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, Hkes and dislikes.
Brejard, 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.
Brejard, 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 Hst.
Corporal Jean Deprez affords a contrast to Brejard. Dreamy and imaginative, bored by regimental life, and far from reconciled to the
prospect of many months of war, Deprez, 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 Deprez 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 child-bed 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 cafe opposite is called.