AT first light on the plateau of Floing, in a thick fog, Gaude’s bugle sounded reveille for all it was worth. But the air was so saturated with moisture that the merry tune was muffled. Nevertheless the men of the company, who had not even had the heart to put up the tents but had rolled themselves up in the canvas and lain in the mud, did not even wake up but were like a lot of corpses already with pallid faces, stiff with fatigue and sleep, and had to be shaken one by one and pulled out of their torpor. They rose up as if from the dead, ghastly looking, with eyes full of the terror of being alive.
Jean had roused Maurice.
‘What’s up? Where are we?’
He looked about him, scared, but only saw the grey sea of fog in which the shades of his comrades were floating. You couldn’t make out anything twenty metres in front of you. You lost all sense of direction, and he could never have said which way Sedan was. Just then his ear caught the far off sound of gunfire somewhere.
‘Oh yes, the fighting is to be today… Good, we shall get it over!’
Voices round him were saying the same thing, and there was a feeling of grim satisfaction, the need to get out of this nightmare at last by seeing those Prussians, whom they had come to find and from whom they had been running away for so many mortal hours. So they were going to give them a bit of rifle-fire and unload themselves of these cartridges they had carted so far without firing a single one! This time, they all felt, it was the inevitable battle.
‘Where’s that firing?’
‘As far as I can tell,’ Maurice answered, ‘it seems to me to be over towards the Meuse, but the devil take me if I have the faintest idea where I am!’
‘Look here chum,’ the corporal said, ‘you and I aren’t going to get separated because, you see, you’ve got to have the know-how if you don’t want to land in trouble. I’ve already been through all this, and I’ll keep my eyes open for you as well as myself.’
By now the squad were beginning to grouse and get angry at having nothing hot to put in their stomachs. Can’t light a fire with no dry wood in bloody awful weather like this! At the very moment when the battle was opening the question of the belly came back imperiously, decisively. Heroes perhaps, but bellies first and foremost. To eat, that was the sole concern, and with what rapture they skimmed the pot on good stew days, and what childish, savage tempers when bread was short!
‘When you don’t eat you don’t fight,’ declared Chouteau. ‘I’ll be buggered if I risk my skin today!’
The revolutionary was raising his head again in this great oaf of a house-painter, the Montmartre orator, the public-bar theorist who spoiled the few good ideas he picked up here and there in the most appalling mess-up of rubbish and lies.
‘Besides,’ he went on, ‘what did they fucking well take us for, telling us the Prussians were dying of starvation and diseases, that they hadn’t even got no shirts left and that you could meet them on the roads all dirty and ragged like a lot of tramps?’
Loubet began to laugh. He was a real Parisian smart aleck, who had dabbled in all the dubious jobs at the Markets.
‘Don’t you believe it, we’re the ones pegging out in poverty, the ones people’d give a penny to when we go by with our cracked boots and scarecrow’s clothes. And what about those famous victories? And that was a nice joke too, when they told us how Bismarck had been taken prisoner and that they had kicked a whole army of them into a quarry… Balls! They were fucking well having us on!’
Pache and Lapoulle listened and clenched their fists, nodding furiously. And others were getting worked up too, for the final effect of these continuous lies in the papers was disastrous. The men had lost all confidence and no longer believed anything. The imaginings of these overgrown children, at first so fertile in wild hopes, were now collapsing into wild nightmares.
‘Of course it’s easy enough to see,’ went on Chouteau, ‘it’s got a simple explanation, we’ve been sold down the river… You all know that.’
Lapoulle’s simple peasant mind was outraged each time this phrase cropped up.
‘Sold down the river! Oh aren’t they shits!’
‘Sold, like Judas sold his Master,’ murmured Pache, always haunted by biblical memories.
Chouteau was triumphant.
‘It’s quite simple, good Lord, we know the figures… MacMahon has had three million and the other generals a million each for bringing us to this place… It was all fixed up in Paris in the spring, and last night they fired a rocket just to tell them it was all ready and they could come and get us!’
Maurice was disgusted by the stupidity of this invention. Formerly Chouteau had amused him and almost won him over with his back-street smartness. But at the moment he could not stand this trouble-maker, the bad workman who spat on all the jobs so as to put off the others.
‘Why do you say such absurdities?’ he shouted. ‘You know it isn’t true!’
‘What do you mean it isn’t true?… So it isn’t true that we’ve been sold?… Oh I say, your lordship, are you one of them too, one of that lot of fucking bastards?’
He advanced menacingly.
‘Look here, it’s about time it was said, Mister La-di-da, because we might not wait for your friend Bismarck but cook your goose straight away.’
The others were beginning to mutter, and so Jean thought he had better intervene.
‘Now you shut up! I’ll report the first one to move.’
But Chouteau sneered and booed at him. He didn’t give a hoot for his report! He would fight or he wouldn’t, just as he felt inclined, and they’d better not get across him any more, because he hadn’t got bullets for Prussians only! Now that the battle was under way what little discipline had been maintained by fear was collapsing: what could anyone do to him? He’d just piss off when he had had enough. He began a slanging match, working the others up against the corporal who let them die of hunger. Yes, it was his fault that the squad hadn’t had anything to eat for three days while the other blokes had had soup and meat. But of course the gentleman went out guzzling with his lordship and the tarts. Oh yes, they’d been seen in Sedan all right!
‘You’ve blued the squad’s money, and don’t you dare to deny it, you bleeding swindler!’
Then things turned nasty. Lapoulle began clenching his fists, and Pache, for all his meekness, was crazed with hunger and demanding an explanation. The most sensible was Loubet once again, who began laughing his knowing laugh, saying it was daft for Frenchmen to be going for each other when the Prussians were just over there. He didn’t hold with quarrels, whether with fists or guns, and referring to the few hundred francs he had received as a conscript’s replacement, he added:
‘’Struth, if they think my carcass isn’t worth more than that I’ll give them something for their money.’
Maurice and Jean, annoyed by this mindless aggressiveness, were shouting back in self-defence when a loud voice came out of the fog:
‘What’s up? What’s all this about? Which bloody fools are having a row now?’
Lieutenant Rochas appeared, in his rain-soiled képi and cape with buttons off, his whole lean and gawky person in a pitiful state of neglect and shabbiness. But that didn’t affect his victorious cockiness, and his eyes were shining and his moustache bristling.
‘Sir,’ Jean said, beside himself with rage, ‘what’s up is these men shouting about the place that we have been betrayed… Yes, they say our generals have sold us…’
In Rochas’s limited mind this idea of treason was not far from seeming the obvious thing, for it explained defeats he could not admit to.
‘Well, what the fuck does it matter to them if we are sold? What business is it of theirs? It doesn’t alter the fact that the Prussians are here and that we’ve got to give them one of those thrashings you don’t forget in a hurry.’
Away behind the thick curtain of fog the gunfire at Bazeilles was continuous. He waved his arms with a sweeping gesture.
‘Well, this time here it is! We’re going to chase them back home with the butts of our rifles!’
For him, since he had heard the gunfire, everything else was wiped out: the delays, lack of direction on the march, demoralization of the troops, the disaster at Beaumont, the final agony of the forced retreat on Sedan. But since they were actually fighting, wasn’t victory certain? He had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, and he kept his swaggering contempt for the enemy, his total ignorance of modern conditions of warfare, his obstinate certainty that a veteran of Africa, the Crimea and Italy was unbeatable. It really would be too silly to start again at his age!
A sudden laugh opened his jaws wide. He had one of those bursts of maty affection that made the soldiers worship him in spite of the ticking-off he sometimes handed out.
‘Listen, boys, instead of squabbling it would be better to have a drink. Yes, I’m going to stand you all a drink and you can drink my health!’
And from a pocket deep in his cape he produced a bottle of brandy, adding with his triumphant air that it was a present from a lady. And indeed he had been seen the evening before at a table in a pub at Floing getting very fresh with the barmaid whom he had on his knee. By now the soldiers were laughing like mad, holding out their messtins into which he was gaily pouring.
‘My lads, drink to your girlfriends if you’ve got any, and drink to the glory of France… That’s all I know about, so here’s to fun!’
‘Quite true, sir, here’s to your health and everybody else’s.’
They all drank, warmed up and friends again. This drink was a real treat in the chilly morning just before marching against the enemy. Maurice felt it running down into his veins, giving him the warmth and semi-tipsiness of illusion. Why shouldn’t they beat the Prussians? Didn’t battles have their surprises in store, the sudden changes of fortune that history looked at in wonderment? This devil of a man went on to say that Bazaine was on the march and was expected before the evening, and although it was actually Belgium he pointed to, when indicating the route Bazaine was taking, Maurice indulged in one of those upsurges of hope without which he could not live. Perhaps this was the moment of revenge after all.
‘What are we waiting for, sir?’ he ventured to ask. ‘Aren’t we going to start?’
Rochas made a sign meaning that he had no orders. Then after a pause:
‘Has anyone seen the captain?’
There was no answer. Jean recollected having seen him stealing away after dark towards Sedan, but a prudent soldier should never see an officer when off duty. So he was keeping his mouth shut, when turning round he saw a shadowy form coming along the hedge.
‘Here he is,’ he said.
It was indeed Captain Beaudoin. He amazed them all by the smartness of his dress – his spotless uniform and polished boots contrasted violently with the bedraggled state of the lieutenant. Moreover there was about him a certain elegance, something of the lady-killer in his white hands and curled moustache, a vague perfume of Persian lilac such as pervades the well-stocked dressing-room of a pretty woman.
‘Just look at that!’ sneered Loubet. ‘So the captain’s found his luggage again!’
But nobody smiled because he was known to be difficult. He was detested and kept his men in their places. A real bastard, according to Rochas. Ever since the first reverses he had looked positively outraged, and the disaster that everybody had foreseen seemed to him bad form rather than anything else. A convinced Bonapartist and heading for the highest promotion, backed up by several salons, he felt his fortune sinking into all this mud. It was said that he had a very fine tenor voice to which he already owed a great deal. Not without intelligence, though knowing nothing about his profession, he was solely concerned with being acceptable, and he was also very brave, if necessary, but no fanatic.
‘What a fog!’ was all he said, thankful to find his own company again which he had spent the last half-hour looking for as he was afraid of being lost.
Immediately after that an order at last came through and the battalion moved forward. New billows of fog must have been coming up from the Meuse, for they almost groped their way along in a sort of whitish dew coming down in a fine drizzle. At that moment Maurice was struck by a vision – Colonel de Vineuil suddenly looming ahead, motionless on his horse at the junction of two roads, very tall and pale, like a marble statue of despair, his mount shivering in the morning cold with his nostrils open and turned away towards the guns. But most striking of all, ten paces to the rear the regimental flag, already out of its cover and held by the lieutenant on duty and flapping in the soft moving whiteness of the vapour, seemed to be up in a sky of dreams, an apparition of glory, trembling and on the point of vanishing away. The golden eagle was soaking wet and the silk tricolor, on which the names of victories were embroidered, looked faded and dirty, riddled with old wounds, and the only thing to stand out from all this dimness was the gleaming enamel of the arms of the cross of honour attached to the tassels.
Flag and colonel disappeared, swallowed up in a new cloud, and the battalion still advanced without knowing where it was going, as though in damp cotton wool. They had come downhill and were now climbing again up a narrow lane. The command to halt rang out. And there they stood easy, their packs weighing down on their shoulders, forbidden to move. They must be on some high land, but it was still impossible to see twenty paces and nothing could be made out. It was now seven, and the gunfire seemed to have come nearer, fresh batteries were firing on the other side of Sedan, nearer and nearer.
‘Oh well,’ Sergeant Sapin said in his matter-of-fact way to Jean and Maurice, ‘I shall be killed today.’
He hadn’t opened his mouth since reveille, but was lost in a dream, with his delicate face, large beautiful eyes and prim little nose.
‘Well, that’s a nice idea!’ protested Jean. ‘Can anyone say what he’ll get? You know there’s none for nobody and some for everybody.’
‘Oh, as far as I’m concerned it’s as though it was done already… I shall be killed today!’
Heads turned round and asked if he had seen that in a dream. No, he hadn’t dreamed anything, just felt it, and there it was.
‘Still, it’s annoying, because I was going to get married when I got home.’
His eyes wandered off again and he saw his own life. Son of a small grocer in Lyons, spoilt by his mother who had died, and unable to get on with his father, he had stayed with the regiment, fed up with everything and refusing to be bought out. Then on one of his leaves he had come to an understanding with a girl cousin, come to terms with life, and together they had worked out an attractive project for opening a business, thanks to the small sum she would bring with her. He had had some schooling – reading, writing and arithmetic. For the past year he had lived only for the joy of this future life.
He shivered and shook himself free of this dream, then calmly repreated:
‘Yes, it’s annoying, I shall be killed today.’
The talking stopped and the wait went on. There was no knowing even whether they had their backs or their fronts to the enemy. Vague sounds came now and again out of the foggy unknown: rumbling of wheels, tramping of feet, distant trotting of horses. These were troop movements hidden by the mist, all the manoeuvres of the 7th corps taking up its battle positions. But in the last few minutes the mist seemed to be thinning out. Shreds blew up like wisps of gauze and odd corners of the horizon came into sight, still indistinct, like the murky blue of deep water. It was in one of these breaks that the regiments of Chasseurs d’Afrique that formed part of the Margueritte division could be seen moving along like a procession of phantom riders. Bolt upright in their saddles, in their full regimentals with broad red belts, they were spurring on their mounts, slender creatures half hidden by their complicated kit. Squadron after squadron, they all emerged from the murk and went back into it as though they were melting in the fine drizzle. No doubt they were a nuisance and were being moved further off because nobody knew what to do with them, as had been the case since the outset of the campaign. They had been used just occasionally as scouts, and as soon as battle was joined they were moved from valley to valley as an expensive luxury.
Maurice watched them and thought of Prosper.
‘Look,’ he murmured, ‘perhaps that’s him over there.’
‘Who?’ asked Jean.
‘That chap from Remilly, you remember, whose brother we met at Oches.’
But by now they had gone, and there was a sound of rapid galloping and a staff officer appeared down the hill. This time it was Jean who recognized General Bourgain-Desfeuilles, waving his arms wildly. So he had at last deigned to leave the Hôtel de la Croix d’Or, and from his bad temper it was clear enough that he was annoyed at having been up so early, to say nothing of deplorable conditions of lodging and food.
His stentorian voice carried as far as them.
‘Oh, for God’s sake, as though I knew! Moselle or Meuse, there’s some water down there anyway!’
However the fog was really lifting. It was quite sudden, as at Bazeilles, like a stage set discovered behind the floating curtain as it slowly goes up into the flies. The bright sun poured down from a blue sky. At once Maurice realized where they were standing waiting.
‘Oh,’ he said to Jean, ‘we’re on the Algérie plateau… See over there, across the valley opposite us, that’s Floing. And over there is Saint-Menges, and beyond that Fleigneux. And then right behind in the Ardennes forest, where you see those scraggy trees on the horizon, that’s the frontier.’
He went on pointing things out. The plateau of Algérie was a belt of red earth about three kilometres long that sloped gently from the Garenne wood to the Meuse, from which it was separated by the meadows. It was there that General Douay had stationed the 7th corps, in despair at not having enough men to defend such a long drawn-out line and link up firmly with the 1st corps which was at right angles to him, occupying the valley of the Givonne, from the Garenne wood to Daigny.
‘It’s huge, isn’t it, huge!’
Maurice turned and with a wave of the hand went round the horizon. From the plateau of Algérie the whole battlefield lay stretched out to the south and west: first Sedan, with its citadel dominating the rooftops, then Balan and Bazeilles with a pall of smoke that never went away. Then, beyond, the heights of the left bank, Le Liry, La Marfée, La Croix-Piau. But it was westwards, more especially, towards Donchery that the view was extensive. The loop of the Meuse surrounded the Iges peninsula with a pale ribbon, and there could be seen very clearly the narrow Saint-Albert road, running between the river bank and a steep cliff on top of which, far away, was the little Seugnon wood, a tail-end of the woods of La Falizette. The road from Vrigne-aux-Bois and Donchery came out at the top of the rise at the Maison-Rouge crossroads.
‘You see, that’s the way we could fall back on Mézières.’
But at that very minute the first round of artillery fire came from Saint-Menges. In the distance a few wisps of mist were still hanging about and nothing could be seen clearly except a vague shape moving through the Saint-Albert gap.
‘Ah, here they come,’ said Maurice, instinctively lowering his voice and not mentioning the Prussians by name. ‘We’re cut off, it’s all up!’
It was not yet eight. The gunfire getting stronger in the Bazeilles direction could now be heard eastwards too, out of sight up the Givonne valley – it was just at the moment when the army of the Crown Prince of Saxony, emerging from the Chevalier wood, came up against the 1st corps before Daigny. And now that the Xlth Prussian corps, marching on Floing, was opening fire on General Douay’s troops, the battle was joined in all directions, from north to south round this immense perimeter of many leagues.
That was when Maurice fully realized the irreparable mistake that had been made in not falling back on Mézières during the night. But the consequences were not yet quite clear to him. It simply was that some deep instinct of danger made him glance anxiously at the neighbouring heights overlooking the plateau of Algérie. If they hadn’t had time to effect a retreat, then why hadn’t they decided to occupy those heights backing on to the frontier so that they could go into Belgium if they were thrown back? Two points looked especially menacing, the round hilltop of Le Hattoy, above Floing to the left, and the Calvary of Illy, a stone cross between two lime trees on the right. On the previous day General Douay had put a regiment in occupation on Le Hattoy, but being too exposed it was withdrawn at dusk. As for the Calvary of Illy, it was to be defended by the left wing of the 1st corps. The land extending between Sedan and the Ardennes was a vast expanse of bare earth, deeply indented with valleys, and the key to the position was obviously there, at the foot of that cross and those two lime trees, from which the whole of the surrounding country could be raked by gunfire.
Three more rounds of gunfire were heard, then a whole salvo. This time they saw smoke rise from a little hill to the left of Saint-Menges.
‘Here we come,’ said Jean. ‘This is our turn.’
And yet nothing happened, the men were still just standing easy, and had nothing else to do except look at the fine arrangement of the second division drawn up in front of Floing with its left wing running at right-angles towards the Meuse to hold off an attack from that side. Eastwards the third division stretched as far as the Garenne woods below Illy, while the first, which had been very depleted at Beaumont, was a second line of defence. During the night the engineers had run up some defence works. Even now, under the opening fire of the Prussians, they were still making dug-outs and throwing up breastworks.
A fusillade burst out at the lower end of Floing, but was over almost at once, and Captain Beaudoin’s company was ordered to fall back three hundred metres. They were entering a huge square cabbage-field when the captain snapped out:
They had to lie flat. The cabbages were wet with heavy dew, and their thick greeny-yellow leaves retained drops as pure and bright as big jewels.
‘Set your sights at four hundred,’ the captain called out next.
Maurice supported the barrel of his rifle on a cabbage in front of him. But you couldn’t see anything down at ground level like this, for the earth stretched on and was quite featureless, cut up by greenery. He nudged Jean, who was stretched out on his right, and asked him what the hell they were supposed to be doing. Jean, as an experienced soldier, showed him a battery they were installing on a near-by hillock. Clearly they had been positioned here to support this battery. Out of curiosity he stood up to see whether Honoré and his cannon were involved, but the reserve artillery was in the rear, protected by a clump of trees.
‘For Christ’s sake,’ bawled Rochas, ‘lie down, will you!’
Maurice had hardly got down again before a shell whistled overhead. From then on they never stopped. The range was only gradually adjusted, the first came well beyond the battery, which began to fire also. As a matter of fact many shells did not explode because they were deadened in soft earth, and at first there were plenty of jokes about the clumsiness of these bloody sauerkraut-eaters.
‘Oh well,’ said Loubet, ‘their fireworks are duds.’
‘I expect they’ve pissed on them!’ added Chouteau with a grin.
Even Lieutenant Rochas joined in.
‘I told you those silly sods can’t even aim straight with a cannon!’
But then a shell burst ten metres away, spattering the company with earth. Although Loubet said something funny about the chaps getting out their clothes-brushes, Chouteau went pale and stopped talking. He had never been under fire, nor for that matter had Pache or Lapoulle, in fact nobody in the squad except Jean. Eyelids fluttered over worried eyes, and voices went thin as though they could not get out properly. Maurice had sufficient self-control to make an attempt at self-examination: he was not afraid yet, for he didn’t think he was in any danger, and all he felt was a slight discomfort under the diaphragm, while his mind went blank and he couldn’t put two ideas together in his head. Yet if anything his hopes were rising in a sort of elation since he had been struck with admiration at the discipline of the troops. He reached the state of no longer doubting victory if they could get close to the enemy with the bayonet.
‘Funny,’ he remarked, ‘it’s full of flies.’
Three times already he had heard what he took for a swarm of bees.
‘Oh no,’ laughed Jean, ‘they’re bullets.’
Other faint buzzings passed over. The whole squad looked round and began to take interest. It was irresistible, the men screwed their necks round and couldn’t keep still.
‘Look here,’ Loubet advised Lapoulle, delighting in his simplicity, ‘when you see a bullet coming all you’ve got to do is put one finger up in front of your nose like this, and that cuts the air and the bullet passes to the right or the left.’
‘But I can’t see them,’ said Lapoulle.
At explosion of laughter burst around him.
‘Oh the artful old devil, he can’t see them! Open your optics, you fool! Look, there’s one, there’s another!… Didn’t you spot that one? It was green.’
Lapoulle opened his eyes wide, put one finger in front of his nose, while Pache was fingering the scapular he always had on him and would have liked to spread it out to make a breast-plate to cover all his chest.
Rochas, who had remained standing, called out in his chaffing way:
‘No harm in saying hallo to shells, my boys, but it’s no use for bullets – too many of ’em!’
Just then a piece of shell smashed in the head of a soldier in the front rank. Not even a cry – a jet of blood and brains, that was all.
‘Poor bugger,’ Sergeant Sapin said simply. He was very calm and very pale. ‘Whose turn next?’
But after that nobody could hear anybody else speak. The frightful din was what upset Maurice most. The battery near-by was firing incessantly, with a continual roar that shook the very ground, and the mitrailleuses were worse still, rending the air, intolerable. Were they going to stay like this a long time, lying in the middle of the cabbages? They still could see nothing and knew nothing. It was impossible to have the slightest conception of the battle as a whole – was it even a real big battle? Above the bare line of the fields the only thing Maurice recognized was the round wooded top of Le Hattoy, a long way away and still unoccupied. Not that a single Prussian could be seen anywhere on the horizon, just puffs of smoke going up and floating for a moment in the sunshine. As he looked round he was very surprised to see down in a lonely valley, isolated by steep slopes, a peasant unhurriedly ploughing, guiding his plough behind a big white horse. Why lose a day’s work? The corn wouldn’t stop growing or people living just because there was fighting going on.
Overcome with impatience Maurice stood up. Casting his eyes round he again saw the batteries at Saint-Menges which were bombarding them, surmounted by lurid smoke, and in particular he saw once again the road from Saint-Albert black with Prussians, a milling horde of invaders. Already Jean was pulling at his legs and bringing him roughly down to the ground again.
‘Are you crazy? You’ll leave your body here!’
Rochas swore at him too:
‘Will you lie down! Who landed me with a lot of bloody fools getting themselves killed without orders?’
‘But sir,’ Maurice said, ‘you’re not lying down, are you?’
‘Oh, it’s different for me, I have to know!’
Captain Beaudoin was also courageously standing, but he never opened his mouth, for he was out of touch with his men, and seemed unable to stand still, but kept on walking from end to end of the field.
Still waiting, nothing happening. Maurice felt suffocated beneath the weight of his pack which was pressing on his back and chest in this prone posture, so painful for any length of time. The men had been urged not to jettison their packs except in the very last resort.
‘Look here, are we going to stay like this all day?’ he finally asked Jean.
‘May well be! At Solferino it was in a field of carrots, and we stayed there for five hours with our noses to the ground.’
Then, being a practical fellow, he went on:
‘What are you complaining about? We aren’t too bad here, and we shall have plenty of time to expose ourselves a bit more. We all get our turn, I can tell you. If you all got killed at the beginning, well, there wouldn’t be anyone left for the end!’
‘Oh,’ Maurice suddenly cut in, ‘look at that smoke on Le Hattoy… They’ve taken Le Hattoy, now we’re for it.’
For a short time his anxious curiosity, in which there was an element of his original fear, had some real reason. He kept his eyes fixed on the round top of the hill, the only mound he could see above the flat stretch of great fields on his eye level. Le Hattoy was much too far away for him to make out the crews of the batteries the Prussians had just installed there, and all he could really see was the puffs of smoke at each discharge over a copse in which the guns must be concealed. As he had felt earlier, it was a really serious thing that the enemy had taken this position that General Douay had had to give up defending. It commanded all the surrounding plateaux. All at once the batteries opened fire on the second division of the 7th corps and decimated it. Now they were getting the range, and the French battery near which the Beaudoin company was lying had two of its crew killed in quick succession. A splinter even came and wounded one man in their own company, a quartermaster whose left heel was blown off and who began shrieking with pain as though he had suddenly gone mad.
‘Shut up, you fool!’ cried Rochas. ‘What’s the sense in bawling like that for a silly little trouble in your foot!’
The man was suddenly calmed, he stopped and relapsed into a motionless lethargy, nursing his foot.
The formidable artillery duel went on, getting steadily fiercer over the heads of the prostrate regiments in the baking and depressing country where there was not a soul to be seen in the blazing sun. Nothing but this thunder and hurricane of destruction rolling through the solitude. The hours were to pass one after another and it would never stop. Yet already the superiority of the German artillery was becoming clear, their percussion shells almost all went off at enormous distances, whereas the French ones with fuses had a much shorter range and most often exploded in the air before reaching the target. And no other resource was left but to make oneself as small as possible in the furrow where one was cowering! Not even the relief, the thrill of going off the deep-end and firing a rifle, for who was there to fire at since you still couldn’t see anybody on the empty horizon!
‘Are we ever going to fire?’ Maurice kept on saying in a flaming temper. ‘I’d give five francs to see one of them. It’s maddening to be machine-gunned like this and never be able to answer back!’
‘Just wait, it’ll come, I expect,’ said Jean mildly.
A galloping on their left made them look up. They recognized General Douay, followed by his staff, who had hurried over to gauge the morale of his troops under the murderous fire from Le Hattoy. He seemed satisfied, and was giving some orders when General Bourgain-Desfeuilles also appeared, emerging from a sunken road. The latter, although a court soldier, was trotting quite unruffled amid the shells, hidebound in his African colonial routine and having learned nothing. He was shouting and gesticulating like Rochas.
‘I’m expecting them. I’m expecting them now for a showdown at close quarters.’
Seeing General Douay he came over.
‘General, is it true about the marshal’s wound?’
‘Yes, unfortunately… I’ve just had a note from General Ducrot in which he said that the marshal had named him commander-in-chief of the army.’
‘Oh, so it’s General Ducrot! Well, what are the orders?’
The general made a gesture of despair. Since the previous day he had felt that the army was doomed, and had insisted in vain that the positions at Saint-Menges and Illy must be occupied in order to cover a retreat on Mézières.
‘Ducrot is going back to our plan, all troops are to concentrate on the plateau of Illy.’
He made the same gesture again, as though to say it was too late.
The noise of gunfire drowned his words, but the meaning had reached Maurice’s ears and he was appalled. What! Marshal MacMahon wounded and General Ducrot in command instead, the whole army in retreat north of Sedan? And these terrible facts unknown to the soldiers, the poor devils getting killed, and this dreadful gamble dependent on a mere accident, the whim of a new command! He felt the confusion and final chaos into which the army was falling, with no chief, no plan and pushed about in all directions, while the Germans were making straight for their goal with their clear judgement and machine-like precision.
General Bourgain-Desfeuilles was already moving off when General Douay, who had just received a new message delivered by a dust-stained hussar, recalled him in stentorian tones.
His voice was so loud and so thunderous with surprise and emotion that it could be heard above the noise of the artillery.
‘General! It’s no longer Ducrot in command, it’s Wimpffen!… Yes, he turned up yesterday in the middle of the Beaumont rout, to take over the command of the 5th corps from de Failly. And he writes that he has an official letter from the Minister of War putting him at the head of the army in the event of the command becoming vacant. And we don’t fall back any more, orders are now to regain and defend our original positions.’
General Bourgain-Desfeuilles listened goggle-eyed.
‘Good God!’ he said. ‘So long as we know… For my part I don’t give a damn anyway!’
He galloped away, not really interested at bottom, having only looked upon the war as a quick means of gaining promotion to general of division, and only too anxious that this stupid campaign should come to an end as soon as possible, as it was proving so unsatisfactory to everybody.
Then there came a burst of mirth from the soldiers of the Beaudoin company. Maurice said nothing, but he was of the same opinion as Chouteau and Loubet, who went off into scornful laughter. Gee up! Whoa back! Any old way you like! Look at that fine lot of officers who were all hand in glove and never looked after number one – I don’t think! When you had officers like that wasn’t the best thing you could do to go off and have a kip? Three commanders-in-chief in three hours, three clots who didn’t even quite know what there was to do and gave different orders! No, straight, it was enough to make God Almighty in person lose his temper and throw his hand in! And then the inevitable accusations of treason began again – Ducrot and Wimpffen were out for Bismarck’s three million, same as MacMahon.
General Douay had stayed alone at the head of his staff, looking into the distance at the Prussian positions, lost in an utterly depressing dream. For a long while he examined Le Hattoy, shells from which were falling at his feet. Then, having turned towards the plateau of Illy, he summoned an officer to take an order over to the brigade of the 5th corps he had borrowed from Wimpffen the day before and which linked him up with General Ducrot’s left. Once more he was clearly heard saying:
‘If the Prussians captured the Calvary we couldn’t hold on here for an hour, but would be thrown back into Sedan.’
He left, disappearing with his escort round a bend in the sunken road, and the gunfire redoubled its intensity. Perhaps they had spotted him. The shells, which so far had only been coming from straight in front, now began to rain down obliquely from the left. They were the batteries on Frénois and another battery on the Iges peninsula, and they were directing a cross-fire with those on Le Hattoy. The whole plateau of Algérie was being swept by them. From then on the situation of the company became terrible. Men concerned with watching what was happening in front of them had this new worry in their rear and did not know which threat to dodge. Three men were killed in quick succession, and two wounded men were screaming.
So it was that Sergeant Sapin met the death he was expecting. He had turned round and he saw the shell coming when it could no longer be avoided.
‘Ah, here it is!’ was all he said.
His little face, with its big, beautiful eyes, was merely deeply sad, with no terror. His belly was split open. He moaned:
‘Oh, don’t leave me here, take me away to the ambulance, please… Take me away!’
Rochas wanted to shut him up, and was on the point of telling him brutally that with a wound like that there was no point in upsetting all his comrades. But then he was touched:
‘Poor old chap, just wait a bit for the stretcher-bearers to come for you.’
But the wretched man went on, crying now, maddened by the dream of happiness departing with his life-blood.
‘Take me away, take me away…’
Captain Beaudoin, whose jangled nerves were no doubt exasperated by this moaning, asked for two willing men who would carry him into a little spinney close by, where there must be a mobile ambulance. With one bound Chouteau and Loubet leaped up, forestalling the others, and seized the sergeant, one by the shoulders and the other by the feet, and started carrying him off at the double. But on the way they felt him stiffen and expire in a final convulsion.
‘Look here, he’s dead,’ declared Loubet. ‘Let’s drop him!’
Chouteau stuck to it furiously.
‘Get a move on, you lazy sod! I’m not bloody well dumping him here and getting called back!’
They held to their course with the body as far as the spinney, threw it down under a tree and cleared off. They were not seen again until evening.
The fire intensified, the battery close by had been reinforced with two guns and in the mounting din Maurice was seized by fear, insane fear. At first he had not had this cold sweat and painful sensation of collapse in the pit of the stomach, the irresistible urge to get up and run, screaming. Perhaps even now it was only due to thinking too much, as happens in sensitive and nervous natures. But Jean, who was keeping an eye on him, gripped him with his strong hand and made him stay near him, reading this fit of cowardice in the worried darting of his eyes. He swore at him softly and paternally, trying to shame him out of it with harsh words because he knew that you put courage back into men by giving them a kick up the backside. Others had got the shivers too. Pache had tears in his eyes and was whimpering with a soft, involuntary wail, like a little child’s, which he could not stop. And then Lapoulle had an accident – such an upset of the bowels that he pulled his trousers down there and then, with no time to get to the hedge. He was cheered and they threw clods of earth at his bare arse displayed to bullets and shells. Many of them were taken short in this way, and relieved themselves amid obscene mirth which restored everyone’s courage.
‘You cowardly bugger,’ Jean was saying to Maurice, ‘you’re not going to shit yourself like them… I’ll sock you one on the jaw if you don’t behave yourself!’
He was putting new heart into him with these rough words when all of a sudden, four hundred metres in front of them, they saw ten or so men in dark-coloured uniforms coming out of a little wood. They could tell by their pointed helmets that they were Prussians at last, the first Prussians they had seen within range of their rifles since the beginning of the campaign. Other squads of them followed the first, and in front of them they could make out the little clouds of dust sent up from the ground by shells. It was all clearly defined, the Prussians were sharply outlined like little tin soldiers set out in perfect order. Then, as the shells rained thicker they went back and disappeared into the trees.
But the Beaudoin company had spotted them and could still see them there. Rifles had gone off of their own accord. Maurice was the first to fire his, and Jean, Pache, Lapoulle and all the others followed. No order had been given, and the captain wanted to stop the firing and only gave in when Rochas waved his arm indicating that the men needed this relief. So at last they were firing, they were using this ammunition they had been carting round for over a month without ever letting any off! Maurice above all was heartened, with something to do for his fear, intoxicating himself with detonations. The edge of the wood looked dreary and not a leaf stirred, nor had a single Prussian reappeared. They were firing all the time at motionless trees.
Having glanced up, Maurice was surprised to see Colonel de Vineuil a few paces away, on his big horse, man and beast quite undisturbed as though made of stone. With his face to the enemy the colonel waited in the hail of bullets. The whole 106th must have closed in there, other companies were lying in the adjoining fields and the rifle-fire was spreading from one to another. A little to the rear Maurice also saw the flag and the strong arm of the subaltern who was bearing it. But now it was not that ghostly flag half lost in the morning mist. In the blazing sun the golden eagle shone forth and the silk tricolor gleamed in brilliant tones in spite of all the wear and tear of battles. Against the blue sky, in the hurricane of gunfire, it floated like a flag of victory.
Why shouldn’t they win now that they were fighting? Maurice and all the others went mad and fired as though to kill the distant wood, in which a slow silent rain of twigs came down.