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.
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?”
“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 blood-shot 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 Hke 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 counter slope, 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.
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 Brejard.
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 spldiers 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 horse-men would get us killed ! The party consisted of about twenty ofiicers 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. i.
” 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 kepi had rolled underneath his shoulder.