was less
penetrating. But I was still on stable duty, and had to keep watch on
the horses, which were tied side by side to a picket-line stretched
between two stakes. The animals not only kicked and bit each other,
but their collars kept getting loose, and one or two, succeeding in
throwing them off, ambled off into the fields. I spent the night in
wild chases. One little black mare in particular led me a dance for
several hours, and I only caught her at last by rustling some oats in
the bottom of a nose-bag.

Grasping my whip, and wet up to the knees with dew, I had surely
fulfilled my task as stable-picket conscientiously.


  _Monday, August 10_

At 3 a.m. the grey shadow of a dirigible passed overhead beneath the
stars. Friend or enemy?

At daybreak the park began to stir. Men draped in their rugs emerged
from between the gun-wheels and from underneath the limbers and
stretched themselves, yawning. We set about digging hearths and
fetching wood and water, and before long coffee was steaming in the
camp kettles.

On the Verdun road infantry regiments--off to the firing-line no
doubt--were already defiling, the long red-and-blue column rippling
like the back of a huge caterpillar. The battalions were hid, for a
moment, by the cottages and trees of the village. But farther ahead, on
the corn-clad slopes of the hills, one could just distinguish, in spite
of the distance, the movements of troops marching on the thin white
ribbon of a road.

We waited for the order to harness.

The meadow in which we had camped for the night sloped down, on the
one side, into marshy ground watered by a stream issuing from a mill
and running through the rank grass, and was bounded on the other by
a rampart of wheat-sheaves. To the east a high hill of symmetrical
contour, covered with yellow barley and tawny wheat, gave one the
impression of a golden mountain shining in the sun.

Behind the horses tied together in parallel lines the harness made
black patches in the grass. Some of us had slept there under our rugs.
Saddles, propped up on their pommels, served as pillows to the men,
who, half undressed, with bare chests, slept soundly. I would willingly
have slept too, for I was tired out with running about all night, but
I could not help thinking of my mother, and of the anxiety the news of
the hecatombs of Alsace must have caused her. She had no idea of my
whereabouts and would be certain to think that I should be in the thick
of any fighting in progress.

On the road columns of artillery succeeded the regiments of the line.
It was nine o'clock, but so far no sound of battle had yet reached us.
A driver, shaking his rug, woke me, and I started up. In my turn I
roused Déprez, who was sleeping near me. Was it the guns? No, not yet.

Officials news came that the Alsace army, whose headquarters were
at Mulhouse, had been defeated by the French in a great battle at
Altkirch. The beginning of the Revenge!... But there was talk of fifty
thousand dead....

Held spellbound by a sort of magnetic fascination Déprez and I riveted
our gaze on the lofty line of hills to the east which stood between us
and Destiny. Yonder were others like ourselves, masses of men in the
plains and in the woods, men who would kill us if we did not kill them.

Overcome by the heat, I allowed my thoughts to dwell on these and
similar reflections, and in vain endeavoured to banish from my mind the
horrible picture of the fifty thousand men lying dead on the fields of
Alsace. Eventually I fell asleep.

       *       *       *       *       *

They have just killed, by means of a revolver-shot behind the ear, a
horse which had broken its leg. The carcass is going to be cut up, and
the best portions distributed among the battery detachments. There
seems no likelihood of going into action to-day.

       *       *       *       *       *

The soup-kettles had been put on the fires. On the side of the hill,
where the corn stood in sheaves, the men were building straw huts in
which to pass the night.

As the sun sank, damp vapours began to rise from the stream and the
marshy ground adjoining it. Side by side on our bed of straw Déprez and
I, booted and spurred, our revolver holsters bruising our hips, fell
asleep with our faces upturned to the stars, which seemed to shine more
brightly than usual in the eastern sky.


  _Tuesday, August 11_

Shortly after dawn we were ready to start. Some of the 130th Infantry
had arrived at the next village, called Ville-devant-Chaumont, to take
up their quarters there. Pending the order to advance I entered into
conversation with a little red-haired foxy-faced sergeant:

"Ah," said he, "so you're from Mayenne.... Well, I don't know whether
many of the 130th will ever get back there.... There was a scrap
yesterday.... Slaughter simply awful!... My battalion wasn't touched,
but the two others!... There are some companies which don't count
more than ten men, and haven't a single officer left.... It's their
machine-guns which are so frightful.... But what the devil can you
expect? Two battalions against a whole division!"

"But why didn't the third battalion join in?"

"Blessed if I know.... You never know the reason of these things."

And he added:

"Some of our chaps were splendid.... Lieutenant X, for example.... He
jumped up, drew his sword, and opening his tunic he shouted to his men:
"Come on, lads!..." And he was killed on the spot.... The flag?...
That was taken by the enemy, retaken by one of our captains, and then
again captured. Finally, a chap with a good-conduct badge got hold of
it, and managed to hide it under a bridge before he died. One of the
sections of the 115th found it there.... And then the artillery came up
at last.... Three batteries of the 31st. They soon made the blighters
clear off.... They abandoned two batteries, what's more!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Orders came to unharness. What a heat! Transparent vapours rose from
the ground and made the horizon quiver. From time to time we heard the
muffled sound of the guns but more often we mistook the noise of the
carts on the road for firing. Fleecy white clouds forming above the
crests of the hills gave one the impression of shells bursting. For a
moment their appearance was most deceptive.

I saw one of the men of the 130th coming back from the firing-line in
a wretched condition, without cap, pack, or arms. It seemed wonderful
that he should have managed to drag himself so far. With staring,
frightened eyes he looked nervously from one side to the other. The
gunners surrounded him as he stood there, with bent shoulders and
hanging head, but he only answered their questions by expressive
gestures.

"Done for!" he murmured. "Done for!"

We couldn't hear anything else. His lips kept moving:

"Done for!... Done for!"

Down he flopped in the middle of us, and immediately fell asleep,
his mouth wide open and his features contracted as if with pain. Two
gunners carried him into a neighbouring barn.

I heard to-day that a priest of Ville-devant-Chaumont had been arrested
on a charge of espionage and sent to Verdun.

We availed ourselves of our leisure in order to wash our linen and have
a bath in the river. Then, stretched naked on the grass, we waited
until the sun had dried our shirts, socks, and underlinen, which lay
spread out around us.


  _Wednesday, August 12_

The French are fond of heroic legends. I have now found out the truth
about the affair in which two battalions were said to have been cut up,
and there is not the least resemblance to the highly coloured yarn of
the little fox-faced sergeant.

On August 10 the officers of the 130th had not the slightest suspicion
that the enemy were so close. A few men were taken by surprise as they
were going down to the river, unarmed and half undressed. Immediately
afterwards the fight began, and the 130th defended themselves bravely
against superior numbers, at first without any support from the
artillery, which, having received no orders, remained in its quarters.
At last three batteries of the 31st arrived and succeeded in repelling
the German attack. We were the victors.

As for Lieutenant X, who, according to the sergeant, had been killed as
he stood bare-chested encouraging his men to attack, it appears that,
in reality, he fell into the river called the Loison. The chill of the
water, together with the excitement of the first brush with the enemy,
set up congestion, but he is now reported to be perfectly fit again.
That is fortunate, for he is a valuable officer.

Several of his men, charging too soon, also fell into the river, which
flows right across the fields between very low banks. There they
remained as if entrenched, with the water up to their waists, and
fought as best they could. The flag of the 130th was never even taken
out of its oil-skin case.

The whole day was spent in sleeping, cooking, and in bathing in the
river. Some of the drivers with their teams were told off to transport
the wounded of the 130th to Verdun.

When night fell we stretched ourselves out on the grass under the clear
sky and sang in chorus until we gradually fell asleep.

If only those we have left behind anxiously waiting for news could have
heard us!


  _Thursday, August 13_

To-day some of the 130th brought back a grey German military coat, a
pair of boots, a Uhlan's helmet, and a sort of round infantryman's cap,
looking like a small cheese. These spoils were hung up in a barn, and
attracted a crowd of gunners. They belong to a sergeant-major who was
proudly exhibiting them to the spectators, calling special attention to
a small rent in the back of the coat.

"That's where the bullet went in that did for old Steinberg," said he.
"His name's marked inside.... See?"

And he drew himself up, beaming.


  _Friday, August 14_

We had started off again at dawn, and now stood waiting for orders. The
Captain had sent the battery forward down the lane leading to the main
road to Verdun. The horses splashed about in the water running out from
a drinking-trough hard by, and spattered us liberally with mud. After
waiting till the sun was well up, we unbridled and gave the teams some
oats.

Reserve regiments of the Army Corps began to file by--the 301st, 303rd,
and 330th. The men were white with dust up to the knees. Stubbly beards
of eight days' growth darkened their faces and gave them a haggard
appearance. Their coats, opened in front and folded back under their
shoulder-straps, showed glimpses of hairy chests, the veins in their
necks standing out like whipcord under the weight of their packs. These
reservists looked grave, resolute, and rather taciturn.

They swung by with a noise like a torrent rushing over pebbles, the
sight of our guns bringing a smile of pleasure to their faces. The
foremost battalions climbed up the hill. There were so many men that
nothing could be seen of the road, nor even of the red breeches. The
moving human ribbon scintillated with reflections cast by kettles,
shovels, and picks.

We had filled our water-bags, and some of the soldiers, as they
streamed past, replenished their drinking tins from them. Then they
strode on, their lips glued to the brims, restraining the swing of
their step in order not to lose a drop of the precious liquid.

At last the battery moved on. But it was only to camp at Azannes, about
a mile south-east of Ville-devant-Chaumont, where we were hardly any
nearer to the enemy. On the road a continual cloud of dust was raised
by guns and wagons, motors full of superior officers, and squadrons of
cavalry escorting red-tabbed Staffs. The horses were smothered in it,
and our dark uniforms soon became grey, while our eyebrows and unshorn
chins looked as if they had been powdered. Paris motor-omnibuses,
transformed into commissariat wagons, put the final touch as they
lumbered by, and left us as white as the road itself.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Limber up!"

"What?"

"Limber up, quick now, come along!"

The order was repeated by the N.C.O.'s, and the Captain, who passed us
spurring his horse, said simply:

"We are going into action."

Then, followed by the gun-commanders, trumpeters, and battery-leaders,
he set off at a gallop.

We passed through Azannes, where we were to have camped. It is a
wretched-looking village, full of manure-heaps, and composed of
low-built cottages eloquent of the fact that here no one has thought it
worth while to undertake building or repair work of any kind. It is not
that the surrounding country is barren, but the perpetual threat of war
and invasion has nipped all initiative in the bud. The poorer one is
the less one has to lose.

After passing Azannes the column lapsed into silence. The road skirted
the cemetery, in the walls of which the infantry, at every few yards,
had knocked loopholes through which we caught glimpses of graves,
chapels, and crosses. At the foot of the walls lay heaps of rubble and
mortar. Farther on, near the edge of a wood, the field had been seared
by a narrow trench, covered with lopped-off branches bearing withered
leaves, and showing up against the fresh green grass like a yellow
gash.

In front of the trench barbed wire had been stretched. The enemy,
therefore, was presumably not far off.

Amid the monotonous rumble of the carriages we tried to collect our
thoughts. The prospect of the first engagement brought with it an
apprehension and dread which clamoured for recognition in each man's
mind. There is no denying the fact.

The battery rolled on its way through a large wood. The road, almost
blindingly white in the midday sun, formed a striking contrast to the
arch-shaped avenues of sombre trees, whose green plumes towered above
us at a giddy height.

By the side of the road stood a horse with drooping head and the
viscous discharge due to strangles running from his nostrils; he did
not even budge as the guns and wagons thundered on their way. It seemed
almost a miracle that the bones of the poor beast's haunches had not
broken through his skin. His flanks, heaving spasmodically, seemed
to meet behind his ribs, as if they had been emptied of flesh and
entrails. He was a pitiful sight. In the shade of a bridle-path yet
another abandoned horse was still browsing.

Between two clumps of trees lay a pond bordered by reeds and rushes,
its surface shimmering like a silver mirror--an effect which was
heightened by the dark woodlands in the background. In the distance the
magnificent line of lofty hills which had hidden the horizon from us at
Ville-devant-Chaumont, and which we had now flanked, formed an azure
setting to the picture. On one side of the road stood a farmhouse. In
a small paddock near the flood-gates of the pond we saw a freshly dug
grave in the shade of an elder-bush. A cross, roughly fashioned out of
a couple of branches tied together, was planted in the newly turned
soil, and a ruled leaf torn out of a pocket-book, stuck on to some
splinter of the wood, bore a name roughly written in pencil.

On emerging from the forest our batteries, which up to then had been in
column of route, rapidly deployed down the side of a long valley, half
hidden by the oat-crops, through which infantry, whose presence could
only be guessed, caused ripples to flow like those raised by a puff of
wind on still water.

Where was the enemy? What were these positions worth, and from what
point could they be observed? Was the infantry on ahead protecting us?
In a fever of excitement we formed up in battery in a neighbouring
meadow. The limbers retired to the rear and took cover in the woods.
Bréjard at once ordered us to complete the usual protection afforded
by the gun-shields and ammunition wagons by piling up large sods of
turf which we hacked up with our picks. As far as the eye could reach
stretched the motionless oats, like masses of molten metal under a
sky of unbroken blue. As the gun-layers could not find as much as a
tree or sheaf to serve as an aiming point we had to plant a spade in
front of the battery. I should not have suspected the strength of the
artillery--more than sixty guns--waiting for the enemy in this field,
had I not seen the batteries take up their positions, and had it not
been for the observation-ladders upon which, perched like large black
insects on the points of so many grass-blades, the gun-commanders were
to be seen surveying the land to the north-east.

We were ready for action, and lying behind our guns awaited the word
"Fire!" No sound of battle was audible.

A gunnery officer brought some order to the Captain, and the latter,
waving his képi, signalled for the limbers to be brought up.

"Hallo! What's up now?"

"We're off," answered Bréjard, who had overheard the orders.

"Aren't the Germans coming then?"

"I don't know. That officer told the Captain that after this the fourth
group would be attached to the seventh division."

"Well, and what then?"

"Well, the fourth group has got to go."

"Where?"

"Probably to camp at Azannes."

Rather disappointed at having done nothing we returned westwards by the
same road, bathed in an aureole of crimson light cast by the setting
sun.

The horse with the strangles was now lying down in the ditch. He was
still breathing, and from time to time tossed his head in order to
shake off the wasps which collected in yellow clusters round his eyes
and nostrils.

We encamped at Azannes, and the horses, tethered under the plum-trees
planted in fives, wearied by the march, the dust, and the heat, let me
rest and dream away my four hours' duty.

The night was clear, illuminated by the Verdun searchlights which
stretched golden fingers into the sky. A magnificent mid-August night,
scintillating with constellations and alive with shooting stars which
left long phosphorescent tails behind them.

The moon rose, and with difficulty broke through the dense foliage of
the plum-trees. The camp remained dark except for occasional patches
of light on the grass and on the backs of the horses as they stood
sleeping. My fellow-sentry was lying at the foot of a pear-tree,
wrapped in his greatcoat. In front of me the plain was lit up by the
moon, and the meadows were veiled in a white mist. Both armies, with
fires extinguished, were sleeping or watching each other.


  _Saturday, August 15_

I was helping Hutin to clean the gun.

"Well, Hutin, war's a nice sort of show, isn't it?"

"Well, if it consists in fooling about like this till the 22nd
September, when my class will be discharged, I'd rather be in the field
than the barracks. We've never been so well fed in our lives! If only
that lasts!..."

"Yes, provided it lasts! Only, there are Boches here."

"Who cares?"

"And then, we don't get many letters."

"No, that's true; we don't get enough," said Hutin with some
bitterness, viciously shoving his sponge through the bore.

And he added:

"And as for the letters we write ourselves, we can't say where we are,
nor what we are doing, nor even put a date. What is one to write?"

"Well, I simply say that it is fine and that I am still alive."

       *       *       *       *       *

Always the same silence along the lines. That has lasted for days now.
What can it mean? For us, pawns on the great chess-board, this waiting
is agonizing, and stretches our nerves to that painful tension which
one feels sometimes when watching a leaden sky, waiting for the storm
to break.

To-day I saw General Boëlle, whose motor stopped on the road quite
close to our camp.

He is a man with refined features, of cheerful expression, still
youthful-looking despite his white hair and grizzled moustache.

       *       *       *       *       *

The classic popularity of war trophies has not diminished. Quite a
crowd collected round a cyclist who had brought back from Mangiennes
two German cowskin bags and a Mauser rifle.

       *       *       *       *       *

It is astonishing how quickly instinct develops in war. All
civilization disappears almost at once, and the relations between man
and man become primitively direct. One's first preoccupation is to make
oneself respected. This necessity is not implicitly recognized by all,
but every one acts as if he recognized it. Then again, the sense of
authority becomes transformed. The authority conferred on the Captain
by his rank diminishes, while that which he owes to his character
increases in proportion. Authority has, in fact, but one measure: the
confidence of the men in the capability of their officer. For this
reason our Captain, Bernard de Brisoult, in whom even the densest
among us has recognized exceptional intelligence and decision under a
great charm of manner and invariable courtesy, exercises, thanks to
this confidence, a beneficial influence upon all. And yet his actual
personality, as our chief, makes little impression upon one at first.
Captain de Brisoult never commands. He gives his orders in an ordinary
conversational tone; but, a man of inborn tact and refinement, he
always remains the Captain, even while living with his men upon terms
of intimacy. It is hard to say whether he is more loved than respected,
or more respected than loved. And soldiers know something about men.

In the rough masculine relations between the artillerymen among
themselves there nevertheless remains a place for great friendships,
but they become rarer. The ties of simple barrack comradeship either
disappear or harden into tacit treaties of real friendship. The
mainspring of this is rather egoism than a need of affection. One is
vividly conscious of the necessity of having close at hand a man upon
whose assistance one can always rely, and to whom one knows one can
turn in no matter what circumstances. In the relationships thus solidly
established, without any words, a choice is implied; they are not
engendered by affinities of character alone. One learns to appreciate
in one's friend his value as a help and also his strength and courage.


  _Sunday, August 16_

I have only just heard of an heroic episode which occurred during
our expedition on Friday. It might be called "The Charge of the
Baggage-train."

During our march through the woods towards the enemy we were followed
at some distance by our supply wagons. When we turned, we passed them,
and they resumed their position behind the batteries. The head of the
column had almost reached Azannes when the rear was still in the thick
of the woods. Suddenly a lively fusillade was opened from the depths of
the trees on the right and left of the train, and at the same time the
noise of galloping horses was heard from behind. The N.C.O. bringing up
the rear behind the forage wagon, who was riding near the cow belonging
to the Group, which was being led by one of the gun-numbers, convinced
that the enemy's infantry was attacking the column from the flank while
a brigade of cavalry was coming up from the rear, yelled out, "Run for
your lives! The Uhlans are coming!" The gunners jumped on the vehicles
wherever they could, and, suddenly, without any orders, the column
broke into a gallop. The men followed as best they might. But the
horses of the forage wagon, restive under the lash, reared, backed, and
jibbed, kicking the cow, which, in her turn, pulled away from the man
leading her, first to right and then to left, finally breaking loose
and setting out at a gallop behind the wagons in a thick cloud of dust.

A few seconds afterwards the cavalry which had been heard approaching
came up. It was the General of Artillery, who, with his Staff and
escort of Chasseurs, had routed our baggage-train. As for the
fusillade, it came from two companies of the 102nd of the line, who,
concealed in the woods, had opened fire on a German aeroplane.

The weather is getting worse. Already yesterday evening the storm
gathering on our left had made us prick up our ears as if we heard
gun-fire. At breakfast-time we were surprised by a heavy shower, and
had to abandon the kettles on the fires and take shelter under the
wagons and trees. To-day it has been raining slowly but steadily. If
this weather goes on we shall have to look out for dysentery!

Sitting on blankets in a circle round the fire, which was patiently
tended by the cook, we drank our coffee. My comrades asked me to read
them a few pages from my notebook, and wished me a safe return in order
that these reminiscences, which to a great extent are theirs also,
might be published.

"Are you going to leave the names in?"

"Yes, unless you don't want me to."

"No, of course not. We'll show them to the old people and children
later on, if we get back."

"If I am killed, one of you will take care of my notebook. I keep it
here--see?--in the inside pocket of my shirt."

Hutin thought a little.

"Yes, only you know that it's forbidden to search dead men. You'd
better make a note in your book to say you told us to take it."

He was quite right, so on the first page I wrote: "In case I am killed
I beg my comrades to keep these pages until they can give them to my
family."

"Now you've made your arrangements _mortis causa_," said Le Bidois, who
was reading over my shoulder. And he added:

"That doesn't increase the risk either."

Le Bidois is a thin, lanky fellow rather like the King of Spain, for
which reason Déprez and I have nicknamed him Alfonso. Every day we fire
off the old Montmartre catch at him:

    _Alfonso, Alfonso,
  Veux-tu te t'nir comme il fô!_

We also call him "the Spanish Grandee." He never gets annoyed.

"A jewel of a corporal!" as Moratin, his layer, always says.

       *       *       *       *       *

Some of the 26th Artillery have brought back two ammunition wagons
abandoned by the enemy at Mangiennes. Painted a dark colour they
resembled the old 90 mm. material with which we used to practise when
training at Le Mans. They were followed by two large carts, of the
usual type used by the Meuse peasantry, long and narrow in build,
full of packs, tins, képis marked 130, camp-kettles already blackened
by bivouac fires, belts with brass buckle-plates, and caps with dark
stains on them. On the top bristled a heap of bayonets and rifles,
red with rust and blood. A large blue flannel sash, sopping wet, hung
behind one of the carts, and trailed in the muddy road. These were the
remains of the unfortunate infantry killed at Mangiennes.

This spectacle, rendered the more harrowing by the rain, moved us more
than all the stories we had heard about last Monday's fight.

As I was taking some horses down to drink I saw, near the gate of the
loopholed cemetery at Azannes, some soldiers who had fallen asleep,
stretched out anywhere, exhausted and half undressed. They might have
been taken for dead men. That is how I think the Mangiennes people
must have looked. And these remains also conjured up a vision of the
trenches where they were lined up.

In the absolute silence which for eight days now has reigned all along
the line we have almost forgotten the work of death for which we have
come here.

       *       *       *       *       *

At nightfall, after swallowing some hot soup, we returned to our
billets, which are in a large barn where it is possible to get a good
sleep in the straw. Soldiers of every rank and regiment were swarming
in the village, the blue dolmans of the Chasseurs and the red breeches
of the Infantry giving a welcome dash of colour to the sombre uniforms
of the Artillery and Engineers as they all jostled together in the
street. Some of them, carrying in each hand a pailful of water, shouted
and swore at the others to let them pass.

It was still raining, and from the manure-heaps by the side of the road
thick clouds of steam arose. The cavalrymen had made hoods of their
horse-cloths, and many of the foot-soldiers were sheltering their heads
and shoulders under sacks of coarse brown canvas which they had found
in the barns or wagons. The whole of this muddy multitude was almost
silent and solely bent upon getting back to their billets. Almost the
only sound was the squelching of many feet in the mire. Four sappers,
scaling a ladder to a loft from which hay was crowding out through a
dark, wide-open window, looked like a bunch of black grapes hanging in
mid-air.


  _Monday, August 17_

It was still raining when we started. Carts full of debris continued to
pass us, each more heavily laden and each more dreadful to see than
the last.

I heard that a Chasseur, whom I noticed yesterday morning mounted on a
little bay horse, had been surprised by a party of Uhlans. They bound
him hand and foot and then, with a lance-thrust in the neck, bled him
as one bleeds a pig. A peasant who had witnessed the scene from behind
a hedge told me of this devilish crime. He was still white with horror.

       *       *       *       *       *

Last night the horses lay in mud and dung. This morning their manes and
tails were stiff with mire, and large plasters of manure covered their
haunches and flanks, giving them the appearance of badly kept cows. As
for us, besmeared with dirt up to the knees and with our boots a mass
of mud, we looked more heavy than ever in our dark cloaks, which were
wet through and hung in straight folds from our shoulders.

We again started off, this time to take up fresh quarters at Moirey.
From Azannes to Moirey is little more than a mile, but the road was
blocked with wagons, and at every instant we had to halt and draw to
one side.

The Captain gave the word:

"Dismount!"

The men, tortured by diarrhoea, availed themselves of the opportunity
and scattered into the fields.

At Moirey we encamped under some plum-trees planted in fives, where
we were as badly off as we had been at Azannes. Under the feet of the
horses the grass immediately became converted into mud.

The first thing to do was to cover over with earth the filth left there
by troops who had preceded us. The question of sanitary arrangements
is a serious one. It is true that a sort of little trenches called
_feuillées_ are dug on one side of the camp, but many men obstinately
refuse to use them, and prefer to make use of any haphazard spot at
the risk of being driven off by whip-lashes by others of more cleanly
disposition. A regular guard has to be kept round the guns and horses.
It is useless for the officers to threaten severe punishment to any
man taken in the act outside the _feuillées_. Nothing stops them. The
Captain keeps repeating:

"What a set of hogs!"

       *       *       *       *       *

To-night the sound of the guns is quite close. Perhaps we shall go into
action at last.

It was a difficult job to find any wood fit to burn. Such as there was
was damp and when burning gave off a thick acrid smoke which the wind
blew down upon us. We had to fetch the water for the soup from more
than 300 yards away, and then keep a constant look-out to prevent the
horses from getting at it. The bread just given out was mouldy, and we
had to toast it in order to take away the musty taste.

When it is time to water the teams the only street of the village is
thronged with horses either led or ridden bare-back. Six batteries
are encamped round Moirey, and there is only one pond into which a
thin stream of clear water, not more than two fingers thick, trickles
from a fountain. Every twenty paces one has to stop and manoeuvre in
order to avoid kicks, and the men, annoyed by the delay, swear at each
other without reason. After four or five minutes one advances another
twenty paces, and, when finally the pond is reached, the men and beasts
sinking ankle-deep in mud, it is only to find that hundreds of horses
have left so much drivel and slime on the water that our animals refuse
to drink.

It is reported that there has been a great battle near Nancy and that
we have won the day. Why don't we advance also?


  _Tuesday, August 18_

Lucas, the cyclist of the battery, succeeded in finding two bottles of
champagne, which he hid in a corner of the guard-house where Le Bidois,
who was on sentry duty, kept an eye on them.

Lucas is a young draughtsman of talent. His character is faithfully
reflected by his face--fresh, mobile, perhaps a little feminine. You
meet him in the morning and he seizes you by the arm:

"Oh, my dear chap ... such a pretty little woman ... a perfect
dream!..."

And the same evening he will say:

"Oh, my dear chap ... such a fraud.... No, not a word!... What a fraud!"

It appears that at Damvillers, a neighbouring village, he has made the
conquest of a little woman who sells tobacco. And he still manages to
get hold of cigarettes, writing-paper, liqueurs, and even champagne,
whereas no one else has been able to lay hands on any of these luxuries
for some time past.

When night fell he gave us a sign, and Déprez and I followed him to the
door of the guard-house in which loomed the lanky figure of Le Bidois,
who was leaning on his sword. The guard-house is an old tumble-down
hut only kept erect by the ivy growing round it. The door only boasts
one hinge, and the worm-eaten steps leading to the loft are crumbling
into dust. But still we found it a snug enough place in which to drink
our champagne.


  _Wednesday, August 19_

The first gun has a team which is the joy of the whole battery. This
is owing to Astruc and his off-horse Jericho. Astruc, with bright
brown eyes and a face like a carrion-crow, is not much taller than
a walking-stick and has hardly any legs. Jericho is a vicious brute
that kicks, bites, and refuses to be groomed. Astruc holds long
conversations with him, and every morning greets him like one greets an
old friend who is a little crabbed, but of whom one is really fond:

"Well, Jericho, old boy, what have you got to say? Have you been
dreaming of German mares?"

Bréjard pointed out to Astruc that Jericho is a gelding.

"Oh!" retorted Astruc, "I expect he gets ideas in his head all the
same."

But to-day Jericho was in a specially bad temper, and wouldn't let
himself be bridled in order to be led down to the watering-place.

"What's up, old chap?" asked Astruc. "Oh, I see what you want! You
haven't had your quid this morning, have you?... It's your quid you're
after."

And he held out in the hollow of his hand a pinch of tobacco which the
horse swallowed with avidity. When Astruc is astride his near-horse,
Hermine, Jericho bites his boot, and the more Astruc whips him the
harder he clenches his teeth.

"Well," says Astruc, "I bet that if I leave Jericho in a mêlée he'll
eat as many Boches as he can get his teeth into. If only we'd a hundred
more like him!"

And looking the horse full in the face he added:

"It's odd, you know! The brute's got a naughty twinkle in his eyes ...
just like one of those girls...."

A corps of pontoon engineers passed by our camp, their long,
steel-plated boats loaded on carts, keel uppermost. Some foundered
horses, tied behind the vehicles, followed with hanging head and
limping step, a look of suffering in their bleared eyes--a pitiful
sight. Far down the road, winding its way through the long valley and
white under the morning sun, one could see the column toiling up a hill
as if ascending to the blue sky. At that distance men and horses seemed
no more than a swarm of black ants, but the steel bottoms of the boats
still glinted in the sunshine. In front of us the long line still
passed slowly by.

       *       *       *       *       *

The men's health is excellent, but the horses stand this new life
less successfully. Last Friday we had to leave one on the road, and
yesterday an old battery horse named Défricheur died in his turn. We
had to prepare a grave for him, and four men had been digging for more
than an hour in the hard and rocky ground when the mayor of Moirey
arrived on the scene. The grave had been dug too close to the houses,
so they had to drag the heavy carcass farther on and begin digging
again. Unfortunately the measurements of the new grave had been badly
calculated, and Défricheur, a proper gendarme's horse, could not be
crammed into it. The men were heartily tired of digging and so, with
a few blows of their spades and picks, they broke his legs and folded
them under his belly, so that at last he could be squeezed into the pit.

The hill which had limited our horizon at Ville-devant-Chaumont ... was
still to be seen rising on the east in solitary splendour, its outlines
traced as if by compasses. Beneath the azure sky it shone like a mass
of burnished bronze.

Moirey lies in the lap of a valley and consists of a few dilapidated
cottages roofed with broken tiles. No matter from which side one goes
away from the village it is instantly hidden by an intervening spur of
the hills, so that one can only see the top of the roofs and the short,
rectangular steeple covered with slates.

As we were grooming our horses in a field through which a brook bubbled
along amid the iris, a bevy of white-capped girls came down from the
village.

The only means of getting over the river was a narrow bridge. This we
barred by standing a couple of horses athwart it, and, by way of toll,
demanded kisses. The girls, their rosy-cheeked faces smiling under the
spreading butterfly-wings of their caps, at first hesitated. Then one
of them took a run, jumped, and splashed into the water. The others
learnt wisdom from her example and decided to pay the toll.

"Come on now! Just a kiss, you know!" said Déprez. "That's not so dear
in war-time!"

They paid conscientiously.


  _Friday, August 21_

To-day there was a fog when we awoke. Almost immediately the Captain
gave the word to harness, and five o'clock had not yet struck when we
started. The road was cut up into ruts by the artillery which for three
days had been passing over it, and we were so shaken on the limbers
that we could scarcely breathe.

Luckily the column was advancing at a walking pace.

The fog had collected at the end of the valley. On the right enormous
and regularly formed mounds rose like islands out of the sea of mist.
I could not take my eyes off their symmetrical curves, as perfect as
those of Cybele's breasts.

Farther on the road straggled across a plain, the ample undulations
of which reminded one of the rise and fall of the ocean on days when
there is a swell. In every direction it was studded with wheat sheaves,
but there were few trees except an occasional group or line of poplars
welded together by the fog in an indistinct mass of dark green foliage.

Not a sound of battle was to be heard.

       *       *       *       *       *

On the way we fell in with some baggage-trains and ambulances, and
learnt from their drivers that the enemy was still far away.

Nevertheless the country had already been prepared for battle. A
farmhouse by the roadside had been fortified, the windows barricaded
with mattresses and small trusses of straw, while a few loopholes
had been knocked in the garden wall. The fields were furrowed with
trenches as far as the edge of a wood, where some abatis had been set
up. Earthworks had been thrown up along the sides of the road, and in
front were heaped ladders, a couple of harrows, a plough, a roller, and
several bundles of straw. Two carts had been placed athwart the road,
but they had been pushed one to each side and lay thrown back with
their long shafts pointing upwards.

We still rolled on across this desolate country. So similar were its
aspects that it almost seemed as if we were not advancing at all.

At last the fog lifted, and, suddenly, before we were able to guess
that the end of the dreary scenery was near, a magnificent view opened
out before us as if by enchantment. We were on the crest of a hill
between two valleys, on one side of which thick woods descended in
leafy terraces to the hollow of a narrow dell in which, through a
meadow of vivid emerald green, a little black river trickled on its
way. The forests surrounding this meadow, as if placed there in order
to embellish and enhance its beauty, looked like a magnificent ruff
of low-toned olive tints. In front of us, just where the road turned
off at an angle, a spur of woodland rose with the forbidding aspect of
a fortress. On the right, forming a contrast to the quiet and peaceful
little river, a broad valley, with symmetrical slopes lightened here
and there by corn standing yellow in the sun, opened out wide and
invitingly. The river flowing through it was hardly visible, but the
roads, villages, and the railway line were quite distinct. On the one
hand lay Vélosnes, and on the other Torgny, their white walls and red
roofs showing up on the green background of the fields.

There was nothing in the scene to suggest that war was on foot, and
gun-shots heard from a distance were no more startling than the noise
of carriage wheels.

It was a fine morning, to which the mist, softening the outlines of
the landscape, lent additional charm. The narrow S-shaped road we were
following plunged into the valley. The horses made efforts to keep back
the guns, and especially the ammunition wagons, which were pushing them
down the slope. Their shoes slipping with the dislodged stones, they
braced their backs and felt their way cautiously.

The river at this point constituted the frontier between France and
Belgium. A custom-house official was leaning up against the parapet of
the bridge.

One of the men called out to him:

"No fine linen or lace to-day, old man!"

And another:

"Suppose there's no duty on melinite, is there?"

The official grinned.

The first Belgian village, Torgny, afforded a contrast to the French
hamlets through which we had been passing since dawn. Our villages are
tumble-down, dirty, and redolent of manure and misery. Torgny, on the
contrary, was clean and bright, the windows of the houses boasting
not only curtains but even, sometimes, embroidered blinds, while the
shutters, doors, and window-joists were painted light green.

On all sides we were greeted with smiles by the placid and open-faced
villagers. Through the windows of the cottages we could see red-tiled
floors, and in the semi-darkness of the interiors the glow of brasswork
on stoves and lamps reflected by carefully polished furniture.

Our column halted in the village, the men carefully wedging the wheels
of the vehicles to prevent them from backing down the slope. A woman
and a fair, slightly built girl were sitting in front of their house,
of which the lower half was a mass of wistaria. We asked them where
the road led to, and a conversation began in which not only mother and
daughter took part, but also the grandmother, a wizened little woman
with a wrinkled face out of which peered a pair of bright brown eyes;
she had come out to see what was happening. They talked with a drawling
sing-song accent, which nevertheless was in no way disagreeable to our
ears.

"Have the Germans come as far as this?"

"Yes, they've come, only they didn't do any harm.... They hadn't
the time. Five or six of them came down from the woods up
there--cavalrymen. But they went back almost at once. Some of the
villagers saw them. There were also some French cavalry here, in blue
and red uniforms."

"Chasseurs?"

"I suppose so. They are so nice and polite.... At first, as there
weren't many of them, we almost quarrelled as to who should have them.
When the Uhlans came out of the woods they saw the French and went in
again."

"And the Belgian soldiers?"

"Not seen any of them," said the old lady. "But my granddaughter saw
some at Arlon last year."

"Yes," chimed in the girl, "and they are better dressed than you."

We prepared to make ourselves comfortable in the chairs which had been
brought out for us, and chatted while waiting for the order to advance.

"You ought to be very grateful to us," said the grandmother. "We
stopped them, and they hadn't reckoned on that! They thought we were
sheep and found we were lions--yes, lions! They even say so themselves!"

We willingly acquiesced.

In future we shall always be able to count upon the goodwill of the
Belgians, for we owe them a debt of gratitude. That is no more solid
basis for affection than that which underlies the feelings of a
benefactor towards his protégé. Nothing is more soothing to the spirit
than a sense of superiority and legitimate pride.

There can be no doubt but that the blood so bravely shed for us in
Belgium will be productive of more friendship than twenty years of
sustained efforts to maintain the French language and culture against
the rising tide of Germanization. And, forty years later, when we
meet a Belgian, we may be sure that he will remind us, in his pleasing
accent:

"Yes, but you know ... without us in 1914...."

It will be a pleasure to him to recall all that France owes to his
glorious little country. More, he will be grateful to us for the debt
we owe her.

"Oh, of course it has cost us a lot to defend our neutrality," said
the old woman. "It is awful what the Germans have done in our country.
They seem to have a special hatred for the women. There was one down
there.... We knew her quite well.... And they first cut off her breasts
... and then disembowelled her.... And they've done that to countless
others! Oh! its too awful! They must be worse than savages. You must
tell your people about it, when you get back--about that, and about
everything else we've had to suffer. But you won't do the same when you
get into Germany, will you?"

She added:

"I am very old--over seventy--and I had never seen war in Belgium."

The poor old woman spoke almost without anger, but in a trembling voice
and with infinite sadness.

We encamped at Torgny. As soon as the horses had been picketed and
the oats distributed, Déprez and I hurried to the wistaria windows to
ask if we could buy a little milk and some eggs. The old woman was
most upset; it seemed that she had already given everything to the
Chasseurs. But she sent us a little farther on to the house of one of
her daughters who, she said, would milk the cow for us. She added:

"We've a good loft here, where you would be quite comfortable and warm
in the straw. So come back to sleep in any case."

We knocked at the door she had pointed out to us a couple of houses
farther on, and were received as though we had been expected.

"It's some artillerymen, mother," said a young woman, who was nursing a
child in her arms. "They want some milk."

Her mother came out of the next room.

"I'll go and milk the cow," said she. "Good evening, messieurs; please
sit down; you must be tired."

Lucas had somehow managed to find some eggs.

"Shall we make you an omelette with bacon?" asked the daughter. "It
won't take long. But do sit down. I'm sure you've been standing about
enough to-day!"

Almost immediately the fat began to sizzle in the pan.

At every moment infantrymen and Chasseurs knocked at the door, and the
two women distributed the milk from their cow, refusing all payment.
When there was no more left they were quite wretched at having to
disappoint the men who continually arrived on various quests.

"We've given all we had. I'm so sorry!" they said. "We've only a small
bowl left for the baby. You see, we've only one cow!"

A Chasseur brought back a kettle he had borrowed; another asked for the
loan of a gridiron. Never has Frenchman been more warmly welcomed in
France.

The fair-haired girl, with whom we had been talking shortly before,
came back carrying an earthenware milk-jug in her hand.

"Have you any milk, auntie? There are some soldiers who want a little.
They're ill, some of them."

"Oh, darling, I'm so sorry! There are only a few drops left for baby!"

"Oh, dear!..."

The girl saw us seated at table round the smoking omelette, and smiled
at us as though we were old acquaintances. I told her that if I ever
returned home I should perhaps write a book about what I had seen in
the war.

"And will you please tell me your name, so that I can send you the book
as a souvenir to you and your family. You have all been so good to us
Frenchmen."

"My name is Aline--Aline Badureau."

"What a pretty name--Aline!"

She prepared to go.

"I hope that you will return home," she said to me, "so that you can
send us your book. But I'm sure you'll forget. They say that Frenchmen
forget very soon."

I protested vehemently.



III. THE ATTACK. THE RETREAT


  _Saturday, August 22_

We slept in the barn which the kindly old woman had placed at our
disposal, and in which the hay was deep and warm. At three o'clock
in the morning one of the stable pickets came to call us through the
window. We harnessed our horses as best we could in the darkness.

An extremely diffused light was beginning to spread over the
countryside, and the mist, rising from the meadows, dimmed the
clearness of the dawn. We marched on through the powdery atmosphere.
The fog was so thick that it was impossible to see the carriage
immediately ahead, and from our places on the limber-boxes the lead
driver and his horses looked like a sort of moving shadow.

Eventually we reached the little town of Virton. All the inhabitants
were at their doors, and offered us coffee, milk, tobacco, and cigars.
The men jumped off the limbers and hurriedly drank the steaming drinks
poured out for them by the women, while the drivers, bending down from
their horses, held out their drinking-tins.

"Have you seen the Germans?" we asked.

"Only one or two came to buy some socks and some sugar. I hope they
won't all come here. Will they?"

"Aren't we here to prevent them?"

The women's open faces, framed in their dark brown hair, were perfectly
calm. Fat little children, like cherubs sprung to life from some canvas
of Rubens, ran by the side of the column as we moved on, and others, a
little bigger, kept crying: "Hurrah for the French!"

Our batteries joined up behind a group of the 26th Artillery on the
Ethe road--a fine straight highway, flanked by tall trees. In the fog
the sheaves in the fields looked so much like infantry that for a
moment one was deceived. A few ambulances were installed in one of the
villages. A little farther on some mules, saddled with their cacolets,
were waiting at the end of a sunken road.

We had hardly passed the last houses when suddenly rifle-fire broke out
with a sound like that of dry wood burning. A machine-gun also began to
crackle, staccato, like a cinema apparatus.

Fighting was going on quite close, both in front of us and also to the
right, somewhere in the fog. I listened, at every moment expecting to
hear the hum of a bullet.

"About turn!"

"Trot!"

What had happened? Where were the batteries which had preceded us? We
turned off to the right. The firing ceased. The march in the fog, which
kept getting thicker, became harassing after a while. At all events we
were sure, now, that the enemy was not far off.

Finally, at about seven o'clock, we halted. Not a sound of the battle
was to be heard. We unbridled our horses and gave them some oats. The
men lay down by the side of the road and dozed.

Suddenly the fusillade broke out again, but this time on the left. I
asked myself how our position could have altered so in relation to that
of the enemy. A few minutes ago the fighting was on our right. Perhaps
it was only a patrol which had gone astray. I gave up thinking about
it. Doubtless the fog had confused my sense of direction.

This time the firing sounded more distant. A single detonation, like a
signal, was heard. I thought at first that it was one of the drivers
whipping up his team, but a minute later the crackling of rifles broke
on our ears in gusts, as if carried by a high wind. And yet the air was
quite still, and the fog floated, motionless, on all sides.

Suddenly the sun broke through and the mists disappeared as if by
magic, like large gauze curtains rapidly lifted. In a few moments the
whole stretch of countryside became visible. The cannonade began at
once.

On the right were some meadows in which flocks were feeding, and,
farther on, a line of wooded hills, in the lap of which nestled a tiny
village.

On the left and towards the north the horizon was hidden by a
semicircle of hills through which a river wound its tortuous course,
draining the stubble-fields on either side. A large, bowl-shaped
willow-tree made a solitary green blotch on the background.

A battery was evidently already installed there, four dark points
indicating the position of the four guns. As we stood waiting on
the straight road, the perspective of which was accentuated by the
trees flanking it on each side, the twelve batteries of our regiment,
followed by their first lines of wagons, formed an interminable and
motionless black line.

The Captain gave the order:

"Prepare for action!"

The gun-numbers who had been lying beneath the trees jumped to their
feet and took off the breech-and muzzle-covers which protect the guns
from dust when on the road. This done, they got the sighting-gear
ready, and saw that the training and elevating levers were in good
working order.

We were surprised in our work by an explosion quite near at hand.
Above the stubble-fields a small white cloud was floating upwards. It
expanded, and then disappeared. And suddenly, near the bowl-shaped
willow-tree, six shrapnel shells burst, one after another.

I felt an odd sensation, as if my circulation was growing slower. But I
was not afraid. For the matter of that, no immediate danger threatened
us. Only I had an intuition that a big battle was about to begin, and
that I should have to make a great effort.

The gunners anxiously riveted their eyes on a point of the horizon
where shells were now falling almost incessantly. Of course none of
them would have confessed to their anxiety, but there was a significant
lull in the conversation. I do not know what we were waiting
for--whether the fall of a shell or the arrival of orders.

For my part I excused myself for feeling apprehensive. The baptism of
fire is always an ordeal, and the motionless waiting on the road had
worked on my nerves. The enemy need only have lifted his fire in order
to hit us as we stood there, defenceless, in column formation.

Besides, such emotions are only skin-deep. Even if anxiety could
plainly be read in every man's face we still kept smiling and inwardly
resolved to do whatever might be necessary in order to make the coming
battle a French victory.

The Colonel passed by, accompanied by Captain Manoury and a Staff of
Lieutenants. He gave us a quiet but searching look, which seemed to
gauge our mettle and encourage us at the same time. The small group
of horsemen made off rapidly, ascending the slopes which were being
bombarded by the enemy.

"Attention!"

We were going into action.

On the side of the horseshoe-shaped ring of hills sections of infantry
were deploying and advancing by successive rushes. Of a sudden men rose
up and ran across the fields, and again as suddenly, at an inaudible
word of command, threw themselves down, disappearing from view like so
many rabbits. They went on farther and farther, and at last we saw
their outlines silhouetted against the sky-line as they crossed the
ridge of the hill.

It was about ten o'clock, and very hot. From the unknown country on
the other side of the hills came the awe-inspiring roar of battle. The
rifle-fire crackled continuously and the noise of the machine-guns
sounded like waves beating against the rocks. The thunder of the heavy
guns drowned, so to speak, the general din, and blended it into a
single roar, similar to that of the ocean in a storm, when the waves
gather and break with dull thuds amid the shriek of the wind as it
lashes the waters.

The battle-line seemed to lie from east to west, the Germans holding
the north and the French the south.

"Forward!"

First we had to cross a meadow traversed by a stream almost hidden in
the high grass. The gunners took the off-horses by the bridle and urged
them forward, while the drivers whipped up their teams into a trot. The
sun was shining under the wheels of the ammunition wagon as it suddenly
proved too much for the horses and sank heavily up to the axle in the
mud. It was eventually dislodged by some strong collar-work.

Where on earth were we going to? We seemed to be bound for the
bowl-shaped willow-tree, near the heights from which the German
machine-guns, for more than two hours, had been riddling every square
inch of ground. Why were we being sent there? Were there not plenty of
excellent positions on the hills? We should inevitably be massacred!
But still the column advanced at a walking pace towards the sloping
field in which shells were falling at every moment.

Why? Why? Death had reigned supreme there ever since the fog lifted. We
were riding into the Valley....

I felt a choking sensation grip my throat. And yet I was still capable
of reasoning. I understood quite clearly that the hour was come for me
to sacrifice my life. All of us would go up, yes!--but few would come
back down the hill!

This combination of animality and thought which constitutes my life
would shortly cease to be. My bleeding body would lie stretched out
on the field; I seemed to see it. A curtain seemed to fall on the
perspectives of the future which a moment ago still seemed full of
sunshine. It was the end. It had not been long in coming, for I am only
twenty-one.

Not for an instant did I argue with myself or hesitate. My destiny had
to be sacrificed for the fulfilment of higher destinies--for the life
of my country, of everything I love, of all I regretted at that moment.
If I was to die, well and good! I was willing. I should almost have
thought that it was harder!...

We continued to advance at a walking pace, the drivers on foot at their
horses' heads. Presently we reached the willow-tree. A volley....
From far off came a sound at first resembling the whirr of wings or
the rustle of a silken skirt, but which rapidly developed into a
droning hum like that of hundreds of hornets in flight. The shell
was coming straight at us, and the sensation one then experiences
is indescribable. The air twangs and vibrates, and the vibrations
seem to be communicated to one's flesh and nerves--almost to the
marrow of one's bones. The detachment crouched down by the wheels of
the ammunition wagon and the drivers sheltered behind their horses.
At every moment we expected an explosion. One, two, three seconds
passed--an hour. The instinct of self-preservation strong within me, I
bent my shoulders and waited, trembling like an animal flinching from
death. A flash! It seemed to fall at my feet. Shrapnel bullets whistled
by like an angry wind.

But the column still remained motionless in the potato-field, which
was so riddled by gun-fire that it was difficult to steer the vehicles
between the shell craters.

Why were we waiting? How we wished that we could at least take up
a position and reply to the enemy's fire! It seemed to me that if
only we could hear the roar of our ·75's the dread of those deathly
moments would become less intense. But we seemed to be merely awaiting
slaughter; the minutes dragged by and we still remained motionless.

Some shells, which for a moment I thought had actually grazed the
limber, hurtled by and shook me from head to foot, making the armour
behind which I was sheltering vibrate. Fortunately the ground was
considerably inclined, and the projectiles burst farther back. I
perspired with fear.... Yes, I was badly frightened. Nevertheless I
knew that I should not run away, and that I should, if necessary, let
myself be killed at my post. But the longing for action grew more and
more insistent.

At last we started off again, progressing with difficulty across the
furrowed field. The drivers could hardly manage their horses, which had
been seized with panic and pulled in all directions.

Hutin gave me a nod:

"You are quite green, old chap!" he said.

"Well, if you could see your own face ..." I answered.

A shell fell, throwing up a quantity of earth in front of the horses
and wounding the centre driver of the ammunition wagon in the head,
killing him instantly.

"Forward!"

Near the crest of the hill we took up our position on the edge of an
oat-field. The limbers went off to the rear to shelter somewhere in the
direction of Latour, the steeple of which could be seen overtopping the
trees in the valley on our left. Crouching behind the armoured doors of
the ammunition wagons and behind the gun-shields, we awaited the order
to open fire. But the Captain, kneeling down among the oats in front of
the battery, his field-glasses to his eyes, could discover no target,
for yonder, over the spreading woods of Ethe and Etalle, now occupied
by the enemy, a thick mist was still floating. All round us, behind our
guns, over our heads, and without respite, high-explosive and shrapnel
shell of every calibre kept bursting and strewing the position with
bullets and splinters. Death seemed inevitable. Behind the gun was a
small pit in which I took refuge while we waited for orders. A big bay
saddle-horse, with a gash in his chest from which a red stream flowed,
stood motionless in the middle of the field.

What with the hissing and whistling of the shells, the thunder of
the enemy's guns, and the roar from a neighbouring ·75 battery, it
was impossible to distinguish the different noises in this shrieking
inferno of fire, smoke, and flames. I perspired freely, my body
vibrating rather than trembling. The blood seethed in my head and
throbbed in my temples, while it seemed as if an iron girdle encircled
my chest. Unconsciously, like one demented, I hummed an air we had been
singing recently in the camp and which haunted me.

  _Trou là là, ça ne va guère;
  Trou là là, ça ne va pas._

Something brushed past my back. At first I thought I was hit, but the
shell splinter had only torn my breeches.

The battery became enveloped in black, nauseating smoke. Somebody was
groaning, and I got up to see what had happened. Through the yellow fog
I saw Sergeant Thierry stretched on the ground and the six numbers of
the detachment crowding round him. The shell had burst under the chase
of his gun, smashing the recoil-buffer, and effectually putting the
piece out of action.

Kneeling side by side, Captain Bernard de Brisoult and Lieutenant
Hély d'Oissel were scanning the horizon through their field-glasses.
I admired them. The sight of these two officers, and of the Major who
was quietly strolling up and down behind the battery, made me ashamed
to tremble. I passed through a few seconds of confused but intense
mental suffering. Then it seemed as though I was awakening from a sort
of feverish delirium, full of horrible nightmares. I was no longer
frightened. And, when I again took shelter, having nothing else to do
as we were not firing, I found I had overcome my instincts, and no
longer shook with fear.

A horrible smell filled the pit.

"Phew!" I ejaculated hoarsely, "what a stink!"

Peering down I perceived Astruc in the bottom of the hollow. In a voice
which seemed to come from the bowels of the earth he replied:

"All right, old son! Don't you worry ... it's only me. I'm sitting in
a filthy mess here, but all the same I wouldn't give up this place for
twenty francs!"

Over the crest of the hill came some infantry in retreat. The sound of
the machine-guns approached and eventually became distinguishable from
the roar of the artillery.

The enemy was advancing and we were giving way before them. Shells
continued to fly over us, and entire companies of infantry fell back.

The officers consulted together.

"But what are we to do?... There are no orders ... no orders," the
Major kept repeating.

And still we waited. The Lieutenant had drawn his revolver and the
gunners unslung their rifles. The German batteries, possibly afraid of
hitting their own troops, ceased firing. At any moment now the enemy
might set foot on the ridge.

"Limber up!"

The order was quickly carried out.

We had to carry Thierry, whose knee was broken, with us. He was
suffering horribly and implored us not to touch him. In spite of his
protests, however, three men lifted him on to the observation-ladder.
He was very pale, and looked ready to faint.

"Oh!" he murmured. "You are hurting me! Can't you finish me?"

The rest of the wounded, five or six in number, hoisted themselves
without assistance on to the limbers and the battery swung down the
Latour road at a quick trot.

We had lost the battle. I did not know why or how. I had seen nothing.
The French right must have had to retire a considerable distance, for,
ahead to the south-east, I saw shells bursting over the woods which
that morning had been some way behind our lines. We were completely
outflanked, and I was seized with qualms as to whether our means of
retreat were still open. We crossed the railway, some fields, and a
river in succession, and approached the chain of hills, wooded half-way
up their slopes, which stretched parallel to the heights the army
had occupied in the morning. These were doubtless to be our rallying
positions. The drivers urged their horses onwards while the gunners,
who had dismounted from the limbers in order to lighten the load, ran
in scattered order by the side of the column. The narrow road we were
following was badly cut up, the stones rolling from under the horses'
hoofs at every step. Half-way up the steep incline we found the way
barred by an infantry wagon which had come to a standstill. A decrepit
white horse was struggling in the shafts. The driver swore and hauled
at the wheels, but the animal could not start.

One of the corporals shouted out:

"Now then, get on, can't you?"

Get on!... As if he could! The driver, without leaving hold of the
wheel which he was preventing from going backwards, turned a distracted
face towards us, almost crying with baffled rage.

"Get on? How am I to get on?"

We lent him a hand and succeeded in pushing his wagon into the field so
that we could pass.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was about two o'clock in the afternoon, and the heat was stifling.
The battle seemed to have come to an end, and the only gun-shots
audible came from far away on the left, near Virton and St. Mard.

       *       *       *       *       *

The column stretched out in a long black line on the hill-side as we
crawled upwards through the woods crowning the summit in order to find
a road by which we might gain the plateau. The horizon gradually opened
out before us. Suddenly, from the direction of Latour, a machine-gun
began to crackle; I hurriedly lifted my hand to my ear like one who
drives away a buzzing wasp.

"They're firing at us!" cried Hutin.

Bullets began to hum past. Machine-guns had opened fire on us from the
top of the positions we had just vacated. One of the horses, wounded,
fell to its knees and was promptly unharnessed. A gunner, shot through
the thigh, nevertheless continued to march.

Close by, in a valley where we were sheltered from the fire, we found a
spot where one corner of the field cut a wedge out of the forest. Here
we parked our three batteries and waited for orders. I saw at once how
critical our position was. There was no road leading to the plateau
through the wood, and several vehicles of the 10th Battery, which had
ventured to try a bridle-path, soon found it impossible either to
advance or go back. One of the guns had sunk up to the axle in the
muddy ground.

The only means of retreat, therefore, was to cross the bare fields
on the right or left and once again run the gauntlet not only of the
machine-guns, but also, perhaps, of the enemy's field artillery,
which by now had had time to come up. The longer we waited the more
problematical became our chances of escaping unscathed.

Besides, I could not help wondering how long the route across the
plateau was likely to remain available. We were already outflanked,
and in front of us the Germans were still advancing down the
crescent-shaped hills. They had doubtless already occupied Latour.

The Major still waited for orders. He hardly spoke a word, but every
now and then his jaws contracted spasmodically--a sign of nervousness
we soldiers knew well. He was "cracking nuts," as the men say. He had
dispatched a corporal to ask for instructions, but no one knew where
the Staff was likely to be found at that hour. The army was in full
retreat.

Eventually a dragoon galloped up and drew rein in front of our
officers. We anxiously crowded round him. He brought information that
the retreat of the army was being effected on the right by the Ruettes
road. The enemy, he said, had already taken Latour, and was advancing
towards Ville-Houdlémont.

The column immediately leapt into life. Lieutenant Hély d'Oissel,
riding on alone ahead, showed us the way. Again the machine-guns broke
out in the distance, but this time no bullets whistled past us. For a
few moments we were stopped by a paling, which we broke down with our
axes. The open space we had to cross was short--a meadow capping the
rising ground between the trees. We eventually reached Ruettes by a
narrow lane on both sides of which rose steep banks.

Near the church stood a General without any Staff, and accompanied
solely by three Chasseurs.

The Tellancourt road was a veritable river.

In the breathless hurry and bustle of the retreat we had to make our
way through the crowd by force. Such battalions as still possessed
their Majors went on in front with the artillery column. And, tossed
about from right to left like bits of cork in the swirl of a current,
dragged this way and that in the eddies, sometimes pushed into the
ditch, and sometimes carried off their feet by the torrent, the
tattered remnants of troops surged down the road. Wounded, limping,
many without rifle or pack, they made slow progress. Some made an
effort to climb upon our carriages, and either hoisted themselves on to
the ammunition wagons or let themselves be dragged along like automata.

While the retreat of the infantry divisions continued along the
highway, we turned off down a steep road to the right and reached the
plateau. The day was drawing to a close, and the shadow of the thick
woods at Guéville, between us and the sun, was projected on to the side
of the next hill. Here there were no stragglers, but the ditches were
full of wounded, resting for a moment before continuing the painful
ascent. Many of them looked as though they would never get up again.
Some were lying half hidden in the grass.

There was already something skull-like about their faces; the eyes,
wide open and bright with fever, stared fixedly from out their sunken
sockets as though at something we could not see. Their matted hair
was glued to their foreheads with sweat, which slowly trickled down
the drawn, emaciated faces, leaving white zigzag furrows in the dirt
of dust and smoke. Hardly one of the wounded was bandaged, and the
blood had made dark stains on their coats and splashed their ragged
uniforms. Not a complaint was to be heard. Two soldiers, without packs
or rifles, were trying to help a little infantryman whose shoulder had
been shattered by a shell, and who, deathly white and with closed eyes,
wearily but obstinately shook his head, refusing to be moved. Others,
wounded in the leg, still managed to hobble along with the aid of their
rifles, which they used as crutches. They implored us to find place for
them on the carriages.

We contrived to make room for them on the limbers. At every bump and
jolt a big bugler, whose chest had been shot clean through by a bullet,
gave a gasp of pain.

In the fields by the roadside lay torn and gaping packs, from which
protruded vests, pants, caps, brushes, and other items of kit. The road
itself was littered with boots, mess-tins, and camp-kettles crushed by
the wheels and horses' hoofs, shirts, bayonets, cartridge belts with
the brass cases shining in the dust, képis, and broken Lebel rifles.
It was a sight to make one weep, and, despite myself, my thoughts went
back to the retreat of August 1870, after Wissembourg and Forbach....
And yet for a month past we had heard continually of French victories,
and had almost begun to picture Alsace reconquered and the road into
Germany laid open. Nevertheless, at the first attack, here was our army
routed! With some astonishment I realized that I had taken part in a
defeat.

We reached the edge of the Guéville woods, which were being defended by
the 102nd Infantry. Arms and equipment still bestrew the road, which
had also been cut up into ridges by the artillery and convoys. The
wounded on our lurching and jolting wagons looked like men crucified.

I questioned the big bugler:

"Shall we stop? Perhaps this shakes you too much?"

"No! Anything rather than fall into their hands."

"Yes, but still...."

"No, no--that's all right."

And he bit his lips to avoid crying out. I was very tired, and my head
felt at the same time heavy and yet light. My one desire was to sleep,
no matter where.

Hardly were we out of the wood when the battery halted in a field full
of wheat-sheaves near a village called La Malmaison. I threw myself
down on some straw. If we stayed there we should certainly not even
be able to sleep; the enemy was too close, and we should probably be
attacked at night. And my one thought was to sleep, to get far enough
away to sleep. I waited for the prophetic order "Unharness!" which
would leave us in this field to fight again in an hour's time--perhaps
at once. But other orders arrived, and off we rumbled once more,
through La Malmaison, which we found congested with troops in disorder.
Night fell. I had now reached the extreme limits of fatigue and began
to be less conscious of what was going on around me. As if in a dream
I saw the men huddled on the limber-boxes, their heads rolling on
their shoulders, and the drivers lurching from side to side on their
horses like drunken men. I still seem to hear a gunner of the 26th
Artillery, who, sitting on the ammunition wagon, was telling how the
three batteries which preceded us this morning on the road to Ethe were
caught by the German machine-gun fire and taken in column formation,
and how he himself had been able, thanks to the fog, to escape almost
alone.

We went on through the night, our wagons creaking and rattling
with a sound almost like a sort of cannonade. One of the whips was
dragging.... For a moment I thought I heard a machine-gun.... What an
obsession!... The column rolled on through the darkness, the monotonous
rumble of the wheels unbroken by an order or word of any kind.

About midnight, after a very long march, we again reached Torgny,
and encamped there. The roll was not even called. I threw myself
face-downwards on some hay in a barn, and it seemed to me, as I fell
asleep, that I was dying.


  _Sunday, August 23_

This morning they let us sleep until past eight o'clock. After getting
up we at once led our horses down to the big stone trough in the
middle of the village. The church bells were ringing. So there were
still Sundays! Somehow that seemed strange! I was still sleepy and my
numbed limbs ached abominably, so that it was torture to get into the
saddle. How I longed for a day's rest!

As I was returning to the camp, Déprez at my side, we met Mademoiselle
Aline, in a light pink dress of flowery pattern, and very daintily
shod. She was doubtless going to Mass. She recognized us and waved her
hand, smiling.

At the camp we found them waiting for us.

"Hurry up now!"

"Bridle!... Hook in!"

"What? Are we going into action again?"

"Seems like it.... I don't know," answered Bréjard. "Now then!"

The two batteries now forming the Group, our own and the 12th (the 10th
had been taken by the enemy in the Guéville woods), started off along
the Virton road. It seemed that we were never to get a moment's respite.

But almost immediately we halted in double column on the grass by
the side of the road. On the hill-side were strong forces of French
artillery in position, the motionless batteries showing up like black
squares on the green slope.

The roll was called. One or two were missing from my battery. Bâton,
the centre driver of the gun-team, had been wounded in the head,
and had been left behind in the hospital at Torgny. Hubert, our
gun-commander, had disappeared, and so had Homo, another of the
drivers. The last time that I had seen Homo he was wandering across a
field swept by the German guns, a wild look in his eyes.

Lucas, the Captain's cyclist, was also missing, and this worried me
especially. He is always so cheerful, open-hearted, and amusing, and is
one of my best friends.

There was no news at all of our entire first line, conducted by
Lieutenant Couturier. Standing in a circle round the Captain the
detachments were reorganized. The battery had only three guns left, and
it was necessary to send to the rear the one with the broken hydraulic
buffer.

How tired I was! As soon as I stayed still I began to fall asleep.

Hutin opened a box of bully-beef for the two of us.

"Hungry, Lintier?"

"Not a bit.... And yet I've not eaten anything since the day before
yesterday!"

"Same here. Do you think we shall have any more fighting to-day?"

"I suppose we shall...."

Hutin thought a little.

"There's only one thing I love," said he, "and that is to be there."

"Yes, it's splendid."

"It's odd that we don't hear the guns to-day."

"They don't seem to have taken advantage of their victory yesterday in
order to advance."

"Well," said our gun-layer, "in my opinion we've fallen into an
ambuscade. They were waiting for us there, and they had got all the
ridges nicely registered. That's how they had us! But all that will
change!"

"I hope so! Oh, Lord, how tired I am! And you?"

"So am I!"

We each ate without much relish four mouthfuls of bully-beef and shut
the box again. Besides, the column was already beginning to move.

Striking across country we reached Lamorteau, a large village on the
banks of the Chiers, where we encamped near the river and waited for
orders.

The scene was soon brightened by smoke rising straight up in the still
air of the morning, which was already hot. The men made their soup
and the drivers went off to draw water for the horses, which were not
unharnessed.

Suddenly, on the bridge spanning the Chiers, Lieutenant Couturier
appeared at the head of his column, accompanied by Lucas. The latter
ran up to me.

"There you are!"

"There you are!"

"You devil! You did give us a fright!"

We grasped each other's hands, and that was all. But I felt immensely
relieved.

Hubert was also with them. Conversation became lively round the
camp-kettles, in which the soup was already steaming. Afterwards, no
orders having arrived, we slept, and at nightfall returned to Torgny to
camp there once more.

The Major ordered the horses to be unharnessed and, supposing therefore
that no danger threatened, I stretched myself and gave a yawn of
satisfaction. Then we bivouacked. What work! The guns are placed about
twenty yards apart. Between the wheels of two guns are stretched the
picket-lines, and, when the horses have been tethered to them, and the
harness arranged on the limber draught-poles, the park ought to form a
regular square.

We took off our vests, for it was still hot. Déprez was distributing
oats among the drivers who stood holding out the nosebags. Somebody
suddenly cried out:

"An aeroplane!"

"A German aeroplane!"

Right overhead, like a big black hawk with a forked tail, an aeroplane
was circling round and round. There was an immediate rush for rifles.
Lying on their backs in order to shoulder their guns, and half
undressed, their open shirts showing hairy chests, the men opened
a brisk fire on the German bird of prey, which was flying low. The
startled horses neighed, reared, and pulled this way and that, many
breaking loose and galloping off across the fields. The aeroplane
seemed to be in difficulties.

"She's hit!"

"She's coming down!"

"No! She's only going off!"

The men still continued firing, although the machine had been out of
range for some minutes.

At the drinking-place in the only street of the village there was
always the same crowd of men taking their horses to be watered, some
mounted bare-back, others led; the same shouting and swearing to get
room at the trough, greetings from those who recognized each other,
oaths from others leading their animals who were hustled by the men on
horseback--in short, all the life and movement of an artillery camp. A
Chasseur, shouting profanely, forced his way through the throng. He was
assailed with cries.

"Here, you aren't in a bigger hurry than any one else!"

"Yes, I am! Get back to camp quick! I've got orders!"

"What's the matter now?"

"All you chaps have got to clear off! No time for amusement, this, you
know; the Germans are coming up. There'll be some more fun in a minute!"

He spurred forward, and we hurried back to our guns. Was it a surprise?
We limbered up at full speed, and before we had even had time to button
our shirts the first gun left the park.

"Forward! March.... Trot!"

We had thrown the nosebags, still half full of oats, on the ammunition
wagons and gun-carriages, and once on the way it was necessary to lash
them so that they should not be shaken off. Hastily throwing on their
clothing, the men jumped on to the limbers as best they could, while
the battery moved forward at a brisk pace on the uneven road.

We kept continually looking over our shoulders, towards the hills on
the east dominated by Torgny, from which direction we expected to see
the heads of the enemy's column emerge at any minute. I momentarily
awaited the crackling of a machine-gun or the scream of a shell.

The road in the distance, as it wound through the valley, was black
with horses and ammunition wagons advancing at a trot and raising thick
clouds of dust. Batteries were also to be seen rolling across country.
What was the meaning of this sudden retreat? The whole day long we
had only heard the guns from far off, towards the north. We had now
even ceased to hear them altogether. Had we been surprised, then, or
nearly surprised? But one never knows what has really happened on such
occasions!

We took up our position on the ridge between the Chiers and the Othain,
where the whole country, its contours and colours continually changing
in the bright sunshine, had seemed to smile at us upon our arrival.
It seemed to me as though the memories awakened by the majesty and
stillness of the scene were deeply rooted in the past. I felt as though
I had aged ten years in one day--a strange and painful impression.

Our guns were pointing towards Torgny and the plateau above it. At
any moment the order might come to bombard the unfortunate village.
Possibly, even, a shell from my gun might blow to bits the very house
which had given us shelter, and kill the woman whose hospitality had
meant so much to us! That was an awful thought! Oh, this ghastly war!

But night fell, and as yet the Captain had seen no signs of movement
on the plateau. Behind us the narrow valley of the Othain was slowly
becoming shrouded in shadows. The limbers were stationed 200 yards
from the battery. All fires were forbidden--even lanterns might not
be lit, as our safety on the morrow might depend upon our remaining
undiscovered. The night was clear, but a thin mist partially veiled the
light of the stars, and there was no moon. Motionless, and clustered
together in dark groups, the horses quietly munched their oats. A
far-reaching reddish glow lit up the eastern horizon--doubtless La
Malmaison on fire--and as the darkness deepened other lights appeared
on the right and left of the main conflagration. On every side the
villages were burning. Against the fiery sky the haunches of the
horses, their heads and twitching ears, and the heavy masses of the
guns and limbers stood out like silhouettes.

Standing side by side with our arms folded, Hutin and I watched the
flaming countryside.

"Oh, the brutes, the savages!"

"So that's war, is it?"

And we both lapsed into silence, struck dumb by the same feeling of
futile horror, and filled with the same rage. I saw a yellow gleam pass
across the dark eyes of my friend--a reflection of the holocaust.

"And to think we can't prevent it!... That we're the weaker! Oh, Lord!"

"That'll come in time."

"Yes, that'll come ... and then they'll pay for it!"

We threw ourselves down on the straw heaped up behind the guns. A
searchlight from Verdun swept the country at regular intervals, and
the inky sky was lit up by the visual signalling. Huddled together we
gradually fell asleep, a single sentry, wrapped in his cloak, standing
motionless on guard.


  _Monday, August 24_

It was still night when I was awakened and saw a dark shadow standing
over me.

"Up you get!"

"What time is it?"

"Don't know," answered the sentry who had roused me. The villages were
still burning. Feeling our way, and almost noiselessly, we harnessed
our teams, and the limbers came up. A steep decline ... the stones
rolled. In the darkness the horses might stumble at any moment. The
brakes acted badly, and we hung on to the vehicles, letting ourselves
be dragged along in order to relieve the wheelers, which were almost
being run over by the heavy ammunition wagon.

       *       *       *       *       *

At early dawn we passed through a slumbering village. Stretched on
the ground under the lee of the high wall surrounding the church five
Chasseurs were sleeping. Twisted round one arm they held the reins
of their horses, which, standing motionless beside them, were also
asleep. A pale, cold light was breaking through the fog, which had
collected at the bottom of the valley. It was very cold as we marched
along in silence, the men snoring on the limber-boxes. We were going
westwards--retiring, that is to say. Why? Were we not in a good
position to wait for the enemy? Suddenly a silver sun shone through the
mist, surrounded by a halo of light.

After a long halt in a lucerne-field manured with stable refuse, the
smell of which remained in our nostrils, we took up position on a hill
near Flassigny. But hardly had we done so when fresh orders arrived,
and we started off again, always towards the west. In the space between
two hills we caught sight of a distant town--doubtless Montmédy.

About midday we halted in a valley near the river.

"Dismount! Unharness the off-horses. Stand easy!"

The sun was burning hot, and not a breath stirred in the heavy air.
Our bottles only contained a little of the Othain water, brackish and
tepid, but at any rate it served to wash in. The men went to sleep in
the ditches, the horses standing motionless, exhausted by the heat.

       *       *       *       *       *

The evening was already advanced when our Group received instructions
to push on to Marville, presumably to camp there.

I recognized the place, for we had passed through Marville on our
way to Torgny. At that time it was a pretty little town with flowery
gardens and river-side villas surrounded by dahlias. Now, however,
the place was deserted. Large carts belonging to the Meuse peasantry
were waiting, ready to start, piled high with bedding, boxes, and
baskets. In one of them I caught sight of a canary-cage side by side
with a perambulator and a cradle. Women, surrounded by children, were
sitting on the heterogeneous heap, crying bitterly, while the little
ones hid their heads in their skirts. Some dogs, impatient to be off,
were nosing uneasily round the wheels of the carts. We asked these poor
people where they were going.

"We don't know! They say we've got to go.... And so we're going ... and
with babies like these!"

And they questioned us in their turn:

"Which way do you think we'd better go? We don't know!"

Nor did we. Nevertheless, we pointed out a direction.

"Go that way! Over there!"

"Over there" was towards the west.... Oh, what misery!...

       *       *       *       *       *

We bivouacked on the outskirts of the town. Near-by flowed a river,
on the opposite side of which two dead horses were lying in a
stubble-field.

The Captain of the 10th Battery, which we had believed lost, arrived on
horseback at the camp. He told the Major that in the Guéville woods he
had managed to save his four guns, but had had to leave the ammunition
wagons behind. His battery had taken up position somewhere on the hills
surrounding Marville on the south-east, and he had come to get orders.

       *       *       *       *       *

The rent made by a shell-splinter two days previously in the seat of
my breeches was causing me great discomfort. Divided between the wish
to patch it up and the fear lest the order might come to break up the
camp before I had finished, I let the quiet hours of the evening pass
without doing this very necessary work.


  _Tuesday, August 25_

I was awakened by the sun, and stretched myself.

"A good night at last, eh, Hutin?"

Hutin, still asleep, made no answer. Déprez called out:

"Now then, oats!"

Nobody was in a hurry. Two men, a confused mass of dark blue cloth,
quietly went on snoring amid the straw strewn under the chase of the
gun. Suddenly I thought I heard a familiar sound, and instinctively
turned to see whence it came.

"Down!" cried some one.

The men threw themselves down where they stood. In mid-air, above the
camp, a shell burst. In the still atmosphere the compact cloud of smoke
floated motionless among the thin grey mists.

"It's that aeroplane we saw yesterday we've got to thank for that,"
said Hutin, who had been fully awakened by the explosion.

"Yes, but it was too high."

"That's only a trial round to find the range. We shall get it hot in a
few minutes, you'll see!"

"Now then, bridle! Hook in! Quick!"

The camp at once became full of movement, the gunners hurrying to
their horses and limbers. In the twinkling of an eye the picket-lines
were wound round the hooks behind the limbers, and the teams were
ready to start. Again came the whistling of an approaching projectile.
The men merely rounded their backs without interrupting their work.
High-explosive shells now began to fall on Marville, and others,
hurtling over our heads, swooped down on the neighbouring hills which
the enemy doubtless believed manned by French artillery. The drivers,
leaning over their horses' necks, whipped up the teams, and the column
made off at a trot to take up position on the hills to the west of the
town, which dominated the Othain valley and the uplands on the other
side of the river, whence the enemy was approaching. A veritable hail
of lead, steel, and fire was raining upon Marville. One of the first
shells struck the steeple. The town was not visible from our position,
but large black columns of smoke were rising perpendicularly into the
sky, and there was no doubt that the place was in flames. Amid the roar
of the cannonade, which had now become an incessant thunder which rose,
fell, echoed, and rolled without intermission, it was difficult to
distinguish between shots coming from the enemy's guns and those fired
from ours. After a time, however, we were able to recognize the short
sharp barks of the ·75's in action.

"Attention! Gun-layers, forward!"

The men hurried up to the Captain.

"That tree like a brush ... in front...."

"We see it, sir!"

"That's your aiming-point. Plate 0, dial 150."

The men ran to the guns and layed them, the breeches coming to rest as
they closed on the shells. The gun-layers raised their hands.

"Ready!"

"First round," ordered the gun-commander.

The detachment stood by outside the wheels of the gun, the firing
number bending down to seize the lanyard.

"Fire!"

The gun reared like a frightened horse. I was shaken from head to foot,
my skull throbbing and my ears tingling as though with the jangle of
enormous bells which had been rung close to them. A long tongue of fire
had darted out of the muzzle, and the wind caused by the round raised
a cloud of dust round us. The ground quaked. I noticed an unpleasant
taste in my mouth--musty at first, and acrid after a few seconds. That
was the powder. I hardly knew whether I tasted it or whether I smelled
it. We continued firing, rapidly, without stopping, the movements
of the men co-ordinated, precise, and quick. There was no talking,
gestures sufficing to control the manoeuvre. The only words audible
were the range orders given by the Captain and repeated by the Nos. 1.

"Two thousand five hundred!"

"Fire!"

"Two thousand five hundred and twenty-five!"

"Fire!"

After the first round the gun was firmly settled, and the gun-layer and
the firing number now installed themselves on their seats behind the
shield. On firing, the steel barrel of the ·75 mm. gun recoils on the
guides of the hydraulic buffer, and then quietly and gently returns to
battery, ready for the next round. Behind the gun there was soon a heap
of blackened cartridge-cases, still smoking.

"Cease firing!"

The gunners stretched themselves out on the grass, and some began to
roll cigarettes.

Another aeroplane; the same black hawk silhouetted against the pale
blue sky which at every moment was getting brighter.

The men swore and shook their fists. What tyranny! It was marking us
down!

Suddenly the enemy's heavy artillery opened fire on the hills we were
occupying as well as on a neighbouring wood. It was time to change
position, since for us the most perilous moment is when the teams come
up to join the guns. A battery is then extremely vulnerable.

Before the enemy could correct his range the Major gave an order and
we moved off to take up a fresh position in a hollow on the plain.
The wide fields around us were bristling with stubble, and on the
left a few poplars, bordering a road, traced a green line on the bare
countryside. In front of us and behind stretched empty trenches.
Marville was still burning, the smoke blackening the whole of the
eastern sky. The sun was now high in the heavens, and poured a dazzling
light on the stubble-fields. We were suffering badly from hunger and
thirst. The din of the battle seemed continually to grow louder.

At the foot of some distant hills, still blue in the mist on the
south-eastern horizon, the Captain had perceived a column of artillery
or a convoy and large masses of men on the march. Were they French
troops, or was it the enemy? He was not sure. The mist and the distance
made it impossible to recognize the uniforms.

"We can't fire if those are French troops," said he.

Standing on an ammunition wagon he scanned the threatening horizon
through his field-glasses.

"If it's the enemy, they are outflanking us ... outflanking us! They'll
be in the woods in a moment.... We shan't be able to see them.... Go
and ask the Major."

The Major was no better informed than the Captain, the orders he had
received saying nothing about these hills. He also was using his
field-glasses, but could not distinguish the uniforms of the moving
masses. In his turn he muttered:

"If it's the enemy they're surrounding us!"

A mounted scout was hastily dispatched. We remained in suspense, a prey
to nervous excitement.

A single foot-soldier had stopped near the fourth gun. He had neither
pack nor rifle. We questioned him:

"Wounded?"

"No."

"Where have you come from?"

The Captain signalled for the man to be taken to him. The soldier, who
had thrown away his arms, did not hurry to obey.

"What are those troops down there?" asked the Captain. "French?"

"I don't know!"

"Well, where do you come from?"

The soldier waved his arm with a vague, comprehensive gesture which
embraced half the horizon.

"From over there!"

The Captain shrugged his shoulders.

"Yes, but where are the Germans? Do you know whether they have turned
Marville on the south?"

"No, sir.... You see, I was in a trench.... And the shells began to
come along--great big black ones.... First they burst behind us, a
hundred yards or more.... Then, of course, we didn't mind 'em. But soon
some of them fell right on us ... and then we ran!"

"But your officers?"

The man made a sign of ignorance. Nothing more could be got out of
him. Just at that moment a shell came hissing through the air, and he
at once made off at full speed, crouching as he ran. A few dislocated
words came back to us over his shoulder:

"_Ah! Bon Dieu de bon Dieu!_"

The shell burst on the other side of the road, and the moment after
three others exploded nearer still. The Captain had not ceased to
follow through his glasses the doubtful troops which, by now, had
nearly reached the woods. We waited anxiously, standing in a circle
round him.

"I believe they're French," said he. "Here, Lintier, have a look!
You've got good eyes."

Through the glasses I was able to distinguish the red of the breeches.

"Yes, they're French, sir. But where are they going to?"

The Captain made no reply, and I understood that once again our army
was in retreat.

A shower of shells poured down on the field behind us.

The enemy's fire, too much to the left and too high at first, was
getting nearer, and was now corrected as far as training went.
Our lives depended on the whim of a Prussian Captain and a slight
correction for elevation.

Just at that moment some sections of infantry suddenly appeared on the
edge of the plateau and hurriedly fell back. A company of the 101st had
come to man the trenches behind our guns.

The air began to vibrate again, and more shells fell, this time right
on the top of us. A splinter brushed by my head and clanged on the
armour of the ammunition wagon. Another shell plumped down in the
trench full of infantry. One, two, three seconds passed; then came a
groan and a cry. A man got up and fled, then another, and, finally, the
whole company. Their heads held low, and with bent knees, they scurried
off. Behind them a wounded man hastily unstrapped his pack, threw both
it and his gun to one side, and limped rapidly away.

A road orderly arrived with an envelope for the Major. Orders to
retire. We limbered up, and moved off at a walking pace. Under the
bright sun the stubble-field, with its entrails of black earth laid
bare by the gashes torn by the high-explosive shells, seemed to possess
something of the horror of a corpse mutilated with gaping wounds.
Near the points of burst clods of earth had been blown to a distance,
and, round the edge of the hole, the soil was raised in a circular
embankment. We were still threatened by sudden death. Some one asked:

"Why don't we go quicker?... We shall get done in!"

But I fancy that all of us were conscious that fatalism--which is, I
believe, the beginning of courage--had got a grip on us. The enemy
was firing without seeing us, and his shells seemed like the blows of
Fate descending from heaven. Why here rather than there? We did not
know, and the enemy assuredly did not know either. In that case, what
was the good of hurrying? Death might as easily overtake us a little
farther on. Useless to hurry, then; absolutely useless.... In front,
our officers, heel by heel, rode on, talking.

In the trench in which the shell had just burst a single soldier
remained behind. He was stretched out face downwards on a heap of straw
which he had gathered under him for greater comfort. Blood was oozing
from a wound in his back, making large black stains on the cloth, and
the straw underneath him was dyed crimson. Another splinter had hit
him in the back of the neck; his képi had fallen off and his face was
buried in the straw. All eyes were turned on him as we passed, but not
a word was said. What can one say about a burst shell or a dead man?

Another defeat! Just as in 1870!... Just as in 1870! We were all
obsessed by the same paralysing thought.

"They are devilish strong! Look at that!" said Déprez, pointing towards
the plateau where, as far as the eye could reach, swarms of French
infantry could be seen retreating. Latour, six hours' fighting; to-day,
hardly more. Beaten again! Oh, God!

We felt a blind rage against those who had fallen back. We did not
retreat last Saturday when we were in action by the willow-tree.

In the distance, towards Marville, columns of artillery were trailing
over the bare fields. A blue and red squadron was raising clouds of
dust. Waves of infantry, diminishing but still noticeable, dust-covered
cavalry, and black lines of artillery could be seen as far as the
horizon, moving under the scorching sun. The guns had ceased to roar
and there was absolute silence. The earth, parched and hot, exhaled a
vapour which seemed to follow the movements of the men. It was almost
as if the entire plateau had begun to march.

       *       *       *       *       *

At Remoiville we came upon a beautiful château of the Early Renaissance
period, with severe lines of long terraces and lofty turrets over which
floated a white flag with a red cross. In the village not a soul was to
be seen. Doors and windows were all closed. A few hens were scratching
about on a manure heap, and a pig, which two gunners were killing in a
little sty black with refuse, raised piercing and discordant squeals.
And yet, on the threshold of one of the last houses, a wretched ruin
in the shadowy interior of which we caught a glimpse of a varnished
wardrobe, two old women, bent with age, watched us as we passed with
eyes which were hardly perceptible under their furrowed eyelids. Only
their fingers moved. Their silent and fixed stare, as keen as a steel
blade, followed us like a reproach. Oh, we know it well, the bitter
remorse of a retreat! A deep sense of shame oppressed us as we filed
through these villages which we were powerless to protect, which we
were abandoning to the fury of the enemy. Things in them assumed an
almost human expression; the fronts of the forsaken dwellings wore an
air of dejected suffering. Fancy, no doubt! Just imagination--but
poignant and vivid imagination, nevertheless, for to-morrow all these
villages might be burning and we, from our camp on the hills, should
see the crops and cottages flaming when the sun went down.

       *       *       *       *       *

It seems that the Allies have beaten the Germans in the north and in
Alsace. At any rate the Communal and Army Bulletins, which are given
us sometimes, say so. Then how is it that we are saddled with this
terrible reproach by things and people whom we cannot defend against an
enemy too superior in numbers?

We waited some time at Remoiville, and then set off across the river,
which boasted a single bridge. The crossing was carried out in good
order. Then, by the only road, across the valleyed country where dark
green forests alternated with fresh pasture-land, the retreat of the
4th Army Corps began.

The western horizon was limited by a long range of blue hills of
magnificent outlines. It was doubtless upon these that the French
intended to stop and entrench themselves.

On the right of the road the interminable procession of artillery
and convoys continued: guns of all calibres, ammunition wagons,
forage wagons, carts, supply and store vehicles, division and corps
ambulances, and peasants' carts full of bleeding wounded, their heads
sometimes enveloped in lint turbans red with gore. Keeping to the left
the infantry marched abreast in good order down the road, which was
already badly cut up. In front of us rolled a 120 mm. battery. One of
the corporals had half a sheep hanging from his saddle.

The 10th Battery had lost all its guns, for when, about one o'clock,
the infantry gave up all resistance, the gunners could not limber
up, the enemy's fire having almost completely destroyed the teams.
Captain Jamain had been hit in the thigh by a shell splinter. We caught
sight of him as he lay stretched on a hay-cart among the wounded
foot-soldiers.

The forest, very dense and very dark in spite of the blazing sun,
deadened the tramp of the infantry on the march and the rumble of the
wheels.

In the ditches some foundered horses were standing with drooping heads
and half-closed eyes glassy with fatigue. Occasionally a wheel fouled
them, but they did not budge an inch. They would only lie down to die.

       *       *       *       *       *

As it turned out, however, the 4th Army Corps was not going to await
the enemy on the hills which, in a series of ridges, commanded the
plain and the forest. Some one told me that the whole of Ruffey's Army
was falling back behind the Meuse. The general retreat continued along
the highway, but our Group turned aside down a by-road which led first
to a village swarming with troops, and then zigzagged up the wooded
hill-side.

We began the ascent. The sky had suddenly clouded over and the air
became sultry. A few drops of rain fell. The main road below, over
which the tide of retreating troops ebbed ceaselessly on between the
poplars bordering it on either side, looked like a canal filled with
black water and moved by a slow current.

The column halted, and we carefully wedged the wheels. The men were
tired, and hardly any words were spoken. The silence was only broken by
the jingling of the curb-chains as the horses stretched their necks,
and by the patter of the rain on the leaves.

We advanced another hundred yards or so, and at the next turn of
the road stopped again. A peasant's cart, filled with bedding, upon
which were sitting a woman--obviously pregnant--and an old lady, both
sheltering under a large umbrella, tried to pass the column. But
several of the ammunition wagons, of which the wheels had been badly
secured, had slid backwards and barred the way. A girl was driving the
heavy cart, which was being laboriously dragged up the hill by a mare
in foal between the shafts, and a colt in front, the latter pulling in
all directions. Both the girl and the animals stuck pluckily to their
job.

"Now then, come up!"

The mare threw herself into the collar, and, with our aid, they
eventually reached the head of the column, after which the way was
clear. The girl stopped the cart for a moment and caressed the nose
of the heavy animal, from whose haunches steam arose in clouds. We
exchanged a few words.

"Where are you going to?"

"We don't know. At any rate we must cross the Meuse.... We're late,
too. All those who had to go went this morning, when we first heard the
guns. But we didn't; we thought we would wait a little longer and see
what happened. But after all we had to go too. Best to go, isn't it?"

"Yes," we told them, "you'd better go."

"And the Germans are perfect savages, aren't they?"

"Yes."

"They'll burn our houses ... we shan't find anything when we come
back--nothing but ashes. Oh, it's awful!... Can't you kill them all?"

"If only we could!..."

"Now then, come up, old girl!"

The cart moved on.

"Good luck!" cried the girl over her shoulder.

"Thanks--good luck!"

Near the top of the hill was a large clearing in the woods, from which
the forest appeared like a magnificent mantle thrown over the shoulders
of the neighbouring crests, rounding their edges and softening their
outlines. From this point we could see the whole of the Woevre plain
we had just crossed as well as Remoiville and the plateau of Marville,
where, standing sharply out against the bare fields, was the dark line
of poplars near which we had been in action in the morning.

Here, in a field where the oats were only half cut, we prepared to
wait for the enemy. Our mission was to cover the retreat of the 4th
Army Corps, which still continued below on the main road over which an
interminable procession of Paris motor-omnibuses was now passing. The
sky had become overcast, and the heavy clouds banking up behind us, to
the west, threatened to shorten the daylight.

Advancing round the edge of the wood, in order not to reveal our
presence, the battery finally came to a halt on the outskirts of the
sloping forest, behind some clumps of trees which afforded good cover.
We unharnessed and placed the horses and limbers against the background
of foliage of which, from a long distance, they would seem to form
part. We hoped to have a quiet evening, especially as the next day
would probably be a very strenuous one. The two batteries which at
present formed the Group, that is to say only seven guns, would have to
hold up the enemy a sufficient time to ensure the retreat of the Army
Corps. But we hardly gave any heed to the morrow, being too tired to
think or reason.

We had still to take the horses to the pond in the village at the foot
of the hill, and started off down a steep and narrow path through the
wood. The only street of the hamlet was still crowded with troops.
Through the open window of the mayor's house I saw General Boëlle. He
looked grave but not worried, and I searched in vain for a sign of
uneasiness in his expression.

Infantrymen had piled arms on both sides of the road in front of the
houses. A flag in its case was lying across two piles. At the door of
the vicarage at least two hundred men were crowded together holding out
their water-bottles. The curé, it appeared, was giving them all his
wine. Some Chasseurs, their reins slung over their arms, stood waiting
for orders, smoking, their backs to the wall of the church. I overheard
some of their talk.

"So Mortier's dead, is he?"

"Yes. Got a bullet in the stomach."

"What did he say?"

"Nothing much.... He said, 'They've got me!' and he lay down clutching
his stomach with both hands. He rolled from side to side and said:
'Ah-a-a-ah! They've got me!' His horse, Balthazar, was sniffing at him.
He hadn't let go of the reins ... still held 'em just like I'm holding
these, over his arm. I heard him say, 'Poor old boy!' He was all
doubled up, and groaned and panted 'ouf-ouf!' and then all of a sudden
he stretched himself right out at full length.... One more Chasseur
less! His face wasn't a pretty sight, and I shut his eyes for him. Then
I broke off a branch from a tree and covered his face with it, as I
should like some one to do to me if I went under.... Must cover up the
dead somehow.... After that I came back with Balthazar."

When we had climbed back up the hill and regained our clearing many
of the foot-soldiers had already left, while others were strapping on
their packs and unpiling arms. We were informed that only one battalion
was to stay there and support us. I wondered what awful attack the next
day might hold in store.

A Captain of infantry accosted Astruc, who was astride Lieutenant Hély
d'Oissel's big horse.

"Hallo there, gunner!"

"Sir?"

"Well I'm shot if it isn't Tortue!"

"Tortue, sir? Who's Tortue?"

"Why, the horse I lost. That's him! There can't be any mistake.
Dismount now, quick, and hand him over!"

Astruc protested:

"But, sir, this horse belongs to our Lieutenant! I must take him back
to him. What would he say to me!"

"Well, I tell you to dismount. I suppose I know my own saddle, don't I?
And Tortue ... why, she knows me.... There! You see there's no doubt
about it. It's Tortue all right, my mare which I lost at Ethe."

"But, sir, this is a horse, not a mare."

The officer examined the animal more closely.

"Oh! ah! Why yes, it's true! Now that's odd ... most extraordinary! I
could have sworn it was Tortue...."

       *       *       *       *       *

Night fell, the mist enveloping the trees round the clearing. Under
the black clouds passed yet another aeroplane, blacker even than they.
Could the pilot see us at that hour? If so we might expect a shower of
shells at daybreak. The machine pitched and tossed in the sky above the
clearing, for the wind had risen and was blowing in gusts from the west.

We had strewn some cut oats round the guns, as the night was chilly,
and it looked like rain. The wind, freshening into a gale, wrapped our
cloaks tightly round us and almost seemed to move the men themselves.
No light of any kind was to be seen on the plain over which our guns
were pointing, and which soon became shrouded in the impenetrable
darkness ahead. In one corner the clearing cut into the forest, and
here, where the thick brushwood rose like a black wall on either side,
we were allowed to light a fire. The wind blew in gusts on the flames,
which it first nearly extinguished and then rekindled, making the
shadows of the men flicker fantastically on the ground.

I was tired out--artillery fire creates an irresistible desire
to sleep--and I was also rather hungry. Not feeling possessed of
sufficient courage to wait for the meat to be cooked and the coffee
brewed, I devoured my ration of beef raw and stretched myself out in
the oats behind the ammunition wagon, where I was sheltered from the
wind.


  _Wednesday, August 26_

Réveillé came at dawn, and we woke to find a thick fog enveloping the
battery. We were soaking with dew, and our benumbed and swollen limbs
moved jerkily and with difficulty. The uncertain half-light awoke in
us a feeling of anxiety and dread which, still heavy with sleep as we
were, it was hard to throw off.

Wrapped in our cloaks and standing motionless round the guns, we had
leisure to examine our situation in this clearing in the middle of
the forest. On the right, according to our officers, it was not known
whether there were any French troops. On this side the woods stretched
uninterruptedly from the ridges we were occupying as far as Remoiville.
On the left the movements of the 4th Army Corps were to be carried
out. It is said that normally an army corps takes ten hours to effect
a retreat along a single road. And this retreat had already been in
progress for more than fifteen hours.

Our position in the clearing was difficult in itself, and might
become positively perilous if the fog did not lift. Nothing could be
distinguished at a distance of fifty yards from the guns, and the enemy
might advance in the plain, threaten the retreating army, and take us
by surprise.

On all sides of us, therefore, were the woods and their shadows, the
Unknown and Unexpected. In front of us the enemy hidden in the mist;
behind, the Meuse; danger everywhere.

The thought of the Meuse was especially disturbing. When it should
become necessary for us to retire in our turn, the Germans, whom there
would be nothing to check on the right, might reach the river before
us. Possibly we should not find a single bridge left standing. We might
have to sacrifice ourselves for the defence of the army.

The hours dragged by. The mists seemed to be collecting on the flank of
the hills facing the Meuse, whence they were wafted by the west wind in
filmy, trailing clouds which gradually curled over the crests of the
hills, floated towards us, enveloping our batteries for an instant, and
then slowly sank down on the plain.

I have written these notes on my knee, my back resting against the
brass bottoms of the shells in the ammunition wagon, which was opened
out like a wardrobe. The men were standing about smoking, waiting for
orders.

       *       *       *       *       *

At last, about eight o'clock, the sun shone over the top of the hill
and the fog, like a kind of impenetrable gauze, began to draw away in
front of us. One by one the trees reappeared, only the tops of the
loftiest remaining shrouded in the mist. Nothing stirred. The road,
black yesterday with men and horses now appeared absolutely white
between the meadows damp with dew and vividly green under the first
rays of the morning sun.

Lying flat on our chests in the grass in front of our guns, on a sort
of natural terrace between the stones descending the slope, we scanned
the plain. After a time everything seemed to move, and one had to make
an effort to dispel the illusion.

The men are saying that we may have to stay here two days. Surely
that cannot be possible? Somebody asserted that he had heard the
instructions given to the Major by a General:

"You'll stay there," said he, "as long as the position is tenable. I
rely on your instinct as an artilleryman."

Another man supported the first speaker.

"Yes, that's right. He said, 'Solente, I rely on your instinct as an
artilleryman.' Why, I heard him myself."

We also heard that last Saturday's engagement would be known as the
Battle of Ethe.

"No," said another. "It will be called the Battle of Virton."

"Ethe, Virton!... What the devil does it matter what it's called.
Seeing that we've had to retreat!..."

"Oh, yes, but all the same," said the trumpeter, "we ought to know.
Suppose you get back to your people and they ask you what engagements
you've been in. You'll answer, 'I've been fighting in Belgium.' 'Yes,'
they'll say, 'but Belgium is a big place--bigger than our commune! Were
you at Liége, or Brussels, or Copenhagen?' You would look a silly fool!"

The other shrugged his shoulders.

With the help of a bayonet we opened a box of bully-beef for the four
of us, and fell to. The only sound was that made by the hatchet of
one of the men who was chopping down a small birch-tree which might
conceivably interfere with the fire of his gun.

The silence was too intense, the immobility of the countryside too
complete. The enemy was there. We neither heard him nor saw him, but
that only rendered him the more sinister. The unwonted calm, when we
had braced ourselves up for battle, was terrifying, and our nerves
became overstrained.

I supposed that the retreat of the 4th Army Corps had by this time been
accomplished. Time passed, and the French army was still falling back,
while the enemy advanced cautiously, threading his way through the
woods.

Suddenly, about two o'clock, a machine-gun began to crackle quite close
by in the forest. A horseman galloped through the clearing and drew
rein beside the Major. We at once limbered up.

Was our retreat cut off? The staccato rattle of the machine-gun was
now accompanied by intermittent rifle-fire. We had to cross the
clearing diagonally in order to reach a forest path. Quite calmly, and
determined to save our guns, we got our rifles ready. But the column
crossed the close-cropped field without our hearing a single bullet,
and we gained the wood in safety. We had to hurry, for the road, even
if still open, might be closed at any moment.

Leaning over the necks of the horses in order to avoid the low-hanging
branches which threatened to drag them from their saddles, and gauging
by eye the narrow passage between the trees, the drivers urged their
teams forward with whip and spur.

The road was still open.... We arrived at Dun-sur-Meuse, where we had
to cross the river. The Captain assembled the non-commissioned officers:

"The bridge is mined. Warn your drivers to take care of the sacks on
each side of the bridge. They're full of melinite."

In order to let us through the sappers threw some planks across the pit
they had opened up in the centre of the bridge.

The hindmost vehicles of the column had not advanced two hundred yards
on the other side of the Meuse, when a loud explosion shook us on our
seats. The bridge had just been blown up. Behind us a large white cloud
of smoke curled up in thick volutes, masking half the town.

       *       *       *       *       *

As we stood waiting for orders in a field, our guns in double column,
some one called out:

"There's the postmaster!"

"At last!"

"Letters! letters! A man to each gun!"

For eight days we had been waiting for news, and each man drew a little
aside in order to be alone as he read.

       *       *       *       *       *

It seems certain that the battle of Saturday the 22nd will be known as
the battle of Virton.


  _Thursday, August 27_

It had poured all night, and rain was still falling when we rose.
The thought of all the misery such weather must inevitably cause
spoiled the satisfaction we experienced at feeling fit and fresh after
ten hours' delicious sleep in a well-closed barn. Our horse-cloths
thrown over our heads like hoods and flapping against our calves, we
silently marched in scattered order along the churned-up road, our feet
squelching in the mud, and finally regained the park under the lashing
rain.

The horses, motionless, glistening with water but resigned, endeavoured
unceasingly to turn their tails to the rain. The stable-pickets had
succeeded in lighting fires but they had had to dig new hearths, for
those of the day before were swamped and black pieces of charred wood
were floating in them.

The men's cloaks were streaming and hung heavily in stiff folds from
their shoulders. Some of them had turned up their capes in order to
protect their heads. The gunners stood round about, holding their red
hands to the fire.

"Beastly rain! Two days more like this and we shall all get dysentery!"

"I'd rather die of that than be killed by a shell," said Hutin.

"No use trying to make coffee," growled Pelletier. "The fire doesn't
give out any heat.... It would take hours."

"It's the wood that won't burn. It only smokes."

"Blow on it, Millon!"

We turned our boot soles to the heat in order to dry them. The rain
hissed and spat in the fire.

"All the same," said the trumpeter, "if we hadn't been betrayed things
wouldn't have gone like this!"

I grew annoyed.

"Betrayed! I was waiting for some one to come out with that!"

"Well, I mean it; betrayed! I heard about it yesterday.... It was
a General who delivered up the army plans. I know what I'm talking
about!"

"Pooh! Camp gossip!"

"I heard the same thing," affirmed another.

"Simply camp gossip! From the moment we got scratched that was bound
to come sooner or later. If you're beaten it's because you've been
betrayed! The French can't be the weaker! Lord, no! It's impossible,
of course! But you know there are five German army corps in front of
us. That makes two to one.... No ... well, all the same. Even with two
to one we can't be beaten, can we? And, if we are, we at once begin
to whine about betrayal! Wasn't it you who were always saying that
Langle de Cary's army ought to come up and help us? Eh? Well, it's all
simply because you don't feel strong enough to tackle the Boches by
yourselves."

"All the same, traitors exist right enough," said the trumpeter with
a sage nod of the head. "There always have been traitors, and there
always will be, to sell France."

"Idiot!" said Hutin peremptorily.

       *       *       *       *       *

Almost all my comrades thought as I did. A few properly equipped
reinforcements would have enabled us to get the upper hand. Even alone,
here behind the Meuse, we could have managed to stop the enemy.

Besides, during the days of defeat we had just been passing through,
what a moving picture of our country had been revealed to us! An army
immediately victorious cannot plumb the depths of patriotism. One
must have fought, have suffered, and have feared--even if only for a
moment--to lose her, in order to understand what one's country really
means. She is the whole joy of existence, the embodiment of all our
pleasures visible and invisible, and the focus of all our hopes.
She alone makes life worth living. All this united and personified
in a single suffering being, begotten by the will of millions of
individuals--that is France!

In defending her one defends oneself, seeing that she is the sole
reason for being, for living. One would prefer to fall dead on the spot
rather than see France lost, for that would be worse than death. Every
soldier feels this truth, either vaguely, or distinctly and clearly,
according to his powers of perception and affection.

And yet, in the camp, these things are never talked of. The reason
is that words which, in peace-time, too often veiled by their gross
grandiloquence these deeper and finer feelings, would be insupportable
now. This passion, for it is a passion, lies deep down in the heart
with other sacred and inmost emotions, to give outward expression to
which would be almost to profane them.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Come on, now! Harness! Hook in! We're off."

The rain had soured the men's tempers.

"Now then! Be careful with your horse, can't you? You might have killed
us!"

"Untie your horses so that we can get the picket-lines, will you?...
All right, damn you, I'll do it myself."

"There's a silly fool! Fine place to tether a colt to--the wheel of an
ammunition wagon. He's ripping up the oat-bag. Pull him off, can't you?"

Cramone, threatening his team with his whip, repeated for the twentieth
time:

"I'll teach you how to behave, you brutes!"

"There's another dish lost," shouted Millon. "Who's the idiot who
didn't pick it up yesterday?"

"Can't you pull your infernal mules back a bit?... We can't limber
up.... Never seen such a fool!..."

The men pushed and tugged at their horses, which, face to the wind,
continued pulling this way and that in a vain attempt to prevent the
rain stinging their ears. Bréjard lost his temper.

"Lord, what a set! Can't you keep your horses straight?... Look at that
off-leader!... Can't you see he's got entangled?..."

"Thought we were going to have a rest to-day!"

"I suppose the Germans are resting, aren't they?"

The start was difficult. During the night the wheels of the vehicles
had sunk deeper and deeper into the softening soil, and the horses'
hoofs kept slipping on the slope.

Once on the road the battery broke into a trot, the mud splashing in
sprays from under the feet of the horses. Some of the gunners, attacked
by colic, stopped in the ditches, and then, still doing up their
breeches, ran along by the side of the column in order to overtake
their vehicles.

We were going to extend a strong artillery position on the heights of
the Meuse valley. From the hills near Stenay the sound of the guns
reached us in gusts, and, some distance off, above the woods, we could
see the shrapnel shells bursting. The rain had stopped, and the sky,
dark a moment previously, suddenly cleared and assumed a uniformly
light grey tint.

In a meadow by the roadside some peasants, fleeing before the tide of
invasion, had set up their nightly camp. A large green awning sheltered
their cart and formed a tent at the same time. Two shafts projected
from the front end, pointing skywards. An old man and two women--both
pregnant--with half a dozen children clinging to their skirts, watched
us go by.

The road rose stiffly upwards, and the column slackened its pace to a
walk. I heard one of the women say to the old man, as she gave him a
nudge with her elbow:

"Go on, father!"

The old man hesitated, but she insisted:

"You must!"

He seemed to make up his mind, and approached us, shifting from one leg
to another. Then, with a red face, he muttered:

"No! Can't ask for that at my time of life!"

He was about to go, but we stopped him.

"Ask for what, old fellow?"

"For a bit of bread, if you've got any over. It's for the children!"

"Yes, of course we have! We never eat it all!"

As a matter of fact we seldom get enough bread. The loaves have to be
sorted out, and, when the mouldy parts have been thrown away, the
ration is usually more than halved. The old man walked by the side of
the limber while the men searched in their bags.

"Here you are!"

Two loaves, almost fresh, were held out to him.

"With an onion and a good set of teeth they're eatable!"

"Thanks.... Thank you so much.... But I'm afraid you'll be short
yourselves!"

"Oh, no! That's all right, old chap! Why, we get a wagonful of those
every day!"

He made off, a loaf under each arm. I saw him hunch his shoulders and
dry his eyes with the sleeve of his coat.

A shower of shrapnel shells suddenly burst in the distance, over the
dark woods.

"Swine!" growled Millon between his teeth. He had given up his bread.

He shook his fist towards the enemy.

Once in position to sweep the uplands on the right bank of the Meuse,
we dried ourselves in the sun.

In the afternoon a few horsemen, Uhlans presumably, appeared on the
edge of a distant wood. A broadside of shells quickly made them seek
cover again.


  _Friday, August 28_

"Alarm!"

"What?"

"Come on, up you get!"

"What's the time?"

"Don't know.... It's still dark."

"All right, then, we'll get up. Hutin, come on, get up!"

I shook Hutin, who growled in answer:

"All right! Oh, Lord, I was so comfortable there!"

The noise of shuffling straw filled the barn.

"What's the time?" repeated somebody.

"Look out there! There's a rung missing in the ladder."

Noises of feet scraping against the ladder. An oath.

"Get the lantern!"

"Where is it?"

"Hanging behind the door."

The men groped about for their belongings.

"My képi!"

"Dashed if I can find the lantern! Come and help, can't you?"

"Sure it can't be two o'clock yet."

"Come along now, hurry up," cried a sergeant, opening the door.
"Anybody else still asleep?"

No one replied. Outside, it was very cold, and the night was dark. Not
a star was to be seen. Fires had been lit in the middle of the village,
and coffee was on the boil. The church, a diminutive chapel magnified
by the light from below, had almost the air of a cathedral, its spire
lost in the inky blackness of the sky. Fantastic shadows danced on
the walls, and the windows were momentarily lit up by red or green
lights. A crowd of poor people fleeing from the enemy were sleeping
in the nave, together with some soldiers who in vain had sought
shelter elsewhere. Through the front entrance, which was wide open,
the interior of the church looked mysterious, filled as it was with
fugitive lights and shadows, like those cast by a building on fire.
Under the vivid reflections of the stained-glass windows on the flags
I caught a glimpse of prostrate human figures. In the square, soldiers
coming and going between their fires threw enormous shadows on the
ground and on the walls of the houses.

Why this alarm? Had the enemy succeeded in crossing the frontier near
Stenay? We set off behind the infantry, whose tramp, tramp sounded like
the movement of a flock of sheep on the road. The night was alive with
moving but unseen forms. The breathing of hundreds of men on the march
was felt rather than heard; every now and then, as if from far off,
came a half-lost word. All this invisible life in movement seemed to
give off currents which traversed the night air like electricity.

In the distance we heard the sound of the guns towards which we were
marching.

Soon the first streaks of dawn lit up the wooded hills, which reared
their severe yet splendid crests between us and the Meuse. We passed
through Tailly--a village at the bottom of a ravine, consisting of a
few cottages, a church, and a cemetery.

       *       *       *       *       *

When we arrived at Beauclair, in the valley of the Meuse, the
engagement appeared to have finished.

In front of the church the infantry who had just been in action were
resting amid their piled arms. The majority were pale--but some were
very red. They had thrown themselves down on the bare ground in the
sun, and not one of them moved a muscle. The stiffened features of
the sleepers were eloquent of tragic weariness as they lay there with
open coats and shirts, showing glimpses of naked chests. All were
indescribably dirty, their legs plastered with mud up to the knees.

The battery halted outside the last houses of the village, and we at
once set about making coffee. A hulking Tommy came up to ask for an
onion. We questioned him:

"So they've not succeeded in crossing the Meuse yet?"

"Oh, yes, they have!... One brigade got over all right ... but the
artillery had mown down the bridges behind them, and so we had a go at
them with fixed bayonets.... Lord! you don't know what that's like, you
chaps!... A charge!... It's awful!... Never known anything like it! If
there _is_ a Hell, I expect there's bayonet fighting always going on
there!... No! I mean it! Off you go, shouting.... Then one or two fall,
and after them lots of others.... And the more that fall the louder
you've got to shout so that the others will come along. And then when
at last you get to close quarters with 'em, why, you're just raving
mad, and you thrust and thrust.... But the first time you feel your
bayonet sink into a chap's stomach, you feel a bit queer.... It's all
soft, you've only got to shove a bit!... But it's harder to withdraw
clean! I was so damned gentle that I upset my fellow--a great big fat
chap with a red beard. I couldn't pull my bayonet out ... had to put
my foot on his chest, and felt him squirm under my tread. Here, have a
look at this!..."

He drew out his bayonet, which was red up to the cross-bar. As he went
away he stooped down and plucked a handful of grass to clean it.

The hours passed. The enemy appeared unwilling to make another attempt
to force the passage of the Meuse.

We heard that d'Amade had made a flank attack on the opposing German
army, and had taken Marville.

D'Amade! Well done, d'Amade! But ... was it true?

At Halles, a mile and a half from Beauclair, we encamped at the foot of
some high hills. The guns, which for some time past had been silent,
again began to thunder. The enemy was bombarding the heights above us.

As billets for the night we had been given a spacious barn. But when at
dusk we went there to get some sleep we found our straw covered with
foot-soldiers, rifles, and packs.

The artillerymen began swearing:

"Hallo, what the hell's all this? No more room left?"

There was a scrimmage to let us find places.

The barn had a loft above it to which a ladder gave access, and the
floor of which was worm-eaten. We stuffed up the holes with hay.

"There we are! As usual, the artillery above, and the infantry below.
That's all right.... But mind you don't take the ladder away!"

"Take care of your feet.... O-o-oh!"

"Why couldn't you say you were in the straw?"

"Now then, up you go!"

Five or six artillerymen were on the ladder at the same time. It bent
beneath their weight. Below, a foot-soldier stood motionless, holding a
candle in his hand.

"Look out! Don't want your spurs in my face, you know!"

"Growl away, old chap! Let's get up."

"The floor's giving way!... They'll fall through."

"Go on, climb up! It's less dangerous than the shells!"

"Damn it all, move up a bit, you fellows; otherwise there won't be room
for all of us!"

"Don't go there! There's a hole.... You'll fall on the Tommies down
below!"

Downstairs the infantry were grumbling:

"Can't you keep quiet, up there, eh? We want to sleep! And the straw's
all falling in our mouths!"

"If only it would stop yours!"

"Look out, you're on my stomach!"

"Sorry. Can't see an inch in here.... Can't you raise the lantern over
there?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Again came the sound of a shell bursting in the distance. I hesitated
whether to take off my spurs and leggings, although I knew quite well
that I should sleep better without them. But, if there was an alarm,
should I be able to find them in the straw? Finally, I decided to keep
them on, nor did I unstrap my revolver holster, which was chafing my
side. I tightened my chin-strap so as not to lose my képi.


  _Saturday, August 29_

Réveillé came at two o'clock, together with orders to start at once.
The Germans, we heard, had crossed the Meuse. But our artillery had no
doubt registered the course of the river. I could not understand why we
had not heard the guns.

In the darkness of the early dawn the road showed up yellow between the
blue-grey fields. On the way I recognized the yew-trees of a cemetery
in which some dead were being buried the day before.

We stopped in column on the steep ascent towards Tailly, and waited for
orders. The day broke behind the hills and gradually overspread the
whole horizon.

One by one the regiments of the 7th Division climbed up from the
ravine and passed us. The men looked haggard and tired. Their eyes
were hollow, and the faces of the youngest, drawn and sallow with
privations, were furrowed with lines. The corners of their mouths
drooped. Bending forward under the weight of their packs, in the
attitude of Christ bearing the Cross, the infantry toiled up the hill
as though it were a Calvary. At every hundred yards or so they halted
and re-hoisted their burdens with a jerk of their shoulders. Some of
them were holding out their rifles at arm's length, as though it were a
balance which helped them to march. Others were complaining that they
had had nothing to eat for two days. One of the 101st, a pale, lanky,
thin-faced fellow, with feverishly bright eyes, halted close to us and
stroked the chase of the gun.

"Lord," said he to Hutin, "you might as well put a shell through my
chest! At least there'd be an end of it!"

"Aren't you ashamed to talk like that?"

The other made a vague gesture, shrugged his shoulders, and went off
dragging one leg after him.

As soon as the infantry had gone by we were ordered to take up our
position on the plain, near the edge of the wood behind which the
regiments of the line were retreating.

I heard the Major repeat the order received to the Captain: "Prevent
the enemy from setting foot on the plateau. There are no more French in
front of you!"

"So we are still covering the retreat! A vile job!" said Millon, the
firing number, a good little Parisian chap, with a face like a girl.

In our present position we ran as great a risk from the rifle and
machine-gun fire as from the shells. Not far off on the edge of the
plateau, near the brush-shaped poplar, was a dark little copse whence
at any minute bullets might come buzzing about our ears. The Germans
might get their machine-guns there without being seen, rather than risk
coming out into the open. And what might we expect then? Oh, well!...
After all, that is what we had come there for.

"If we hadn't been sold, things would have gone very differently,"
growled Tuvache, a Breton farmer, who was brave enough under fire, but
who suffered from bad _morale_.

And, still obsessed by the idea of treason, he added:

"And the proof is that they've been able to cross the Meuse without
hindrance."

Bréjard made him stop talking.

"Why, you're worse than the others, you are! We're fighting from the
North Sea right down to Belfort, aren't we? Well, then, how can you
judge by one wretched little corner? Perhaps we're letting them advance
as far as this in order to surround 'em afterwards.... Some of you
chaps always seem to know more than your Generals.... And besides, all
this time the Russians are advancing. You let things be.... We shall
have 'em some day, never fear! And then they'll pay for this!"

We awaited the appearance of the heads of the enemy's columns, which
from one moment to another might emerge from the Tailly valley.

The plateau, shining with dew, had assumed that absolutely silent
immobility one so often notices in the country in the early hours of a
sunny morning.

Four black points suddenly appeared far down the road! Was it the
enemy's advanced guard? No. We were soon able to recognize three
stragglers and a cyclist. A troop in column of march followed them out
of the valley. In this order they could not be Germans. The column,
which proved to be a battalion of the 101st, passed by, and disappeared
down the road leading to the wood. But, in the rise and fall of the
valleyed country stretching on the north-west as far as the dark masses
of distant forests, Lieutenant Hély d'Oissel had discovered through his
field-glasses large masses of men marching westwards through sunken
roads which almost hid them from our view. Were they the enemy, or were
they the French troops which were occupying the heights of the Meuse
near Stenay and which were now retiring?

We had already experienced the same terrible uncertainty at Marville.
The Captain climbed up into an apple-tree in order to see better,
and the Major also tried to recognize the mysterious troops. But
neither could distinguish anything. A mist--the dampness of the night
evaporating--was already rising from the ground and veiling the
horizon. If those were German columns, they would threaten the flank of
the retreating army. A scout was sent off at a gallop to reconnoitre.
Time passed, and the columns disappeared. At last the scout came back;
the troops were French. He had seen parties of Chasseurs flanking them.

Our feet wet with dew, we once again became motionless and awaited the
enemy.

About midday we received orders to move to the edge of the plateau,
and take up position behind a clump of trees, in order to command the
Tailly valley and the hills on the south of Stenay. And, continually,
successive regiments of infantry emerged from the forest and passed us,
falling back.

"Dashed if I can fathom it!" said Hutin.

"Nor can I!"

It was very hot, and we were thirsty, but our water-bottles were empty.

We continued to wait until dusk, but the enemy did not appear.

Night had fallen when we were sent to encamp on the other side of the
woods.

The moon was rising clear of the tree-tops. The regular clatter of
hoofs and the monotonous roll of the vehicles blended together into a
sort of weary cradle-song, and made us sleepy after a time. In order
to suffer uncomplainingly all the hardships and miseries of war, we
would have asked no more than one hour of affection, of sympathetic
tenderness, in safety, at evening-time, after the long day spent in
watching or fighting.

The road was level, and we were hardly shaken at all; no one spoke, and
most of us slept or dozed.

No sound disturbed the stillness of the warm night save that of the
column on the march. Gradually we lost ourselves in pleasing reveries
and memories of the past, forgetting present dangers and distress. On
we jogged through space and time.... Lyons at night-time ... long rows
of lamps lighting the wharves and reflected in the Rhône ... above the
river the amphitheatre of Croix-Rousse with its lights scintillating
like golden points, and above them, again, the stars.... Where did the
town end, or where did the sky begin?... And the Mayenne in the bright
days of autumn and summer, its sombre waters sparkling like black
diamonds.... The memories which rose up before me gradually blurred the
scene of illusive reflections.

And perhaps I should die in a few hours' time....

Almost as if I myself had been able to write those beautiful verses of
Du Bellay, I felt the aching nostalgia of his words:

  _Quand reverrai-je, hélas! de mon petit village
  Fumer la cheminée, et en quelle saison
  Reverrai-je le clos de ma pauvre maison,
  Qui m'est une province et beaucoup d'avantage?_

I repeated the lines to myself several times.


  _Sunday, August 30_

This morning we marched for hours through clouds of dust, the sun
scorching the backs of our necks. The men were thirsty and continually
spat out the clayey saliva which clogged their mouths. The battery
halted in a valley on the outskirts of a village--Villers-devant-Dun, I
think it was--where the sound of the guns seemed to come from the west
and south as well as from the east and north. This was a surprise, and
at first made us uneasy. Janvier, for the hundredth time, said:

"That's it! We are surrounded!"

He was haunted by this idea. However, it was not long before we
discovered that the illusion was solely caused by an exceptionally
clear echo. In reality the fighting was going on near Dun-sur-Meuse.

We crowded round the fountain, on the surrounding wall of which the
last _Bulletin des Communes_ was pasted. But first we each drank, in
great gulps, at least a quart of fresh water. Afterwards we read the
news. All was going well! Nevertheless, it was announced that Mulhouse
had been retaken. Apparently, then, it had been lost. We exchanged
impressions:

"Well, Hutin?"

"Not bad," he answered rather dubiously, "but they don't say anything
about our little show of last week."

Bréjard, on the contrary, was filled with an optimism which nothing
could damp:

"Virton, Marville--why, all that is a mere nothing on a front as long
as this! We've had to give a little in some sectors, that's all.... But
otherwise things are going quite all right!"

"All the same, it isn't nice to find ourselves in one of the sectors
which have to give way," answered Hutin.

"All that will change. We're going to be reinforced.... They say that
De Langle is only a day's march off."

"He'll have to hurry up if he wants to find any of the 4th Infantry
left!"

That was true. The regiments of the line, especially those of the 8th
Division, had suffered terribly. Some battalions had been diminished by
two-thirds, and, since the Battle of Virton, many companies were not
more than fifty or eighty strong, and had lost all their officers. How
we wished that De Langle would arrive!

In the ever-thickening dust and overpowering heat we returned by the
same road to the positions we had occupied the day before at Tailly.
It seemed to us that we had uselessly wasted more than seven hours
marching in a large circle.

       *       *       *       *       *

Another aeroplane appeared. This oppression was becoming unbearable!
We felt like a flock of frightened sparrows beneath the shadow of
the hawk. The Germans have improved and developed the aerial arm
to an enormous extent, and, unfortunately, our ·75's are unable to
hit aeroplanes, the mobility of the gun on the carriage not being
sufficient. It is necessary to dig a pit for the spade, and before this
is finished the machine is always out of range.

The aviator who had just flown over us had thrown out a star in order
to mark the situation of one of our batteries in position on the
heights commanding the river. The guns at once moved off, and took up
a fresh position elsewhere. Shortly afterwards shells began to fall on
the hill they had been occupying--enormous shells, which made the earth
quake for miles around and withered the grass with their dirty, pungent
smoke.

"I expect those are the famous 22 cm. shells" said the Captain.

We had nothing to do. Towards Stenay the horizon was deserted and
motionless. For several hours heavy shells continued to fall in threes,
making black holes in the green meadows in which not a soul remained.
We were obviously within range of the guns from which they were fired,
and we had no guarantee that we should not be hit if the enemy lifted
his fire a little.

       *       *       *       *       *

I was struck by the marvellous faculty of adaptability which forms the
basis of human nature. One becomes accustomed to danger just as one
becomes accustomed to the most cruel privations, or to the uncertainty
of the morrow.

Before the war I used to wonder how it was that old men nearing the
extreme limits of existence could continue to live undisturbed in
the imminent shadow of death. But now I understand. For us the risk
of death has become an element of daily life with which one coolly
reckons, which no longer astonishes, and terrifies less. Besides, a
soldier's everyday life is a school for courage. Familiarity with the
same dangers eventually leaves the human animal unmoved. One's nerves
no longer quiver; the conscious and constant effort to keep control
over oneself is successful in the end. Therein lies the secret of
all military courage. Men are not born brave; they become brave. The
instinct to be conquered is more or less resistant--that is all.
Moreover, one must live, on the field of battle just as elsewhere; it
is necessary to become accustomed to this new existence, no matter
how perilous or harsh it may be. And what renders it difficult--more,
intolerable--is fear, the fear that throttles and paralyses. It has to
be conquered, and, finally, one does conquer it.

Apart from the necessity of living as well as can possibly be managed,
the greatest disciplinary factors in the life of a soldier under fire
are a sense of duty and a respect for other people's opinion--in a
word, honour. This is not a discovery; it is merely a personal opinion.

It must also be confessed that this training in courage is far more
easy for us than for the foot-soldiers--the least fortunate of all the
fighting forces. A gunner under fire is literally unable to run away.
The whole battery would see him--his dishonour would be palpable,
irretrievable. Now fear, in its more acute manifestations, seems to me
necessarily to imply annihilation of will-power. A man incapable of
controlling himself sufficiently to face danger bravely will, in the
majority of cases, be equally incapable of facing the intolerable shame
of public flight. Flight of this kind would necessitate an exercise
of will--almost a kind of bravery. The infantryman is often isolated
when under fire; when the shrapnel bullets are humming above him a
man lying down at a distance of four yards from another is virtually
alone. Concern for his own safety monopolizes all his faculties and
he may succumb to the temptation to stop and lie low, or to sneak off
to one side and then take to flight. When he rejoins his company in
the evening he may declare that he lost his squad or that he fought
elsewhere. Perhaps he is not believed, and possibly he was aware
beforehand that no one would believe him; but at least he will have
escaped the intolerable ignominy of running away before the eyes of all.

To remain under fire is by no means easy, but to keep cool in the
heat of a modern engagement is harder still. At first fear makes one
perspire and tremble. It is irresistible. Death seems inevitable. The
danger is unknown, and is magnified a thousandfold by the imagination.
One makes no attempt to analyse it. The bursting of the shells and
their acrid smoke together with the shrapnel are the main causes of
the first feeling of terror. And yet neither the flashes of melinite,
nor the noise of the explosions, nor the smoke are the real danger; but
they accompany the danger, and at first one is attacked by all three at
once. Soon, however, one learns to discriminate. The smoke is harmless,
and the whistling of the shells indicates in what direction they are
coming. One no longer crouches down unnecessarily, and only seeks
shelter knowingly, when it is imperative to do so. Danger no longer
masters but is mastered. That is the great difference.

In order to form an exact idea of the effects of a shell, I went with
Hutin to examine a field full of Jerusalem artichokes in which a heavy
projectile had just fallen. In the centre of the field we found a
funnel-shaped hole about ten yards in diameter, so regular in shape
that it could only have been made by a howitzer shell. This kind of
projectile strikes the ground almost perpendicularly, and buries itself
deep in the soft soil, throwing up enormous quantities of earth as
it bursts. Many of the steel splinters are lost in the depths of the
ground, and the murderous cone of dispersion is thereby proportionately
reduced.

The truth of this can be easily confirmed. In the present case the
farther we went from the hole the higher was the point at which the
artichokes had been shorn off, and at a dozen paces or so from the edge
of the crater the shrapnel had only reached the heads of the highest
stems. It follows therefore that a man lying very near the point of
impact would probably not have been hit. Next came a circular zone
which was entirely unscathed, but a little farther on the falling
bullets and splinters had mown off leaves and stems, and a man lying
down here would have risked quite as much as if he had remained
standing.

When thus coldly examined a shell loses much of its moral effect.

The actual organization of the artillery also stimulates a gunner's
courage. The foot-soldier, cavalryman, and sapper are units in
themselves, whereas for us the only unit is the gun. The seven men
serving it are the closely connected, interdependent organs of a thing
which becomes alive--the gun in action.

In consequence of the links existing between the seven men among
themselves and between each of them and the gun, any faint-heartedness
is rendered more obvious, its consequences much greater, and the
shame it bears in its wake more crushing. Moreover, in this complete
solidarity the effluvia which create psychological contagion are
easily developed; one or two gunners who stick resolutely and calmly to
their posts are often able to inspire the whole detachment with courage.

       *       *       *       *       *

To-day was a day of undisturbed quiet. Over towards Tailly and Stenay
nothing revealed the presence of the enemy.

When evening approached we were again sent off to encamp on the other
side of the woods. There was a glorious summer sunset, and through the
dark depths of the trees the road opened up a mysterious avenue at the
end of which glowed a western sky more varied in hues than a rainbow.

All sound of battle had ceased. Gradually the sky darkened and night
fell. As yesterday, the artillery rolled monotonously on through the
shadowy woods.

One by one the stars were veiled by a rising mist, and the sky became
opalescent with a nocturnal luminosity that flooded the stretches of
the forest, which, from the crests of the hills, could be seen rising
and falling as far as the eye could reach. But underneath the trees
the darkness was intense, and the road would have seemed a trench dug
deep in the earth itself but for an occasional infantry bivouac, the
embers of which glowed faintly through the brushwood, and but for a
damp scent of mint and other herbs which rose from the dark undergrowth
mingled with a certain sensuous smell of animality. We were surrounded
by a delicious freshness with which we filled our lungs and which made
us shiver slightly.

Millon, who was sitting next to me on the limber-box, told me the story
of his life. It was a sad and simple history. Only twenty, with his
girl's face and roguish yet infantile eyes, he had nevertheless long
been the bread-winner of a family, and now his mother--"my old mother"
as he said in a tone full of deep affection--had been left alone in
Paris with another child, still very young, whose delicate constitution
and highly strung nerves were the cause of continual alarm. He told me
of past misfortunes still fresh in his memory, of the present anxiety
of his people in Paris, and of material worries.

"Ah," he sighed, "if only my old mother could see me to-night, safe and
sound on the limber!"

       *       *       *       *       *

In the field where the battery halted we had almost to fight in order
to get a few armfuls of straw. The gunners of a battery which had
arrived before us had stretched themselves out haphazard on a fallen
hayrick. They had twenty times more straw than they needed, but when we
tried to pull a little from under them the awakening of the overwrought
sleepers was terrifying. They shouted, cursed, and threatened. Finally
they fell asleep again, growling and grunting under their breath like a
pack of surly dogs.


  _Monday, August 31_

The guns awoke us early, and we prepared to return to meet the enemy.
About seven o'clock we found ourselves back in Tailly, where we learnt
that the day before the enemy had been pushed back as far as the Meuse,
and that Beauclair and Halles were now entirely in French hands.

Standing in column of route in the village we awaited orders. The
German artillery began to bombard the neighbouring hills.

In the market-place was a hay-cart in which were lying three wounded
Uhlans. An officer, his hands behind his back, was walking up and down
in front of the cart. Some women and children were standing round them
in a group, silently contemplating the Germans. One or two of the
gunners joined them out of curiosity. The Uhlans looked at them with
sad and troubled blue eyes.

"They aren't such an ugly set as I should have thought," declared
Tuvache.

"No?" said Millon. "I suppose you thought they had got a third eye in
the middle of their foreheads, like the inhabitants of the moon!"

Tuvache shrugged his shoulders:

"No, only I had an idea they were uglier. They don't look as bad as all
that!"

       *       *       *       *       *

There was severe fighting this morning in the Beauclair Gap, through
which the enemy tried to force a passage. The incessant din of the
battle sounded from afar like the rising tide beating on a rocky shore.

"Forward! Trot!"

After having proceeded some three hundred yards down the Beauclair road
we again halted. Soldiers were coming back from the lines, some of them
wounded in the hands or arms, and others in the shoulders. All of them
were bandaged. They stopped to ask us for water or cigarettes, and we
exchanged a few words with them:

"Are we advancing?"

"No, but we are holding our ground. It is their machine-guns that are
the trouble. They're just awful!"

"Are you in pain?"

"No!"

"What does it feel like, a bullet?"

"It burns a bit, but it doesn't hurt much."

Some others, wounded in the leg, began to pass by. These were evidently
in great pain. They were perspiring with fatigue and heat, for the sun,
now in the zenith, was beating straight down in the hollow through
which the road wound. Many were helping themselves along by the aid of
sticks cut from the hedges.

An officer's horse went by, led by a stretcher-bearer and bearing a
foot-soldier whose thigh had been broken by a shell. The wounded man
was clutching the animal's mane with both hands, his right leg hanging
helpless. Just above the knee was a rent in his breeches through which
the blood flowed freely, running down to his boot and dripping thence
to the ground. His eyes were closed and his bloodshot eyelids, pale
lips, and the red beard covering his long, bony jaws, made him look
like one crucified.

"Can you manage to hold out?" asked the stretcher-bearer.

"Are we still far from the ambulance?"

"No, not far now. If you feel faint let me know and I'll put you down.
Does it hurt much?"

"Yes, and it's bleeding.... Look at the blood on the road!"

"That's nothing. Hold on to the mane!"

An ambulance passed full of seriously wounded. Instead of being laid
down they had been propped up against the sides of the carriage so that
it should hold more. Under the green tilt I caught a glimpse of one
man with a face the colour of white marble whose head was rolling on
his shoulders, and of another who was streaming with blood. A huge and
swarthy corporal was sharing the box with the driver. His gun between
his knees and one hand on his hip, he was sitting bolt upright with a
grave and determined air, his head enveloped in a turban of crimson
lint. Blood was trickling into his right eye, which, in its red-rimmed
orbit, looked strangely white, and from thence ran down his drooping
moustache, matting the hairs of his beard, and finally dropping on to
his broad chest in black splashes and streams.

One of the wounded who had been waiting for a long time, sitting by the
roadside, caught hold of a carriage which dragged him on.

"Please stop and let me get up!"

"We've no more room, I'm afraid!"

"I can't walk."

"But as you see we're full up!"

"Can't I get on the step?"

"Yes, if you can manage it!"

But the vehicle still went on. A gunner helped the man on to the step.

At the end of a sunken road, in the shade of some tall poplars with
dense foliage which the sun only penetrated in places, two Medical
Corps officers had improvised a sort of operating-table on trestles.
Some wounded laid out on the slope were waiting their turn to be
bandaged. Among the stones a thin, dark-coloured stream of water
was flowing, partially washing away the pools of blood and bits of
red-stained cotton-wool and linen. The air was pervaded by a stale
odour like that of a chemist's shop, mingled with the damp smell of
running water.

A Captain was brought up in a stretcher, on both sides of which his
arms hung limply down. A hospital orderly cut off the sleeves of
his tunic, and he was then placed on the operating-table. He was an
ugly sight as he lay there with his blood-stained bare arms and his
sleeveless blue tunic encircling his body. While his wounds were being
dressed he gave long-drawn sighs of pain.

"Right about wheel!"

We set off up a steep incline across the fields to take up position
on the heights overlooking the Beauclair Gap and the road we had
just left. The battery was backed by a spur of the hills which hid
Tailly from view except for the spire of the steeple, surmounted by a
weather-cock, which seemed to rise out of the earth behind us.

In this position we were visible to the enemy through the V-shaped gap
between the hills commanding the Meuse. We could see the woods and
fields beyond Beauclair occupied by the Germans, and which the French
batteries ahead of us were covering with shrapnel shell from behind the
sheltering ridges. In the fields in the distance the German infantry
debouching from the woods looked like an army of black insects on a
bright green lawn. We immediately opened fire, and under our shells the
enemy hastily regained the woods, which we then began to bombard.

The action seemed to be going favourably for us this morning. Some
French batteries had advanced by the Beauclair road and were now
engaged in the gap. On the hills surrounding us in a semicircle other
batteries which, like ours, had taken up positions on the counterslope,
and others still farther off, near the hills directly above the Meuse,
thundered incessantly, the position of the invisible guns being
revealed by clouds of dust and flashes of fire showing up against the
greenery. The firing of these batteries was so violent that little by
little the air became cloudy. An acrid atmosphere of smoke and dust
invaded the valley, in which the numberless echoes multiplied the roar
of the guns as the sound-waves met and intermingled. We were surrounded
by a loud and continual humming and buzzing which deafened us and
almost paralysed our other senses.

"Cease firing!"

The detachments became motionless round the guns. It was already midday.

Suddenly the enemy began to bombard Tailly and the pine-woods
commanding our position. Some limbers which since the early morning
had been waiting on the outskirts of the woods moved off hurriedly. A
section of infantry emerged from the smoke of a high-explosive shell.

"Take cover!" ordered Captain de Brisoult.

The fire of the French artillery gradually slackened. A volley of
shrapnel shells burst over the valley where our teams were waiting for
us, and a fuse sang loud and long through the air. Nobody seemed to be
wounded. The limbers standing motionless in the sunshine made a black
square on the grass.

The enemy appeared to have registered the position of a battery
installed on the other side of the pine-woods, and, under a perfect
hail of howitzer shells, the guns were brought back one by one through
the woods.

Hutin, who had taken shelter behind the shield, suddenly stood up in
order to see. He crossed his arms.

"Yes, that's it!" he growled.

"What is it? But take cover!"

"That's it! Retreat! Oh, my God!"

I also stood up. Sure enough, sections of infantry were crossing the
ridges and falling back.

"Take cover, you idiots!" yelled Bréjard.

A shell swooped down. The splinters whistled through the air and the
displaced earth pattered round us on the dry field. I had stooped down
instinctively, but Hutin had not moved, being too much occupied in
observing the retreat of the infantry, which was becoming more general
every moment.

"There you are," said he, "now it will be our turn.... I bet ... we
shall retire too.... Here's an A.D.C. coming up.... Oh, if we're always
going to retire like that we may as well take a train!"

As he had suspected, the A.D.C. brought orders for us to retreat. The
teams trotted up the slope to join the guns. The moment was critical,
and, as ill-luck would have it, the first gun, in position on the
counterslope, began to roll downhill as soon as the spade, which had
been solidly jammed in the ground by the recoil, had been pulled out.
It took eight of us to drag the gun back, and at every instant we
asked ourselves whether we should succeed in assembling the train. The
drivers began to lose their nerve, and backed the horses at random,
this way and that.

"Now then, all together.... Whoa, there, whoa!... Steady!... Whoa back!"

A final pull, and we had limbered up.

"Ready!"

The team started.

Beyond the village of Tailly the hill we had to ascend in order to
reach the plateau was very steep, especially where the road skirted the
stone wall of the cemetery.

Some foot-soldiers resting on both sides of the way had taken off
their packs and piled arms. Sitting in the grass they watched us go by
with that absent and stupefied look peculiar to men just returned from
the firing-line. Suddenly a shrapnel shell, the whistling approach of
which had been drowned by the rumble of the vehicles, burst above the
cemetery. Some of the soldiers promptly dived into the ditch, and
others fell on their knees close to the wall, shielding their heads
with their packs. Two men, who had remained standing, stupidly hid
their heads in the thick hedge. On the limbers we bent our shoulders
and the drivers whipped up the horses.

At one point the road was visible to the enemy, but when we discovered
this it was already too late to stop.

A volley of shells.... Over! We had escaped by a hair's breadth.

We formed up ready for action in the same position as the day before,
overlooking the neighbouring ridges, where the tall poplars served
as aiming-points. The third battery, which had been with us on the
Saturday, had opened up some fine trenches here. But the limbers had
hardly had time to range up on the edge of a copse when high-explosive
shell began to fall round us.

How had the enemy been able to discover our new position? We were
carefully covered, and were invisible to him on all sides, nor had we
yet fired a single shot, so that our presence had not been betrayed by
smoke or flashes. No aeroplane was in the sky. Then how had we been
seen?...

We sheltered in the trenches.

"It isn't at us that they're firing," said Hutin.

"Then what are they firing at?"

"I think we've got to thank those fat old dragoons they saw passing on
the road for this! They're aiming at the road."

But the dragoons got farther and farther away, and the enemy continued
to fire in our direction. There was no doubt that he was aware that
there was a battery in position here. Had we been betrayed by signal
by a spy hiding somewhere behind us? I carefully scrutinized the
surrounding country, but could see nothing.

Some shells fell a few yards off the guns, smothering the battery in
smoke and dust, and shaking us at the bottom of our trenches. I heard
the Major shout:

"Take cover on the right!"

While the Captain and Lieutenant remained at their observation-posts
the gunners hurriedly moved out of the line of fire of the howitzers.
But as we ran along the road across the fields in view of the enemy a
Staff passed by. I was seized with sudden anger. The horsemen would
get us killed! The party consisted of about twenty officers in whose
centre rode a General, a little, thin man with grey hair. A gaily
coloured troop of blue and red Chasseurs followed them. The scream of
approaching shells at once made itself heard, and thrilled long in the
air. The Chasseurs and officers saluted, but the little General made no
movement. This time the enemy had fired too low.

"To your guns!"

The Captain thought he had discovered the battery bombarding us:

"Layers!" he called.

Feverishly, beneath the shells, we prepared for action.

"Echelon at fifteen. First gun, a hundred and fifty; second gun, a
hundred and sixty-five.... Third...."

The fuse-setters repeated the corrector and the range.

"Sixteen.... Three thousand five hundred...."

"In threes, traverse! By the right, each battery!..."

"First gun ... fire!... Second...."

The rapid movements of serving the guns electrified us. In the
deafening din made by the battery in full action orders had to be
shouted. We no longer heard the enemy's guns; they were silenced by the
roar of our own. We forgot the shrapnel, which nevertheless continued
to fall.

Suddenly the howitzer fire slackened, and then ceased.

"They're getting hit!" said Hutin, bending over the sighting gear.

"Fire!" answered the No. 1.

"Ready!"

"Fire!... Fire!..."

On the plateau behind us companies were retiring in extended order.

       *       *       *       *       *

Night fell. We also received orders to retire. It seemed as if the
earth and the woods were absorbing such light as was left. The
movements of the infantry in the distance were lost in the undulations
of the ground. The men seemed to become incorporated with the fields,
and dissolved, disappearing from view.

Near a dark shell-crater lay a red heap. A soldier was lying stretched
on his back, one of his legs blown off by a shell, leaving a torn,
bluish-red stump through which he had emptied his veins. The lucerne
leaves and earth under him were glued together with blood. The man's
head had been thrown back in his agony, and the Adam's apple jutted out
amid the distended muscles of his neck. His glassy eyes were wide open,
and his lips dead white. He still grasped his broken rifle, and his
képi had rolled underneath his shoulder.


  _Tuesday, September 1_

A long night march. It was past one o'clock in the morning when at last
we halted, and we still had to make our soup, water the horses and give
them their oats. This done, we fell into a deep sleep.

About four o'clock the sergeant on duty came and shook us one by one.
He was greeted with growls.

"Alarm!"

"What misery! Can't we even sleep for an hour!"

It was veritable torture to keep our eyes open. Our limbs were stiff,
our heads heavy, and our loins ached. The weather was foggy and cold.

We clambered on to the limbers and started off. Numbness at once seized
our feet and then our knees, mounting rapidly. Our heads rolled from
side to side, and we gradually lost consciousness. Some of the drivers
were sleeping on their horses. They slipped more and more to one side
and, just as they were about to fall, were awakened by instinct and
sat straight up in the saddle again. But a moment after one could see
them through the gloom, once more subsiding and gradually slipping,
slipping....

Where were we going to? Perhaps the army had been obliged to fall back
below Verdun, because the enemy, who had undoubtedly got a footing on
the hills on the left bank of the Meuse, near Stenay, was threatening
their left flank. But we knew nothing for certain, and were too tired
to think, too tired even to fear! Each man's one desire was to sleep a
whole day through.

At daybreak we halted near Landres in a sloping field full of
plum-trees. Unless counter-orders arrived we were to stay there and
rest for twenty-four hours.

We lit fires and started shaking the plum-trees.

Suddenly a cry broke out:

"The postmaster!"

It was answered by a hoarse--almost savage--shout, and the men
literally mobbed the N.C.O. who was carrying a sackful of letters.

News at last! Some of the letters had been on the way for a fortnight;
ours, it seemed, were not being delivered. What anxiety the people at
home were in!

After we had read our correspondence Hutin called me:

"Are you coming to wash your linen?"

"Yes."

We hung up our tunics on the low-hanging branches of the plum-trees,
and, our shirts under our arms and with bodies bare save for our
braces, walked down to the river.

We spent a quiet morning eating, smoking, and writing. At midday the
short, sharp reports of the ·75's began to sound on the next range of
hills. At one o'clock we received orders to advance and support a group
of artillery engaged on the heights north of Landres.

Hardly had we taken up position when an aeroplane passed overhead.
A German machine, evidently; so far we had seen no others. Almost
immediately afterwards shells began to fall around us, but again, as
if by a miracle, the battery remained unscathed in the middle of the
bursting shrapnel and the smoke of melinite. But that would not always
happen!

       *       *       *       *       *

Ah! if only I escape the hecatomb, how I shall appreciate life! I never
imagined that there could be an intense joy in breathing, in opening
one's eyes to the light, in letting it penetrate one, in being hot, in
being cold--even in suffering. I thought that only certain hours had
any value, and heedlessly let the others slip past. If I see the end
of this war, I shall know how to suck from each moment its full meed
of pleasure, and feel each second of life as it passes by, like some
deliciously cool water trickling between one's fingers. I almost fancy
that I shall continually pause, interrupting a phrase or suspending a
gesture, and tell myself again and again: "I live! I live!"

And to think that in a few moments, perhaps, I shall only be a
shapeless mass of bleeding flesh at the bottom of a shell-hole!

       *       *       *       *       *

There was nothing to do under the shrapnel-fire. The Captain surveyed
the plain with exasperating calmness.

Presently the enemy increased his range, and the shells passed overhead
and burst in the valley, on a road where we could see first lines of
wagons making off at a gallop in thick clouds of dust.

Orders arrived.... We were to return to Landres.

A deep hole had been made in the road by a shell, and near-by lay the
hashed remains of a horse--a limbless, decapitated body. The head,
lying on the edge of the ditch, and apparently intact, seemed to be
looking at this body with a surprised expression in its big, still
unclouded eyes. A shred of flesh and chestnut skin had been blown to
the top of a neighbouring slope. The shell crater, in which lay the
intestines surrounded with purple blood rapidly blackening in the sun,
exhaled a smell of decay and excrement--a sickening odour which nearly
made us ill.

It seemed that the senior N.C.O. who had been riding this horse had
escaped without a scratch.

A regiment of Chasseurs was slowly descending the high hill overlooking
Landres on the north-east.

The setting sun no longer lit up the depths of the valley where we had
parked our guns, but, by contrast, illuminated the more magnificently
the steep incline down which the red and blue squadrons were
descending in good order, their drawn sabres glinting in the gorgeous
orange-coloured light. The Chasseurs passed close by us, and then rode
up the opposite side of the valley towards the sun, whose red disk
still peeped over the hilltop. As they crossed the summit the horsemen
were silhouetted for a moment against the horizon.

I was tired out, and in spite of my efforts began to fall asleep. I
had the impression that in order to keep awake I should have to adopt
the attitude of the sentries of old--one finger raised, commanding
silence.


  _Wednesday, September 2_

Last night the horses were not unharnessed, and we ourselves had hardly
four hours' sleep on the bare ground, where it is so difficult to get
proper rest.

It was still dark when we set off again, down a road flanked with dense
woods. The night was dark and filled with weird, grey shadows cast by
the first, almost imperceptible rays of the pallid dawn. I was drowsing
on the shaking ammunition wagon, to which one becomes accustomed after
a time, when I was awakened by the crackling of broken wood and the
heavy thud of a fall. I looked about me, but saw nothing. Then, through
the rumbling of the wheels, I fancied I heard a plaintive cry mingled
with sobs. Yes.... I now distinctly heard the clear voice of a little
girl, calling:

"Mother! Mother!"

On a heap of stones by the roadside I was now able to see the wheel
of an overturned cart, a human form on the ground, and round it the
shadows of kneeling children.

Some more sobs; then the little voice called again:

"Mother! Mother!... Oh, mother, do answer!"

The column continued on its way. A convulsive, heartrending wail,
rising from a throat choked by anguish, seemed to echo in my breast:

"Mother!"

We should have liked to stop, to make inquiries, and help if we could.
There were several children. Had their mother fainted? Perhaps. Was
there a man with them? Suppose there was not!... I was sorely tempted
to jump down from the ammunition wagon and run back, but I knew that I
should not be able to rejoin the battery. A horseman dismounted, saying:

"I'll stop the medical officer when he comes up.... We'll catch you up
at the trot!"

We were carried on by the slow-marching column. So great was the horror
of that which had happened on the side of the road that I was kept
awake despite my weariness, and saw the daylight slowly creeping in. I
think I shall always hear that little voice crying "Mother!" and the
sound of the children's sobs in the grey dawn.

On reaching the main road we had to halt and let the infantry of the
7th Division pass. The Army Corps was retiring. Some one said that we
were going to entrain.

To entrain! Why? To go where? It appeared that we had been relieved on
the Meuse by fresh troops, and that the 4th Corps was to be re-formed.

We were going to rest, then--to sleep! But we had heard that so often
during the last eight days! Could we believe it? And yet it must be
true, for this part of the country would surely not be left defenceless.

Down the road, wave upon wave, with the swishing noise of open sluices,
battalion succeeded battalion. The soldiers seemed fairly cheerful;
there were even some who sang.

The 101st Infantry swung by.

"Is the 102nd behind you?" asked Tuvache.

"Yes."

"I ask because my brother is in it."

The long column still filed by. At last, several minutes later, the
brother arrived.

"Hi! Tuvache!"

One of the men turned round:

"Hallo! It's you!"

The two brothers simply shook hands, but their joy at meeting again
could be read in their eyes.

"So you're all right?"

"Yes, and you?"

"As you see ... quite all right."

"I'm glad...."

"Had any news from home?"

"Yes, yesterday. They're all well, and they told me to give you their
love if I saw you, and to give you half the postal order they sent me."

The soldier searched in his pocket.

"The only thing is that I haven't been able to get hold of the
postmaster to cash it. But, if you want it...."

"No, you keep it! I've got more money than I want."

"All right, then. Uncle and auntie both sent their love.... Hallo! I
mustn't lose my company.... I believe we're going to rest a bit...."

"They say so. In that case we shall see each other again soon.... So
long!"

Their hands met. The infantryman made a step forward.

"I'll tell them I've seen you when I write."

"Yes, so will I!"

The man ran on, shouldering his way through the ranks. Occasionally we
saw his hand raised above the heads, waving good-bye.

Following behind the regiments of the 7th Division we began a march
of exasperating slowness. It was very hot, and the dust raised by the
infantry smothered and stifled us. At intervals, by the roadside, dead
horses were lying.

On reaching Châtel we turned to the left down a clear road and at
last were able to trot. Across the fields and valleys, as far as
the horizon, a long line of grey dust clouding the trees marked the
Varennes road which the division was following.

It was noon, and it seemed to me that we must have journeyed ten or
twelve miles since we started at dawn. But suddenly we heard the guns
again--not very far away, towards the north-east.

Near the village of Apremont on the outskirts of the forest of Argonne,
in which the head of our column had already penetrated, three shells
burst.

Then the enemy was following us! Was there no one to stop him? Had we
not been replaced? Did it mean defeat ... invasion ... France laid open?

Abreast of our column lines of carts were lumbering along the road. The
whole population was flying from the enemy--old women, girls, mothers
with babies at the breast, and swarms of children. These unhappy little
ones were saving that which was most precious to them--their existence;
the women and girls--their honour, a little money, often a household
pet, such as a dog, a cat, or a bird in a cage....

The poorest were on foot. A family of four were making their way
through the woods led by an old man with careworn features. Over his
shoulder he carried a stick, on the end of which was tied a large
wicker basket covered with a white cloth. At his side dangled a
game-bag crammed to its utmost capacity. He was followed up the narrow
forest path by a young woman leading a fat red cow with one hand,
while with the other she held a shaggy-haired dog in leash by means
of a handkerchief fastened to its collar. A little girl was clinging
to her skirts, and letting herself be dragged along. Behind them
came an old woman, bent almost double by age and by the weight of a
grape-gatherer's cask full of linen which she was carrying on her back.
She hobbled along, leaning heavily on a stick.

       *       *       *       *       *

Where were all these poor people going to? Many had not the vaguest
notion, and confessed as much. They were going straight ahead, into
those parts of France which the Germans would not reach.

"What is the use of staying?" asked an old man querulously. "They'll
burn everything just the same, and I'd rather find myself ruined
and roofless here, but free, rather than back yonder where I should
be in the hands of the Germans. Besides, I've my daughter-in-law to
think of--the wife of my son, who is a gunner like you. She's with
child--seven months gone--and when she heard the guns begin yesterday
the pains came on. At first I thought she was going to be confined;
but it passed off. But I thought we had better leave at once. These
beasts of Germans, who violate and disembowel women ... who knows
whether they would have respected her condition?... Last night we found
a road-mender's hut to sleep in, but I don't know what we shall do
to-night.... And I'm afraid she'll get ill. Just now she's sleeping in
the cart. I must take care that she doesn't get ill! My son left her in
my charge."

Pointing in the direction our column was following, I asked the old man:

"Where does this road lead to?"

"Where?" he replied, a wrathful look suddenly coming into his eyes.
"Why, Châlons and Paris ... the whole of France!"

And, shaking his head, he added bitterly:

"Oh, my God!"

"You see they're half again as many as we are."

He did not answer immediately, but, after a moment or two, he said:

"I saw '70.... It's just the same as in '70."

       *       *       *       *       *

The battery rolled on till we had crossed the whole of Argonne. At
Servon, a village on the fringe of the woods, where the infantry were
making a long halt, we stopped for a few minutes. It was two o'clock.

We led the horses down to the drinking-place, near a mill on the bank
of the green Aisne. The animals waded breast-high into the stream,
where they stood puffing and snorting, splashing the men, who, with
rolled-up trousers, were also paddling with enjoyment in the cool water.

Finally, near Ville-sur-Tourbe, we parked our guns. Presumably we were
to entrain the same evening at the station close by.

The forebodings which had seized me in the morning when I saw the enemy
advancing behind us had in no way diminished. Were we going to entrain
and leave the road open to the invaders? Would they not surround the
troops operating in Belgium and those advancing in Alsace?... But were
the French still in Belgium and in Alsace? How we wished that we could
know the truth, whatever it might be!

       *       *       *       *       *

To-night the men were surly and despondent, and one and all were
anxious to escape fatigue duty. Déprez found himself confronted on all
sides by the same sulkiness and apathy.

"Tuvache, go and fetch water!"

"But I went yesterday!... It's more than half a mile!... Why can't some
of the others have a turn?..."

"Well, Laillé, did you go yesterday?"

"No."

"Right then, off you go!"

"Oh, but...."

"I'm not asking for your opinion, you know...."

"Some of 'em never go...."

"I tell you once again to go and fetch water!"

"Well, at any rate, you won't order me to do anything else afterwards?"

"No."

Grasping a skin water-bag in each hand Laillé slouched off, dragging
his steps and hunching his shoulders.

       *       *       *       *       *

We were informed that we were not going to entrain at Ville-sur-Tourbe.

We had to swallow our soup boiling hot and eat the meat raw, after
which we set off again in the crimson-tinted twilight. Refugees were
camping in the fields on either side of the road, where they had
prepared to pass the night stretched out on straw strewn beneath their
carts, which would afford but poor protection from the morning chill
and dew. Infants in long clothes were sleeping in cradles.

We were marching southwards. The moon had risen, and straight ahead
shone a solitary, magnificent star. Presently we reached a dark and
deserted town--Sainte-Menehould--where it was too dark to see the
names of the streets. The road was in lamentable repair, and the
horses stumbled and the guns jolted. Perspectives of abandoned streets
were prolonged by the moon.... Finally we saw ahead the red lamp of a
railway station, where, for a moment, I thought we should entrain. But
we did not even halt.

Under the wan and yellow moonlight, which magnified the distances, the
country once again spread itself out in long valleys, where no troops
were moving and where no sentinel could be seen.


  _Thursday, September 3_

Towards midnight we halted, and almost immediately afterwards orders
arrived. Our original instructions had been to move on at daybreak, but
the orders just to hand were to the effect that we should remain here.
So we were able to sleep until past nine o'clock.

       *       *       *       *       *

A never-ending stream of refugees was now flowing down the dusty road.

       *       *       *       *       *

We again heard a rumour that we had been replaced on the Meuse by the
6th Army Corps; and that we were going into Haute-Alsace under the
command of General d'Amade. This name, which was very popular, elicited
general enthusiasm.

"Now it will be different!"

I questioned a Chasseur, one of General Boëlle's orderlies, but either
the man knew nothing, or he would not tell what he knew.

       *       *       *       *       *

The carts of the refugees had to be lined up on one side of the road
in order to make way for the infantry of the 2nd Army Corps arriving
from Clermont-en-Argonne and Sainte-Menehould. These troops seemed to
have suffered less severely than the regiments of the 4th Corps, but
they had no more notion as to their destination than we. They also
spoke of d'Amade, of successes in the north, and of naval victories.
They appeared to be quite unaware that the Germans were advancing
behind us. But were they really advancing? Was it not merely a fresh
allotment of French troops? How we wished that it were!


  _Friday, September 4_

It was still night when we broke up the camp. After a whole day solely
spent in eating and sleeping, we should have felt much refreshed had
we not been tortured with diarrhoea. The Medical Officer had no more
bismuth or paregoric elixir left, and we had no choice but to chew
blackthorn bark.

The horses were even more exhausted than the men. Many had been
slightly injured in the engagements on Monday and Tuesday, and their
wounds were suppurating. No one seemed to trouble about them, and that
was not the worst, for some of them had to suffer the stupid remedies
applied by the ignorant drivers. I saw one man urinate on his horse's
pastern, which had been cut by a shell splinter. Nearly all the animals
were lame as the result of kicks received at night-time, when the
worn-out stable-pickets fall asleep. Seldom taken out of the traces
and hardly ever unharnessed, the straps, cruppers, and especially the
crupper-loops had made large sores on them which were covered all day
long with flies. And, besides all this, the poor beasts, like the men,
were weakened by incessant diarrhoea.

All the morning we marched on, through Givry-en-Argonne, Sommeilles,
Nettancourt, and Brabant, the milestones being at first marked "Meuse"
and then "Marne." The dust half veiled the austere, regular hills of
the beautiful country and the magnificent reaches of the forest of
Argonne sloping away to the east.

About noon we reached Revigny-aux-Vaux, a pretty little white-walled
town surrounded by fields and pasture-lands, where we parked our guns
on the bank of the Ornain, close to the station. As we were leading the
horses down to the river a man dressed like an artisan, who was sitting
by the side of the road, accosted me:

"Where are you gunners from?"

"From the Hauts-de-Meuse, over by Dun and Stenay. We've been replaced
there by fresh troops."

"Replaced?"

"Yes--they say by the 6th Army Corps."

"Pooh, that's all rot!... You've just turned tail!... Yes ... simply
that!... Do you know where the Prussians are?" he added, getting up.

I felt chilled by a sudden fear. Misery was plainly written on the
fellow's bony, emaciated face. When sitting he had not seemed nearly so
tall or thin.

He stretched out a long arm, and with a shaking hand pointed to the
north-west.

"They're just outside Châlons, the Prussians!"

I shrugged my shoulders.

"You don't believe me? Well, I've come from Châlons--an aeroplane
dropped a bomb on the station just as my train left. And the Prussians
have got to other places as well, if you want to know. They are at
Compiègne! Do you hear?... At Compiègne ... it's certain. You've only
got to ask ... anybody here will tell you. They've got to Compiègne and
they took La Fère as they passed."

I began to tremble, everything seemed to be turning round me, and for
a moment I thought I should fall. Instinctively I pressed my knees into
my horse's sides and returned slowly to the camp with a haggard face
and an aching heart.

Hutin was there. I looked him straight in the eyes and said slowly:

"Hutin! The Germans are at Compiègne!"

"Where?"

"At Compiègne!"

He grew pale and shrugged his shoulders.

"No!"

"Yes, at Compiègne!"

"Compiègne! Compiègne! Why, that's less than sixty miles from Paris!
Oh, my God!"

We looked at each other.

"Who let them get through?"

"Those in the north, I suppose."

"Then it's worse than in '70!"

"At Compiègne!" repeated Hutin distractedly.

Dreadful thoughts of downfall, of treason, of all the bitterness of
defeat and of suffering endured to no purpose rose up like spectres in
each man's mind.

"I told you so; we've been sold!" declared the trumpeter.

In spite of everything, I still could not believe in treachery.

"Sold! Why sold? By whom?... By whom?"

"How should I know? But they wouldn't be at Compiègne if we hadn't been
betrayed. Oh, it's the old story!... Just like '70.... Bazaine in '70!"

"We may have been overwhelmed.... There are so many of them!... Three
times our numbers!... Besides, in 1870 the mistake made by the Châlons
army was that they didn't wait for the Germans at Paris. That is well
known. If MacMahon's army had not advanced, had not let itself be
bottled up at Sedan, perhaps we shouldn't have been beaten...."

I grasped at the idea of a strategic retreat, and tried to convince my
comrades in order to convince myself. But they all remained downcast
and sullen, and kept repeating:

"Just as in '70!"

What a refrain!

Bréjard, who had been listening as he smoked, was the only one who was
still confident.

"The worst of it is," said he, "that we don't know anything for
certain. But, if the other Army Corps are in the same condition as
ours, all is by no means lost. They've probably been pushed back a
bit in the north, like we have been in Belgium. But if they haven't
been taken, that is the main thing, and as for this being the same as
'70--why, there's absolutely no resemblance! In '70 we were alone,
whereas now we've got the English and Russians with us."

"Oh, don't talk to me about the English and Russians!" said the
trumpeter.

"Have you seen any of the English, sergeant?"

"No, but they're over here, all right."

"They are said to be," corrected Millon. "But it was also said that we
were advancing in the north. A brilliant advance!..."

"And the Russians!" went on Pelletier. "Why the hell aren't they in
Berlin by this time? They've nothing to stop them on their side...."

Bréjard shrugged his shoulders:

"Well, but all the same they can't get there by railway, you know!"

"But a month ought to be enough ... with their famous Cossacks,"
retorted the trumpeter.

And he continued:

"It's all tommy-rot! Shall I tell you what _I_ think of it, sergeant?
Well, these Russians and English, who have declared war on Germany ...
it's simply sham!... A put-up job! They've engineered the whole thing
together in order to do us in ... just like '70!"

"Just like '70!" repeated Blanchet, who, sitting cross-legged like a
tailor, was mending a rent in his coat.

This crushing catastrophe, which had descended upon us like the blow of
a sledge-hammer, made us begin to doubt everything and everybody.

Why, instead of beguiling us with imaginary victories, could they
not simply have told us: "We have to deal with an enemy superior
in numbers. We are obliged to retreat until we can complete our
concentration and until the English reinforcements arrive."

Were they afraid of frightening us by the word "retreat" when we were
already experiencing its reality?

Why? Why had we been deceived, demoralized?...

Accompanied by Déprez and Lebidois I turned into the garden of a
restaurant and ordered luncheon. Under the leafy arbour of virginia
creepers and viburnum, pierced here and there with dancing rays of
sunlight, blazed a medley of officers' uniforms--chemists, Medical
Corps men, infantry officers of all denominations, A.S.C. officers
and pay-masters, the latter in green uniforms which gave them the
appearance of foresters.

For fifteen days we had not eaten off proper plates nor drunk from
glasses. The luncheon would have been an untold delight had we not all
three been haunted by the spectre of defeat....

       *       *       *       *       *

When night fell we entrained. The long platform, littered with straw,
was illuminated at lengthy intervals by oil-lamps. The horses, overcome
by exhaustion, their heads drooping, allowed the drivers to lead them
into their boxes without offering any resistance. The gunners finished
loading up the guns on the trucks, and soon all became silent. The men
installed themselves for the night, thirty in each van, some stretched
out on the seats and others lying underneath, using their cloaks as
pillows. Rifles and swords had been cast into a corner. And, just as
the western sky had ceased to glow, leaving the dreary platform dark
and desolate, the train slowly started.


  _Saturday, September 5_

I had hardly any sleep last night. Every quarter of an hour the train
stopped, and men attacked by dysentery trod on me as they hurriedly
made for the doors in order to jump down on the permanent way. This
morning the same scramble continues. As soon as the train stops one has
a vision of files of gunners making for the bushes, whence they hastily
return when the whistle blows. Luckily the train gathers speed very
slowly.

       *       *       *       *       *

A melancholy day--spent in absently watching the country roll past,
one's mind always hypnotized by the thought of defeat....

Often the train does not go faster than a man walking.



IV. FROM THE MARNE TO THE AISNE


  _Sunday, September 6_

When we awoke, in a fine morning lightly veiled by silvery mists, the
suburbs of Paris were already visible.

We passed through the forest of Fontainebleau, where troops were
camping amid the broom and bracken, and rolled on through the woods in
which the white walls and red roofs of the villas made a gay splash
on the green background. The gardens were a mass of flowers; huge
sunflowers turned their golden faces towards us.

We almost forgot the tragedy of the moment.

Sunday! The bells were ringing. Besides, Paris was quite close now, and
the magnetic power of the great city was already making itself felt.
The Parisians in the carriage could hardly keep still.

Suddenly, after this dreary journey, and although it would have been
difficult to explain why or how, hope was rekindled in spite of some
more bad news we had learnt on the way, namely, that the Germans had
reached Creil without opposition.

It was not the strength of the entrenched camp of Paris, of its
garrison, nor of its heavy artillery which restored our confidence;
it was rather the instinctive faith of a child, who, having returned
home, feels irresistible because there seems to be a sort of
reassuring sympathy between himself and surrounding objects--even
the elements. What again sent the blood coursing through our veins
was the indescribable yet definite sensation caused by the presence
of something immortal, of something loved and revered. It was like
a breath of life, like the comforting support of an invincible
Personality, an all-powerful Divinity.

And then, as Hutin kept repeating:

"There! That's Paris! that's Paris!"

       *       *       *       *       *

"The English!"

A convoy of British troops was passing us. The men shouted and waved
their képis.

At Villeneuve-Saint-Georges the station was thronged with Highlanders.
Our train came to a standstill and was immediately surrounded by a
crowd of kilted soldiers intent upon examining our guns. Lebidois acted
as interpreter, and there was much hand-shaking and cheering.

Little Millon stopped a burly Highlander with tattooed wrists and knees
and asked him whether he wore any drawers under his kilt. The other did
not understand and laughed.

"That's so, isn't it?" said Millon. "If only you'd got a little more
hair on your head and a little less on your paws--why, in that skirt
they'd take you for a girl!"

       *       *       *       *       *

We detrained at Pantin. Except for inscriptions on the wooden panels
or steel shutters of the shops, such as "Owner away at the front,"
or, in letters a foot high, "We are French," and save for the faded
mobilization placards, Pantin wore the usual aspect common to such
places on summer Sundays.

On the pavement and in the roadway swarmed crowds of women in
light-coloured dresses, carefully corseted, their figures curving with
that grace which only Parisian women seem to possess. Soldiers of every
rank and regiment strolled in and out the crush. A Territorial passed
with a woman on one arm, while with the other he led a little boy by
the hand.

Was it possible that the enemy was at the gates?

       *       *       *       *       *

At Rosny-sous-Bois we camped on a plateau overlooking the town on one
side and the plain of Brie on the other--a depressing enough spot,
devoid of all charm. Far off, towards the south-east, the sound of guns
was audible.

In the streets, between the greenery of the gardens and the
light-coloured fronts of the villas, the scarlet uniforms, white
blouses, and variegated parasols chequered the crowd with bright dashes
of colour.

The Zouaves had come down from the forts.

On the terraces of the cafés, where not a single place remained
vacant, the white aprons of the waiters fluttered in and out among the
multicoloured uniforms of the Chasseurs, Army Service Corps officers,
Artillerymen, Tirailleurs, and Spahis. In front of the Post Office
and round the doors of the bakeries and confectioners' shops the
crowd collected in animated groups. Women ran to and fro greeting the
soldiers, asking questions, searching for a husband, son, brother, or
lover whom they were expecting to arrive.

Every one jostled together, hailed each other, drank, ate, smoked, and
laughed. Families of placid tradespeople, mildly inquisitive, strutted
in and out the crowd with short, conceited little steps.

The guns were still roaring, but in order to hear them one had to
separate from the crowd and enter the quiet little streets between the
gardens.

We heard that fighting was in progress on the Grand Morin.


  _Monday, September 7_

It was broad daylight when I was awakened by Bréjard.

"Up you get," said he.

"What?"

"Here, listen to this."

He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket.

  "_Army Order of the Day._

    "_At the moment when we are about to engage upon a battle upon
    which will depend the safety of the country, it is necessary to
    remind every one that this is not the time to look back. No effort
    must be spared to attack and repulse the enemy. Troops which can
    advance no farther must at all costs hold the ground won and let
    themselves be killed rather than retire._"

"Do you understand?"

Yes, we had all understood perfectly. We should never have been able to
express so simply and yet so completely our inmost thoughts. "Troops
should let themselves be killed rather than retire." That was it!

"And now, limber up," added Bréjard. "We're off there!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Just as the battery was starting, two girls, the sister and fiancée of
one of the gunners, hurried up. For a moment or two they ran, flushed
and panting, by the side of the horses, both speaking rapidly and at
the same time. When they were quite out of breath they held out their
hands, one after the other, to the gunner, who leant down from the
saddle and kissed their finger-tips.

       *       *       *       *       *

We passed through the suburbs and then, by the Soissons road,
approached the plain of Brie. We were going to the front, and I think
that each man felt that we were now passing through the gravest and
most critical moments of a whole century--perhaps of a whole history.

       *       *       *       *       *

Evening fell. The battery had been on the march for more than ten hours
without halting. Far away in the background Montmartre reared its black
silhouette against the western sky.

The fields were lit up by the stars, which were exceptionally
brilliant, but the road remained dark under the vault of tall trees
planted in double rows on either side, between which floated a
suffocating cloud of dust. A distant searchlight was sweeping the
plain. The battery broke into a trot on the paved road, and the
vehicles jolted and bumped so that it was veritable torture to sit
on them. Sharp internal pains made us twist as we clutched on to the
limber-boxes; our aching backs seemed no longer capable of sustaining
our shoulders, and the breath came in gasps from our shaken chests.
Our hearts thumped against our ribs, our heads swam--we perspired with
pain. Should we never stop?

Hour after hour we followed the same dark road, but the column had
again slowed down to a walk. The bright headlights of an approaching
automobile suddenly threw the trees into vertiginous perspectives like
the columns of some cathedral, and showed up the teams and drivers as
they emerged from the gloom in a grotesque procession of fantastic
shadows. The motor passed.

On we lumbered ... on, on.... Should we never stop?

       *       *       *       *       *

"Halt!"

At last! We parked the guns in a field and then led the horses off to
be watered.

The only light in the dark little village was a lamp burning in a
kitchen, in which we caught a glimpse of large copper sauce-pans.

There was no drinking-place and we had to push on to a marshy meadow
through which ran a river. The banks were so steep that the horses
could not drink from the current, and we gave them water out of the
skin bags.

On our return we found the road crowded with horses. Other batteries
had just arrived.

An eddy in the stream had just pushed me up against the garden wall of
a château when a motor, showing no lights, forced its way through the
herd of horses, throwing against me a confused mass of men and animals
whose weight crushed me against the stone. Another car followed, then
another, hundreds of them, silently and interminably.

By the light of the moon, which had now risen, I was able to recognize
the oil-skin caps usually worn by taxi-drivers. Inside the cabs I
caught a glimpse of soldiers sleeping, their heads thrown back.

"Wounded?" asked somebody.

"No," came the answer from a passing car. "It's the 7th Division from
Paris. They're off to the front!"


  _Tuesday, September 8_

"Attention!"

It was still pitch-dark. Cinders continued to smoulder on the hearths.
The guns were still roaring, and the vivid jets of fire startled us
like flashes of lightning. A little way off, to the east, a farm or
hayrick was burning. The weather was sultry and a persistent smell of
putrefying flesh permeated the air.

The battery started; we were off to the firing-line.

At daybreak we reached Dammartin, where, on the doors and closed
shutters, notices and billeting directions were chalked up in German.
On the front door of one house I saw two words scrawled in pointed,
Gothic handwriting: "_Gute Leute_" (Good people). I wondered who it was
that lived there....

We continued on our way. The dull boom of the guns seemed to come from
the bowels of the earth, and continued uninterruptedly.

By the side of the road a grave had been dug and marked by a white deal
cross bearing a name painted in tar and capped by a Chasseur's shako
with a brass chain. The dead man had evidently not been buried soon
enough, and a sickening smell rose up from the freshly turned soil,
which had cracked under the hot sun.

The road was still staked out with dead horses, swollen like
wine-skins, their stiffened legs with shining shoes threatening the
sky. From a gaping wound in the flank of a big chestnut mare worms were
wriggling into the grass; others were swarming in her nostrils and
mouth, and in a bullet-hole behind her ear.

"Trot!"

The battery became almost invisible in its own dust. We began to pass
wounded, hundreds of wounded--infantry of the line, Alpine troops,
and Colonial infantry white with dust, their wounds dressed with red
bandages. They helped each other along.

The majority were marching in small groups. Many had stopped to rest.
It was very hot, and I saw several of them round an apple-tree, shaking
down the fruit in order to slake their thirst.

We had halted while the Major received orders from an A.D.C. I
questioned one of the Colonials, who was wounded in the head.

"Well, how are things going down there?"

"Phew! they're falling thick!"

I did not know whether he was referring to bullets, shell, or men, but
from the expression of the drawn and haggard faces it was easy to see
that the fighting had been severe.

"Been fighting long here?"

"Yes."

"How many days?"

"It had begun when we came."

"And when did you come?"

"The day before yesterday."

And he repeated:

"Yes, they're falling thick!"

We restarted, again at a trot.

The clear sky, of a pure limpid blue on the northern and eastern
horizon, was fleeced with the white smoke of shrapnel shell; in
the distance black clouds were rising from burning buildings and
high-explosive projectiles.

We were still pursued by the smell of dead flesh, which harassed and
obsessed us, making us peer about in all directions for hidden corpses.

Suddenly one of the horses of my ammunition wagon foundered and refused
to go any farther, stopping the whole team. He had to be unharnessed
and abandoned. The other carriages had passed us, and with our five
remaining horses we galloped across country in order to rejoin the
column. The furrows nearly shook us off our seats and we had to hold
on to the box-rails with might and main, bracing our legs against the
foot-rests in order not to fall off.

We overtook the battery in a village which had been visible from afar
on the flat and bare countryside. The enemy had evidently quartered
there. The doors had been broken in with blows from the butt-ends
of rifles; almost all the windows had been smashed, and were now
mere frames bristling with jagged splinters of glass. Dirty curtains
flapped through them on the outside. Torn-down shutters lay strewn on
the pavement among broken bottles, shattered tiles, and empty tins of
preserves. Others, hanging by one hinge, beat against the fronts of the
houses.

Through the wide-open doors we could see staved-in wardrobes which had
been thrown down the staircases. Empty drawers, mantelpiece ornaments,
photographs, pictures and prints littered the red-tiled floors.
Mud-stained sheets with the mark of hobnailed boots on them trailed to
the middle of the street, giving to these unfortunate houses something
of the horror of ripped-up corpses.

The pavements were a mass of furniture thrown out of the windows,
perambulators, go-carts, and broken wine-casks. Wood crunched under the
wheels of the wagon. A pair of pink corsets was lying in the gutter.

On one of the Michelin danger signals, at the other end of the village,
I read the warning: "_Attention aux enfants--Sennevières_," and on the
other side a derisive and mournful "_Merci_."[1]

       *       *       *       *       *

We halted where the road traced a straight white line through a plain
covered with mangel-wurzels. The desolate nakedness of the fields was
only broken by a shed, three hayricks, and, farther off, some little,
square-shaped copses and a long line of poplars. To the east and north
the battle growled, whistled and roared like a storm at sea. One would
have thought that the infernal noise came from some deep, subterranean
earthquake.

We had waited a few minutes when suddenly the countryside sprang to
life. Battalions, debouching from Sennevières, deployed in skirmishing
order, and other soldiers--hundreds and thousands whose presence one
would never have suspected--rose up from the bosom of the earth and
swarmed like ants over the fields, their breeches making red patches
on the sombre green of the grass. Frightened hares fled from before the
oncoming lines.

Small groups of wounded again began to go by. They could be seen far
off, black specks on the straight white road dazzling in the sun.

Some Cuirassiers appeared to be billeted somewhere in the surroundings.
One or two passed by on foot, without helmets or breast-plates, their
chests covered with buff-coloured felt pads fitted with wadded rings
round the armholes. They were carrying large joints of fresh beef.
In the shade of three poplars to the right of the road, just outside
the village, some men were slaughtering cattle and selling the meat.
Near-by lay a dead horse.

Presently came the order:

"Reconnoitre!"

The battery was going into action. Once more I was unable to escape the
little shiver of fear which follows this word of command.

In the firing position the battery was only masked by a hedge of
brambles and some tangled shrubs, so that from several points of the
horizon we must have been visible to the enemy. The position was not a
good one, but it was the best the surroundings offered.

The officers had taken up their position near the first gun on a narrow
path cutting across the plain. The battlefield opened out wide before
us. But on the almost flat countryside which bore such an everyday
aspect, and upon which we nevertheless knew the destiny of France was
at stake, not a man, not a gun was to be seen. The thunder-ridden plain
seemed to lie motionless under the shells.

We had covered our guns with sheaves; yellow under the yellow straw
they might deceive at a distance. Besides, straw affords good
protection against shrapnel bullets and shell splinters.

We at once fell asleep in the sun with the apathy of pawns who let
themselves be moved, with that fatalism which is an inevitable result
of the life fraught with hourly danger we had been living for a month.

I was awakened by a word of command. Behind us the sun was sinking.

"To your guns!"

Something dark, artillery possibly, was moving yonder at the foot of
some wooded hills more than five thousand yards off. We opened fire. On
the right, on the left, and even in front of us ·75 batteries came into
action one by one. When our own guns were silent for a few seconds we
heard their volleys echoing in fours.

In the distance in front of us all had become still. The Captain
gave the word to cease fire. But the smoke from the powder and the
dust raised from the parched field by the concussion of the rounds
had hardly cleared away when some heavy shells hurtled through the
hedge masking us, leaving three gaping breaches in their wake and
obliterating with their smoke the whole of the eastern horizon.

"They must have seen the fire of our guns," said Bréjard.

"And they've got theirs trained to a T," added Hutin. "Six-inchers,
too!"

As ill-luck would have it, just at that moment a refilling wagon from
the first line, conducted by a corporal riding a big white mare, came
up at a trot.

While they were still some way off we shouted:

"Dismount!"

"Dismount! You'll get us killed!"

The drivers seemed not to hear.

"Dismount, you--! Walk!... Walk!..."

They had already unhooked the full ammunition-wagon, hooked the empty
one to the limber, and were off at a gallop in spite of our cries.

Shells were not long in arriving, their whistling modulated by the
wind. One second passed ... two ... three....

This fear of death--the death which falls slowly from the sky--was an
interminable torture. Everything trembled. The shells burst, and the
wind blew their smoke down upon us.

I heard a choking groan:

"Ah.... Ah.... Ah!..."

Our battery remained intact. The refilling wagon was still galloping
away in the distance. One of the numbers of the adjoining battery had
fallen forward in his death agony, and his forehead, pierced by a shell
splinter, was bathing the bottoms of the cartridge-cases with blood.

Hutin, still sitting on the layer's seat, suddenly cried out:

"Why, I can see the swine firing! I can see them ... long way off ...
down there, about ten thousand yards ... I saw the flash.... It's
coming ... it's coming ... look out!..."

Sure enough, we were shaken by fresh explosions. I shut my eyes
instinctively and felt my face lashed by the cast-up earth, but I was
not touched. The bottom of one of the cartridge-cases hummed loud and
long, and once again the battery was smothered in smoke. I heard the
clear voice of the Captain as he shouted to the senior N.C.O.:

"Daumain, get everybody under cover on the right! Major's orders. No
use getting killed as long as we aren't firing."

We called each other, got clear of the smoke and hurried out of the
line of fire of the Howitzers. But the enemy's shells pursued us over
the field as we ran, crouching down, in scattered order.

A projectile, the flash of which blinded me for a moment, knocked
down a sergeant of the 12th Battery, who was running by my side. The
man picked himself up immediately. Just above his eyes a couple of
splinters had drilled two horribly symmetrical red holes. He made off,
bending his head so that the blood should not run into his eyes. I
offered to help him, but he said:

"No, leave me.... Run! It's nothing, this ... skull isn't smashed to
bits!"

We took cover behind some large hayricks and waited for orders.

The roll was called:

"Eleventh?"

"Eleventh!"

"Hutin?"

"Here!"

"Not wounded?"

"No, and you?"

"No."

The four detachments were complete.

"And the Captain?"

"Still down there at the observation-post. Look ... you can see his
elbow sticking out behind that tree. He's all right!"

Two more volleys of shell burst close to our guns, which still appeared
to have escaped damage.

How long the night seemed in coming! How we cursed the sun which, its
blood-red disk almost touching the horizon, seemed as though it would
never sink down behind the mangel-wurzel field! It looked absolutely
motionless, stationary.

Hutin swore and shook his fist at the crimson sphere.

The Captain signalled for us to come up.

Behind the hayricks the cry was repeated: "To the guns!"

We thought we were going to fire, but found that other orders had
arrived.

"Limbers!"

A mist, rising from the hollows of the plain, blotted out distant
objects one by one. The far-off hills occupied by the Howitzer battery
were lost in a purple haze, but quite possibly we could still be seen
thence as we stood silhouetted against the clear western sky.

We limbered up and rolled off. The Howitzers kept silent.

The rifle-fire now began to grow fitful, and the guns were hushed in
their turn. A death-like stillness settled down on the plain, which,
as the sun sank, became illuminated by burning buildings, the flare of
which blazed ever more brightly as the night crept on.

The day of severe fighting which was just drawing to a close had
decided nothing. Each of the adversaries slept in his own positions.


  _Wednesday, September 9_

In a field near Sennevières, in position of readiness, we brewed our
coffee. The weather was very hot. This morning the battle had been slow
in opening, but now to the east and north-east the guns were roaring as
incessantly as yesterday.

Suddenly, about midday, the firing-line on our left opened out and
became slightly curved. We were occupying the extreme wing of the
French army, and were at once seized with misgivings. Was the enemy
outflanking us again?

We questioned the Captain, who was also intently observing the woods
which yesterday had been out of the enemy's range, and which were now
being heavily shelled.

"What does that mean, sir?"

"I don't know any more than you, I'm afraid. I only obey, you know....
I go where I am told to go.... That's all!"

But Déprez insisted:

"They're turning our left again!"

The Captain's finely chiselled face was puckered with anxiety.

"Well," said he, "they're certainly bombarding woods which they weren't
bombarding yesterday. But that at any rate proves that they haven't
reached them. On the contrary, perhaps they've been threatened on that
side by an enveloping movement of our troops.... Who knows?... Besides,
if they do outflank us we aren't alone here.... We'll face them!"

He gave us a searching look with his intelligent hazel eyes, and
repeated:

"We'll face them, won't we?"

"Of course we will, sir!"

Coffee was ready. The Captain pulled his aluminium cup out of his
pocket and dipped it into the black beverage smoking in the kettle. The
gunners stood round him, their drinking-tins in their hands, waiting
their turn, and when he had filled his cup helped themselves one after
the other. Conversation ceased, and the men sipped their coffee.

After a while the cook said:

"There's some more!"

"How much?" asked the Captain, anxious not to deprive any one.

"A good half-pint each."

The Captain helped himself and the men followed suit. Then, as there
still remained a little coffee mixed with grounds the operation was
repeated.

With that startling rapidity which we had observed each time we had
had to retire on the Meuse, the country became alive with lines of
infantry. Companies and battalions were emerging from the woods and
from behind the hedges, and overspread the stubble-fields, massing in
the hollows.

"Hallo! what does that mean?" asked Bréjard.

"Are those swine turning tail?" exclaimed Millon, crossing his arms.

The Captain anxiously observed the movements of the infantry.

"No," said he. "Those are reserve troops advancing towards the north in
order to face the enemy if he outflanks us."

Orders came for us to go and take up position between Sennevières and
Nanteuil-le-Haudoin.

There could be no doubt about it. The enemy was turning our lines.

We were seized with a fit of wild rage. Would they manage to pass us,
and get to Paris? To Paris ... to our homes ... to kill, sack, rape?...

"Ah," growled Hutin, "what wouldn't I give to murder some of those
savages!"

"Trot!" commanded the Captain.

Bending down over their horses' necks the drivers urged the teams
forward with voice, knees, whip, and spur.

The same gust of wind seemed to carry with it men, horses, and
guns--all this artillery let loose like a tide on the barren fields,
over whose furrows it billowed and surged.

We took up position with our guns pointing north-east. Behind us the
sun, already low in the western sky, lit up the railway-line and the
road from Nanteuil to Paris, flanked with tall trees.

Sections of infantry began to fall back.

"You see?" repeated Millon. "They can't stick it, the beasts! Haven't
they read the Army Order then?"

Suddenly, almost behind us, rifle-fire broke out. We had been
outflanked.

On the main road to Paris, and between the road and the railway, dense
masses of infantry were debouching from behind Nanteuil. We were
encircled by a huge hostile horseshoe, and it now seemed as if the only
means of retreat open to the 4th Army Corps was the narrow road running
south-east between Sennevières and Silly.

An officer wearing an aviator's cap arrived in a motor-car and hurried
up to the observation-post. Shortly afterwards the Major ordered us to
turn the guns right round.

At any moment we might be caught between two fires, for, to the
north-west of Nanteuil, on the hills commanding the road, there could
be no doubt that the enemy's artillery was taking up position in order
to support the infantry attack.

Our batteries opened fire.

The same wild frenzy immediately gained possession of men and guns. The
latter became roaring monsters--raging dragons, which from their gaping
mouths belched fire at the sun as it sank to rest in the soft summer
twilight. Piles of smoking cartridges-cases mounted up behind the guns.
In the stricken zone in front of us we could see men waver, turn tail,
run, and fall in heaps. From the heights above Nanteuil, from which our
guns could have been counted, came no answering roar of artillery.

For a long time the slaughter continued.

"Ah! _That_ lot will never get to Paris!"

Night fell. The infantry regiments began to retire in order down the
hollow of which we were occupying one of the slopes. Some mounted
Chasseurs passed by at a trot, followed by a whole brigade of
Cuirassiers. It was the retreat!

We were beaten!... beaten!...

The enemy was marching on Paris!

The sun was now but a red crescent on the horizon. The horsemen
advancing towards Silly disappeared in their own dust. We still
continued firing, lavishing shrapnel on the plain where men still moved
here and there.

"Cease firing!"

The gunners either had not heard, or did not want to hear.... Three
guns still barked. Shouting at the top of his voice the Major repeated
the command.

Perspiring and brick-red with heat the gunners sponged themselves
over and then, with folded arms, stood silently behind their guns,
contemplating the fields of which not one square inch had been spared.

We were expecting orders to retire in our turn, but eventually received
instructions to pass the night here. A battalion of infantry had been
sent to support us, and the men deployed in skirmishing order and took
up positions about two hundred yards from the park, which we had had to
form on the spot.

We heard that in front of us not a single French unit remained. We were
at the mercy of a cavalry night attack.


  _Thursday, September 10_

After yesterday's engagement we had expected a furious cannonade to
begin at dawn. But not a sound was heard. The sun illuminated the plain
and the slopes upon which we were waiting for the enemy in firing
position. Not a single gun was fired, and we began to grow surprised
and uneasy.

A Lieutenant-Colonel at the head of a passing column recognized the
Major and hailed him.

"Hallo! Solente!"

"Hallo!"

"How are you?"

"I'm all right, thanks."

"What's your Group doing there?"

"Guarding the Nanteuil road."

"Then you don't know what's happened?"

"No, what?"

"The enemy retired during the night."

"No!"

"Yes, it's quite true! We've got orders to advance.... The Germans are
retiring all along the line."

The two officers looked at each other and smiled.

"Then in that case...."

"It's victory!"

The news passed rapidly from gun to gun and nearly set the men dancing
with joy. Victory, victory! And just when we were not expecting it!

Towards midday we also received orders to advance.

At Nanteuil a slight recrudescence of life was noticeable. A grocer was
taking down the wooden shutters of his shop, and some of the windows
were thrown open as we went by. As at Dammartin I read on several of
the doors the notice: "_Gute Leute_."

The road we were following skirted the fields on which we repulsed the
enemy yesterday. We halted, doubtless waiting for fresh orders.

The surrounding country was motionless, but, between the Paris road and
the railway, grey-coated corpses lay among the mangel-wurzels as far
as the eye could reach. On the fringe of some large maize-fields six
Germans had fallen in a heap. The last to die had toppled backwards
on to the others, his stiffened legs pointing skywards. His neck was
doubled up under the weight of his body, and his chin touched his
chest. His eyes were wide open and his mouth twisted in a horrible
grimace of agony. With a single exception, nothing could be seen of the
other corpses under him save the shoulders, necks, and feet. But one of
them, who had not been killed outright and who lay half buried beneath
the rest, must have died hard. Scalped by a shell splinter he had tried
to rid himself of the ghastly burden crushing his back and legs, but
his strength had failed him. Propped up on one elbow, his mouth wide
open as though his last breath had been a shout, he had died stretching
a huge knotted fist towards the hills we had just left, whence death
had come to him.

His cheeks, already turning grey, had begun to fall in, and in the
stiffening features from which all semblance of life was rapidly
departing one already seemed to see the hollow-eyed, square-chinned,
grinning mask of Death.

A little farther on three Army Service Corps men were standing round
a Prussian lying on his back, his arms clasped as if in some awful
embrace. As one of them lifted his head in order to take off his helmet
a stream of black blood gushed from the dead man's mouth and covered
the soldier's hands.

"Pig!" growled he, and wiped his gory hands on the skirts of the
German's grey coat.

       *       *       *       *       *

Near-by a Sub-Lieutenant of Engineers was counting the corpses for
burial.

"So it's you gunners who have given me all this work! I've already
counted seventeen hundred, and I haven't finished yet! There'll be more
than two thousand."

As I returned, sick at heart, across the maize-fields I stumbled
against something soft. Suspecting a corpse I hastily jumped to one
side.

       *       *       *       *       *

Again we advanced, towards the north.

The roadside was strewn with Mausers, bayonets as short as butchers'
knives, cartridge-pouches, helmets, cowhide-packs, wallets, saddles,
dead horses....

On the evening of the Battle of Virton the Ruettes road had borne
a similar appearance. Upon that occasion I had dejectedly said to
myself: "This is a French defeat," and now I was equally astonished to
realize that I had taken part in a victory, of which these remains were
the proofs, a victory which had snatched Paris from the jaws of the
Germans, saved France, and which conceivably might open a new era for
us all. In sight of this Calvary of the German army we told ourselves
that the enemy would evacuate France as quickly as he had entered it.

Across one of the broad, flat fields ran a yellow line of freshly
turned earth, staked out with rifles planted butt-end upwards. Hundreds
of men--thousands perhaps--had been buried there side by side, and
the air was tainted with all the pestilential odours of decomposition
which escaped through the cracks and fissures in the sun-baked soil.
On approaching one of the scattered clumps of trees under which
other corpses had been buried, the same sickening smell assailed our
nostrils. Despite ourselves we kept sniffing the air with an uneasiness
like that shown by dogs when they are said to scent death.

Farther down the road we came upon a party of sappers busily plying
pick and shovel. At the bottom of a hole they had just finished digging
lay a brown crupper marked "Uh. 3" (3rd Uhlans), and on the ploughed
land at the edge of the ditch lay a dead horse covered with clayey
earth. Worms were swarming in the putrid blood surrounding him.

One of the sappers, who was covering up the carrion with large
spadefuls of earth, looked up.

"Phew! he smells bad, doesn't he?" he said. "Nasty job, this! I shan't
apply for undertakers' work when I've finished soldiering! And horses
smell worse than men. We shall end by getting the plague!"

"When I started to drag him," said another, "his hoof came off in my
hand."

And he pointed with his foot to an iron-shod hoof lying on the ground
like a stone.

Close by, in a newly harrowed field, undisturbed save for the
hoof-prints of a couple of horses which had galloped across it, lay two
lances, one of them broken, a light cavalry sword, a Uhlan's helmet,
and a water-bottle.

       *       *       *       *       *

The weather gradually became foggy. The fields, monotonous and drab
under the grey sky, and littered at intervals with uniforms, arms, and
corpses, imbued us with a sadness which bordered on fear. We had to
keep repeating to ourselves "Victory, victory!" in order once again
to feel the joy--which nevertheless was so deep--of knowing that the
Country was saved.


  _Saturday, September 12_

For two days it has rained incessantly, and we have advanced about
twenty-two miles under the downpour. The enemy is still retiring,
his retreat covered by a few Howitzers which appear to be short of
ammunition. Each hour that passes confirms our victory, and we should
be in excellent spirits were it not raining so heavily.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Captain has sent me to pass a few days with the first line of
wagons, partly on account of persistent diarrhoea, which was weakening
me considerably, and partly owing to a rather serious cut in the wrist.
Life in my new billet is far less strenuous; one's rations are better
cooked, and one gets plenty of sleep.

While our batteries keep up a lively bombardment on the rear of the
German columns in retreat, the first lines of wagons are installed in
a wide ravine cut right across the plateau as if by giant swordstroke.
It almost seems as if the rain converged in this hollow from all points
of the compass. Shells fall also, but they bury themselves without
bursting in the marsh near-by, raising geysers of mud.

       *       *       *       *       *

To-day the N.C.O. of the 6th gun, to which I am temporarily attached,
called the men round him:

"_Les poilus!_"[2]

"Here we are!" answered a voluntarily re-enlisted man who was already
grey about the temples. "Hairies without a dry hair on our bodies!"

"Listen to this!"

And the N.C.O. in a hoarse voice began to read an order of the day:

    "_For five days, without interruption or respite, the 6th Army has
    been engaged in combat with a foe strong in numbers, whose morale
    has hitherto been exalted by success. The struggle has been a hard
    one, and the loss of life due to gun-fire, and the exhaustion
    caused by want of sleep and sometimes food, have exceeded all that
    could have been imagined. The courage, fortitude, and endurance
    with which you have borne all these hardships cannot be adequately
    extolled in words.

    "Comrades, the G.O.C. has asked you, in the name of your Country,
    to do more than your duty; you have responded even more heroically
    than seemed possible. Thanks to you, victory has now crowned our
    arms, and now that you know the satisfaction of success you will
    never let it escape you.

    "For my part, if I have done anything worthy of merit, I have been
    rewarded by the greatest honour which in a long career has fallen
    to my lot--that of commanding men such as you.

    "From my heart I thank you for what you have done, for to you I owe
    that which has been the aim of all my efforts and all my energy for
    the last forty-four years--the Revenge for 1870.

    "All honour and thanks to you and to all combatants of the 6th Army.

    "Claye (Seine-et-Marne) 10th September 1914.

  "Signed: Joffre.

    "Countersigned: Manoury."_

       *       *       *       *       *

"Hear, hear!" cried some one.

"I say, sergeant," shouted the old soldier who had spoken before, "as
the General is pleased with us, can't you get them to ask him to turn
off some of this water?"

       *       *       *       *       *

We started off again. The country through which we had been marching
since dawn, with halts of one and sometimes two hours during which the
guns went into action, seemed, at the first glance, an endless and
almost deserted plain. The beetroot-and corn-fields where the crops,
often in sheaves, had now rotted, seemed to succeed each other without
interruption from one side of the horizon to the other under the
lowering, cheerless sky, from which the cold rain poured relentlessly
down. But suddenly, in the middle of the flat and barren country,
there opened a dale whose existence one would never have suspected,
well wooded and so deep that even the church steeple of the village
nestling in its lap was hidden from view.

Under the stinging rain the teams walked on with heads held low and
twitching ears, their coats shining like oil-skin. By this time many of
our horses were only kept on their legs as if by a miracle. The foul
weather had put the final touch to their ruin, and we had to abandon
three of them, one after the other. They keep going until they reach
the extreme limit of their strength, and then suddenly they stumble
and stop dead; after that no power on earth will make them advance
another inch. They have to be taken out of the traces, unharnessed, and
abandoned where they stand. They remain in the same place until they
die.

The men were apathetic and taciturn under their black cloaks. Water
ran down our backs and made us shiver. Many of the drivers had turned
their képis round so that the peaks protected their necks. Their faces,
wincing under the sting of the lashing rain, were half hidden in their
upturned collars. Our shirts clave to our shoulders and our trousers to
our knees. The soaking garments absorbed the warmth of the body, and
we experienced the horrible sensation of gradually becoming chilled to
the marrow. It seemed as if life was slowly ebbing from our limbs and
as if we were dying by inches.

We passed a group of miserable, saturated foot-soldiers, from the
skirts of whose coats the rain ran in streams. Some of them had thrown
sacks full of straw over their shoulders. One man was sheltering his
head and back underneath a woman's skirt, and others under capes,
neckerchiefs, and flowery-patterned bed-curtains.

The road was a river of liquid clay upon which neither the men's boots,
horseshoes, nor the tyres of the wheels left a trace.

As night approached the grey vault of the sky seemed to sink still
lower, drawing in the horizon over the fields, and almost to touch the
earth itself. A dense fog first surrounded and then smothered us. We
could not have told upon which side the sun was setting; the west was
as opaque as the east. The yellow, diffused light gradually became
weaker. Here and there by the wayside we could still distinguish the
dark forms of dead horses. Night fell. The rain was trickling down my
back as far as my loins. I was very cold and now felt more acutely than
ever that indescribable sensation as if my life's blood was being
slowly sucked from my veins. The battery lumbered on and on....

It was perhaps ten o'clock when we finally halted on the outskirts of
a village and ranged up our carriages by the side of the road. We had
to wait there some time, sitting motionless on the limbers and becoming
more frozen every minute. Our teeth chattered with cold. The delay was
probably caused by a cross-roads, a block in the transport traffic, a
passing convoy, or some other obstacle; in any case we could not move
on. I began to wonder whether we should have to pass the whole night in
the rain....

Eventually we reached a field in which we bivouacked, stretching the
lines between the carriages. The hurricane lamps formed large yellow
points in the opaque darkness, piercing the night without lighting
anything. There was no sound save the squelching of dragging footsteps
as the exhausted men and horses moved about in the mud.

The sergeant-major summoned the corporals for the issue of rations. But
the distribution between the guns had not been finished and the men
immediately went away again, preferring to wait until the next day to
get their rations. The sergeant-major shouted after them, declaring
that if there should be an alarm they would risk going for a whole day
without food. He was perfectly right, but no one listened to him.

The darkness was so intense that it was difficult to follow the road,
and in order to keep together the men kept shouting:

"Eleventh!... This way.... Eleventh!..."

Convoys passed by, splashing us with mud. A wheel just grazed me.
After a long march the only shelter we could find was some rickety old
barns, open to the four winds of heaven, in which a thin sprinkling
of straw hardly separated us from the beaten-down earth. Here the
battery, silent, soaked to the skin and smelling like wet animals, sank
shivering into a troubled sleep, continually interrupted by the cries
of men dreaming.


  _Sunday, September 13_

This morning the sun was shining. Clouds were still banked up to the
west, but the blue, which cheered us up wonderfully, eventually spread
over the whole sky. We continued our march forward.

The enemy's Howitzers were still bombarding the country round us, but
spasmodically and at haphazard. The Germans were being hotly pursued;
in the villages we learned that less than two hours previously
stragglers were still passing through. It seems that yesterday the
enemy's retreat almost became a rout. Disbanded infantrymen without
arms, gunners, dismounted horsemen--all fled pell-mell, pursued by the
fire of our ·75's and harassed by our advanced guard.

At Vic-sur-Aisne, while waiting till the pontoon bridge should be
clear, I entered a pretty little house, the doors and windows of
which had been left wide open by the Germans on their departure. The
wardrobes and chests of drawers had all been broken into and pillaged.
Women's chemises and drawers together with other underlinen were
trailing down the staircase. A meal was served on the dining-room
table, but the overturned chairs bore witness to the precipitation
with which the guests had fled. I was hungry and sat down without
hesitation. The food was good although cold.

The leading carriages of the column had already begun to cross the
bridge before I learned that the luncheon I had just eaten had been
prepared for the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, but had been
interrupted by the arrival of the French advanced guard.

We crossed the Aisne without difficulty. How came it that the enemy was
allowing us to cross the river? The thought of a trap, such as that
we laid for the Germans when they crossed the Meuse, made me a little
uneasy.

Near Attichy our batteries went off to take up position, while the
first lines of wagons halted on a winding road leading to the plateau
through some extremely dense woods, all damp and odorous after the
rains of yesterday. In a little quarry of white stone yawning on one
side of the road in the full glare of the sun, I lay down with a few
comrades in some tall ferns. I was nearly asleep when, suddenly, the
noise of a bursting shell, which had just fallen close by, spread in
vibrant waves through the trees, of which every leaf seemed to rustle.

At the entrance to the quarry appeared a gunner staggering from side to
side, his face deathly pale. He grasped his right elbow with his left
hand and let himself fall among the bracken.

"Oh!" he murmured, "I'm hit!"

"Where?"

With a slight movement of the head he indicated his elbow, which was
cut open and bleeding. And, suddenly, from the road which at this point
made two successive bends and then plunged beneath a dark vault of big
beech-trees, came a confused sound of groans, cries, and stamping.

A driver hurried up without his képi, his face streaming with blood.

"Come quickly ... it's fallen down there ... it's fallen on the road!
Everything's all messed up, the horses are on top.... Oh, my God!...

"Are you wounded?"

"No ... where?"

"Your cheek...."

"Oh, that's nothing--it's a horse, my off-horse.... Come on!"

More shells whistled overhead. We started to run. Suddenly, at the bend
of the road I stopped dead, breathless, paralysed by a ghastly sight.

Under the sun, which, breaking through the branches, marbled the white
road, lay a shapeless mass of mangled men and horses. The entire teams
of the forge and store wagon were welded together in a writhing heap of
bleeding flesh. Men were struggling underneath. In the middle of the
road lay two gunners, face downwards; others were dragging themselves
about on their hands among the fallen saddle-horses. Wounded were
moving in the ditches.

From this shambles rose long-drawn-out groans similar to the harrowing
cries made by certain animals at night, a muffled and interminable
"Aaah!... aaah!" rising and falling like some savage song. Blood was
running in streams in the gutters on each side of the way. A nauseating
stale stench, like that of a slaughter-house, a sort of warmth, an
odour of steaming flesh and flowing blood, a smell of horses, entrails,
and animal gasses gripped our throats and turned our stomachs.

One man, who lay buried beneath the team of the forge, had succeeded in
passing his arm through a mass of tangled intestines, but the viscera
had gripped his wrist in a tenacious grasp. He shook them furiously,
scattering jets of blood in all directions. Round him the horses lay
writhing in their death agony, breaking wind, dunging, staling, and
scraping the ground with their stiffening limbs, their shoes grating
stridently on the flints. In their death-throes they strained at the
traces and one heard a noise of cracking chains. The vehicle to which
they were harnessed advanced a few inches, and then rolled back.

Near-by lay a dead foot-soldier, his whole chest one gaping wound. In
his wide-open blue eyes was a fixed expression of horror that went to
my heart like a knife. An artilleryman, his stomach ripped open, had
been pinned to the road in an almost erect posture by a wounded horse
which, bleeding at the nostrils, had fallen across his feet.

Whenever the groaning and wailing stopped for a second one heard the
noise of the blood as it burbled and trickled stream by stream and drop
by drop, and the gurgle of the intestines which lay in an entangled
pink and white mass on the road.

I ran to help the man buried under the forge team. His face was red
all over, and horribly convulsed, his hair and beard glued with blood,
and his white eyeballs rolling like those of one asphyxiated. A horse
in its agony was threatening to kill a gunner wounded in the loins who
was dragging himself along on his hands, so I quickly killed the animal
with a revolver shot. It was only then that I perceived, stretched out
between two horses, my friend M----, very pale, with closed eyes. I ran
up and put my arm round him in order to lift him up.... All my blood
suddenly ceased to flow, my heart stopped beating.... My arm had sunk
up to the elbow in an enormous wound in my friend's back....

I stood up. For an instant the ghastly scene turned round and round....
I thought that I should faint with horror. I put my hand--dripping
with blood--to my forehead.... I daubed my face with gore. In order not
to fall I had to lean up against the wheel of the forge.

A hospital orderly had succeeded in extricating a couple of untouched
stretchers from the ambulance, which had also been shattered by the
shell. On one side of the road the Medical Officer, still much upset,
himself slightly wounded by the explosion, was occupied with some
first-aid dressing. Three of us hoisted on to one of the stretchers a
big, fair-haired gunner with a Gaulois moustache, whose foot, almost
completely severed from the leg, dangled in the air, and who was
yelling with pain. We remembered that there was a dressing-station at
the foot of the hill on the fringe of the woods.

We started off, bending our knees in order to jolt the stretcher as
little as possible, but we continually had to step over the scattered
limbs of horses and pick our way between corpses so disfigured as to be
unrecognizable.

A wounded man clasped my leg as we passed, lifting up a deathly face
which the blood, running from his ear, had surrounded with a gory
collar. His eyes implored us to stop, and in a low voice of profound
supplication he murmured:

"For God's sake don't leave me here!"

But we could not carry two men at a time. I bent down a little:

"The others will be along in a minute or two with the other stretcher.
They'll take you. Come, now, let go of my foot!..."

We left the shambles and began to breathe again....

The closely meshed cloth of the stretcher retained the blood of the
wounded man, whose foot swam in a red pool. He was suffering horribly
and twisted his arms together, groaning:

"Oh, my foot!... You're shaking me.... Oh, how you're shaking me!"

And then:

"For God's sake walk slowly!"

In spite of all our efforts we could not avoid the shaking which caused
him so much pain, and he continued to murmur, his voice getting fainter
and fainter:

"Walk, walk ... slowly!..."

His lips silently repeated "walk" until a fresh jolt made him cry out.

In front of the field-hospital some medical officers had improvised an
operating-table in a shady part of the road. The wounded were laid out
in rows on the edge of the ditch. A fat doctor with four stripes on
his arm ran hither and thither, shouting.

Carried on stretchers or limping on foot, either alone or with the aid
of their comrades, the wounded arrived. One man's chin was no more than
a bloody jelly; one of his eyes was shut and the other wide open.

The veterinary surgeon's horse, shot through by a shell splinter,
had followed the wounded as far as the ambulance, but as soon as he
stopped he sank to his knees by the side of the road. The eyes of the
animal were full of a suffering almost human, and as he turned his head
towards me I fired my revolver in his ear. With a dull, heavy thud like
that of an axe as it sinks deep in a tree-trunk, the animal fell on
his flank, and from the top of the slope skirting the road rolled over
twice into the field below.

We had at once to return to the scene of slaughter, where we were badly
needed. As soon as I left the fresh air and sunshine and re-entered
the woods I felt almost paralysed by the thought of what I was going
to see, and the shadows of the trees, growing darker as the daylight
waned, helped to intensify my fear.

"Come on!..."

Two saddle-horses with bleeding wounds were walking away from the
shambles by instinct. With faltering steps they slowly descended the
road towards the sun. The dead horses had been unharnessed and dragged
to one side of the way, but two artillerymen had been left lying in the
middle of the road, and some one, either out of force of habit or out
of pity for the dead, had broken two branches off one of the beeches
and had covered their faces with leaves.

In the gutters the rivers of blood had become congealed. The hot, fetid
smell, imprisoned under the vault of the trees, still floated in the
air, more nauseating and terrifying than ever. The efforts the men
had made in order to unharness the horses and clear the roadway had
caused the intestines to split and break, and they now trailed about
everywhere, covered with dust, separated by several yards from the
gaping, empty bodies from which they had been torn.

Two prisoners, tall men whose height was increased by their long
grey cloaks and pointed helmets, came down from the plateau. The
foot-soldiers accompanying them, fearing that this spectacle of death
might cause their enemies too keen a delight, had blindfolded them,
and led them by the hand in and out the corpses. But the Germans had
recognized the smell of blood. A line of uneasiness barred their
foreheads and they continually sniffed the tainted air.


  _Monday, September 14_

At Attichy we spent the night in some splendid, well-closed barns
in which the hay lay deep, but our rest was disturbed by horrible
nightmares. I dreamt that I was rolling among mutilated corpses in
rivers of blood. When I awoke it was raining.

A countryman with a drooping white moustache brought us some beer
and wine in buckets. He lived in an isolated house easily visible
from our barn, in a copse on the side of the hill. During the German
occupation he had left his house as being too solitary and had taken
up his quarters in the village. When the enemy took their departure
the day before yesterday he had returned to his house accompanied by a
foot-soldier. He was going on ahead when through the broken-in front
door he saw, in the hall, a helmeted German in the act of aiming at
him. He jumped to one side, exposing the French soldier behind him,
whereupon the German at once dropped his rifle and threw up his hands.
The two Frenchmen seized him and, sitting him down on a chair in the
kitchen, shot him through the head. There they left him, still sitting,
his head on his breast and the blood dripping from his forehead
between his knees on to the tiled floor, and went off to reconnoitre
the surroundings of the house and the garden. They could discover
nothing suspicious, but when they returned to the kitchen they found it
empty. Nothing remained of the German save a pool of blood in front of
the chair. But near the door and on the stairs were red stains and they
heard groans coming from the garret.

We asked the peasant:

"Well, what did you do with your Boche?"

"Oh, he's still in my garret," he answered placidly.

"But you must get him out of that. He'll soon begin to smell!"

"Yes, I'm going to dig a hole for him to-night near the dung-heap."

And, as I ventured to say that instead of killing the man treacherously
they might have taken him prisoner, seeing that he had surrendered:

"Why?" asked the peasant. "Wouldn't he have killed me if I'd been all
alone? And yet I'm a civilian!"

"No!" he added, "we shall never kill enough of those swine!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The wind had risen and the rain ceased. Our Group advanced along the
Compiègne road, which runs by the side of the river. But we had hardly
gone a mile when the word was given to halt. We prepared to make our
soup, but there was no water, and I searched in vain for a spring or
well. Finally we decided to draw water from the Aisne. On the opposite
bank a dead German was lying among the rushes, half his body submerged
in the stream. Well, we would boil the water, that was all! One must
eat!

As night fell a horseman arrived with orders. We set off at a trot.

Under the lee of a high wall some Spahis were resting, their burnous
making red patches in the dusk. Near them their little horses stood
motionless under their complicated harness. Against an apple-tree
leaned an Arab with magnificently cut features, as regular as those
of a statue. Under the purple, woollen hood his brown face bore an
expression of that resigned melancholy, at once so pitiful and so
noble, in which men of his race always languish when far from the
desert. His large, apathetic black eyes, which seemed fixed upon
something in the distance, had a mystic look in them. He appeared to
feel cold. The gunners greeted him smiling:

"Hallo! old Sidi!"

But the Arab, without moving, only replied with a condescending blink
of his eyes.

The batteries took up position, the first line of wagons halting behind
a screen of acacias. The silence of the night was hardly broken by a
confused murmur of the far-off battle when suddenly, as if at a given
signal, more than forty French field-guns, almost in unison, fired a
terrific volley across the plateau.

The vivid flashes from the muzzles cleft the twilight like red
lightning. The air continued to vibrate. It was as though the
atmosphere were filled with huge sound-waves dashing and splitting one
against the other like the waves of the ocean in a storm. The earth
quivered in response to the twanging air. Gradually the night became
darker.

Our batteries were certainly firing at registered aiming-points. The
enemy only replied now and again, and then at haphazard.

Suddenly a rumour began to circulate:

"The Germans are entraining! That station is being bombarded!..."

"Oh, well, I shouldn't prevent 'em taking their tickets," said an
imperturbable-looking reservist. "I shouldn't interfere with 'em. Let
them clear out and let us go back home. I've a wife and two kiddies.
It's no joke, war!..."

It was pitch-dark when the guns, one by one, gradually became silent.
In a few moments there was complete stillness, a stillness almost
surprising, almost disturbing after the deafening cannonade.

We rejoined the batteries. Noiselessly, one behind the other, the
carriages plunged like phantoms into the darkness, the soft field,
as it yielded under the wheels, giving a strange impression of
cotton-wool. The nocturnal clarity, diffused and as if floating, did
not enable us to see what kind of field it was which the long column
was crossing without a jolt or jangle, with only an occasional creaking
of badly oiled wheels.

The whole countryside smelt of death, and this was not due to
imagination. Far off a burning building stood out like a fixed point of
light. The massive trees of a neighbouring park filled us with nameless
fears.

The wheel of the limber passed over something soft and elastic which
yielded under the weight. I felt sure that it was a dead man, and
looked behind me fearfully. But I could see nothing.

We halted on the outskirts of a village called Tracy-le-Mont, where the
supply-train was waiting for us. Rations were issued, the men in their
cloaks standing in a black circle round the provision wagon, which was
lit by a solitary lantern. Hutin and Déprez were among them. Somebody
was calling out the guns:

"Third!... Fourth!..."

"First!" cried Hutin.

"You've missed your turn. You'll have to come last now."

We talked while waiting. Hutin was very tired and hungry.

"There's some good grub going," said he. "We're going to get some fresh
meat."

"Yes, but fires will be forbidden."

"I suppose you haven't seen the postmaster?" he asked suddenly.

"No, why?"

"Because in the first line you see him more often than we do."

"Well, I've begun to doubt whether there is such a person."

"It's true.... The brute never turns up! Confound it all! If only we
got letters sometimes the time would pass quicker. The last I had was
simply to say that they hadn't any news of me. It does seem hard!"

"First gun!"

"At last," said Hutin. "Good-bye, old chap! I'm off to get my grub.
Try to get back to us soon."


  _Tuesday, September 15_

It was splendid weather when we awoke. During the night it had rained
a little, but we had surrounded our guns with armfuls of hay gathered
from some large ricks near-by. I slept under the ammunition wagon,
which sheltered me as far as the knees, and I had covered my feet with
a couple of sheaves. The ground was not very damp and I slept well in
spite of the shower.

With the dawn the sky cleared. The air was soft and warm, and the tall
trees in their infinite variety of green shades stood out in clear-cut
silhouettes against the pale blue of the sky. The grass, although cut
short, now that the summer was ending, had regained some of its lost
freshness.

Here and there in the fields dark heaps arrested the eye. These were
the bodies of fallen Germans. Once one has seen three or four one
instinctively searches for them everywhere, and a forgotten wheat-sheaf
in the distance looks like a corpse.

We started, the wheels of the leading carriages tracing a well-marked
track across the fields. On one side lay a dead German. The vehicles
had brushed by him as they passed and would have crushed his feet had
the drivers not seen him in time. His face was still waxen in colour,
and the eye-sockets alone had begun to turn green. The solemn, regular
features were not lacking in a certain virile beauty.

The man sitting next me on the wagon looked long at the dead man's face
as if trying to catch his last expression.

"Poor devil!" said he, shrugging his shoulders.

A little moved myself, I echoed:

"Yes, poor devil!"

But the wheel-driver, who had left a wife and children behind him, and
was wondering how they fared, turned in his saddle:

"Dirty pig!" he growled.

       *       *       *       *       *

This morning the battle started early and with unusual violence on a
front which appeared to stretch from east to west. As far as one could
see the sky was fleecy with shell smoke.

"There!... And they said the Germans were going--were entraining! Do
you see them over there?... Brutes!"

"Yes. They were detraining!"

The men bitterly cursed their erstwhile credulity. Nevertheless I
knew that this evening they would be ready to believe the news that
the Russians had reached Berlin, provided that it was sufficiently
vigorously affirmed.

We learned the truth from some passing foot-soldiers. The Germans had
entrenched themselves strongly on the wooded hills and in the quarries.
The pursuit was held up, and a new battle was about to begin.

I asked a sergeant:

"But those aren't the Germans we were on the heels of yesterday and the
day before, are they?"

"No," he answered, "these must be troops which were behind them in
Belgium."

The first line, installed in a narrow valley, replenished every
half-hour the battery which, in position near a large farm, was
emptying wagonful after wagonful of shells. The German artillery swept
the plain, and some six-inch Howitzers, whose objective seemed to be
the bend of a neighbouring road, aiming too high, threatened to catch
us in enfilading fire at any moment. On the other hand, one of their
77 mm. batteries had opened fire on a wood commanding the other end
of the valley. There could be no thought of trying to get out of this
uncomfortable position by way of the plain. The enemy would see us
and his Howitzers would reach us with ease. The officer in charge of
the train, Lieutenant Boutroux, was perplexed. Finally he decided to
face the 77 mm. guns, and we began to work round the edge of the wood,
shrapnel shell bursting over our heads. Soon the valley curved inwards.
The danger zone was passed. Unscathed, and keeping well screened from
the enemy, we took up a fresh position in another gully almost exactly
similar to that we had just left.

We lacked water, and in order to find it had to follow a path leading
across the field to some barns, from the roofs of which pipes ran down
into a couple of water-tanks. A ladder was propped up against one of
the latter, and I climbed up out of curiosity. The metal plating of
the inside was covered with rust, and out of the turbid water, which
was slowly sinking, emerged an old boot, a felt cap, and all sorts of
shapeless objects of cloth or metal, coated with green slime. We had
nevertheless to content ourselves with this water!...

       *       *       *       *       *

The sound of the battle was indicative of no decision; it neither
approached nor became fainter. The wounded who passed told us that
since the morning the infantry had been continually launched against
the strong entrenchments without being able to break through them. The
gun-fire did not slacken until nightfall.

We rejoined the batteries, cutting across the plain now hidden from
the enemy by the falling darkness. Somewhere a machine-gun was still
crackling. A thin rain was floating in the air and we rapidly became
wet through. We had to lie in the open among the mangel-wurzels, and
the horses were not taken out of the vehicles.

It was almost impossible to sleep. The moment we lay still we began to
shiver and our teeth chattered. I had a vague fear that the cold, which
ran down my spine in long shudders, might kill me unawares if I went to
sleep.

My feet resting on the wheel, I curled up on the top of the ammunition
wagon, preferring the icy contact of the steel to the dampness of the
ground. The rain began to fall more heavily.


  _Wednesday, September 16_

Quite early this morning the dull, far-off thud of a Howitzer echoed
and re-echoed, and immediately afterwards, as if fired by a train of
powder, all the guns on the plateau began to roar.

Astruc came up:

"Lord!" said he, "I had a funny experience last night! Just think ...
the others had bagged all the places under the wagons, and, as I was
looking about, I saw a great big chap, at least six feet long, covered
over with a blanket in the middle of the field. 'Well,' said I to
myself, 'if there's room for one there's room for two,' and I lifted up
the blanket and snuggled in beside him. But as I went to sleep I pulled
it little by little to my side. Suddenly the long 'un sits up, wide
awake, and starts shaking me!... At first I said nothing--pretended
to be asleep. I was so tired! But he went on shaking me, and then
he shouted: 'What the blazes do you think you're doing?' Finally I
grunted, 'All right! No need to make such a row....' And then I rubbed
my eyes, and got up.... Do you know who it was?... It was the Major!
I'd pulled his blanket off him! I didn't lose my head. I told him that
I felt awfully ill--fit to die--and that there wasn't any more room
underneath the wagon.... Then he muttered something, I don't know what,
and settled down again. I didn't hesitate an instant, but lay down
beside him. Then he said: 'Well, for God's sake don't take all the
blanket, at any rate!'"

The battery went off to take up position, and the first line of wagons
returned to the gully where we sheltered yesterday.

My wrist was hurting me. In spite of the dressing the wound had been
poisoned by the blood of the wounded and dead at Attichy.

       *       *       *       *       *

The postmaster arrived with a sackful of letters.

"At home they seem to think the war will last until New Year," said
somebody.

"But the Russians?"

"Oh! the Russians...."

"Well, let's see ... October, November, December.... That makes another
three months and a half.... Why, we shall all be dead of exposure
before then!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Hardly five hundred yards away from our park some big farm buildings
suddenly burst into flames, the walls surrounding the yard showing up
on the bare fields like a massive square of luminous masonry. The smoke
at first rose in heavy, dark spirals pierced here and there by yellow
flashes and then shot straight up into the clear sky in a tall column.

We knew that there were sheep in the farm. The bombardment had ceased,
and I decided to save one or two of the animals in order to supplement
our ordinary rations. Two gunners of the 12th Battery, the carriages of
which were lined up close to ours, had the same idea.

We set out for the farm as rapidly as possible. The field we had to
cross had been ploughed up yesterday by the German Howitzers. The enemy
doubtless thought that infantry lay concealed behind the buildings,
and the whole day long his heavy guns had vainly mown down the
mangel-wurzels.

"They've gone to work as though they wanted to plant trees in fives,"
remarked one of my companions. And he added:

"And they've done the job jolly well! I know something about it, for
I'm a gardener."

On the edge of a shell crater two gendarmes lay stretched side by side
among the scattered clods of earth. One of them, a big, red-haired
man, had a great gaping wound in his chest, and his right arm, doubled
up in a strange posture, looked as if it had two elbows. The body of
the other, a grey-headed corporal, seemed untouched, but in one of his
eye-sockets there was nothing but a clot of blood, and the eye itself
was hanging on his temple at the end of a white tendon.

"Poor old chap!" said the gardener.

He leaned over the corpse with its ghastly, one-eyed face staring at
the sky, and reverently covered it with the silver-badged cap which
had fallen near the dead man's side.

       *       *       *       *       *

Behind one of the blue-slated roofs, which was still intact, lively
flames were now breaking out but were immediately stifled by the clouds
of smoke. A magnificent cone-shaped fir-tree, of funereal aspect,
mounted guard over the fire like a solitary sentry.

We approached the building. Near the wall of the yard were lying two
gunners and a couple of horses. They had just been killed, and the
blood on the ground was still red. I recognized one of the men as the
orderly of one of our officers. The other had fallen face downwards,
his arms crossed under him.

A shell had bored a great hole in the yard. Three ducks, despite the
heat of the flames, were dabbling about in a little green pond near a
square-shaped dunghill. Another, the head of which had been cut off by
a shell splinter, was lying on its side at the edge of the water.

Against the background formed by the great dark curtain of smoke, which
from where we were standing hid half the sky, the skeleton of a barn
stood out like a fascinating framework of molten metal. Long flames
darted out from the doorway and licked a plough and a harrow which had
been abandoned there. Above the hay-shoot a pulley-wheel for hoisting
fodder, mounted in a recess in the front of the building, was red-hot.
The roar of the guns was no longer audible, being drowned by the
crackling of the fire and the sharp hiss of the sparks as they fell in
the pond. One of the ducks, stung by a glowing splinter, was shaking
her feathers.

"We're none too soon," said the gardener. "The mutton will be half
cooked already."

The sheepfold was only separated from the shed, which was now alight,
by a bake-house, and was already full of smoke, through which the
woolly backs of the animals loomed like even denser clouds. The
door was open, but the stupid beasts had not fled, and had crowded
together against the end wall under the window communicating with
the bake-house, through which came the smoke which was gradually
asphyxiating them. Huddling together they pushed forward as though
trying to break down the wall with their foreheads.

"Come on," said the gardener. "You, Lintier, stand there ... at the
door. That's how we'll work it. We'll both of us rush in and each pull
out one of them, and you put a bullet through them as they come out.
Understand?"

"All right!"

I had a glimpse of the shadowy forms of the two men dodging about in
the smoke. Then I heard the scraping of hard hoofs on the ground and
one of the gunners reappeared grasping with both hands the tail of a
fat sheep which he pulled out backwards. I killed the animal on the
threshold, and immediately afterwards a second. The gardener went in
again to fetch a third.

I replaced my revolver in the holster, and each of us hoisted a sheep
on to our shoulders. They encircled our necks like heavy furs, which we
kept in place by grasping the pointed feet bunched together in front
two by two. From their heads, hanging down behind, blood dripped down
our backs. We started off across the mangel-wurzel field.

Suddenly the gardener cried out:

"Listen!"

We stopped.

"Down!"

"We're seen!"

We heard the scream of heavy shell approaching, and at once threw
ourselves flat on the ground behind the sheep, which formed a sort of
rampart. Down came the shells between us and the farm. We jumped up,
and, in spite of our heavy burdens, ran till we were out of the line
of fire. We passed the dead gendarmes and did not stop until we had
reached a row of poplars which hid us from view. Three projectiles
swooped down on the spot we had just left.

Winding our way through the copses and hollows of the plateau we
regained the park in safety.

I resumed my seat on a bundle of wood near the fire, while a gunner,
who was a butcher by trade, methodically cut up one of the sheep strung
up by the foot to the store wagon.

As I led the horses down to drink at the tanks I took a short cut
across the fields in the hope of finding some potatoes, beetroot, or
perhaps some onions. We were specially in need of onions, for some of
our food was most insipid and we knew of no other flavouring.

I found neither onions nor potatoes, but, on the other side of a knoll,
I saw some foot-soldiers stretched out on the loose sheaves of wheat.
Their red breeches were visible a long way off. Evidently some of those
who had fallen in the engagements of the 12th.

In a hollow a little farther on I also came upon some German corpses.
Thirteen Frenchmen and seventeen Germans had fallen there, almost side
by side. And yet the Frenchmen seemed more numerous. Red patches on the
yellow of the stubble-field, they caught the eye, whereas the Germans
were hardly noticeable.

The arms and packs of the dead men had been taken away, and coats,
tunics, and shirts had been unbuttoned so that the medals could be
unpinned. Their necks, bared chests, and eyelids had already turned a
greenish-grey. A little sergeant, who had fallen backwards on to some
sheaves which now pillowed his head, still held his right arm starkly
in the air. The stiffened fingers of his outstretched hand seemed
clasped in a grip of agony. On his sleeve the gold bar shone in the sun.

As I passed on, some swallows, whose low flight announced rain, skimmed
over the knoll, their pointed wings lightly touching the dead men.


  _Thursday, September 17_

Our line of wagons still remains in the same hollow, nor has the
battery changed position. Although during the last two days it has
fired more than five hundred shells the enemy has not been able to
discover its whereabouts.

Fighting continued, growing ever more violent in character, near
Tracy-le-Mont, Tracy-le-Val, Carlepont in front of us, Compiègne on the
west, and on the east, parallel to the Aisne, towards Soissons.

We neither advanced nor retired, and that was all we knew of the
engagement. We have begun to fall into regular habits here; soup is
served and the horses are watered at the same hour every day.

On my way to the water-tanks this morning I saw an odd-looking priest.
Sitting astride his horse in the middle of the road he was talking to
a surrounding group of gunners and foot-soldiers. He was booted and
spurred, and a long waterproof cape, fastened under his chin, floated
down over the crupper of his horse. A big wooden cross hung from his
neck on to the varnished strap of his revolver-holster, and into his
wide black belt he had stuck a German bayonet.

Standing in the stirrups he looked like some strange militant monk as
he stroked the neck of his horse.

"Yes," said he, "he's a nice beast. He belonged to a Uhlan whom I found
after the battle last week, near Nanteuil, where I was going to hear
confessions. He had been abandoned, so I took him. It is much better
than walking."

And he added:

"He saved my life yesterday.... I was going to the outposts where there
had been some fighting and where I had heard that I was wanted. I was
quite alone, and suddenly I met a patrol of Uhlans. They fired at
me, but missed. I was angry at not being able to go where I wanted,
and as I wheeled round I let them have a revolver shot. As a priest I
ought not to have done that, ought I? But I couldn't help it. I saw one
topple over. The others pursued me, but my horse went like the wind,
and after a time they gave up the chase. So I turned round again and
followed them. I found the man I had shot. He didn't understand a word
of French. I was able to give him absolution before he died, but it was
a near shave!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Night was falling when we rejoined the battery. It was raining, and we
wondered whether we should again have to sleep in the mud.

I found my comrades of the first gun--Hutin, Millon, and
Déprez--covered with mire and black with powder, their faces gaunt with
weariness.

"Hallo!"

"Ah, Lintier!" said Hutin. "We've had a bad time of it to-day! I
really don't know how it is we are still here!... I don't know.... Ask
Millon...."

Millon nodded his head. He seemed at the end of his strength.

"Gratien is dead."

"Oh!"

"Killed as he was mounting his horse ... a small splinter in the spine.
He didn't move.... A shell came right through the shield of the third
gun without bursting.... And another fell not two yards off our trench!"

"Ah! That one did burst. We were badly shaken.... My hair and beard
were singed."

"No one wounded?"

"No one in the battery, except Gratien, who was killed.... Yes, though!
Pelletier got his forehead grazed by a splinter. Come and have a look
at the ammunition wagon--it's like a nutmeg-grater. It began to smoke
at one time. Suppose it had blown up!... It was full ... thirty-six
high-explosive shells!..."

It was now quite dark, so we lit the hurricane lamps. Somebody called
out:

"Eleventh, to your billets!"

"Right!"

"First gun ... fifth gun...."

"Fifth!"

"To your billets, eleventh!"

We followed a man carrying a hurricane lamp, and found that we had to
share our billets with some foot-soldiers from the south whose accent,
so to speak, smelt of garlic.

The men of the firing battery let themselves fall in the straw like
foundered horses, and, after having made sure of a warm place, I
sallied out with a couple of comrades of the first line in order to
find something to eat and drink.

The narrow, badly paved streets were alive with the shadowy forms of
men jostling each other, the indistinct coming and going of horsemen
and wagons, the noise of many feet plodding through the mud, and the
confused sound of voices and respiration.

A little café, near which the pavement had been broken up by a shell in
the afternoon, was crowded with foot-soldiers, A.S.C. men, and Zouaves.

The bottles, jugs, and glasses standing on the counter half hid the
shadeless brass lamp with which the place was lit, and threw huge,
uncouth shadows across the narrow, smoke-filled room on to the walls.

There was a babble of voices and laughter. Every one was drinking, and
the proprietor still had some liqueurs and rum left. The tired-out
soldiers soon became drunk with alcohol, tobacco, and tales of the war.

This diminutive café, where there was a little light, a little warmth,
and a whole world of oblivion, was a veritable haven in the immense
weariness of the night, among the thousands of soldiers stretched out
everywhere round us, in the open or in barns, sleeping as soundly as
the dead men just laid low in the fields by the shrapnel bullets.

We succeeded in finding a bottle of champagne. Never had the sparkle of
wine seemed to me so delicious.

Nobody was asleep when we returned to our billets. Despite the
complaints of the gunners the southern infantrymen went on talking,
swearing, and leaving the door open....

"Aren't you chaps ever going to go to sleep?" thundered a gunner from
the depths of the darkness.

"Hold your jaw!"

"Here! shut the door, can't you?"

Men continually trod on our feet and chests and let their rifles and
packs fall on us. The air was full of grumbling and vituperation. It
was nearly midnight, and Moratin lost his temper:

"Now are you ever going to shut up, you ----! If you don't, I'll go and
fetch the Major!"

A broadside of oaths rose from the straw. The gunners replied. Dozing
men, waking up, yelled:

"Shut your mouths! _Shut 'em_, do you hear?"


  _Friday, September 18_

Day was just breaking as we moved slowly along the roads across the
plain, our horses sinking up to the fetlocks in clayey mud.

We met large parties of wounded--Tirailleurs, Zouaves, and, above all,
soldiers of the line. They overflowed the road on either side as they
plodded on with heavy steps which dragged in the gutters and puddles.

The dawn was misty. It was half-past four, but we could not see the
faces of the wounded until they were actually passing our carriage,
when we had a vision of white bandages and of others crimson-red. But
when the troops had gone by in the vague, uncertain light, we could
only perceive a slowly rolling sea of heads and shoulders.

In the eyes of some of my comrades who yesterday were so close to death
and who to-day were still stiff, tired, and dejected, I caught sight of
looks of envy. They were aware of the orders which had arrived during
the night, namely, that we were to return to our positions of yesterday.

They were not afraid, but the familiarity with danger, which had made
them brave, had in no sense impaired their love of life--the life
which they felt bubbling in their veins and which, in a few moments
perhaps, might be spent, with all their red blood, on the field of
mangel-wurzels. They were thinking of those who had died yesterday, of
Corporal Gratien, of Captain Legoff--an officer adored by his men--of
the six numbers of the 6th Battery who were reduced to a shapeless,
bleeding pulp at the bottom of their trench.

It is at moments like these, at once melancholy and solemn, when the
regular creaking and jolting of the wagons and the measured hoof-beats
of the horses numb the senses and make one drowsy, that one's thoughts
turn most bitterly to the future of bygone dreams, to all promised joys
and pleasures, to all the happiness for which the past has paved the
way and which might possibly have been realized without difficulty....

Dawn--I do not know why--is always a sad hour. And on the mornings of
battle this inherent sadness is rendered more poignant by the dread of
the terrible and perhaps final experiences which the day just born may
hold in store. Regrets and fears become linked in a vicious circle of
thought from which there is no escape.

One's only desire is to live--to return alive in the evening--but to
conquer first, to prevent the enemy from reaching our homes, above all
to protect the weak and loved ones behind us, in France, whose lives
are even more precious to us than our own. To conquer! And still live
to-night!

       *       *       *       *       *

The battery again took up position near the holocaust of the farm,
which was still burning, and the wagons returned to their gully.

My wrist was giving me considerable pain, and the medical officer
wanted to send me behind the lines on sick-leave, but I preferred to
rest with the wagons a few days longer and then return to my gun.

The rain began to fall in torrents. On the edge of a lucerne-field one
of our horses, which we had to abandon yesterday, was rolling in its
death agony. The straw we had brought with us, hashed up by the wheels
of the vehicles and by the hoofs of the horses, and mingled with the
water and mud which had collected in the clayey hollow, formed a kind
of noisome quicksand into which we sank ankle-deep.

The men did not open their lips except to swear or complain. No
more dead wood was to be found in the copses; all had been consumed
yesterday and the day before. We could not light a fire. Some passing
gunners told us that there were still some faggots in a farm near the
water-tanks, and we at once hurried thither. On the plain the corpses
were no longer lying among the loose sheaves. On one side of the Tracy
road, which was now nothing more than a swamp, the earth had been dug
up in the middle of the field of mangel-wurzels and two crosses roughly
fashioned out of planks marked the grave.

The farm to which we had come in our quest for wood had been arranged
as a first-aid post. The buildings surrounded a yard, in the centre of
which, near the dung-heap, were ranged up several green-tilted carts
marked with the red cross. In one corner a heap of cotton-wool and some
blood-stained bandages and compresses were slowly burning.

In the stable and cow-sheds one could see, through the half-open
doors, the recumbent forms of sick and wounded lined up on the straw
underneath the empty troughs and mangers. Some hospital orderlies
in canvas clothing were busy making soup. A medical officer stalked
stiffly by in his white smock. Not a cry of pain was to be heard.

In the wood-shed some sick men--nine or ten pale and gaunt
foot-soldiers--were lying on trusses of hay which they had not even
untied. One man, whom we could not see owing to the darkness, was
breathing stertorously with a noise like an engine.

       *       *       *       *       *

The firing was less violent than yesterday. An aviation park had been
formed a few hundred yards from our hollow, behind the farmhouses in
which the Staff had taken up its quarters for the day. This proximity
rendered our position increasingly unsafe. The enemy's Howitzers tried
to reach the aeroplanes standing on the field, and though they seemed
to be firing at haphazard, shells continually fell here and there on
the outskirts of our park.

       *       *       *       *       *

The day was drawing to a close without giving any indication as to the
issue of the battle, which had already been in progress five days.

But towards evening a long convoy of Moroccan _Carabas_ passed on the
road near-by, marching southwards towards the Aisne. They were followed
by some infantry. What could be the meaning of it? We could not help
feeling uneasy.

The dusk deepened into darkness and the long golden beams of the
searchlights began to sweep the plain. Under the hard, unyielding light
the smallest objects--a hayrick, a shed--cast huge inky shadows on the
field.

Next, some artillery passed by, also heading towards the Aisne. We
could not see the carriages, but recognized them by the familiar
creaking and rattling. Occasionally they halted a moment or two,
and then another sound became audible--a sound like a far-off
torrent--caused by infantry on the march on some other road across the
plain.

It started to rain again.

We rejoined our batteries at the water-tanks. A ceaseless tide of men
brushed by our carriages, their shadowy figures rising and falling as
they passed in the darkness.

"What regiment is that?" I asked. No one answered.

"What regiment is that?"

Apparently a regiment of dumb men. They continued to march by in the
gloom without giving any reply.

"What regiment is that passing? Can't you speak French?"

"Hundred and third."

"Where are you going to?"

"We don't know."

"Where are you going to?" I repeated.

"We don't know," came the answer again.

On the fields of mangel-wurzels flanking the road we could see masses
of motionless artillery. Was the Army Corps retiring? And yet we had
not been outflanked this time.... I was suddenly seized with anxiety.

It began to rain harder. Under the moving ray of a searchlight I caught
a glimpse of a long road black with men and horses.

My carriage had ranged up close to those of the first gun.

"Hutin!"

"Here! Yes? Hallo, it's you!"

"Yes.... Well, are we retiring?"

"No."

"What? The whole division is falling back!..."

"We're being replaced."

"Think so?"

"Yes. I've seen some gunners of the Corps which is replacing us."

"In that case we shall get some rest."

"No, I don't think so. I've heard that they mean to make a turning
movement over by the forest of Compiègne and the forest of Laigle with
the Moroccan Division."

       *       *       *       *       *

Rain ... darkness ... smoking prohibited. The surrounding gloom was
alive with distant footfalls, the muffled rumble of wheels, jingle of
arms, and the heavy breathing of men and animals.

Behind the infantry regiments of the division we began a slow march
interrupted by the halts of the foot-soldiers ahead and by other
unknown impediments.

About midnight we crossed the Aisne. Rain was still falling. Two
hurricane lamps marked the entrance of the pontoon bridge constructed
by the Engineers. The planking gave under the weight of the column and
one heard the water plashing against the metal bottoms of the boats.

The road was now clear, and the batteries on ahead broke into a trot.
A horse which had become entangled in the traces stopped our wagons
for a moment or two, and before we were able to catch up the head of
the column a cross-roads suddenly brought us once more to a halt.
In the dense darkness there was nothing to indicate which road the
leading vehicles had taken. We listened.... A distant rumble seemed
to come from the right, and we wheeled in the direction of the sound.
The drivers urged their horses forward. We strained our eyes in an
attempt to pierce the gloom, always hoping to see the bulky form of
an ammunition wagon or gun loom out of the darkness ahead. But we
hoped in vain. The road became narrower, and at every moment we risked
falling into the ditch. Finally we had to confess to ourselves that we
had lost our way.

The Lieutenant gave the word to halt. We prepared to wait for daybreak
before continuing our march. The downpour redoubled in violence, and
it was impossible to find shelter. The gunners huddled together on the
limber-boxes and became motionless, while the drivers stamped up and
down in the mud at the heads of their teams.

Overcome by fatigue I had begun to get drowsy in spite of the cold and
the wetness of my clothes, which stuck to my skin like icy poultices
and seemed to suck all the warmth from my body. Suddenly I became aware
of footsteps splashing in the gutters by the side of the road. Men were
passing by the wagon. I thought that possibly somebody had discovered a
barn and was leading them to it. I followed.

Sure enough, after a few minutes' walk we came to a house, the black
bulk of which rose up suddenly before me, darker than the surrounding
darkness.

My foot knocked against a ladder. Perhaps it led to a window? I
clambered up and found myself in a loft of which the flooring was
rotten and gave way under my tread. I clutched the low framework of
the roof and advanced cautiously. Some one was already asleep there; I
heard his breathing. Stretching myself carefully athwart the beams and
pillowing my head on a bundle of wood, I prepared to go to sleep. It
was almost hot in the loft.


  _Saturday, September 19_

We started off again at dawn in a drizzling rain. The road, studded at
intervals with the bodies of dead horses, wound through interminable
woods of tall beeches from which the rain dripped heavily. Endless
enfilades of swamped and deserted trenches stretched away on either
side and were finally lost in the undergrowth. Tall, heavy trees had
been felled and laid athwart the road, which had sunk beneath their
weight. And when they had been dragged into the ditches in order to
leave the way clear for the troops, their stout branches had scored
deep scratches in the road, which had soon been converted into
quagmires by the rain.

We passed through Pierrefonds, where, beneath the leaden sky, the
magnificent outlines of the château rose up amid the verdure darkened
by the rain, and then entered the forest of Compiègne, with its lofty
beeches standing in colonnades, below which lay long lines of swamped
trenches zigzagging between the trees, with here and there a primitive
hut made of branches and ferns, and more and more dead horses.

The sun, breaking out between two clouds and piercing the leaves, threw
emerald-green lights on the wet moss. Among the dark tones the bright
trunks of the birches flashed intermittently.

       *       *       *       *       *

Compiègne! The town, occupied by the enemy for a few days only, did not
appear to have suffered very much. Gun-fire was audible from far off,
to the north-east.

We crossed the Oise and rejoined our batteries at Venette, an outlying
suburb.

In the large hall of a farm to which I had gone in search of provisions
the farmer's wife, a matron of over fifty summers, was depicting the
horrors of the German occupation to four gunners.

She broke off as I came in.

"Some milk and eggs? You want to buy them? No! I won't sell them, but
I'll give you them.... Please wait a moment."

And she resumed her story.

"Well, as I was saying, it was just like that ... in front of their
father. They trussed him up with his back to the wardrobe so that he
couldn't help seeing everything. Five or six of them there were, and
one officer. They violated both girls--only eighteen and twenty, and
such nice, honest girls too!... Yes--all six of them, one after the
other! The poor things screamed all the time!... Oh, those aren't
men!... They're just beasts!..."

And lowering her voice a little, but without embarrassment, she
continued:

"More than one woman went through the same thing. I did ... yes!... And
yet I'm no young girl.... I've a son who is a soldier like you.... Oh,
God, it's awful!... It happened one evening, at about this time ...
four of them had arrived here to sleep. How was I to defend myself?...
The best thing was to say nothing. There have been women who have tried
to defend themselves and who have been simply ripped up ... that's all!
My husband was out, getting in their things. I thought to myself, 'If
he comes in, what will happen?... He'll kill some of them....'"

"Yes, I would, too! I'd have killed them!" interrupted a voice from the
darkness at the end of the room.

I had not seen the man as he sat smoking his pipe in a corner of the
hearth.

His wife turned towards him.

"Poor old dear! You'd perhaps have killed one of them, but the
others would have killed both of us.... Besides, as far as I'm
concerned--well--I know I'm too old!... That's what my husband
said--afterwards.... That won't lead to any consequences!"


  _Sunday, September 20_

A long march in a stinging hail-storm, first towards the west and then
northwards. We are evidently attempting a turning movement against the
German right wing.


  _Monday, September 21_

The day broke with the calm brightness of early autumn. We continued
our enveloping movement.

Towards midday a heavy French battery in position near the road
suddenly began to fire. Our officers went off at a gallop to
reconnoitre. We thought we were going into action, but were finally
told that we should not be wanted to-day and were sent off to camp in
a park near Ribécourt. We ranged up the guns on a lawn flanked by a
magnificent wood of beech-trees bordered by rhododendrons.

On one side of us lay an unruffled sheet of water, reddening under the
brilliant sunset, and, on the other, among the clumps of trees beneath
which lay flower-beds set off by blood-red sage, rose a fine modern
château. Under the rich foliage a little rustic bridge spanning the
river gave an effect curiously Venetian.

       *       *       *       *       *

The evening was sultry, but nevertheless we made our bivouac fires
under the chestnut-trees flanking the river. In the darkness of the
night, which had now fallen, the pond looked like an enormous blot of
ink. We were almost blinded by the yellow flare of our fires and could
no longer distinguish the river banks, thus risking at every step a
fall into the water.


  _Tuesday, September 22_

We passed the night on some straw in the outbuildings.

My wrist is now healed, and I am going to return to my post with the
first gun.

Under the morning sun the pond shone like a silver mirror, and the
little Venetian bridge struck a bright note among the dark tones of the
trees, while the water flowing underneath, over the slime and rotten
leaves, was jet-black. The château stood out starkly against the pale
blue sky, and the yellow gravel of the walks and the vermilion sage
afforded a bright contrast to the uniform green of the lawns.

The battery moved on. The crackling of rifle and machine-gun fire
accompanied the roar of the artillery. The enemy was evidently making
a stand against our enveloping movement, which it was doubtless the
intention of the French commanders to accentuate. We resumed our march
towards the north, heading for Roye. The success of the manoeuvre
depended on numbers, and I wondered whether we had sufficient men
available.

In a field by the wayside some Senegalese Tirailleurs, fine-looking,
ebony-coloured men dressed in navy blue uniforms, were making coffee
with the simple gestures and admirable attitudes of people untrammelled
by civilization.

       *       *       *       *       *

The officers had gone off to reconnoitre. We halted at the foot of a
long slope in the middle of some large mangel-wurzel fields forming a
kind of basin near the village of Fresnières, where heavy shells were
falling.

The line of fire, forming an angle towards Compiègne, stretched from
north to south. We could not be more than a mile or two, as the crow
flies, from the plains we had been occupying during the past few days
on the banks of the Aisne, near Tracy-le-Mont.

I do not know what echo or confusion of sound prevented us from
locating the position of the battle exactly. Fighting was going on in
the direction of Ribécourt and Lassigny, but the heavy battery which
had been bombarding Fresnières was now silent. Behind the woods columns
of black smoke were curling upwards. Fires or shells bursting? It was
impossible to tell.

But our chief anxiety was the northern horizon, which was masked by a
line of poplars, and from which occasional and unsustained rifle-fire
revealed the presence of the enemy. The Germans might reply to our
enveloping movement by trying to execute a similar manoeuvre.

On the edge of the woods to the north-east large numbers of troops
could be seen in movement. A long black column of artillery was winding
its way across country. The hoof-beats of a far-off squadron, trotting,
sounded like the reptation of some huge serpent. The whole countryside
was alive. From where we stood one would have said that it was only the
leaves of the mangel-wurzels moving in the wind, but in reality it was
infantry deploying in skirmishing order.

We took up position in a field. The ground under my gun was extremely
soft, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that the carriage would
continue to recoil with the result that a perpetual error in laying
would retard our rapidity of fire. The second gun was no better placed
than ours, but the other section, in position on a stubble-field,
was on much firmer ground. The battery would thus lose all cohesion,
but there was no help for it. It was impossible to use the position
assigned to us to better advantage.

In front of us, some 77 mm. guns were sweeping the fields, but
these did not cause us much anxiety. In relation to the position
which, judging from their fire, they were occupying somewhere to the
north-east, we were well covered. But, beyond Lassigny, standing out
amid the verdure, rose a line of lofty, wooded hills which commanded
the whole of the plain and from the summit of which our battery was
certainly visible. We could not take our eyes off their threatening
crests. What lay hid in their gloomy forests?

We were well within range of heavy artillery should the enemy install a
battery at that point.

"Come on," said Bréjard, "we must make a hole and get to work quickly."

In feverish haste we dug a trench behind the ammunition wagon. Another
group of ·75's, occupying a position parallel to ours, opened fire on
Lassigny.

The ·77's now increased their range, and every round became more
threatening.

"To your guns ... by the right, each battery!" commanded the Captain.

"What range? We haven't heard the range," shouted Millon.

"Eleven hundred!"

"How much?"

"Eleven hundred!"

"Oh, they're not far off!"

"Sounds bad, that," growled Hutin.

The gun reared, and immediately recoiled more than two yards. We had
to man it forward into position, but the spade and wheels had sunk so
deep in the soil that try as we would the six of us could not move it.
Our shoulders to the wheels, struggling and sweating, we began to get
nervous and angry. Finally we had to call to the detachment of the
second gun to come and help us.

Some infantry had taken up position in front of the battery. We
signalled to them to move to the left.

"They'll get cut in two, the idiots!"

"To the left!"

"What fools!"

"To the left!"

The Lieutenant, his lungs exhausted, waved his long arms.

"Lord! aren't they stupid, those fellows!" We shouted in chorus:

"To the left ... _to the left_!"

At last they moved off, and we could fire.

"Eight hundred!"

We thought we had not heard aright.

"Eight hundred!"

So the enemy was there, behind the crests, and was advancing....

What was the French command waiting for? Why did they not throw forward
the troops which, over towards Fresnières, were swarming on the
mangel-wurzel fields?

Moratin, who was standing on the refilling wagon, cried out:

"Go on, let 'em have it full! That shell from the first gun mowed down
a heap of them. There! you can see them, the brutes!... You can see
them!..."

His words gave us strength to push the gun, the wheels of which kept
turning backwards, forward into position again.

"Hutin!"

"What?"

"Did you hear?"

"Hear what?"

"There it is again."

"Bullets ..."

"Yes."

"In threes, double traverse!"

The Captain had climbed into an apple-tree close to the fourth gun. The
bullets, brushing over the crest, were too high to touch us, but they
continually cut down leaves round the Captain. We begged him to come
down. For the tenth time one of the gunners insisted:

"You mustn't stay there, sir!"

The Major interfered:

"Come down, De Brisoult!"

But the Captain, his glasses to his eyes, continued to scan the
northern horizon and only answered quietly:

"But I can see very well, sir ... very well. Nine hundred!..."

"Nine hundred!"

"Nine hundred!" repeated the gunners.

Our infantry had doubtless retaken Lassigny. German shells were now
bursting over the town, giving off clouds of yellow smoke.

"One thousand!"

We had at last found a more or less firm position for our gun, and our
fire accelerated as the enemy fell back.

"Eleven hundred!"

"Twelve hundred!... Cease firing!"

The detachments piled up in front of the trenches the ejected
cartridge-cases which strewed the field. Bullets still continued to
hum over our heads, but the 77 mm. shells were now falling wide of the
mark. We remained motionless at the bottom of our trenches. Every few
minutes Hutin asked me:

"What time is it?"

When I told him he became impatient:

"Confound it!" said he, "we don't seem to be getting on!"

In the afternoon, on an order from the division, the Major commanded
the limbers to be brought up.

The drivers arrived on horseback, at a trot.

"Dismount!" shouted the Captain.

They did not hear. Bullets, skimming over the crest, still whistled by.
They would inevitably be killed.

"Now then, altogether," said the senior N.C.O.... "One ... two ...
three.... Dismount!..."

Twenty voices were raised in a single shout. This time they heard, and,
without stopping the limbers, the drivers hurriedly tumbled off their
horses.

       *       *       *       *       *

We took up a fresh position still nearer the enemy between two lines of
poplars in a meadow overgrown with tall grass. Almost immediately the
77 mm. guns, which since the morning had been searching for us without
success, began to threaten our battery. The enemy could not have seen
our movements, and no aeroplane was visible aloft. Had our position
been signalled by a spy?

A foot-soldier passed, holding his abdomen with both hands and shifting
from one foot to the other in the throes of intense suffering.

"Is there an ambulance over there?"

"Have you had a bullet in the stomach?"

"No, here ... between the legs. It burns, it burns frightfully!"

"Listen," said Millon, "make for our limbers--over there on the left,
behind the trees. They've nothing to do, and will perhaps be able to
help you."

"Thanks! I'll go to them."

"But take care between the trees in the meadow. The shells are falling
thick there!"

The unfortunate soldier moved off slowly, writhing with pain.

The Captain was standing at the foot of the first poplar of one of
the two lines, intent upon making observations. Men ready to transmit
orders by word of mouth lay at regular intervals on the exposed ground
between the battery and the observation-post.

The 77 mm. shells were now bursting directly overhead. We took cover.
Every few seconds the enemy's shrapnels sowed the position with
bullets, the lead twanging on the steel armour of the ammunition wagon.
Nobody moved, and no one was wounded.

Then I saw Hutin, who, sitting on the layer's seat, was sheltering
behind the gun-shield, suddenly jump to his feet:

"Good God!" he ejaculated, "the Captain!"

"Hit?" we asked anxiously.

"It burst just over the tree he was leaning up against!"

In spite of the danger the whole detachment at once stood up like one
man.

"Can you see him, Hutin?"

"No...."

Lieutenant Homolle, the Major's little A.D.C., who quietly came up,
unprotected, from the observation-post, shouted to us from a distance:

"Will you take cover, you idiots!"

"The Captain?"

"He's not hurt."

And, when he had reached us and taken shelter behind the ammunition
wagon, he added:

"I've got two in the thigh.... That's nothing--they didn't go in ... a
couple of bruises, that's all. The shell's got to burst pretty close
to do any damage. The most annoying thing about it is that the Captain
can't see the Germans. We can't fire!"

The enemy's fire redoubled in violence, and shrapnel bullets riddled
the poplars, making a noise like falling hail. Shorn-off leaves,
carried by the wind, were scattered round the guns.

One of the liaison officers--one of the _hurleurs_[3] as they are
called--wounded in the side, hurriedly left the position. Astruc,
wounded in the chest and vomiting blood, also left the field, leaning
on the arm of a comrade.

We again became motionless under the shell-fire.

Since a moment or two I had felt an unaccustomed itching in my beard.
Had I caught trench pest? Hutin lent me his looking-glass, but, while
I was carefully combing myself, I felt a sudden burning sensation in
my right hand, in which I was holding the glass, and which I had
stretched beyond the protective bulk of the ammunition wagon. At the
same time something hit me in the chest. Feverishly, with my left hand,
I fingered the cloth of my uniform and found a rent in it breast-high.
I felt myself suddenly grow weak. I tore open my tunic and shirt ...
nothing ... I could see nothing. My skin was unscratched.

My pocket-book, letters, and letter-case, which I carry in the pocket
of my shirt, had stopped the bullet. The blood was spurting from my
wounded hand. That was nothing. Instinctively I had pocketed the
looking-glass. I do not know how it had remained between my fingers,
for my thumb was now no more than a pendant piece of tattered flesh.

"You'll have to clear off," said Lieutenant Hély d'Oissel, who was
crouching down next to me.

Hutin stood up:

"Lintier!" he cried, in a voice vibrating with horror which went
straight to my heart.

"It's nothing, old chap ... only my hand."

"I'll dress it for you!"

But shells were falling incessantly and I refused to let him get from
under cover.

"Run off quick!" said the Lieutenant.

I ran off across the meadow, crouching down as much as possible
under the menace of the shrapnel bullets. Blood was dripping on to my
leggings and thighs, and sticking the cloth of my breeches to my knees.
From my hand the bullet had projected a red, star-shaped piece of flesh
and tendons on to my chest.

Suddenly came the whistling of approaching shells.

At the foot of one of the poplars two horses had just been killed. I
threw myself down between them in the long, blood-stained grass. The
shells burst. With a dull sound a large splinter ripped up one of the
inert bodies protecting me.

I immediately set off again, rapidly getting out of the 77 mm. Howitzer
line of fire. My wounded hand was covered with earth and horse's blood.
As I crossed a road or embankment, I suddenly found myself faced by the
threatening muzzles of twenty French field-guns lined up on the field.
There was nothing for it but to retrace my steps.

Behind the motionless artillery some Moroccan Tirailleurs were lying
among the mangel-wurzels. I nearly trod on them before I discovered
their presence.

A Captain stood up and beckoned to me:

"Come here, gunner, and I'll bandage you. Got your first-aid
dressing?... In the inside pocket of your tunic?... Hallo, it's all
torn! Been wounded in the chest? No?... Well, you're lucky!..."

He examined my hand.

"H'm ... nasty!... lot of earth and gun-grease got into it.... We must
clean that off and disinfect the wound as soon as possible.... I'll
take off the worst with some cotton-wool."

I was out of breath with running, and the blood was throbbing in my
temples and buzzing in my ears. The instinct of self-preservation
suddenly deserted me, and, as I stood motionless, I began to feel
faint. My legs shook and gave way as though broken at the knees. The
figure of the officer standing by me seemed to turn round and round.

"Hallo! Steady!" he cried.

He forced the neck of a flask between my lips and poured a draught of
rum down my throat. I immediately felt strengthened from head to foot
and laughed as I thanked him.

"That's all right!" said he as he finished dressing my hand.

The field-hospitals of the division were at Fresnières, and I started
off in that direction. My hand felt as though it had turned to lead,
and, as I walked across country, holding myself stiffly erect with a
view to resisting another fainting fit, buoyed up by the thought that
I should soon be under cover, far from the shells and the battle, an
unwonted lassitude, a yearning for sleep and silence, a weakening of
will-power suddenly took possession of me and seemed to penetrate to
the very marrow of my bones. It seemed to me that when I got to the
hospital I should sleep for days on end.

To sleep--to sleep--and, above all, no longer hear the guns, no longer
hear anything. To live without thinking, and in absolute silence; to
live after so many times having narrowly escaped death. Suddenly I
remembered what the Captain of Tirailleurs had said--that my wound was
dirty, infected with earth and horse's blood. The fear of gangrene, of
lock-jaw, and of all other forms of hospital putrefaction gripped me by
the throat.

At Fresnières an enormous shell had just killed, in front of the door
of the hospital, a medical officer, a nun, and four wounded men. The
bodies were laid out side by side on the pavement, but the corpse of
a Tirailleur, a great, dark-skinned giant whose arms, stretched out,
spanned an extraordinary space, still lay in the cut-up roadway. The
air was full of the distant whistling of shells. In the face of this
menace which remained hanging over my head, now that I could no longer
fight, I was seized with an instinctive and puerile feeling of revolt.
I was no longer fair game.

In the yard outside the hospital, among the stretchers bearing wounded,
blood-stained men, some hospital orderlies were laying the more severe
cases on a large table covered with a flowery-patterned oil-cloth. Two
medical officers were hurriedly dressing them.

One, a big, brown-haired man with gold-rimmed spectacles, beckoned to
me. I went up to him.

"Well, what's wrong with you?"

"Shrapnel...."

"Let's have a look!"

He unwound the bandage, and, as soon as he took off the compress, the
blood began to spurt like a fountain. He looked at the wound and made a
grimace.

"H'm ... it bleeds badly...."

He called one of his subordinates, a bearded officer, who hurried up.

"Look ... we'd better take the thumb right off, hadn't we?"

"I should think so!..." said the other.

"Right. We'll cut that off for you at once," said the officer with the
gold-rimmed glasses.

I protested:

"Cut off my thumb!"

"Yes, unless you want to keep it on like that. Here, wait a moment...."

A Colonial infantryman had just been brought in, the blood gushing from
a large wound in his shoulder. The medical officer knelt down beside
him and feverishly felt about with his fingers among the torn shreds of
flesh, trying to pinch the artery.

"Cut off my thumb!..." echoed in my ears.

I quickly made up my mind. Seizing a compress and a strip of rolled
lint from the table I managed with the aid of my left hand and teeth
to bandage my wound in a rough-and-ready fashion, and without being
observed by the officers, who were intent upon the severed artery, I
slipped out of the hospital.

I knew that I should find the other divisional hospitals at
Canny-sur-Matz, about a mile and a half from Fresnières.

I came upon a café still open in spite of the shells, and bought a
flask of brandy. I placed my revolver holster on my left side, within
reach of my sound hand, for night was coming on, and often, under cover
of the darkness, patrols of German cavalry managed to slip between the
network of French outposts and supports.

The Canny road made a wide detour, so I decided to strike across
country. The steeple of the village church, standing out sharply
against the crimson sky, would serve as a guide.

My hand continued to bleed. I kept up my strength with frequent pulls
at my brandy-flask and felt confident that I should be able to reach
the next hospital.

On a sloping field, near a square-shaped hayrick, some infantry lay
stretched out, their red breeches making bright patches in the shadowy
grass. A passing puff of wind bore with it a disquieting smell. The
arm of one of the prostrate soldiers on the top of the knoll stretched
straight up in the air, motionless against the clearness of the western
sky-line.

Dead men!

I was about to go on my way, when in the shadow of the hayrick I saw
a human figure crouching over one of the bodies. The man had not seen
me.... He turned the corpse over and began to search it. I at once
cocked my revolver, and carefully, without trembling, aimed at the
looter. I was about to pull the trigger when a sudden fear stopped me.
I could see his movements quite clearly, but his face, turned sideways
against the dark background of the hayrick, was not discernible. The
thought that he might be a gendarme identifying the dead made me lower
my weapon.

"What are you doing there?" I shouted.

The man jumped as though stung by a whip-lash, and stood up, his
features sharply defined against the clear sky. I saw that he was
wearing a flat cap with a broad peak.

"Mind your own business and I'll mind mine!" he retorted. With that he
made off, running in zigzags under the menace of my revolver, like an
animal trying to cover its tracks.

I fired ... he stopped a moment. Had I hit him? A streak of light
flashed out from his shadow, and a bullet hummed past my ear. Off he
went again but, just as he was about to disappear behind a bush, I
fired a second time. I thought I saw him fall among the brambles.

       *       *       *       *       *

I arrived at Canny, where a red lantern shining through the darkness
marked the entrance to the hospital. Wounded were stretched out in
the porch, and the yard was full of them. The medical officers were
hard at work in a veranda adjoining the main building. Through the
multicoloured glass windows a diffused light filtered slowly, vaguely
illuminating the men stretched on the straw. Now and again, when the
door of the veranda opened, a rectangle of crude light spread along the
ground, showing up a line of stretchers and the suffering faces of the
severely wounded who were waiting for first aid. Two orderlies carried
off the first stretcher of the row. The door swung to behind them and
the yard was again plunged in a flickering half-light.

I stood there, very tired, looking stupidly at the scene. My hand was
still bleeding, but only drop by drop now.

I asked a passing orderly:

"Do you know when they'll be able to dress my wound?"

"To-night. Lie down in the straw."

I lay down where I was. Suddenly I heard a voice, at once infantile and
yet grave, in my ear:

"You wounded?" it said, with a strange accent.

I turned and found a tall negro lying by my side. I could see nothing
of him but two shining eyes.

"Yes, I'm wounded, Sidi. You too?"

"Yes, me wounded."

He appeared to reflect for a moment:

"Blacks ... wounded, wounded, wounded ... and then killed ... killed
... killed ... Boches ... oh! many, many Boches ... William!"

"Ah! so you've heard of William?"

"William ... bad chief ... lot of women ... many women!... ah!..."

He paused an instant and then continued:

"He many women ... big, bad chief ... like way back there ... back
there ... killed the women ... cut ... cut.... Whish!... like that!..."

"Why?"

"Bad ... ah!... he got big house ... put women's heads on top ... on
roof.... Ah, bad...."

He searched for words:

"Yes, put heads of women--many women--on roof of house ... bad, very
bad...."

I was in too much pain to sleep, and had perforce to listen to his
childish babble.

"So ... down there ... bad chief stick women's heads on roof ... not
good, no!... down there!..."

And then the Senegalese began to speak in his own language, a lisping,
sweet-sounding tongue. Perhaps he was delirious.

I felt cold, but nevertheless, after a time, found my eyelids growing
heavy. Covering my legs with straw as best I could I stretched myself
out and went to sleep.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was still night when I awoke, and a thin rain, or rather drizzle,
was falling. I was colder than ever, and my wound pained me severely.
The veranda was still lit up. I could see the shadowy form of the negro
lying next to me, but could no longer hear his breathing. I stretched
out my hand and felt his. It was icy cold. The straw under me seemed
wet. I looked, and discovered that my feet were lying in a pool of
blood.

I stood up. The severely wounded had now been dressed. A fire had been
lit in the kitchen of the farmhouse, and a white-faced Algerian was
dozing in front of it. On the mantelpiece an alarum clock, standing
between two brass candlesticks, marked two o'clock.

I had my wound dressed. It appeared that after all it would not be
necessary to amputate my thumb. A N.C.O. took down my name, and on
the cloth band which held my arm in a sling pinned a hospital ticket:
"Severe shrapnel wound in left hand. To be invalided back, sitting."

FOOTNOTES:

[Footnote 1: Literally: "Take care of the children."--"Thank you."]

[Footnote 2: Poilu (literally "hairy"): a popular term for the French
soldier, equivalent to our "Tommy."]

[Footnote 3: Shouters.]


  _Wednesday, September 23_

I had to walk five miles along the main road, upon which the crowd of
men wounded in the head, arms, and shoulders gradually became less
dense. Finally, I reached Ressons ... the station, the train.... Then
the interminable jolting of the cattle-truck half full of mouldy loaves
of bread ... fever, thirst. At last the hospital ... bed ... women's
hands, the bandage stiff with black blood taken off ... silence ... ah,
silence!...

       *       *       *       *       *

On the 30th September the morning post brought me at the hospital a
letter from my friend Hutin, which I copy here in all its simplicity:


  _"September 25, 1914_

"MY DEAR LINTIER,--Do write as soon as you can and let us know how you
are. I hope you'll soon be all right again, and all the other fellows
in the detachment join with me in wishing you rapid and complete
recovery.

"You probably do not know of the misfortune which befell the battery
only a few minutes after you left. The Captain was killed--a shrapnel
bullet just under the left eye. You remember how we all said: 'If
anything happens to him he can count on all of us?' Well, when we
saw him fall the whole lot of us ran out to help him. But it wasn't
any use. It was all over. We carried the body back to the battery.
Lieutenant Hély d'Oissel took over the command and we went on firing.
He was crying as he gave the ranges. When, about eight o'clock, we got
orders to leave the position, and had propped Captain de Brisoult upon
one of the limber seats of the first gun, half the battery had got
tears in their eyes. Two gunners sat one on each side of him. They had
covered his face with a white handkerchief. At Fresnières we watched
over him all the night. He was buried there.

"Since then we haven't done much. Besides, we've been a bit unsettled
by this loss. I can't tell you where we are, but if I tell you that the
battery has hardly changed place since you left, you will know more or
less where we are engaged.

  "Always yours,

  "GEORGES HUTIN."

My eyes also became moist as I read these lines.

THE END

TRANSCRIBERS NOTE:
Liége was not spelt with a grave accent until 17 sept 1946.
The author's spelling was correct at the time of writing.


  PRINTED AT THE COMPLETE PRESS
  WEST NORWOOD
  LONDON





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