BY about eight the sun dispersed the heavy clouds and a clear, blazing August Sunday shone out over Mulhouse in the middle of the great, fertile plain. From the camp, now awake and buzzing with activity, the bells of all the parishes could be heard hurling their chimes through the limpid air. That lovely Sunday, day of appalling disaster, had its own gaiety, its brilliant holiday sky.
Suddenly Gaude sounded rations and Loubet was amazed. What was up? Was this the chicken he had promised Lapoulle the day before? Born in the rue de la Cossonnerie, in the central markets, by-blow of a costermonger, he had enlisted ‘for a few coppers’, as he put it and, after a go at all sorts of trades, he was the cook and his nose was always sniffing out something good to eat. So he went off to find out, while Chouteau the artist – a house-painter from Montmartre, a good-looking chap and a revolutionary, furious at having been called back to the colours after serving his time – was ferociously taking it out of Pache, whom he had come across on his knees behind the tent, saying his prayers. There was a reverend for you! Couldn’t he ask that God of his for a hundred thousand a year? But Pache, who came from some outlandish village in Brittany, a puny little specimen with a pear-shaped head, just let himself be teased, with the long-suffering silence of a martyr. He was the butt of the squad, he and Lapoulle, a hulking great brute who had grown up in the marshes of Sologne, who was so ignorant about everything that on the day he had joined the regiment he had asked to see the king. Although the news of the disaster of Froeschwiller had been going round since reveille, the four men were laughing away and going through the usual jobs with their mechanical unconcern.
But then a growl of surprise and jeering went up as Jean, the corporal, accompanied by Maurice, came back from the ration issue with some firewood. At last they were handing out the wood that the troops had waited for in vain last night to warm up the stew. Only twelve hours late.
‘Three cheers for the quartermaster!’ called Chouteau.
‘Never mind, here it is,’ said Loubet. ‘Now you’ll see the lovely stew I’m going to make you!’
He usually took on the eats, and they were all grateful, for he cooked marvellously. But he would pile the most extraordinary jobs on to Lapoulle.
‘Go and find the champagne, go and fetch the truffles…’
That morning he hit on a weird idea, typical of a Paris smartie pulling the leg of an innocent.
‘Come on, quicker than that! Give me the chicken.’
‘Down there, on the ground… The chicken I promised you, the one the corporal has just brought!’
He pointed at a big white stone at their feet. Lapoulle was quite nonplussed, but in the end he picked it up and turned it over in his fingers.
‘Will you clean that chicken, for God’s sake! Go on, wash his feet, wash his neck! With plenty of water, you lazy sod!’
And for no reason, except that it was a lark and the thought of the stew made him feel gay and full of fun, he chucked the stone into the pot of water, together with the meat.
‘That’s what’s going to give it the taste! Oh, didn’t you know that? Well, you don’t know nothing, you silly sausage. You’ll have the arsehole, it’s ever so tender, you’ll see!’
The squad was tickled pink at the look of Lapoulle, who was now convinced and licking his chops. Oh that cove Loubet, never a dull moment with him! And when the fire began crackling in the sun and the pot began to sing, they all stood round and worshipped with an expression of bliss spreading over their faces as they watched the meat dancing and sniffed the lovely smell beginning to fill the air. Ever since the day before they had been as hungry as wolves and the thought of food was now predominant in their minds. They may have been beaten but that was no reason for not filling themselves. From one end of the camp to the other cookhouse fires were blazing, saucepans were bubbling and there was a voracious, bawling joy amid the chimes still ringing clear from every parish church in Mulhouse.
But just before nine there was a sensation in the air, officers rushed about, and Lieutenant Rochas, who had an order from Captain Beaudoin, came past the tents of his section.
‘Come on, everything folded and packed up, we’re off!’
‘But the stew!’
‘Stew another day! We’re off at once!’
Gaude blew an imperious call on his bugle. There was consternation and sullen anger. What, leave without food! Not wait even one hour until the stew was eatable! The squad was for drinking the broth anyway, but so far it was nothing but hot water and the uncooked meat was impenetrable, like leather between your teeth. Chouteau muttered terrible oaths. Jean had to intervene and hurry his men on with the preparations. What was all the hurry, then? Clearing off like this, shoving people about with no time to get their strength back! Somebody said in Maurice’s hearing that they were marching to meet the Prussians and take their revenge, but he shrugged his shoulders in disbelief. Camp was struck in less than a quarter of an hour, tents folded and strapped on to packs, piles of arms dismantled, and nothing was left on the bare ground but the cooking fires dying down.
General Douay had had serious reasons for deciding on an immediate withdrawal. The dispatch from the sub-prefect of Schlestadt, already three days old, was confirmed, and a telegram said that Prussian camp fires had been sighted again threatening Markolsheim; another telegram said that an enemy corps was crossing the Rhine at Huningue. Details were coming in, full and precise: cavalry and infantry had been sighted, troops on the move from all points and making for their rendezvous. One hour’s delay would mean that the line of retreat on Belfort would certainly be cut. Reacting after the defeat, after Wissembourg and Froeschwiller, the general, isolated and with his advance guard useless, could only fall back at once, especially as the morning’s news was even graver than that of the night before.
The headquarters staff had set off at a canter, spurring on their horses for fear of being by-passed and finding the Prussians already at Altkirch. General Bourgain-Desfeuilles, foreseeing a tough stretch ahead, had taken the precaution of going through Mulhouse in order to have a copious meal, grumbling at the rush. Mulhouse was in despair as the officers passed through – when news of the retreat spread the inhabitants ran out into the streets protesting at the sudden departure of the troops they had so desperately implored to come. Were they being abandoned, then? Was all the fabulous loot piled up in the station going to be left for the enemy? Was their city itself to be nothing but a conquered city by nightfall? All along the country roads the inhabitants of villages and isolated houses had also taken up positions on their doorsteps in astonishment and alarm. What! Were those same regiments they had seen only yesterday marching to battle, now falling back and running away without fighting? The officers were sullen and spurred on their horses, refusing to answer questions, as though ill-luck were galloping at their heels. Was it true, then, that the Prussians had crushed the army and were pouring into France from all sides like a river in spate that had burst its banks? Already the population was giving way to mounting panic, and in the still air thought it could hear the distant thunder of invasion, rumbling louder and louder every minute, and already carts were being loaded with chattels, houses were emptying, families were threading their way along the lanes where terror was running riot.
In the confusion of the retreat, along the Rhône–Rhine canal, the 106th had to halt after only one kilometre. Marching orders, badly expressed and even more badly carried out, had jammed the whole 2nd division at this point, and the way through was so narrow, scarcely five metres wide, that the procession looked like going on for ever.
Two hours later the 106th was still waiting at a standstill, facing the endless stream going on ahead of them. Standing in the blazing sun, pack on back and rifle held at ease, the men finally demonstrated their impatience.
‘We’re the rearguard, I suppose,’ said Loubet in his sarcastic voice.
Chouteau blew his top:
‘They’re roasting us here just to show they don’t care a fuck about us. We were here first, we should have gone through.’
On the other side of the canal, over the great fertile plain with its flat roads between hopfields and ripe corn, they could now see the movement of the retreating troops carrying out yesterday’s march in the opposite direction, and scornful laughs ran along, a universal burst of furious sneering:
‘Here we go galloping along!’ Chouteau went on. ‘Well, it’s a rum idea, this march against the foe they’ve been stuffing into our ears since the other morning… No really, it’s too funny by half, we get here and then fuck off again with no time even to swallow our stew!’
The exasperated laughter got louder, and Maurice, who was near Chouteau, agreed with him. As they had been stuck there like posts for two hours why hadn’t they been allowed to cook their stew and swallow it in peace? Hunger was catching up on them, and they were in a sullen rage about their saucepan emptied out too soon, for they didn’t see the necessity for this haste that seemed silly and cowardly to them. Like a lot of hares they were, really!
At that moment Lieutenant Rochas swore at Sergeant Sapin, blaming him for the bad behaviour of his men. The noise brought up Captain Beaudoin.
Silence in the ranks!
Jean said nothing. A veteran of the Italian wars and broken in to discipline, he studied Maurice who appeared to be enjoying Chouteau’s bursts of bloody-minded sneering, and was astonished that a real gent like him, a fellow who had had such good schooling, could agree with things that ought not to be said, even if they might be true. If every soldier took it into his head to criticize the officers and give his opinion they wouldn’t get very far, and that was a fact.
At last, after yet another hour’s wait, the 106th received the order to proceed. But the bridge was still so jammed with the tail end of the division that there was hell’s own muddle. Several regiments got mixed up, some companies got carried along willy-nilly, but others were pushed to the side of the road and had to mark time. And to complete the confusion, a squadron of cavalry insisted on riding through and pushed back into the fields some of the stragglers already dropping out of the infantry. After one hour of marching it was an out-and-out rabble, dragging its feet, stringing out in a line and dallying about as though nothing mattered.
So it was that Jean found himself in the rear, lost in a sunken lane with his squad, that he was determined not to let out of his sight. The 106th had vanished and there was not a single man or even officer of the company left. There were only isolated soldiers, a mob of unknown men, worn out at the very start of the day’s march, each going at his own pace wherever the paths took him. The sun was killing, it was terribly hot, and their packs, made heavier by the tents and complicated gear which distended them, weighed cruelly on their shoulders. Many of them were unaccustomed to carrying a pack, and in any case they were hampered by their thick service capes that felt as though they were made of lead. All of a sudden a pallid young soldier, whose eyes were filled with tears, stopped and threw his kit into a ditch with a heavy sigh of relief, like the deep breathing of a dying man coming back to life.
‘There’s somebody with some sense,’ murmured Chouteau.
But he went on marching, with his back bent beneath the load. However, when two others had unburdened themselves also, he could hold out no longer.
‘Oh, to hell with it,’ he said.
And with a jerk of his shoulder he pitched his pack against a bank. No thank you! Twenty-five kilos on his spine, he’d had enough! They weren’t beasts of burden, to have to carry all that.
Almost at once Loubet imitated him and forced Lapoulle to do the same. Pache, who made the sign of the cross at every Calvary he came to, loosened the straps and carefully placed all his kit at the foot of a low wall, as though he would be coming back for it. Maurice was the only one still loaded when Jean turned round and saw the men with their shoulders free.
‘Pick up your packs; I’m the one who’ll cop it!’
But although the men were not yet in open revolt they walked on, grim-faced and silent, pushing the corporal ahead of them along the narrow lane.
‘Will you pick up your packs, or I’ll report you!’
It was like a whiplash across Maurice’s face. Report them! This clodhopper was going to report them because some poor devils were seeking relief for their aching muscles! In a fit of blind rage he loosened his straps too, and dropped his pack by the roadside, staring at Jean in defiance.
‘All right,’ said Jean in his sensible voice, for he couldn’t risk starting a fight, ‘we’ll settle this tonight.’
Maurice was having terrible trouble with his feet. The big, hard boots that he was quite unused to had turned his flesh into a bloody mess. He was not very robust, and although he had thrown off his knapsack he still felt a sort of open sore all down his spine from the intolerable rubbing of the kit, he didn’t know which arm to carry his rifle with, and the weight of it was enough to wind him. But he was even more tormented by the moral agony of one of the fits of depression to which he was subject. These would suddenly come over him quite irresistibly, and then he would witness the collapse of his own will-power and give way to evil instincts, abdicate from his real self, and later cry with shame. His misdeeds in Paris had never been anything but mad fits of ‘the other one,’ as he called him, the weakling he turned into in his cowardly moments, and who was capable of the meanest actions. And since he had been dragging along in the scorching sun, in this retreat that was more like a rout, he was nothing but an animal in this lost, wandering herd strung out along the roads. It was the after-effect of defeat, of the distant thunder leagues away, whose dying echo was now hounding these panic-stricken men in full flight without having set eyes on an enemy. What was there to hope for now? Surely it was all over? They were beaten, and there was nothing left but to lie down and go to sleep.
‘Well, what the hell,’ Loubet shouted at the top of his voice with his Cockney laugh, ‘but all the same we aren’t marching to Berlin!’
To Berlin! To Berlin! Maurice could still hear that cry yelled by the milling crowds on the boulevards during that night of wild excitement which had made him decide to enlist. The wind had changed in a violent storm and here was a terrible about-turn: the whole temperament of the race showed itself in this sublime confidence suddenly crashing down at the very first reverse into the despair which galloped away with these lost soldiers, defeated and scattered before ever striking a blow.
‘Oh this rifle’s sawing off my paws!’ Loubet went on, once again changing shoulders, ‘and there’s a bleeding tin whistle that can go for a walk!’
Then, referring to the sum he had been paid as a replacement:
‘All the same, fifteen hundred francs for this job is daylight robbery! That rich bloke I’m going to get killed for must be enjoying some lovely pipes at his fireside!’
‘What about me,’ Chouteau groused. ‘I had served my time and was just getting out. Well, ’struth, no luck at all to fall into the shit like this!’
He swung his rifle impatiently, then he too flung it violently over the hedge.
‘There, off you go, you fucking tool!’
The rifle turned two somersaults and landed in a furrow where it lay at full length, still as a corpse. Others were already flying to join it. Soon the field was full of weapons lying there stiff and forlorn beneath the sweltering sun. An infectious madness spread, hunger was twisting their guts, boots were hurting their feet, this march was a torture, with unforeseen defeat growling threateningly in their rear. Nothing good left to expect, their leaders losing their grip, the commissariat not even feeding them, anger, frustration, desire to have done with it at once, before even beginning. So what! Let their guns join their packs. In a silly burst of temper and amid the gigglings of a lot of grinning idiots, the guns flew away all down the long, long tail of stragglers stretching back over the countryside.
Before getting rid of his, Loubet made it twirl round beautifully, like a drum-major’s stick. Lapoulle, seeing all his mates chucking theirs away, must have thought it was part of the drill, so he imitated their movements. But Pache, in a confused sense of duty to his religious upbringing, refused to do the same and had insults heaped on him by Chouteau, who called him a priest’s baby.
‘Look at that creep! All because his old cow of a mother made him swallow Our Father every Sunday! Why don’t you go and serve Mass, you’re too scared to be with your mates!’
Maurice marched on in sullen silence, head down under the scorching sky. All that was left was to go on in a nightmare of atrocious weariness, haunted by phantoms, as though he were going on into an abyss straight in front of him. His whole upbringing as an educated man was collapsing and he was sinking to the low level of these creatures round him.
‘Yes,’ he suddenly said to Chouteau, ‘you’re right!’
He had already put his rifle down on a heap of stones when Jean, who was vainly trying to check this disgraceful abandoning of arms, saw him. He went straight for him:
‘Pick up that gun of yours at once, at once, do you hear?’
A flood of terrible rage surged up into Jean’s face. Usually so placid, always for conciliation, he now had eyes blazing and spoke with the voice of thunderous authority. His men had never seen him like this, and they stood still in amazement.
‘Pick up that gun at once or you’ll have me to deal with!’
Shaken, Maurice uttered only one word, which he meant to sound insulting:
‘Clodhopper! Yes, a clodhopper is what I am, and you are a grand gent! And that’s why you’re a swine, yes, a filthy swine! I’m telling you straight!’
Shouts of protest went up, but the corporal went on with extraordinary vehemence:
‘When a man’s been educated he shows it. If we are yokels and clods you should be setting us all an example because you know more about everything than we do… Now pick up your gun again, fuck you, or I’ll have you shot at the end of the march.’
Maurice picked up the gun, thoroughly cowed. There were tears of rage in his eyes. He marched on, staggering like a drunken man, surrounded by his mates who were now jeering because he had knuckled under. Oh, how he hated that Jean with an undying hate, wounded to the quick by such a hard lesson which he felt he deserved. And when Chouteau muttered at his side that with a corporal like that you waited for a battle and then put a bullet through his head, he saw red and had a clear vision of himself bashing Jean’s head in behind some wall.
But then there was a diversion. Loubet noticed that during the row Pache, too, had quietly got rid of his rifle, putting it down at the foot of a bank. Why? He didn’t attempt to find an explanation, laughing sheepishly, half pleased with himself and half ashamed like a good little boy being scolded for his first naughtiness. He walked along with arms hanging free, very jolly and cock-a-hoop. Along the interminable sun-baked roads, between the fields of ripe corn or hops, one after another and all looking the same, the stampede went on, and the stragglers, with neither packs nor rifles, were nothing but a wandering rabble tramping along, a hotchpotch of rascals and beggars at whose approach village doors shut in panic.
Just then they met something which put the finishing touch to Maurice’s exasperation. A distant heavy rumbling could be heard coming nearer; it was the reserve artillery which had set off last, and suddenly its head appeared round a bend in the road. The demoralized stragglers just had time to throw themselves into the nearby fields. The artillery was moving in column, coming along at a proud canter in fine correct order, a whole regiment of six batteries, the colonel on the outside and near the middle, and the officers in their places. The guns clanked by, keeping strict spacing, each with its ammunition waggon, horses and men. In the fifth battery Maurice recognized his cousin Honoré’s cannon. There was the sergeant, proudly mounted on his horse, to the left of the leader, a handsome, fair chap called Adolphe on a sturdy chestnut beautifully matched with the off-horse trotting alongside. In his correct position among the six gunners, sitting in pairs on the cases of the gun itself and its ammunition waggon, was Louis, the gun-layer, a dark little man and Adolphe’s mate, his other half, as they said, following the established custom of marrying a mounted man and a foot-slogger. They seemed much taller to Maurice, who had met them in camp, and the gun, with its four horses, followed by the waggon drawn by six more, looked as dazzling as a sun, polished and cherished by all its little world, men and beasts, closely surrounding it with the discipline and tenderness of a well-ordered family. And what hurt him most was the haughty glance his cousin Honoré cast on the stragglers and his sudden amazement when he caught sight of him in the midst of this rabble of unarmed men. The procession was nearly past, with the material for the batteries – waggons, forage-carts, smithies. Then in a final cloud of dust went the reserves, the spare men and horses, who trotted out of sight round another bend in the road with a gradually diminishing din of hoofs and wheels.
‘Blimey!’ declared Loubet. ‘Easy enough to be cocky when you’re going by coach!’
The headquarters staff had found Altkirch unoccupied. No Prussians yet. Nevetheless, afraid of being dogged and of seeing them appear at any moment General Douay had decided that the march should go on as far as Dannemarie, which the leading detachments had not reached until five in the afternoon. It was eight and getting dark, and yet the regiments, in a terrible state of confusion and reduced to half strength, had hardly finished bivouacking. The men were worn out and collapsing with hunger and fatigue. Until ten o’clock they could still be seen coming in – hunting for their companies and not finding them – isolated soldiers, little groups, the whole miserable, interminable line of footsore and resentful men strung out along the roads.
As soon as he did manage to rejoin his regiment Jean set about finding Lieutenant Rochas to make his report. He found him and Captain Beaudoin confering with the colonel. All three were in front of a little inn and very concerned about the roll-call and anxious to know the whereabouts of their men. The first words of the corporal to the lieutenant were overheard by Colonel de Vineuil, and he called him over and forced him to tell him the whole story. His long sallow face, in which the eyes looked very black against his snow-white hair and drooping moustache, expressed silent misery.
‘Sir,’ said Captain Beaudoin, without waiting for his commanding officer’s opinion, ‘we must shoot half a dozen of these thugs.’
Lieutenant Rochas nodded his agreement, but the colonel made a gesture of helplessness.
‘Too many of them… what can you do? Nearly seven hundred of them! Who can you pick on out of that lot?… And besides, if you please, the general won’t hear of it. He goes all fatherly and says he never punished a single man in Africa… No, no, there’s nothing I can do. It’s terrible.’
The captain made so bold as to repeat after him:
‘Yes it is terrible… It’s the end of everything.’
Jean was taking himself off when he heard Major Bouroche, whom he had not noticed standing on the steps of the inn, mutter softly: no more discipline, no more punishment, army done for! Before a week was out the officers would get a few kicks up the backside, whereas if they had coshed one or two of those blighters straight away the rest might have had second thoughts.
Nobody was punished. Officers bringing up the rear, escorting the vehicles of the baggage-train, had had the happy foresight to get the packs and rifles picked up from the roadside. There were only a few missing, and the men were rearmed at dawn on the quiet to hush the matter up. Orders were to strike camp at five, but by four the soldiers were awakened and the retreat on Belfort was pushed forward on the assumption that the Prussians were only a league or two away. Once again the troops had had to put up with biscuits, and they were still dead beat after the short and restless night, with nothing warm in their bellies. That morning, once again, the orderly conduct of the march was jeopardized by this sudden departure. That day was worse still, utterly miserable. The character of the country had changed, and they had entered a mountainous region with roads up hill and down dale through fir plantations and narrow valleys all tangled with gorse and a mass of golden blossom. But through this gaily-coloured countryside beneath a brilliant August sun, a wind of panic had blown ever more fiercely since the day before. A dispatch advising mayors to warn the inhabitants that they would do well to put away their valuables had just increased the terror to fever-pitch. So the enemy was here? Would there even be time to escape? Everybody thought he could hear the mounting roar of invasion, like the dull thunder of a river in spate, gathering strength at every village from some fresh scare, amid general clamour and lamentation.
Maurice moved on like a sleepwalker, his feet bleeding and his shoulders weighed down with his pack and rifle. His mind had ceased to function and he trudged on through the nightmare that he could see around him. He had lost all consciousness of the tramping of his mates and only felt Jean on his left, worn out by the same fatigue and grief. It was heartbreaking, these villages they went through, the pity of it gripped your heart with anguish. As soon as they saw the troops in retreat, this rabble of exhausted soldiers dragging their feet, the inhabitants got busy and hastened their own flight. And they were so quietly confident a fortnight ago, the whole of Alsace awaiting war with a smile, convinced that the fighting would be in Germany! And now France was invaded and the storm was breaking here, round their homes, in their fields, like one of those terrible hurricanes of hail and thunder that lay waste a whole province in a couple of hours! In front of doors, amid furious confusion, men were loading carts, piling on furniture at the risk of breaking the lot. From upstairs windows women were throwing a last mattress or passing down the cradle they had
nearly forgotten. The baby was tied into it and was secured on top amongst legs of upturned chairs and tables. Round at the back they were roping poor old sick grand-dad to a cupboard and carting him off like a piece of furniture. Then there were those who did not possess a cart, but piled their belongings on a wheelbarrow, and yet others were moving off with a load of clothing in their arms, others had only thought of saving the clock, which they clasped to their bosom like a child. They could not take everything, and abandoned furniture or bundles of clothing that had proved to be too heavy were left in the gutters. Some people shut everything up before leaving and the houses looked dead, with doors and windows fastened, but the majority, in their haste and certainty that everything was bound to be destroyed, left their old homes wide open, with doors and windows gaping showing rooms stripped bare, and these were the saddest ones, with the dreadful sadness of a sacked town depopulated by fear – miserable homes open to the four winds, from which the very cats had fled in terror of what was coming. With every village the harrowing sight was more depressing, the numbers of fugitives and people moving out got larger in a growing confusion accompanied by clenched fists, curses and tears.
But it was above all along the main road in the open country that Maurice was choked with grief, for as they approached Belfort the straggle of refugees grew thicker and became an uninterrupted procession. Poor devils who thought they could find safety behind the walls of the fortress! The man belaboured his horse, the wife followed behind, dragging the children. Families pushed ahead, weighed down under their burdens, losing each other, tiny tots unable to keep up with the rest, and all in the blinding whiteness of the road on which the sun poured down like molten lead. Many had taken off their boots and were going barefoot so as to get along faster, and without slackening their pace half dressed mothers were giving the breast to whimpering babies. Scared faces glanced behind and hands gestured wildly as if to shut out the horizon as the wind of panic tousled heads and whipped up hastily put-on clothes. Others, farmers with all their labourers, marched straight across the fields, driving their flocks ahead – sheep, cows, oxen, horses that they had driven out of sheds and stables with their sticks. These were making for the deep valleys, the high plateaux and lonely forests, throwing up the dust-clouds of the great migrations of ancient times, when peoples abandoned their lands to the advancing, all-conquering barbarians. They were all going to live under canvas in some deserted rock fastness, so far from any road that not a single enemy soldier would dare risk his life there. The moving clouds enveloping them disappeared behind clumps of fir trees with the diminishing noise of lowing and trampling herds, whilst the stream of carts and people on foot still flowed along the road, upsetting the march of the troops, and on the outskirts of Belfort it became so concentrated, with its current as irresistible as a river in spate, that several times a halt had to be called.
It was during one of these short halts that Maurice witnessed a scene which stayed in his memory like a slap in the face.
By the roadside there was an isolated house, the dwelling of some poor peasant, the whole of whose little property lay stretched out behind it. He had refused to leave his field, where his roots were too deeply sunk in the soil, and there he was, unable to go unless he left some of his very flesh there. He could be seen in a low-ceilinged room, slumped on a seat, staring with unseeing eyes at these passing soldiers, whose retreat would hand his ripe corn over to the enemy. Standing by him his wife, still quite young, was holding a child while another was clinging to her skirt, and all three were wailing. Then suddenly the front door was flung open and the grandmother appeared, a very old woman, tall and skinny, with bare arms like knotted ropes, furiously waving. Wisps of grey hair came out from under her bonnet and blew round her wizened face, and she was in such a rage that the words she was yelling stuck in her throat and could hardly be heard.
At first the soldiers began to laugh. What a face, silly old geezer! But then the words came through as the old woman shouted:
‘Swine! Blackguards! Cowards! Cowards!’
Her voice screamed higher and higher as she spat the insult of cowardice right in their faces. And the laughter died, and a chill ran through the ranks. The men lowered their heads and looked away.
‘Cowards! Cowards! Cowards!’
Suddenly she seemed to grow taller still. She drew herself up, gaunt and tragic in her shabby old dress, moving her skinny arm from west to east with such an immense gesture that it seemed to fill the heavens.
‘Cowards, the Rhine isn’t that way… The Rhine is over there, cowards, cowards!’
At last the march was resumed, and at that moment Maurice caught sight of Jean’s face and saw that his eyes were filled with tears. A shudder came over him and his own suffering became still more acute when he realized that even those oafs had felt the insult which they didn’t deserve but had to swallow. Everything was falling to pieces in his poor aching head, and he never knew how he got to the end of that day’s march.
The 7th corps had taken the whole day to cover the twenty-three kilometres between Dannemarie and Belfort, and once again night was falling and it was very late when the troops finally bivouacked under the walls of the fortress at the very place from which they had set off to march against the foe four days before. In spite of the late hour and their extreme fatigue the soldiers insisted on lighting their cookhouse fires and making some stew. At last, for the first time since their departure, they were having something hot to eat. Round the fires, in the cool of the evening, noses were buried in messtins and grunts of satisfaction were beginning to be heard when a rumour ran round that astounded the camp. Two new dispatches had come in one after the other: the Prussians had not crossed the Rhine at Markolsheim and there wasn’t a single Prussian left in Huningue. The crossing of the Rhine at Markolsheim, the bridge of boats thrown across by the light of huge electric lamps, in fact all these alarming tales were nothing but a nightmare, an unexplained hallucination on the part of the sub-prefect of Schlestadt. And as for the army corps threatening Huningue, the famous army corps of the Black Forest before which Alsace trembled, it was merely composed of a tiny detachment from Württemberg – two battalions and one squadron – which by means of skilful tactics, repeated marches and counter-marches, sudden unexpected appearances, had given the impression that thirty or forty thousand men were involved. To think that that very evening they had almost blown up the Dannemarie viaduct! Twenty leagues of rich country had been laid waste for no reason whatever, in the most idiotic of panics, and at the thought of what they had seen during that deplorable day – populations fleeing in terror, driving their flocks up into the mountains, the stream of carts loaded with chattels flowing towards the town and mingled with multitudes of women and children – the soldiers lost their tempers and exclaimed with ugly sneers.
‘No, really, it’s beyond a joke!’ spluttered Loubet with his mouth full, waving his spoon. ‘What! Is that the enemy we were marched against? Nobody there!… Twelve leagues forwards, twelve leagues backwards, and not even a cat to be seen! All that for nothing, just for the fun of getting the wind up!’
Chouteau, noisily scraping his messtin, held forth against the generals without mentioning them by name.
‘What, those swine? What a lot of bloody fools! Proper runaways they’ve given us! If they hopped it like that when there was nobody there, wouldn’t they half have skedaddled if they had found themselves faced by a real enemy!’
They had flung a fresh armful of wood on the fire so as to enjoy the brightness of the leaping flames, and Lapoulle, luxuriously warming his legs, was exploding with silly, mindless laughter, when Jean, who had at first turned a deaf ear, chipped in in a fatherly way:
‘That’ll do! If somebody heard you there might be trouble.’
His own simple common sense was just as disgusted by the stupidity of their leaders. But still, you had to see that they were respected, and as Chouteau was still carrying on he cut him short:
‘Shut up! Here’s the lieutenant, you’d better complain to him if you’ve any remarks to make.’
Maurice was sitting away on his own, staring at the ground. This was really the end! Hardly had they started before it was all over. This lack of discipline and revolt of the men at the first setback was already turning the army into a rabble with no bond of union, demoralized and ripe for any disaster. Here under the walls of Belfort, these men had not set eyes on a single Prussian and they were defeated.
The following days were full of trepidation and anxiety in their very monotony. So as to find the troops something to do General Douay set them to work on the defences of the fortress, still far from complete. They turned over the ground in a rage and cut into the rock. And no news! Where was MacMahon’s army? What was going on in front of Metz? The most extravagant rumours were in circulation and a few Paris newspapers hardly made the enveloping mists of anxiety all that much worse by their contradictions. Twice the general had written and asked for orders, and had not even had an answer. But by 12 August the 7th corps was at last brought up to full strength by the arrival of the third division direct from Italy, yet in spite of that there were only two divisions, because the first, beaten at Froeschwiller, had been carried away in the rout and nobody now knew where the current had cast it up. After they had been left for a week, cut off from the rest of France, the order to depart came by wire. There was great rejoicing, for anything was better than this prison life. During the preparations the guessing began again, nobody knew where they were making for: some said to defend Strasbourg and others even talked of a bold thrust into the Black Forest to cut the Prussians’ line of retreat.
The next morning the 106th was among the first to leave, piled up in cattle trucks. It was particularly crowded in the truck where Jean’s unit was, so much so that Loubet made out he hadn’t room to sneeze. As once again the issue of rations had been a complete muddle, and the soldiers had received in spirits what they should have had in food, they were nearly all drunk with a violent and bawling drunkenness that worked itself off in obscene singing. The train went on and on and you couldn’t see the others in the truck, so thick was the haze of pipe smoke; the heat was unbearable, with the stink of all these bodies in a heap, and as the truck sped along there issued out of the blackness shoutings that drowned the noise of the wheels and died away across the dreary countryside. It was only at Langres that the troops realized they were being taken back to Paris.
‘Oh Christ,’ exclaimed Chouteau, already reigning in his corner as undisputed king because of his all-powerful gift of the gab, ‘they’re going for certain to park us at Charentonneau to prevent Bismarck from going to doss in the Tuileries.’
The others were rolling with mirth, thinking that was a scream, they didn’t know why. Anyhow the most trivial incidents on the journey gave rise to deafening booings, yellings and laughter – peasants standing by the line, groups of worried-looking people waiting at little stations for trains to come through in the hope of getting some news – all France scared and jumpy in the face of invasion. And as the/engine and train rushed by in a fleeting impression of steam and noise, all the crowds got was the bawling of this cannon-fodder being whisked away. But in a station where they stopped three fashionably dressed ladies, well-to-do townspeople, passed cups of broth round and had a great success. Men wept and kissed their hands in gratitude.
Yet a little further on the filthy songs and savage yellings began again. A little beyond Chaumont the train happened to pass another one full of artillerymen being taken to Metz. Speed had been reduced, and the soldiers in the two trains fraternized in an infernal din. And possibly because they were more drunk, it was the artillerymen who won as they stood waving their fists out of the trucks and shouting everything else down with the violence of desperation:
‘To the slaughterhouse! To the slaughterhouse! To the slaughterhouse!’
A great chill, the icy wind of a charnel-house, seemed to be blowing through. A sudden silence fell, in which Loubet’s sneering voice could be heard:
‘Our chums aren’t all that lively!’
‘But they’re right.’ Chouteau took up the point in his pub-orator’s voice. ‘It’s wicked to send off a lot of ordinary chaps to get killed for a lot of balls they don’t know the first thing about.’
And so on and so on. He was the typical agitator, the bad workman from Montmartre, the house-painter who took time off and went on the binge, who half digested bits of speeches heard at public meetings and mixed up a lot of asinine rubbish with the great principles of equality and liberty. He was the know-all and he indoctrinated his comrades, especially Lapoulle, whom he had promised to turn into quite a bloke.
‘Can’t you see, old cock, it’s quite simple. If old Badinguet and Bismarck have a row then let them have it out between them with fists without upsetting hundreds of thousands of men who don’t even know each other and don’t want to fight.’
The whole truckload laughed and was won over, and Lapoulle, with no idea who Badinguet was and unable to say even whether he was fighting for an emperor or a king, took up the strain like a baby colossus:
‘Sure! With fists, and have a drink afterwards.’
But Chouteau had turned towards Pache and was giving him his turn:
‘Like you and that God of yours… He said you mustn’t fight, that God of yours did. So what are you doing here, you silly sod?’
‘Well, er…’ said Pache, quite taken aback, ‘I’m not here for my enjoyment… Only there’s the police…’
‘The police! Coo, listen to him! Fuck the police! Don’t you know, all you chaps, what we should do if we had any sense? When they unload us later on we should piss off – yes, just quietly slope off! And leave that great swine Badinguet and all his crew of tuppenny-ha’penny generals to work it out as they like with their bloody Prussians!’
There was a burst of applause, the brainwashing was working, and Chouteau triumphantly trotted out his theories, a muddied stream in which floated the Republic, the Rights of Man, the corruption of the Empire that had to be thrown down, the treasons of all these men in command of them, each one bribed with a million, as had been proved. He proclaimed himself a revolutionary – the others didn’t even know whether they were republicans, nor, for that matter, how you set about becoming one, except Loubet the guzzler, who also knew what he believed, never having been for anything but food. However, they were all carried away and shouted against the Emperor none the less, and against the officers and the whole bloody show that they would walk out of, straight they would, at the first sign of trouble. Working on their mounting drunkenness, Chouteau kept his eye on Maurice, the gent, for he was making him laugh and was proud to have him on his side. And so as to work him up as well, he hit on the idea of baiting Jean, who so far was standing still and half asleep, with eyes half closed amid the din. Considering the hard lesson given by the corporal to this volunteer by forcing him to pick up his rifle, if he bore his superior any malice now was the time to set the two men at each other.
‘I have heard tell of them as talked about shooting us,’ Chouteau went on menacingly. ‘Swine who treat us worse than animals, and don’t realize that when you’ve had enough of your pack and rifle it’s good-bye, you chuck the whole fucking lot into the field to see if some more’ll grow! Well, chums, what would those people say if now we’ve got them in a corner we chucked them out as well on to the railway line? What about it? Must have an example so that they stop tormenting us with this bleeding war! Death to old Badinguet’s lice! Death to the sods who want us to fight!’
Jean had gone very red, with the blood rushing up to his face as it sometimes did in his rare fits of temper. Although he was pinned by his neighbours in a living vice, he got up and went forward with clenched fists and blazing eyes, and he looked so terrible that the other man cringed.
‘Christ Almighty! Will you shut your trap, you swine! I haven’t said anything for hours because there’s nobody left in command and I can’t even put you in clink. Yes, one thing is certain, I would have done a good turn to the regiment if I had rid it of a filthy shit like you. But just you listen, if punishments are only talk now you’ll have me to deal with. It isn’t a matter of corporal any more – just an ordinary bloke who’s sick to death of you and is going to shut your jaw. You miserable coward, you don’t want to fight! Just say that again and I’ll sock you one!’
At once the whole waggon-load turned round, and, caught up by Jean’s fine burst of confidence, they left Chouteau high and dry, spluttering and backing away from Jean’s big fists.
‘I don’t give a damn for Badinguet, nor for you either, d’you see? Me, I’ve never cared two hoots about politics, Republic or Empire, and today, just the same same as when I was working in my field, I never wanted but one thing – happiness for all, law and order and prosperity… Of course it gets everybody down to have to fight, but that’s not to say we shouldn’t deal with these slobs coming up discouraging us when it’s hard enough to carry on properly as it is. Good God, mates, don’t you get worked up when you’re told the Prussians are in your own country and that they must fucking well be kicked out?’
With the fickleness of mobs who swing from one passion to another the soldiers applauded the corporal as he repeated his promise to bash the face in of the first man in the squad to talk of refusing to fight. Bravo corporal! We’ll soon cook that Bismarck’s goose!
And in the middle of this wild oration Jean calmed down and politely said to Maurice, as though he weren’t talking to one of the men:
‘Now you, sir, you can’t be one of these skunks. Come on, we’re not beaten yet, and we’ll end up by giving these Prussians what for.’
At that moment Maurice felt a warm ray of sunshine pierce him to the heart, and he felt troubled and humbled. So this chap wasn’t just a clod, then? He recalled the burning hatred he had felt when he picked up the rifle he had thrown away in an unthinking moment. But he also remembered the revelation when he had seen the two big tears forming in the corporal’s eyes when the old grandma with grey hair flying in the wind had insulted them and pointed to the Rhine over there, beyond the horizon. Was it a sense of brotherhood from having gone through the same fatigues and the same sorrows together, which was now carrying away his resentment? Belonging to a Bonapartist family, he had never considered a republic except in a theoretical way; and he felt a certain affection for the person of the Emperor, and he was for war, the essential of nations. Suddenly hope came back to him in one of those leaps of the imagination he knew so well, and the enthusiasm that had made him enlist one evening surged through him once again, filling his heart with the certainty of victory.
‘Yes, that’s a fact, corporal,’ he said perkily. ‘We’ll give them what for!’
The truck rushed on and on, bearing its load of men in the thick pipe smoke and stifling fug of crowded bodies, hurling the drunken bawling of obscene songs at the anxious crowds on the stations they passed through and the scared peasants standing along the hedges. On 20 August they were in Paris at the Pantin station, and the same evening off they went again, detraining the next day at Rheims, en route for camp at Châlons.