CAMP had been set up two kilometres from Mulhouse, nearer the Rhine, in the middle of the fertile plain. Towards nightfall on this August evening, under an angry sky with heavy clouds, the shelter-tents stretched out and piled arms gleamed, regularly spaced along the battle front, while the sentries with loaded rifles stood watch, motionless, their unseeing eyes staring out at the purple mists of the distant horizon rising from the river.
They had reached there from Belfort at about five. It was now eight and the men had only just got the provisions. But the firewood must have been mislaid, for none had been issued. No way of lighting a fire and making some stew. They had had to make do with chewing some biscuit cold, helped down with generous lashings of brandy, which finally put paid to legs already giving way with fatigue. But just behind the piled rifles, near the cookhouse, two soldiers were doggedly trying to ignite a heap of green sticks, trunks of young saplings they had slashed down with their bayonets, and which obstinately refused to catch. Dense smoke was rising black and slow into the evening air, infinitely depressing.
There were only twelve thousand men there, all General Fielix Douay had with him out of the 7th army corps. The first division had been summoned the day before and had set off for Froeschwiller; the third was still in Lyons, and he had decided to leave Belfort and advance like this with the second division, the reserve artillery and a division of cavalry not up to full strength. Lights had been reported at Lorrach. A wire from the sub-prefect of Schlestadt said that the Prussians were about to cross the Rhine at Markolsheim. Feeling he was too isolated from the extreme right flank of the other corps and out of communication, the general had been all the more anxious to speed up his advance towards the frontier because news had come the previous day of the disastrous surprise at Wissembourg. At any moment, unless he was himself occupied in repulsing the enemy, he might have reason to fear being called on to support the 1st corps. On that uneasy thundery Saturday, 6 of August, there must have been fighting somewhere over in the Froeschwiller direction: you could see it in the anxious, louring sky, across which great shudderings and sudden gusts of wind passed, heavy with foreboding. And for the last two days the division had thought it was marching into battle, the soldiers had expected to see the Prussians there in front of them at the end of this long forced march from Belfort to Mulhouse.
The light was fading and retreat was heard in some distant corner of the camp, a drum-roll and sound of bugles, still faint and carried away into the air. And Jean Macquart, who had been busy strengthening the tent by driving the pegs further in, straightened up. At the first rumour of war he had left Rognes, the wound still raw from the drama in which he had lost his wife Françoise and the land she had brought as dowry. He had re-enlisted at the age of thirty-nine, got back his corporal’s stripes and been at once drafted to the 106th foot, which was then being brought up to full strength, and he was still amazed sometimes to find himself once again with his cape on his shoulders, for he had been overjoyed to get out of the services after Solferino and not be a sword-waver and killer any more. But what is a chap to do when he hasn’t a job, a wife or a bean left under the sun and his heart is turning over inside him with grief and rage? You might just as well have it out on the enemy if they get you down. And now he recalled the exclamation he had made – Oh bugger it, as he hadn’t got the guts left to till this old French soil he might as well defend it!
Standing there, Jean looked round the camp in which the retreat was producing a last-minute flurry of activity. A few men were running about, but others, already dropping with sleep, were getting up and stretching, looking tired and irritated. But he was patiently waiting for roll-call with that good-natured, equable reasonableness which made him such an excellent soldier. His mates said that with a bit of education he might have gone a long way. But being just able to read and write, he didn’t even covet the rank of sergeant. Once a peasant always a peasant.
‘Oh, turn it up! You’re smothering us all.’
Loubet, thin and wiry, who looked a bit of a joker, grinned.
‘It’s catching, corporal, it really is… Go on, you, blow!’
He bullied Lapoulle, a great giant of a man who was busting himself, blowing up a hurricane, with his cheeks puffed out like a pair of bellows and purple in the face, his eyes red and streaming.
Two other soldiers of the squad, Chouteau and Pache, the former flat on his back, being a lazy-bones fond of his comfort, the latter squatting and diligently mending a tear in his trousers, burst into laughter, tickled by the fearful face that great clot of a Lapoulle was making.
‘Why not turn round and blow from your backside, it’ll burn better,’ yelled Chouteau.
Jean let them laugh. There might not be many more chances, and for all the serious look of the man, with his full face and regular features, he wasn’t in favour of melancholy and deliberately shut his eyes when the men had their bit of fun. But another group caught his attention, yet another soldier in his squad, Maurice Levasseur, who had been talking for the last hour to a civilian, a red-haired gentleman of about thirty-six, with a face like a good-natured dog, with huge blue popping eyes – the short-sighted eyes that had got him exempted from military service. They had been joined by a reserve artilleryman, a sergeant, smart and self-assured with his dark moustache and goatee beard, and all three were chatting away quite oblivious of time as though they were at home.
Out of kindness, to save them from being told off, Jean felt he ought to intervene.
‘You had better be going, sir. This is retreat, and if the lieutenant should find you…’
Maurice cut him short.
‘You stay, Weiss.’
And to the corporal he snapped:
‘This gentleman is my brother-in-law. He had a permit from the colonel, who is a friend of his.’
What business was it of this yokel whose hands still smelt of dung? He himself had passed his law exams the previous autumn, enlisted as a volunteer and thanks to the colonel’s influence had been drafted direct to the 106th without going through the square-bashing, though he deigned to wear the knapsack. But from the first minute he had been put off by this illiterate clodhopper in command over him and felt a sullen resentment.
‘All right,’ Jean quietly answered, ‘get yourself run in, it’s all the same to me.’
Then he turned away as he saw that Maurice really wasn’t lying, for the colonel, Monsieur de Vineuil, happened to come along, with his grand manner, his long sallow face divided in two by his thick white moustache, and he had greeted Weiss and the soldier with a smile. The colonel was hurrying over to a farmhouse that could be seen two or three hundred metres to the left, surrounded by plum orchards, where headquarters had been set up for the night. Nobody knew whether the commanding officer of the 7th corps was there, in the awful grief over the death of his brother, killed at Wissembourg. But Brigadier Bourgain-Desfeuilles, who had the 106th under his command, was certainly there, yapping as usual, quite untroubled by his lack of brains, his skin florid with so much high living, and his heavy body rolling on his stumpy legs. There was increasing activity round the farm; dispatch-riders were coming and going every minute, and yet there was feverish waiting for dispatches, always too slow with news about this great battle which everybody sensed to be decisive and imminent ever since morning. Where had it been fought and what was the outcome at this stage? As night fell it seemed as though mounting anxiety was spreading a lake of darkness over the orchard and the few hayricks around the farm buildings. And it was also being said that a Prussian spy had just been arrested while prowling round the camp and taken to the farm for the general to interrogate. Perhaps Colonel de Vineuil had had some telegram that was making him run so fast.
Meanwhile Maurice had gone on talking to his brother-in-law Weiss and his cousin Honoré Fouchard, the artillery sergeant. Retreat, at first far distant, then gradually getting louder, passed near them, with its brass and drums in the melancholy quiet of dusk, but they did not even appear to notice it. The young man, grandson of a hero of the Grande Armée, was born at Le Chêne-Populeux, where his father, fighting shy of glory, had come down to a humble job of tax-collector. His mother, of peasant stock, had died bringing him and his twin sister Henriette into the world, and Henriette had looked after him from their earliest childhood. He was now here as a volunteer after a long series of misdeeds, the typical dissipations of a weak and excitable temperament, money thrown away on gambling, women and the follies of all-devouring Paris; and all that when he had gone there to finish his law studies and his people had bled themselves white to make a grand gentleman of him. This had hastened his father’s death, and his sister, having spent her all, had had the good fortune to find a husband, this reliable fellow Weiss, an Alsatian from Mulhouse, who had been a book-keeper for years at the General Refinery at Le Chêne-Populeux, and was now an overseer for Monsieur Delaherche, one of the biggest clothmakers in Sedan. And Maurice thought he had quite turned over a new leaf, with his nervy nature as quick to hope for the best as to be discouraged by the bad, generous, enthusiastic, but without the slightest stability, blown hither and thither by every passing gust of wind. Fair, small, with a very large head, small neat nose and chin, he had a clever face, with grey, affectionate eyes, a bit wild at times.
Weiss had hurried to Mulhouse the day before the outbreak of hostilities, suddenly anxious to settle a family affair, and the reason why he had taken advantage of Colonel de Vineuil’s kindness and come to give his brother-in-law a handshake was that the colonel was uncle of young Madame Delaherche, a pretty widow married last year to the manufacturer. Maurice and Henriette had known her as a young girl through having been neighbours. Also, apart from the colonel, Maurice had found in Captain Beaudoin, the captain of his company, an acquaintance of Gilberte, young Madame Delaherche, and an intimate one, it was said, dating from Mézières when she was Madame Maginot, wife of Monsieur Maginot, Inspector of Forests.
‘Give Henriette a kiss for me,’ Maurice was saying to Weiss, for he was passionately devoted to his sister. ‘Tell her she will be pleased with me and that I mean to make her proud of me at last.’
Tears came into his eyes as he thought of his follies. His brother-in-law, deeply moved himself, changed the subject abruptly and talked to Honoré Fouchard, the artilleryman.
‘And as I’m going up Remilly way I’ll go and tell Uncle Fouchard I’ve seen you and you are all right.’
Uncle Fouchard, a peasant with some land and a business as a travelling butcher, was a brother of Henriette and Maurice’s mother. He lived at Remilly, up on the hill, six kilometres from Sedan.
‘Yes do,’ Honoré quietly answered. ‘Dad couldn’t care less, but go all the same if you would like to.’
At that moment there was a commotion over by the farm and they saw the prowler, the man they had accused of being a spy, coming out quite free, with only one officer. Presumably he had shown his papers and told a tale, for he was simply being turned out of the camp. At such a distance and in the dusk they could not make him out very clearly, but he was huge and square, with reddish hair.
But Maurice uttered a cry.
‘Honoré, look… it’s just like that Prussian, you know, Goliath!’
The name made the artilleryman start. He looked with blazing eyes. Goliath Steinberg, the farm-hand, the man who had made trouble between him and his father, who had taken Silvine away from him, the whole nasty story and abominable corruption that still tortured him. He would have liked to rush over and strangle the man, but by now he was beyond the piled arms and disappearing into the night.
‘Goliath!’ he muttered. ‘But it can’t be! He’s over there with the others… If ever I run into him!’
He had made a menacing gesture towards the darkening horizon – all that purplish Orient which for him was Prussia. There was a silence and then retreat was heard once more, but far away, fading out towards the end of the camp with a dying softness in keeping with the deepening haze.
‘Gosh!’ went on Honoré, ‘I shall get run in if I’m not there for roll-call. Good night, bye-bye all!’
He gave a final squeeze to both Weiss’s hands and strode rapidly towards the hillock on which the reserve artillery was parked, without another word about his father or message for Silvine, whose name burned his throat.
A few more minutes went by and over to the left, where the second brigade would be, a bugle sounded roll-call. Another answered, nearer, and then a third a long way off. Then, one after another they were all blowing together when Gaude, the company bugler, made up his mind in a volley of piercing notes. He was a tall, thin and miserable-looking fellow, clean shaven and with never a word to say, and he blew his calls with the breath of a hurricane.
Then Sergeant Sapin, a skinny little man with big cowlike eyes, began roll-call. He snapped out the names in his high-pitched voice, and the soldiers who had gathered round answered on every note from cello to flute. But then there was a hold-up.
‘Lapoulle!’ repeated the sergeant, very loud.
Still no answer. And Jean had to dash over to the heap of green sticks which Fusilier Lapoulle, egged on by his mates, was determined to get alight. Now he was flat on his belly and purple in the face, blowing the smoke from the blackening wood straight along the ground.
‘For Christ’s sake turn it up!’ shouted Jean. ‘Answer roll-call!’
Lapoulle leaped up in a daze, seemed to understand and bellowed ‘Present’ in such a savage roar that it made Loubet fall on his backside, it was such a scream. Pache, who had finished his sewing, answered almost inaudibly, like muttering a prayer. Chouteau, full of scorn, didn’t even get up, but called out the word and stretched himself out a little more.
Meanwhile Lieutenant Rochas, who was on duty, stood motionless a metre or so away. When the call was over and Sergeant Sapin went up to report that there was nobody missing, he mumbled into his moustache, pointing with a jerk of his chin to Weiss who was still talking to Maurice:
‘There’s even one too many. What’s that character up to over there?’
‘Permission from the colonel, sir,’ Jean, who had overheard, thought he ought to answer. Rochas shrugged angrily and without another word continued his tramp along the tents, waiting for lights out, while Jean, whose legs were giving way after the day’s march, sat down a few paces from Maurice, whose words reached him at first in a jumble which he didn’t listen to, for he himself was weighed down by vague reflections hardly formulated in the depths of his stolid, slow brain.
Maurice was all for war, which he thought was inevitable and vital for the very existence of nations. That had been perfectly plain
to him ever since he had gone in for evolutionist ideas, all this theory of evolution which at that time fascinated the younger intellectuals. Is not life a state of war every second? Is not the very condition of nature a continuous struggle, the survival of the fittest, strength maintained and renewed through action, life rising ever young out of death? He recalled the great burst of enthusiasm which had uplifted him when he had had the idea of atoning for his misdeeds by becoming a soldier and going to fight at the front. Perhaps the France of the plebiscite, by handing itself over to the Emperor, did not want war. A week earlier he himself had declared it iniquitous and stupid. People argued about this candidature of a German prince for the throne of Spain, and in the confusion that had gradually developed everybody seemed in the wrong, so that now nobody really knew which side the provocation had come from, and the one inevitable thing had remained unaltered, the inexorable law which at a given moment throws one nation against another. But a great fever of excitement had run through Paris, and he could still see that burning evening, with crowds surging along the boulevards, bands waving torches and shouting: ‘To Berlin! To Berlin!’ He could still hear the tall, beautiful woman with the
regal profile, standing on a coachman’s box in front of the Hôtel de Ville, wrapped in the folds of the flag and singing the ‘Marseillaise’. Was it all a lie, then? Had the heart of Paris not beaten? And later, as always with him, the nervous elation had been followed by hours of dreadful doubt and revulsion: his arrival in the barracks, the sergeant major who had signed him on, the sergeant who had issued him his uniform, the stinking barrack-room and the revolting filth, the coarse familiarity with his new companions, the routine drill which exhausted his limbs and stupefied his brain. And yet in less than a week he had got used to it and lost his disgust. Then his enthusiasm had taken over again when the regiment had at last set off for Belfort.
From the outset Maurice had been absolutely certain of victory. For him the Emperor’s plan was clear: hurl four hundred thousand men at the Rhine, cross the river before the Prussians were ready, separate North Germany from South by a vigorous thrust, and thanks to some striking victory, immediately force Austria and Italy to side with France. Hadn’t there been a rumour, at one moment, that the 7th army corps, to which his regiment belonged,
was to embark at Brest and land in Denmark to stage a diversion and oblige Prussia to immobilize one of her armies? She would be surprised, overwhelmed on all fronts and crushed in a few weeks. A sheer walk-over, from Strasbourg to Berlin. But since the delay at Belfort he had been tormented by misgivings. The 7th army corps, whose role was to command the Black Forest gap, had reached there in a state of indescribable confusion, incomplete and short of everything. The third division had still not arrived from Italy, the second cavalry brigade was still in Lyons for fear of popular unrest, and three batteries had got lost somewhere or other. Then there was an extraordinary famine, the shops in Belfort which were supposed to supply everything were empty: no tents, no cooking utensils, no body belts, no medical equipment, no smithies, no hobbles for the horses. Not a single medical orderly or clerk. At the last moment they had realized that thirty thousand spare parts, indispensable for rifles, were missing, and an officer had had to be dispatched to Paris and he had brought back five thousand, which he had had a lot of trouble to get out of them. Besides, what upset Maurice was the inaction. They had been there for two weeks and why weren’t they advancing? He felt that each day’s
delay was an irreparable miscalculation, one more chance of victory lost. Confronting the dream-plan there rose up the reality of its execution, that he was to know later but then only felt in an anguished, obscure way: the seven army corps strung out thinly along the frontier from Metz to Bitche and from Bitche to Belfort, everywhere the fighting force below strength, and the four hundred thousand men amounted to two hundred and thirty thousand at the most; generals were jealous of each other, each determined to get the field-marshal’s baton for himself and not to help his neighbour; the most appalling lack of foresight, the mobilization and concentration of troops done simultaneously in order to gain time and leading to an inextricable muddle; in fact a slow paralysis, starting at the top from the Emperor, a sick man incapable of any quick decision, which was beginning to creep through the entire army and disorganize it, reduce it to nothing and hurl it into the worst disasters, unable to defend itself. Nevertheless, over and above the vague unease of the waiting, and in the instinctive shrinking from what was to come, the certainty of victory remained.
Suddenly on 3 August the news of the previous day’s victory at Saarbrücken had burst upon them. A great victory – well perhaps. But the papers were bursting with enthusiasm – it was the invasion of Germany, the first step on the march to glory, and the Prince Imperial, who had coolly picked up a bullet on the battlefield, began to be a legend. Then two days later, when the surprise and crushing defeat of Wissembourg was known, a howl of rage had burst from people’s throats. Five thousand men caught in a trap, men who had stood up to thirty-five thousand Prussians for ten hours, such a cowardly massacre cried out for vengeance! It must be that the leaders were guilty of faulty protective measures and lack of foresight. But it was all going to be put right, MacMahon had called in the first division of the 7th corps, the 1st would be supported by the 5th, and by now the Prussians must have re-crossed the Rhine with our infantrymen’s bayonets prodding their backsides. And the thought that there must have been desperate fighting that day, the increasingly feverish wait for news, the general anxiety spread further every minute under the wide, fading sky.
That was what Maurice kept on telling Weiss.
‘Oh yes, they’ve taken a fine old beating today!’
Weiss made no answer, but shook his head with a worried look. He was looking towards the Rhine, too, towards the east where night had already closed down, a black wall, impenetrable, mysterious. After the last notes of roll-call a great silence had fallen over the sleepy camp, hardly broken at all by the footsteps and voices of a few belated soldiers. A light had come on, like a twinkling star, in the living-room of the farmhouse where headquarters staff were sitting up waiting for the dispatches coming in hour by hour, without making things any clearer. The fire of green twigs, at last abandoned, was still smoking with a dense, dismal smoke which a gentle wind was blowing over the restless farmhouse, dirtying the first stars.
‘A beating,’ Weiss said eventually. ‘May God hear your prayer!’
Jean, who was still sitting a few yards away, pricked up his ears, and Lieutenant Rochas, who had overheard this wish with its tremulous doubt, stopped short to listen.
‘What!’ said Maurice. ‘Aren’t you completely confident? Do you think a defeat is possible?’
His brother-in-law raised a shaking hand to stop him, and his kindly face suddenly looked tired and pale.
‘Defeat, God preserve us from that! You know I belong to this province, and my grandfather and grandmother were murdered by the Cossacks in 1814, and whenever I think of invasion my fists clench of their own accord, and I would fight in my ordinary clothes like a trooper!… Defeat, no, no! I refuse to consider the possibility.’
His emotion subsided, and he slumped his shoulders in utter weariness.
‘But all the same, look here, I’m uneasy… I know my Alsace well, and I’ve just come through it again on business, and we Alsatians have seen what was staring the generals in the face but they have refused to see. Oh, we wanted war against Prussia, and had been waiting a long time to settle that old score. But that didn’t prevent our having good neighbourly relations with Baden and Bavaria, for we’ve all got family or friends across the Rhine. We thought they were longing like us to take down the insufferable pride of the Prussians. And calm and resolute though we may be, we’ve been giving way to impatience and worry for the past fortnight as we’ve seen how everything is going from bad to worse. From the moment war was declared they have let the enemy cavalry terrify villages, reconnoitre the terrain, cut telegraph wires. Baden and Bavaria are mobilizing and enormous troop movements are going on in the Palatinate, and information from all sides, markets, fairs and suchlike, proves that the frontier is threatened. And when the inhabitants, the mayors of communes, now thoroughly scared, rush to report all that to officers passing through, the latter merely shrug their shoulders: cowardly hallucinations, the enemy is miles away… When not an hour should have been lost, days and days go by! What can they be waiting for? The whole of Germany to fall on top of us?’
His voice was soft and heartbroken, as though he were repeating these things aloud to himself after having thought them over for a long time.
‘Oh, and I know Germany well, too, and the terrible thing is that all you people seem to know as little about it as you do about China… Maurice, you remember my cousin Gunther, who came last spring and looked me up in Sedan. He is a cousin on my mother’s side, his mother was my mother’s sister and she married a man in Berlin. And he is typical of them in his hatred of France. Now he is serving as an officer in the Prussian Guard. I can still hear his voice as he said to me that evening when I saw him off at the station: “If France declares war on us she will be beaten.” ’
This made Lieutenant Rochas, who had contained himself up to then, come forward in a rage. A man of nearly fifty, he was a tall, thin fellow with a long, lantern-jawed face, tanned and leathern. His huge hook nose came down over a wide, strong but good-natured mouth with an untidy bristling grey moustache. Now he went right off the deep end and bellowed in a thundering voice:
‘Here, what are you fucking well doing, discouraging the men!’
Without taking part himself in the quarrel Jean thought that really the lieutenant was right, for although he was beginning to be surprised at the long delays and the muddle they were in, he had never had any doubt either about the bloody good hiding they were going to give the Prussians. That was a fact, and that was all they had come here to do.
Weiss was quite taken aback. ‘But, lieutenant,’ he said, ‘I don’t want to discourage anybody. On the contrary, I wish everyone knew what I know, because it’s best to know so as to be forewarned and forearmed… Now just look at Germany…’
He proceeded in his reasonable way to explain his fears: the growth of Prussia after Sadowa, the nationalist movement which put her at the head of the other German states, a great empire in formation, rejuvenated with the enthusiasm and irresistible impetus to achieve its unity; the system of compulsory military service which set up a whole nation in arms, trained, disciplined and with powerful weapons, ready for a long war and still intoxicated with her shattering triumph over Austria; the intelligence and moral strength of this ‘army, under the command of officers almost all young and obeying a commander-in-chief who seemed about to modernize the whole art of war, a man of incomparable prudence and foresight and miraculous clarity of vision. And with that Germany he had the courage to contrast France: the Empire grown old, still acclaimed in a plebiscite but basically rotten because it had weakened the idea of patriotism by destroying liberty, and then turning back to liberalism too late and thereby hastening its own undoing because it was ready to collapse as soon as it stopped satisfying the lust for pleasure it had let loose; the army certainly admirable as a brave lot of men, and still wearing the laurels of the Crimea and Italy, but adulterated by the system of paid substitutes, still in the old routine of the Africa school, too cocksure of victory to face the great effort of modern techniques; and then the generals, most of them nonentities and eaten up with rivalries and some of them quite stupefyingly ignorant, and at their head the Emperor, a sick man and vacillating, deceived and self-deceiving, and all facing this terrible adventure into which they were blindly hurling themselves, with no serious preparation, like a stampede of scared sheep being led to the slaughter.
Rochas listened to all this, gaping and goggling. His terrible nose was screwed up. Then he suddenly made up his mind to laugh – a huge ear-to-ear laugh.
‘What do you think you’re waffling about? What does all that cock-and-bull story add up to? It doesn’t make sense, it’s too silly for me to rack my brains to understand. Go and tell all that to the recruits, but not to me, with my twenty-seven years’ service!’
He banged his chest with his fist. The son of a working stonemason from Limousin, himself born in Paris and hating his father’s trade, he had enlisted at eighteen. As a soldier of fortune he had been in the ranks, become a corporal in Africa, sergeant at Sebastopol and lieutenant after Solferino, having put in fifteen years of hard existence and heroic gallantry to achieve this rank, but so lacking in education that he would never make the grade of captain.
‘But this is something you don’t know about, Mr Knowall… Yes, at Mazagran I was hardly nineteen and we were a hundred and twenty-three men, not one more, and we held out for four days against twelve thousand Arabs… Oh yes, for years and years in Africa, at Mascara, Biskra, Dellys and later on the Grande Kabylie and later still Laghouat, if you had been with us, Mister, you would have seen all those bloody wogs bunking off like hares as soon as we came on the scene… And at Sebastopol, sir, blimey, you couldn’t say that was a picnic either. Gales fit to blow your hair off, perishing cold, constant alerts, and then those savages ended by making everything hop! But never mind, we made them hop too, oh yes, with music and in a big frying-pan, what’s more!… And Solferino, you weren’t there yourself, sir, so why do you talk about it? Yes, at Solferino, where it was so hot although more rain had come down that day than you have seen in your life, perhaps – at Solferino the thrashing we gave those Austrians – you should have seen them galloping away from our bayonets, going arse over tip to run faster, as if they had fire in their backsides.’
He was bursting with joy, and all the traditional gaiety of the French soldier rang in his triumphant laugh. It was the legendary French trooper going through the world between his girl on one side and a bottle of good wine on the other, conquering the world singing ribald choruses. One corporal and four men, and great armies licked the dust.
Suddenly his voice roared out:
‘Beaten! What, France beaten! Those Prussian swine beat us! Us?’
He came up and took Weiss roughly by the lapel of his coat, and his tall, lean body, the body of a knight-errant, expressed utter contempt for the enemy, whoever he was, and he couldn’t care less about time and place.
‘Just you listen, Mister… If the Prussians dare to come here we’ll send them back home with kicks up the arse. You understand, kicks up the arse all the way to Berlin!’
He made a superb gesture, with the serenity of a child, the candid conviction of the innocent who knows nothing and fears nothing.
‘Good God, that’s how it is because that’s how it is!’
Dazed and almost convinced, Weiss hastened to declare that nothing could suit him better. And Maurice, who was keeping quiet, not daring to rush in with his superior officer present, finally joined in the burst of laughter, for this great oaf of a man, who was a fool in his opinion, warmed his heart. Jean too had been nodding his agreement with the lieutenant’s every word. He also had been at Solferino, where it had rained so hard. Now that was what you called talking! If all the officers had talked like that nobody would have cared a damn whether there weren’t any stewpans or flannel body-belts!
For a long time now it had been quite dark, and still Rochas was waving his great limbs about in the night. He had only ever managed to read through one book, the victories of Napoleon, which had found its way from a pedlar’s box into his knapsack. He was thoroughly wound up now, and all his learning gushed forth in one impetuous cry:
‘Austria whacked at Castiglione, Marengo, Austerlitz, Wagram! Prussia whacked at Eylau, Jena, Lützen! Russia whacked at Friedland, Smolensk, Borodino! Spain and England whacked everywhere! The whole world whacked from top to bottom, one side to the other! And are we to be whacked now? Why? How? Has the world been changed?’
He drew himself higher still, raising his arm like a flagstaff.
‘Look! There has been fighting over yonder today and we are expecting news. Well, I’ll tell you what the news is… They have whacked the Prussians, whacked them so as to leave them neither wings nor feet, so that we’ll have to sweep up the crumbs!’
Just then a great moan of grief swept across the sombre sky. Was it some night bird’s plaint? Was it some mysterious voice from afar, full of woe? The whole camp shuddered in the darkness, and the anxiety which had spread because of the slow arrival of dispatches was thereby heightened to fever pitch. In the distant farmhouse the light by which the headquarters staff were anxiously waiting through the night burned up higher, with the straight, still flame of an altar candle.
It was now ten o’clock, and Gaude rose up from the black ground into which he had disappeared and was the first to blow lights out. Other bugles answered and tailed off one by one in a dying fanfare, as though they were already stupefied with sleep. Weiss, who had not realized it was so late, put his arms tenderly round Maurice: good luck and keep smiling! He would give Henriette a kiss for her brother and go and give his love to Uncle Fouchard. And as he was really going a rumour ran round, a sort of feverish excitement. It was a great victory won by MacMahon: the Crown Prince of Prussia taken prisoner with twenty-five thousand men, the enemy pushed back, destroyed, leaving its guns and baggage in our hands.
‘There you are!’ was all Rochas exclaimed, in his booming voice.
Then, overjoyed, he ran after Weiss who was hurrying back to Mulhouse:
‘With kicks up the arse, sir, kicks up the arse all the way to Berlin!’
A quarter of an hour later another dispatch reported that the army had had to evacuate Woerth and was in full retreat. Oh, what a night! Rochas, knocked out with fatigue, had wrapped his greatcoat round him and was asleep on the ground, not bothering about a shelter, as often happened with him. Maurice and Jean had crawled into the tent where Loubet, Chouteau, Pache and Lapoulle were already huddled together with their heads on their knapsacks. There was room for six so long as you kept your knees bent. At first Loubet had made them all laugh away their hunger by giving Lapoulle to believe that there would be chicken at tomorrow’s issue of rations, but they were too tired and were soon snoring – let the Prussians come. Jean lay still for a moment close against Maurice; although he was dead tired he couldn’t get off to sleep, for what this gent had said was going round and round in his head – the Germans under arms, innumerable and insatiable – and he felt that his companion was not asleep either, but was thinking about the same things. Then Maurice made an impatient movement away from him and Jean realized that he was annoying him. Between the peasant and the intellectual the instinctive hostility, the dislike born of class and education, were like a physical discomfort; yet the former felt a sort of shame at this, an inner unhappiness, and shrank away, trying to escape from the hostile contempt he sensed was there. Although the night was now getting chilly outside, it was so stifling in the tent with all these bodies piled on each other that Maurice, feeling unbearably hot, suddenly jumped up, went out and lay down a few steps away. Jean, feeling wretched, tossed about in a nightmarish half-sleep in which sadness at not being liked mingled with fear of some immense disaster which he thought he could hear galloping out yonder in the unknown.
Hours must have passed, and the whole black, motionless camp seemed crushed beneath the pressure of this limitless, evil darkness laden with something horrible but as yet nameless. Little stirrings could be felt in a lake of blackness, a sudden snore would come from some invisible tent. Or again sounds you didn’t recognize – a snorting horse, a sabre rattling, the movement of some late prowler – all quite ordinary noises which took on menacing overtones. Then all of a sudden, near the cookhouse, a great light flared up. It threw the battle front into strong relief in which you caught a glimpse of rows of stacked arms, polished rifle-barrels over which red reflections passed like trickles of fresh blood, and the dark, stiff figures of sentries loomed up in this sudden fire. Was this the enemy whom the officers had been promising for two days and they had been searching for all the way from Belfort to Mulhouse? Then the flame went out in a great fountain of sparks. It was only the heap of green sticks that Lapoulle had worried at for so long, and which after hours of smouldering had flared up like straw.
Frightened by this bright light Jean also rushed out of the tent and nearly tripped over Maurice who was propped on one elbow, watching. The darkness had already returned blacker than ever, and the two men stayed there stretched out on the bare earth, a few metres apart. The only thing visible in the thick darkness was the farmhouse window over yonder in which the light was still burning, the solitary candle that seemed to mark a vigil over the dead. What could the time be? Perhaps two or three. But the headquarters over there was certainly not asleep. The yapping voice of General Bourgain-Desfeuilles could be heard cursing this sleepless night in which he had only been able to keep going with the help of drinks and cigars. New telegrams kept coming in, things must be going wrong, shadowy dispatch-riders could just be discerned galloping madly about. Running feet could be heard, oaths, a sound like a stifled death-cry, then a terrible silence. Was this the end, then? An icy breath blew over the exhausted and anguished camp.
It was then that Jean and Maurice realized that a tall, thin shadow rushing by was Colonel de Vineuil. He must be with Major Bouroche, a big, leonine man. They were exchanging disconnected phrases, unfinished, whispered sentences like you hear in bad dreams.
‘It comes from Bâle… Our first division destroyed… Twelve hours of fighting, the whole army in retreat…’
The shadowy figure of the colonel stopped and hailed another shade hurrying along, athletic, slim and dapper.
‘That you, Beaudoin?’
‘Oh my dear man, MacMahon beaten at Froeschwiller, Frossard beaten at Spickeren, de Failly immobilized and powerless between the two… At Froeschwiller a single corps against a whole army -did miracles. But everything swept away, rout, panic, France wide open…’
His voice was choking with tears, the words died away and the three shades melted and vanished.
Maurice had leapt to his feet, his whole being shuddering.
‘Oh my God!’ he muttered.
That was all he could find to say, while Jean, with death in his heart, whispered:
‘Oh bloody hell! So that gentleman, your relation, was right when he said they are stronger than us!’
Maurice could have strangled him, for he was beside himself. The Prussians stronger than the French! It made his heart bleed. But the peasant, in his calm and deliberate way, went straight on:
‘But it doesn’t make any difference, don’t you see? You don’t give up just because you’ve had one knock… We’ve got to bash ’em just the same.’
At that moment a lanky figure rose up in front of them. It was Rochas, still draped in his greatcoat, who had been awakened out of his heavy sleep by the vague noises, and possibly by the wind of defeat. He questioned them, wanted to know.
When after a great struggle he had grasped it, his childlike eyes showed an immense bewilderment.
More than ten times he repeated:
‘Beaten! Beaten how? Why?’
Now the eastern sky was lightening; it was a weird and infinitely mournful light on the sleeping tents, in one of which you could begin to pick out the grey faces of Loubet and Lapoulle, Chouteau and Pache, still snoring open-mouthed. A funereal dawn was coming up out of the sooty mists rising from the distant river.