It was broad daylight when I was awakened by Brejard.
” Up you get,” said he.
” What ? ”
” Here, listen to this.”
He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket.
“Army Order of the Day. ” At the moment when we are about to engage upon a battle upon which will depend the safety of the country, it is necessary to remind every one that this is not the time to look back. No effort must be spared to attack and repulse the enemy. Troops which can advance no farther must at all costs hold the ground won and let themselves be killed rather than retire.”
“Do you understand ? ”
Yes, we had all understood perfectly. We should never have been able to express so simply and yet so completely our inmost thoughts. ” Troops should let themselves be killed rather than retire.” That was it!
” And now, limber up,” added Brejard. ” We’re off there ! ”
Just as the battery was starting, two girls, the sister and fiancee of one of the gunners, hurried up. For a moment or two they ran, flushed and panting, by the side of the horses, both speaking rapidly and at the same time. When they were quite out of breath they held out their hands, one after the other, to the gunner, who leant down from the saddle and kissed their finger-tips.
We passed through the suburbs and then, by the Soissons road, approached the plain of Brie. We were going to the front, and I think that each man felt that we were now passing through the gravest and most critical
moments of a whole century — perhaps of a whole history.
Evening fell. The battery had been on the march for more than ten hours without halting. Far away in the background Montmartre reared its black silhouette against the western sky.
The fields were lit up by the stars, which were exceptionally brilliant, but the road remained dark under the vault of tall trees planted in double rows on either side, between which floated a suffocating cloud of dust.
A distant searchlight was sweeping the plain. The battery broke into a trot on the paved road, ‘and the vehicles jolted and bumped so that it was veritable torture to sit on them. Sharp internal pains made us twist as we clutched on to the limber-boxes; our aching backs seemed no longer capable of sustaining our shoulders, and the breath came in gasps from our shaken chests. Our hearts thumped against our ribs, our heads swam — we perspired with pain. Should we never stop?
Hour after hour we followed the same dark road, but the column had again slowed down to a walk. The bright headlights of an approaching automobile suddenly threw the trees into vertiginous perspectives like the
columns of some cathedral, and showed up the teams and drivers as they emerged from the gloom in a grotesque procession of fantastic shadows. The motor passed.
On we lumbered . . . on, on. . . . Should we never stop ?
At last ! We parked the guns in a field and then led the horses off to be watered.
The only light in the dark little village was a lamp burning in a kitchen, in which we caught a glimpse of large copper saucepans.
There was no drinking-place and we had to push on to a marshy meadow through which ran a river. The banks were so steep that the horses could not drink from the current, and we gave them water out of the skin bags.
On our return we found the road crowded with horses. Other batteries had just arrived.
An eddy in the stream had just pushed me up against the garden wall of a chateau when a motor, showing no lights, forced its way through the herd of horses, throwing against me a confused mass of men and animals whose weight crushed me against the stone. Another car followed, then another, hundreds of them, silently and interminably.
By the light of the moon, which had now risen, I was able to recognize the oil-skin caps usually worn by taxi-drivers. Inside the cabs I caught a glimpse of soldiers sleeping, their heads thrown back.
” Wounded ? ” asked somebody.
“No,” came the answer from a passing car. ” It’s the 7th Division from Paris.
“They’re off to the front!”