We slept in the barn which the kindly old woman had placed at our disposal, and in which the hay was deep and warm. At three o’clock in the morning one of the stable pickets came to call us through the window. We harnessed our horses as best we could in the darkness.
An extremely diffused light was beginning to spread over the countryside, and the mist, rising from the meadows, dimmed the clearness of the dawn. We marched on through the powdery atmosphere. The fog was so thick that it was impossible to see the carriage immediately ahead, and from our places on the limber-boxes the lead driver and his horses looked like a sort of moving shadow.
Eventually we reached the little town of Virton. All the inhabitants were at their doors, and offered us coffee, milk, tobacco, and cigars. The men jumped off the limbers and hurriedly drank the steaming drinks poured out for them by the women, while the drivers, bending down from their horses, held out their drinking-tins.
“Have you seen the Germans?” we asked.
“Only one or two came to buy some socks and some sugar. I hope they won’t all come here. Will they?”
“Aren’t we here to prevent them?”
The women’s open faces, framed in their dark brown hair, were perfectly calm. Fat little children, like cherubs sprung to life from some canvas of Rubens, ran by the side of the column as we moved on, and others, a little bigger, kept crying : “Hurrah for the French!”
Our batteries joined up behind a group of the 26th Artillery on the Ethe road — a fine straight highway, flanked by tall trees. In the fog the sheaves in the fields looked so much like infantry that for a moment one was deceived. A few ambulances were installed in one of the villages. A little farther on some mules, saddled with their cacolets, were waiting at the end of a sunken road.
We had hardly passed the last houses when suddenly rifle-fire broke out with a sound like that of dry wood burning. A machine-gun also began to crackle, staccato, like a cinema apparatus.
Fighting was going on quite close, both in front of us and also to the right, somewhere in the fog. I listened, at every moment expecting to hear the hum of a bullet.
What had happened? Where were the batteries which had preceded us? We turned off to the right. The firing ceased. The march in the fog, which kept getting thicker, became harassing after a while. At all events we were sure, now, that the enemy was not far off.
Finally, at about seven o’clock, we halted. Not a sound of the battle was to be heard. We unbridled our horses and gave them some oats. The men lay down by the side of the road and dozed.
Suddenly the fusillade broke out again, but this time on the left. I asked myself how our position could have altered so in relation to that of the enemy. A few minutes ago the fighting was on our right. Perhaps it was only a patrol which had gone astray. I gave up thinking about it. Doubtless the fog had confused my sense of direction.
This time the firing sounded more distant. A single detonation, like a signal, was heard. I thought at first that it was one of the drivers whipping up his team, but a minute later the crackling of rifles broke on our ears in gusts, as if carried by a high wind. And yet the air was quite still, and the fog floated, motionless, on all sides.
Suddenly the sun broke through and the mists disappeared as if by magic, like large gauze curtains rapidly lifted. In a few moments the whole stretch of countryside became visible. The cannonade began at once.
On the right were some meadows in which flocks were feeding, and, farther on, a line of wooded hills, in the lap of which nestled a tiny
On the left and towards the north the horizon was hidden by a semicircle of hills through which a river wound its tortuous course, draining the stubble-fields on either side. A large, bowl-shaped willow-tree made a solitary green blotch on the background.
A battery was evidently already installed there, four dark points indicating the position of the four guns. As we stood waiting on the straight road, the perspective of which was accentuated by the trees flanking it on each side, the twelve batteries of our regiment, followed by their first lines of wagons, formed an interminable and motionless black line.
The Captain gave the order:
“Prepare for action!”
The gun-numbers who had been lying beneath the trees jumped to their feet and took off the breech-and muzzle-covers which protect the guns from dust when on the road. This done, they got the sighting-gear ready, and saw that the training and elevating levers were in good working order.
We were surprised in our work by an explosion quite near at hand. Above the stubble-fields a small white cloud was floating upwards. It expanded, and then disappeared. And suddenly, near the bowl-shaped willow-tree, six shrapnel shells burst, one after another.
I felt an odd sensation, as if my circulation was growing slower. But I was not afraid. For the matter of that, no immediate danger threatened us. Only I had an intuition that a big battle was about to begin, and that I should have to make a great effort.
The gunners anxiously riveted their eyes on a point of the horizon where shells were now falling almost incessantly. Of course none of them would have confessed to their anxiety, but there was a significant lull in the conversation. I do not know what we were waiting for — whether the fall of a shell or the arrival of orders.
For my part I excused myself for feeling apprehensive. The baptism of fire is always an ordeal, and the motionless waiting on the road had worked on my nerves. The enemy need only have lifted his fire in order to hit us as we stood there, defenceless, in column formation.
Besides, such emotions are only skin-deep. Even if anxiety could plainly be read in every man’s face we still kept smiling and inwardly resolved to do whatever might be necessary in order to make the coming battle a French victory.
The Colonel passed by, accompanied by Captain Manoury and a Staff of Lieutenants. He gave us a quiet but searching look, which seemed to gauge our mettle and encourage us at the same time. The small group of horse-men made off rapidly, ascending the slopes which were being bombarded by the enemy.
We were going into action.
On the side of the horseshoe-shaped ring of hills sections of infantry were deploying and advancing by successive rushes. Of a sudden men rose up and ran across the fields, and again as suddenly, at an inaudible word of command, threw themselves down, disappearing from view like so many rabbits. They went on farther and farther, and at last we saw their outlines silhouetted against the sky-line as they crossed the ridge of the hill.
It was about ten o’clock, and very hot. From the unknown country on the other side of the hills came the awe-inspiring roar of battle. The rifle-fire crackled continuously and the noise of the machine-guns sounded like waves beating against the rocks. The thunder of the heavy guns drowned, so to speak, the general din, and blended it into a single roar, similar to that of the ocean in a storm, when the waves gather and break with dull thuds amid the shriek of the wind as it lashes the waters.
The battle-line seemed to lie from east to west, the Germans holding the north and the French the south.
First we had to cross a meadow traversed by a stream almost hidden in the high grass. The gunners took the off-horses by the bridle and urged them forward, while the drivers whipped up their teams into a trot. The sun was shining under the wheels of the ammunition wagon as it suddenly proved too much for the horses and sank heavily up to the axle in the mud. It was eventually dislodged by some strong collar-work.
Where on earth were we going to? We seemed to be bound for the bowl-shaped willow-tree, near the heights from which the German machine-guns, for more than two hours, had been riddling every square inch of ground. Why were we being sent there? Were there not plenty of excellent positions on the hills? We should inevitably be massacred! But still the column advanced at a walking pace towards the sloping field in which shells were falling at every moment.
Why? Why? Death had reigned supreme there ever since the fog lifted. We were riding into the Valley. . . .
I felt a choking sensation grip my throat. And yet I was still capable of reasoning. I understood quite clearly that the hour was come for me to sacrifice my hfe. All of us would go up, yes! — but few would come back down the hill!
This combination of animality and thought which constitutes my life would shortly cease to be. My bleeding body would lie stretched out on the field; I seemed to see it. A curtain seemed to fall on the perspectives of the future which a moment ago still seemed full of sunshine. It was the end. It had not been long in coming, for I am only twenty-one.
Not for an instant did I argue with myself or hesitate. My destiny had to be sacrificed for the fulfilment of higher destinies — for the life of my country, of everything I love, of all I regretted at that moment. If I was to die, well and good 1 I was willing. I should almost have thought that it was harder ! . . .
We continued to advance at a walking pace, the drivers on foot at their horses’ heads. Presently we reached the willow-tree. A volley. . . . From far off came a sound at first resembling the whirr of wings or the rustle of a silken skirt, but which rapidly developed into a droning hum like that of hundreds of hornets in flight. The shell was coming straight at us, and the sensation one then experiences is indescribable. The air twangs and vibrates, and the vibrations seem to be communicated to one’s flesh and nerves — almost to the marrow of one’s bones. The detachment crouched down by the wheels of the ammunition wagon and the drivers sheltered behind their horses. At every moment we expected an explosion. One, two, three seconds passed — an hour. The instinct of self-preservation strong within me, I bent my shoulders and waited, trembling like an animal flinching from death. A flash! It seemed to fall at my feet. Shrapnel bullets whistled by like an angry wind.
But the column still remained motionless in the potato-field, which was so riddled by gun-fire that it was difficult to steer the vehicles between the shell craters.
Why were we waiting? How we wished that we could at least take up a position and reply to the enemy’s fire! It seemed to me that if only we could hear the roar of our .75’s the dread of those deathly moments would become less intense. But we seemed to be merely awaiting slaughter; the minutes dragged by and we still remained motionless.
Some shells, which for a moment I thought had actually grazed the limber, hurtled by and shook me from head to foot, making the armour behind which I was sheltering vibrate. Fortunately the ground was considerably inclined, and the projectiles burst farther back. I perspired with fear. . . . Yes, I was badly frightened. Nevertheless I knew that I should not run away, and that I should, if necessary, let myself be killed at my post. But the longing for action grew more and more insistent.
At last we started off again, progressing with difficulty across the furrowed field. The drivers could hardly manage their horses, which had been seized with panic and pulled in all directions.
Hutin gave me a nod:
“You are quite green, old chap!” he said.
“Well, if you could see your own face …” I answered.
A shell fell, throwing up a quantity of earth in front of the horses and wounding the centre driver of the ammunition wagon in the head,
killing him instantly.
Near the crest of the hill we took up our position on the edge of an oat-field. The limbers went off to the rear to shelter somewhere in the direction of Latour, the steeple of which could be seen overtopping the trees in the valley on our left. Crouching behind the armoured doors of the ammunition wagons and behind the gun-shields, we awaited the order to open fire. But the Captain, kneeling down among the oats in front of the battery, his field-glasses to his eyes, could discover no target, for yonder, over the spreading woods of Ethe and Etalle, now occupied by the enemy, a thick mist was still floating. All round us, behind our guns, over our heads, and without respite, high-explosive and shrapnel shell of every calibre kept bursting and strewing the position with bullets and splinters. Death seemed inevitable. Behind the gun was a small pit in which I took refuge while we waited for orders. A big bay saddle-horse, with a gash in his chest from which a red stream flowed, stood motionless in the middle of the field.
What with the hissing and whistling of the shells, the thunder of the enemy’s guns, and the roar from a neighbouring 75 battery, it was impossible to distinguish the different noises in this shrieking inferno of fire, smoke, and flames. I perspired freely, my body vibrating rather than trembling. The blood seethed in my head and throbbed in my temples, while it seemed as if an iron girdle encircled my chest. Unconsciously, like one demented, I hummed an air we had been singing recently in the camp and which haunted me.
Trou la la, ga ne va guere;
Trou la la, ca ne va pas
Something brushed past my back. At first I thought I was hit, but the shell splinter had only torn my breeches.
The battery became enveloped in black, nauseating smoke. Somebody was groaning, and I got up to see what had happened. Through the yellow fog I saw – Sergeant Thierry stretched on the ground and the six numbers of the detachment crowding round him. The shell had burst under the chase of his gun, smashing the recoil-buffer, and effectually putting the piece out of action.
Kneeling side by side. Captain Bernard de Brisoult and Lieutenant Hely d’Oissel were scanning the horizon through their field-glasses. I admired them. The sight of these two officers, and of the Major who was quietly strolling up and down behind the battery, made me ashamed to tremble. I passed through a few seconds of confused but intense mental suffering. Then it seemed as though I was awakening from a sort of feverish delirium, full of horrible nightmares. I was no longer frightened. And, when I again took shelter, having nothing else to do as we were not firing, I found I had overcome my instincts, and no longer shook with fear.
A horrible smell filled the pit.
“Phew!” I ejaculated hoarsely, “what a stink!”
Peering down I perceived Astruc in the bottom of the hollow. In a voice which seemed to come from the bowels of the earth he replied:
“All right, old son ! Don’t you worry . . . it’s only me. I’m sitting in a filthy mess here, but all the same I wouldn’t give up this place for twenty francs!”
Over the crest of the hill came some infantry in retreat. The sound of the machine-guns approached and eventually became distinguishable from the roar of the artillery.
The enemy was advancing and we were giving way before them. Shells continued to fly over us, and entire companies of infantry fell back.
The officers consulted together.
“But what are we to do ? . . . There are no orders … no orders,” the Major kept repeating.
And still we waited. The Lieutenant had drawn his revolver and the gunners unslung their rifles. The German batteries, possibly afraid of hitting their own troops, ceased firing. At any moment now the enemy might set foot on the ridge.
The order was quickly carried out.
We had to carry Thierry, whose knee was broken, with us. He was suffering horribly and implored us not to touch him. In spite of his protests, however, three men lifted him on to the observation-ladder. He was very pale, and looked ready to faint.
“Oh!” he murmured. “You are hurting me! Can’t you finish me?”
The rest of the wounded, five or six in number, hoisted themselves without assistance on to the limbers and the battery swung down the Latour road at a quick trot.
We had lost the battle. I did not know why or how. I had seen nothing. The French right must have had to retire a considerable distance, for, ahead to the south-east, I saw shells bursting over the woods which that morning had been some way behind our lines. We were completely outflanked, and I was seized with qualms as to whether our means of retreat were still open. We crossed the railway, some fields, and a river in succession, and approached the chain of hills, wooded half-way up their slopes, which stretched parallel to the heights the army had occupied in the morning. These were doubtless to be our rallying positions. The drivers urged their horses onwards while the gunners, who had dismounted from the limbers in order to lighten the load, ran in scattered order by the side of the column. The narrow road we were following was badly cut up, the stones rolling from under the horses’ hoofs at every step. Half-way up the steep incline we found the way barred by an infantry wagon which had come to a standstill. A decrepit white horse was struggling in the shafts. The driver swore and hauled at the wheels, but the animal could not start.
One of the corporals shouted out: “Now then, get on, can’t you?”
Get on! … As if he could! The driver, without leaving hold of the wheel which he was preventing from going backwards, turned a distracted face towards us, almost crying with, baffled rage.
“Get on? How am I to get on?” We lent him a hand and succeeded in pushing his wagon into the field so that we could pass.
It was about two o’clock in the afternoon, and the heat was stifling. The battle seemed to have come to an end, and the only gun-shots audible came from far away on the left, near Virton and St. Mard.
The column stretched out in a long black line on the hill-side as we crawled upwards through the woods crowning the summit in order to find a road by which we might gain the plateau. The horizon gradually opened out before us. Suddenly, from the direction of Latour, a machine-gun began to crackle; I hurriedly lifted my hand to my ear like one who drives away a buzzing wasp.
“They’re firing at us!” cried Hutin.
Bullets began to hum past. Machine-guns had opened fire on us from the top of the positions we had just vacated. One of the horses, wounded, fell to its knees and was promptly unharnessed. A gunner, shot through the thigh, nevertheless continued to march.
Close by, in a valley where we were sheltered from the fire, we found a spot where one corner of the field cut a wedge out of the forest. Here we parked our three batteries and waited for orders. I saw at once how critical our position was. There was no road leading to the plateau through the wood, and several vehicles of the 10th Battery, which had ventured to try a bridle-path, soon found it impossible either to advance or go back.
One of the guns had sunk up to the axle in the muddy ground. The only means of retreat, therefore, was to cross the bare fields on the right or left and once again run the gauntlet not only of the machine-guns, but also, perhaps, of the enemy’s field artillery, which by now had had time to come up. The longer we waited the more problematical became our chances of escaping unscathed.
Besides, I could not help wondering how long the route across the plateau was likely to remain available. We were already out-flanked, and in front of us the Germans were still advancing down the crescent-shaped hills. They had doubtless already occupied Latour.
The Major still waited for orders. He hardly spoke a word, but every now and then his jaws contracted spasmodically — a sign of nervousness we soldiers knew well. He was “cracking nuts,” as the men say. He had dispatched a corporal to ask for instructions, but no one knew where the Staff was likely to be found at that hour. The army was in full retreat.
Eventually a dragoon galloped up and drew rein in front of our officers. We anxiously crowded round him. He brought information that the retreat of the army was being effected on the right by the Ruettes road. The enemy, he said, had already taken Latour, and was advancing towards Ville-Houdlemont.
The column immediately leapt into life. Lieutenant Hely d’Oissel, riding on alone ahead, showed us the way. Again the machine-guns broke out in the distance, but this time no bullets whistled past us. For a few moments we were stopped by a paling, which we broke down with our axes. The open space we had to cross was short — a meadow capping the rising ground between the trees. We eventually reached Ruettes by a narrow lane on both sides of which rose steep banks.
Near the church stood a General without any Staff, and accompanied solely by three Chasseurs.
The Tellancourt road was a veritable river.
In the breathless hurry and bustle of the retreat we had to make our way through the crowd by force. Such battalions as still possessed their Majors went on in front with the artillery column. And, tossed about from right to left Hke bits of cork in the swirl of a current, dragged this way and that in the eddies, sometimes pushed into the ditch, and sometimes carried off their feet by the torrent, the tattered remnants of troops surged down the road. Wounded, limping, many without rifle or pack, they made slow progress. Some made an effort to climb upon our carriages, and either hoisted themselves on to the ammunition wagons or let themselves be dragged along like automata.
While the retreat of the infantry divisions continued along the highway, we turned off down a steep road to the right and reached the plateau. The day was drawing to a close, and the shadow of the thick woods at Gueville, between us and the sun, was projected on to the side of the next hill. Here there were no stragglers, but the ditches were full of wounded, resting for a moment before continuing the painful ascent. Many of them looked as though they would never get up again. Some were lying half hidden in the grass.
There was already something skull-like about their faces; the eyes, wide open and bright with fever, stared fixedly from out their sunken sockets as though at something we could not see. Their matted hair was glued to their foreheads with sweat, which slowly trickled down the drawn, emaciated faces, leaving white zigzag furrows in the dirt of dust and smoke. Hardly one of the wounded was bandaged, and the blood had made dark stains on their coats and splashed their ragged uniforms. Not a complaint was to be heard. Two soldiers, without packs or rifles, were trying to help a little infantryman whose shoulder had been shattered by a shell, and who, deathly white and with closed eyes, wearily but obstinately shook his head, refusing to be moved. Others, wounded in the leg, still managed to hobble along with the aid of their rifles, which they used as crutches. They implored us to find place for them on the carriages.
We contrived to make room for them on the limbers. At every bump and jolt a big bugler, whose chest had been shot clean through by a bullet, gave a gasp of pain.
In the fields by the roadside lay torn and gaping packs, from which protruded vests, pants, caps, brushes, and other items of kit. The road itself was littered with boots, mess-tins, and camp-kettles crushed by the wheels and horses’ hoofs, shirts, bayonets, cartridge belts with the brass cases shining in the dust, kepis, and broken Lebel rifles. It was a sight to make one weep, and, despite myself, my thoughts went back to the retreat of August 1870, after Wissemboiurg and Forbach. . . . And yet for a month past we had heard continually of French victories, and had almost begun to picture Alsace reconquered and the road into Germany laid open. Nevertheless, at the first attack, here was our army routed ! With some astonishment I realized that I had taken part in a defeat.
We reached the edge of the Gueville woods, which were being defended by the 102nd Infantry. Arms and equipment still bestrew the road, which had also been cut up into ridges by the artillery and convoys. The wounded on our lurching and jolting wagons looked like men crucified.
I questioned the big bugler:
“Shall we stop? Perhaps this shakes you too much? ”
“No! Anything rather than fall into their hands.”
“Yes, but still . . .”
“No, no— that’s all right.”
And he bit his lips to avoid crying out. I was very tired, and my head felt at the same time heavy and yet light. My one desire was to sleep, no matter where.
Hardly were we out of the wood when the battery halted in a field full of wheat-sheaves near a village called La Malmaison. I threw myself down on some straw. If we stayed there we should certainly not even be able to sleep; the enemy was too close, and we should probably be attacked at night. And my one thought was to sleep, to get far enough away to sleep. I waited for the prophetic order “Unharness!” which would leave us in this field to fight again in an hour’s time — perhaps at once. But other orders arrived, and off we rumbled once more,
through La Malmaison, which we found congested with troops in disorder. Night fell. I had now reached the extreme limits of fatigue and began to be less conscious of what was going on around me. As if in a dream I saw the men huddled on the limber-boxes, their heads rolling on their shoulders, and the drivers lurching from side to side on their horses like drunken men. I still seem to hear a gunner of the 26th Artillery, who, sitting on the ammunition wagon, was telling how the three batteries which preceded us this morning on the road to Ethe were caught by the German machine-gun fire and taken in column formation, and how he himself had been able, thanks to the fog, to escape almost alone.
We went on through the night, our wagons creaking and ratthng with a sound almost like a sort of cannonade. One of the whips was dragging. . . . For a moment I thought I heard a machine-gun. . . . What an obsession! . . . The column rolled on through the darkness, the monotonous rumble of the wheels unbroken by an order or word of any kind.
About midnight, after a very long march, we again reached Torgny, and encamped there. The roll was not even called. I threw myself face-downwards on some hay in a barn, and it seemed to me, as I fell asleep, that I was dying.