Paul Lintier

Revigny-aux-Vaux, France

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 ?

“Halt!”

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!”

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Paul Lintier

Revigny-aux-Vaux, France

When we awoke, in a fine morning lightly veiled by silvery mists, the suburbs of Paris were already visible.

We passed through the forest of Fontaine-bleau, where troops were camping amid the broom and bracken, and rolled on through the woods in which the white walls and red roofs of the villas made a gay splash on the green background. The gardens were a mass of flowers ; huge sunflowers turned their golden faces towards us.

We almost forgot the tragedy of the moment.

Sunday! The bells were ringing. Besides, Paris was quite close now, and the magnetic power of the great city was already making itself felt. The Parisians in the carriage could hardly keep still.

Suddenly, after this dreary journey, and although it would have been difficult to explain why or how, hope was rekindled in spite of some more bad news we had learnt on the way, namely, that the Germans had
reached Creil without opposition.

It was not the strength of the entrenched camp of Paris, of its garrison, nor of its heavy artillery which restored our confidence; it was rather the instinctive faith of a child, who, having returned home, feels irresistible because there seems to be a sort of reassuring sympathy between himself and surrounding objects — even the elements. What again sent the blood coursing through our veins was the indescribable yet definite sensation caused by the presence of something immortal, of something loved and revered. It was like a breath
of life, like the comforting support of an invincible Personality, an all-powerful Divinity.

And then, as Hutin kept repeating : “There! That’s Paris! That’s Paris!”

“The English!”

A convoy of British troops was passing us. The men shouted and waved their kepis.

At Villeneuve-Saint-Georges the station was thronged with Highlanders. Our train came to a standstill and was immediately surrounded by a crowd of kilted soldiers intent upon examining our guns. Lebidois acted as
interpreter, and there was much hand-shaking and cheering.

Little Millon stopped a burly Highlander with tattooed wrists and knees and asked him whether he wore any drawers under his kilt. The other did not understand and laughed.

“That’s so, isn’t it ? ” said Millon. ” If only you’d got a little more hair on your head and a little less on your paws — why, in that skirt they’d take you for a girl!”

We detrained at Pantin. Except for inscriptions on the wooden panels or steel shutters of the shops, such as “Owner away at the front,” or, in letters a foot high, “We are French,” and save for the faded mobilization placards, Pantin wore the usual aspect common to such places on summer Sundays.

On the pavement and in the roadway swarmed crowds of women in light-coloured dresses, carefully corseted, their figures curving with that grace which only Parisian women seem to possess. Soldiers of every rank and regiment strolled in and out the crush. A Territorial passed with a woman on one arm, while with the other he led a little boy by the hand.

Was it possible that the enemy was at the gates ?

At Rosny-sous-Bois we camped on a plateau overlooking the town on one side and the plain of Brie on the other — a depressing enough spot, devoid of all charm. Far off, towards the south-east, the sound of guns
was audible.

In the streets, between the greenery of the gardens and the Hght-coloured fronts of the villas, the scarlet uniforms, white blouses, and variegated parasols chequered the crowd with bright dashes of colour.

The Zouaves had come down from the forts.

On the terraces of the cafes, where not a single place remained vacant, the white aprons of the waiters fluttered in and out among the multicoloured uniforms of the Chasseurs, Army Service Corps officers. Artillerymen, Tirailleurs, and Spahis. In front of the Post Office and round the doors of the bakeries and
confectioners’ shops the crowd collected in animated groups. Women ran to and fro greeting the soldiers, asking questions, searching for a husband, son, brother, or lover whom they were expecting to arrive.

Every one jostled together, hailed each other, drank, ate, smoked, and laughed. Families of placid tradespeople, mildly inquisitive, strutted in and out the crowd with short, conceited little steps.

The guns were still roaring, but in order to hear them one had to separate from the crowd and enter the quiet little streets between the gardens.

We heard that fighting was in progress on the Grand Morin.

Paul Lintier

Travelling by Train

I had hardly any sleep last night. Every quarter of an hour the train stopped, and men attacked by dysentery trod on me as they hurriedly made for the doors in order to jump down on the permanent way. This morning the same scramble continues. As soon as the train stops one has a vision of files of gunners making for the bushes, whence they hastily return when the whistle blows. Luckily the train gathers speed very slowly.

A melancholy day — spent in absently watching the country roll past, one’s mind always hypnotized by the thought of defeat. . . .

Often the train does not go faster than a man walking.

Paul Lintier

Revigny-aux-Vaux, France

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.”

“Replaced?”

” 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 !

“Where? ”

“At Compiegne!”

He grew pale and shrugged his shoulders.

“No!”

“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
trumpeter.

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.

Paul Lintier

Sainte-Menehould, France

Towards midnight we halted, and almost immediately afterwards orders arrived. Our original instructions had been to move on at daybreak, but the orders just to hand were to the effect that we should remain here. So we were able to sleep until past nine o’clock.

A never-ending stream of refugees was now flowing down the dusty road.

We again heard a rumour that we had been replaced on the Meuse by the 6th Army Corps; and that we were going into Haute-Alsace under the command of General  d’Amade. This name, which was very popular, elicited general enthusiasm.

“Now it will be different!”

I questioned a Chasseur, one of General Boelle’s orderlies, but either the man knew nothing, or he would not tell what he knew.

The carts of the refugees had to be lined up on one side of the road in order to make way for the infantry of the 2nd Army Corps arriving from Clermont-en-Argonne and Sainte-Menehould. These troops seemed to have suffered less severely than the regiments of the 4th Corps, but they had no more notion as to their destination than we. They also spoke of d’Amade, of successes in the north, and of naval victories. They appeared to be quite unaware that the Germans were advancing behind us. But were they really advancing? Was it not merely a fresh allotment of French troops? How we wished that it were!

Paul Lintier

Sainte-Menehould, France

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 :

“Mother! Mother!”

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 :

“Mother!”

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.

“Yes.”

“I ask because my brother is in it.”

The long column still filed by. At last, several minutes later, the brother arrived.

“Hi! Tuvache!”

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 ? ”

” No.”

” 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 ? ”

” No.”

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.

Paul Lintier

Landres, France

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.

“Alarm!”

“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:

“The postmaster!”

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?”

“Yes.”

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.