It had poured all night, and rain was still falling when we rose. The thought of all the misery such weather must inevitably cause spoiled the satisfaction we experienced at feeling fit and fresh after ten hours’ delicious sleep in a well-closed barn. Our horse-cloths thrown over our heads like hoods and flapping against our calves, we silently marched in scattered order along the churned-up road, our feet squelching in the mud, and finally regained the park under the lashing rain.
The horses, motionless, glistening with water but resigned, endeavoured unceasingly to turn their tails to the rain. The stable-pickets had succeeded in lighting fires but they had had to dig new hearths, for those of the day before were swamped and black pieces of charred wood were floating in them.
The men’s cloaks were streaming and hung heavily in stiff folds from their shoulders. Some of them had turned up their capes in order to protect their heads. The gimners stood round about, holding their red hands to the fire.
“Beastly rain! Two days more like this and we shall all get dysentery!”
“I’d rather die of that than be killed by a shell,” said Hutin.
“No use trying to make coffee,” growled Pelletier. ” The fire doesn’t give out any heat…. It would take hours.”
“It’s the wood that won’t burn. It only smokes.”
“Blow on it, Milion!”
We turned our boot soles to the heat in order to dry them. The rain hissed and spat in the fire.
“All the same,” said the trumpeter, “if we hadn’t been betrayed things wouldn’t have gone like this!”
I grew annoyed.
“Betrayed ! I was waiting for some one to come out with that!”
“Well, I mean it; betrayed! I heard about it yesterday. … It was a General who delivered up the army plans. I know what I’m talking about!”
“Pooh! Camp gossip!”
“I heard the same thing,” affirmed another.
” Simply camp gossip ! From the moment we got scratched that was bound to come sooner or later. If you’re beaten it’s because you’ve been betrayed ! The French can’t be the weaker ! Lord, no ! It’s impossible, of course ! But you know there are five German army corps in front of us. That makes two to one. . . . No . . . well, all the same. Even with two to one we can’t be beaten, can we ? And, if we are, we at once begin to whine about betrayal ! Wasn’t it you who were always saying that Langle de Gary’s army ought to come up and help us ? Eh ? Well, it’s all simply because you don’t feel strong enough to tackle the Boches by yourselves.”
“All the same, traitors exist right enough,” said the trumpeter with a sage nod of the head. “There always have been traitors, and there always will be, to sell France.”
“Idiot!” said Hutin peremptorily.
Almost all my comrades thought as I did. A few properly equipped reinforcements would have enabled us to get the upper hand. Even alone, here behind the Meuse, we could have managed to stop the enemy.
Besides, during the days of defeat we had just been passing through, what a moving picture of our country had been revealed to us! An army immediately victorious cannot plumb the depths of patriotism. One must have fought, have suffered, and have feared — even if only for a moment — to lose her, in order to understand what one’s country really means. She is the whole joy of existence, the embodiment of all our pleasures visible and invisible, and the focus of all our hopes. She alone makes life worth living. All this united and personified in a single suffering being, begotten by the will of millions of individuals — that is France !
In defending her one defends oneself, seeing that she is the sole reason for being, for living. One would prefer to fall dead on the
spot rather than see France lost, for that would be worse than death. Every soldier feels this truth, either vaguely, or distinctly and clearly, according to his powers of perception and affection.
And yet, in the camp, these things are never talked of. The reason is that words which, in peace-time, too often veiled by their gross grandiloquence these deeper and finer feelings, would be insupportable now. This passion, for it is a passion, lies deep down in the heart with other sacred and inmost emotions, to give outward expression to which would be almost to profane them.
“Come on, now! Harness! Hook in! We’re off.”
The rain had soured the men’s tempers.
“Now then ! Be careful with your horse, can’t you ? You might have killed us!”
” Untie your horses so that we can get the picket-lines, will you ? . . . All right, damn you, I’ll do it myself.”
“There’s a silly fool ! Fine place to tether a colt to — the wheel of an ammunition wagon. He’s ripping up the oat-bag. Pull him off,
can’t you ? ”
Cramone, threatening his team with his whip, repeated for the twentieth time:
“I’ll teach you how to behave, you brutes!”
“There’s another dish lost,” shouted Millon. ” Who’s the idiot who didn’t pick it up yesterday ? ”
“Can’t you pull your infernal mules back a bit ? . . . We can’t limber up. . . . Never seen such a fool ! . . .”
The men pushed and tugged at their horses, which, face to the wind, continued pulling this way and that in a vain attempt to prevent the rain stinging their ears. Brejard lost his temper.
“Lord, what a set ! Can’t you keep your horses straight? . . . Look at that off-leader! . . . Can’t you see he’s got entangled ? . . .”
“Thought we were going to have a rest to-day!”
“I suppose the Germans are resting, aren’t they?”
The start was difficult. During the night the wheels of the vehicles had sunk deeper and deeper into the softening soil, and the horses’ hoofs kept slipping on the slope.
Once on the road the battery broke into a trot, the mud splashing in sprays from under the feet of the horses. Some of the gunners,
attacked by colic, stopped in the ditches, and then, still doing up their breeches, ran along by the side of the column in order to overtake their vehicles.
We were going to extend a strong artillery position on the heights of the Meuse valley. From the hills near Stenay the sound of the guns reached us in gusts, and, some distance off, above the woods, we could see the shrapnel shells bursting. The rain had stopped, and the sky, dark a moment previously, suddenly cleared and assumed a uniformly light grey tint.
In a meadow by the roadside some peasants, fleeing before the tide of invasion, had set up their nightly camp. A large green awning sheltered their cart and formed a tent at the same time. Two shafts projected from the front end, pointing skywards. An old man and two women — both pregnant — with half a dozen children clinging to their skirts, watched us go by.
The road rose stifily upwards, and the column slackened its pace to a walk. I heard one of the women say to the old man, as she gave him a nudge with her elbow :
“Go on, father!”
The old man hesitated, but she insisted:
He seemed to make up his mind, and approached us, shifting from one leg to another. Then, with a red face, he muttered:
“No! Can’t ask for that at my time of life!”
He was about to go, but we stopped him.
“Ask for what, old fellow?”
“For a bit of bread, if you’ve got any over. It’s for the children!”
“Yes, of course we have! We never eat it all!”
As a matter of fact we seldom get enough bread. The loaves have to be sorted out, and when the mouldy parts have been thrown away, the ration is usually more than halved. The old man walked by the side of the limber while the men searched in their bags.
“Here you are!”
Two loaves, almost fresh, were held out to him.
“With an onion and a good set of teeth they’re eatable!”
“Thanks. . . . Thank you so much. . . . But I’m afraid you’ll be short yourselves!”
“Oh, no! That’s all right, old chap! Why, we get a wagonful of those every day!”
He made off, a loaf under each arm. I saw him hunch his shoulders and dry his eyes with the sleeve of his coat.
A shower of shrapnel shells suddenly burst in the distance, over the dark woods.
“Swine!” growled Millon between his teeth. He had given up his bread.
He shook his fist towards the enemy.
Once in position to sweep the uplands on the right bank of the Meuse, we dried ourselves in the sun.
In the afternoon a few horsemen. Uhlans presumably, appeared on the edge of a distant wood. A broadside of shells quickly made them seek cover again.