Reveille came at two o’clock, together with orders to start at once. The Germans, we heard, had crossed the Meuse. But our artillery had no doubt registered the course of the river. I could not understand why we had not heard the guns.
In the darkness of the early dawn the road showed up yellow between the blue-grey fields. On the way I recognized the yew-trees of a cemetery in which some dead were being buried the day before.
We stopped in column on the steep ascent towards Tailly, and waited for orders. The day broke behind the hills and gradually overspread the whole horizon.
One by one the regiments of the 7th Division climbed up from the ravine and passed us. The men looked haggard and tired. Their eyes were hollow, and the faces of the youngest, drawn and sallow with privations, were furrowed with lines. The corners of their mouths drooped. Bending forward under the weight of their packs, in the attitude of Christ bearing the Cross, the infantry toiled up the hill as though it were a Calvary. At every hundred yards or so they halted and rehoisted their burdens with a jerk of their shoulders. Some of them were holding out their rifles at arm’s length, as though it were a balance which helped them to march. Others were complaining that they had had nothing to eat for two days. One of the lost, a pale, lanky, thin-faced fellow, with feverishly bright eyes, halted close to us and stroked the chase of the gun.
“Lord,” said he to Hutin,” you might as well put a shell through my chest! At least there’d be an end of it!”
“Aren’t you ashamed to talk like that?”
The other made a vague gesture, shrugged his shoulders, and went off dragging one leg after him.
As soon as the infantry had gone by we were ordered to take up our position on the plain, near the edge of the wood behind which the regiments of the line were retreating.
I heard the Major repeat the order received to the Captain: “Prevent the enemy from setting foot on the plateau. There are no more French in front of you!”
“So we are still covering the retreat! A vile job!” said Millon, the firing number, a good little Parisian chap, with a face like a girl.
In our present position we ran as great a risk from the rifle and machine-gun fire as from the shells. Not far off on the edge of the plateau, near the brush-shaped poplar, was a dark little copse whence at any minute bullets might come buzzing about our ears. The Germans might get their machine-guns there without being seen, rather than risk coming out into the open. And what might we expect then ? Oh, well ! . . . After all, that is what we had come there for.
“If we hadn’t been sold, things would have gone very differently,” growled Tuvache, a Breton farmer, who was brave enough under fire, but who suffered from bad morale.
And, still obsessed by the idea of treason, he added :
“And the proof is that they’ve been able to cross the Meuse without hindrance.”
Brejard made him stop talking.
” Why, you’re worse than the others, you are 1 We’re fighting from the North Sea right down to Belfort, aren’t we? Well, then, how can you judge by one wretched little corner? Perhaps we’re letting them advance as far as this in order to surround ’em afterwards. . . . Some of you chaps always seem to know more than your Generals. . . . And besides, all this time the Russians are advancing. You let things be. . . . We shall have ’em some day, never fear ! And then they’ll
pay for this!”
We awaited the appearance of the heads of the enemy’s columns, which from one moment to another might emerge from the Tailly valley.
The plateau, shining with dew, had assumed that absolutely silent immobility one so often notices in the country in the early hours of a sunny morning.
Four black points suddenly appeared far down the road? Was it the enemy’s advanced guard ? No. We were soon able to recognize three stragglers and a cyclist. A troop in column of march followed them out of the valley. In this order they could not be Germans. The column, which proved to be a
battalion of the loist, passed by, and disappeared down the road leading to the wood. But, in the rise and fall of the valleyed country stretching on the north-west as far as the dark masses of distant forests. Lieutenant Hely d’Oissel had discovered through his field-glasses large masses of men marching westwards through sunken roads which almost hid them from our view. Were they the enemy, or were they the French troops which were occupying the heights of the Meuse near Stenay and which were now retiring?
We had already experienced the same terrible uncertainty at Marville. The Captain climbed up into an apple-tree in order to see better, and the Major also tried to recognize the mysterious troops. But neither could distinguish anything. A mist — the dampness of the night evaporating — ^was already rising from the ground and veiling the horizon. If those were German columns, they would threaten the flank of the retreating army. A scout was sent off at a gallop to reconnoitre. Time passed, and the columns disappeared. At last the scout came back; the troops were French. He had seen parties of Chasseurs flanking them.
Our feet wet with dew, we once again became motionless and awaited the enemy.
About midday we received orders to move to the edge of the plateau, and take up position behind a clump of trees, in order to command the Tailly valley and the hills on the south of Stenay. And, continually, successive regiments -of infantry emerged from the forest and passed us, falling back.
“Dashed if I can fathom it!” said Hutin.
“Nor can I!”
It was very hot, and we were thirsty, but our water-bottles were empty.
We continued to wait until dusk, but the enemy did not appear.
Night had fallen when we were sent to encamp on the other side of the woods.
The moon was rising clear of the tree-tops. The regular clatter of hoofs and the monotonous roll of the vehicles blended together into a sort of weary cradle-song, and made us sleepy after a time. In order to suffer uncomplainingly all the hardships and miseries of war, we would have asked no more than one hour of affection, of sympathetic tenderness, in safety, at evening-time, after the long day spent in watching or fighting.
The road was level, and we were hardly shaken at all ; no one spoke, and most of us slept or dozed.
No sound disturbed the stillness of the warm night save that of the column on the march. Gradually we lost ourselves in pleasing reveries and memories of the past, forgetting present dangers and distress. On we jogged through space and time. . . . Lyons at night-time . . .long rows of lamps lighting the wharves and reflected in the Rhone . . . above the river the amphitheatre of Croix-Rousse with its lights scintillating Hke golden points, and above them, again, the stars. . . . Where did the town end, or where did the sky begin? . . . And the Mayenne in the bright days of autumn and summer, its sombre waters sparkling like black diamonds. . . . The memories which
rose up before me gradually blurred the scene of illusive reflections.
And perhaps I should die in a few hours time. . . .
Almost as if I myself had been able to write those beautiful verses of Du Bellay, I felt the aching nostalgia of his words:
Quand reverrai-je, helas I de mon petit village Fuiner la cheminee, et en quelle saison Reverrai-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui tn’ est une province et beaucoup d’avantage
I repeated the lines to myself several times.