It was still night when I was awakened and saw a dark shadow standing over me.
“Up you get!”
“What time is it?”
“Don’t know,” answered the sentry who had roused me. The villages were still burning. Feeling our way, and almost noiselessly, we harnessed our teams, and the limbers came up. A steep decline . . . the stones rolled. In the darkness the horses might stumble at any moment. The brakes acted badly, and we hung on to the vehicles, letting ourselves be dragged along in order to relieve the wheelers, which were almost being run over by the heavy ammunition wagon.
At early dawn we passed through a slumbering village. Stretched on the ground under the lee of the high wall surrounding the church five Chasseurs were sleeping. Twisted round one arm they held the reins of their horses, which, standing motionless beside them, were also asleep. A pale, cold light was breaking through the fog, which had collected at the bottom of the valley. It was very cold as we marched along in silence, the men snoring on the limber-boxes. We were going westwards — retiring, that is to say. Why? Were we not in a good position to wait for the enemy? Suddenly a silver sun shone through the mist, surrounded by a halo of light.
After a long halt in a lucerne-field manured with stable refuse, the smell of which remained in our nostrils, we took up position on a hill near Flassigny. But hardly had we done so when fresh orders arrived, and we started off again, always towards the west. In the space between two hills we caught sight of a distant town — doubtless Montmedy.
About midday we halted in a valley near the river.
“Dismount ! Unharness the off-horses. Stand easy!”
The sun was burning hot, and not a breath stirred in the heavy air. Our bottles only contained a little of the Othain water, brackish and tepid, but at any rate it served to wash in. The men went to sleep in the ditches, the horses standing motionless, exhausted by the heat.
The evening was already advanced when our Group received instructions to push on to Marville, presumably to camp there.
I recognized the place, for we had passed through Marville on our way to Torgny. At that time it was a pretty little town with flowerygardens and river-side villas surrounded by dahlias. Now, however, the place was deserted. Large carts belonging to the Meuse
peasantry were waiting, ready to start, piled high with bedding, boxes, and baskets. In one of them I caught sight of a canary-cage side by side with a perambulator and a cradle. Women, surrounded by children, were sitting on the heterogeneous heap, crying bitterly, while the little ones hid their heads in their skirts. Some dogs, impatient to be off, were nosing uneasily round the wheels of the carts. We asked these poor people where they were going.
“We don’t know ! They say we’ve got to go. . . . And so we’re going . . . and with babies like these!”
And they questioned us in their turn:
“Which way do you think we’d better go? We don’t know!”
Nor did we. Nevertheless, we pointed out a direction.
“Go that way! Over there!”
“Over there” was towards the west. . . . Oh, what misery ! . . .
We bivouacked on the outskirts of the town. Near-by flowed a river, on the opposite side of which two dead horses were lying in a stubble-field.
The Captain of the 10th Battery, which we had believed lost, arrived on horseback at the camp. He told the Major that in the Gueville woods he had managed to save his four guns, but had had to leave the ammunition wagons behind. His battery had taken up position somewhere on the hills surrounding Marville on the south-east, and he had come to get orders.
The rent made by a shell-splinter two days previously in the seat of my breeches was causing me great discomfort. Divided between the wish to patch it up and the fear lest the order might come to break up the camp before I had finished, I let the quiet hours of the evening pass without doing this very necessary work.