Shortly after dawn we were ready to start. Some of the 130th Infantry had arrived at the next village, called Ville-devant-Chaumont, to take up their quarters there. Pending the order to advance I entered into conversation with a little red-haired foxy-faced sergeant:
“Ah,” said he, “so you’re from Mayenne. Well, I don’t know whether many of the 130th will ever get back there. There was a scrap yesterday. . . . Slaughter simply awful! . . . My battalion wasn’t touched, but the two others! . . . There are some companies which don’t count more than ten men, and haven’t a single officer left. . . . It’s their machine-guns which are so frightful. . . . But what the devil can you expect? Two battalions against a whole division!”
“But why didn’t the third battalion join in?”
“Blessed if I know. . . . You never know the reason of these things.”
And he added:
“Some of our chaps were splendid. . . . Lieutenant X, for example. … He jumped up, drew his sword, and opening his tunic he shouted to his men : ” Come on, lads! . . . And he was killed on the spot. . . . The flag? . . . That was taken by the enemy, retaken by one of our captains, and then again captured. Finally, a chap with a good-conduct badge got hold of it, and managed to hide it under a bridge before he died. One of the sections of the 115th found it there. . . . And then the artillery came up at last. . . . Three batteries of the 31st. They soon made the blighters clear off. . . . They abandoned two batteries, what’s more!”
Orders came to unharness. What a heat! Transparent vapours rose from the ground and made the horizon quiver. From time to time we heard the muffled sound of the guns but more often we mistook the noise of the carts on the road for firing. Fleecy white clouds forming above the crests of the hills gave one the impression of shells bursting. For a moment their appearance was most deceptive.
I saw one of the men of the 130th coming back from the firing-line in a wretched condition, without cap, pack, or arms. It seemed wonderful that he should have managed to drag himself so far. With staring, frightened eyes he looked nervously from one side to the other. The gunners surrounded him as he stood there, with bent shoulders and hanging head, but he only answered their questions by-
“Done for!” he murmured. “Done for!”
We couldn’t hear anything else. His lips kept moving:
“Done for! . . . Done for!”
Down he flopped in the middle of us, and immediately fell asleep, his mouth wide open and his features contracted as if with pain. Two gunners carried him into a neighbouring barn.
I heard to-day that a priest of Ville-devant-Chaumont had been arrested on a charge of espionage and sent to Verdun.
We availed ourselves of our leisure in order to wash our linen and have a bath in the river. Then, stretched naked on the grass, we waited until the sun had dried our shirts, socks, and underlinen, which lay spread out around us.