A long night march. It was past one o’clock in the morning when at last we halted, and we still had to make our soup, water the horses and give them their oats. This done, we fell into a deep sleep.
About four o’clock the sergeant on duty came and shook us one by one. He was greeted with growls.
“What misery! Can’t we even sleep for an hour!”
It was veritable torture to keep our eyes open. Our Hmbs were stiff, our heads heavy, and our loins ached. The weather was foggy and cold.
We clambered on to the limbers and started off. Numbness at once seized our feet and then our knees, mounting rapidly. Our heads rolled from side to side, and we gradually lost consciousness. Some of the drivers were sleeping on their horses. They slipped more and more to one side and, just as they were about to fall, were awakened by instinct and sat straight up in the saddle again. But a moment after one could see them through the gloom, once more subsiding and gradually
slipping, slipping . . .
Where were we going to? Perhaps the army had been obliged to fall back below Verdun, because the enemy, who had undoubtedly got a footing on the hills on the left bank of the Meuse, near Stenay, was threatening their left flank. But we knew nothing for certain, and were too tired to think, too tired even to fear! Each man’s one desire was to sleep a whole day through.
At daybreak we halted near Landres in a sloping field full of plum-trees. Unless counter-orders arrived we were to stay there and rest for twenty-four hours.
We lit fires and started shaking the plum-trees.
Suddenly a cry broke out:
It was answered by a hoarse — almost savage — shout, and the men literally mobbed the N.C.O. who was carrying a sackful of letters.
News at last ! Some of the letters had been on the way for a fortnight; ours, it seemed, were not being delivered. What anxiety the people at home were in!
After we had read our correspondence Hutin called me:
“Are you coming to wash your linen?”
We hung up our tunics on the low-hanging branches of the plum-trees, and, our shirts under our arms and with bodies bare save for our braces, walked down to the river.
We spent a quiet morning eating, smoking, and writing. At midday the short, sharp reports of the .75’s began to sound on the next range of hills. At one o’clock we received orders to advance and support a group of artillery engaged on the heights north of Landres.
Hardly had we taken up position when an aeroplane passed overhead. A German machine, evidently; so far we had seen no others. Almost immediately afterwards shells began to fall around us, but again, as if by a miracle, the battery remained unscathed in the middle of the bursting shrapnel and the smoke of melinite. But that would not always happen!
Ah! if only I escape the hecatomb, how I shall appreciate life! I never imagined that there could be an intense joy in breathing, in opening one’s eyes to the light, in letting it penetrate one, in being hot, in being cold — even in suffering. I thought that only certain hours had any value, and heedlessly let the others slip past. If I see the end of this war, I shall know how to suck from each moment its full meed of pleasure, and feel each second of life as it passes by, like some deliciously cool water trickling between one’s fingers. I almost fancy that I shall continually pause, interrupting a phrase or suspending a gesture, and tell myself again and again: “I live ! I live ! ”
And to think that in a few moments, perhaps, I shall only be a shapeless mass of bleeding flesh at the bottom of a shell-hole!
There was nothing to do under the shrapnel-fire. The Captain surveyed the plain with exasperating calmness.
Presently the enemy increased his range, and the shells passed overhead and burst in the valley, on a road where we could see first lines of wagons making off at a gallop in thick clouds of dust.
Orders arrived. . . . We were to return to Landres.
A deep hole had been made in the road by a shell, and near-by lay the hashed remains of a horse — a limbless, decapitated body. The head, lying on the edge of the ditch, and apparently intact, seemed to be looking at this body with a surprised expression in its big, still unclouded eyes. A shred of flesh and chestnut skin had been blown to the top of a neighbouring slope. The shell crater, in which lay the intestines surrounded with purple blood rapidly blackening in the sun,
exhaled a smell of decay and excrement.
It seemed that the senior N.C.O. who had been riding this horse had escaped without a scratch.
A regiment of Chasseurs was slowly descending the high hill overlooking Land res on the north-east.
The setting sun no longer lit up the depths of the valley where we had parked our guns, but, by contrast, illuminated the more magnificently the steep inchne down which the red and blue squadrons were descending in good order, their drawn sabres glinting in the gorgeous orange-coloured light. The Chasseurs passed close by us, and then rode up the opposite side of the valley towards the sun, whose red disk still peeped over the hill-top. As they crossed the summit the horse-men were silhouetted for a moment against the horizon.
I was tired out, and in spite of my efforts began to fall asleep. I had the impression that in order to keep awake I should have to adopt the attitude of the sentries of old — one finger raised, commanding silence.