It was still night when we broke up the camp. After a whole day solely spent in eating and sleeping, we should have felt much refreshed had we not been tortured with diarrhoea. The Medical Officer had no more bismuth or paregoric elixir left, and we had no choice but to chew blackthorn bark.
The horses were even more exhausted than the men. Many had been slightly injured in the engagements on Monday and Tuesday, and their wounds were suppurating. No onemseemed to trouble about them, and that was not the worst, for some of them had to suffer the stupid remedies applied by the ignorant drivers. I saw one man urinate on his horse’s pastern, which had been cut by a shell splinter. Nearly all the animals were lame as the result of kicks received at night-time, when the worn-out stable-pickets fair asleep. Seldom taken out of the traces and hardly ever unharnessed, the straps, cruppers, and especially the crupper-loops had made large sores on them which were covered all day long with flies. And, besides all this, the poor beasts, like the men, were weakened by incessant diarrhoea.
All the morning we marched on, through Givry-en-Argonne, Sommeilles, Nettancourt, and Brabant, the milestones being at first marked “Meuse” and then “Marne.” The dust half veiled the austere, regular hills of the beautiful country and the magnificent reaches of the forest of Argonne sloping away to the east.
About noon we reached Revigny-aux-Vaux, a pretty little white-walled town surroundedmby fields and pasture-lands, where we parked our guns on the bank of the Ornain, close to the station. As we were leading the horses down to the river a man dressed like an artisan, who was sitting by the side of the road, accosted me:
“Where are you gunners from?”
” From the Hauts-de-Meuse, over by Dun and Stenay. We’ve been replaced there by fresh troops.”
” Yes — they say by the 6th Army Corps.”
” Pooh, that’s all rot ! . . . You’ve just turned tail ! . . . Yes . . . simply that ! . . . Do you know where the Prussians are ? ” he added, getting up.
I felt chilled by a sudden fear. Misery was plainly written on the fellow’s bony,
emaciated face. When sitting he had not seemed nearly so tall or thin.
He stretched out a long arm, and with a shaking hand pointed to the north-west.
“They’re just outside Chalons, the Prussians ! ”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“You don’t beheve me ? Well, I’ve come from Chalons — an aeroplane dropped a bomb on the station just as my train left. And the Prussians have got to other places as well, if you want to know. They are at Compiegne ! Do you hear ? … At Compiegne . . . it’s certain. You’ve only got to ask . . . anybody here will tell you. They’ve got to Compiegne and they took La Fere as they passed.”
I began to tremble, everything seemed to be turning round me, and for a moment I thought I should fall. Instinctively I pressed my knees into my horse’s sides and returned slowly to the camp with a haggard face and an aching heart.
Hutin was there. I looked him straight in the eyes and said slowly:
“Hutin ! The Germans are at Compiegne !
He grew pale and shrugged his shoulders.
“Yes, at Compiegne!”
“Compiegne ! Compiegne ! Why, that’s less than sixty miles from Paris ! Oh, my God ! ”
We looked at each other.
” Who let them get through ? ”
” Those in the north, I suppose.”
” Then it’s worse than in ’70 ! ”
” At Compiegne ! ” repeated Hutin distractedly.
Dreadful thoughts of downfall, of treason, of all the bitterness of defeat and of suffering endured to no purpose rose up like spectres in each man’s mind.
” I told you so ; we’ve been sold ! ” declared the trumpeter.
In spite of everything, I still could not believe in treachery.
” Sold ! Why sold ? By whom ? … By whom ? ”
” How should I know ? But they wouldn’t be at Compiegne if we hadn’t been betrayed.
Oh, it’s the old story ! . . . Just hke ’70. . . . Bazaine in ’70 ! ”
” We may have been overwhelmed. . . . There are so many of them ! . . . Three times our numbers ! . . . Besides, in 1870 the mistake made by the Chalons army was that they didn’t wait for the Germans at Paris. That is well known. If MacMahon’s army had not advanced, had not let itself be bottled up at Sedan, perhaps we shouldn’t have been beaten. . . .”
I grasped at the idea of a strategic retreat, and tried to convince my comrades in order to convince myself. But they all remained downcast and sullen, and kept repeating :
“Just as in ’70!”
What a refrain!
Brejard, who had been listening as he smoked, was the only one who was still confident.
“The worst of it is,” said he, ” that we don’t know anything for certain. But, if the other Army Corps are in the same condition as ours, all is by no means lost. They’ve probably been pushed back a bit in the north, like we have been in Belgium. But if they haven’t been taken, that is the main thing, and as for this being the same as ’70 — why, there’s absolutely no resemblance ! In ’70 we were alone, whereas now we’ve got the English and Russians with us.”
” Oh, don’t talk to me about the English and Russians ! ” said the trumpeter.
” Have you seen any of the English, sergeant ? ”
” No, but they’re over here, all right.”
” They are said to be,” corrected Millon. ” But it was also said that we were advancing in the north. A brilliant advance ! . . .”
” And the Russians ! ” went on Pelletier. ” Why the hell aren’t they in Berlin by this time ? They’ve nothing to stop them on their side. . . .”
Brejard shrugged his shoulders :
” Well, but all the same they can’t get there by railway, you know ! ”
” But a month ought to be enough . . . with their famous Cossacks,” retorted the
And he continued:
” It’s all tommy-rot ! Shall I tell you whatI think of it, sergeant? Well, these Russians and English, who have declared war on Germany . . . it’s simply sham ! . . . A put-up job ! They’ve engineered the whole thing together in order to do us in . . . just like ’70 ! ”
“Just Hke ’70 ! ” repeated Blanchet, who, sitting cross-legged like a tailor, was mending a rent in his coat.
This crushing catastrophe, which had descended upon us like the blow of a sledge-hammer, made us begin to doubt everything and everybody.
Why, instead of beguiling us with imaginary victories, could they not simply have told us: ” We have to deal with an enemy superior in numbers. We are obliged to retreat until we can complete our concentration and until the English reinforcements arrive ? ”
Were they afraid of frightening us by the word “retreat ” when we were already
experiencing its reality ?
Why ? Why had we been deceived, demoralized ? . . .
Accompanied by Deprez and Lebidois I turned into the garden of a restaurant and ordered luncheon. Under the leafy arbour of Virginia creepers and viburnum, pierced here and there with dancing rays of sunlight, blazed a medley of officers’ uniforms — chemists.
Medical Corps men, infantry officers of all denominations, A.S.C. officers and pay-masters, the latter in green uniforms which gave them the appearance of foresters.
For fifteen days we had not eaten off proper plates nor drunk from glasses. The luncheon would have been an untold delight had we not all three been haunted by the spectre of defeat. . . .
When night fell we entrained. The long platform, littered with straw, was illuminated at lengthy intervals by oil-lamps. The horses, overcome by exhaustion, their heads drooping, allowed the drivers to lead them into their boxes without offering any resistance. The gunners finished loading up the guns on the trucks, and soon all became silent. The men installed themselves for the night, thirty in each van, some stretched out on the seats and others lying underneath, using their cloaks as pillows. Rifles and swords had been cast into a corner. And, just as the western sky had ceased to glow, leaving the dreary platform dark and desolate, the train slowly started.