I have only just heard of an heroic episode which occurred during our expedition on Friday. It might be called “The Charge of the Baggage-train.”
During our march through the woods towards the enemy we were followed at some distance by our supply wagons. When we turned, we passed them, and they resumed their position behind the batteries. The head of the column had almost reached Azannes when the rear was still in the thick of the woods. Suddenly a lively fusillade was opened from the depths of the trees on the right and left of the train, and at the same time the noise of galloping horses was heard from behind. The Petty Officer bringing up the rear behind the forage wagon, who was riding near the cow belonging to the Group, which was being led by one of the gun-numbers, convinced that the enemy’s infantry was attacking the column from the flank while a brigade of cavalry was coming up from the rear, yelled out, “Run for your lives! The Uhlans are coming!” The gunners jumped from the carriages, loaded their muskets, and, suddenly, without any orders, the column broke into a gallop. The men followed as best they might. But the horses of the forage wagon, restive under the lash, reared, backed, and jibbed, kicking the cow, which, in her turn, pulled away from the man leading her, first to right and then to left, finally breaking loose and setting out at a gallop behind the wagons in a thick cloud of dust.
A few seconds afterwards the cavalry which had been heard approaching came up. It was the General of Artillery, who, with his Staff and escort of Chasseurs, had routed our baggage-train. As for the fusillade, it came from two companies of the 102nd of the line, who, concealed in the woods, had opened fire on a German aeroplane.
The weather is changing. Already yesterday evening the storm gathering on our left had made us prick up our ears as if we heard gunfire. At breakfast-time we were surprised by a heavy shower, and had to abandon the kettles on the fires and take shelter under the wagons and trees. To-day it has been raining slowly but steadily. If this weather goes on we shall have to look out for dysentery!
Sitting on blankets in a circle round the fire, which was patiently tended by the cook, we drank our coffee. My comrades asked me to read them a few pages from my notebook, and wished me a safe return in order that these reminiscences, which to a great extent are theirs also, might be published.
“Are you going to leave the names in?”
“Yes, unless you don’t want me to.”
“No, of course not. We’ll show them to the old people and children later on, if we get back.”
“If I am killed, one of you will take care of my notebook. I keep it here see? in the inside pocket of my shirt.”
Hutin thought a little.
“Yes, only you know that it’s forbidden to search dead men. You’d better make a note in your book to say you told us to take it.”
He was quite right, so on the first page I wrote: “In case I am killed I beg my comrades to keep these pages until they can give them to my family.”
“Now you’ve made your arrangements mortis causa,” said Le Bidois, who was reading over my shoulder. And he added:
“That doesn’t increase the risk either.”
Le Bidois is a thin, lanky fellow rather like the King of Spain, for which reason Deprez and I have nicknamed him Alfonso. Every day we fire oft the old Montmartre catch at him:
Feux-tu te t’nir comme il fo!
We also call him “the Spanish Grandee.”
He never gets annoyed.
“A jewel of a corporal!” as Moratin, his layer, always says.
Some of the 26th Artillery have brought back two ammunition wagons abandoned by the enemy at Mangiennes. Painted a dark colour they resembled the old 90 mm. material with which we used to practise when training at Le Mans. They were followed by two large carts, of the usual type used by the Meuse peasantry, long and narrow in build, full of packs, tins, kepis marked 130, camp-kettles already blackened by bivouac fires, belts with brass buckle-plates, and caps with dark stains on them. On the top bristled a heap of bayonets and rifles, red with rust and blood. A large blue flannel sash, sopping wet, hung behind one of the carts, and trailed in the muddy road. These were the wardrobes of the unfortunate infantry killed at Mangiennes.
This spectacle, rendered the more harrowing by the rain, moved us more than all the stories we had heard about last Monday’s fight.
As I was taking some horses down to drink I saw, near the gate of the loopholed cemetery at Azannes, some soldiers who had fallen asleep, stretched out anywhere, exhausted and half undressed. They might have been taken for dead men. That is how I think the fellows killed at Mangiennes must have looked. And those rags conjured up anew a vision of the trenches where they were lined up.
In the absolute silence which for eight days now has reigned all along the line we have almost forgotten the work of death for which we have come here.
At nightfall, after swallowing some hot soup, we returned to our billets, which are in a large barn where it is possible to get a good sleep in the straw. Soldiers of every rank and regiment were swarming in the village, and blue dolmans of the Chasseurs and the red breeches of the Infantry giving a welcome dash of colour to the sombre uniforms of the Artillery and Engineers as they all jostled together in the street. Some of them, carrying in each hand a pailful of water, shouted and swore at the others to let them pass.
It was still raining, and from the manure-heaps by the side of the road thick clouds of steam arose. The cavalrymen had made hoods of their horse-blankets, and many of the foot-soldiers were sheltering their heads and shoulders under sacks of coarse brown canvas which they had found in the barns or wagons. The whole of this muddy multitude was almost silent and solely bent upon getting back to their billets. Almost the only sound was the tramping of many feet in the mire. Four sappers, scaling a ladder to a loft from which hay was crowding out through a dark, wide-open window, looked like a bunch of black grapes hanging in mid-air.