Transcriber's Note: Any obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text. For a complete list, please see the bottom of this document.
IN THE FIELD (1914-1915)
The Impressions of an Officer of Light Cavalry
Translated by H. W. Hill
London William Heinemann London: William Heinemann, 1916.
A TRIBUTE OF
In the following pages the reader will find no tactical studies, no military criticism, no vivid picture of a great battle. I have merely tried to make a written record of some of the hours I have lived through during the course of this war. A modest Lieutenant of Chasseurs, I cannot claim to form any opinion as to the operations which have been carried out for the last nine months on an immense front. I only speak of things I have seen with my own eyes, in the little corner of the battlefield occupied by my regiment.
It occurred to me that if I should come out of the deathly struggle safe and sound, it would be a pleasure to me some day to read over these notes of battle or bivouac. I thought, further, that my people would be interested in them. So I tried to set down my impressions in my intervals of leisure. Days of misery, days of joy, days of battle.... What volumes one might write, if one were to follow our squadrons day by day in their march!
I preferred to choose among many memories. I did not wish to compose memoirs, but only to evoke the most tragic or the most touching moments of my campaign. And, indeed, I have had only too many from which to choose.
I shall rejoice if I have been able to revive some phases of the tragedy in which we were the actors for my brothers-in-arms.
Further, I gladly offer these "impressions" to any non-combatants they may interest. They must not look for the talents of a great story-teller, nor the thrilling interest of a novel. All they will find is the simple tale of an eyewitness, the unschooled effort of a soldier more apt with the sword than with the pen.
The Editor of SOLDIERS' TALES will be glad to read diaries or notebooks of those returning, in any capacity whatsoever, from the Front with a view to inclusion in the Series. Contributions must be strictly truthful and should be written with no effort at fine writing. They are intended to tell truthfully the experiences and the feelings of the writers. They should be sent by registered post to the Editor, "Soldiers' Tales," 21, Bedford Street, W.C., and they may be accompanied by sketches and photographs. All contributions printed will be well paid for. Contributions should be of 30,000 words and upwards in length.
I. HOW I WENT TO THE FRONT 1
II. THE FIRST CHARGE 57
III. RECONNOITRING COURGIVAULT 76
IV. THE JAULGONNE AFFAIR 102
V. LOW MASS AND BENEDICTION 152
VI. A TRAGIC NIGHT IN THE TRENCHES 178
VII. SISTER GABRIELLE 226
VIII. CHRISTMAS NIGHT 258
I. HOW I WENT TO THE FRONT
The train was creeping along slowly in the soft night air. Seated on a truss of hay in the horse-box with my own two horses and that of my orderly, Wattrelot, I looked out through the gap left by the unclosed sliding door. How slowly we were going! How often we stopped! I got impatient as I thought of the hours we were losing whilst the other fellows were fighting and reaping all the glory. Station after station we passed; bridges, level crossings, tunnels. Everywhere I saw soldiers guarding the line and the bayonets of the old chassepots glinting in the starlight. Now and again the train would suddenly pull up for some mysterious reason. The three horses, frightened at being brought into collision with each other, made the van echo to the thunder of their hoofs as they slipped, stamped, and recovered their balance. I got up to calm them with soothing words and caresses. By the light of the wretched lantern swinging and creaking above the door I could see their three heads, with pricked ears and uneasy eyes. They were breathing hard and could not understand why they had been brought away from their comfortable stable with its thick litter of clean straw. They were not thinking about the war, but they seemed to understand that their good times were over, that they would have to resign themselves to all sorts of discomforts, march unceasingly, pass nights in camps under the pouring rain, keep their heavy equipment on their backs for many days together, and not always get food when they were hungry.
Then the train would set off again with a noise of tightened couplings and creaking waggons. Whilst I was mechanically looking out at the darkness, dotted here and there with the coloured lights of the signals placed along the line, my straying thoughts would wander to the fields of battle and try to picture the scene on my arrival at the Front.
It was the 28th of August, nearly a month after the order had been given for mobilisation. And the armies had been fighting for some days already. What had happened? We could only glean part of the truth from the short official announcements. We knew there had been hard fighting at Charleroi, at Dinant, and in the direction of Nancy. But the result had not been defined. I thought I could guess, however, that these battles had not been decisive, but that they had cost both sides dear. I was tempted to rejoice, fool that I was, to think that the first great victories would not be won before I joined my regiment. I had not yet been able to console myself for the ill-fortune that prevented me from starting with the squadrons of the first line. And yet I had to submit to regulations. The colonel was inflexible, and answered my entreaties by quoting the inexorable rule: In every cavalry regiment the sixth lieutenant in order of seniority must stay at the depot to help the major and the captain of the 5th squadron. They must assemble, equip, and train the reserve squadrons of the regiment.
I shall never forget what those days were to me. Days of overwhelming work, when, in a tropical heat, I was busy from sunrise to sunset, entering the names of thousands of men, registering the horses, giving certificates, and providing food for the lot. It needed some skill to find billets for them all; the horses were lodged in stables, riding establishments and yards, the men in every corner and nook of the vast district. It was tiresome work, and would have been almost impossible but for the general goodwill and admirable discipline. But all the time I was thinking of the fellows away in Belgium boldly reconnoitring the masses of Germans and coming into contact with the enemy.
At last, at eleven o'clock on the 28th of August, the colonel's telegram came ordering me to go at once and replace my young friend, Second-Lieutenant de C., seriously wounded whilst reconnoitring. At six o'clock in the evening I had packed my food, strapped on my kit, and got my horses into the train. I set off with a light heart, and my fellow-officers of the Reserve and of the Territorials, who were still at the depot, came to see me off.
But how slowly the train travelled, and what a long way off our little garrison town in the west seemed to me when I thought of the firing line out towards the north! I made up my mind to try to imitate my faithful Wattrelot, who had been snoring in peace for ever so long. I stretched myself on the golden straw and waited impatiently for the dawn, dozing and dreaming.
At about eight o'clock in the morning the train stopped at the concentration station of N. What a crowd, and yet what order and precision in this formidable traffic! All the commissariat trains for the army muster here before being sent off to different parts of the Front. The numerous sidings were all covered with long rows of trucks. In every direction engines getting up steam were panting and puffing. In the middle of this hurly-burly men were on the move, some of them calm, jaded and patient. These were the railwaymen, who went about in a business-like way, pushing railway vans, counting packages, carrying papers, checking lists, and giving information politely and willingly. The rest were soldiers, lost, bewildered in the midst of this entanglement of lines which seemed inextricable. They were asking each other questions, swearing, laughing, protesting, and then they got into a train and were promptly hauled out and sent to another. But, with all this, there was no disorder, no lack of discipline. Everywhere the same admirable composure reigned that I had already noticed at the station of my little garrison town.
With Wattrelot's help, I tidied myself up for a visit to the military authorities of the station. After many difficulties, and after passing through the hands of a number of sentries and orderlies on duty, I came into the presence of a kindly captain, to whom I stated my case: "These are my marching orders, Captain; I am to join the —— Light Cavalry. Do you know where it is just now?"
The captain raised his hands to Heaven with a look of despair: "How am I to know where any regiment is now? You can't expect it. All I can do for you is to couple your truck on to the commissariat train of your army corps. It will take you as far as the terminus, and there you must see what you can do."
I went back to my horses. After various excursions hither and thither which took up the whole morning I at last managed to get my horse-box coupled to the train. Wattrelot and I, together with the Territorial section that served as guard, were the only passengers. The whole train was composed of vans stuffed with food supplies and mysterious cases, packed into some separate vans carefully sealed. Our departure was fixed for two o'clock, and meanwhile I had a chat with the Territorial lieutenant who commanded our escort. I tried to find out from him what had happened at the Front. He did not know any more than I did, and merely told me how sorry he was for his own ill-luck: "You know, our job is no joke. We start after luncheon, travel all the rest of the day and part of the night, sleep where we can, and the next day we go back again in the empty train. It takes still longer to get back. And the day after we begin all over again."
And the worthy man quietly folded his hands on the "fair roundness" of his figure. He looked a good sort of fellow. He did his job conscientiously; put his men into the third-class compartments assigned to them; saw that they had their cartridges, and gave them some fatherly counsel; and then he invited me into the second-class compartment reserved for him. But I declined, as I preferred to travel with my horses. The train jolted off. The heat was tropical. We had pushed our sliding-door wide open, and, seated on our packages, we contemplated the smiling summer landscape as it passed slowly before us. And I came to the conclusion that we had found out the pleasantest way of travelling:—to have a railway carriage to yourself, where you can stand up, walk about and lie down; to go at a pace that allows you to enjoy the scenery of the countries you pass through; and to be able to linger and admire such and such a view, such and such a country mansion or monument of olden days! That is a hundred times better than the shaking and rush of a train de luxe.
I was delighted and touched by the sympathetic interest shown in us by the people. Everywhere old men, women and children waved their handkerchiefs and called out, "Good luck!... Good luck!"
The worthy Territorials answered back as best they could. One felt that all hearts were possessed with one and the same thought, wish, and hope,—the hearts of the men who were going slowly up to battle, and those of the people who watched them pass and sent their good wishes with them.
At one station where we stopped a group of girls dressed in white were waiting on the platform under the burning rays of the sun. With simplicity, grace, and charming smiles they distributed chocolate, bread, and fruit to all the men. The good fellows were so touched that tears came to their eyes. One of them, an elderly man with a small grey pointed beard, could not help saying: "But we aren't going to fight, you know. We are only here to take care of the train."
"That doesn't matter. That doesn't matter. Take it all the same. You are soldiers, like the others.... Vive la France!" And all the thirty Territorials, in deep and solemn tones, repeated "Vive la France!"
What a change had come over these men who, people feared, were ripe for revolt, undisciplined, and reckless! What kindness and grace in the women who stay at home and suffer! An old railwayman said to me: "It has been like that, Sir, from the first day of the mobilisation. These girls pass their days and nights at the station. It is really very good of them, for they won't make anything by it." The old working man was right: "They won't make anything by it." And yet I am sure that many soldiers who have passed that station on their way to the Front will keep the same grateful remembrance that I still have. I shall never forget the group of girls in white on the sunny platform of the little station; I shall never forget the simple grace with which they prevailed upon the men to accept the good things they offered and even forced upon them. I thanked them as best I could, but awkwardly enough, trying to interpret the thoughts of all those soldiers. And when the train had started again on its panting course, I felt sorry I had not been more eloquent in my speech; that I had already forgotten the name of the little station, and never thought of asking the names of our benefactresses.
We were now getting near the fighting zone, and I already felt that there was a change in the state of mind of the people. They still called out to us: "Good luck!... Good luck!" But earlier in the day this greeting had been given with smiles and merry gestures; now it was uttered in a serious and solemn tone. At the station gates and the level crossings, the eyes of the women who looked at us were more sad and profound. They fixed themselves upon ours, and seemed to speak to us. And even when their lips did not move their eyes still said "Good luck!... Good luck!"
We saw motor cars rushing along the roads, and could distinguish the armbands on the men's sleeves, and rifles in the cars or lying in the hoods. And yet daily life was going on as usual. There were workers in the fields, tradespeople on the doorsteps of their shops, groups of peasants just outside the hamlets. But yet a peculiar state of mind was evident in each one of these people who were going on with their daily work. And all these accumulated cares, all these stirred imaginations, produced a strange atmosphere which infected everything, seemed to impregnate the air we breathed, and quenched the gaiety of the men in our train. Wattrelot and I were overcome by a kind of religious emotion; we felt as though we were already breathing the air of battle.
At about six o'clock we arrived at the station of L., where the train stopped for a few minutes. The platforms were crowded with Staff officers. A soldier assured me that the chief Headquarters were here. I wanted to question some one and try to get some authoritative information as to what was happening at the Front. It seemed to me that I had a right to know, now that I was on the point of becoming one of the actors in the tragedy in progress a few leagues off. But directly I came up to these officers I felt my assurance fail me. They looked disturbed and anxious. There was none of that merry animation that had reigned in the interior and that I had expected to find everywhere.
And then a strange and ridiculous fear came over me; the fear of being looked upon as an intruder by these well-informed men who knew everything. I imagined that they would spurn me with scorn, or that I should cause them pain by forcing them to tell me truths people do not like to repeat. It also occurred to me that I was too insignificant a person to confront men so high in office, and that I should appear importunate if I disturbed their reflections. But I was now quite sure that the official announcements had not told us all. Without having heard one word, I felt that things were not going so well as we had hoped, as every day in our little town in the west we tried passionately to divine the truth, devouring the few newspapers that reached us.
A pang shot through me. I now felt alone and lost amongst these men who seemed strangers to me. Crossing the rails, I got back to our train, drawn up at some distance from the platforms. The sun was on the horizon. In the red sky two monoplanes passed over our heads at no great height. The noise of their engines made everybody look up. They were flying north. And I felt a desire to rush upwards and overtake one of them and take my seat close to the pilot, behind the propeller which was spinning round and sending the wind of its giddy speed into his face. I longed to be able to lift myself into the air above the battlefields, and there, suspended in space, try to make out the movements of the clashing nations.
I resolved to have a talk with the engine-driver of a train returning to Paris empty. He told me in a few words that the French army was retreating rapidly, that it had already recrossed the Belgian frontier, and that at that moment it was fighting on French soil. He told me this simply, with a touch of sadness in his voice, shaking his head gently. He added no comments of his own, and I did not feel equal to any reply. Full of foreboding, I returned to my train and Wattrelot. He had heard what the engine-driver had told me, and he said not a word, but looked out into the distance at the fiery sky. We sat down side by side and said nothing.
So we were retreating. Then all our calculations and dreams were shattered. All the fine plans we officers had sketched out together were folly. We were wasting time when, bending over our maps, we foresaw a skilful advance on the heels of Belgium's invaders, followed by a huge victory, dearly bought, perhaps, but one that would upset the German Colossus at a single blow. The whole thing was an illusion. And I thought what a fool I had been. I thought of my regiment. How much of it was there left? How many of those good fellows were lying dead on foreign soil? How many friends should I never see again? For I imagined things to be worse than they really were. I felt absolutely despondent. What my mind conjured up was no longer a retreat in good order but a rout.
The train had begun to move again. The sun had set, and over the horizon there was but a streak of pale yellow sky lighting up the country. I sat down in the open doorway with my legs dangling outside, and as I breathed the first few whiffs of fresh air I felt somewhat relieved. The calm around was such as to make one forget that we were at war. Darkness came on by degrees.
Suddenly my heart began to beat faster, and I rose with a nervous movement. Wattrelot too had started up from the straw he had been lying on. We both exclaimed in one breath: "Cannon!" It was a mere distant growl, hardly audible, and yet it was distinct enough to be a subdued accompaniment to the thousand noises a train makes as it goes along. We could not distinguish the shots, but gradually the dull sound became louder and seemed to be wafted towards us by a gust of air. Then it seemed to be further off again, and almost to die away, and again to get louder. There is no other earthly sound like it. A thunderstorm as it dies away is the only thing that could suggest the impression we felt. It sends a kind of shiver all over the surface of the body. Even our horses felt it. Their three heads were raised uneasily, their eyes shone in the twilight, and they snorted noisily through their dilated nostrils.
Leaning out, I saw the heads of the Territorials thrust out of the windows. They, too, had heard the mysterious and stirring music. No one spoke or joked. Their bodies, stretching out into space, seemed to be asking questions and imploring to know the truth. We came nearer to the sounds of the guns and could now distinguish the shots following one another at short intervals. The air seemed to be shaken, and we might have thought we were but a few paces off.
The train had pulled up sharply in the open country. It was still light enough for us to make out the landscape—meadows covered with long pale grass, bordered by willows and tall poplar trees gently swaying in the evening breeze. In the background a thick wood shut in the view. The railway line curved away to the right and was lost to view in the growing darkness. Now that the train was motionless the impressive voice of the cannon could be heard more distinctly. The long luminous trails of the search-lights passed over the sky at intervals.
Impatient at the delay, I got down and walked along the line to the engine. It had stopped at a level crossing. At the side of the closed barrier, on the doorstep of her hut, with the light shining upon her, sat the wife of the gatekeeper, a child in her arms. She was a young woman, fair and pale. She seemed somewhat uneasy, and yet had no idea of quitting her post. She was talking in a low voice to the engine driver and stoker of our train. I tried to get some information from her. "Mon Dieu, monsieur," she said, "I know nothing, except that the guns have been firing all day long since yesterday, and even at times during the night. The sound comes chiefly from the direction of G. Some soldiers, who went by just now with carts, told me the Prussians got into the town yesterday, but that it was to be retaken to-day; and that there were a great many dead and wounded."
My hopes revived a little. I saw at once in my mind the German attack stopped on the river Oise, our armies recovering, drawing together and driving the enemy back across the frontier. Our engine-driver explained to me that we had come quite close to the terminus, but that we should have to wait some time before we could get in. Other trains had to be unloaded and shunted to make room.
I went back to my van. Night had fallen, and it must have been about nine o'clock. The guns had suddenly ceased firing. Our lantern had burnt itself out, and the rest of our wait was made more tedious by darkness. An empty train passed us, and then silence fell once more upon the spot where we waited anxiously to be allowed to go forward towards our brothers-in-arms. Oh! how I longed to join them, even if it were only in the middle of a bloody and difficult retreat; how I longed to be delivered from my solitude!
At last, at about eleven o'clock, the train set off again without whistling, and very slowly. It went along timidly, so to speak, and as though it was afraid of coming into some unknown region which might be full of mysteries and ambuscades. In the distance I saw some signal lamps waved, and suddenly we stopped. What I then saw astounded me. I had thought we should draw up at a large platform where gangs of men would be waiting, in perfect order, to unload the train, sort out the packages, and pile them up in their appointed places for the carts to take them quietly away.
Instead of this the train stopped at some little distance from a small station standing by itself in the open country. I could make out some buildings, badly lighted, and around them a crowd of shadowy forms moving about. And drawn up alongside of our train were countless vehicles of all sorts and kinds in indescribable disorder, made all the more confusing by the darkness. Some of them were drawn up in some sort of a line. Others tried to edge themselves in and get a vacant place among the entanglement of wheels and horses. The drivers were abusing each other in forcible language. Every now and again there was an outburst of laughter interspersed with oaths.
All this time officials were running down the platform with papers in their hands, trying to read what was chalked on the vans. Enquiries and shouts were heard:
"Where is the bread?"
"No, it's not."
"Where is the officer in charge?"
Matches were struck. The few lighted lanterns there were were snatched from one hand by another. And in spite of all this apparent disorder the work went rapidly forward. Men climbed in through the open doors. Sacks and heavy cases were passed along. Porters, bending under their loads, slipped through the maze of vans and carts to the one they wanted and deposited their burdens.
After giving Wattrelot orders to prevent any one from invading our horse-box I slipped out and went towards the station office to look for the military commissary. I had great difficulty in making my way through the crowd of men who seemed to be rushing to take the train by assault in the darkness. Then I had to avoid breaking my neck in getting across the maze of rails, the signal wires, and the open ditches.
I got to the station. A number of wounded were there lying on the platforms; about a hundred of them, with their clothes torn, and covered with dust. They presented a sad picture. They were, it is true, only slightly wounded; but it cuts one to the heart to see soldiers in that plight, hauled out upon the ground without straw to lie upon or any doctor to attend to them. However, they had all had first-aid dressings. Below the bandages that bound their heads their feverish eyes gleamed in the light of the lanterns. Their bandaged arms were supported by pieces of linen tied behind their necks. Several of them were sitting on baskets, casks and packages of all kinds, and they were talking eagerly. Each man was relating, with plenty of gesticulation, the great deeds he had taken part in or seen. As I passed, I heard scraps of their conversation: "They were in the first line of houses.... Then, old chap, our lieutenant rushed forward.... You should have seen them scuttle...."
I was delighted to see that the moral of those fine fellows didn't seem in the least affected. To hear them you would have thought the Germans had been driven back at all points.
I got a porter to tell me where the military commissary was. He pointed out an Artillery lieutenant, in a cap with a white band, talking to a group of officers. I introduced myself, and asked him if he knew anything about the state of affairs. Like everybody else, he could only give me very vague information. "However," he added, "I can confirm what you have heard about G. The First Corps has just retaken the town, which was defended by the Prussian Guard. It appears that our fellows were wonderful, and that the enemy has suffered enormous losses. However"—the lieutenant's voice trembled slightly, and the shrug of his shoulders betrayed his despair—"I have orders to evacuate the station, with all my men and my papers, so soon as the last train has been unloaded. I am to fall back towards L. How is one to understand what all this means?"
We looked at each other, without a word. Everybody felt dejected and doubtful. Not to understand!... To have to obey without understanding why! It was the first time I had really felt the grandeur of military service. You must have a soul stoutly tempered to carry out an order—no matter what, even if that order seems incomprehensible to you. There must have been in that corner of France, on the edge of that frontier which we had sworn should never be violated—there must have been thousands of officers, thousands of soldiers who would have given their lives rather than yield up one inch of ground. Then why abandon that station? Why say so bluntly, "To-morrow you will have no need to go so far north to bring supplies. We shall come nearer to you; we shall withdraw ..."?
There I was again, allowing my mind to wander and to suffer. I tried to learn by what means I could get some information about my regiment.
"Well, it's very simple," said the Artillery lieutenant, very kindly. "Your commissariat officer will certainly have to come with his convoy to fetch supplies. Try to get hold of him. He will tell you all about it."
I grasped his hand and went off, glad indeed at the thought of seeing my regiment's uniform once more. And Providence seemed to guide me, for I thought I saw the very man I was looking for in the little booking office. But I had some difficulty in recognising him. He looked aged and worn. His beard had grown quite grey. Bending over the sill of the ticket office, he was in the act of spreading the contents of a box of sardines upon a slice of bread. Yes, it was he. How tired and disheartened he looked! I pushed the door open and rushed in:
"Bonjour! Comment va?"
"Ah!... It's you! What have you come here for, my poor fellow? Ah! Things aren't looking very rosy...."
I plied him with questions, and he answered in short incoherent sentences:
"Charleroi? Don't talk of it!... Our men? Grand!... A hecatomb.... Then ... the retreat ... day and night.... The Germans daren't.... Ah! a nice business, isn't it? We're retreating."
He told me where the regiment was, in a huge farm a long way off. He said he could take my canteen in one of his vans. As for me, I should have to manage as best I could next day to join my comrades. It would take some time to get my horses detrained, as the only platform was still being used for the vans not yet unloaded. "Thanks," said I. "Well, it's quite simple. To-morrow I go straight towards the cannon. Good-night." And I went off to finish my sleepless night, lying beside my horses. With my eyes fixed on the chink of the door, I waited, hour after hour, for the daylight....
When dawn broke I had already got Wattrelot and a couple of railwaymen who were still in the station to bring my horse-box up to the platform. The three horses were quickly saddled and ready to start. The freshness of the morning and the joy of feeling firm ground under their feet again made them uncommonly lively. Indeed, Wattrelot came near feeling the effects of their good spirits somewhat uncomfortably as he was getting into the saddle.
At last we started at a quick trot along a white and dusty road which led straight across fields still bathed in shadow. I went first in the direction my friend had vaguely indicated the night before. Wattrelot followed, leading my spare horse. The horses' footsteps resounded strangely in this unknown country where nothing else could be heard. Were we really at war? Everything seemed, on the contrary, to breathe perfect tranquillity. What a change from the feverish bustle of the station the evening before!
We rode through a rich and fertile countryside. The fields stretched out one after another without end, covering the rounded flanks of the undulating ground with their stubble, dotted with stacks and golden sheaves. A few hedges and some clumps of trees broke the monotony of the landscape. Here and there farms of imposing proportions appeared among the foliage. No shots were to be heard, nor any sound of marching troops. And this made me so uneasy that I began to wonder whether something had not happened during the night to shift the scene of the fighting without my knowledge. But I was about to see something which was to remind me, better than the noise of cannon, that the scene of the strife was not far off.
As the daylight became gradually brighter we distinguished figures moving round some straw-stacks—folks who had collected there to pass the night sheltered as much as possible from the cold and the morning dew. I thought they were soldiers who had lost touch with their regiments and had taken their brief night's rest in the open air. But I soon saw my mistake. As by enchantment, as soon as the first rays of the sun appeared the sleepers got up, and I saw that they were civilians, mostly women and children. They were the unfortunate country-folk who had fled before the barbarian hordes. They had preferred to forsake their homes, to leave them to the invader, rather than fall into his hands. They had fled, carrying with them the most precious things they possessed. They had come away not knowing where they would stop, nor where they could pass the night. And as soon as the twilight came and found them exhausted on the interminable roads, they had dropped down by the stacks grateful for a humble bed of straw. There they had stretched their aching limbs, the mothers had carefully made up little beds for their babies, families had nestled closely together, and often whole villages had gathered in the same fields and around the same stacks.
And when the daylight appeared they had got up hurriedly and the roads were already crowded with mournful pilgrims seeking refuge further and further inland. I must confess that I had not expected to see such a sight. It made my heart ache. I was seized with a fury and longed to be able to rush upon the enemy, drive him back across the frontier, and restore the dwellings forsaken by these poor folks.
What human being, however cold-hearted, could help feeling deep pity at the sight of those poor, weak and inoffensive creatures fleeing before invasion? There were pitiable sights on every hand. A mother pushing a perambulator containing several small children, whilst five or six others were hanging on to her dress or trotting along around her. Poor invalids, dragged, pushed, carried by all possible means, sooner than be left in the hands of the Prussians. Old men helped along by boys; infants carried by old men. And as they passed they all cast a look of distress at the officer who rode quickly by, averting his eyes. I thought I saw a reproach in those glances: they seemed to say to me: "Why haven't you been able to defend us? Why have you let them come into our country? See how we are suffering. Look at our little children, who cannot walk any further. Where are we to go now that, by your fault, we have left the homes of our childhood, and of our fathers and our fathers' fathers? Is that what war is?" I urged on my horse to get them out of my sight and to reach the fighting line as quickly as I could.
Suddenly the report of a gun sounded straight in front of me. Further off a few rifle shots were audible, and then guns again, accompanied by concentrated rifle fire. A kind of shiver passed through my whole body.
My first battle! I was going to take part in my first battle! I felt really mad and intoxicated at the thought of at last realising the dream of my life. But other feelings were mingled with it. I reflected: "What effect will it have upon me? I expect I shall come into the middle of the fight when I get over that ridge. Shall I duck my head when I hear the bullets whistling and the shrapnel bursting around me? I am determined to play the man. I know Wattrelot is close by, trotting behind me. He mustn't see the least symptom of nervousness in me."
The noise of the guns became louder. "By the way!... I wonder what Wattrelot feels like!" I turned to look at him, and found his face a bit pale; but directly he saw me glance at his blue north-country eyes, his face lit up with a broad smile.
"Here we are, sir."
"Yes, Wattrelot, here we are. I'm sure you don't know what fear is!"
"Oh! no, sir."
"That's all right. Forward then! To the guns!"
We passed through a hamlet full of waggons and motors. Some orderlies were loading them up with rations and boxes. On one of these I happened to see the number of my own army corps. "I'm all right then," thought I, and turned to an adjutant of the Army Service Corps, who was superintending the work.
"Do you know where the Staff of the —— Corps is?" I asked.
The man shrugged his shoulders to show that he didn't, and that he didn't care. What did it matter to him? His job was to get the goods loaded, forget nothing, and then to go to his appointed post where he would have to wait for further orders to unload his stuff in the evening. He had enough to do. What did anything else matter to him? However, he pointed in a vague manner: "They went over there...."
Off I started again over the wide undulating plain. The noise of the cannonade became louder and louder, and I now perceived traces of the work of death. At a turning of the road there were a couple of dead horses that had been dragged into the ditch. I cannot say how painful the sight was to me. Apparently a dead horse at the seat of war is a trifle, and no doubt I should very soon see it with indifference. But these were the first I had seen, and I could not help casting a glance of pity at them. Poor beasts! A month before they had been showing off their fine points in the well-kept stables of the artillery barracks. When I saw them their stiffened corpses bore traces of all their sufferings. Their harness had rubbed great sores in their flesh, in more places than one. Their glazed eyes seemed to be still appealing for pity. They had fallen down exhausted, finding it impossible to keep up with their fellows. They had been quickly unharnessed, so as not to block up the road; had been dragged on to the sunburnt grass, and it was there no doubt the death-agony that had already lasted for some hours had come to an end.
We went on, and, in the distance, here and there on the plain, which now stretched before us for miles, we saw more of them. I wondered how it was that so many horses had fallen in so short a time. It was not a month since mobilisation had been ordered, and hardly ten days since operations had begun. What a huge effort then the army must already have made!
But I soon forgot the poor beasts, for we were nearing the scene of the struggle. Behind the shelter of every swell in the ground were ammunition waggons. I went up to one of these and was astonished at what I saw. The limbers, which are always so smart in the barrack-yard, with their grey paint, were covered with a thick coating of dust or of hardened mud. The horses, dirty and thin, seemed ready to drop. Their necks were covered with sores, and they were hanging their heads to eat, but seemed not to have strength enough to take their food. Drivers and non-commissioned officers were sprawling about, sleeping heavily. Their cadaverous faces, beards of a week's growth and drawn features showed even in their sleep how exhausted they were. I could hardly recognise the original colour of their dingy uniforms under the accumulation of stains and dust.
It was now eight o'clock in the morning. The sunshine was beating hot upon the sleepers, but they seemed indifferent to this. They had simply pulled the peaks of their caps over their eyes and were snoring away, with their noses in the air and their mouths open. Beasts and men together formed a group of creatures that seemed utterly depressed and worn out. I could never have believed it possible to sleep under such conditions, with the guns booming unceasingly in all directions.
I went up the nearest ridge and thence got a glimpse of a corner of the battle. I had expected to see a sight similar to that which had delighted us at manoeuvres; troops massed in all the depressions of the ground, battalions advancing in good order along the roads, and mounted men galloping about on the higher ground. But there was nothing of the sort.
In front of me, about 600 yards off, and under cover of the brow of a hill carpeted with russet stubble, I saw two batteries of artillery, firing their guns. I looked intently. The pieces were in perfect line and the gunners at their posts. The shots were fired at regular intervals and with cool deliberation. The gunners took their time, and seemed to be working very casually. I had expected to see them fairly excited: the men running under a hail of shells, teams brought up at a gallop as soon as a few salvoes had been fired, and the guns whirled off at full speed and lined up in battery again some hundreds of yards further off.
On the contrary, these guns seemed to be planted there for good. The limbers, which were massed to the rear under cover of a slope, looked very much like the sections of munitions I had seen just before. The men were sleeping in the shadows of their horses, and the horses were asleep on their feet in their appointed places. The only man standing was a stout-looking adjutant who was walking up and down with his hands in his pockets. With his eyes on the ground he seemed to be counting his steps. And meanwhile, the two batteries went on firing salvoes of four at a time. When one was finished there was a pause of two or three minutes. Then the other battery took it up.
But Wattrelot interrupted my reverie: "Look over there, sir.... Ca barde!" I looked in the direction he was pointing out. And now I no longer felt the uneasy feeling that had come over me at the sight of what was going on here. Above a height that overtopped the hill on which I was, and about 1,500 yards away, the German shells were bursting incessantly. We could distinctly hear the sharp sound of the explosions. In the clear blue of the sky they made little white puffs which vanished gradually and were replaced by others. Their gunners could not have been firing with the same coolness as ours, for the white puffs increased in number. The noise they were making on the spot must have been deafening. From where I was we heard the explosions following one upon another without intermission.
But what was most thrilling was to watch one of our own batteries in action under this avalanche of projectiles. The slope on which it was placed was in shadow still. Against this blue-grey background short flames could be seen flashing for a second at the muzzles of the guns. And the four reports reached us almost at the same moment. The gunners could be seen just as calm under fire as the others here. The German shells, that tried to scatter death among them, burst too high. They were trying to annihilate this battery, which was no doubt causing terrible ravages among their men. But the broken fragments fell wide, and our gunners worked their pieces gallantly. This was something that more than made up for my touch of disappointment at first. My hope revived, and I started off at a trot straight in front of me, getting past the ridge, under cover of which the pair of batteries were plying their guns.
No sooner had I gained the further slope than I understood that what I had seen hitherto was only the background of the battle. From this spot a violent rifle fire was heard in every direction. In the meadows were a large number of infantry sections crouching behind every available bit of cover. On the opposite slope long lines of skirmishers were deployed. And dotted about everywhere, above their heads, rose puffs of smoke—white, black, and yellow—the German shells bursting. The noise of them was incessant, and the spot where we were seemed to me very quiet, in spite of the firing of the two batteries close behind us.
Everything was wonderfully coloured by the sunshine. The red trousers of the soldiers, lying in the grass, showed up brightly. The mess-tins on their knapsacks and the smallest metal objects—buttons, bayonet-hilts, belt-buckles—glittered at every movement. On my left, in a dip of ground with a little river running down it, a gay little village seemed to be overflowing with troops. I rode towards it in haste, hoping to find a Staff there which could give me some information.
The streets were, in fact, full of infantry, lying about or sitting along the houses on both sides. In the middle of the main road was a crowd of galloping orderlies, cyclists and motor-cyclists. I felt rather bewildered in all this bustle. However, these people seemed to know where they were going. They were, no doubt, carrying orders or information. And yet I could see no chief officer who appeared to be busying himself about the action or directing anything. Those who were not sleeping were chatting in little groups. The soldiers of different arms were all mixed together, which had, perhaps, a picturesque effect, but was disconcerting.
Suddenly I heard some one call me by my name. I turned round and hesitated a moment before I recognised in an artillery captain with a red beard, a former friend who had been a lieutenant in a horse battery at Luneville. Yes, it was he. I recognised him by his grey eyes, his hooked nose, and his ringing voice.
"Eh, mon cher! What are you doing here? You look fresh and fit!... What are you looking for? You seem to be at sea."
I explained my position to him, and asked him to tell me what had happened.
"Oh! that would take too long. Your fellows were at Charleroi with us; they had some experiences! But hang it if I know what they are doing with us. We beat them yesterday, my friend. Our men and our guns did wonders. And now there's talk of our retreating further south. I don't understand it all. Ah! we have seen some hot work, and you will make a rough beginning.... Looking for your regiment, are you? I haven't seen it yet to-day. But you see that Staff right over there behind those stacks?... Yes, where those shells are bursting.... That's General T. He can help you; only, you see, he's not exactly in clover. T. has been splendid; always under fire, cheering on his men. They say he wants to get killed so as not to see the retreat...."
I knew General T. well. He commanded a brigade in our garrison town of R. And a kindly chief he was, clear-minded, frank, and plain-spoken. I soon made up my mind to go to him and see what help I could get to enable me to rejoin my regiment. It would be a pleasure, too, to see him again.
I measured the distance with my eye—a kilometre, perhaps. There was no road, and to go across the fields would not be very easy, as there were walls and hedges round the meadows. I took the other way out of the village, and just as Wattrelot and I were leaving it we saw some wounded men arriving. They came slowly, helped along by their comrades, and there were such a number of them that they blocked the road. Those faces tied up with bandages clotted with perspiration, dust, and blood; those coats hanging open; those shirts torn, and showing lint and bandages reddened with blood; those poor bandaged feet that had to be kept off the ground—all this made a painful impression on me. No doubt this was because I was not accustomed to such sights, for others hardly took any notice of it.
"The ambulance! Where is the ambulance?" cried the men who were helping them along.
"At the station," answered some soldiers, hardly looking round; "go straight on, and turn to the left when you get to the market-place."
And the sad procession went its way. I jumped the ditch at the side of the road, and struck across the fields, spurring straight for General T. At that moment the rifle fire became more violent. Some forward movement was certainly beginning, for the infantry sections, that were lying in cover at the bottom of the valley, began to climb up the slope of the ridge on which I was galloping. Suddenly my horse swerved sharply. He had just almost trodden upon a body lying on the other side of the low wall of loose stones that I had just jumped. I drew rein. A sob burst from my lips. Oh! I did not expect to see that so suddenly. A score of corpses lay scattered on that sloping stubble-field. They were Zouaves. They seemed almost to have been placed there deliberately, for the bodies were lying at about an equal distance from one another. They must have fallen there the day before during an attack, and night had come before it had been possible to bury them. Their rifles were still by their side, with the bayonets fixed. The one nearest to us was lying with his face to the ground and was still grasping his weapon. He was a handsome fellow, thin and dark. No wound was visible, but his face was strikingly pale under the red chechia which had been pulled down over his ears.
I looked at Wattrelot. The good fellow's eyes were filled with tears. "Come!" thought I, "we must not give way like this."
"Wattrelot, my friend, we shall see plenty more. You know, they were brave fellows who have been killed doing their duty. We must not pity them...."
Wattrelot did not answer. I galloped off again towards the big rick by which stood General T.'s Staff. I had already forgotten what I had seen, and my attention was fixed upon that small group of men standing motionless near the top of the ridge. German shells kept bursting over them from time to time. We were now about 100 yards off, so I left Wattrelot and my spare horse hidden behind a shattered hovel and went alone towards the rick.
But just as I was coming up to it I heard a curious hissing noise which lasted about the twentieth part of a second, and, above my head—how high I could not quite tell—vrran!... vrran!—two shells exploded with a tremendous noise. I ducked my head instinctively and tried to make myself as small as possible on my horse. A thought passed through my mind like a flash: "Here we are! Why on earth did I come up here? My campaign will have been a short one!" And then this other thought followed: "But I'm not hit! That's all their shells can do! I shan't trouble to duck in future."
And yet I was disagreeably impressed: a soldier who had been holding a horse just before about 30 yards from me ran down the slope, whilst the horse was struck dead and lay in a pool of blood, his body torn open.
But I was now close to the officers composing the Staff of the T. Brigade. They came towards me, supposing, probably, that I was bringing some information or an order. One of them was known to me, an infantry captain who had been in garrison at R. with me. We shook hands, and I explained the object of this unusual visit. He replied:
"Your regiment? You will find it to the left of the Army Corps. It's the regiment that ensures our liaison with the —— Corps."
"Well, Captain, it seems our troops are advancing. Things are going well!"
He shrugged his shoulders sharply. His eyes were hard and sombre as he gazed fixedly at the horizon in the direction of the enemy, and then said in an exasperated tone:
"Certainly, they are advancing. See those lines of skirmishers working along there to the right of the village. And those others further off, there where you see those puffs of yellow smoke. But that won't prevent us from beginning our retreating movement at noon. There are express orders. We must move together with the whole army. We shall sleep to-night 20 kilometres from here ... and not in the right direction!"
We looked at one another in silence. I didn't like to ask any further questions, nor to express my disappointment and the angry feeling that was becoming stronger in me. The sight of General T. calmed me at once. It seemed to tell me what my duty was, and to impose silent obedience and firm faith in our chiefs.
Standing alone, 100 yards in advance of his officers, whom he had told to remain concealed behind the enormous stack, the General was observing the struggle. He stood perfectly still, with his back slightly bent and his hands behind him. He had allowed his beard to grow, and it formed a white patch on his slightly tanned face. In front of him, at some little distance, two shells had just burst, falling short. The General had not stirred. He looked like a statue of sadness and of duty. I had thought of going and introducing myself; but I now felt that I was too insignificant a being to intrude myself upon a chief who was watching the advance of his brave soldiers, as a father watches over his children.
I turned and went away, quietly and slowly, with a feeling of oppression.
So I made my way back again, skirting the firing line behind the ridge, often obliged to pull up to allow troops to pass to reinforce the line. Now and then it seemed that the fighting had ceased at the spot I happened to be in, but I soon found myself again in the thick of the artillery and rifle fire. On all the roads I crossed there was a continual stream of wounded men limping along and stretcher-bearers carrying mutilated bodies. The heat had become tropical. It was nearly twelve o'clock. My head began to swim. My shako seemed gradually to get tighter and to press on my temples till they were ready to burst. I thought I should never find my regiment—never....
I came to a small village, and decided to stop and get some food for ourselves and for my horses, as they showed signs of distress. There, too, the streets were full of infantry, but, to my astonishment, none of them belonged to any of the regiments of my Corps. So I supposed I had passed its left wing without knowing it. Bad luck! I rode up the steep alleys, looking for some inn where I could put up, but all the inns were filled with hot, footsore soldiers, who seemed thankful for a moment's rest. They were sitting about wherever there was any shade to be found. With their coats unbuttoned, their neckties undone and shirts open, they were trying to recover their vigour by greedily devouring hunks of bread they had in their wallets, spread with the contents of their preserved meat tins.
At the door of the vicarage, near the pretty little church which could be seen from the surrounding country, I saw an old priest who was distributing bottles of white wine to an eager crowd of troopers. I heard him say in a gentle voice:
"Here, my lads, take what there is. If the Prussians come, I don't want them to find a drop left."
"Merci, ... merci, Monsieur le Cure."
All at once there was a frightful explosion quite close to us, which made the whole church-square quiver. A German "coal-box" had fallen on to the roof of the church, making an enormous hole in it, out of which came a thick cloud of horrible yellow smoke. A shower of wreckage fell all around us and made a curious noise. The windows of all the houses came clattering down in shivers. In a twinkling the little square in front of the vicarage was empty. A few men who were wounded fled moaning. The rest slung their rifles and went off quickly in a line close under the shelter of the houses. I was left alone face to face with the white-haired priest who still held a bottle of golden wine in his hand. We looked at each other greatly distressed.
"Tenez, Monsieur l'Officier," he said suddenly; "take some more of this. I am going to break all the remaining bottles, so that they shall not drink any of it.... Ah! the savages! Ah! the wretches!... My church!... My poor church!..."
And he went across his little garden quickly, without listening to my thanks. I handed the bottle to Wattrelot, who stuffed it into his wallet with a smile of satisfaction.
But a second "coal-box" soon followed the first. It was certainly not the place to stay in, so I decided to be off and postpone my luncheon until I could find a rather more sheltered dining-room. As I left the village I saw one of our batteries moving briskly away. It was the one that had been in action close to the village, and had probably been the target of the German gunners. It went rapidly down the slope. The drivers brandished their whips and brought them down upon the haunches of their jaded animals. They had to make haste, for the position had become untenable. The German guns were concentrating their fire on the hapless village and the neighbouring ridge. The formidable shells burst in threes. The ground shook. It was evident that very soon nothing would be left there but ruins.
I resumed my wanderings. I saw then that what the captain had told me was true. The retreating movement was beginning to be obvious. Whilst the firing grew more intense along the whole line small parties of infantry marched across the fields in an opposite direction to the one they had taken two hours previously.
So we were beating a retreat. However, I had seen it with my own eyes; not only had we held our ground along the whole line, but at several points our soldiers were making headway. And then suddenly, and without any apparent reason, we had to withdraw. It was enough to make one mad. We had to retreat over the soil of our France and give it up, little by little, to the hordes which followed on our heels.... I had slackened rein, and was allowing my horse to go as he liked over the country strewn with troops. He seemed to understand what was happening, and with his head lowered, as though he did it reluctantly, he slowly followed the direction the immense army was taking. I was seized with a deep feeling of hopelessness. I doubted everything; our men, of whose bravery and tenacity I had just seen proof; and our leaders, whose courage I knew. My head seemed to be on fire.
But I heard a ringing voice behind me, calling me by my name. I turned, and my sadness gave way to joy as I recognised two light-blue tunics with red collars. I had found the uniform of my regiment! and my hope revived. I felt I was no longer alone, and that we might yet accomplish great things.
In front of a score of our Chasseurs rode two good friends of mine, Lieutenant B. and Lieutenant of Reserve de C. What a pleasure it was to shake their hands, and to see their bronzed faces and dusty garments.
We now went on together, chatting merrily. C. knew the village where the regiment was to be billeted. We went straight for it at a trot. It was there that, at nightfall, I was going to find my chiefs again, my comrades and my men; and I should at last take my part in the fighting. I could not know what the days to follow had in store for me, but I did know that none could be so cruel for me as the day when I went to the Front. I was now in the bosom of my military family, and I looked forward to taking my share of danger at the head of the brave Chasseurs I knew so well. Doubtless I should now know where we were going; why we had to advance, and why to retire.
It seems that moral suffering is less keen when it can be shared with others. I shall never suffer again what I suffered that day.
II. THE FIRST CHARGE
Six o'clock in the evening.
The atmosphere was heavy and stifling. The regiment had been formed into two columns, to the right and the left of the high-road from Vauchamps to Montmirail. The men, tired out, their faces black with dust, had hardly dismounted when they threw themselves on the ground and slept in a field of cut corn. The officers chatted together in groups to keep themselves awake. Nights are short when you are on campaign. The bivouac was pitched at midnight and was to be struck at three o'clock in the morning.
And since six o'clock the battle had been raging, for the enemy had engaged our rearguard almost immediately. This had happened each day of that unforgettable retreat, begun at the Sambre and pushed beyond the Marne. Each day we had had to fight. Each day the enemy was repulsed. Each day we were obliged to retire.
Brother-soldiers!—you who came through those painful hours—shall you ever forget them? Shall you ever forget the anguish that wrung your hearts when, as the sun was sinking, you, who had seen so many of your comrades fall, had to give up a further portion of our sweet France; to deliver up some of our lovely hamlets, some of our fields, our orchards, our gardens, some of our vineyards, to the barbarians?... You were ordered to do so. We have learnt, since then, how important such sacrifices were. But, at the time, we did not know ... and doubt came into our minds. We passed through cruel days, and nothing will ever efface the impression of physical and moral prostration that overcame us then.
The regiment was sleeping—tired out.
Alone, calm, phlegmatic, the Colonel kept watch, standing in the middle of the road. With his pipe between his teeth, beneath his ruddy drooping moustache, his cap pulled over his eyes, his arms crossed on his light-blue tunic, he seemed to be the ever-watchful shepherd of that immense flock. At such moments the chief must be able to seem unconscious of the self-abandonment, the disorder and the exhaustion of his men. Human powers have their limits. They had been expended for days without stint. Every moment of cessation from actual fighting had to be a moment of repose. The important thing is that the chief should keep watch. Brave little Chasseurs! sleep in peace; your Colonel is watching over you.
I looked at the men of my troop, on the ground in front of their horses. How could I recognise the smart, brilliantly accoutred horsemen, whose uniforms used to make such a gay note in the old-fashioned streets of the little garrison town?
Under the battered shakoes with their shapeless peaks, the tanned and emaciated faces looked like masks of wax. Youthful faces had been invaded by beards which made them look like those of men of thirty or more. The dust of roads and fields, raised by horses, waggons, and limbers, had settled on them, showing up their wrinkles and getting into eyes, noses, and moustaches.
Their clothes, patched as chance allowed during a halt under some hedge, were enamels of many-coloured pieces. A few more days of such unremitting war, and we should have vied with the glorious tatterdemalions of the armies of Italy and of the Sambre et Meuse, as Raffet paints them.
With their noses in the air, their mouths open, their eyes half shut, my Chasseurs lay stretched out among the legs of their horses and slept heavily. Poor horses! Poor, pretty creatures, so delicate, so fiery, in their glossy summer coats! They had followed their masters' fortunes. How many of them had already fallen under the Prussian bullets; how many had been left dying of exhaustion or starvation after our terrible rides! They seemed to sleep, absorbed in some miserable dream of nothing but burdens to carry, blows to bear, and wounds to suffer. They were hanging their heads, but had not even the strength to crop the green blades growing here and there among the stalks of corn.
I felt uneasy, wondering whether they would still be equal to an effort for the fight that was always likely and always desired.
Suddenly, from the ridge some 800 yards behind us, coming down like a bolt, I saw a horse, at full gallop. Its rider was gesticulating wildly. Strange to say, though not a word had been said, as though awakened by an electric current, every man had got up and had fixed his astonished eyes on the newcomer. He was an artillery non-commissioned officer; his face was crimson, his hair unkempt, his cap had come off his head and was dangling behind by the chin-strap. With a violent jerk he pulled up his foaming horse for a second: "Where is the Colonel—the Colonel?" With one voice the whole squadron replied: "There, on the road. What's the matter?"
He had already set off again at full speed, had reached the Colonel, and was bending down towards him. Even at that distance we could hear some of his words: "Uhlans ... near the woods, ... our guns, our teams...."
Then it was like a miracle. Without any word of command, without any sign, in a moment the whole regiment was on horseback, sword in hand. The Colonel alone had remained standing. With the greatest calmness he asked the sergeant in an undertone for some information; and the man answered him with emphatic gestures. All eyes were fixed upon the group. Everybody waited breathlessly for the order which was going to be given and repeated by five hundred voices, by five hundred men drunk with joy.
We believed the glorious hour was at last come, which we had been awaiting with so much impatience since the opening of the campaign. The charge! That indescribable thing which is the raison d'etre of the trooper, that sublime act which pierces, rends, and crushes by a furious onslaught—wild gallop, with uplifted sword, yelling mouth, and frenzied eyes. The charge! The charge of our great ancestors, of those demi-gods, Murat, Lasalle, Curely, Kellermann and so many others! The charge we had been asking for, with all our hearts, ever since the opening of the campaign, and which had always been denied us!
Ah! that famous German cavalry, that set up its doctrine of pushing the attack to the death, what hatred and what contempt had we conceived for them! We had one desire, and one only—to measure ourselves with them. And every time we had seen their squadrons the result had been either that they had turned and retired in good order behind their lines of infantry, or they had drawn us into some ambuscade under the pitiless fire of their deadly machine-guns.
Were we at last to meet them and measure our swords with their lances?
* * * * *
The regiment moved off in one body behind the Colonel, who, riding a big chestnut horse and as calm as at manoeuvres, led us at a gentle trot skirting the little clumps of trees that dotted the plain. A troop had gone forward in a halo of glittering dust to act as an advance guard.
Our horses seemed to have understood what we were about. Or was it we who had passed on to them the fighting spirit that fired us? I felt behind me the thrill that ran through my men. The first rank could not manage to keep the correct distance, the yard and a half, which ought to separate it from its leader. Even the corporal in the centre allowed his horse to graze the haunches of mine, "Tourne-Toujours," my gallant charger, the fiery thoroughbred which had so often maddened me at the riding schools of the regiment and at manoeuvres, by his savageness and the shaking he gave me. "Tourne-Toujours" gave evident signs of excitement. By his pawing the ground every now and then he, an officer's horse, seemed to resent the close proximity of mere troop horses. And certainly, under ordinary circumstances, I should have fallen foul of the rider imprudent enough to ride close to his heels. But on that occasion I merely laughed in my sleeve, knowing that in a few minutes, when the charge had begun, "Tourne-Toujours" would soon have made them all keep their proper distance, and something more.
I took a pleasure in looking at the faces of the men of the third squadron, whose troops were riding in column abreast of us. Their chins were raised, their eyes wide open, intent, under the shade of their cap-peaks, upon the slightest irregularities of the ground ahead. Their hands grasped their sword-hilts tightly. Major B., leaning well forward, and riding between the two squadrons, was practising some furious cutting-strokes. What a grand fight it was going to be! How we should rejoice to see the curved sabres of our comrades rising against the clear sky to slash down upon the leather schapskas of our foe! We waited for the word that was to let loose the pent-up energy of all those tense muscles.
A trooper came back from the advance guard at full speed, and brought up his horse with the spur beside the Colonel. He reported in short sentences, which we could not hear. The Colonel turned towards our Captain, who was behind him, leaning forward over his horse, all attention, with his sword lowered, receiving the orders given in an undertone. We only heard the last sentence: "I shall support you with the rest of the regiment."
"Thank Heaven!" thought I; "it is we; it is our dear squadron that is to have the honour of attacking first." Every man pulled himself together. Every man felt conscious of all the glory in store for us. Every man prepared to perform exploits which, we felt sure, would astonish the rest of the regiment, of the army, and of France. Forward! Forward! Forward!
The troops had already ridden past the Colonel at an easy gallop, and we suddenly found ourselves strangely isolated in that vast tract of country which, a few minutes before, we had passed over in a body. There was a succession of yellow or green fields, with here and there some leafy thicket. On our left, surrounded by orchards, rose the grey and massive buildings of the farm of Bel-Air. In front of us, some few hundred yards off, there was a dark line of wood, the lower part of which was hidden from us by a slight rise in the ground.
Hardly had the first troop reached the top of the brow when some shots were fired at us. We at once understood. Again we were to be deprived of the pleasure of measuring ourselves with their Uhlans at close quarters. We saw distinctly on the edge of the wood, kneeling and ready to fire, some fifty sharp-shooters in grey uniform and round caps without peaks. We recognised them easily.
It was one of their cyclist detachments that had slipped into the wood and had been quietly waiting for us with rifles levelled. As usual, their cavalry had retired under cover of their line.
What did it matter to us? The wood was not thick enough to prevent our horses from getting through, and the temptation to let the fellows have a taste of our steel was too strong. I rejoiced at the thought of seeing their heavy boots scuttle away through the trees. I resolved to have a thrust at the skirts of their tunics, to help them on a bit.
The Captain understood the general feeling. "Form up!" he cried.
In a twinkling a moving wall had been formed, to the music of merrily clinking stirrups and scabbards and jangling metal; and the gallop towards the wood began.
Just at that moment its skirts were outlined by a circle of fire, and a violent fusillade rang out. Bullets whistled in all directions, and behind me I heard the heavy sound of men and horses falling on the hard ground. In my troop a horse without a rider broke away and came galloping towards me. What did it matter? Forward! Forward!
We were about 200 yards off. We spurred our horses and got into our stride.
Suddenly a horrible fear took the place of the martial joy that had urged us to the fight. We were all struck by the same discouragement, the same feeling of impotence, the same conviction of the uselessness of our sacrifice. We had just realised that the edge of the wood was surrounded with wire, and that it was behind this impassable barrier that the Prussians were calmly firing at us as at a target. What was to be done? How could we get at them and avenge our fellows who had fallen? For one second a feeling of horror and impotent rage passed, like a deep wave, over the squadron. The bullets whistled past us.
But the Captain adopted the wisest course. He saw that retreat was necessary. He had, behind him, more than a hundred human lives, and felt they must be saved for better and more useful sacrifices. With a voice that rose above the noise of the firing, he shouted: "Follow me, in open order!" And he spurred in an oblique direction towards the nearest depression in the ground. But the movement was badly carried out. The men, disheartened, instead of spreading out like a flight of sparrows, rushed off in so compact a body that some more horses were knocked over by the Prussian bullets. How long those few seconds seemed to us! I wondered by what sort of miracle it was that we did not lose more men. But what an uncanny tune the innumerable bullets made in our ears as they pursued us like angry bees!
At last we got under cover. Following a gully, the squadron reached a little wood, behind which it was able to re-form. The sweating horses snorted loudly. The men, sullen-mouthed and dejected, fell in without a word and dressed the line.
In the fading light the roll was called by a non-commissioned officer in a subdued voice, whilst I looked on distressfully at the sad results of the useless charge. And yet our losses were not great—three troopers only, slightly wounded, who, far from grumbling at their mishap, seemed proud of the blood that stained their tunics and their hands. The men whose horses had fallen had already come up jogging heavily over the field of lucerne that stretched out before us. One man alone was absent; Paquin, a good little fellow, energetic and well disciplined, whose good humour I found especially attractive both under fire and in camp. But he would come in, no doubt. Cahard, his bed-fellow, told me that his horse had stumbled and thrown him. He thought he had even seen him get up again directly the charge had passed.
"Mon Lieutenant, ... mon Lieutenant, your horse is wounded."
I had dismounted in a moment, and tears came to my eyes. I had forgotten the anger and impatience that "Tourne-Toujours'" savage temper had so often caused me. What had they done to my brave and noble companion-in-arms? A bullet had struck him inside the left thigh and, penetrating it, had made a horrible wound, as large as my hand, from which the blood was streaming all down his leg. Two other bullets had hit him, one in the flank, the other in the loins, leaving two small red holes. The noble animal had brought me back safely, and then, as he stood still on his four trembling legs, his neck raised, his nostrils dilated, his ears pricked, he fixed his eyes on the distance and seemed to look approaching death in the face. Poor 'Tourne-Toujours,' you could not divine the pain I felt as I patted you, as gently as I should touch a little suffering child!
But I had to shake off the sadness that wrung my heart. The day was gradually sinking, and Paquin had not come in. Two of the men quickly put my saddle on the horse of one of the wounded troopers. Whilst Surgeon-Major P., in the growing dusk, attended to the seriously wounded men stretched on the grass, I made up my mind to go out and see whether my little Chasseur was not still lying out on the scene of the charge.
"Cahard, Finet, Mouniette, Vallee, I want you."
At a gentle trot we sallied out from the cover of the wood. My four men, dispersed at wide intervals to my right and left, stood up in their stirrups from time to time to get a better view.
The guns were silent. Now and again one or two isolated shots were heard. Night had almost fallen. On the horizon a long reddish streak of light still gave a feeble glow. Everything was becoming blurred and mysterious. In front of us stretched the disquieting mass of the wood that so lately had rained death on us. Above our heads flocks of black birds were wheeling and croaking.
"Paquin!... Paquin!... Paquin!..."
My Chasseurs shouted their comrade's name; but no voice answered. We were certainly on the ground the squadron had ridden over. Every now and then we came across the body of a horse, marking our mournful course. A poor mare with a broken leg neighed feebly, as if appealing for help to her stable-companions.
"Paquin!... Paquin!... Paquin!..."
No response. We had to turn back and rejoin the others. War has many of those moments of pain when we have to control our feelings—forget those we love, those who are suffering, those who are dying—and think of nothing but our regiment, our squadron, our troop. Paquin's name would be marked on the roll as "missing"—a solemn word which means so many things, a word that leaves a little hope, but gives rise to so many fears.
Over the fields, under a brilliant moon, the squadron retired in silence. Those who have served in war know that solemn moment when, after a day's fighting, each corps arrives at its appointed place of rest. It is the moment when in normal life nature falls asleep in the peace of evening. It is the moment when in villages and farms lights appear in the lower windows, behind which the family is seated around the steaming soup-tureen after the day's work.
It is some time now since we have tasted the exquisite peace of those moments. Instead, we have grown used to hearing over the wide country a monotonous and barbarous uproar caused by the thousands of cannon, limbers, vans, and vehicles of every kind which are the very life of an army. All these things rumble along methodically in the dark, clanking and creaking, towards a goal invisible and yet sure. Above this huge chaos voices rise in various keys: soldiers astray asking their road; van-drivers urging on their foot-sore teams; words of command given by leaders striving, in the dark, to prevent confusion among their units. This is the reverse of the shield of battle, the moment when we feel weariness of mind and body and the infinite sadness of remembering those who are no more....
Away in the distance two villages were in flames, luridly lighting up some corners of the scene. That evening seemed to me sadder and more distressing than ever....
III. RECONNOITRING COURGIVAULT
The provisional brigade which had just been formed, with our regiment and the Chasseurs d'Afrique (African Light Cavalry), was paraded at dawn by our Colonel, who had taken command of it. The united regiments had been formed up under cover of a line of ridges, on the summit of which the watchful scouts stood out against the sky, looking north. The sun was already shining on the motley picture formed by the light uniforms of the dismounted troopers and the motionless rows of horses. They were all half asleep still.
The Colonel had drawn up the officers of the brigade in front of the squadrons. He held a paper in his hand and read it to us in a resonant voice, full of unfamiliar vibrations. On hearing the first few sentences we drew closer around him as by instinct. We could not believe our ears. It was the first time we had heard anything like it since the outbreak of the war.
When he had finished we were all amazed. Had we not been told the day before—when, together with the —— Corps, we crossed the Grand Morin closely pressed by the enemy's advance guard—had we not been told that we were going to retire to the Seine? And now in a few noble, simple words the Commander-in-Chief told us that the trials of that hideous retreat were over, and that the day had come to take the offensive. He asked us all to do our duty to the death and promised us victory.
We returned to our squadrons in animated groups. Our delight was quickly communicated to the troops, who understood at once. The men exchanged jests and promises of fabulous exploits. They had already forgotten the fatigues of the fortnight's retreat. What did they care if their horses could hardly carry them further, and if many of them would be incapable of galloping?
What did it matter?
My fellow-officers and I were already making wonderful plans. Those of d'A., who had just finished his course of instruction as lieutenant at Saumur with honours, comprised vast movements of complicated strategy. They culminated in a prodigious but inevitable envelopment of the German armies, De F., more prosaic than the other, dreamt of Pantagruelian repasts liberally furnished with Rhine wines. O., a sub-lieutenant, just fresh from the Military College—which he had left with a No. 1, mind you—seemed like a young colt broken loose; his delight knew no bounds. As for our captain, Captain de la N., our kind and sympathetic chief, he was transfigured. The horrors of the retreat had affected him painfully, but the few lines that had been read to us had sufficed to restore all his joyous ardour.
"Captain, the Colonel wants an officer."
"Hurrah!" It was my turn for duty.... Just a few words of congratulation, some hands stretched out to me, and I went, leaving a general feeling of envy behind me. Here was I in the presence of the Colonel, who, with a map in his hand and surrounded by the superior officers, explained in a few short sentences what he required of me.
"Take the direction of Courgivault. Reconnoitre and find out whether the village is occupied. You will report to me on the road which leads straight from here to the village. The brigade will follow you in an hour by the same road. I am sending two other parties towards such and such villages."
And a few minutes afterwards I was on the road to Courgivault.
I chose from my troop a corporal and four reliable fellows who had already given a good account of themselves. In advance I sent Vercherin, as scout, well mounted on his horse "Cabri," whose powerful haunches stood out above the tall oats. I had full confidence in his vigilance and his shrewdness. I knew his clear blue eyes, and that, if there were anything to be seen, he would see it better than any one else. I knew also that I should have no need to spur his zeal.
On either side of me Corporal Madelaine, Finet, a sapper, Lemaitre, and my faithful orderly, Wattrelot, rode along in silence in extended order at a considerable distance from one another. We had learnt by experience since the beginning of the campaign. We were on our guard now against Prussian bullets. We knew what ravages they made directly our troopers were imprudent enough to cluster together. Thus we ran fewer chances of being taken by surprise.
The weather was splendid. How delightful, thought I, would it have been to walk over the fields, on a morning like this, with a gun under my arm, behind a good dog, in quest of partridges or a hare. But I had other game in view—no doubt more dangerous, but how much more exciting!
The air was wonderfully clear, without the least trace of mist. The smallest detail of hedge and ditch could be easily distinguished. Our lungs breathed freely. We foresaw that the heat would be oppressive in a few hours' time, but the fresh air of the night still lingered, and bright pearls of dew still lay on the lucerne and stubble. What a joy to be alive in such delicious surroundings, with the hope of victory in one's heart!
I fancy that those who have not been in this war will not be able to understand me, for I have not the skill to explain clearly what I feel by means of written words. A more practised pen than mine is needed for such a task, a mind more accustomed to analyse feelings.
I seem to have within me the inspiration of a strange power that makes me light as air, and inclined to talk aloud to myself. And if I wanted to speak I certainly should not find the words I wanted. Perhaps it is that I simply want to shout, to cry "Hurrah!" again and again. It must be that, for I find myself clenching my teeth instinctively to prevent myself from giving way to such an untimely outburst.
Nevertheless, it would be a relief to be able to shout at the top of my voice and sing hymns of glory confronting the enemy. I should like to hear the whole army following my example behind me, to hear all the bands and all the trumpets accompanying our advance with those matchless war-songs which thrill the soul and bring tears to the eyes.
Here I was, on the contrary, in conditions of absolute calm, of the most impressive silence conceivable. Until that day the country, at that hour of the day, had echoed with the innumerable noises made by an army in retreat. Thousands of cannon, limbers, and convoys had been passing along all the roads and all practicable by-ways monotonously and ceaselessly. Often, too, the first shots exchanged by the cavalry scouts of both the hostile armies could be heard.
We heard nothing that day. In front nothing stirred: the country seemed deserted; the fields forsaken. Not a living creature showed itself.
Behind us, too, there was complete silence. But I knew that an entire army was there, waiting for us to send information, before advancing to the fight. That information would direct its blows.... I knew my brigade was behind that rise in the ground, and that all, officers and troopers alike, were impatient to rush upon my tracks to the attack. I knew that behind them, lying by sections in the plough-land, thousands and thousands of infantrymen had their eyes fixed in the direction I was taking, and that hundreds and hundreds of guns were ready to pour out death. But that disciplined multitude was silent and, as it were, holding its breath, waiting for the order that was to hurl it forward. I felt in excellent spirits.
It was upon me, and upon a few comrades, that the confidence of so many soldiers rested. It was to be by our directions that the regiments were to rush forward, some here, some there, carrying death and receiving death with, for the first time, the certainty of conquering; since for the first time the Commander-in-Chief had said that conquer they must. And not for an instant had I any fear of not being equal to my task. On the contrary, it seemed to me that I had been destined from all eternity to command this first offensive reconnaissance of the campaign in France.... I felt my men's hearts beating close to mine and in unison with mine.
I had consulted my map before breaking into a trot, and had noticed that the road leading to Courgivault passed through two woods, not very deep, but of considerable extent. I soon came in sight of one of them, at about 500 yards distance, below a ridge which we had just passed. I called out to Vercherin, who had begun to spur his horse towards the wood, to stop. I knew that numbers of men had fallen by having acted in this way—a way we have at manoeuvres, when the enemy are our comrades with white badges on their caps, and when harmless blank cartridges are used instead of bullets. We had very soon learnt from the Germans themselves the way to reconnoitre a wood or a village, and also how they must be held.
How much more dashing it would have been, more in the light cavalry style, to ride full gallop, brandishing my sword, with my five little Chasseurs into the nearest copse! But I knew then that if it were occupied by the enemy their men would be lying down, one with the soil, using the trees and bushes as cover, till the last moment. Then not one of us would have come out alive.
We were reduced to employing against them their own tactics of mounted infantry. The good old times of hussar charges are past—gone, together with plumes, pelisses waving in the wind, Hungarian braiding, and sabretaches. It would be senseless to continue to be a horseman in order to fight men who are no longer cavalrymen and do not wish to be so. We should fight at a disadvantage, and since the opening of the campaign too many brave soldiers have paid with their lives for their delight in epic fights a la Lasalle.
I searched the edge of the wood carefully with my field-glasses. Before entering it I wanted to be quite sure whether any movement could be discovered, whether any of the brushwood showed signs of being drawn aside by sharpshooters too eager for a shot. My men were on the watch, crouching in attitudes that would have pleased Neuville, their carbines ready, looking with all their eyes and listening with all their ears. Nothing! I called Vercherin with a low whistle. The silence was such that he heard it. He understood the sign I made him, and, holding his carbine high, he went slowly towards the wood and got into it quickly by the road.
My heart beat for a moment when I saw my scout getting near the thick border-line of trees; but now I breathed again. We went in after him, each one by a different opening, and we passed through it as quickly as the horses' legs and the difficulties of the ground would allow. On arriving at the further side I was glad to see my four companions emerging, almost at the same moment, from the thick woody tangle. I could see their grave and confident faces turned towards me. On the ridge in front of us, near a solitary tree, stood Vercherin, clear against the sky and motionless.
We had soon rejoined him, and from this height we saw on the next hill the second wood which hid the village of Courgivault from our view, about a kilometre further off. I feared very much that this second barrier might be used by the enemy as a formidable line of defence, and on that account I ordered the approach to be made with still greater precautions than before. But, as in the first case, we found it empty, and passed through without let or hindrance.
I expected to see Courgivault at once, but a rise in the ground hid it still. I took advantage of this natural cover for getting my men forward without risking a shot. Then, still preceded by Vercherin, we debouched on the plateau on which the village stood.
Those who have found themselves in a similar situation know by experience the sudden emotion that is felt when one sees a few hundred yards off the objective of one's mission, the decisive point one has to reach, cost what it may; the point where one is almost sure to find the enemy in hiding, where one has a suspicion that he sees one, is watching one, silently following all one's movements, and only waiting for the opportunity of picking one off by an unerring shot.
I stopped my men for a moment. Surrounded by green meadows and stubble-fields dotted with apple-trees, lay the grey outskirts of the village It was a very ordinary collection of houses, some of them big farms, others humble cottages. The tiled roofs formed a reddish mass, and above them rose the squat church tower. With my glasses I could distinguish the clock-dial, and could see the time—a quarter past six.
But this clock seemed to be the only thing in the village with any life in it. I looked in vain into the gardens and orchards, which formed a belt of flowers and foliage, for signs of the peaceful animation of country life. And yet it was the time of day when one usually sees housewives coming out of the cowsheds, with their sleeves tucked up and their feet in clogs, carrying pails full of fresh milk—the time when the heavy carts and reaping machines lumber slowly along the brown roads on their way to the day's work. Was it the war that had driven away all those poor village folk, or was it the rough fist of the Teuton that kept them prisoners locked up in their cellars and threatened with revolvers?
And yet, from where I stood, nothing could lead me to suppose that the village was occupied by the enemy. I could not distinguish any work of defence. There did not seem to be any barricade protecting the entrance. No sentinel was visible at the corners of the stacks or under the trees.
To the south of the village, pointing in our direction, the imposing bulk of a large farm protruded, like the prow of a ship. It seemed to form an advanced bastion of a fortress, represented by Courgivault. Its walls were high and white. At the end a strong round tower was planted, roofed with slates; and this enhanced the likeness to a miniature donjon. The road we had followed, winding between the fields, passed, so far as we could judge, in front of its principal entrance. Opposite this entrance there was apparently another road at right angles to the first, its direction marked by a line of trees which bordered it. Along this road, separated by short intervals, a dozen big stacks had the appearance of a threatening line of battle facing us, so as to bar our approach to the village.
All these things were steeped in the same atmosphere of silence, which certainly had a more tragic effect than the din of battle. I was impressed with the idea that the two armies had withdrawn in opposite directions, and that we were left behind, forgotten, at 100 kilometres distance from both of them.
But we had to come to the point. At a sign from me Vercherin reached the first tree of a long row of poplars. The row started from the farm and bordered the road we were following up to about 100 yards from the outer wall. By slipping along from one tree to another he would be able to get near in comparative safety. Suddenly I saw him stop quickly and, standing up in his stirrups, look straight ahead towards the stacks.
There was no need for him to make any sign to me. I understood that he saw something, and I galloped up to him at once. He was as calm as usual, only his blue eyes were a little more dilated, and he spoke more rapidly, with an accent I had not heard before.
"Mon Lieutenant, ... there behind that stack, it seemed to me ... I thought I saw a head rise above the grass...."
I looked in the direction he pointed to with his carbine, which he held at arm's length. I saw nothing but the silent and peaceful village; I had the same impression of a hateful and depressing void. And, strange to say, our two horses, whose reins had been hanging loose on their necks, appeared to be suddenly seized with a simultaneous terror, and both at once turned right round. I managed to bring mine back by applying the spur, and while Vercherin, who was carried further, came back slowly, I used my glasses again, to make a closer inspection of all the points of the village.
Then, at the very moment that I was putting the glasses to my eyes, I saw, at less than 100 yards distance, a whole line of sharpshooters, dressed in grey, rise quickly in front of me. For one short moment a terrible pang shot through us. How many were there? Perhaps 300. And almost at the same time a formidable volley of rifle shots rang out. They had been watching us for a long time. Lying in the grass that lined the road leading to the farm or else behind the stacks, with the admirable discipline which makes them so formidable, they had carried out their orders. Not one of them had shown himself. The Hauptmann (captain) alone, no doubt, put up his head from time to time in order to judge the favourable moment for ordering them to fire. It was he, no doubt, very fortunately for us, who had been perceived by Vercherin just for one moment. If it had not been for the prudence which we had gained by experience not one of us would have escaped. Fortunately every one of my men had kept the place exactly that I had assigned him. Not one of them flinched under the storm. And yet, Heaven knows what sinister music the bullets played around our ears! We had to be off.
I made a sign which was quickly understood. We all turned and galloped off towards the little depression we had emerged from just before. The bullets accompanied us with their hateful hissing, which made us duck our heads instinctively. But inwardly I rejoiced at their eagerness to lay us low, for in their hurry they aimed badly.
We had almost reached our shelter when I suddenly saw to the right of me "Ramier," Lemaitre's horse, fall like a log. As I was trying to stop my mare, who showed an immoderate desire to put herself out of danger, I saw both horse and rider struggling for a moment on the ground, forming a confused mixture of hoofs in the air and waving arms. Then "Ramier" got up and set off alone, neighing sadly, and with a limping trot that did not look very promising.
But Lemaitre was already on his legs, putting his crushed shako straight on his head. A bit stunned, he seemed to collect his ideas for an instant, and then I saw his good-natured ruddy face turned towards me. It lit up with a broad grin.
"Any damage, old fellow?" I asked.
"Nothing broken, sir."
"Hurry up, then."
And there was Lemaitre, striding along with his short legs and heavy boots, jumping ditches and banks with a nimbleness of which I declare I should not have thought him capable. It is curious to note the agility the report of a rifle volley lends to the legs of a dismounted trooper. Lemaitre came in to the shelter in the valley as soon as I did; and almost at the same time Finet, the sapper, brought in his old road-companion "Ramier," which he had been able to catch. It was painful to see the poor animal; his lameness had already become more marked. He could only get along with great difficulty, and his eyes showed he was in pain.