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 hke 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.
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. Tomorrow, 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.