Last night the horses were not unharnessed, and we ourselves had hardly four hours’ sleep on the bare ground, where it is so difficult to get proper rest.
It was still dark when we set off again, down a road flanked with dense woods. The night was dark and filled with weird, grey shadows cast by the first, almost imperceptible rays of the pallid dawn. I was drowsing on the shaking ammunition wagon, to which one becomes accustomed after a time, when I was awakened by the crackling of broken wood and the heavy thud of a fall. I looked about me, but saw nothing. Then, through the rumbling of the wheels, I fancied I heard a plaintive cry mingled with sobs. Yes. … I now distinctly heard the clear voice of a little girl, calling :
On a heap of stones by the roadside I was now able to see the wheel of an overturned cart, a human form on the ground, and round it the shadows of kneeling children.
Some more sobs ; then the little voice called again :
“Mother! Mother! . . . Oh, mother, do answer!”
The column continued on its way. A convulsive, heartrending wail, rising from a throat choked by anguish, seemed to echo in my breast :
We should have liked to stop, to make inquiries, and help if we could. There were several children. Had their mother fainted? Perhaps. Was there a man with them? Suppose there was not! . . . I was sorely tempted to jump down from the ammunition wagon and run back, but I knew that I should not be able to rejoin the battery. A horseman dismounted, saying :
“I’ll stop the medical officer when he comes up. . . . We’ll catch you up at the trot!”
We were carried on by the slow-marching column. So great was the horror of that which had happened on the side of the road that I was kept awake despite my weariness, and saw the daylight slowly creeping in. I think I shall always hear that little voice crying ” Mother!” and the sound of the children’s sobs in the grey dawn.
On reaching the main road we had to halt and let the infantry of the 7th Division pass. The Army Corps was retiring. Some one said that we were going to entrain.
To entrain ! Why ? To go where ? It appeared that we had been relieved on the Meuse by fresh troops, and that the 4th Corps was to be re-formed.
We were going to rest, then — to sleep! But we had heard that so often during the last eight days 1 Could we believe it And yet it must be true, for this part of the country would surely not be left defenceless.
Down the road, wave upon wave, with the swishing noise of open sluices, battalion succeeded battalion. The soldiers seemed fairly cheerful; there were even some who sang.
The 10 1st Infantry swung by.
“Is the 102nd behind you?”‘ asked Tuvache.
“I ask because my brother is in it.”
The long column still filed by. At last, several minutes later, the brother arrived.
One of the men turned round:
“Hallo! It’s you!”
The two brothers simply shook hands, but their joy at meeting again could be read in their eyes.
“So you’re all right?”
“Yes, and you?”
“As you see . . . quite all right.”
“I’m glad. . .”
” Had any news from home ? ”
” Yes, yesterday. They’re all well, and they told me to give you their love if I saw you, and to give you half the postal order they sent me.”
The soldier searched in his pocket.
“The only thing is that I haven’t been able to get hold of the postmaster to cash it. But,
if you want it . . .”
” No, you keep it ! I’ve got more money than I want.”
” All right, then. Uncle and auntie both sent their love. . . . Hallo ! I mustn’t lose my company. … I believe we’re going to rest a bit. . . .”
” They say so. In that case we shall see each other again soon. … So long ! ”
Their hands met. The infantryman made a step forward.
” I’ll tell them I’ve seen you when I write.”
” Yes, so will I!”
The man ran on, shouldering his way through the ranks. Occasionally we saw his hand raised above the heads, waving goodbye.
Following behind the regiments of the 7th Division we began a march of exasperating slowness. It was very hot, and the dust raised by the infantry smothered and stifled us. At intervals, by the roadside, dead horses were lying.
On reaching Chatel we turned to the left down a clear road and at last were able to trot. Across the fields and valleys, as far as the horizon, a long line of grey dust clouding the trees marked the Varennes road which the division was following.
It was noon, and it seemed to me that we must have journeyed ten or twelve miles since we started at dawn. But suddenly we heard the guns again — not very far away, towards the north-east.
Near the village of Apremont on the out-skirts of the forest of Argonne, in which the head of our column had already penetrated, three shells burst.
Then the enemy was following us! Was there no one to stop him? Had we not been replaced? Did it mean defeat . . . invasion . . . France laid open?
Abreast of our column lines of carts were lumbering along the road. The whole population was flying from the enemy — old women, girls, mothers with babies at the breast, and swarms of children. These unhappy little ones were saving that which was most precious to them — their existence; the women and girls — their honour, a little money, often a household pet, such as a dog, a cat, or a bird in a cage. . . .
The poorest were on foot. A family of four were making their way through the woods led by an old man with careworn features. Over his shoulder he carried a stick, on the end of which was tied a large wicker basket covered with a white cloth. At his side dangled a game-bag crammed to
its utmost capacity. He was followed up the narrow forest path by a young woman leading a fat red cow with one hand, while with the other she held a shaggy-haired dog in leash by means of a handkerchief fastened to its collar. A little girl was clinging to her skirts, and letting herself be dragged along. Behind them came an old woman, bent almost double by age and by the weight of a grape-gatherer’s cask full of linen which she was carrying on her back. She hobbled along, leaning heavily on a stick.
Where were all these poor people going to?
Many had not the vaguest notion, and confessed as much. They were going straight ahead, into those parts of France which the Germans would not reach.
” What is the use of staying ? ” asked an old man querulously. ” They’ll burn everything just the same, and I’d rather find myself ruined and roofless here, but free, rather than back yonder where I should be in the hands of the Germans. Besides, Fve my daughter-in-law to think of — the wife of my son, who is a gunner like you. She’s with child — seven months gone — and when she heard the guns begin yesterday the pains came on. At first I thought she was going to be confined; but it passed off. But I thought we had better leave at once. These beasts of Germans, who violate and disembowel women . . . who knows whether they would have respected her condition ? . . . Last night we found a road-mender’s hut to sleep in, but I don’t know what we shall do to-night. . . . And Fm afraid she’ll get ill. Just now she’s sleeping in the cart. I must take care that she doesn’t get ill! My son left her in my charge.”
Pointing in the direction our column was following, I asked the old man :
“Where does this road lead to?”
“Where?” he repHed, a wrathful look suddenly coming into his eyes. ” Why, Chalons and Paris . . . the whole of France!”
And, shaking his head, he added bitterly :
“Oh, my God ! ”
“You see they’re half again as many as we are.”
He did not answer immediately, but, after a moment or two, he said:
” I saw ’70. . . . It’s just the same as in ’70.”
The battery rolled on till we had crossed the whole of Argonne. At Servon, a village on the fringe of the woods, where the infantry were making a long halt, we stopped for a few minutes. It was two o’clock.
We led the horses down to the drinking-place, near a mill on the bank of the green Aisne. The animals waded breast-high into the stream, where they stood puffing and snorting, splashing the men, who, with rolled-up trousers, were also paddling with enjoyment in the cool water.
Finally, near Ville-sur-Tourbe, we parked our guns. Presumably we were to entrain the same evening at the station close by.
The forebodings which had seized me in the morning when I saw the enemy advancing behind us had in no way diminished. Were we going to entrain and leave the road open to the invaders ? Would they not surround the troops operating in Belgium and those advancing in Alsace ? . . . But were the French still in Belgium and in Alsace ? How we wished that we could know the truth, whatever it might be !
To-night the men were surly and despondent, and one and all were anxious to escape fatigue duty. Deprez found himself confronted on all sides by the same sulkiness and apathy.
” Tuvache, go and fetch water ! ”
” But I went yesterday ! . . . It’s more than half a mile ! . . . Why can’t some of the others have a turn ? . . .”
” Well, Laille, did you go yesterday ? ”
” Right then, off you go ! ”
” Oh, but . . .”
” I’m not asking for your opinion, you know. . . .”
” Some of ’em never go. . . .”
” I tell you once again to go and fetch water ! ”
” Well, at any rate, you won’t order me to do anything else afterwards ? ”
Grasping a skin water-bag in each hand Laille slouched off, dragging his steps and hunching his shoulders.
We were informed that we were not going to entrain at Ville-sur-Tourbe.
We had to swallow our soup boiling hot and eat the meat raw, after which we set off again in the crimson-tinted twilight. Refugees were camping in the fields on either side of the road, where they had prepared to pass the night stretched out on straw strewn beneath their carts, which would afford but poor protection from the morning chill and dew. Infants in long clothes were sleeping in cradles.
We were marching southwards. The moon had risen, and straight ahead shone a solitary, magnificent star. Presently we reached a dark and deserted town — Sainte-Menehould — where it was too dark to see the names of the streets. The road was in lamentable repair, and the horses stumbled and the guns jolted. Perspectives of abandoned streets were prolonged by the moon. . . . Finally we saw ahead the red lamp of a railway station, where, for a moment, I thought we should entrain. But we did not even halt.
Under the wan and yellow moonlight, which magnified the distances, the country once again spread itself out in long valleys, where no troops were moving and where no sentinel could be seen.