AT Bazeilles, in the dark little room, a sudden shock made Weiss leap out of bed. He listened. It was gunfire. He felt for the candle, which he had to light so as to see the time by his watch: four o’clock and only just beginning to get light. He seized his spectacles and looked up and down the main street, the Douzy road which runs through the village, but it was filled with a kind of thick dust and he could not make anything out. So he went into the other room, the window of which looked over on to the fields towards the Meuse, and he realized that the morning mists were coming off the river and obscuring the horizon. The gunfire was louder from over the river, beyond this veil. Suddenly a French battery replied, so near and with such a din that the walls of the little house shook.
The Weisses’ house was about in the centre of Bazeilles, on the right before you reach the Place de l’Eglise. The front, standing a little back, faced the road and had only one storey above the ground floor with three windows, and a loft above, but there was quite a large garden behind which sloped down to the meadows and from which could be seen the immense panorama of the hills from Remilly to Frénois. Weiss, in the excitement of new ownership, had not gone to bed until nearly two after he had buried all the provisions in his cellar and worked out how to protect the furniture as well as possible from bullets by draping the windows with mattresses. He felt anger rising within him when he reflected that the Prussians might come and sack this house he had longed for so much, acquired with so much difficulty and so far enjoyed so little.
But he was hailed by a voice from the road:
‘I say, Weiss, can you hear that?’
Downstairs he found Delaherche, who also had wanted to sleep at his dyeworks, a large brick building adjoining. In any case all the employees had fled through the woods and reached Belgium, and the only person left guarding the premises was the caretaker, a stonemason’s widow named Françoise Quittard. And she was all of a tremble and very upset, and would have gone with the others if she had not had her boy, young Auguste, a lad of ten, so ill with typhoid that he could not be moved.
‘I say,’ Delaherche said again, ‘can you hear that, it’s really starting… It would be wise to get straight back to Sedan.’
Weiss had solemnly promised his wife to leave Bazeilles at the first real sign of danger, and at that time he was quite determined to keep his promise. But so far there was only an artillery duel going on at long range and a bit haphazard in the mists of dawn.
‘For goodness sake let’s wait a bit longer,’ he said, ‘there’s no hurry.’
It should be said that Delaherche’s curiosity was so lively and so busy that it gave him courage. He had not had a wink of sleep because he was so interested in the preparations for the defence. General Lebrun, in command of the 12th corps, had been warned that he would be attacked at dawn and had spent the night taking up position in Bazeilles, for he had orders to prevent at all costs its being occupied. Barricades blocked the main street and all side streets, and every house had its garrison of two or three men, every alleyway and garden was turned into a fortress. By three o’clock, in the inky darkness, the troops had been silently awakened and were manning their combat posts, with rifles freshly greased and pouches filled with the regulation ninety rounds of ammunition. Therefore the first round of enemy gunfire had taken nobody by surprise, and the French batteries, in the rear between Balan and Bazeilles, had immediately begun to reply just to show they were there, for in the mist they were only firing by guesswork.
‘You know,’ Delaherche went on, ‘the dyeworks will be strongly defended… I have a whole section. Come and look.’
And indeed forty or more marines had been posted there, under the command of a lieutenant, a tall, fair man, very young, who looked energetic and determined. His men had already taken over the building, some were making loopholes through the first-floor shutters facing the road, and others constructing battlements in the low wall of the yard overlooking the fields at the back.
‘This damn fog!’ he muttered. ‘We aren’t going to be able to fight by feel.’
Then, after a pause and with no apparent transition:
‘What day is it today?’
‘Thursday,’ said Weiss.
‘Thursday, quite right, so it is. Well I’m damned! We don’t know quite what we are doing, as though the world didn’t exist.’
But just then there leaped out from the ceaseless background of gunfire a rapid fusillade at the end of the fields themselves, five or six hundred metres away. It was like a stage effect: the sun was rising, the mists of the Meuse dispersed in shreds of fine muslin, the blue sky appeared, cleared itself and was cloudless. It was the flawless morning of a lovely summer day.
‘Oh,’ exclaimed Delaherche, ‘they’re crossing the railway bridge. Can you see them going along the line, trying to reach… But how idiotic not to have blown up the bridge!’
The lieutenant made a gesture of silent rage. The blast holes were charged, he explained; only, after fighting the day before for four hours to recapture the bridge, somebody had forgotten to light the fuse!
‘Just our luck,’ he snapped.
Weiss looked on, trying to take it all in. The French occupied a very strong position in Bazeilles. Built along both sides of the Douzy road, the village dominated the plain, and the only way to get to it was by this route, turning to the left in front of the castle, while another road to the right leading to the railway turned off at the Place de l’Eglise. So the Germans had to cross the meadows and ploughed fields, wide open spaces alongside the Meuse and the railway line. Their habitual prudence being well known, it seemed unlikely that the main attack would come from this direction. And yet dense masses of them were still coming over the bridge, in spite of the massacre from mitrailleuses set up at the entrance to Bazeilles, and those who did get through at once took shelter among the few willows, and columns re-formed and advanced. That was where the ever-growing fusillade was coming from.
‘Well fancy!’ said Weiss. ‘They are Bavarians, I can see the tufts on their helmets quite clearly!’
But he thought he could make out other columns, half hidden behind the railway line, that were making for their right, trying to reach the trees some way off so as to swing back on Bazeilles in an oblique movement. If they succeeded by this means in gaining cover in the park of Montvillers the village could be taken. That was a quick and vague impression, but as the frontal attack grew in intensity it faded from his mind.
He suddenly looked round at the heights of Floing which could be seen to the north rising above the town of Sedan. A battery up there had opened fire and puffs of smoke rose in the bright sunshine, then the detonations followed very clear. It might be about five o’clock.
‘Here we go,’ he murmured, ‘this will open the ball.’
The lieutenant was watching too, and he made a gesture of absolute certainty as he said:
‘Oh, Bazeilles is the key point. It’s here that the outcome of the battle will be decided.’
‘Do you think so?’ asked Weiss.
‘No doubt about it. It’s obvious that that was in the marshal’s mind when he came last night to tell us to let ourselves be killed to the last man rather than allow the village to be occupied.’
Weiss nodded, cast his eye round the horizon, then ventured hesitantly, as though talking to himself:
‘Oh no, oh no, that isn’t it… I’m afraid of something else, yes, and I daren’t put it into words.’
He fell silent. All he did was open his arms very wide, like the jaws of a vice, and turning to the north he brought his hands together as if the two jaws were suddenly closed.
That was what he had been afraid of since the day before, with his local knowledge and in view of the movements of the two armies. Even now, when the great valley lay spread out in the radiant sunshine, his eyes went over to the hills on the left bank where, all through a day and a night, such a black swarm of German troops had been marching by. A battery was firing from above Remilly. Shells were beginning to come over from another that had taken up its position at Pont-Maugis on the river bank. He folded his eyeglasses, putting one lens over the other so as to examine the wooded slopes more carefully, but all he could see was the little puffs of smoke from the guns surmounting more of the heights every minute: then, that river of men that had been flowing over there – where was it massing at the present time? Above Noyers and Frénois, on La Marfée, he did eventually make out, at the corner of a clump of pines, a group of uniforms and horses, probably officers, some headquarters staff. And the loop of the Meuse was further away, barring the west, and in that direction there was no way of retreat towards Mézières except one narrow road through the Saint-Albert gap between the river and the forest of the Ardennes. That was why the day before he had ventured to mention this sole line of retreat to a general he had chanced to meet in a cutting in the valley of the Givonne and who, he found out later, was General Ducrot, commander of the 1st corps. If the army did not withdraw at once by that route, but waited to be cut off by the Prussians as they crossed the Meuse at Donchery, it would certainly be immobilized with its back to the frontier. It was already too late by that evening, for it was reported that the bridge was occupied by Uhlans – yet another bridge that had not been blown up, this time because nobody had thought to bring any gunpowder. In despair Weiss told himself that the flood of men, the black swarm, must be in the plain of Donchery and making for the Saint-Albert gap, throwing its advance guard to Saint-Menges and Floing, where he had taken Jean and Maurice the evening before. In the brilliant sunshine the church tower of Floing could be seen a long way off, like a fine white needle.
Then eastwards there was the other jaw of the vice. Although he could see to the north, from the plateau of Illy to that of Floing, the whole battle-line of the 7th corps, supported in a feeble way by the 5th, which had been stationed in reserve beneath the ramparts, he could not know what was going on further east along the valley of the Givonne, where the 1st corps was stretched from the Garenne woods to the village of Daigny. But guns were roaring in that direction as well, and the battle must be joined in the Chevalier wood at this end of the village. His disquiet came from the fact that some country folk had said the day before that the Prussians had reached Francheval, so that the movement going on in the west via Donchery was also happening in the east via Francheval, and the jaws of the vice would succeed in meeting over in the north at the Calvary of Illy if the double pincer movement was not halted. He knew nothing about military science, had nothing but his own common sense, and he shuddered as he contemplated this immense triangle, one side of which was the Meuse and the two others were made up by the 7th corps on the north and the 1st on the east, while the 12th occupied the extreme point on the south, and all three had their backs to the others, waiting, God knew how or why, for an enemy coming from all directions. In the middle, at the bottom of a pit, was the town of Sedan, armed with obsolete cannon, with neither munitions nor provisions.
‘Now look,’ he said, repeating his gesture with arms out wide and hands coming together, ‘that’s what it’s going to be like if your generals don’t watch it… They’re just keeping you amused at Bazeilles.’
But he put it badly and in a muddled way, and the lieutenant, who did not know the district, could not follow. So he shrugged his shoulders impatiently, full of scorn for this bourgeois with his overcoat and glasses who thought he knew more about it than the marshal. Annoyed at hearing him say again that the attack on Bazeilles was probably only intended as a diversion to conceal the real plan, he cut it short by saying:
‘Oh shut up!… We’ll chuck those Bavarians of yours into the Meuse and then they’ll see whether we’re being kept amused!’
In the last few minutes the enemy snipers seemed to have got nearer, for bullets were hitting the brick wall of the dyeworks with a thud, and now the soldiers protected by the low wall of the yard were replying. Every second was marked by the sharp crack of rifle fire.
‘Chuck them into the Meuse, yes, no doubt,’ murmured Weiss, ‘and walk over their bodies to get back on to the Carignan road, very nice too!’
Then, to Delaherche who had ducked behind the pump to avoid the bullets:
‘I don’t care what they say, the real plan should have been to get away last night to Mézières, and if I were them I’d rather be there than here… Anyway, they’ll have to fight because now any retreat is impossible.’
‘Are you coming?’ asked Delaherche, who for all his burning curiosity was beginning to wilt. ‘If we hang about any longer we shan’t be able to get back to Sedan.’
‘Yes, just a minute and I’ll follow you.’
In spite of the danger he stood on tiptoe, determined to see for himself. On the right, the meadows had been flooded by order of the governor, and the vast lake stretching from Torcy to Balan protected the town, a sheet of water, pale blue in the morning sun. But the water stopped at the beginning of Bazeilles, and the Bavarians had in fact advanced through the grass, taking advantage of every hollow or tree. They might be about five hundred metres away, and what struck him was the deliberateness of their movements, the patience with which they gained ground, exposing themselves as little as possible. Moreover they were supported by powerful artillery, and the fresh, pure air was full of the screaming of shells. He looked up and saw that the battery at Pont-Maugis was not the only one firing at Bazeilles: two others, halfway up Le Liry, had opened fire, shelling the village and even raking with fire the open ground of La Moncelle where the reserves of the 12th corps were, as far as the wooded slopes of Daigny, occupied by a division of the 1st corps. Moreover all the hilltops along the left bank seemed to be bursting into fire. Guns seemed to be springing up out of the ground, it was like a ring steadily extending: a battery at Noyers firing on Balan, a battery at Wadelincourt firing on Sedan, a battery at Frénois, under La Marfée, a formidable battery whose shells passed over the town to burst among the troops of the 7th corps on the plateau of Floing. These beloved hills, this line of crests he had always thought of as there for the beauty of the view, enclosing the valley with such lovely greenery, Weiss was now looking at with anguish and terror, for they had suddenly turned into a frightful, gigantic fortress busily smashing the useless fortifications of Sedan.
A little fall of plaster made him look up. It was a bullet that had chipped a bit off his house, one side of which he could see over the party wall. This annoyed him very much, and he fumed:
‘Are those bastards going to demolish it for me?’
Then he was startled by another little thud behind him. He looked round and saw a soldier, who had been shot through the heart, falling on his back. The legs made a few convulsive movements, the face stayed young and calm, suddenly still. This was the first man killed, and Weiss was particularly upset by the crash of his rifle as it fell on the cobbles of the yard.
‘Oh no, I’m off!’ stammered Delaherche. ‘If you’re not coming, I’m going on my own.’
The lieutenant who was sick to death of them, chimed in:
‘Certainly, gentlemen, you would be well advised to go… We may be attacked at any minute.’
Then, after another glance at the meadows where the Bavarians were gaining ground, Weiss made up his mind to follow Delaherche. But first he wanted to double-lock his house on the other side, the road side. He was finally joining his friend when a new sight rooted them both to the spot.
At the end of the street, about three hundred metres away, the Place de l’Eglise was being attacked by a strong force of Bavarians coming from the Douzy road. The regiment of marines responsible for defending the square appeared to slacken fire for a moment as if to let them advance. Then suddenly, when they were massed right in front of them, there was an extraordinary and unforeseen manoeuvre: the French soldiers threw themselves to one side or the other of the road and many lay flat on the ground, and, through the space thus suddenly opened, the machine guns, concentrated in a battery at the other end, suddenly belched forth a hail of bullets, sweeping the enemy force away. The soldiers leaped up again with one bound and charged with bayonets on the scattered Bavarians, which pushed and toppled them right back. Twice the process was repeated with the same success. At the corner of a narrow lane three women were still in a little house and there, in one of the windows, they were calmly laughing and applauding, apparently delighted to see the show.
‘Oh damn,’ Weiss suddenly said, ‘I forgot to shut the cellar door and take the key… Wait for me, I shan’t be a minute.’
The first attack seemed to have been repulsed, and Delaherche, giving in to his curiosity again, was in less of a hurry. He was standing in front of the dyeworks talking to the caretaker, who had come for a moment out of the door of the room she occupied on the ground floor.
‘Poor Françoise, you should come with us. It’s terrible, a woman on her own in the middle of all these horrors.’
She raised her trembling arms.
‘Oh sir, of course I should have gone but for my little Auguste’s illness… Come in, sir, and you’ll see.’
He did not go in, but craned his neck and shook his head on seeing the lad in a spotlessly clean bed, his face flushed with fever, staring at his mother with burning eyes.
‘Well, yes, but why don’t you carry him away? I will fix you up in Sedan… Wrap him up in a warm blanket and come with us.’
‘Oh no, sir, it isn’t possible. The doctor said I would kill him… If only his poor father were still alive! But there are only the two of us now and we must save ourselves for each other… And besides, those Prussians surely won’t do any harm to a woman on her own and a sick child!’
Weiss reappeared at that moment, satisfied that he had barricaded everything in his house.
‘There! If they want to get in they’ll have to smash up the whole show… Now let’s be off, and it’s not going to be all that easy either. Let’s slip along near the houses so as not to be hit by something.’
And indeed the enemy must have been working up for a fresh attack, for the fusillade redoubled its intensity and the screaming of shells never let up. Two had already come down on the road a hundred metres away and another had buried itself in the soft earth of the garden without exploding.
‘Oh Françoise, I want to give your little Auguste a kiss,’ Weiss went on. ‘But he’s not as bad as all that, another couple of days and he’ll be out of danger… Cheer up, and now hurry indoors and don’t show your nose outside.’
At last the two men were setting off.
‘Be seeing you, Françoise.’
‘Be seeing you, gentlemen.’
At that very second there was an appalling crash. A shell had demolished a chimney of Weiss’s house and fallen on to the pavement, where it went off with such an explosion that all the windows nearby were broken. A thick dust and heavy smoke at first hid everything from sight. Then the front of the dyeworks could be seen gaping wide, and Françoise had been flung across the doorstep, dead, with her back broken, her head smashed in, a lump of human flesh, red and horrible.
Weiss rushed back. Almost incoherent, he could only stammer out swear words:
‘Bloody hell! Bloody hell!’
No doubt about her being dead. He stooped and felt her hands. and as he straightened up he saw the flushed face of the child Auguste who had raised his head to look at his mother. He did not speak, he did not cry, but only stared at this horrible, unrecognizable body with his eyes monstrously magnified by fever.
‘Oh God,’ Weiss at last managed to say, ‘they’re killing women now!’
He was now standing up again and shaking his fist at the Bavarians whose helmets were beginning to reappear by the church. The sight of the roof of his house half stove-in by the falling chimney put the finishing touch to his mad fury.
‘Filthy sods! You kill women and destroy my home! No, no, it’s not possible, I can’t go away like this. I’m staying here!’
He dashed off and came back in a single bound with the rifle and cartridges of the dead soldier. For special occasions, when he wanted to see clearly, he always had on him a pair of spectacles which he did not usually wear, out of a touching sense of embarrassment and vanity in front of his young wife. Now he quickly took off his folding glasses and replaced them with the spectacles, and this heavily-built bourgeois in his overcoat, with his round, jolly face transfigured by rage, looking almost comically and sublimely heroic, began firing into the mass of Bavarians at the end of the street. It was in his blood, as he always used to say, this urge to pick a few of them off, ever since the tales of 1814 he had been told in his childhood away in Alsace.
‘Oh, the filthy sods! The filthy sods!’
He fired non-stop and so fast that the barrel of his gun began to burn his fingers.
Clearly the attack was going to be terrible. The fusillade from the meadows had died down. The Bavarians were masters of the little stream fringed with poplars and willows, and were now preparing for an assault on the houses defending the church square, and so their snipers had prudently drawn back. The sun shone in golden splendour on the great stretch of grassland, dotted with a few black patches, the bodies of killed soldiers. So the lieutenant had moved out of the yard of the dyeworks, leaving a sentry there, realizing that the danger was now going to be on the street side. He quickly disposed his men along the pavement, with orders that in the event of the enemy’s capturing the square they should barricade themselves in the first floor of the building and resist there to the last bullet. Lying on the ground, sheltering behind stones or taking advantage of the slightest projections, the men were firing all out, and along this wide, sunlit and empty street there was a hurricane of lead with streaks of smoke, like a hailstorm blown by a high wind. A young girl was seen running across the road in terror, but she was not hit. But then an old man, a yokel in a smock, was insisting on getting his horse into a stable, and he was struck in the forehead by a bullet with such force that it knocked him into the middle of the road. The roof of the church was blown in by a shell. Two other shells had set fire to houses, which blazed up in the bright light with cracklings of timber. And poor Françoise’s body, smashed beside her sick child, the old peasant with a bullet through his skull, the destruction and the fires goaded to exasperation inhabitants who had preferred to die there rather than run away into Belgium. Bourgeois, workmen, people in overcoats or overalls, all of them were firing frenziedly through the windows.
‘Oh, the swine!’ shouted Weiss. ‘They’ve gone right round… I saw them quite clearly going along the railway line… Listen, can’t you hear them over there to the left?’
And indeed rifle fire had broken out behind the park of Montvillers, the trees of which bordered the road. If the enemy occupied that park Bazeilles was lost. But the very violence of the firing proved that the commander of the 12th corps had foreseen this manoeuvre and that the park was being defended.
‘Mind what you’re doing, clumsy!’ shouted the lieutenant, forcing Weiss to flatten himself out against the wall. ‘You’ll get cut in half!’
This stout man in his spectacles, so courageous, had ended by rousing his interest, though he had to smile; and as he heard a shell coming he had pushed him aside in a brotherly way. The projectile fell some ten metres away and burst, covering them both with shrapnel. The civilian was still standing, but the lieutenant had both legs broken.
‘This is it,’ he murmured. ‘I’ve got my packet.’
Knocked down on the pavement, he had himself put in a sitting posture against the doorway, near the dead woman lying across the step. And his young face kept its keen, steadfast expression.
‘Never mind that, boys, just listen to me… Fire away and take your time. I’ll tell you when to go for them with bayonets!’
He continued in command, head up, keeping an eye on the distant enemy. Another house opposite was on fire. The crackling of bullets and explosions of shells rent the air which was filled with dust and smoke. Soldiers fell at every street corner and the dead, isolated or in heaps, made dark, bloodstained patches. Over the village, swelling in an immense clamour, was the threat of thousands of men bearing down upon a few hundred brave men resolved to die.
Delaherche, who had never stopped calling to Weiss, asked for the last time:
‘Aren’t you coming? Oh well, don’t then! I’ll leave you, good-bye!’
It was now about seven, and he had hung about too long. As long as the houses lasted he took advantage of doorways and bits of wall, squeezing into the tiniest corners at each burst of firing. He would never have believed he was so young and agile as he glided along as lithe as a snake. But at the end of Bazeilles, when he had to negotiate nearly three hundred metres of empty, open road, raked by the batteries at Le Liry, he felt himself shivering although he was soaked in sweat. For one moment he was able to get along bent double in a ditch, but then he had to run for it, madly, straight ahead, his ears full of explosions like peals of thunder. His eyes smarted as though he were walking through fire. It seemed to go on for an eternity. Suddenly he saw a little house on the left, and he leaped for it and shelter, and a huge weight was lifted from him. There were people all round him, men and horses. At first he had not recognized anyone. Then what he saw amazed him.
Surely it was the Emperor with all his staff? For all the personal knowledge he had been boasting about since he nearly spoke to him at Baybel, he hesitated, and then stood gaping. It was indeed Napoleon III, who looked taller now that he was on horseback, and his moustache was so waxed and his cheeks were so rouged that he at once thought he looked much younger, and made up like an actor. Surely he must have had himself made up so as not to go round displaying to the army the horror of his colourless face all twisted with pain, his fleshless nose and muddy eyes. Having been warned at five in the morning that there was fighting at Bazeilles, he had come like a silent, gloomy ghost with its flesh all brightened up with vermilion.
There was a brickworks there, affording some protection. On the other side the walls were being pitted with bullets, and every second a shell came down on the road. The whole escort had stopped.
‘Your Majesty,’ a voice ventured, ‘it really is dangerous…’
But the Emperor turned and made a sign to his staff to go and stand in the narrow lane that ran along the side of the brickworks. There men and horses would be completely hidden.
‘Really, sir, it’s madness… Sir, we beg of you…’
But all he did was repeat his gesture, as though to indicate that the sudden appearance of a group of uniforms on the open road would certainly attract the attention of the batteries on the other side of the river. And he advanced all alone amid the bullets and shells, unhurriedly, with his usual gloomy, indifferent bearing, going to meet his destiny. Perhaps he could hear behind him that implacable voice hounding him on, the voice screaming from Paris: ‘March on! March on! Die like a hero on the piled-up corpses of your people, fill the whole world with admiration and awe so that your son may reign!’ So he went on, urging his horse at a gentle trot. For a hundred metres he went on. Then he stopped and waited for the end he had come to find. Bullets whistled by like a hurricane, and a bursting shell had bespattered him with earth. Still he waited. His horse’s mane stood on end and its skin was twitching as it recoiled instinctively in the face of death which passed by at every moment but had no use for either man or beast. Then after this seemingly endless wait the Emperor, with his fatalistic resignation, understood that his hour was not yet, and slowly returned as though all he had wanted to do was reconnoitre the exact position of the German batteries.
‘Sir, what courage!… For pity’s sake don’t expose yourself any more…’
But with another gesture he invited his staff to follow him, without sparing them this time any more than he spared himself, and he rode up towards La Moncelle over the fields and the open ground of La Rapaille. One captain was killed and two horses were brought down. He passed in front of the regiments of the 12th corps, who watched him come and go like a ghost, with no salute, no acclaim.
Delaherche had witnessed all this. It made him shudder, especially when he reflected that as soon as he left the brickworks he also would be right in the path of the firing. He waited about and listened to some dismounted officers who had stayed there.
‘But I tell you he was killed instantly, a shell cut him in two!’
‘No he wasn’t. I saw him carried off… Just a straightforward wound, a splinter in the buttock…’
‘About six-thirty, an hour ago… Up there near La Moncelle, in a sunken road…’
‘So he’s gone back to Sedan?’
‘Yes, of course, he’s in Sedan.’
Who were they talking about? Delaherche suddenly realized that it was Marshal MacMahon, wounded while inspecting the outposts. The marshal wounded! Just our luck, as the lieutenant of the marines had put it. He was thinking about the consequences of the accident when a dispatch-rider tore past, shouting to a friend he recognized:
‘General Ducrot is commander-in-chief! The whole army is to be concentrated at Illy to withdraw towards Mézières.’
He was already galloping away into Bazeilles under renewed fire, and Delaherche, appalled by all these extraordinary bits of news, one after another, and in danger of finding himself caught in the retreating army, made up his mind and ran all the way to Balan, whence he regained Sedan at last without too much trouble.
In Bazeilles the dispatch-rider went on galloping, looking for officers to give orders to. And the news galloped too – Marshal MacMahon wounded, General Ducrot appointed commander-in-Chief, the whole army falling back on Illy.
‘What? What are they saying?’ asked Weiss, his face blackened with powder. ‘Retreat to Mézières now! But it’s madness, they’ll never get through!’
He was full of despair and remorse at having advised this course the day before, and to General Ducrot of all people, who was now in supreme command. Of course it was all right the day before, and there was then no other line to take: retreat, immediate retreat through the Saint-Albert gap. But by now that route must be cut, the whole black swarm of Prussians had gone that way into the plain of Donchery. And, to weigh one act of folly against another, there was now only one left, and that was a desperate and courageous one, to throw the Bavarians back into the Meuse and pass over them and go back along the Carignan road.
Weiss, pushing up his glasses every second, explained the position to the lieutenant who was still propped against the door, with both legs gone, white and bleeding to death.
‘Sir, I assure you I am right… Tell your men to hold on… You can see we’re winning. One more effort and we’ll chuck them into the Meuse!’
And indeed the second Bavarian attack had been repulsed. Once again the machine guns had raked the church square, and piles of corpses blocked the roadway in the bright sunlight, and from all the little alleys the enemy was being thrust back with the bayonet into the fields in headlong flight riverwards, which would certainly have become a rout if fresh troops had reinforced the exhausted and thinned ranks of the marines. Moreover, in the Montvillers park the fusillade was not making very much progress, which showed that on that side also a few reinforcements would have cleared the wood of the enemy.
‘Tell your men that, sir… with bayonets, with bayonets!’
White as wax, and in an expiring voice the lieutenant still found the strength to murmur:
‘You hear, boys, with the bayonet!’
That was his last breath, and he expired, head up and steadfast, eyes open, still watching the battle. Already the flies were hovering and settling on the smashed face of Françoise, and the child Auguste from his bed in a feverish delirium, kept calling and asking for a drink in a low, imploring voice.
‘Mummy, wake up, get up… I’m thirsty, I’m ever so thirsty.’
But the command was clear, officers had to order a retreat, however upset they were at not being able to take advantage of the success they had had. Obviously General Ducrot, haunted by fear of being encircled by the enemy, was sacrificing everything to the crazy attempt to get out of their clutches. The church square was evacuated, the troops fell back from alley to alley and soon the street was empty. Women were heard crying and wailing, men were swearing and brandishing their fists in anger at seeing themselves abandoned in this way. Many shut themselves in their houses, resolved to defend themselves and die.
‘Well I’m not clearing out!’ shouted Weiss, beside himself with rage. ‘No, I’d rather leave my dead body here. Just let them come and break up my furniture and drink my wine!’
Nothing else now existed but his rage, the inextinguishable fury of the conflict when he thought that the foreigner might enter his home, sit on his chair, drink out of his glass. It made his whole being turn over, took away his ordinary existence, his wife, his business and his reasonable, middle-class prudence. He shut and barricaded himself in his house, and there he roamed round and round like a caged beast, going from room to room making sure that all openings were blocked. He counted his ammunition, he had about forty rounds left. Then, as he was going to have a last look towards the Meuse to make sure that there was no attack to fear from the meadows, his eye was caught once again by the range of hills on the left bank. Puffs of smoke clearly indicated the positions of the Prussian batteries. Once again he saw, dominating the formidable batteries of Frénois, at the angle of the little wood on La Marfée, the group of uniforms, this time more of them and looking so brilliant in the bright sunshine that by putting his folding glasses over his spectacles he could see the gold of epaulettes and helmets.
‘Filthy buggers! Filthy buggers!’ he repeated, shaking his fist.
Up there on La Marfée it was King William and his general staff. He had come there at seven from La Vendresse, where he had slept the night, and he was up there, away from all danger, with the valley of the Meuse, the battlefield, stretching out before him on all sides. The immense relief map went from one end of the sky to the other, and he, standing on the hill, looked on as though from a throne reserved for him in this gigantic box at a gala performance.
In the middle, against the dark background of the forest of the Ardennes, draped across the horizon like a curtain of antique verdure, Sedan stood out with the geometrical lines of its fortifications, lapped by the flooded meadows and river on the south and west. In Bazeilles houses were already on fire and the village was half obscured with the dust of battle. Then eastwards, from La Moncelle to Givonne, all that could be seen was a few regiments of the 12th corps and the 1st, crawling like lines of insects across the stubble and sometimes disappearing in the narrow valley where the hamlets were hidden; and on the opposite side the other rising ground could be seen, light-coloured fields with the green patch of the Chevalier wood. But what could be most clearly seen was the 7th corps, to the north, filling with its moving black dots the plateau of Floing, a broad band of reddish earth stretching from the little Garenne wood down to the grassland by the river. Beyond that there was still Floing, Saint-Menges, Fleigneux, Illy, villages huddled away in the ups and downs of the land in a rugged piece of country broken up by escarpments. To the left also was the loop of the Meuse, with its slow waters, pale silver in the bright sun, enclosing the peninsula of Iges in its vast meandering detour, cutting off all routes to Mézières and only leaving between its further bank and the impassable forests the one outlet of the Saint-Albert gap.
The hundred thousand men and five hundred cannon of the French army were there packed together and hounded into this triangle. And when the King of Prussia turned westwards he saw another plain, that of Donchery, empty fields extending to Brian-court, Marancourt and Vrigne-aux-Bois, a waste of grey earth, powdery-looking under the blue sky, and when he turned to the east there was yet again, opposite the huddled French lines, an immense vista, a crowd of villages, Douzy and Carignan first, then as you go up, Rubécourt, Pouru-aux-Bois, Francheval, Villers-Cernay, right on to La Chapelle, near the frontier. In all directions the land belonged to him, he could move at will the two hundred and fifty thousand men and the eight hundred guns of his armies, he could take in with one sweeping look their invading march. Already on one side the XIth corps was advancing on Saint-Menges, while the Vth corps was at Vrigne-aux-Bois and the Wurttemberg division was waiting near Donchery; on the other side, even though trees and hills were in the way, he could guess what moves were being made, for he had just seen the XIIth corps penetrating the Chevalier wood and knew that the Guards must have reached Villers-Cernay. These were the jaws of the vice, the Crown Prince of Prussia’s army on the left and that of the Crown Prince of Saxony on the right, and they were opening and irresistibly closing round while the two Bavarian corps were hammering away at Bazeilles.
At King William’s feet, from Remilly to Frénois, the almost continuous line of batteries were ceaselessly thundering, pounding La Moncelle and Daigny with shells and firing right over the town of Sedan to rake the plateaux to the north. It was not much after eight in the morning, and he was awaiting the inevitable outcome of the battle, his eyes on the giant chessboard, busily manoeuvring this dust-storm of men, the furious attack of these few black dots in the midst of eternal, smiling nature.