‘GOD’S truth!’ said Chouteau, waking up next morning aching and frozen in the tent, ‘I could do with some broth with lots of meat all round!’
At Boult-aux-Bois, where they had camped, all they had had issued to them the night before had been a meagre ration of potatoes, for the commissariat was more and more crazy and disorganized by continual marches and counter-marches, and never met the troops at the prearranged times and places. With the roads all out of action they never knew where to take the travelling herds of cattle, which meant that there would soon be famine.
‘Yes, bugger it, roast geese are all over and done with,’ groaned Loubet as he stretched himself.
The squad was sulky and sullen. When you didn’t eat it wasn’t so good. And besides, there was this incessant rain and this mud they had been sleeping in.
Having spotted Pache making the sign of the cross after silently saying his morning prayer, Chouteau exploded again:
‘Why don’t you ask that God of yours to send us each a couple of bangers and half a pint?’
But Lieutenant Rochas made them shut up. They should be ashamed of themselves, always thinking about their bellies! He quite simply tightened his trouser-belt. Since things had gone decidedly to the bad and they could now hear distant gunfire he had regained all his obstinate confidence. Since those Prussians were now here, well, it was simple, they were going to fight them! He shrugged his shoulders behind Captain Beaudoin, this youngster as he called him, who was terribly put out by the definite loss of his baggage, tight-lipped, pale-faced, always in a temper. Going without food, well, that could be managed, but what outraged him was not being able to change his shirt.
Maurice had woken up feeling depressed and nervous, though his foot was no longer inflamed thanks to the wide fitting boots. But after yesterday’s deluge his cape was still heavy with wet, and that had left him aching in every limb. On water fatigue for the coffee, he glanced over the plain on one edge of which Boult-aux-Bois is situated: forests rise up west and north and a ridge climbs up to the village of Belleville, whilst eastwards towards Buzancy are wide flat stretches of land with slight undulations in which hamlets nestle. Was that the direction from which the enemy was expected? On his way back from the stream with his canful of water he was hailed by a distressed family of peasants at their cottage door who asked him whether the soldiers were really going to stay this time and defend them. Three times already, acting on contradictory orders, the 5th corps had crossed and re-crossed their district. The day before they had heard gunfire in the direction of Bar. Certainly the Prussians were not more than two leagues away. When Maurice told these poor folk that the 7th corps was probably setting off too, they took it very badly. So they were being let down, so the soldiers didn’t come to fight, then, for they saw them appearing and disappearing, but always running away.
‘Anybody what wants sugar,’ said Loubet as he served the coffee, ‘has only got to stick his thumb in and wait till it melts.’
But nobody was amused. Coffee without sugar was pretty awful anyway, but if only they had some biscuit! On the plain at Quatre-Champs the day before, almost everybody, for the sake of something to do while hanging about, had finished off the provisions in his pack and swallowed the last crumbs. But fortunately the squad discovered a dozen potatoes, which were shared out.
Maurice, whose stomach was in a bad way, moaned:
‘If I had known at Le Chêne I’d have bought some bread!’
Jean listened but said nothing. He had had a row first thing with Chouteau, whom he wanted to send on wood fatigue and who had insolently refused, saying it wasn’t his turn. Since everything had been going from bad to worse, indiscipline was on the increase, and the officers were reaching the stage of not daring to reprimand anyone. Jean with his sweet reasonableness had realized that he must play down his authority as a corporal for fear of provoking overt rebellion. So he had turned into a good fellow, appearing to be just a comrade to his men, to whom his experience was still of great value. If his squad wasn’t as well fed as it had been, anyway it was not dying of hunger as so many others were. But Maurice’s distress upset him in particular, for he felt that he was weakening, and he watched him with an anxious eye, wondering how this delicate young man would ever manage to go through with it.
When Jean heard Maurice complain about having no bread he got up and disappeared for a moment and then came back after rummaging in his pack. Slipping a biscuit into Maurice’s hand, he said:
‘Here you are, hide it, I haven’t enough for everybody!’
‘But what about you?’ asked the young man, very touched.
‘Me? Oh, never you fear… I’ve still got two left.’
It was true, he had treasured three biscuits in case there was any fighting, knowing you can get terribly hungry on a battlefield. Anyhow he had just had a potato. That’d do for him. See later on.
At about ten the 7th moved off again. The marshal’s original intention must have been to sent it via Buzancy to Stenay, where it would have crossed the Meuse. But the Prussians, outstripping the army of Châlons, must be at Stenay already, and were even said to be at Buzancy. So, turned back northwards, the 7th had had orders to make for La Besace, twenty-odd kilometres from Boult-aux-Bois, in order to go on from there the day after and cross the Meuse at Mouzon. It was a surly departure, the men were grumbling, with their stomachs unsatisfied and their limbs unrested, worn out by the fatigues and delays of the previous days, and the officers, sullen and yielding to the general apprehension about the catastrophe they were heading for, complained about the inaction and were annoyed because they had not gone to Buzancy to reinforce the 5th corps, whose gunfire had been heard there. That corps must also be in retreat and going up towards Nouart, while the 12th was leaving La Besace for Mouzon and the 1st heading for Raucourt. It was like the stampede of a herd hurried and harried by the dogs, all jostling each other on the way to the longed-for Meuse, after endless delays and dodderings.
When the 106th followed its cavalry and artillery from Boult-aux-Bois in the great stream of three divisions streaking the plain with marching men, the sky clouded over again with slow-moving, angry clouds that put the finishing touch to the men’s gloom. The 106th itself kept to the main Buzancy road, with its magnificent lines of poplars. At Germont, a village with dunghills steaming outside the doors in a row on each side of the road, women were sobbing and picking up their children in their arms and holding them out to the passing troops as if they wanted them to be taken away. There was nothing left in the village – not a mouthful of bread or even a potato. Then instead of going on towards Buzancy the 106th turned to the left, going up in the direction of Authe, and the men, seeing Belleville once again on the rise at the other side of the plain, which they had been through the day before, knew for a certainty that they were retracing their steps.
‘Christ!’ muttered Chouteau, ‘do they take us for teetotums?’
‘There’s a lot of tuppeny-ha’penny generals for you, all going this way and that! You can see our legs don’t cost them nothing.’
They were all losing their tempers. You don’t wear men out like this just for the fun of walking them about. Over the bare plain between the gentle ups and downs, they moved on in column in two lines, one on each side of the road, between which the officers move up and down. But gone was the time, as in Champagne the day after Rheims, when the march was cheered with jokes and songs, when their packs were carried gaily and the load on their shoulders was lightened by the hope of racing the Prussians and beating them. Now they dragged their feet in angry silence, hating their rifles which bruised their shoulders and the packs that weighed them down, having lost all faith in their commanders and giving way to such hopelessness that they were only marching ahead like a herd of cattle lashed by the whip of fate. The wretched army was beginning to climb its hill of Calvary.
Meanwhile Maurice had been very interested for the last few minutes because over to the left, where there rose some low hills, he had seen a horseman emerge from a clump of trees in the distance. Almost at once another appeared, and then another. All three stood there motionless, no bigger than your fist, looking as small and as clear-cut as toy soldiers. The thought was passing through his mind that it must be an isolated detachment of hussars, some reconnaissance on its way back, when he was astonished to see shining points on their shoulders, probably the light catching gold epaulettes.
‘Look over there!’ he said, nudging Jean who was next to him. ‘Uhlans!’
The corporal opened his eyes wide.
‘Well I’ll be damned!’
And Uhlans they were – the first Prussians the 106th had seen. Jean had been campaigning for nearly six weeks now, and not only had he not fired a single round, but so far he hadn’t seen an enemy either. Word ran round, all heads were turned and curiosity grew. They looked very nice, those Uhlans.
‘One of them looks jolly fat,’ remarked Loubet.
But to the left of the little wood, on a piece of level ground, a whole squadron appeared. In view of this threatening appearance a halt was called in the column. Orders came along and the 106th took up a position behind the trees by a stream. Already the artillery was dashing back and establishing itself on a hillock. Then for nearly two hours they stayed there in battle formation and killed time, but nothing else happened. On the horizon the mass of enemy cavalry stood motionless. Realizing at last that precious time was being lost, the army resumed its march.
‘Ah well,’ Jean murmured regretfully, ‘it won’t be this time!’
Maurice too felt his hands itching with the desire to fire at least one shot. Once again he went over the mistake that had been made the day before by not going to support the 5th corps. If the Prussians were not attacking it must be because they still had not enough infantry at their disposal, which meant that their displays of cavalry in the distance could have no other object than to delay the movement of the French army corps. Once again they had fallen into the trap. And as a matter of fact from that moment onwards the 106th constantly spotted Uhlans to the left on every bit of high ground, following them, keeping an eye on them, disappearing behind a farmhouse only to reappear round the tip of a wood.
Gradually the soldiers’ nerves got frayed as they saw themselves ensnared at a distance as though in the meshes of some invisible net.
Even Pache and Lapoulle were saying: ‘They’re beginning to get us down and it would do us good to slosh ’em one or two!’
But still they went on marching and marching, painfully, with dragging steps that quickly got tired. During this uncomfortable day’s march they felt the enemy drawing nearer on all sides, as you are conscious of a thunderstorm on the way before it appears over the horizon. Strict orders had been issued about the proper conduct of the rearguard, and there were no more laggards because it was certain that the Prussians behind would snap up everything and everybody. Their infantry was coming up at a terrific speed while the French regiments, harassed and paralysed, were marking time.
At Authe the sky cleared, and Maurice, taking his bearings by the sun, realized that instead of going on towards Le Chêne, a good three leagues further on, they were turning to march due east. It was two o’clock and now they were suffering from unbearable heat after shivering in the rain for two days. The very circuitous road climbed across barren plains. Not a house or a living soul, nothing but a few widely scattered dismal little woods to break the dreariness of the wilderness, and the depressing silence of these solitary places made itself felt on the soldiers who were trudging along, heads down and sweating. At length Saint-Pierremont came into sight, a few deserted houses on a little hill. They did not go through the village, and Maurice noted that they were immediately turning left and reverting to the northerly course towards La Besace. Now he understood that the route had been chosen in an attempt to reach Mouzon before the Prussians. But could they pull it off with such weary and demoralized troops? At Saint-Pierrement the three Uhlans had reappeared far away at a bend in the road from Buzancy, and as the rearguard was leaving the village a battery was disclosed and a few shells came over but did no harm. They did not reply, but went on marching more and more wearily.
From Saint-Pierremont to La Besace is a good three leagues, and when Maurice said so to Jean he made a gesture of despair: the men would never do twelve kilometres, he could tell by infallible signs, they were out of breath and their faces looked desperate. The road was still climbing between two slopes which were gradually closing in. They had to call a halt. But this rest made their limbs ache still more, and when they had to set off again it was worse than ever: the regiments were not making any progress and men were falling by the wayside. Seeing Maurice looking paler and paler and rolling his eyes with exhaustion, Jean uncharacteristically chattered away, trying to take his mind off it all with a torrent of words and keep him awake in the automatic marching movement which had become just instinctive.
‘So your sister lives in Sedan, does she? We may go that way.’
‘Sedan, never! That’s not our way, that would be crazy.’
‘Is she young, your sister?’
‘But she is the same age as I am. I told you we were twins.’
‘Is she like you?’
‘Oh well, she’s fair just the same. Oh, such soft, curly hair!… Very small, thin face, and not at all the boisterous kind, oh dear no! Dear Henriette!’
‘You are very close to each other?’
There was a pause, and glancing at Maurice Jean saw that his eyes were closing and that he was on the point of falling down.
‘Now, now lad… Hold yourself up, for God’s sake… Give me your gun a minute, that’ll give you a rest… We’re going to leave half the blokes on the road, and it isn’t possible to go much further today, God knows!’
Straight ahead he had just caught sight of Oches, with its few miserable hovels terraced on a hillside. It is dominated by the church, all yellow and perched up high among the trees.
‘That’s where we’re going to sleep tonight, for certain.’
He had guessed right. General Douay, seeing the exhaustion of his troops, gave up hope of ever making La Besace that day. But what settled it for him was the arrival of the supply train, this damned convoy he had been dragging after him ever since Rheims, the three leagues of which – vehicles and animals – so terribly hampered his march. From Quatre-Champs he had ordered it to be sent straight on to Saint-Pierremont, and it was only at Oches that the vehicles rejoined the main body, and in such a state of exhaustion that the horses were refusing to move. It was five o’clock already and fearing to get involved in the gorge of Stonne, the general thought he should give up the idea of finishing the day’s march laid down by the marshal. So they stopped and camped, the baggage down below in the meadows, guarded by one division, while the artillery took up a position behind on the higher ground, and the brigade that was to act as rearguard the next day stayed on a bluff opposite Saint-Pierremont. Another division, of which the Bourgain-Desfeuilles brigade was a part, bivouacked behind the church on a broad plateau flanked by an oak wood.
Night was already falling when at last the 106th could settle down on the edge of this wood, for there had been so much confusion about the choice and allocation of sites.
‘To hell with it!’ Chouteau said furiously, ‘I’m not going to eat anything, I’m going to sleep!’
That was the universal chorus. Many of them hadn’t the strength to put up their tents, and went off to sleep where they fell, like inert lumps. And besides, before you could eat you would have to have an issue from the commissariat, and the commissariat, which was waiting for the 7th at La Besace, was not at Oches. In the general break-up and loss of control there was not even the bugle call for orderly corporals. Food was just catch as catch can. From that time on there were no more regular issues, and soldiers had to live on the rations they were supposed to have in their packs, and their packs were empty, very few could find a crust or even the crumbs of the abundance they had contrived to live on at Vouziers. There was some coffee left and so the less tired still had some sugarless coffee.
When Jean wanted to share by eating one of his biscuits and giving Maurice the other, he saw that he was fast asleep. It crossed his mind to wake him up, but then he stoically put the biscuits back in his pack, with infinite care as though he were hiding some gold, and he himself made do with coffee like the others. He had insisted on the tent being put up and in it they were all lying flat out when Loubet came back from an expedition bringing some carrots from a nearby field. There was no possibility of cooking them, so they munched them raw, but that only aggravated their hunger. They made Pache quite ill.
‘No, no, let him sleep on,’ Jean said to Chouteau who was shaking Maurice to give him his share.
‘Ah,’ said Lapoulle, ‘tomorrow, when we are in Angoulême, we shall get some bread… I once had a cousin who was a soldier in Angoulême. Good garrison there.’
There was general stupefaction. Chouteau shouted:
‘Angoulême, what do you mean?… That silly sod thinks he’s in Angoulême!’
It was impossible to get any explanation out of Lapoulle. No, he thought they were going to Angoulême. He was the one who, when they had sighted Uhlans that morning, had maintained that they were Bazaine’s men.
The camp fell into inky blackness and a deathly silence. Although the night was chilly fires had been forbidden. The Prussians were known to be only a few kilometres away, and even noise was kept down for fear of alerting them. The officers had already warned the men that they were setting off at about four in the morning to make up for lost time, and everybody was greedily snatching some sleep and dead to the world. The heavy breathing of these multitudes rose up in the darkness above the far-flung encampments, like the breathing of the earth itself.
A sudden shot woke up the squad. It was still pitch dark, it might be about three. They all leaped to their feet, the alert ran along the lines and it was believed to be an enemy attack. But it was only Loubet, who couldn’t sleep any more and so had thought of going into the oak wood where there might be rabbits. What a binge they would have if he brought back a pair of rabbits for his mates at dawn! But as he was looking for a good place to shoot from he heard some men coming towards him, snapping twigs and talking, and he panicked and fired his shot, thinking he had got some Prussians to deal with.
Maurice, Jean and others were already running up when a hoarse voice croaked:
‘Don’t fire, for God’s sake!’
On the edge of the wood was a tall, gaunt man whose thick, bushy beard could just be made out. He had on a grey smock pulled in at the waist with a red belt, and carried a rifle slung over his shoulder. He at once explained that he was French, a sergeant in the guerrillas, and that he had come with two of his men from the Dieulet woods to bring some information to the general.
‘Here, Cabasse, Ducat!’ he shouted behind him. ‘Come on, you lazy buggers!’
The two men had probably been scared, but now they came up. Ducat was short and stocky, pasty-looking with thinning hair, Cabasse tall and wiry, swarthy faced with a long, thin nose.
By now Maurice had had a close look at the sergeant, which gave him a shock, and now he asked:
‘Tell me, aren’t you Guillaume Sambuc, from Remilly?’
When after some hesitation the man nervously admitted that he was, Maurice recoiled slightly, because this Sambuc was said to be a terrible scoundrel, a worthy son of a family of woodcutters who had gone to the bad – the father, a drunkard, had been found one night in a wood with his throat cut, the mother and daughter had taken to begging and thieving and ended up in some brothel. This one, Guillaume, was a poacher and did a bit of smuggling. Only one whelp out of this litter of wolves had grown up to be respectable, Prosper, of the African Cavalry, who before he was lucky enough to get into the army had become a farm-hand because he hated the forest.
‘I saw your brother in Rheims and at Vouziers,’ Maurice went on. ‘He is quite well.’
Sambuc did not answer, but to cut things short:
‘Take me to the general. Tell him it’s the guerrillas from the Dieulet woods who have an important message to deliver.’
On their way back to camp Maurice thought about these freelance companies on whom so many hopes had been built, and who already were giving rise to complaints on all sides. They were supposed to carry on guerrilla warfare, lie in wait for the enemy behind hedges, harass him, pick off his sentries and keep an eye on the woods from which no Prussian would ever get out alive. But the truth of the matter was that they were becoming the terror of the peasants, whom they were not defending at all and whose fields they were plundering. Out of hatred for regular military service all the drop-outs were rushing to join these gangs and enjoy freedom from discipline, roam at large like a lot of bandits out on the spree, sleeping and guzzling any old where. The recruits in some of these companies were deplorable types.
‘Cabasse! Ducat!’ Sambuc went on shouting, looking behind at every step. ‘Come on, you lazy devils!’
Maurice felt that these two were just as terrible. Cabasse, the tall, wiry one, a native of Toulon, had once been a waiter in a Marseilles café and ended up in Sedan as an agent for produce from the south, and had almost been run in over some story of theft which remained obscure. Ducat, the short, fat one, had been a process-server at Blainville, but had been forced to sell out after some unsavoury adventures with little girls, and only recently had again narrowly escaped the assizes for the same disgusting behaviour at Raucourt, where he worked as a book-keeper in a factory. He could bandy Latin quotations, whereas the other one could hardly read, but they made a nice pair, a disturbing pair of shady customers.
The camp was already awake. Jean and Maurice took the men to Captain Beaudoin, who took them to Colonel de Vineuil. The latter interrogated them, but Sambuc, conscious of his own importance, was determined to see the general, and as General Bourgain-Desfeuilles, who had slept at the house of the parish priest of Oches, had just appeared at the presbytery door, very put out at being woken up in the middle of the night to face another day of famine and fatigue, he gave these men a furious reception.
‘Where have they come from? What do they want? Oh, it’s you, the guerrillas! Another lot of Weary Willies, eh?’
‘Sir,’ explained Sambuc, quite unruffled, ‘we and the others hold the Dieulet woods.’
‘Dieulet woods, where’s that?’
‘Between Stenay and Mouzon, sir.’
‘Stenay, Mouzon, never heard of them! How do you expect me to know where I am with all these new names?’
Colonel de Vineuil, feeling embarrassed, intervened discreetly to remind him that Stenay and Mouzon were on the Meuse, and that as the Germans had cut off the first of these towns they were going to attempt to cross the river by the bridge at the second, further north.
‘Anyway, sir,’ Sambuc went on, ‘we’ve come to warn you that the Dieulet woods are now full of Prussians… Yesterday, as the 5th corps was leaving Bois-les-Dames, it was engaged near Nouart….’
‘What, was there fighting yesterday?’
‘There certainly was, sir. The 5th corps was in a battle and withdrew, and it must be at Beaumont tonight… So while some of our comrades have gone to tell them about the enemy movements, we thought we would come and tell you what the situation is so that you can go to their aid, for they are certainly going to be up against sixty thousand men tomorrow morning.’
This figure made General Bourgain-Desfeuilles shrug his shoulders.
‘Sixty thousand men! Hang it all, why not a hundred thousand?… You’re dreaming, my dear fellow. Fear has made you see double. There can’t be sixty thousand men so near us. We should know if there were!’
He would not be persuaded. In vain Sambuc called on Ducat and Cabasse for corroboration.
‘We have seen the cannons,’ the southerner affirmed, ‘and those buggers must be crazy to risk them on those forest tracks where you sink in up to your shins on account of the rain there’s been these last few days.’
‘Somebody is guiding them, for sure,’ declared Ducat.
But since Vouziers the general had given up believing in this concentration of the two German armies which everybody, he said, had been dinning into his ears. He did not even think it worth while having the men taken to the commander of the 7th corps – to whom, actually, they thought they had been talking. If one had paid attention to all the yokels and tramps who brought so-called information, one wouldn’t have advanced a single step without being shunted right and left into absurd adventures. However, he did order the three men to stay and travel with the column because of their local knowledge.
‘All the same,’ Jean said to Maurice as they went back to fold the tent, ‘those three are decent blokes to have done four leagues cross-country to warn us.’
Maurice agreed, and he knew the men were right, for he too knew the district, and he was just as much a prey to deadly anxiety at the thought that the Prussians were in the Dieulet woods and on the move towards Sommauthe and Beaumont. He was sitting down now, already feeling wretched before the march had even begun, his stomach empty and his heart sick with anguish at the dawn of a day he felt was bound to be terrible.
Upset at seeing him looking so pale, Jean asked in a fatherly way:
‘Not too good? Is it still that foot of yours?’
Maurice shook his head. His foot was now quite all right with these wide boots.
Seeing he did not answer, Jean took one of the two biscuits out of his pack without being seen, and then, telling a simple lie:
‘Look here, I have saved you your share… I ate the other one just now.’
Day was breaking as the 7th left Oches, making for Mouzon via La Besace, where it should have slept that night. The accursed supply column had left first with the first division, and if the proper army waggons which had first-rate horses made good speed, the others, the requisitioned ones, mostly empty and useless, dawdled astonishingly on the gradients of the gorge of Stonne. The road climbs, particularly after the hamlet of La Berlière, between wooded hills which overlook it. At about eight, when the two remaining divisions were at last beginning to move, Marshal MacMahon appeared and was furious to find still there troops which he thought had left La Besace that morning with only a few kilometres to do to be right on time at Mouzon. And so he had a violent altercation with General Douay. It was decided that the first division and the supply train should be left to continue their march to Mouzon, but that the two other divisions, so as not to be slowed down any more by the cumbersome advance guard, would take the road to Raucourt and Autrecourt so as to cross the Meuse at Villers. This once again meant turning northwards, in the haste the marshal was making to put the river between his army and the enemy. Cost what it may, they had to be on the right bank that evening. And the rearguard was still at Oches when a Prussian battery opened fire from a distant height near Saint-Pierremont, renewing the tactics of the day before. At first they made the mistake of answering their fire, but then the last troops pulled out.
Until about eleven the 106th made its way slowly along the winding road in the gorge of Stonne, between the high hills. On the left the crests rose bare and precipitous, but on the right woods grew down the gentle slopes. The sun had come out again and it was very hot in the narrow valley, frighteningly lonely. After you leave La Berlière, dominated by its tall, dreary Calvary, there is not a single farm, not a living soul or animal grazing in the meadows. The men, so weary and famished the day before, were already dragging their feet, disheartened and full of smouldering anger.
Then suddenly, as they were halted by the roadside, gunfire thundered to the right. The firing was so clear and loud that the battle could not be more than two leagues away. The effect on these men, so weary of retreating and sick of waiting about, was extraordinary. They all leaped to their feet, full of excitement, forgetting their fatigue: why weren’t they marching? They wanted to fight, to be killed rather than go on running away helter-skelter like this, and without knowing where or why.
General Bourgain-Desfeuilles had just gone up a hill to the right, with Colonel de Vineuil, to reconnoitre the country. They could be seen on the top, between two clumps of trees, field-glasses raised, and at once they sent down an aide-de-camp who was with them to ask for the guerrillas to be sent up if they were still there. A few men, Jean, Maurice and some others, went up with them in case any help should be needed.
As soon as the general saw Sambuc he bawled:
‘What a damn silly place this is with these hills and woods going on for ever… here, you, where is it, where’s the fighting?’
Sambuc, with Ducat and Cabasse always at his heels, listened and scanned the wide horizon without answering. Maurice, who was standing by him, looked too and was impressed by the immense stretch of valleys and hills, like an endless sea with huge, slow waves. Forests made patches of dark green on the yellow earth, and in the blazing sun the distant hilltops faded into a russet haze. Although nothing could be seen, not even a single puff of smoke in the pale sky, the guns were still booming like the sound of a distant but approaching storm.
‘That’s Sommauthe to the right,’ Sambuc finally said, pointing to a lofty crest covered with green. ‘Yoncq is over there to the left… It’s at Beaumont where the fighting is, sir.’
‘Yes, Warniforêt or Beaumont,’ Ducat confirmed.
The general mumbled some half audible words.
‘Beaumont, Beaumont, you never know in this bloody part of the world.’
‘How far is Beaumont from here?’
‘About ten kilometres, by the road from Le Chêne to Stenay which is down there.’
The gunfire never stopped and seemed to be moving from west to east in a continuous rolling of thunder. Sambuc went on:
‘Golly, it’s warming up! I expected it, and I warned you this morning, sir, it is certainly the batteries we saw in the Dieulet woods. By now the 5th corps must be having to deal with the whole of that army coming from Buzancy and Beauclair.’
There was a silence while the distant battle thundered louder. Maurice almost bit his tongue off, for he had a mad desire to scream. Why weren’t they marching to battle, now, without all this talk? He had never felt so worked up. Each round made his heart leap, lifted his spirit and gave him a desperate urge to be there, to be in it, to get it over. Were they once again going to skirt along the edge of this battle, rub elbows with it without firing a shot? It was against all reason to drag them round like this ever since the declaration of war, and always running away! At Vouziers all they had heard was shots from the rearguard. At Oches the enemy had just bombarded them for one minute – in the back. And still they were running away, this time they weren’t even going to race to the help of their comrades! He glanced at Jean who was very pale, like himself, with a feverish light in his eye. Every heart was leaping at this clarion call of the guns.
But then there was a fresh delay because a staff officer was climbing the narrow path up the hill. It was General Douay hurrying with an anxious look on his face. When he had personally questioned the guerrillas he gave vent to a cry of despair. Even if he had been warned that morning, what could he have done? The marshal’s order was categorical, they must cross the Meuse by nightfall at all costs. And besides, how could one possibly at this stage reassemble troops strung out on the road to Raucourt so as to redirect them at full speed towards Beaumont? Wouldn’t they get there too late in any case? The 5th must already be retreating towards Mouzon, and the gunfire showed this clearly as it moved further and further eastwards like a disastrous hailstorm moving away. General Douay raised both arms above the vast horizon of valleys and hills in a gesture of helpless fury, and the order was given to continue the march to Raucourt.
And what a march! Deep in the gorge of Stonne between the high peaks, while to the right behind the woods the cannon went on roaring. At the head of the 106th Colonel de Vineuil rode bolt upright on his horse, with his ashen face raised and his eyelids blinking as though he were holding back his tears. Captain Beaudoin silently chewed his moustache, while Lieutenant Rochas was softly muttering obscenities and curses against everybody including himself. And even among those soldiers who did not want to fight, among the least brave, there was developing an urge to bawl and bang in anger at the continual defeat and rage at sloping off yet again with weary, uncertain steps while these bloody Prussians were slaughtering their comrades over yonder.
At the foot of the Stonne gorge, down which the route zigzags between hillocks, the roadway widens out and the troops were passing through broad meadows broken by clumps of trees. The 106th, which was now in the rearguard, had expected to be attacked at any moment since leaving Oches, for the enemy was dogging the column step by step, keeping his eye on it, obviously waiting for the favourable moment to take it in the rear. His cavalry was utilizing all the ups and downs of the terrain to try to catch it on the flanks. Several squadrons of the Prussian Guard were seen to debouch from behind a wood, but they stopped in the face of a demonstration by a regiment of hussars which came along and kept the road clear. Thanks to this respite the retreat went on in fairly good order, and they were nearing Raucourt when something they saw redoubled everyone’s uneasiness and put the finishing touch to the men’s demoralization. They suddenly saw a mob rushing down a side road – wounded officers, soldiers out of control and without weapons, supply waggons galloping, men and animals all in flight, panic-striken before the wind of disaster. It was all that was left of a brigade of the first division which had been escorting the supply train that had set out that morning for Mouzon via La Besace. A terrible piece of ill-luck, a mistake in the route had thrown them and part of the train right into the rout of the 5th corps at Varni-forêt, near Beaumont. Surprised by a flank attack and outnumbered, they had fled, and panic was driving them on, bleeding, haggard, half-crazed, knocking over their own comrades in their terror. Their tales spread alarm; it was as though they had been flung there by the rumbling thunder of the cannon that had gone on since noon without a break.
By the time they were going through Raucourt, anxious haste was turning into a stampede. Should they turn right towards Autrecourt so as to cross the Meuse at Villers as had been decided? Worried and hesitating, General Douay feared he might find the bridge jammed, or perhaps even in Prussian hands. So he preferred to go straight ahead along the valley of Haraucourt in order to reach Remilly before nightfall. After Mouzon, Villers, and after Villers, Remilly. They were still going northwards with the galloping Uhlans behind them. There were only six more kilometres to do, but it was already five o’clock, and what overwhelming fatigue! They had been on their feet since dawn, had taken twelve hours to cover barely three leagues, standing about and getting tired in endless delays, and subjected to the strongest emotional strains and fears. For two nights the men had hardly slept at all and they had never satisfied their hunger since Vouziers. They were collapsing for want of food. In Raucourt things were pitiful.
This little town is prosperous, with its numerous factories, main street with fine buildings on each side, its charming church and town hall. But the night spent there by the Emperor and Marshal MacMahon, with all the paraphernalia of General Headquarters and the imperial household, followed by the passage through the town of the whole of the 1st army corps which had flowed along the street all the morning like a river, had exhausted all the town’s resources, emptying bakeries and grocers’ and making a clean sweep even of the crumbs in the townspeople’s homes. There was no more bread, wine or sugar to be found – nothing drinkable or eatable. There had been ladies standing at their front doors giving away glasses of wine and cups of broth until the last drops had gone from casks and saucepans. And now it was all gone, and by the time the first regiments of the 7th corps began to come through at about three the people were in despair. What, was it starting all over again? And still going on and on? Once again the main street was thronged with men, dead beat, covered with dust, dying of hunger, and they hadn’t a mouthful of anything to offer them. Many of the men stopped and knocked at doors, held out their hands in front of windows, begging for a crust of bread to be thrown to them. There were women in tears as they made signs that they couldn’t, that they had nothing left.
At the corner of the rue des Dix-Potiers, Maurice came over faint and reeled. When Jean rushed up to him:
‘No, leave me here, this is the end… I’d rather peg out here.’
He flopped by the roadside. The corporal put on purposely the brutality of an angry N.C.O.
‘Christ! What’s the good of a fucking soldier like that! Do you want to be picked up by the Prussians? Come on, up you get!’
Then seeing that the young man made no answer, but looked white as a sheet, his eyes half closed and half swooning, he went on swearing, but in a tone of infinite pity.
‘Christ Almighty! Christ Almighty!’
He ran to a near-by fountain, filled his messtin with water and came back and bathed the other’s face. Then, with no concealment this time, he took the last biscuit out of his pack, the one he had saved so jealously, broke it up into small pieces which he poked into Maurice’s mouth. The famished man opened his eyes and devoured the food.
‘But what about you?’ he suddenly remembered, ‘Haven’t you had anything, Jean?’
‘Oh, I’m all right, I’ve got a tougher hide than you and I can wait. A good drink of frog juice and I shall be right as rain.’
He had filled the messtin again and he drank it off in one gulp, clicking his tongue. But his face, too, looked as pale as death, and he was so tortured with hunger that his hands were shaking.
‘Off we go! Come on boy, got to rejoin the others.’
Maurice let himself be carried away like a child. No woman’s arms had ever held him as close and warm as this. In the collapse of everything, amidst this utter misery, with death staring him in the face, it was an ineffable comfort to feel another person loving him and looking after him; and possibly the thought that this heart that was all his belonged to a simple man, a peasant who had never left the land and whom at first he had looked on with distaste, now added a wonderful tenderness to his gratitude. Was this not the brotherhood of the earliest days of the world, friendship before there was any culture or class, the friendship of two men united and become as one in their common need of help in the face of the threat of hostile nature? He heard his own humanity beating in Jean’s breast, and so he was proud on his own account to feel him there, stronger, helping, devoting himself. And Jean, who did not analyse what he felt, found a great joy in protecting in his friend the refinement and intelligence that were still so rudimentary in himself. Since the violent death of his wife in a dreadful tragedy, he thought he had no heart, he had sworn never again to look at those creatures on whose account a man suffers so much, even when they are not being evil. And so friendship became a sort of broadening out for both of them: they might not kiss, but they touched each other’s very souls, the one was part of the other, however different they might be, on this terrible road to Remilly, one upholding the other and the two of them making a single being in pity and suffering.
As the rearguard was leaving Raucourt the Germans were entering it at the other end, and two of their batteries were set up at once on the heights to the left and started firing. At that moment the 106th on the road going down beside the Emmane was in the line of fire. A shell brought down a poplar on the river bank and another buried itself in a field near Captain Beaudoin, but did not explode. But all the way to Haraucourt the gorge went on narrowing, and they wormed their way into a narrow corridor dominated on both sides by wooded crests, and if even a handful of Prussians were in ambush up there disaster was certain. Bombarded from the rear and with the threat of a possible attack from right and left, the troops could not help advancing with ever increasing anxiety, and were in a great hurry to get out of this dangerous pass. This inspired a final burst of energy even in the most exhausted. The same soldiers who just before had dragged their feet from door to door in Raucourt were now stepping out quite perky and revived under the stinging lash of peril. Even the horses seemed to realize that a minute lost might have to be paid for very dearly. The head of the column must have reached Remilly when there was a sudden halt to the march.
‘Fuck it all!’ said Chouteau. ‘Are they going to leave us standing here?’
The 106th had not yet reached Haraucourt, and the shells were still raining down.
As the regiment was marking time, waiting to set off again, one exploded to their right which fortunately did not wound anyone. Five interminable, terrifying minutes went by and still they made no move, there was some obstacle blocking the road further on, some wall had apparently sprung up. The colonel stood up in his stirrups and shuddered as he looked, for he was conscious of the mounting panic of his men behind.
‘We’ve been sold down the river, everybody knows that,’ Chouteau went on in a dangerous voice.
There broke out murmurings and then a swelling growl of exasperation under the lash of fear. Yes, yes, they had been brought here to be sold, to be handed over to the Prussians. The relentless piling-up of mishaps and the countless mistakes made had planted in these limited minds the idea of betrayal as the only possible explanation of such a series of disasters.
‘We’ve been sold,’ repeated panic-stricken voices.
Then Loubet thought up something.
‘It’s that sod of an Emperor further on, stuck across the road with all his luggage, just to hold us up.’
The news at once flew round. It was affirmed that the jam was due to the movement of the imperial household cutting across the column. There was an outbust of execration, with abominable words, all the hatred prompted by the insolence of the Emperor’s servants, taking over whole towns to sleep in, unpacking their provisions, their hampers of wine, their silver plate in front of soldiers stripped of everything, lighting roaring fires in kitchens while other poor buggers tightened their belts. Oh, that bloody Emperor with neither throne nor power, like a lost child in his Empire, being carried round now like a useless parcel in the baggage of his troops, condemned to drag about with him the irony of his gala household, his bodyguard, carriages, horses, vans, all the pomp of his state robe embroidered with bees, used to sweep up the blood and mud on the highways of defeat!
One after another two more shells came down. Lieutenant Rochas had his cap knocked off by a bit of shrapnel. The ranks closed and there was a thrust, a sudden surging wave which communicated itself further and further. Voices were spluttering with rage, Lapoulle was furiously bawling for them to get a move on. In another minute, perhaps, there was going to be an appalling catastrophe, a stampede that would crush men to death in a struggling mass.
The colonel turned round, looking very grim.
‘Now now, my boys, my boys, be a bit patient. I have sent somebody to find out… we are just going…’
But they were not just going, and the seconds were like centuries. Jean had already taken hold of Maurice’s hand, and with perfect self-control was softly explaining to him that if the chaps were to start shoving the two of them would jump to the left and climb up through the woods on the other side of the river. He cast his eye round to find the guerrillas, thinking that they must know the by-ways, but somebody said they had sloped off on the way through Raucourt. And then the march suddenly started again, they rounded a bend in the road and from there onwards were screened from the German batteries. Later on it was known that in the confusion of that unfortunate day it was the Bonnemain division, four regiments of cuirassiers, who had cut across the 7th corps and stopped it in this way.
Night was falling by the time the 106th went through Ange-court. The hilltops went on to the right, but the gorge widened out on the left and a bluish valley appeared in the distance. At last, from the heights of Remilly, there could be seen through the evening mists a ribbon of pale silver in the immense panorama of meadows and cultivated land. It was the Meuse, the longed-for Meuse, where there would be victory, it seemed.
And Maurice, pointing to little distant lights twinkling merrily through the trees in this rich valley, making a charming picture in the tints of twilight, said to Jean, with the joyful relief of a man finding himself back in his beloved homeland:
‘Oh, look down there… that’s Sedan!’