AT ten o’clock up on the plateau of Algérie Beaudoin’s company was still lying among the cabbages, not having moved from that field since first thing. The cross-fire from the batteries of Le Hattoy and the Iges peninsula was increasing in intensity and had just killed two more of their men, and still no order to advance. Were they going to spend all day there, to be shot down without a fight?

And now the men had not even the relief of letting off their own rifles. Captain Beaudoin had managed to stop the firing, a furious and pointless fusillade against the little wood opposite, in which not a single Prussian seemed to have stayed. The sun was scorching and they were baked alive, lying like this on the ground under a blazing sky.

Jean turned round and saw with alarm that Maurice had let his head fall on the ground, his cheek was against the earth and his eyes shut. His face was white and still.

‘Hallo, what’s up?’

It simply was that Maurice had gone to sleep. The waiting and his exhaustion had knocked him out even though death was hovering all round. He woke up with a start, opened wide, serene eyes which at once took on again the frightened, haunted expression of battle. He never knew how long he had been asleep. He felt he was emerging from a timeless, delicious nothingness.

‘Fancy, isn’t that funny, I’ve been asleep! Oh, it’s done me good.’

It was true that he was less conscious of the painful tightness in his head and ribs, the strait-jacket of fear that makes your bones crack. He teased Lapoulle, who was worrying about the disappearance of Chouteau and Loubet and talking of going to look for them – lovely idea that was, to go and take cover behind a tree and smoke a pipe! Pache would have it that they had been kept by the ambulance people who were short of stretcher-bearers. That’s not a pleasant occupation either, going round picking up the wounded under fire. Then, tormented as ever by his rustic superstitions, he added that it was bad luck to touch the dead, you might die yourself.

‘Oh shut up, for God’s sake!’ shouted Lieutenant Rochas. ‘As though you would!’

Colonel de Vineuil, riding by on his tall horse, turned his head, and he smiled for the only time since the early morning. Then he relapsed into his immobility, always unmoved under fire, waiting for orders.

Maurice’s interest was being caught by the stretcher-bearers, and he watched them as they searched among the ups and downs of the terrain. There must be a first-aid post behind the hedge at the end of the sunken lane and it was the men from there who had set about exploring the plateau. A tent was being quickly set up while the essential material was unloaded from a van, the few instruments and pieces of apparatus, bandages, the wherewithal for quick dressings before the wounded were dispatched for Sedan as and when transport could be made available; and soon it would not be. There were only orderlies at that point. But it was the stretcher-bearers whose heroism was steadfast and inconspicuous. They could be seen in their grey uniforms with the red cross on their caps and armbands, slowly, quietly risking their lives under fire to get to places where men had fallen. They crawled on all fours, trying to utilize ditches and hedges and any mound or dip without showing off by needlessly exposing themselves. Then as soon as they found men lying on the ground their hard task began, for many of these men had lost consciousness, and they had to distinguish the wounded from the dead. Some had stayed lying on their faces with their mouths in a pool of blood and were choking to death, others had their gullets full of mud as though they had bitten off lumps of earth, others lay in heaps higgledy-piggledy, arms and legs contorted and ribs nearly crushed. With great care the bearers freed and lifted the ones still breathing, straightened out their limbs, raised their heads and cleaned them as best they could. Each man had a can of fresh water, but was exceedingly sparing with it. Often they could be seen kneeling for minutes at a time trying to revive a wounded man and waiting for him to open his eyes.

Some fifty metres away to the left Maurice watched one trying to locate the wound of a young soldier from whose sleeve blood was trickling drop by drop. There was a haemorrhage that the red-cross man found eventually and stopped by compressing an artery. In urgent cases they simply took immediate precautions, avoiding harmful movements in fracture cases, binding up limbs and immobilizing them so as to make it safe to move the men. And transport then became the main problem: they supported the walking cases, carried others in their arms like children or pickaback, or again they worked in pairs of three or four together according to the degree of difficulty, making a chair with joined hands, or supporting their legs and shoulders. Beside the regulation stretchers there were also all kinds of ingenious devices, stretchers improvised from rifles tied together with straps from packs. And from all directions all over the plain being raked by gunfire, they could be seen singly or in groups, moving along with their burdens, keeping their heads down, testing the ground with their feet with cautious, admirable heroism.

As Maurice was watching one of them on his right, a puny, delicate-looking young man who was carrying a heavily-built sergeant on his back and struggling along on his tired legs like a worker ant transporting a grain of wheat too heavy for it, he saw them pitch over and vanish in a shell-burst. When the smoke had blown away the sergeant reappeared, lying on his back but with no fresh wound, while the bearer lay with his belly ripped open. And another busy ant ran up, and after turning over and examining his dead comrade he picked up the wounded man again and carried him away on his back.

So Maurice chipped Lapoulle:

‘I say, chum, if you prefer that job go and give them a hand!’

For some little time the batteries on Saint-Menges had been at it like fury, and the hail of shells had got thicker. Captain Beaudoin, still nervously going up and down in front of his company, decided to approach the colonel. It was a pity to wear down the men’s morale for hours and hours without giving them anything to do.

‘I have no orders,’ was the colonel’s stoical answer.

Once again General Douay was seen galloping past, followed by his staff. He had just had a meeting with General de Wimpffen, who had hurried there to beg him to hold on, which he thought he could promise to do, but on the strict understanding that the Calvary of Illy, on his right, would be defended. If the Illy position was lost he could answer for nothing and retreat would be inevitable. General de Wimpffen declared that troops from the 1st corps were going to occupy the Calvary, and indeed almost at once a regiment of Zouaves could be seen taking it over. Hence General Douay, now reassured, agreed to send the Dumont division to support the 12th corps which was very hard pressed. But a quarter of an hour later, as he was on his way back from seeing that his left was in good shape, he uttered an oath on looking up and seeing that the Calvary was deserted, the Zouaves had gone, the plateau had been abandoned and the hellish fire from the Fleigneux batteries was in any case making it untenable. In desperation, foreseeing disaster, he was hastening towards the right when he ran into a stampede of the Dumont division falling back in disorder and panic, mixed up with the remains of the 1st corps. The latter, after its withdrawal, had not succeeded in regaining its morning positions, abandoning Daigny to the XIIth Saxon corps and Givonne to the Prussian Guard, forced northwards through the Garenne woods and bombarded by batteries the enemy was placing on every hilltop from one end of the valley to the other. The terrible ring of iron and fire was tightening, a part of the Guard was continuing its advance on Illy from east to west, rounding the hills, while from west to east, behind the XIth corps, now in possession of Saint-Menges, the Vth was steadily moving on past Fleigneux, bringing its guns further forward with insolent unconcern, so convinced of the ignorance and impotence of the French troops that it did not even wait for the infantry to support it. It was midday, and the whole skyline was ablaze, thundering and cross-firing at the 7th and 1st corps.

Then, as the enemy artillery was thus preparing for the final attack on the Calvary, General Douay made up his mind to make a last effort to recapture it. He dispatched orders, threw himself in person into the midst of the fugitives from the Dumont division, succeeded in forming a column which he hurled on to the plateau. It held good for several minutes, but the bullets were whistling by so thick and fast, and such a storm of shells was sweeping over the bare fields that panic broke out at once, throwing the men back down the slopes, bowling them along like wisps of straw blown by a sudden squall. The general obstinately sent in more regiments.

A dispatch rider, as he galloped by, shouted an order to Colonel de Vineuil through the frightful din. The colonel was already standing in his stirrups and his face was radiant. With a great wave of his sword towards the Calvary he shouted:

‘Our turn at last, boys! Up there and at ’em!’

Deeply stirred, the 106th began to move. The Beaudoin company was one of the first to get to its feet, amid jokes among the chaps who said they were rusty and had earth in their joints. But after a few steps they had to throw themselves into a trench that they came across because the fire got so fierce. Then they ran on bent double.

‘Mind how you go, young fellow-me-lad!’ Jean said more than once to Maurice. ‘This is the crunch… Don’t show the tip of your nose or it’ll get blown off! Keep your bones well inside unless you want to leave a few on the road. The ones who get back after this lot will be pretty good.’

Maurice could hardly hear for the tumult and racket of the crowd filling his ears. He no longer knew whether he was afraid or not, carried along at a run by all the others, with no will-power of his own except to get it over at once. To such an extent had he become just one single wave of this rushing torrent that when there was a sudden ebb at the far end of the trench, caused by the prospect of the open ground still to be climbed, he at once felt panic come over him and was ready to run away. Instinct took over, his muscles ran amok, obeying every wind that blew.

Men were already turning back when the colonel rushed up.

‘Now look here, boys, you’re not going to let me down and act like a lot of babies… Remember, the 106th has never retreated, and you would be the first to disgrace our flag…’

He urged on his horse and blocked the way against those who were turning tail, finding some word for each one, talking of France in a voice breaking with emotion.

Lieutenant Rochas was so moved that he fell into a furious rage and began belabouring the men with his sword as though it were a stick.

‘You bleeding lot of sods, I’ll get you up there with kicks up the arse! Will you do as you’re told, if not, the first man to turn on his heels – I’ll sock him one on the jaw!’

But violence of this kind, soldiers driven into the firing line by kicks, did not appeal to the colonel.

‘No, no, lieutenant, they’re all going to follow me… Aren’t you, boys?… You’re not going to let your old colonel have it out with the Prussians on his own! Come on, up and at ’em!’

Off he dashed, and they all went after him, for he had said that in such a fatherly way that you couldn’t let him down unless you were a lot of shits. But he was the only one to cross the bare fields quite calmly, on his tall horse, while the men scattered and ducked like snipers, taking advantage of every bit of shelter. The land went uphill and there were a good five hundred metres of stubble and beet patches before the Calvary was reached. Instead of the classical assault as in manoeuvres, in straight lines, all that could soon be seen was humped backs creeping along on the ground, soldiers alone or in little groups crawling or suddenly jumping up like insects and reaching the top by dint of agility and subterfuge. The enemy batteries must have spotted them, for shells were raking the ground so often that the explosions never stopped. Five men were killed; a lieutenant had his body cut in two.

Maurice and Jean had had the good luck to find a hedge behind which they could run along unseen. But a bullet ploughed through the side of the head of one of their companions, who fell at their feet. They had to kick him to one side. However, the dead no longer counted, there were too many of them. The horror of the battlefield, a wounded man they saw shrieking and holding his entrails in with both hands, a horse still dragging itself along on its broken legs, all this frightful agony had ceased to touch them. All they suffered from now was the overpowering heat of the noonday sun gnawing at their shoulders.

‘Oh, how thirsty I am!’ muttered Maurice. ‘I feel as if I had some soot down my throat. Can’t you smell scorching, like burning wool?’

Jean nodded.

‘It was the same smell at Solferino. I suppose it’s the smell of war… Oh, I’ve still got some brandy left, and we can have a nip.’

They coolly stopped there for a moment, behind the hedge. But far from quenching their thirst the brandy burned their insides. It was the limit, this taste of scorching in their mouths. And they were dying of hunger too. They would have liked to take a bite at the half loaf Maurice had in his pack, only how could it be done? All along the hedge behind them other men were constantly coming up and pushing into them. At last they dashed with one bound across the last slope and were on the plateau at the foot of the Calvary, the old cross weatherbeaten by wind and rain between two scraggy lime trees.

‘Oh thank God, here we are!’ said Jean. ‘But the thing is to stay here!’

He was right, it wasn’t exactly the most pleasant of spots, as Lapoulle pointed out in a doleful voice which tickled the company. Once again they all lay stretched out in the stubble, but that didn’t save three men from being killed. Up there it was hell’s own hurricane let loose, shells coming over so thickly from Saint-Menges, Fleigneux and Givonne that the earth seemed to be throwing up a fine mist as it does in heavy thunder rain. Clearly the position could not be held for long unless some artillery came as soon as possible to back up the troops so rashly engaged. General Douay, it was said, had ordered two reserve batteries to be brought up, and every second the men anxiously glanced over their shoulders expecting the guns which never came.

‘It’s ridiculous, ridiculous!’ Captain Beaudoin kept on saying as he went on with his jerky walking up and down. ‘You don’t send a regiment up into the air like this without supporting it immediately.’

He noticed a dip in the land to his left and called to Rochas:

‘I say, lieutenant, the company should take cover over there.’

Rochas stood there without moving, but shrugged his shoulders.

‘Oh, captain, here or there, what’s it matter, the dance is just the same… Better not to move.’

At that Captain Beaudoin, who never swore, burst out in a rage:

‘But fucking hell, we shall stay here for good, the whole lot of us. We can’t just let ourselves be done in like this!’

He insisted on looking personally into the better position he had pointed out. But before he had gone ten steps he vanished in an explosion, and his right leg was smashed by a piece of shell. He was thrown on to his back and uttered a scream like a startled woman.

‘It was bound to happen,’ muttered Rochas. ‘It’s no good fidgeting about so much. What you’ve got coming to you, comes.’

The men of his company, seeing their captain fall, leaped up, and as he was crying for help and begging to be taken away, Jean also ran over to him and Maurice after him.

‘Friends, in God’s name don’t leave me here, take me to the ambulance!’

‘Lord, captain, that’s not so easy to do… But we can always try.’

They were thinking out how best to take hold of him when they saw, behind the hedge they had been following, two red-cross men apparently looking for a job. They waved at them frantically and persuaded them to come over. They would be saved if they could reach the ambulance station without mishap. But it was a long way, and the hail of bullets was getting still thicker.

The ambulance men had bound the leg up tight to hold it in place, and then were carrying the captain on a bandy-chair with his arms round their necks, when Colonel de Vineuil, who had been informed, came up as fast as he could urge his horse. He had known the young man since he graduated from Saint-Cyr and was fond of him, and he was visibly very upset.

‘Poor old chap, be brave… It won’t be anything much, and they’ll soon put you right.’

The captain made a sign of relief as though he had been greatly heartened.

‘No, no, it’s all over, and I prefer it like that. What is so exasperating is waiting for what you can’t avoid.’

He was carried off, and the bearers were lucky enough to reach the hedge without trouble, and they hurried along it with their burden. When the colonel saw them vanish behind the trees where the ambulance was, he sighed with relief.

‘But, sir,’ Maurice exclaimed, ‘you are wounded too!’

He had only just noticed the officer’s left boot which was covered with blood. The heel must have been torn off and a piece of the upper had even penetrated the flesh.

M. de Vineuil nonchalantly leaned over in the saddle and glanced at his foot which must have been very painful and weighing down his leg.

‘Yes, yes,’ he muttered. ‘I picked that up just now… It’s nothing, it doesn’t prevent me from sitting on my horse.’

And as he went back to take his place at the head of his regiment, he added:

‘When you’re on horseback and can stay there you can always manage.’

At last the two reserve batteries were coming up, which was an immense relief to the anxious men, for whom these guns were the rampart, the salvation, the thunder from heaven which would silence the enemy cannon over yonder. Moreover it was a superb sight, the parade-ground arrival of the batteries in battle order, each piece followed by its ammunition waggon, the drivers mounted on the near-horses and holding the off-horses by the bridle, the gunners on the boxes, with the corporals and sergeants galloping in their regulation positions. They might have been on parade, carefully keeping their distances as they advanced at a furious pace across the fields with the dull roar of thunder.

Maurice, who had lain down again in a furrow, got up all excited and said to Jean:

‘Look over there, the one taking the left position is Honoré’s battery. I recognize the men.’

With a quick back-hander Jean knocked him down again.

‘Just you get down and lie doggo!’

But even with their cheeks to the ground they both kept the battery in sight, very interested in the manoeuvre, and their hearts beat wildly as they watched the calm, active bravery of these men, from whom they still expected victory.

The battery suddenly came to a halt on a bare hilltop to the left, and in a matter of a minute the gunners jumped down from their boxes and uncoupled the limbers, the drivers left the guns in position, wheeled their horses to move fifteen metres to the rear and remain motionless, facing the enemy. The six guns were already trained, spaced well apart in three pairs commanded by lieutenants, all six being under the orders of a captain, a very tall thin man who paced fussily up and down the plateau.

‘Range sixteen hundred metres!’ the captain could be heard shouting after he had done his rapid calculations.

The target was to be the Prussian battery to the left of Fleigneux which was behind some brushwood and making the Illy Calvary untenable.

‘You see,’ Maurice went on with his explanations, for he couldn’t stop talking, ‘Honoré’s gun is in the centre section. There he is, leaning over with his gun-layer. The layer is young Louis, we had a drink together at Vouziers, don’t you remember? And over there the offside driver, the one sitting up so stiffly on his mount, a lovely arab, that’s Adolphe…’

The gun with its crew of six and sergeant, and beyond it the limber and its four horses mounted by two drivers, beyond that the ammunition waggon with its six horses and three drivers, still further off the supply and forage waggons and the smithy, the whole string of men, animals and equipment stretched out in a straight line for a good hundred metres to the rear, to say nothing of the spare horses, spare ammunition waggon, animals and men to fill the gaps, who were standing over to the right so as not to remain uselessly exposed in the line of fire.

Meanwhile Honoré was busy with the loading of his gun. The two centre gunners were already on their way back with the charge and shell from the ammunition waggon where the corporal and artificer were in charge and at once the two men at the muzzle put in the charge of powder wrapped in serge, which they pushed carefully down with the ramrod, then slid in the shell, the studs of which squeaked along the rifled barrel. The assistant layer quickly exposed the powder with his wire and pushed the fuse into the touch-hole. Honoré wanted to train the first round himself, and half lying on the mounting, he turned the adjusting screw to find the range, indicating the direction with a continuous movement of his hand to the gunner behind, who with a lever moved the gun very gradually further right or left.

‘That’s about it,’ he said, straightening up.

The captain came and checked the range, bending his tall form almost double. At each gun the assistant layer, string in hand, stood ready to pull the striker, the saw-edged blade that ignited the cap. Orders were called slowly by numbers:

‘Number one, fire!… Number two, fire!’

The six rounds went off, the guns recoiled and were brought back, while the sergeants saw that their range was much too short. They adjusted it and the operation began again, always the same, and it was this slow precision, the mechanical job coolly done which kept up the men’s morale. Their gun, like a favourite animal, gathered a little family round it, drawn close together by their common occupation. It was the tie that bound them, their one care, for which everything existed – waggon, vans, horses and men. Hence the great cohesion of the whole battery, calm and serene like a well-run household.

The first salvo had been greeted with cheers by the 106th. At last they were going to shut those Prussian guns up. But there was immediate disappointment when they saw that the shells stopped half way and mostly went off in the air before reaching the thickets over there in which the enemy artillery was concealed.

‘Honoré,’ Maurice went on, ‘Honoré says that the others are all old crocks compared with his… Oh, his gun, he’d sleep with it, you’ll never find another like it! Look at his doting eyes, and how he has it wiped in case it should be too hot!’

He was joking with Jean, for they both felt cheered by the fine calm bravery of the gunners. But after three rounds the Prussians had readjusted their fire: too long at first, it had become so accurate that the shells were falling straight on the French guns, while the latter, for all their efforts to lengthen the range, were still not getting there. One of Honoré’s gunners, the one to the left of the muzzle, was killed. His body was pushed aside and the loading went on with the same careful, unhurried regularity. Projectiles were coming down from all directions and exploding, but round each gun the same methodical operations went on – charge and shell put in, range checked, shell fired, gun wheeled back into position – as though the men found their job so absorbing that it prevented their seeing or hearing anything else.

But what struck Maurice most was the attitude of the drivers fifteen metres to the rear, sitting bolt upright on their horses, facing the enemy. Adolphe was there, broad-chested, with his heavy fair moustache in the middle of his red face, and you really had to be jolly brave to watch the shells coming straight at you, without batting an eyelid or even being able to bite your thumbs to take your mind off it. The gun crews who were working had something else to think about, but the drivers, motionless, could see nothing but death and had plenty of leisure to think about it and wait for it to come. They were forced to stand facing the enemy because if they had turned their backs men and beasts might have been seized by an irrestible urge to run away. Seeing the danger you face up to it. There is no heroism less in evidence or greater.

Yet another man had had his head blown off, two of the horses on one van were agonizing with their bellies ripped open, and the enemy was keeping up such a murderous fire that the whole battery was going to be put out of action if they hung on to the same position. This terrible bombardment must be foiled in spite of the difficulties of a change of position. Without further hesitation the captain called out the order:

‘Limber up!’

The dangerous movement was carried out with marvellous speed: the drivers about-turned again and brought up the limbers, which the gun crews coupled to the guns. But in carrying out this movement they had strung themselves out into a long front which the enemy took advantage of to redouble his fire. Three more men were lost. The battery cantered on, described an arc over the fields and took up its position some fifty metres further to the right, beyond the 106th on a little eminence. The guns were uncoupled, the drivers once again found themselves facing the enemy, and the bombardment started up again without a break and with such violence that the ground shook without pause.

This time Maurice uttered a cry. Once again, in three rounds, the Prussian batteries had readjusted their fire, and the third shell had fallen right on Honoré’s gun. He was seen leaping forward and feeling the fresh damage with a trembling hand – a big piece chipped off the bronze muzzle. But the gun could still be loaded, and the routine went on after they had cleared the wheels of the body of another of the crew, whose blood had splashed on to the gun-carriage.

‘No, it isn’t young Louis,’ Maurice went on, thinking aloud. ‘There he still is, laying his gun, though he must be wounded, for he’s only using his left arm… Poor little Louis, his marriage with Adolphe was doing so well as long as he, the foot-slogger, for all his superior education, remained the humble servant of the driver, the mounted man…’

Jean, who had kept quiet, broke in with a cry of anguish:

‘They’ll never hold out, we’re done for!’

It was true, and in less than five minutes this second position had become as untenable as the first. Projectiles rained down upon it with the same precision. One shell demolished one gun and killed a lieutenant and two men. Not one of the rounds went astray, so that if they stuck there any longer there would not be a single cannon or gunner left. It was a crushing, overwhelming defeat.

Then the captain’s voice rang out a second time:

‘Limber up!’

The movement started again, the drivers galloped, did their about-wheel so that the crews could hitch up the guns. But this time in the middle of the manoeuvre a splinter of shell went through Louis’s throat and tore away his jaw, and he fell across the trail he was in the act of picking up. And as Adolphe was coming up, just when the line of teams was sideways on, there was a furious volley: he fell with his chest split open and arms flung out. In a final convulsion he put his arms round the other man, and they remained twisted together in a fierce embrace, wedded even in death.

Already, in spite of slain horses and the disorder the murderous volley had spread in the ranks, the whole battery was climbing a slope and establishing itself further forward, a few metres from where Maurice and Jean were lying. For the third time the guns were uncoupled, the drivers found themselves facing the enemy while the crews opened fire again at once with obstinate, invincible heroism.

‘It’s the end of everything!’ said Maurice in a broken voice.

It really seemed as though earth and sky were intermingled. Rocks split and dense smoke sometimes darkened the sun. In the midst of the frightful din the horses looked dazed and stupefied, with their heads down. The captain stood out wherever he was, for he was too tall. He was cut in two and fell like a broken flagstaff.

It was above all round Honoré’s gun that the activity went on, unhurried and steadfast. Stripes or no stripes, he had to get down to the job, for only three of his crew were left. He did the laying and pulled the striker while the three others went to the ammunition waggon, loaded, worked with the cleaning brush and ramrod. They had asked for men and horses from the reserve to fill the gaps made by death, but these were a long time coming and meanwhile they had to make do. The maddening thing was that they were still not reaching target and their shells almost all exploded in the air without doing much harm to those terrible batteries on the other side whose fire was so deadly accurate. But Honoré suddenly let out an oath that could be heard above all the noise of firing – of all the bad luck, the right wheel of his gun had been smashed! Fuck it all, with one leg gone the poor old girl was pitched on her side, nose in the earth, all lopsided and no good for anything! He wept bitter tears and put his groping hands round her neck as though he could set her on her feet again by the sheer warmth of his affection. A gun that was the best of them, the only one to have landed a few shells over there! Then he was seized by a crazy resolve to replace the wheel there and then under fire. When he had gone himself with one of the crew and found a spare wheel in the waggon, the tricky operation began, the most dangerous there could be on the battlefield. Fortunately the relief men and horses had at last come, and two fresh gunners gave a hand.

So once again the battery was in confusion. Foolhardy heroism could not be taken any further. The order to fall back definitely could not long be delayed.

‘Get a move on, chums!’ Honoré kept urging them. ‘We’ll take her away with us anyway, and they won’t get her!’

That was his idea – his gun must be saved, just as you save the flag. And he was still talking when he was struck down, his right arm torn off and his left side split open. He fell over his gun and there he stayed as though lying on a bed of state, his head straight on his shoulders and his face intact and beautiful in its anger as it turned towards the foe. A letter had slipped out of his torn uniform, clenched in his fingers, and his blood was staining it drop by drop.

The only lieutenant still alive called the order:

‘Limber up!’

One waggon had blown up with a noise like fireworks fizzing and exploding. They had to decide to take the horses from another ammunition waggon to save a gun whose team was laid out. And this last time, when the drivers had wheeled round and coupled the four remaining guns, they galloped off and never stopped for a thousand metres until they were behind the first trees of the Garenne wood.

Maurice had seen it all. With a little shiver of horror he went on repeating in a mechanical voice:

‘Oh, poor devil! Poor devil!’

This sorrow seemed to make his gut-twisting pain worse than ever. The animal within him was in revolt, he was at the end of his tether and he was dying of hunger. His eyes were worrying him, and he did not even realize the danger the regiment was now in since the battery had had to retire. At any minute the plateau could be attacked by heavy forces.

‘Look here,’ he said to Jean, ‘I’ve got to have something to eat. I’d rather eat and let them kill me afterwards!’

He opened his pack and took out the loaf with both hands shaking, and began to bite into it voraciously. Bullets whistled by and two shells went off only a few metres away. But nothing existed for him any more, there was only his hunger to be appeased.

‘Want some, Jean?’

Jean was watching him dully, with goggling eyes, for his own stomach was tortured by the same desire.

‘Yes, damn it, I do. It hurts too much.’

They shared it out and finished the loaf off greedily, not bothering about anything else as long as a mouthful was left. It was only afterwards that they caught sight of the colonel again, on his tall horse with his bleeding boot. The 106th was broken on all sides. Some companies had already had to take to flight. So, forced to yield to the torrent, he raised his sword and said with tears in his eyes:

‘Boys, you are in God’s hands, though He hasn’t found much use for us!’

He was surrounded by groups of fugitives, and disappeared into a dip in the ground.

Then, without knowing how they got there, Jean and Maurice found themselves behind the hedge with the remnants of their company. There were only forty men left at the most, commanded by Lieutenant Rochas, and the flag was with them: the second lieutenant carrying it had rolled the silk round the staff to try to save it. They ran along to the end of the hedge and threw themselves down among some little trees on a slope, where Rochas made them reopen fire. The men were now scattered like snipers and were under cover and could hold out, especially as a big cavalry manoeuvre was going on to their right, and regiments were being brought back into line to support it.

Then Maurice understood the slow, inexorable encircling movement that had just reached its completion. In the morning he had seen the Prussians pouring out through the Saint-Albert gap, reaching Saint-Menges, then Fleigneux, and now behind the Garenne wood he could hear the thundering cannon of the Guards and was beginning to see other German uniforms coming over the slopes of Givonne. In a few minutes’ time the ring would close and the Guards would join up with the Vth corps and envelop the French army in a living wall, a deadly girdle of artillery. It must have been some desperate idea of making one last effort, an attempt to break this moving wall, that was behind the massing of a division of reserve cavalry, that of General Margueritte, behind a fold in the hills, in readiness for a charge. They were going to charge against death, with no possible outcome, for the honour of France. Thinking of Prosper, Maurice witnessed the terrible spectacle.

Ever since first thing that morning Prosper had done nothing but urge his horse on in continual marches and counter-marches from end to end of the plateau of Illy. They had been awakened at dawn man by man, without any bugle calls, and to brew some coffee they had managed to put a coat round each fire so as not to give their presence away to the Prussians. Since then they had known nothing of what was going on, they had heard gunfire and seen smoke and distant movements of infantry but, in the complete inactivity in which the generals left them, they knew nothing of the progress of the battle. Prosper was falling about with sleep. This was their great trouble: after bad nights and accumulated fatigue an overpowering drowsiness overcame them as they were gently rocked by the movement of their horses. Prosper had hallucinations, saw himself on the ground and snoring on a mattress of pebbles, dreamed that he was in a nice bed with white sheets. For minutes on end he really dozed off in the saddle and was merely a parcel on the move, borne along wherever his trotting mount liked to take him. Sometimes mates of his had fallen off their horses like that. They were all so dead beat that bugles no longer roused them and they had to be kicked out of oblivion and on to their feet.

‘But what the hell are they up to with us, what are they up to?’ Prosper went on repeating to keep this irresistible torpor at bay.

The guns had been roaring for six hours. As they went up a hill he had had two comrades killed at his side by a shell, and a bit further on three others were left on the ground riddled with bullets coming from nobody knew where. It was exasperating to be out on this useless and dangerous military parade across the battlefield. Finally at about one he realized that they had at any rate made up their minds to have them killed decently. The whole Margueritte division, three regiments of Chasseurs d’Afrique, one of French and one of hussars, had been asembled in a dip of the land slightly below the Calvary, to the left of the road. The trumpets had sounded dismount. And the officers’ command rang out:

‘Tighten girths, secure packs.’

Prosper dismounted, stretched himself and stroked Zephir. Poor Zephir! He was as woebegone as his master, worn out with the silly job he was being made to do. Added to that, he was being made to carry a whole world of stuff: clothing in the saddlebags and rolled coat on top, shirt, trousers, knapsack with medical supplies behind the saddle, and slung across him the bag with provisions, to say nothing of the water-bottle, can and messtin. The rider’s heart was filled with pity and affection as he tightened the straps and made sure everything was secure.

It was a nasty moment. Prosper was no more a coward than the next man, but he lit a cigarette because his mouth was so dry. When you are about to charge, every man can really tell himself: ‘This time I shall stay there!’ This lasted a good five or six minutes, and it was being said that General Margueritte had gone ahead to reconnoitre. They waited. The five regiments were drawn up in three columns, each column seven squadrons deep – plenty of cannon-fodder.

Suddenly the trumpets sounded ‘To horse!’ and almost immediately another call: ‘Draw swords!’

The colonel of each regiment had already galloped forward to his battle position twenty-five metres ahead of the main body. The captains were in their positions at the head of their men. And the waiting began again, in deathly silence. Not a sound, not a breath in the blazing sun. Only their hearts beat fast. One more order, the last, and this inert mass would begin to move and hurtle with the speed of a hurricane.

Just then an officer appeared over the brow of the hill, on his horse, wounded and supported by two men. At first they did not recognize him. Then a muttering began, which spread into a deafening clamour. It was General Margueritte, shot through the jaw by a bullet and near to death. He could not speak. He waved his arm towards the enemy.

The clamour grew louder still.

‘Our general! Revenge, revenge!’

Then the colonel of the first regiment raised his sword in the air and shouted in a voice like thunder:


The trumpets sounded and the mass began to move, at first at a trot. Prosper was in the front rank, but almost at the end of the right wing. The greatest danger was in the centre, where the enemy instinctively concentrates his fire. When they had scaled the top of the Calvary hill and were beginning to go down the further side towards the broad plain he had a clear view, some thousand metres ahead, of the Prussian squares against which they were being hurled. For all that, he was riding in a dream, feeling as light and disembodied as a man in his sleep, with an extraordinary vacuum in his brain which left him without a single idea – in fact a machine functioning with irresistible impetus. They kept repeating ‘Close up! Close up!’ so as to close the ranks as tightly as possible and give them a granite-like solidity. Then as the pace quickened and changed into a mad gallop, the Chasseurs d’Afrique, as in the Arab fashion, uttered wild yells that maddened their mounts. This furious gallop soon turned into a diabolical race, hell’s own stampede, with its savage catcalls accompanied by the patter of bullets like hailstones on metal things, messtins, water-bottles, the brass on uniforms and harness. In this hail blew a hurricane of wind and din that made the earth tremble, and into the sunshine rose a smell of scorching wool and the sweat of savage beasts.

After five hundred metres Prosper took a fall when a dreadful swerving movement sent everything flying. He seized Zephir by the mane and managed to get back into the saddle. The centre raked by the enemy fire and forced back, had faltered, while the two wings whirled round and fell back in order to recover their impetus. It was the inevitable, foreseeable annihilation of the first squadron. The ground was littered with dead horses, some killed outright, others still writhing in violent death-throes, and unhorsed men could be seen running as fast as their little legs would carry them, looking for another horse. The plain was already strewn with dead, many riderless horses were still careering about and making of their own accord for their place in the line and dashing on into the enemy fire at a mad pace as if drawn on by the smell of powder. The charge was resumed and the second wave was now advancing with increasing fury, men bent low along their horses’ necks, holding their sabres at the knee, ready to slash. Two hundred metres more were covered amid the deafening clamour. But once again the centre gave way, men and animals fell and stopped the charge with the inextricable clutter of their corpses. So the second squadron was mown down in its turn, annihilated, yielding its place to those who followed.

Then, in the heroic determination of the third charge, Prosper found himself involved with hussars and French chasseurs. Regiments no longer meant anything, and now there was simply an enormous wave continually breaking and re-forming to carry away all it met. He no longer had any notion of what was happening, but abandoned himself to his horse, that good old Zephir he loved so much and who seemed to have been driven crazy by a wounded ear. He was in the centre now, other horses were rearing and falling round him, some men were thrown to the ground as though they were blown down, while others, killed instantly, were still in the saddle, still charging with unseeing eyes. And this time, behind the two hundred fresh metres gained, the fields came back into view covered with dead and dying. There were some with their heads rammed into the ground. Others had fallen on their backs and were staring at the sun with terrified eyes starting from their sockets. There was a big black horse, with its belly open and vainly trying to get back on to its feet because its legs were caught in its entrails. Under the increasing fire the wings turned about yet again and gathered themselves together for another furious return.

So it was at last only the fourth squadron, the fourth wave, that came into contact with the Prussian lines. Prosper, with raised sabre, slashed on helmets and dark uniforms which he saw through a haze. Blood was flowing, and he noticed that Zephir’s mouth was bleeding, and thought it was from biting into the enemy ranks.The clamour all round was such that he could not hear himself shout, though his throat felt lacerated by the yelling that must be coming out of it. But behind the first Prussian line there was another, and another and yet another. Heroism was unavailing, for these deep masses of men were like tall vegetation into which horses and men disappeared. However many you mowed down there were still plenty there. Fire continued with such intensity at point-blank range that some uniforms were set alight. Everything collapsed and was swallowed up amid the bayonets, chests cut open and skulls split. Regiments were going to leave two thirds of their strength there, and all that remained of this famous charge was the glorious folly of having attempted it. All of a sudden Zephir was hit by a bullet full in the chest and down he went, crushing beneath him Prosper’s right haunch, and the pain was so intense that he lost consciousness.

Maurice and Jean had looked on at the heroic gallop of the squadrons, and they exclaimed in anger:

‘Good God, what’s the use of being brave?’

They went on firing their rifles as they crouched behind the brushwood on the little hillock where they found themselves sniping. Rochas himself had picked up a rifle and was shooting. But this time the Illy plateau was well and truly lost, and the Prussian troops were swarming on to it from all sides. It must have been about two o’clock, the junction was now completed, and the Vth corps and the Prussian Guard had met and closed the trap.

Jean was suddenly knocked over.

‘I’ve got my ticket,’ he muttered.

It had been like a violent hammer-blow on the top of his head, and his képi was knocked off and lay in shreds on the ground behind him. For a moment he thought his skull was open and his brains exposed, and for a second or two he dared not feel with his hand for he was certain there would be a hole. When he did venture his fingers came away red from a copious bleeding. The pain was so terrible that he fainted.

Just then Rochas was ordering them to fall back. There was a Prussian company not more than two or three hundred metres away. They would be caught.

‘Don’t rush, turn round and fire as you go. We’ll find each other down there by that low wall.’

But Maurice was in desperation.

‘Sir, we aren’t going to leave our corporal here, are we?’

‘If his number’s up what do you propose to do about it?’

‘No, no, he’s breathing all right… Let’s carry him!’

With a shrug of the shoulders Rochas suggested that they couldn’t clutter themselves up with everybody who fell. On the battlefield the wounded cease to count. So Maurice implored Pache and Lapoulle:

‘Come on, give me a hand. I’m not strong enough on my own.’

They took no notice, couldn’t hear, were only concerned with themselves, with the sharpened instinct of self-preservation. Already they were moving along on their knees as fast as they could go, out of sight behind the wall. The Prussians were now only a hundred metres away.

Weeping with rage, Maurice, now alone with the unconscious Jean, took him in his arms and tried to carry him. But he was indeed too weak, fragile in build as well as overcome with fatigue and suffering. If only he could still see an ambulance man! He searched with desperate eyes, thinking he could make out some of them among the fugitives, and waved wildly. Nobody came back. He summoned all his remaining strength, took hold of Jean again and managed to move some thirty paces, and when a shell burst near them he thought it was all over and that he too was going to die on the body of his friend.

But he slowly got up again, felt himself all over, nothing wrong, not a scratch. Why not run away? There was still time, he could reach that low wall in a few bounds and would be safe. His fear came back and was turning into panic. He took one leap and was rushing away when he was checked by a bond stronger than death. No, it was impossible, he couldn’t abandon Jean. His whole body would have bled, the brotherly love that had grown up between this peasant and himself went down into the depths of his being, the very root of life itself. Perhaps it went back to the earliest days of the world, and it was as if there were only two men left in existence, and the one could not abandon the other without abandoning himself.

If Maurice had not eaten that crust of bread under fire an hour before he would never have found the strength to do what he now did. Not that he could remember anything about it later. He must have got Jean up on to his shoulders and then dragged himself along, with a score of failures and fresh starts, through stubble and briars, tripping over every boulder but somehow getting up again. Only invincible will-power kept him going and gave him strength that would have carried a mountain. Behind the low wall he found Rochas and the few men of the squad, still firing, defending the flag which the subaltern was holding under his arm.

No line of retreat had been indicated to the various army corps in the event of failure. This muddle and lack of foresight left each general free to act as he thought fit, and now they all found themselves being thrown back into Sedan in the formidable clutches of the victorious German armies. The second division of the 7th corps was withdrawing in reasonably good order, but the remnants of the other divisions, intermingled with those of the 1st corps, were already rushing towards the town in a frightful rabble, a torrent of anger and terror sweeping along men and beasts alike.

And then Maurice saw with joy that Jean’s eyes were opening, and as he ran over to a little stream for water to wash his face, he was very surprised to see once again on his right, down in a quiet valley, sheltered by the steep hills, the same peasant he had seen in the morning, who was still slowly ploughing, guiding his plough behind a big white horse. Why lose a day? They might be fighting, but that was no reason why the corn should stop growing and the world stop living.