This morning we marched for hours through clouds of dust, the sun scorching the backs of our necks. The men were thirsty and continually spat out the clayey saliva which clogged their mouths. The battery halted in a valley on the outskirts of a village — Villers-devant-Dun, I think it was — where the sound of the guns seemed to come from the west and south as well as from the east and north. This was a surprise, and at first made us uneasy. Janvier, for the hundredth time, said:
“That’s it! We are surrounded!”
He was haunted by this idea. However, it was not long before we discovered that the illusion was solely caused by an exceptionally clear echo. In reality the fighting was going on near Dun-sur-Meuse.
We crowded round the fountain, on the surrounding wall of which the last Bulletin des Communes was pasted. But first we each drank, in great gulps, at least a quart of fresh water. Afterwards we read the news. All was going well! Nevertheless, it was announced that Mulhouse had been retaken. Apparently, then, it had been lost. We exchanged impressions:
“Not bad,” he answered rather dubiously, “but they don’t say anything about our little show of last week.”
Brejard, on the contrary, was filled with an optimism which nothing could damp:
“Virton, Marville — why, all that is a mere nothing on a front as long as this! We’ve had to give a little in some sectors, that’s all. . . . But otherwise things are going quite all right!”
“All the same, it isn’t nice to find ourselves in one of the sectors which have to give way,”
“All that will change. We’re going to be reinforced. . . . They say that De Langle is only a day’s march off.”
“He’ll have to hurry up if he wants to find any of the 4th Infantry left!”
That was true. The regiments of the line, especially those of the 8th Division, had suffered terribly. Some battalions had been diminished by two-thirds, and, since the Battle of Virton, many companies were not more than fifty or eighty strong, and had lost all their officers. How we wished that De Langle would arrive!
In the ever-thickening dust and overpowering heat we returned by the same road to the positions we had occupied the day before at Tailly. It seemed to us that we had uselessly wasted more than seven hours marching in a large circle.
Another aeroplane appeared. This oppression was becoming unbearable ! We felt like a flock of frightened sparrows beneath the shadow of the hawk. The Germans have improved and developed the aerial arm to an enormous extent, and, unfortunately, our .75’s are unable to hit aeroplanes, the mobility of the gun on the carriage not being sufficient. It is necessary to dig a pit for the spade, and before this is finished the machine is always out of range.
The aviator who had just flown over us had thrown out a star in order to mark the situation of one of our batteries in position on the heights commanding the river. The guns at once moved off, and took up a fresh position elsewhere. Shortly afterwards shells began to fall on the hill they had been occupying — enormous shells, which made the earth quake for miles around and withered the grass with their dirty, pungent smoke.
“I expect those are the famous 22 cm. shells ” said the Captain.
We had nothing to do. Towards Stenay the horizon was deserted and motionless. For several hours heavy shells continued to fall in threes, making black holes in the green meadows in which not a soul remained. We were obviously within range of the guns from which they were fired, and we had no guarantee that we should not be hit if the enemy lifted his fire a little.
I was struck by the marvellous faculty of adaptability which forms the basis of human nature. One becomes accustomed to danger just as one becomes accustomed to the most cruel privations, or to the uncertainty of the morrow.
Before the war I used to wonder how it was that old men nearing the extreme limits of existence could continue to live undisturbed in the imminent shadow of death. But now I understand. For us the risk of death has become an element of daily life with which one coolly reckons, which no longer astonishes, and terrifies less. Besides, a soldier’s every-day life is a school for courage. Familiarity with the same dangers eventually leaves the human animal unmoved. One’s nerves no longer quiver; the conscious and constant effort to keep control over oneself is successful in the end. Therein lies the secret of all military courage. Men are not born brave; they become brave. The instinct to be conquered is more or less resistant — that is all. Moreover, one must live, on the field of battle just as elsewhere ; it is necessary to become accustomed to this new existence, no matter how perilous or harsh it may be. And what renders it difficult — more, intolerable — is fear, the fear that throttles and paralyses. It has to be conquered, and, finally, one does conquer it.
Apart from the necessity of living as well as can possibly be managed, the greatest disciplinary factors in the life of a soldier under fire are a sense of duty and a respect for other people’s opinion — in a word, honour. This is not a discovery; it is merely a personal opinion.
It must also be confessed that this training in courage is far more easy for us than for the foot-soldiers — the least fortunate of all the fighting forces. A gunner under fire is literally unable to run away. The whole battery would see him — his dishonour would be palpable, irretrievable. Now fear, in its more acute manifestations, seems to me necessarily to imply annihilation of will-power. A man incapable of controlling himself sufficiently to face danger bravely will, in the majority of cases, be equally incapable of facing the intolerable shame of public flight. Flight of this kind would necessitate an exercise of will — almost a kind of bravery. The infantryman is often isolated when under fire; when the shrapnel bullets are humming above him a man lying down at a distance of four yards from another is virtually alone. Concern for his own safety monopolizes all his faculties and he may succumb to the temptation to stop and lie low, or to sneak off to one side and then take to flight. When he rejoins his company in the evening he may declare that he lost his squad or that he fought elsewhere. Perhaps he is not believed, and possibly he was aware beforehand that no one would believe him ; but at least he will have escaped the intolerable ignominy of running away before the eyes of all.
To remain under fire is by no means easy, but to keep cool in the heat of a modern engagement is harder still. At first fear makes one perspire and tremble. It is irresistible. Death seems inevitable. The danger is unknown, and is magnified a thousandfold by the imagination. One makes no attempt to analyse it. The bursting of the shells and their acrid smoke together with the shrapnel are the main causes of the first feeling of terror. And yet neither the flashes of mehnite, nor the noise of the explosions, nor the smoke are the real danger ; but they accompany the danger, and at first one is attacked by all three at once. Soon, however, one learns to discriminate. The smoke is harmless, and the whistling of the shells indicates in what direction they are coming. One no longer crouches down unnecessarily, and only seeks shelter knowingly, when it is imperative to do so. Danger no longer masters but is mastered. That is the great difference.
In order to form an exact idea of the effects of a shell, I went with Hutin to examine a field full of Jerusalem artichokes in which a heavy projectile had just fallen. In the centre of the field we found a funnel-shaped hole about ten yards in diameter, so regular in shape that it could only have been made by a howitzer shell. This kind of projectile strikes the ground almost perpendicularly, and buries itself deep in the soft soil, throwing up enormous quantities of earth as it bursts. Many of the steel splinters are lost in the depths of the ground, and the murderous cone of dispersion is thereby proportionately reduced.
The truth of this can be easily confirmed. In the present case the farther we went from the hole the higher was the point at which the artichokes had been shorn off, and at a dozen paces or so from the edge of the crater the shrapnel had only reached the heads of the highest stems. It follows therefore that a man lying very near the point of impact would probably not have been hit. Next came a circular zone which was entirely unscathed, but a little farther on the falling
bullets and spHnters had mown off leaves and stems, and a man lying down here would have risked quite as much as if he had remained standing.
When thus coldly examined a shell loses much of its moral effect.
The actual organization of the artillery also stimulates a gimner’s courage. The footsoldier, cavalryman, and sapper are units in themselves, whereas for us the only unit is the gun. The seven men serving it are the closely connected, interdependent organs of a thing which becomes alive — the gun in action.
In consequence of the links existing between the seven men among themselves and between each of them and the gun, any faint-heartedness is rendered more obvious, its consequences much greater, and the shame it bears in its wake more crushing. Moreover, in this com- plete solidarity the effluvia which create psychological contagion are easily developed; one or two gunners who stick resolutely and calmly to their posts are often able to inspire the whole detachment with courage.
To-day was a day of undisturbed quiet. Over towards Tailly and Stenay nothing revealed the presence of the enemy.
When evening approached we were again sent off to encamp on the other side of the woods. There was a glorious summer sunset, and through the dark depths of the trees the road opened up a mysterious avenue at the end of which glowed a western sky more varied in hues than a rainbow.
All sound of battle had ceased. Gradually the sky darkened and night fell. As yesterday, the artillery rolled monotonously on through the shadowy woods.
One by one the stars were veiled by a rising mist, and the sky became opalescent with a nocturnal luminosity that flooded the stretches of the forest, which, from the crests of the hills, could be seen rising and falling as far as the eye could reach. But underneath the trees the darkness was intense, and the road would have seemed a trench dug deep in the earth itself but for an occasional infantry bivouac, the embers of which glowed faintly through the brushwood, and but for a damp scent of mint and other herbs which rose from the dark undergrowth mingled with a certain sensuous smell of animality. We were surrounded by a delicious freshness with which we filled our lungs and which made us shiver slightly.
Millon, who was sitting next to me on the limber-box, told me the story of his life. It was a sad and simple history. Only twenty, with his girl’s face and roguish yet infantile eyes, he had nevertheless long been the breadwinner of a family, and now his mother — ” my old mother ” as he said in a tone full of deep affection — had been left alone in Paris with another child, still very young, whose delicate constitution and highly strung nerves were the cause of continual alarm. He told me of past misfortunes still fresh in his memory, of the present anxiety of his people in Paris, and of material worries.
“Ah,” he sighed, “if only my old mother could see me to-night, safe and soimd on the limber!”
In the field where the battery halted we had almost to fight in order to get a few armfuls of straw. The gunners of a battery which had arrived before us had stretched themselves out haphazard on a fallen hay-rick. They had twenty times more straw than they needed, but when we tried to pull a little from under them the awakening of the overwrought sleepers was terrifying. They shouted, cursed, and threatened. Finally they fell asleep again, growling and grunting under their breath like a pack of surly dogs.