I was awakened by the sun, and stretched myself.
“A good night at last, eh, Hutin?”
Hutin, still asleep, made no answer. Deprez called out :
“Now then, oats!”
Nobody was in a hurry. Two men, a confused mass of dark blue cloth, quietly went on snoring amid the straw strewn under the chase of the gun. Suddenly I thought I heard a familiar sound, and instinctively turned to see whence it came.
“Down!” cried some one.
The men threw themselves down where they stood. In mid-air, above the camp, a shell burst. In the still atmosphere the compact cloud of smoke floated motionless among the thin grey mists.
“It’s that aeroplane we saw yesterday we’ve got to thank for that,” said Hutin, who had been fully awakened by the explosion.
“Yes, but it was too high.”
“That’s only a trial round to find the range. We shall get it hot in a few minutes, you’ll see!”
“Now then, bridle! Hook in! Quick!”
The camp at once became full of movement, the gunners hurrying to their horses and limbers. In the twinkling of an eye the picketlines were wound round the hooks behind the limbers, and the teams were ready to start. Again came the whistling of an approaching projectile. The men merely rounded their backs without interrupting their work. High-explosive shells now began to fall on Marville,
and others, hurtling over our heads, swooped down on the neighbouring hills which the enemy doubtless believed manned by French
artillery. The drivers, leaning over their horses’ necks, whipped up the teams, and the column made off at a trot to take up position
on the hills to the west of the town, which dominated the Othain valley and the uplands on the other side of the river, whence the
enemy was approaching. A veritable hail of lead, steel, and fire was raining upon Marville.
One of the first shells struck the steeple. The town was not visible from our position, but large black columns of smoke were rising
perpendicularly into the sky, and there was no doubt that the place was in flames. Amid the roar of the cannonade, which had now become an incessant thunder which rose, fell, echoed, and rolled without intermission, it was difficult to distinguish between shots
coming from the enemy’s guns and those fired from ours. After a time, however, we were able to recognize the short sharp barks
of the .75’s in action.
“Attention! Gun-layers, forward!”
The men hurried up to the Captain.
“That tree like a brush … in front. . . .”
“We see it, sir ! ”
” That’s your aiming-point. Plate 0, dial 150.”
The men ran to the guns and layed them, the breeches coming to rest as they closed on the shells. The gun-layers raised their hands.
“First round,” ordered the gun-commander.
The detachment stood by outside the wheels of the gun, the firing number bending down to seize the lanyard.
The gun reared like a frightened horse. I was shaken from head to foot, my skull throbbing and my ears tingling as though with the jangle of enormous bells which had been rung close to them. A long tongue of fire had darted out of the muzzle, and the wind caused by the round raised a cloud of dust round us. The ground quaked. I noticed an unpleasant taste in my mouth — musty at first, and acrid after a few seconds. That was the powder. I hardly knew whether I tasted it or whether I smelled it. We continued firing, rapidly, without stopping, the movements of the men co-ordinated, precise, and quick. There was no talking, gestures sufficing to control the manoeuvre. The only words audible were the range orders given by the Captain and repeated by the Nos. 1.
“Two thousand five hundred!”
“Two thousand five hundred and twenty-five !”
After the first round the gun was firmly settled, and the gun-layer and the firing number now installed themselves on their
seats behind the shield. On firing, the steel barrel of the .75 mm. gun recoils on the guides of the hydraulic buffer, and then quietly and gently returns to battery, ready for the next round. Behind the gun there was soon a heap of blackened cartridge-cases, still smoking.
The gunners stretched themselves out on the grass, and some began to roll cigarettes.
Another aeroplane; the same black hawk silhouetted against the pale blue sky which at every moment was getting brighter.
The men swore and shook their fists. What tyranny! It was marking us down!
Suddenly the enemy’s heavy artillery opened fire on the hills we were occupying as well as on a neighbouring wood. It was time to
change position, since for us the most perilous moment is when the teams come up to join the guns. A battery is then extremely vulnerable.
Before the enemy could correct his range the Major gave an order and we moved off to take up a fresh position in a hollow on the plain. The wide fields around us were bristling with stubble, and on the left a few poplars, bordering a road, traced a green line on the bare countryside. In front of us and behind stretched empty trenches. Marville was still burning, the smoke blackening the whole of the eastern sky. The sun was now high in the heavens, and poured a dazzling light on the stubble-fields. We were suffering badly from hunger and thirst. The din of the battle seemed continually to grow louder.
At the foot of some distant hills, still blue in the mist on the south-eastern horizon, the Captain had perceived a column of artillery or a convoy and large masses of men on the march. Were they French troops, or was it the enemy? He was not sure. The mist and the distance made it impossible to recognize the uniforms.
” We can’t fire if those are French troops,” said he.
Standing on an ammunition wagon he scanned the threatening horizon through his field-glasses.
“If it’s the enemy, they are outflanking us . . . outflanking us ! They’ll be in the woods in a moment. . . . We shan’t be able
to see them. … Go and ask the Major.”
The Major was no better informed than the Captain, the orders he had received saying nothing about these hills. He also was using
his field-glasses, but could not distinguish the uniforms of the moving masses. In his turn he muttered :
“If it’s the enemy they’re surrounding us!”
A mounted scout was hastily dispatched. We remained in suspense, a prey to nervous excitement.
A single foot-soldier had stopped near the fourth gun. He had neither pack nor rifle. We questioned him :
“Where have you come from?”
The Captain signalled for the man to be taken to him. The soldier, who had thrown away his arms, did not hurry to obey.
“What are those troops down there?” asked the Captain. “French?”
“I don’t know!”
“Well, where do you come from?”
The soldier waved his arm with a vague, comprehensive gesture which embraced half the horizon.
“From over there!”
The Captain shrugged his shoulders.
“Yes, but where are the Germans ? Do you know whether they have turned Marville on the south?”
” No, sir. . . . You see, I was in a trench. . . . And the shells began to come along — great big black ones. . . . First they burst
behind us, a hundred yards or more. . . . Then, of course, we didn’t mind ’em. But soon some of them fell right on us . . . and
then we ran ! ”
“But your officers?”
The man made a sign of ignorance. Nothing more could be got out of him. Just at that moment a shell came hissing through the air,
and he at once made off at full speed, crouching as he ran. A few dislocated words came back to us over his shoulder:
” h I Bon Dieu de bon Dieu!”
The shell burst on the other side of the road, and the moment after three others exploded nearer still. The Captain had not ceased to follow through his glasses the doubtful troops which, by now, had nearly reached the woods. We waited anxiously, standing in a circle round him.
” I believe they’re French,” said he. ” Here, Lintier, have a look! You’ve got good eyes.”
Through the glasses I was able to distinguish the red of the breeches.
” Yes, they’re French, sir. But where are they going to?”
The Captain made no reply, and I understood that once again our army was in retreat.
A shower of shells poured down on the field behind us.
The enemy’s fire, too much to the left and too high at first, was getting nearer, and was now corrected as far as training went. Our
lives depended on the whim of a Prussian Captain and a slight correction for elevation.
Just at that moment some sections of infantry suddenly appeared on the edge of the plateau and hurriedly fell back. A company of the I Gist had come to man the trenches behind our guns.
The air began to vibrate again, and more shells fell, this time right on the top of us. A splinter brushed by my head and clanged on
the armour of the ammunition wagon. Another shell plumped down in the trench full of infantry. One, two, three seconds passed; then came a groan and a cry. A man got up and fled, then another, and, finally, the whole company. Their heads held low, and with bent knees, they scurried off. Behind them a wounded man hastily unstrapped his pack, threw both it and his gun to one side, and limped rapidly away.
A road orderly arrived with an envelope for the Major. Orders to retire. We limbered up, and moved off at a walking pace. Under the bright sun the stubble-field, with its entrails of black earth laid bare by the gashes torn by the high-explosive shells, seemed to
possess something of the horror of a corpse mutilated with gaping wounds. Near the points of burst clods of earth had been blown
to a distance, and, round the edge of the hole, the soil was raised in a circular embankment. We were still threatened by sudden death.
Some one asked:
“Why don’t we go quicker ? . . . We shall get done in!”
But I fancy that all of us were conscious that fatalism — which is, I believe, the beginning of courage — had got a grip on us. The
enemy was firing without seeing us, and his shells seemed like the blows of Fate descending from heaven. Why here rather than there?
We did not know, and the enemy assuredly did not know either. In that case, what was the good of hurrying? Death might as easily
overtake us a little farther on. Useless to hurry, then ; absolutely useless. … In front, our officers, heel by heel, rode on, talking.
In the trench in which the shell had just burst a single soldier remained behind. He was stretched out face downwards on a heap of straw which he had gathered under him for greater comfort. Blood was oozing from a wound in his back, making large black stains on the cloth, and the straw underneath him was dyed crimson. Another splinter had hit him in the back of the neck; his kepi had fallen
off and his face was buried in the straw. All eyes were turned on him as we passed, but not a word was said. What can one say about a
burst shell or a dead man?
Another defeat! Just as in 1870! . . . Just as in 1870! We were all obsessed by the same paralysing thought.
“They are devilish strong! Look at that!” said Deprez, pointing towards the plateau where, as for as the eye could reach, swarms of French infantry could be seen retreating, Latour, six hours’ fighting; to-day, hardly more. Beaten again! Oh, God!
We felt a blind rage against those who had fallen back. We did not retreat last Saturday when we were in action by the willow-tree.
In the distance, towards Marville, columns of artillery were trailing over the bare fields. A blue and red squadron was raising clouds of dust. Waves of infantry, diminishing but still noticeable, dust-covered cavalry, and black lines of artillery could be seen as far as the horizon, moving under the scorching sun. The guns had ceased to roar and there was absolute silence. The earth, parched and hot, exhaled a vapour which seemed to follow the movements of the men. It was almost as if the entire plateau had begun to march.
At Remoiville we came upon a beautiful chateau of the Early Renaissance period, with severe Hnes of long terraces and lofty turrets
over which floated a white flag with a red cross. In the village not a soul was to be seen. Doors and windows were all closed.
A few hens were scratching about on a manure heap, and a pig, which two gunners were killing in a little sty black with refuse, raised
piercing and discordant squeals. And yet, on the threshold of one of the last houses, a wretched ruin in the shadowy interior of
which we caught a glimpse of a varnished wardrobe, two old women, bent with age, watched us as we passed with eyes which were hardly perceptible under their furrowed eyelids. Only their fingers moved. Their silent and fixed stare, as keen as a steel blade, followed us like a reproach. Oh, we know it well, the bitter remorse of a retreat ! A deep sense of shame oppressed us as we filed through these villages which we were powerless to protect, which we were abandoning to the fury of the enemy. Things in them assumed an almost human expression; the fronts of the forsaken dwellings wore an air of dejected suffering. Fancy, no doubt ! Just imagination — but poignant and vivid imagination, nevertheless, for to-morrow all these villages might be burning and we, from our camp on the hills, should see the crops and cottages flaming when the sun went down.
It seems that the Allies have beaten the Germans in the north and in Alsace. At any rate the Communal and Army Bulletins, which are given us sometimes, say so. Then how is it that we are saddled with this terrible reproach by things and people whom we cannot defend against an enemy too superior in numbers ?
We waited some time at Remoiville, and then set off across the river, which boasted a single bridge. The crossing was carried out in good order. Then, by the only road, across the valleyed country where dark green forests alternated with fresh pasture-land, the retreat of the 4th Army Corps began.
The western horizon was limited by a long range of blue hills of magnificent outlines. It was doubtless upon these that the French
intended to stop and entrench themselves.
On the right of the road the interminable procession of artillery and convoys continued: guns of all calibres, ammunition wagons, forage wagons, carts, supply and store vehicles, division and corps ambulances, and peasants’ carts full of bleeding wounded, their heads sometimes enveloped in lint turbans red with gore.
Keeping to the left the infantry marched abreast in good order down the road, which was already badly cut up. In front of us rolled a 120 mm. battery. One of the corporals had half a sheep hanging from his saddle.
The l0th Battery had lost all its guns, for when, about one o’clock, the infantry gave up all resistance, the gunners could not limber up, the enemy’s fire having almost completely destroyed the teams. Captain Jamain had been hit in the thigh by a shell splinter. We
caught sight of him as he lay stretched on a hay-cart among the wounded foot-soldiers.
The forest, very dense and very dark in spite of the blazing sun, deadened the tramp of the infantry on the march and the rumble of the wheels.
In the ditches some foundered horses were standing with drooping heads and half-closed eyes glassy with fatigue. Occasionally a wheel fouled them, but they did not budge an inch. They would only He down to die.
As it turned out, however, the 4th Army Corps was not going to await the enemy on the hills which, in a series of ridges, commanded the plain and the forest. Some one told me that the whole of Ruffey’s Army was falling back behind the Meuse. The general retreat continued along the highway, but our Group turned aside down a by-road which led first to a village swarming with troops, and then zigzagged up the wooded hill-side.
We began the ascent. The sky had suddenly clouded over and the air became sultry. A few drops of rain fell. The main road below, over which the tide of retreating troops ebbed ceaselessly on between the poplars bordering it on either side, looked like a canal filled with black water and moved by a slow current.
The column halted, and we carefully wedged the wheels. The men were tired, and hardly any words were spoken. The silence was only broken by the jingling of the curb-chains as the horses stretched their necks, and by the patter of the rain on the leaves.
We advanced another hundred yards or so, and at the next turn of the road stopped again. A peasant’s cart, filled with bedding,
upon which were sitting a woman — obviously pregnant — and an old lady, both sheltering under a large umbrella, tried to pass the
column. But several of the ammunition wagons, of which the wheels had been badly secured, had slid backwards and barred the way. A girl was driving the heavy cart, which was being laboriously dragged up the hill by a mare in foal between the shafts, and a colt in front, the latter pulling in all directions. Both the girl and the animals stuck pluckily to their job.
“Now then, come up!”
The mare threw herself into the collar, and, with our aid, they eventually reached the head of the column, after which the way was clear. The girl stopped the cart for a moment and caressed the nose of the heavy animal, from whose haunches steam arose in clouds.
We exchanged a few words.
“Where are you going to?”
” We don’t know. At any rate we must cross the Meuse. . . . We’re late, too. All those who had to go went this morning, when we first heard the guns. But we didn’t; we thought we would wait a little longer and see what happened. But after all we had to go too. Best to go, isn’t it ? ”
“Yes,” we told them, “you’d better go.”
“And the Germans are perfect savages, aren’t they ? ”
“They’ll burn our houses … we shan’t find anything when we come back — nothing but ashes. Oh, it’s awful! . . . Can’t you kill them all?”
“If only we could! . . .”
“Now then, come up, old girl!”
The cart moved on.
“Good luck!” cried the girl over her shoulder.
“Thanks— good luck!”
Near the top of the hill was a large clearing in the woods, from which the forest appeared like a magnificent mantle thrown over the shoulders of the neighbouring crests, rounding their edges and softening their outlines. From this point we could see the whole of the Woevre plain we had just crossed as well as Remoiville and the plateau of Marville, where, standing sharply out against the bare ields, was the dark line of poplars near which we had been in action in the morning.
Here, in a field where the oats were only half cut, we prepared to wait for the enemy. Our mission was to cover the retreat of the
4th Army Corps, which still continued below on the main road over which an interminable procession of Paris motor-omnibuses was now
passing. The sky had become overcast, and the heavy clouds banking up behind us, to the west, threatened to shorten the daylight.
Advancing round the edge of the wood, in order not to reveal our presence, the battery finally came to a halt on the outskirts of the
sloping forest, behind some clumps of trees which afforded good cover. We unharnessed and placed the horses and limbers against the
background of foliage of which, from a long distance, they would seem to form part. We hoped to have a quiet evening, especially as
the next day would probably be a very strenuous one. The two batteries which at present formed the Group, that is to say only seven guns, would have to hold up the enemy a sufficient time to ensure the retreat of the Army Corps. But we hardly gave any heed to the morrow, being too tired to think or reason.
We had still to take the horses to the pond in the village at the foot of the hill, and started off down a steep and narrow path through the wood. The only street of the hamlet was still crowded with troops. Through the open window of the mayor’s house I saw
General Boelle. He looked grave but not worried, and I searched in vain for a sign of uneasiness in his expression.
Infantrymen had piled arms on both sides of the road in front of the houses. A flag in its case was lying across two piles. At the door of the vicarage at least two hundred men were crowded together holding out their water-bottles. The cure, it appeared, was giving them all his wine. Some Chasseurs, their reins slung over their arms, stood waiting for orders, smoking, their backs to the wall of the church. I overheard some of their talk.
“So Mortier’s dead, is he ? ”
“Yes. Got a bullet in the stomach.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing much. … He said, ‘They’ve got me!’ and he lay down clutching his stomach with both hands. He rolled from side to side and said : ‘Ah-a-a-ah! They’ve got me!’ His horse, Balthazar, was snifhng at him. He hadn’t let go of the reins . . . still held ’em just like I’m holding these, over his arm. I heard him say, ‘ Poor old boy ! ‘ He was all doubled up, and groaned and panted ‘ ouf- ouf ! ‘ and then all of a sudden he stretched himself right out at full length. . . . One more Chasseur less! His face wasn’t a pretty sight, and I shut his eyes for him. Then I broke off a branch from a tree and covered his face with it, as I should like some one to do
to me if I went under. . . . Must cover up the dead somehow. . . . After that I came back with Balthazar.”
When we had climbed back up the hill and regained our clearing many of the foot-soldiers had already left, while others were strapping
on their packs and unpiling arms. We were informed that only one battalion was to stay there and support us. I wondered what awful attack the next day might hold in store.
A Captain of infantry accosted Astruc, who was astride Lieutenant Heiy d’Oisseys big horse.
“Hallo there, gunner ! ”
“Well i’m shot if it isn’t Tortue!”
“Tortue, sir? Who’s Tortue?”
“Why, the horse I lost. That’s him! There can’t be any mistake. Dismount now, quick, and hand him over!”
“But, sir, this horse belongs to our Lieutenant! I must take him back to him. What would he say to me!”
“Well, I tell you to dismount. I suppose I know my own saddle, don’t I ? And Tortue . . . why, she knows me. . . . There! You see there’s no doubt about it. It’s Tortue all right, my mare which I lost at Ethe.”
” But, sir, this is a horse, not a mare.”
The officer examined the animal more closely.
“Oh! ah ! Why yes, it’s true! Now that’s odd . . . most extraordinary! I could have sworn it was Tortue. …”
Night fell, the mist enveloping the trees round the clearing. Under the black clouds passed yet another aeroplane, blacker even than they. Could the pilot see us at that hour? If so we might expect a shower of shells at daybreak. The machine pitched and tossed in the sky above the clearing, for the wind had risen and was blowing in gusts from the west.
We had strewn some cut oats round the guns, as the night was chilly, and it looked like rain. The wind, freshening into a gale, wrapped our cloaks tightly round us and almost seemed to move the men themselves. No light of any kind was to be seen on the plain over which our guns were pointing, and which soon became shrouded in the impenetrable darkness ahead. In one corner the clearing cut into the forest, and here, where the thick brushwood rose like a black wall on either side, we were allowed to light a fire. The wind blew in gusts on the flames, which it first nearly extinguished and then rekindled, making the shadows of the men flicker fantastically on the ground.
I was tired out — artillery fire creates an irresistible desire to sleep — and I Was also rather hungry. Not feeHng possessed of sufficient courage to wait for the meat to be cooked and the coffee brewed, I devoured my ration of beef raw and stretched myself out in the oats behind the ammunition wagon, where I was sheltered from the wind.