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-Hne 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 Hne. 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 Deprez, 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 Deprez 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 today.
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 Deprez 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.