UP on the flat roof where he had gone to take in the situation, Delaherche once again became impatient to know. Of course he could see that the shells were passing over the town and that the three or four which had damaged the roofs of neighbouring houses must be just casual replies to such slow and inefficient fire from the Palatinate fort. But he could not make out anything about the battle itself, and there was inside him an urgent need for information, sharpened by fear of losing his fortune and his life in the catastrophe. So he went down, leaving his telescope trained in the direction where the German batteries were.
But when he got downstairs he was held for a moment by the state of the central garden of the factory. It was nearly one, and the casualty station was crammed with wounded. The line of vehicles coming through the gateway was endless. Already the regulation two-wheel or four-wheel carts were insufficient, and now artillery ammunition waggons were appearing, forage or supply vans, anything that could be commandeered on the battlefield, and now indeed there were even traps and farm carts taken from farms and hitched to stray horses. Into them had been piled wounded picked up by the first-aid men and given emergency dressings. It was a horrible unloading of poor wretches, some with the greenish pallor of death on them, others purple with congestion, many unconscious, others screaming, some so stupefied that they gave themselves to the orderlies with terrified eyes while others died of shock as soon as they were touched. The crowd was so dense that all the mattresses in the huge low shed were on the point of being used up, and Major Bouroche ordered the straw to be used, a large supply of which he had had put at one end. But so far he and his assistants could cope with the operations. All he had asked for was another table, with a mattress and American cloth over it, in the operating shed. An orderly quickly thrust a towel soaked in chloroform under the patient’s nose. Little steel scissors gleamed, saws made a tiny file-like sound, blood squirted out in sudden jets, to be stopped at once. Patients for operation were brought up and carried away in a rapid shuttle-service, with just time for the American cloth to be wiped with a sponge. At the further end of the lawn, behind a clump of laburnums, into the charnel-house they had had to make there to get the dead out of the way, they also threw amputated legs and arms and all the bits of flesh and bone left on the tables.
Madame Delaherche and Gilberte were sitting under one of the big trees and could not manage to roll enough bandages. Bouroche, rushing by red-faced and with his apron already red, threw a bundle of linen to Delaherche and shouted:
‘Look here, why don’t you do something and make yourself useful!’
But the mill-owner protested:
‘Excuse me, I must go again and find out what the news is. We don’t know whether we’re alive or dead.’
He touched his wife’s hair with his lips.
‘Poor Gilberte, to think that one shell can set fire to all this! It’s terrifying.’
She was very pale, she looked up and glanced round with a shudder. Then her involuntary, irresistible smile came to her lips.
‘Oh yes, terrible, all these men being cut up… It’s funny that I can stick it without fainting.’
Madame Delaherche had watched her son kiss the young woman’s hair. She made a little movement as though to thrust the thing out of sight, thinking of the other one, the man who must also have kissed that hair last night. Her old hands shook and she murmured:
‘Oh God, what suffering! It makes you forget your own.’
Delaherche went off, saying he would be back in a moment with definite news. Even in the rue Maqua he was surprised by the number of soldiers coming back with no weapons, their uniforms in tatters and filthy with dust. But he could not get any exact details out of those he took the trouble to question: some answered in a daze that they didn’t know, others talked so much and with such a frenzy of gesture and extravagance of words that they might have been mad. So he instinctively made for the Sub-Prefecture again, with the idea that all the news went there. As he was crossing the Place du Collège two cannons, probably the only two left out of a battery, dashed up and were stopped by a kerbstone. In the Grande-Rue he had to admit that the town was beginning to get overcrowded with the first fugitives. Three hussars who had lost their horses were sitting in a doorway and sharing a loaf, two others were slowly leading their horses along by the bridle with no idea where to stable them, officers were frantically running hither and thither, apparently not knowing where they were making for. On the Place Turenne a second lieutenant advised him not to hang about because quite a few shells were coming down, and a fragment had even broken the railing surrounding the statue of the Great Captain, conqueror of the Palatinate. And indeed, as he slipped quickly along the rue de la Sous-Préfecture, he saw two projectiles burst with a terrific noise on the Meuse bridge.
He was standing in front of the concierge’s lodge trying to think up an excuse to ask for one of the aides-de-camp and question him, when a young voice hailed him:
‘Monsieur Delaherche!… Come in quick, this is no time to be outside.’
It was Rose, his employee, whom he had forgotten. Thanks to her all doors would open for him. He went into the lodge and accepted a seat.
‘Just fancy, it’s made Mother ill and she’s gone to bed. As you see, there’s only me because Dad is a National Guard at the citadel. Just now the Emperor wanted to show that he was still brave, and he went out again and managed to get to the end of the street, as far as the bridge. One shell even fell in front of him and the horse of one of his equerries was killed. And then he came back again… Well, what can you expect him to do?’
‘So you know how things are… What are these gentlemen saying?’
She looked at him in amazement. She was still young and fresh and gay, with her pretty hair and childlike eyes, busying herself about the place amid these abominations that she didn’t really understand.
‘No, I don’t know anything… At about twelve I took a letter up for Marshal MacMahon. The Emperor was with him… They were shut up together for an hour, the marshal in bed and the Emperor sitting on a chair close to the bed. That I do know because I saw them when somebody opened the door.’
‘Well, what were they talking about?’
She stared at him again and could not help laughing.
‘I don’t know, how do you expect me to know? Nobody in the world knows what they said to each other.’
Of course it was true, and with a gesture he apologized for his silly question. Yet he was haunted by the thought of this fateful conversation: how important it must have been and what decision had they reached?
‘Now,’ Rose went on, ‘the Emperor has gone back to his private room where he is in conference with two generals who have just come from the battlefield.’
She stopped short and glanced at the steps.
‘Look, that’s one of them… And there’s the other.’
He quickly went out and recognized General Douay and General Ducrot, whose horses were waiting. He watched them mount and gallop away. After the evacuation of the plateau of Illy they had hurried separately to warn the Emperor that the battle was lost. They gave him details of the situation; the army and Sedan were from now on hemmed in on all sides, and the disaster would be appalling.
In his room the Emperor paced up and down in silence for some time, with the faltering step of a sick man. There was only one aide-de-camp there with him, standing silent by a door. He went on walking to and fro between the fireplace and the window, and his haggard face was now drawn up by a nervous tic. His back seemed even more bowed, as though a whole world was collapsing upon it, and his lifeless eyes beneath the heavy lids betokened the resignation of the fatalist who has played his last card against destiny and lost. Yet each time he came back to the open window he paused there and winced.
At one of these momentary pauses he raised a shaky hand and murmured:
‘Oh, those guns, those guns, ever since first thing!’
Indeed the thunder of the batteries at La Marfée and Frénois was extraordinarily loud at that particular place. The rumbling of the thunder shook windowpanes and the very walls themselves with an obstinate, ceaseless, exasperating din. And he must be thinking that from then onwards the struggle was hopeless and any further resistance criminal. What was the point of any more bloodshed, limbs mangled, heads blown off, still more dead added to the other dead throughout the campaign? Since they were beaten and it was finished, why go on with the massacre? Enough abomination and grief was already crying to high heaven.
The Emperor came back to the window and again raised his trembling hands:
‘Oh those guns, those guns, on and on!’
Perhaps the terrible vision of his responsibilities rose before him, of the bleeding corpses his misdeeds had strewn over the fields in thousands; perhaps it was just the sentimental pity of a dreamer’s heart, of a good man haunted by humanitarian ideas. In this dreadful blow of fate that broke off and carried away his own fortune like a wisp of straw he could find tears for others, and was horrified at the continuing useless butchery, too weak to bear it any longer. Now this murderous cannonade seemed to hit him in the chest and redouble his pain.
‘Oh those guns, those guns, stop them at once, at once!’
This Emperor without a throne since he had handed over his powers to the Empress-Regent, this commander-in-chief who no longer commanded since he had invested Marshal Bazaine with the supreme command, now had a reawakening of power, an irresistible desire to be master one last time. Ever since Châlons he had effaced himself, had not given a single order, but resigned himself to being a nondescript, useless thing, an embarrassing package transported in the army baggage. The Emperor in him was aroused, but only for defeat, and the first and only order he was still to give, out of a heart filled with terror and pity, was to hoist the white flag over the citadel and ask for an armistice.
‘Oh those guns, those guns… Get anything, a sheet, a tablecloth! Hurry and say they must be stopped!’
The aide-de-camp rushed out and the Emperor went on with his stumbling walk from the fireplace to the window while the batteries thundered on, shaking the whole building.
Down below Delaherche was still talking to Rose when a duty sergeant rushed in.
‘Mademoiselle, we can’t find anything and I can’t run a maid to earth… You don’t happen to have any white material, a piece of white cloth?’
‘Would you like a towel?’
‘No, no, that’s not big enough… Half a sheet, for example.’
Rose was already obligingly running to a cupboard.
‘But I haven’t got a sheet cut in half!… A big piece of white material? No, I can’t see anything that would do…Oh, but would you like a tablecloth?’
‘Yes, that’s fine. That’ll do perfectly.’
As he went off he added:
‘We’re going to make it into a white flag that will be put up over the citadel to ask for peace… Thanks very much, Mademoiselle.’
Delaherche almost jumped for joy in spite of himself. At last they were going to be quiet! Then, this joy seemed unpatriotic and he checked it. But all the same his heart throbbed with relief, and he saw a colonel, a captain and the sergeant run out of the Sub-Prefecture. The colonel was carrying the rolled cloth under his arm. Delaherche thought he would follow them, and left Rose, who was very proud of having supplied this piece of linen. At that moment it was striking two.
In front of the Hôtel de Ville Delaherche was pushed about by a stream of scruffy soldiers coming down from the Cassine district. He lost sight of the colonel and set aside his curiosity to see the white flag run up. He would certainly not be allowed to enter the Keep, and besides, as he heard that shells were coming down on the school a new fear came over him – suppose his mill had caught fire since he left it. He hurried along, giving in again to his feverish need to keep on the move and finding relief in the mere fact of rushing about like this. But the streets were blocked by groups of people and there were fresh obstacles at every corner. It was only back in the rue Maqua again that he sighed with pleasure on seeing the monumental front of his house intact, with no smoke or sparks. He went in, shouting from a distance to his mother and his wife:
In the huge drying-shed, the big door of which was left open, not only were all the mattresses occupied, but there was no room even on the straw scattered at the one end. They were beginning to put down straw between the beds, packing the wounded tight against one another. Already there were more than two hundred of them and they were still coming in. A white light from the big windows lit up all this heap of human suffering. Sometimes, if somebody was moved too roughly, there would be an involuntary scream. The hot, damp air was filled with the gasps of the dying. At the far end a soft, almost sing-song whimpering went on and on. Then the silence was deeper still, it was a kind of resigned stupor, the miserable exhaustion of the death-chamber, only relieved by the footsteps or whispers of the orderlies. Wounds hastily dressed on the battlefield, and some even still uncovered, could be seen in all their distress amid tattered coats and torn trousers. Feet were sticking out with boots still on, but crushed and bleeding. Limbs were dangling loose from knees and elbows that looked as if they had been broken with a hammer. There were crushed hands, fingers almost torn off and only held on by a thread of skin. Fractured legs and arms were the most common things, stiff with pain and heavy as lead. But the most upsetting wounds were gaping stomachs, chests or heads. Some men’s trunks were bleeding through dreadful gashes, and knots of twisted entrails pushed up the skin, vital organs that had been pierced or hacked, twisted men into grotesque attitudes and paroxysms. Lungs had been shot
right through, some with a hole so tiny that there was no bleeding, but others with an open gash through which the life-blood ebbed away in a red stream, and unseen internal haemorrhages struck men down all of a sudden in raving delirium and turned them black. Heads had suffered even worse things, smashed jaws with tongue and teeth a bleeding mess, eye-sockets driven in and eyes half out, skulls split open with brains visible. All those whose spinal cord or brain had been reached by bullets were like corpses, in a deathlike coma, while the others, those with fractures or feverish temperatures, were softly begging for something to drink.
Then in the operating shed next door there was a fresh horror. In this first rush only urgent operations were being done, the ones that had to be done because of the desperate condition of the patients. Any danger of haemorrhage made Bouroche decide on immediate amputation. Neither could he stop to look for bullets buried in wounds and remove them if they had lodged in some dangerous place, such as the bottom of the neck, the region of the armpit or groin, or in the elbow or back of the knee. Other wounds that he preferred to leave for observation were just dressed by orderlies under his supervision. Already he had done four amputations, spacing them out by taking ‘rest’ periods, during which he extracted a few bullets, between the major operations, and now he was beginning to tire. There were only two tables, his and one where one of his assistants was working. They had hung up a sheet between the two so that men being operated on could not see each other. However well they were sponged down the tables remained red, and the buckets they emptied a few steps away over a bed of daisies – buckets in which a single glassful of blood was enough to turn the clear water red – looked like pailfuls of pure blood, great sploshes of which covered the flowerbeds in the lawn. Although the fresh air came in freely a revolting stench rose from the tables, bandages and instruments in the sickly smell of chloroform.
A kindly man at bottom, Delaherche was shuddering with pity when his attention was caught by a landau coming through the gateway. Presumably this grand carriage was all they had managed to find, and it was piled with wounded, eight of them one on top of the other. Delaherche uttered a cry of astonishment and horror when he saw that the last one to be carried out was Captain Beaudoin.
‘Oh, poor fellow!… Just a minute, I’ll call my mother and my wife.’
They rushed up, leaving the bandage-rolling to two maids. The orderlies who had seized the captain were carrying him into the shed and were about to lay him on a heap of straw when Delaherche noticed on a mattress a soldier motionless, with ashen face and staring eyes.
‘But look, that one’s dead!’
‘Oh yes, so he is,’ murmured an orderly. ‘No use having him cluttering up the place.’
And he and a comrade took the corpse and carried it off to the charnel-house they had made behind the laburnums. There were already a dozen or so dead put out there just as they had stiffened at the end, some with feet thrust out as though they had been on the rack with pain, others all deformed and twisted in horrible postures. Some were grinning, with white eyes and teeth showing between turned-back lips, and many of them, with drawn and terribly sad faces, were still weeping bitterly. One very young fellow, short and thin with half his head gone, was still convulsively clasping on his heart with both hands a woman’s photo, one of those dim photos from a suburban shop, and it was splashed with blood. And at the feet of the dead were the heaps of arms and legs, and in fact anything cut out or hacked off on the operating tables, the sweepings of a butcher’s shop when he had swept the refuse of flesh and bones into a corner.
When she saw Captain Beaudoin Gilberte had shuddered. Oh God, how pale he looked as he lay on that mattress, with his face quite white under the dirt that soiled it! The thought that only a few hours ago he had held her in his arms and was so full of life and smelt so sweet, froze her with horror. She knelt down.
‘How dreadful, my dear! But it isn’t anything, is it?’
She automatically took out her handkerchief and dabbed his face, finding him unbearable in that state, filthy with sweat, earth and powder. She felt she was relieving his pain by cleaning him up a little.
‘It isn’t anything, is it? It’s only your leg!’
The captain, who was in a sort of drowsy sleep, opened his eyes with difficulty. He recognized his friends and was trying to smile at them.
‘Yes, only my leg… I didn’t even feel it happen, I thought I had stumbled and was falling…’
But he was finding it difficult to speak.
‘Oh I’m thirsty, I’m thirsty.’
Then Madame Delaherche, who had been leaning over the other side of the mattress, got busy. She ran off for a glass and a flask of water with a few drops of brandy in it. When the captain had greedily drunk off a glass she had to share out the rest between the other wounded near-by – every hand was stretched out and urgent voices were imploring. A Zouave, for whom there was none left, burst into tears.
Meanwhile Delaherche was trying to speak to the major so as to get some favourable treatment for the captain. Bouroche had just come into the shed with his bloodstained apron and heavy face sweating, looking as if it was on fire under his leonine mane, and as he went by men raised themselves up and tried to stop him, all anxious to be seen to at once, to be helped and to know: ‘Come to me, doctor, me!’ He was pursued by incoherent prayers and clutching fingers touched his clothes. But he was entirely wrapped up in his job, puffing wearily as he went on organizing the work without listening to anybody. He talked aloud to himself, counted the cases on his fingers, giving them numbers and classifications: this one, that one, then the other, one, two, three, a jaw, an arm, a leg, while the assistant with him listened hard so as to try to remember.
‘Major,’ said Delaherche, ‘there’s a captain here, Captain Beaudoin…’
Bouroche cut him short.
‘What! Beaudoin here? Oh, poor bugger!’
He went and stood in front of the wounded man. But he must have seen at a glance how serious the case was, for he went straight on, without even stooping to examine the injured leg.
‘All right, they’ll bring him to me straight away, as soon as I have done the operation now being got ready.’
He went back to the operating shed, followed by Delaherche, determined not to let him go for fear he might forget his promise.
This time it was the disarticulation of a shoulder by the Lisfranc method, what surgeons call a nice operation, a neat and quick job, scarcely forty seconds in all. They were already chloroforming the patient, and an assistant seized his shoulder with both hands, four fingers of each under the armpit and the thumb on top. Then Bouroche, armed with his long knife, shouted: ‘Sit him up,’ grasped the deltoid, cut into the arm and through the muscle; then stepping back he detached the joint in one go and the arm was off, amputated in three movements. The assistant had moved his thumbs along to stop the blood from the humeral artery. ‘Lay him down again!’ Bouroche couldn’t help chuckling as he went on to the ligature, for he had done the job in thirty-five seconds. All that had to be done now was to pull the bit of loose flesh down over the wound, like a flat epaulette. It was a nice, tricky business because of the danger, as a man could empty out all his blood in three minutes through the humeral artery, to say nothing of the risk of death every time you sit a patient up when he is under chloroform.
Delaherche was frozen with horror and would have liked to run away. But there was no time, the arm being already on the table. The soldier who had had his arm amputated, a recruit, a hefty peasant, was regaining consciousness and caught sight of the arm being taken by an orderly to the place behind the laburnums. He glanced at his shoulder and saw it cut and bleeding. He flew into a furious rage.
‘Oh Christ, what a bloody silly trick you’ve done!’
Bouroche was too tired to answer at once. Then with man-to-man heartiness:
‘I did it for the best, I didn’t want you to peg out, my boy… Anyhow, I did consult you, and you said yes!’
‘I said yes! I said yes! How could I know what I was saying?’
His anger vanished and he began to cry bitterly.
‘What’s the fucking good of me now?’
He was carried back to the straw, the American cloth and table were vigorously swabbed, and once again the pails of red water were thrown over the lawn and bloodied the whole bed of daisies.
Delaherche was amazed that he could still hear the guns. Why hadn’t they stopped? Surely Rose’s tableloth must now be hoisted above the citadel. It seemed, on the contrary, that the Prussians’ fire was growing in intensity. The ear-splitting din shook even the least nervous from head to foot in growing distress. It could hardly be good for operators or patients, for these explosions pulled your insides out. The whole ambulance station was upset by them and being strained to breaking-point.
‘It was over, what are they going on for?’ cried Delaherche, straining his ears all the time, thinking that each shot he heard was the last.
Then as he was making for Bouroche to remind him about the captain, he was astonished to find him on a bale of straw on the ground, lying on his front with both arms bare to the shoulders and thrust into two buckets of ice-cold water. At the end of his moral and physical resources, the major was trying to relax like this, for he was stunned and knocked out by immense sadness and despair – at one of those moments when a practitioner is in agony over his own apparent powerlessness. Yet he was a strong man, thick-skinned and stout-hearted. But he had been struck by the ‘what’s the use?’ and the feeling that he would never do it all, could never do it all, had suddenly paralysed him. What was the use? Death would always come out the strongest!
Two orderlies brought Captain Beaudoin up on a stretcher.
‘Major,’ Delaherche ventured to say, ‘here’s the captain.’
Bouroche opened his eyes, took his arms out of the pails, gave them a shake and wiped them on the straw. Then getting up on to his knees:
‘Oh yes, fuck it, another of them!… Oh well, come on, the day’s not over yet!’
Already he was on his feet and refreshed, shaking his leonine head with its tawny mane, having got himself back to normal by professional habit and ruthless self-discipline.
Gilberte and Madame Delaherche had followed the stretcher and they remained standing at a little distance when the captain had been laid on the mattress with the American cloth over it.
‘Right, it’s above the right ankle,’ Bouroche was saying, for he always talked a lot to take the patient’s mind off it. ‘Not too bad in that place, you get over it quite well… Let’s have a look at it.’
But it was clear that he was worried about the torpor of Beaudoin’s condition. He looked at the emergency dressing, which was just a simple band, tightened and held over the trouser-leg by a bayonet sheath. He muttered between his teeth, wondering what sort of silly clot had done that. But then he suddenly went quiet for he understood – it must have happened on the journey, in the landau full of wounded, that the bandage had come loose and slipped down, no longer pressing on the wound, and that had caused a severe haemorrhage.
Bouroche took it out violently on an orderly who was helping him.
‘You clumsy sod, cut it away, quick!’
The orderly cut away the trouser leg and pants underneath, also the sock and boot. The leg and the foot could now be seen, colourless bare flesh flecked with blood. Above the ankle there was a terrible hole into which the fragment of shell had driven a piece of red cloth. A lump of jagged flesh and muscle was sticking out of the wound in a mass of pulp.
Gilberte had to support herself against one of the posts of the shed. Oh that flesh, such white flesh, and now bloody and mangled! For all her horror she could not take her eyes off it.
‘Gosh!’ declared Bouroche. ‘They’ve made a fine old job of you!’
He touched the foot, which was cold, and he could feel no pulse. His face became very grave, with a puckering of the lip that he always had over desperate cases.
‘Gosh!’ he said again. ‘That’s a bad foot!’
The captain, whose anxiety woke him out of his daze, watched him and waited, and at length he said:
‘You think so, major?’
Bouroche’s tactics were never to ask a wounded man directly for the usual permission when an amputation was clearly necessary. He preferred the patient to come round to it himself.
‘Bad foot!’ he murmured as though thinking aloud. ‘We shan’t be able to save it.’
Nervously Beaudoin went on:
‘Look here, it’s got to be faced, major. What do you think?’
‘I think you are a brave man, captain, and that you’re going to let me do what’s necessary.’
Beaudoin’s eyes lost their lustre and seemed to cloud over with a sort of reddish mist. He had understood. But in spite of the unbearable fear choking him, he answered simply and with courage:
‘Carry on, major.’
The preparations did not take long. Already the assistant had in readiness the cloth soaked in chloroform and it was at once held under the patient’s nose. Then, at the exact moment when the brief spasm preceding unconsciousness occurred, two orderlies moved the captain along on the mattress so as to have his legs accessible, and one held the left leg and supported it, while an assistant seized the right and squeezed it tight with both hands up near the groin to compress the arteries.
When she saw Bouroche drawing near with his narrow knife Gilberte could bear it no longer.
‘No, no! It’s horrible!’
She was swooning and holding on to Madame Delaherche, who had to put her arm out to save her from falling.
‘Why stay, then?’
Yet both women did stay. They turned their heads away, trying not to see, and stood there rooted to the spot and trembling, clinging to each other although there was so little love lost between them.
It was certainly at this hour of the day that the thunder of the guns was at its worst. It was now three, and Delaherche, feeling let down and exasperated, declared that it was beyond his comprehension. For now there was no doubt about it that, far from stopping, the Prussian batteries were redoubling their fire. Why? What was going on? It was a hellish bombardment, the ground shook and the very air was on fire. All round Sedan the eight hundred pieces of German equipment, a girdle of bronze, were firing at once, blasting the fields with a continuous thunder, and this converging fire, all these surrounding heights aiming at the centre, would burn and pulverize the town within two hours. The worst of it was that shells were beginning to come down on houses again. More and more crashes could be heard. One shell went off in the rue des Voyards. Another knocked a bit off one of the tall chimneys of the mill and rubble came down outside the shed.
Bouroche glanced up and growled:
‘Do they want to finish our wounded off? This row is unbearable.’
However, the orderly was holding the captain’s leg out straight, and, with a rapid incision all round, the major cut the skin below the knee, five centimetres below the point where he intended to cut through the bones. Then at once, using the same thin knife which he did not change so as not to waste time, he took off the skin and raised it all round like peeling an orange. But as he was about to cut through the muscles an orderly came up and whispered into his ear:
‘Number two’s gone.’
In the appalling din the major could not hear.
‘Speak up, for God’s sake! Those bloody guns are splitting my ears.’
‘Number two’s gone.’
‘Which is number two?’
‘Oh, all right… Well, bring along number three, that’s the jaw.’
With wonderful skill, and without any hesitation, he cut the muscles with a single stroke right down to the bones, laying bare the tibia and fibula between which he put a three-tailed compress to keep them in position. Then he cut them through with one stroke of the saw. The foot remained in the hands of the orderly who was holding it.
There was little loss of blood thanks to the pressure being applied higher up round the thigh by the assistant. The ligature of the three arteries was rapidly done. But the major was shaking his head, and when his assistant had taken away his fingers he examined the wound, and feeling sure that the patient could not yet hear he murmured:
‘It’s the devil, there’s no blood coming through the arterioles.’
And he finished his diagnosis with a gesture: one more poor bugger done for! Fatigue and an immense sadness had come back to his sweating face, the despairing ‘what’s the use?’, since they weren’t saving four out of ten. He mopped his brow and began to put back the skin to do the three stitchings.
Gilberte had just turned round again, as Delaherche had told her it was all over and she could look. But she did see the captain’s foot that the orderly was taking away behind the laburnums. The charnel-house was still piling up, two more dead were laid out there, one with his mouth unnaturally open and black, looking as though he were still shrieking, and the other screwed up in an awful death-struggle that had reduced him to the size of a sickly and deformed child. Worst of all, the pile of human remains was now overflowing on to the path. Not knowing where he could decently put the capain’s foot, the orderly hesitated and then made up his mind to throw it on to the pile.
‘Well, that’s that!’ said the major to Beaudoin as they revived him. ‘You’ll be all right now.’
But the captain had nothing like that happy awakening that follows successful operations. He sat up a little and then fell back, gasping in a lifeless voice:
‘Thank you, major. I’m glad it’s over.’
But then he felt the sting of the spirit dressing. And as the stretcher was being brought up to take him away a terrible explosion shook the whole factory. It was a shell that had exploded behind the shed, in the little yard where the pump was. Windows were shattered and a thick smoke came into the ambulance station. In the other hall the wounded had risen in panic from their straw beds and were all screaming with fear and trying to run away.
Delaherche rushed off in a frenzy to assess the damage. Were they going to burn down and destroy his house now? What on earth was going on, then? If the Emperor wanted it to stop why had they started again?
‘For God’s sake, stir your stumps!’ Bouroche bawled to the orderlies. ‘Come on, wash down the table and bring me number three!’
They swabbed the table and once more threw the pails of water over the lawn. The bed of daisies was now nothing but a bloodstained mess, greenery and flowers all mangled up in blood. The major, to whom number three had been brought, began by way of a restful change to look for a bullet which after breaking the lower jawbone must have buried itself under the tongue. There was a great deal of blood which made his fingers all sticky.
In the main hall Captain Beaudoin was back on his mattress, and Gilberte and Madame Delaherche had followed the stretcher. Even Delaherche, upset though he was, came and chatted for a moment.
‘Just relax, captain, we’ll get a room ready and have you with us.’
But the stricken man roused out of his stupor and had a moment of lucidity.
‘No, I’m sure I’m going to die.’
He looked at all three of them with staring eyes full of the fear of death.
He shook his head, now looking only at her, and his eyes betrayed an immense longing for life and dismay at going off like this before his time and without exhausting the joys of life.
‘I’m going to die, I’m going to die… Oh it’s awful!’
Then he caught sight of his dirty, torn uniform and black hands and seemed to be embarrassed about being in such a state in front of women. He felt ashamed of letting himself go like this, and the thought that he was lacking in good manners finally gave him back quite a jaunty air. He managed to go on in a joking tone:
‘Only, if I die I should like to die with clean hands… Madame, it would be so kind of you if you could moisten a towel and give it to me.’
Gilberte ran off and came back with the towel and insisted on wiping his hands herself. From then on he displayed very great courage, anxious to end like a man of good breeding. Delaherche said comforting things and helped his wife to make him presentable. As she watched this dying man, and both husband and wife busying themselves for him in this way, old Madame Delaherche felt her resentment melt away. Once again she would hold her peace, though she knew and had sworn to tell her son everything. What was to be gained by casting a blight on the home since death was washing away the sin?
It was soon over. Captain Beaudoin was losing strength and he relapsed into his exhaustion. His forehead and neck were bathed in icy sweat. He opened his eyes again for a moment and groped as though he were feeling for an imaginary blanket that he began to pull up to his chin with a weak but determined movement of his twisted hands.
‘Oh I’m cold, I’m so cold.’
And he departed, snuffed out with not even a gasp, and his face, calm but drawn, had kept its expression of infinite sadness.
Delaherche saw to it that the body was placed in a near-by coach-house instead of being thrown on to the heap. He tried to force Gilberte, who was weeping uncontrollably, to go indoors. But she said she would be too frightened now to be alone, and preferred to stay with her mother-in-law amid the activity of the ambulance station, which took her mind off things. In a moment she was off to give a drink to a Chasseur d’Afrique who was wandering in delirium, and then she helped an orderly to bandage the hand of a young soldier, a twenty-year-old recruit, who had walked all the way from the battlefield with a thumb off, and as he was nice and funny, joking about his wound with the detached air of a Parisian wag, she even managed to laugh with him.
During the death agony of the captain the bombardment seemed to have got still worse, and a second shell had come down in the garden and had snapped one of the century-old trees. Terrified people were screaming that the whole of Sedan was on fire, and indeed a major fire had broken out in the Cassine district. It was the end of everything if this bombardment went on with such violence for long.
‘It just isn’t possible, I’m going back!’ said Delaherche, beside himself.
‘Where to?’ asked Bouroche.
‘The Sub-Prefecture, of course, to find out whether the Emperor is having us on when he talks about running up the white flag.’
For a few seconds the major remained stunned by this idea of the white flag, defeat, capitulation, coming in the midst of his powerlessness to save all these poor bloodstained devils being brought to him. He made a gesture of furious despair.
‘Oh go to the devil! We’re all done for anyway!’
Outside Delaherche found it more difficult to push his way through the troops who had swelled in numbers. Every minute the streets were getting more crowded with the stream of straggling soldiers. He questioned some of the officers he met and none had seen the white flag over the citadel. Finally a colonel said he had caught a momentary glimpse of it – just being run up and lowered again. That would explain everything, for either the Germans had not had time to see it or, seeing it appear and disappear, they had redoubled their fire realizing that the end was near. There was even a rumour already about the crazy anger of a general who had dashed forward when the white flag appeared, snatched it down with his own hands, breaking the staff and trampling the cloth underfoot. So the Prussian batteries were still firing, shells were raining down on roofs and in the streets, houses were burning and a woman had her head smashed at the corner of the Place Turenne.
Delaherche did not find Rose in the porter’s lodge at the Sub-Prefecture. Every door was open and the rout was setting in. So he went up the stairs, every person he ran into was in a panic and nobody asked him any questions. As he was hesitating on the first floor he saw the girl.
‘Oh, Monsieur Delaherche, it’s all going to pieces… Look sharp if you want to see the Emperor.’
And indeed to his left a door was ajar, and through the opening the Emperor could be seen once again taking his faltering walk between the fireplace and the window. He kept on walking, never stopping in spite of his intolerable pain.
An aide-de-camp had gone in, and he it was who had neglected to shut the door after him, so the Emperor could be heard asking in a voice exhausted with grief:
‘But why, sir, are they still firing, since I had the white flag run up?’
This torture had become unbearable, the gunfire never stopping, but increasing in violence every minute. He could not go near the window without being cut to the heart. More blood, more human lives cut off and through his fault! Every minute added more dead to the pile, pointlessly. Tender-hearted dreamer that he was, he could not stand it, and ten times already he had asked his desperate question of people coming in:
‘But why are they still firing, since I had the white flag run up?’
The aide-de-camp muttered some answer Delaherche could not catch. Not that the Emperor had stopped, for he was continually giving in to his compulsive need to go back to that window where the ceaseless thunder of gunfire made him feel faint. His pallor was more marked than ever, and his long, tragic, drawn face, with the morning’s make-up not properly wiped off, betrayed his agony.
Just then a bustling little man in a dusty uniform, whom Delaherche recognized as General Lebrun, crossed the landing and pushed open the door without having himself announced. At once, yet again, the anguished voice of the Emperor could be heard :
‘But, general, why are they still firing, since I had the white flag run up?’
The aide-de-camp came out and the door was shut, and Delaherche could not hear the general’s reply. The scene had vanished.
‘Oh,’ Rose said again, ‘it’s all going to pieces, I can tell from those gentlemen’s faces. Now there’s that cloth of mine, that I shan’t see again! Some of them say it’s been torn up… In all this it’s the Emperor who makes me feel so sorry, for he’s more of a sick man than the marshal, and would be better off in bed than in that room where he’s wearing himself out with always walking up and down.’
She was deeply moved, and her pretty fair face was full of sincere pity. So Delaherche, whose Bonapartist fervour had been cooling off remarkably for two days, thought she was a bit silly. But downstairs he stayed with her a minute or two longer watching out for General Lebrun’s departure. When he came down again Delaherche followed him.
General Lebrun had explained to the Emperor that if he wanted to ask for an armistice a letter signed by the commander-in-chief of the French army would have to be delivered to the commander-in-chief of the German forces. Then he had undertaken to write this letter and go in search of General de Wimpffen who would sign it. He was now bearing the letter, but was only too afraid of not finding the general, not knowing whereabouts on the battlefield he might be. Moreover the pack in Sedan was so thick that he had to ride his horse at a walking pace, which enabled Delaherche to keep up with him as far as the Ménil gate.
Once out on the main road General Lebrun went at a gallop, and he was fortunate enough to see General de Wimpffen as soon as he reached Balan. The latter had written only a few minutes before to the Emperor: ‘Sir, come and put yourself at the head of your troops, and they will think it an honour to open up a way for you through the enemy lines.’ And so the very mention of the word armistice threw him into a furious rage. No, no, he wouldn’t sign anything, he was determined to fight! It was then half past three, and it was soon afterwards that the heroic and desperate attempt was made, the last thrust to open up a gap through the Bavarians by marching once again on Bazeilles. So as to put some heart back into the troops they spread a lie by shouting ‘Bazaine is coming, Bazaine is coming!’ Since first thing in the morning this had been the dream of so many who thought they could hear the guns of the army of Metz every time a new battery of the Germans was uncovered. About twelve hundred men were scraped together, stray soldiers from every corps and every arm, and the little column dashed gloriously at full speed along the bullet-swept road. At first it was sublime, falling men did not check the impetus of the rest, and they covered nearly five hundred metres with truly reckless courage. But soon the ranks began thinning, and even the bravest fell back. What could they do against overwhelming odds? It was simply the crazy folly of an army chief who did not want to be beaten. In the end General de Wimpffen found himself alone with General Lebrun on the Balan-Bazeilles road, which they had to abandon for good. There was nothing to be done but retreat into Sedan.
As soon as he had lost sight of the general, Delaherche hurried back to his mill with but one idea in his head, which was to go up again to his observation post and follow events from a distance. But on reaching home he was held up for a moment by running into Colonel de Vineuil, who was being brought in with his blood-soaked boot, half unconscious on some hay in the bottom of a farm cart. The colonel had insisted on trying to rally the remnants of his regiment until he had fallen off his horse. He was taken straight up to a first-floor room, and Bouroche hurried up but found it was only a cracked ankle-bone and so merely bandaged the wound after extracting bits of boot-leather. He was overwhelmed and at the end of his tether, and rushed down again shouting that he would rather cut off one of his own legs than go on doing his job in such a messy way, without proper materials or the essential assistance. And indeed down below they had reached the stage of not knowing where to put the wounded, and had decided to put them on the lawn, in the grass. There were already two rows of them waiting and loudly complaining in the open air, with shells still coming down. The number of men brought in to the station since noon was over four hundred, and the major had asked for more surgeons, but all they had sent was one young doctor from the town. He simply could not cope with it, and he examined, cut through flesh, sawed through bones and sewed up again almost beside himself and in despair at seeing more work being brought than he was getting through. Gilberte was sick with horror and overcome with nausea at so much blood and tears, and she had stayed with her uncle the colonel, leaving Madame Delaherche down below to give drinks to the fevered and wipe the sweating faces of the dying.
Up on his flat roof Delaherche tried to get a quick impression of the situation. The town had been less damaged than had been feared and only one fire was sending up thick black smoke in the Cassine district. The Palatinate fort had stopped firing, having probably run out of ammunition. Only the guns at the Paris gate were still firing an odd round now and again. What interested him immediately was that they had once again run up the white flag over the Keep, but they couldn’t be seeing it from the battlefield, for the firing was still as heavy as ever. Some roofs in the foreground concealed the Balan road and he could not follow the movements of troops there. Moreover, having put his eye to the telescope which was still trained in that direction, he once again had picked out the German Headquarters which he had already seen there at noon. The master, that diminutive tin soldier, as big as half your little finger, in whom he thought he had recognized the King of Prussia, was still standing there in his dark uniform, in front of the other officers, most of whom were lying on the grass and all shining with gold braid. There were foreign officers there, aides-de-camp, generals, court officials, princes, all provided with field glasses, and since early morning they had been following the death-struggles of the French army like a play. And now the terrible drama was drawing to its close.
From these wooded heights of La Marfée King William had just witnessed the conjunction of his troops. It was all over, the third army, under the command of his son the Crown Prince of Prussia, which had come via Saint-Menges and Fleigneux, was taking possession of the plateau of Illy, whilst the fourth, commanded by the Crown Prince of Saxony, was reaching the rendezvous through Daigny and Givonne, by means of a detour round the Garenne woods. The XIth corps and the Vth thus joined hands with the XIIth corps and the Prussian Guard. The supreme effort to break out of this circle as it was closing, the useless and glorious charge of the Margueritte division, had torn from the King a cry of admiration: ‘Oh, what brave fellows!’ Now the inexorable, mathematical enveloping movement was nearly complete, the jaws of the vice had come together and he could take in at a glance the immense wall of men and guns hemming in the defeated army. To the north the embrace was tightening and driving fugitives back into Sedan before the ceaseless fire from batteries in an unbroken line all along the horizon. To the south, Bazeilles, conquered, deserted and tragic, was burning itself out, sending up clouds of smoke and sparks, while the Bavarians, now occupying Balan, were levelling their guns three hundred metres from the town gates. And the other batteries along the left bank at Pont-Maugis, Noyers, Frénois, Wadelincourt, which had been firing non-stop for nearly twelve hours, were thundering louder than ever and completing the impassable girdle of fire right to below where the King was standing.
King William, who was getting tired, gave up using his field glasses for a minute and went on watching with the naked eye. The slanting sun was descending towards the woods and was about to set in a pure cloudless sky. It gilded the whole vast panorama, and shed on it such a clear light that the smallest details stood out with striking clarity. He could pick out the houses of Sedan, with their little black bars across the windows, the ramparts, the fortress, the complicated defensive system with its ridges in high relief. And scattered all round in the countryside, the fresh, gaily-painted villages looked like toy farms, Donchery to his left, on the edge of its flat plain, Douzy and Carignan to his right in the meadows. You could almost have counted the trees of the forest of the Ardennes, and its ocean of green stretched out of sight to the frontier. In this horizontal light the Meuse, with its meanderings, had become a river of pure gold. The atrocious, bloody battle itself, seen from such a height in the setting sun, was like a delicate painting: dead horsemen and disembowelled horses flecked the plateau of Floing with gay splashes of colour; further to the right, towards Givonne, the final scramble of the retreat made an interesting picture with the whirling of black dots running about and falling over themselves; and again in the Iges peninsula to the left a Bavarian battery with its guns the size of matches looked like a piece of nicely adjusted mechanism, for the eye could follow its regular, clockwork movements. It was unhoped-for, overwhelming victory, and the King had no remorse, faced as he was by these tiny corpses, these thousands of men less than the dust on the roads, the great vale in which the fires of Bazeilles, the slaughter of Illy, the anguish of Sedan, could not prevent unfeeling nature from being beautiful at this serene end of a perfect day.
Then suddenly Delaherche saw, climbing the slopes of La Marfée, a French general in a blue tunic on a black horse, preceded by a hussar with a white flag. It was General Reille, detailed by the Emperor to bear this letter to the King of Prussia:
Sir, my Brother,
Not having been able to die among my troops, it only remains for me to put my sword in Your Majesty’s hands.
Truly Your Majesty’s brother, Napoleon.’
In his anxiety to stop the killing, since he was no longer master, the Emperor was giving himself up, hoping to touch the conqueror’s heart. Delaherche saw General Reille halt ten paces from the King, dismount and go forward to hand over the letter, unarmed and with only a riding-whip. The sun was going down in a great pink radiance, the King sat down on a chair, leaned against the back of another chair which was held by a secretary, and answered that he accepted the sword and would be waiting for an officer to be sent to negotiate the terms of the capitulation.