Reveille came at dawn, and we woke to find a thick fog enveloping the battery. We were soaking with dew, and our benumbed and swollen limbs moved jerkily and with difficulty. The uncertain half-light awoke in us a feeling of anxiety and dread which, still heavy with sleep as we were, it was hard to throw off.
Wrapped in our cloaks and standing motionless round the guns, we had leisure to examine our situation in this clearing in the middle of the forest. On the right, according to our officers, it was not known whether there were any French troops. On this side the woods stretched uninterruptedly from the ridges we were occupying as far as Remoiville. On the left the movements of the 4th Army Corps were to be carried out. It is said that normally an army corps takes ten hours to effect a retreat along a single road. And this retreat had already been in progress for more than fifteen hours.
Our position in the clearing was difficult in itself, and might become positively perilous if the fog did not lift. Nothing could be distinguished at a distance of fifty yards from the guns, and the enemy might advance in the plain, threaten the retreating army, and take us by surprise.
On all sides of us, therefore, were the woods and their shadows, the Unknown and Unexpected. In front of us the enemy hidden in the mist; behind, the Meuse; danger everywhere.
The thought of the Meuse was especially disturbing. When it should become necessary for us to retire in our turn, the Germans, whom there would be nothing to check on the right, might reach the river before us. Possibly we should not find a single bridge left standing. We might have to sacrifice ourselves for the defence of the army.
The hours dragged by. The mists seemed to be collecting on the flank of the hills facing the Meuse, whence they were wafted by the west wind in filmy, trailing clouds which gradually curled over the crests of the hills, floated towards us, enveloping our batteries for an instant, and then slowly sank down on the plain.
I have written these notes on my knee, my back resting against the brass bottoms of the shells in the ammunition wagon, which was opened out like a wardrobe. The men were standing about smoking, waiting for orders.
At last, about eight o’clock, the sun shone over the top of the hill and the fog, like a kind of impenetrable gauze, began to draw away in front of us. One by one the trees reappeared, only the tops of the loftiest remaining shrouded in the mist. Nothing stirred. The road, black yesterday with men and horses now appeared absolutely white between the meadows damp with dew and vividly green under the first rays of the morning sun.
Lying flat on our chests in the grass in front of our guns, on a sort of natural terrace between the stones descending the slope, we scanned the plain. After a time everything seemed to move, and one had to make an effort to dispel the illusion.
The men are saying that we may have to stay here two days. Surely that cannot be possible? Somebody asserted that he had heard the instructions given to the Major by a General :
“You’ll stay there,” said he,” as long as the position is tenable. I rely on your instinct as an artilleryman.”
Another man supported the first speaker.
“Yes, that’s right. He said, ‘ Solente, I rely on your instinct as an artilleryman.’ Why, I heard him myself.”
We also heard that last Saturday’s engagement would be known as the Battle of Ethe.
“No,” said another. ” It will be called the Battle of Virton.”
“Ethe, Virton ! . . . What the devil does it matter what it’s called. Seeing that we’ve had to retreat ! . . .”
“Oh, yes, but all the same,” said the trumpeter, ” we ought to know. Suppose you get back to your people and they ask you what engagements you’ve been in. You’ll answer, ‘ I’ve been fighting in Belgium.’
“Yes,’ they’ll say,” but Belgium is a big place — bigger than our commune! Were you at Liege, or Brussels, or Copenhagen? ‘ You would look a silly fool ! ”
The other shrugged his shoulders.
With the help of a bayonet we opened a box of bully-beef for the four of us, and fell to. The only sound was that made by the hatchet of one of the men who was chopping down a small birch-tree which might conceivably interfere with the fire of his gun.
The silence was too intense, the immobility of the countryside too complete. The enemy was there. We neither heard him nor saw him, but that only rendered him the more sinister. The unwonted calm, when we had braced ourselves up for battle, was terrifying, and our nerves became overstrained.
I supposed that the retreat of the 4th Army Corps had by this time been accompHshed. Time passed, and the French army was still falling back, while the enemy advanced cautiously, threading his way through the woods.
Suddenly, about two o’clock, a machine-gun began to crackle quite close by in the forest. A horseman galloped through the clearing
and drew rein beside the Major. We at once limbered up.
Was our retreat cut off? The staccato rattle of the machine-gun was now accompanied by intermittent rifle-fire. We had to cross the clearing diagonally in order to reach a forest path. Quite calmly, and determined to save our guns, we got our rifles ready. But the column crossed the close-cropped field without our hearing a single bullet, and we gained the wood in safety. We had to hurry, for the road, even if still open, might be closed at any moment.
Leaning over the necks of the horses in order to avoid the low-hanging branches which threatened to drag them from their saddles, and gauging by eye the narrow passage between the trees, the drivers urged their teams forward with whip and spur.
The road was still open. . . . We arrived at Dun-sur-Meuse, where we had to cross the river. The Captain assembled the non-commissioned officers :
“The bridge is mined. Warn your drivers to take care of the sacks on each side of the bridge. They’re full of melinite.”
In order to let us through the sappers threw some planks across the pit they had opened up in the centre of the bridge.
The hindmost vehicles of the column had not advanced two hundred yards on the other side of the Meuse, when a loud explosion shook us on our seats. The bridge had just been blown up. Behind us a large white cloud of smoke curled up in thick volutes, masking half
As we stood waiting for orders in a field, our guns in double column, some one called out:
“There’s the postmaster!”
“At last ! ”
“Letters! letters! A man to each gun!”
For eight days we had been waiting for news, and each man drew a little aside in order to be alone as he read.
It seems certain that the battle of Saturday the 22nd will be known as the battle of Virton.