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. (engage volontaire) CI. 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 Pontheue.
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 up-turned 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!”