We had started off again at dawn, and now stood waiting for orders. The Captain had sent the battery forward down the lane leading to the main road to Verdun. The horses splashed about in the water running out from a drinking-trough hard by, and spattered us liberally with mud. After waiting till the sun was well up, we unbridled and gave the teams some oats.
Reserve regiments of the Army Corps began to file by — the 301st, 303rd, and 330th. The men were white with dust up to the knees. Stubbly beards of eight days’ growth darkened their faces and gave them a haggard appearance. Their coats, opened in front and folded back under their shoulder-straps, showed ghmpses of hairy chests, the veins in their necks standing out like whipcord under the weight of their packs. These reservists looked grave, resolute, and rather taciturn.
They swung by with a noise like a torrent rushing over pebbles, the sight of our guns bringing a smile of pleasure to their faces.
The foremost battalions climbed up the hill. There were so many men that nothing could be seen of the road, nor even of the red breeches. The moving human ribbon scintillated with reflections cast by kettles, shovels, and picks.
We had filled our water-bags, and some of the soldiers, as they streamed past, replenished their drinking tins from them. Then they strode on, their lips glued to the brims, restraining the swing of their step in order not to lose a drop of the precious liquid.
At last the battery moved on. But it was only to camp at Azannes, about a mile south-east of Ville-devant-Chaumont, where we were hardly any nearer to the enemy. On the road a continual cloud of dust was raised by guns and wagons, motors full of superior officers, and squadrons of cavalry escorting red-tabbed Staffs. The horses were smothered in it, and our dark uniforms soon became grey, while our eyebrows and unshorn chins looked as if they had been powdered. Paris motor-omnibuses, transformed into commissariat wagons, put the final touch as they lumbered by, and left us as white as the road itself.
“Limber up, quick now, come along!”
The order was repeated by the N.C.O’s, and the Captain, who passed us spurring his horse, said simply:
“We are going into action.”
Then, followed by the gun-commanders, trumpeters, and battery-leaders, he set off at a gallop.
We passed through Azannes, where we were to have camped. It is a wretched-looking village, full of manure-heaps, and composed of low-built cottages eloquent of the fact that here no one has thought it worth while to undertake building or repair work of any kind. It is not that the surrounding country is barren, but the perpetual threat of war and invasion has nipped all initiative in the bud. The poorer one is the less one has to lose.
After passing Azannes the column lapsed into silence. The road skirted the cemetery, in the walls of which the infantry, at every few yards, had knocked loopholes through which we caught glimpses of graves, chapels, and crosses. At the foot of the walls lay heaps of rubble and mortar. Farther on, near the edge of a wood, the field had been seared by a narrow trench, covered with lopped-off branches bearing withered leaves, and showing up against the fresh green grass like a yellow gash.
In front of the trench barbed wire had been stretched. The enemy, therefore, was presumably not far off.
Amid the monotonous rumble of the carriages we tried to collect our thoughts. The prospect of the first engagement brought with it an apprehension and dread which clamoured for recognition in each man’s mind. There is no denying the fact.
The battery rolled on its way through a large wood. The road, almost blindingly white in the midday sun, formed a striking contrast to the arch-shaped avenues of sombre trees, whose green plumes towered above us at a giddy height.
By the side of the road stood a horse with drooping head and the viscous discharge due to strangles running from his nostrils; he did not even budge as the guns and wagons thundered on their way. It seemed almost a miracle that the bones of the poor beast’s haunches had not broken through his skin. His flanks, heaving spasmodically, seemed to meet behind his ribs, as if they had been emptied of flesh and entrails. He was a pitiful sight. In the shade of a bridle-path yet another abandoned horse was still browsing.
Between two clumps of trees lay a pond bordered by reeds and rushes, its surface shimmering like a silver mirror — an effect which was heightened by the dark woodlands in the background. In the distance the magnificent line of lofty hills which had hidden the horizon from us at Ville-devant-Chaumont, and which we had now flanked, formed an azure setting to the picture. On one side of the road stood a farmhouse. In a small paddock near the flood-gates of the pond we saw a freshly dug grave in the shade of an elder-bush. A cross, roughly fashioned out of a couple of branches tied together, was planted in the newly turned soil, and a ruled leaf torn out of a pocket-book, stuck on to some splinter of the wood, bore a name roughly written in pencil.
On emerging from the forest our batteries, which up to then had been in column of route, rapidly deployed down the side of a long valley, half hidden by the oat-crops, through which infantry, whose presence could only be guessed, caused ripples to flow like those raised by a puff of wind on still water.
Where was the enemy? What were these positions worth, and from what point could they be observed? Was the infantry on ahead protecting us? In a fever of excitement we formed up in battery in a neighbouring meadow. The limbers retired to the rear and took cover in the woods. Brejard at once ordered us to complete the usual protection afforded by the gun-shields and ammunition wagons by piling up large sods of turf which we hacked up with our picks. As far as the eye could reach stretched the motionless oats, like masses of molten metal under a sky of unbroken blue. As the gun-layers could not find as much as a tree or sheaf to serve as an aiming point we had to plant a spade in front of the battery. I should not have suspected the strength of the artillery — more than sixty guns — waiting for the enemy in this field, had I not seen the batteries take up their positions, and had it not been for the observation-ladders upon which, perched like large black insects on the points of so many grass-blades, the gun-commanders were to be seen surveying the land to the north-east.
We were ready for action, and lying behind our guns awaited the word “Fire!” No sound of battle was audible.
A gunnery oflficer brought some order to the Captain, and the latter, waving his kepi, signalled for the limbers to be brought up.
“Hallo! What’s up now?”
” We’re off,” answered Brejard, who had overheard the orders.
“Aren’t the Germans coming then?”
“I don’t know. That officer told the Captain that after this the fourth group would be attached to the seventh division.”
“Well, and what then?”
“Well, the fourth group has got to go.”
“Where ? ”
“Probably to camp at Azannes.”
Rather disappointed at having done nothing we returned westwards by the same road, bathed in an aureole of crimson light cast by the setting sun.
The horse with the strangles was now lying down in the ditch. He was still breathing, and from time to time tossed his head in order to shake off the wasps which collected in yellow clusters round his eyes and nostrils.
We encamped at Azannes, and the horses, tethered under the plum-trees planted in fives, wearied by the march, the dust, and the heat, let me rest and dream away my four hours’ duty.
The night was clear, illuminated by the Verdun searchlights which stretched golden fingers into the sky. A magnificent mid-August night, scintillating with constellations and alive with shooting stars which left long phosphorescent tails behind them.
The moon rose, and with difficulty broke through the dense foliage of the plum-trees. The camp remained dark except for occasional patches of light on the grass and on the backs of the horses as they stood sleeping. My fellow-sentry was lying at the foot of a pear-tree, wrapped in his greatcoat. In front of me the plain was lit up by the moon, and the meadows were veiled in a white mist. Both armies, with fires extinguished, were sleeping or watching each other.