” What ? ”
“Come on, up you get!”
“What’s the time?”
“Don’t know. . . . It’s still dark.”
“All right, then, we’ll get up. Hutin, come on, get up!”
I shook Hutin, who growled in answer:
“All right ! Oh, Lord, I was so comfortable there!”
The noise of shuffling straw filled the barn.
“What’s the time?” repeated somebody.
“Look out there ! There’s a rung missing in the ladder.”
Noises of feet scraping against the ladder. An oath.
“Get the lantern!”
“Where is it?”
“Hanging behind the door.”
The men groped about for their belongings.
“Dashed if I can find the lantern! Come and help, can’t you?”
“Sure it can’t be two o’clock yet.”
” Come along now, hurry up,” cried a sergeant, opening the door. “Anybody else still asleep?”
No one replied. Outside, it was very cold, and the night was dark. Not a star was to be seen. Fires had been lit in the middle of the village, and coffee was on the boil. The church, a diminutive chapel magnified by the light from below, had almost the air of a cathedral, its spire lost in the inky blackness of the sky. Fantastic shadows danced on the walls, and the windows were momentarily lit up by red or green lights. A crowd of poor people fleeing from the enemy were sleeping in the nave, together with some soldiers who in vain had sought shelter elsewhere. Through the front entrance, which was wide open, the interior of the church looked mysterious, filled as it was with fugitive lights and shadows, like those cast by a building on fire. Under the vivid reflections of the stained-glass windows on the flags I caught a glimpse of prostrate human figures. In the square, soldiers coming and going between their fires threw enormous shadows on the ground and on the walls of the houses.
Why this alarm? Had the enemy succeeded in crossing the frontier near Stenay? We set off behind the infantry, whose tramp, tramp sounded like the movement of a flock of sheep on the road. The night was alive with moving but unseen forms. The breathing of hundreds of men on the march was felt rather than heard ; every now and then, as if from far off, came a half-lost word. All this invisible life in movement seemed to give off currents which traversed the night air like electricity.
In the distance we heard the sound of the guns towards which we were marching.
Soon the first streaks of dawn lit up the wooded hills, which reared their severe yet splendid crests between us and the Meuse. We passed through Tailly — a village at the bottom of a ravine, consisting of a few cottages, a church, and a cemetery.
When we arrived at Beauclair, in the valley of the Meuse, the engagement appeared to have finished.
In front of the church the infantry who had just been in action were resting amid their piled arms. The majority were pale — but some were very red. They had thrown themselves down on the bare ground in the sun, and not one of them moved a muscle. The stiffened features of the sleepers were eloquent of tragic weariness as they lay there with open coats and shirts, showing glimpses of naked chests. All were indescribably dirty, their legs plastered with mud up to the knees.
The battery halted outside the last houses of the village, and we at once set about making coffee. A hulking Tommy came up to ask for an onion. We questioned him :
“So they’ve not succeeded in crossing the Meuse yet ? ”
“Oh, yes, they have! . . . One brigade got over all right . . . but the artillery had mown down the bridges behind them, and so we had a go at them with fixed bayonets. . . . Lord! you don’t know what that’s like, you chaps! . . . A charge! . . . It’s awful! . . . Never known anything like it 1 If there is a Hell, I expect there’s bayonet fighting always going on there! . . . No! I mean it! Off you go, shouting. . . . Then one or two fall, and after them lots of others. . . . And the more that fall the louder you’ve got to shout so that the others will come along. And then when at last you get to close quarters with ’em, why, you’re just raving mad, and you thrust and thrust. . . . But the first time you feel your bayonet sink into a chap’s stomach, you feel a bit queer. . . . It’s all soft, you’ve only got to shove a bit! . . . But it’s harder to withdraw clean! I was so damned gentle that I upset my fellow — a great big fat chap with a red beard. I couldn’t pull my bayonet out . . . had to put my foot on his chest, and felt him squirm under my tread. Here, have a look at this ! . . .”
He drew out his bayonet, which was red up to the cross-bar. As he went away he stooped down and plucked a handful of grass to clean it.
The hours passed. The enemy appeared unwilling to make another attempt to force the passage of the Meuse.
We heard that d’Amade had made a fiank attack on the opposing German army, and had taken Marville.
D’Amade ! Well done, d’Amade ! But . . . was it true ?
At Halles, a mile and a half from Beauclair, we encamped at the foot of some high hills. The guns, which for some time past had been
silent, again began to thunder. The enemy was bombarding the heights above us.
As billets for the night we had been given a spacious barn. But when at dusk we went there to get some sleep we found our straw covered with foot-soldiers, rifles, and packs.
The artillerymen began swearing:
“Hallo, what the hell’s all this ? No more room left?”
There was a scrimmage to let us find places.
The barn had a loft above it to which a ladder gave access, and the floor of which was worm-eaten. We stuffed up the holes with hay.
“There we are! As usual, the artillery- above, and the infantry below. That’s all right. … But mind you don’t take the ladder away!”
“Take care of your feet. . . . 0-o-oh ! ”
” Why couldn’t you say you were in the straw?”
” Now then, up you go!”
Five or six artillerymen were on the ladder at the same time. It bent beneath their weight. Below, a foot-soldier stood motionless, holding a candle in his hand.
“Look out ! Don’t want your spurs in my face, you know!”
“Growl away, old chap! Let’s get up.”
“The floor’s giving way ! . . . They’ll fall through.”
“Go on, climb up! It’s less dangerous than the shells!”
“Damn it all, move up a bit, you fellows; otherwise there won’t be room for all of us!”
“Don’t go there ! There’s a hole. . . . You’ll fall on the Tommies down below!”
Downstairs the infantry were grumbling :
“Can’t you keep quiet, up there, eh ? We want to sleep ! And the straw’s all falling in our mouths!”
“If only it would stop yours!”
“Look out, you’re on my stomach ! ”
“Sorry. Can’t see an inch in here. . . . Can’t you raise the lantern over there?”
Again came the soimd of a shell bursting in the distance. I hesitated whether to take off my spurs and leggings, although I knew quite well that I should sleep better without them. But, if there was an alarm, should I be able to find them in the straw ? Finally, I decided to keep them on, nor did I unstrap my revolver holster, which was chafing my side. I tightened my chin-strap so as not to lose my kepi.