AS THE column of prisoners was leaving Torcy there was such a crush that Maurice was cut off from Jean. He tried to catch up but got even more lost. By the time he reached the bridge over the canal which cuts across the isthmus of the Iges peninsula, he was mixed up with a lot of Chasseurs d’Afrique and could not get back to his own regiment.

The bridge was defended by two guns facing the peninsula. Immediately past the canal the Prussian headquarters had set up a post in a large house under an officer responsible for receiving and guarding the prisoners. The formalities were brief, the incoming men were simply counted like sheep as the crowd came through and not much notice was taken of uniforms or numbers, after which the crowds poured in and camped wherever the roads took them.

Maurice thought he could venture to speak to a Bavarian officer who was calmly smoking as he straddled a chair.

‘Which way for the 106th regiment of the line, sir?’

Was this one of the few officers who did not understand French? Or did he find it amusing to misdirect a poor devil of a soldier? He smiled, raised his hand and pointed straight on.

Although he belonged to this part of the world, Maurice had never been into the peninsula, so from then onwards he was on a voyage of discovery, as though he had been cast up on a desert island. At first he skirted along the side of La Tour à Glaire on his left, a fine country house with its charming little park on the river Meuse. The road next followed the river, flowing to the right at the foot of steep banks. Gradually the road climbed in wide bends, going round the little hill in the centre of the peninsula, and there were some disused quarry workings with narrow wandering paths. Still further, at water level, was a mill. Then the road turned away and went downhill again to the village of Iges, built on a slope and connected to the opposite bank by a. ferry where the Saint-Albert textile mill was. And finally ploughed fields and meadows stretched out, a great expanse of flat, treeless land enclosed by a bend in the river. Maurice looked carefully among the ups and downs of the hill-slope, but in vain – he could only see cavalry and artillery settling down there. He asked again, this time a corporal in the Chasseurs d’Afrique, but he knew nothing. It was getting dark and he sat down for a moment on a roadside stone because his legs were tired.

In the sudden fit of depression that came over him he saw on the far side of the Meuse the hated fields where he had fought two days before. In the fading light of this day of rain everything took on a ghastly appearance, a horizon of mud stretching on endless and dismal. The Saint-Albert gap, the narrow road along which the Prussians had come, ran parallel with the bend of the river as far as the whitish screes of some quarries. Beyond the slopes of the Seugnon were the feathery treetops of the Falizette wood. But straight ahead of him, a little further to the left, Saint-Menges stood out, with the road coming down to the ferry, and then the summit of Le Hattoy in the middle. Illy was far away in the distance, Fleigneux buried behind a fold in the land, Floing nearer and to the right. He recognized the field in which he had waited for hours lying among the cabbages, the plateau that the reserve artillery had tried to defend, the crest where he had seen Honoré die on his smashed gun. The abomination of the disaster all came back and filled him with pain and disgust until he felt sick.

But for fear of being caught in the dark he had to go on with his quest. Perhaps the 106th was encamped in the low-lying part beyond the village, but all he found there was a few characters on the prowl, so he decided to go right round the peninsula, following the loop of the river. As he crossed a field of potatoes he took the precaution of pulling up a few plants and filling his pockets. The potatoes were unripe, but it was all he had, as most unfortunately Jean had insisted on carrying both the loaves Delaherche had given them when they left. What struck him now was the number of horses he met on the bare slopes that went gently down from the little hill in the middle to the Meuse in the Donchery direction. Why had all these animals been brought here, and how were they going to be fed? It was quite dark by the time he came to a little wood by the river, in which he was surprised to find the Emperor’s Household Cavalry already encamped and drying their things round big fires. These gentlemen camping on their own had good tents, bubbling saucepans and a cow tethered to a tree. He at once noticed that they were looking askance at him in his ragged infantry uniform covered with mud. But they did let him bake his potatoes in the ashes, and he withdrew and sat under a tree a hundred metres away to eat them. It had stopped raining, the sky had cleared and the stars were shining very bright in the dark blue vault. He realized that he would be spending the night here and would have to continue his search in the morning. He was collapsing with fatigue, and the tree would at least give him some shelter should the rain start again.

But he could not get to sleep and was haunted by the thought of the huge prison open to the night air in which he felt shut in. The Prussians had had a really bright idea in herding into this place the eighty thousand men left of the army of Châlons. The peninsula might be three kilometres long by one and a half wide, plenty of room to park the huge rabble of disarmed men. He was well aware of the continuous barrier of water surrounding them, with the loop of the Meuse on three sides and at the base the by-pass canal linking the closest points of the river. Just there was the only way through, the bridge defended by two guns. So it was the simplest thing in the world to guard this camp in spite of its great area. He had already noticed the line of German sentries strung along by the water’s edge on the opposite bank at fifty-pace intervals with orders to shoot any man trying to escape by swimming. Uhlans were patrolling behind, linking the different posts, and further off, scattered over the open country, you could have counted black lines of Prussian soldiers, a threefold living and moving girdle hemming in the imprisoned army.

Now, with his staring, sleepless eyes, he could see nothing but darkness lit here and there by camp fires. Yet beyond the pale ribbon of the Meuse he could still make out the motionless forms of the sentries. In the starlight they stood there straight and black, and at intervals he could hear their guttural calls – the menacing call of the watch tailing off into the swash of the river. These harsh foreign syllables cutting through a lovely starlit night in France revived in him all the nightmare of two days earlier, in the places he had seen but an hour ago, on the plain of Illy still strewn with dead, and in the horrible outskirts of Sedan where a whole world had collapsed. Lying there with his head on the root of a tree in the dampness of the woodland, he relapsed into the despair that had gripped him the day before on the sofa in Delaherche’s home. What hurt his injured pride still more and tortured him now was the question of the morrow. He felt an urge to measure the extent of the fall and know what sort of ruins yesterday’s world had left. Now that the Emperor had surrendered his sword to King William, didn’t it mean that this hateful war was over? But he recalled what two of the Bavarian soldiers escorting the prisoners to Iges had said to him: ‘Us in France! Us all in Paris!’ In a half-doze he suddenly realized what was happening: the Empire swept away amid universal execration, a Republic proclaimed in an outburst of patriotic fervour, and the legend of 1792 conjuring up shadowy figures, soldiers in the mass uprising, armies of volunteers purging the homeland of the foreigner. It was all jumbled up in his poor sick head, the extortions of the conquerors, the bitterness of conquest, the determination of the conquered to fight to their last drop of blood, captivity for the eighty thousand men held there, first in this peninsula and later in German fortresses for weeks, months, possibly years. Everything was breaking up and crashing down for ever in endless woe.

The cry of the sentries gradually grew louder and then burst into a shout right opposite him. Now wide awake, he was turning over on the hard earth when a shot tore through the silence, followed by a splashing sound and the short struggle of a body falling straight down into the water. Presumably some poor devil had been shot through the heart while trying to escape by swimming across the Meuse.

Maurice was up by sunrise. The weather was still bright and he was anxious to rejoin Jean and the rest of his company. He thought for a moment of searching once again in the middle of the peninsula, but then decided to finish going right round. And as he reached the bank of the canal he saw what was left of the 106th, about a thousand men camping on the towpath and only sheltered by a thin row of poplars. If on the night before he had turned to the left instead of going straight on he would have caught up with his regiment at once. Almost all the regiments of the line were huddled together there along the canal bank from La Tour à Glaire to the Château de Villette, another country house surrounded by a few hovels away in the direction of Donchery; and they had all planted themselves near the bridge, that is near the only .way out, with the same instinct for freedom that makes large flocks of sheep crush each other to death against the gate leading out of the fold.

Jean shouted for joy:

‘Oh, it’s you at last! I thought you were in the river!’

There he was, with the rest of the squad, Pache and Lapoulle, Loubet and Chouteau. The last two, having slept in a doorway in Sedan, had been brought in again in the big round-up. The whole company had no other leader now but the corporal, death having cut down Sergeant Sapin, Lieutenant Rochas and Captain Beaudoin. Although the conquerors had abolished ranks and decided that prisoners only had to obey German officers, the four of them had still clung to Jean, knowing how sensible and experienced he was and good to follow in difficult circumstances. So that morning harmony and good humour reigned despite the foolishness of some and the bloody-mindedness of others. To begin with, he had found them a fairly dry spot for the night, between two ditches, where they had stretched themselves out, having only one piece of canvas between them. Then he had just got hold of some wood and a pan, in which Loubet had made them some nice hot coffee that cheered them up. It had stopped raining, and the day bade fair to be superb, they still had some biscuit and bacon left, and besides, as Chouteau remarked, it was a pleasure not to have to obey anyone any more but mess about as you liked. They were shut up, no doubt, but there was plenty of room. In any case they would be off in a day or two. So altogether this first day, Sunday the 4th, passed very happily.

Even Maurice, feeling better now he had rejoined his companions, found nothing much to grumble about except the German bands which played all through the afternoon on the opposite side of the canal. And towards evening there was hymn-singing as well. Beyond the cordon of sentries little groups of soldiers could be seen singing slow and loud to celebrate the Sabbath.

‘Oh that music!’ Maurice almost screamed in exasperation. ‘It’s getting under my skin!’

Jean, more phlegmatic, just shrugged.

‘After all, they’ve got their reasons for being pleased. And perhaps they think they’re entertaining us… It hasn’t been a bad day, we mustn’t grumble.’

But towards dusk it began raining again. That was disastrous. Some soldiers had broken into the few empty houses on the peninsula and a few others had managed to put up tents. But the majority had no protection of any kind, not even a blanket, and had to spend the night in the open with rain pouring down on them.

At about one in the morning Maurice, who had dozed off exhausted, woke up in an absolute lake. The ditches, swollen by the rain, had overflowed and submerged the ground on which he was lying. Chouteau and Loubet were swearing with rage and Pache was shaking Lapoulle who was sleeping on like a log, lake or no lake. Then Jean remembered the poplars along the canal and ran to take shelter under them with his men, who spent the rest of that fearful night bent nearly double with their backs against the tree trunks and legs bent up under them to avoid the heaviest of the drips.

The following day and the one after that were really dreadful, with such frequent and heavy showers that their clothes never had time to dry on their bodies. Famine was setting in, with no biscuit, bacon or .coffee left. During these two days, the Monday and the Tuesday, they lived on potatoes stolen from fields near-by, and even these were becoming so scarce by the end of the second day that the soldiers with any money were buying them at five sous each. True, bugles still sounded rations, and the corporal had even hurried off to a big shed at La Tour à Glaire, where it was rumoured that rations of bread were being issued. But the first time he went he had waited there for three hours to no purpose, and the second he had had a row with a Bavarian. If the French officers could do nothing, being powerless to act, had the German headquarters parked the beaten army in the rain with the idea of letting them die of hunger? It didn’t look as though any precaution had been taken or any effort made to feed the eighty thousand men whose death-agony was beginning in this horrible hell the soldiers were beginning to call the Camp of Hell, a name denoting anguish that would haunt even the bravest for ever.

When he got back from these long fruitless waits in front of the shed, Jean, usually so phlegmatic, lost his temper.

‘Are they just pulling our legs, calling when there’s nothing there? Bugger me if I put myself out any more!’

Yet at the first suggestion of a call he rushed off again. They were inhuman, these regulation bugle calls, and they had another effect which broke Maurice’s heart. Each time the bugles sounded the French horses, abandoned and wandering about on the other side of the canal, tore along and jumped into the water to rejoin their regiments, maddened by these fanfares they recognized and which acted on them like a dig of the spurs. But they were exhausted and so were dragged off by the current, and few of them reached the other side. They struggled pitifully, and so many of them were drowned that their swollen, floating bodies were already blocking the canal. And those that did reach land acted as though they had gone mad and galloped away over the empty fields of the peninsula.

‘More meat for the crows!’ Maurice said sadly, remembering the disturbing numbers of horses he had seen. ‘If we stay here a few more days we shall all be devouring each other… Oh, the poor creatures!’

The night of Tuesday to Wednesday was particularly horrible. Jean, who was beginning to be seriously worried about Maurice’s over-tense state, made him wrap himself up in an old blanket they had bought from a Zouave for ten francs, while he himself, with his cape soaked like a sponge, received the full force of the deluge which went on all night. The position under the poplars was becoming untenable; it was a river of mud, and the saturated earth held the water in deep puddles. The worst of it was that their stomachs were empty, the evening meal having consisted of two beetroots among the six men, and they had not even been able to cook them for want of dry wood, so that the cold sugary taste had soon turned into an intolerable burning sensation; to say nothing of the beginnings of dysentery caused by fatigue, bad food and persistent damp. More than ten times, Jean, propped against the trunk of the same tree, with his legs in the water, had put out his hand to feel whether Maurice had thrown off his covering in his restless sleep. Since his friend had saved him from the Prussians on the plateau of Illy by carrying him in his arms he had been repaying his debt a hundredfold. Without reasoning it out he was giving him his whole being, he was forgetting himself entirely for love of him, and this love was indefinable but imperishable, though he had no words to express what he felt. He had already taken the food out of his own mouth, as the chaps in the squad put it, but now he would have given his own skin to clothe him, protect his shoulders and warm his feet. In the midst of the savage egotism all round him in this corner of suffering humanity maddened by hunger, he probably owed to this total self-abnegation the unlooked-for blessing of keeping his unruffled calm and health of mind, for he was the only one who was still strong and had not lost his head.

And so, after that horrible night, Jean carried out an idea that had been going round in his head.

‘Look here, young fellow-me-lad, as they’re not giving us anything to eat but forgetting all about us in this bloody hole, we’ve got to stir our stumps a bit if we don’t want to peg out… Can you still walk all right?’

Mercifully the sun had come out and Maurice was quite warmed up.

‘Of course, my legs are all right!’

‘O.K., then we’re going off to see what we can find… We’ve got some money, and I’ll be damned if we don’t find something to buy. And don’t let’s bother about the others, they’re just not worth it, let them work it out for themselves!’

As a matter of fact he was disgusted by the sly selfishness of Loubet and Chouteau, who stole everything they could and never shared anything with their mates. Neither was there anything to be got out of Lapoulle, who was a clod, or Pache, who was a worm.

So the two of them took the road Maurice had already been along, by the river. The gardens of La Tour à Glaire and the house had already been laid waste and looted, the lawns ploughed up as though by storm-floods, trees felled, buildings broken into. A bedraggled mob of soldiers, covered with mud, hollow-cheeked and with feverish, shining eyes, were camping out like a lot of gypsies, living like wolves in rooms filthy with excrement, for they dared not go out in case they lost their places for the night. And further on, up the slopes, they went through the cavalry and artillery, formerly so well drilled but now demoralized, too, going to pieces in this torturing hunger which maddened the horses and sent men off over the meadows in marauding bands. On the right they saw an endless queue of artillerymen and Chasseurs d’Afrique slowly moving past a mill where the miller was selling flour, two handfuls of it in their handkerchiefs for a franc. But they were afraid of waiting too long and went on, hoping to find something better in the village of Iges. But when they reached there they were filled with consternation to find it bare and grim like an Algerian village after the locusts have passed, not a scrap left of anything to eat, bread, vegetables or meat, and the miserable houses looked as though people had scratched all through them with their nails. It was said that General Lebrun had put up in the mayor’s house. He had tried in vain to arrange an issue of vouchers payable after the war so as to facilitate the feeding of the troops. There was nothing left, and money was useless. Even the day before one biscuit had fetched two francs, a bottle of wine seven, a little tot of brandy one franc, a pipeful of tobacco fifty centimes. And now officers had to guard the general’s house and the surrounding hovels with drawn swords because continual bands of marauders were breaking down doors and stealing even lamp-oil to drink.

Three Zouaves hailed Maurice and Jean. With five of them they might be able to pull something off.

‘Come on… There are some horses pegging out, and if only we had some dry wood…’

Then they made a rush at a peasant’s cottage, broke off cupboard doors and tore the thatch off the roof. Some officers with revolvers dashed up and drove them away.

When they saw that the few inhabitants left in Iges were as miserable and starved as the soldiers, Jean was sorry they had turned their noses up at the flour at the mill.

‘Let’s go back, there may still be some left.’

But Maurice was beginning to get so tired and weak for want of food that Jean left him in a hole in a quarry, sitting on a rock, staring at the broad horizon of Sedan. Jean, after queueing for threequarters of an hour, came back eventually with some flour in a bit of rag. And all they could do was eat it just like that, out of their hands. It wasn’t too bad, it had no smell and an insipid taste like dough, but it did cheer them up a bit. They were even lucky enough to find a natural pool of pure rain-water in a rock and they joyfully quenched their thirst.

Jean suggested staying there for the afternoon, but Maurice impatiently dismissed the idea.

‘No, no, not here! It’d make me ill to have all this in front of my eyes for long.’

With a trembling hand he pointed at the immense horizon, Le Hattoy, the plateaux of Floing and Illy, the Garenne woods, all these hateful scenes of massacre and defeat.

‘While I was waiting for you just now I had to turn my back on it, for I should have ended up by screaming with rage, yes, howling like a dog being teased beyond endurance… You can’t imagine how it hurts me, it’s driving me mad!’

Jean looked at him, and this wounded and bleeding pride astonished him, and he was perturbed to catch once again the wild look of insanity in his eyes that he had seen already. He tried to make a joke of it.

‘All right, that’s easy, we’ll have a change of scene.’

So they wandered about until evening wherever the paths took them. They explored the low-lying part of the peninsula hoping to find some more potatoes, but the artillerymen had taken the ploughs and turned over the fields, gleaning and picking up everything. They retraced their steps and once again passed through crowds of idle, slowly dying men, starving soldiers walking about in their hunger or lying on the ground listless, having collapsed with exhaustion in their hundreds in the hot sun. They themselves frequently gave in and had to sit down, but then a kind of exasperated bravado set them on their feet again and they resumed their prowl, goaded on by the animal instinct to hunt for food. This seemed to have been going on for months, and yet the minutes sped quickly by. In some of the enclosed fields on the Donchery side they were frightened by the horses and had to take refuge behind a wall, where they stayed a long time, their strength gone, looking with unseeing eyes at these stampedes of crazed animals against the red sky of sunset.

As Maurice had foreseen, the thousands of horses interned with the army and which could not be fed were a menace that increased in seriousness each day. They had begun by eating the bark of trees, then they had attacked trellises and fences, any sort of planks they could find, and now they were devouring each other. They could be seen hurling themselves on each other to tear the hair from their tails, which they chewed madly, foaming at the mouth. But it was above all at night that they became terrible, as though darkness brought them nightmares. They would gather together and charge at the few tents standing, looking for straw. It was useless for the men to light big fires to keep them off; the fires seemed to excite them still more. Their whinnyings were so pitiful and unnerving that they seemed like the roaring of wild beasts. If you drove them away they came back fiercer and more numerous than ever. And every minute during the hours of darkness you could hear a long cry of agony from some stray soldier trampled to death in this mad stampede.

The sun was still on the horizon when Jean and Maurice, on their way back to camp, were surprised to come upon the four other members of the squad lying in a ditch and looking as though they were hatching some evil plot. Loubet called them over and Chouteau said:

‘It’s about tonight’s meal… We are starving and it’s thirty-six hours since we’ve had anything inside us… Well, as there are some horses, and as horsemeat’s not bad…’

‘You will be in on it, won’t you, corporal?’ went on Loubet. ‘Because the more of us there are the better, with such a big animal… Look, there’s one over there we’ve been trailing for an hour, that big chestnut that looks sick. It’ll be easier to finish him off.’

He pointed to a horse struck down by hunger on the edge of a ravaged beet field. The horse was on his side and now and again he raised his head and looked round dolefully with a great sigh of misery.

‘Oh what a long wait!’ grumbled Lapoulle, tortured by his huge appetite. ‘I’ll knock him out, shall I?’

But Loubet stopped him. No thank you! And get into a row with the Prussians, who had forbidden the killing of a single horse on pain of death, for fear that an abandoned carcass might start off plague… So they had to wait until it was quite dark, which was why all four were now in the ditch keeping watch with glittering eyes, which were never taken off the animal.

‘Corporal,’ ventured Pache in a slightly quavery voice, ‘you know all about these things, could you kill him without hurting him?’

With a gesture of disgust Jean refused to do the cruel job. That poor dying creature, oh no, no! His first impulse had been to run away and take Maurice with him so that neither should take part in this horrible butchery. But seeing how ill his friend looked, he reproached himself for being so squeamish. After all, good heavens, that’s what animals are for, to feed men. They couldn’t let themselves die of starvation when there was meat there. He was glad to see Maurice cheering up a little in the hope that they would get a meal, so he said in his good-humoured way:

‘Well, really, I’ve no idea, and if we’ve got to kill him without pain…’

‘Oh balls!’ cut in Lapoulle. ‘You watch me!’

The two newcomers sat in the ditch and the wait was resumed. Every so often one of them stood up and made sure that the horse was still there stretching his neck towards where the cool air of the Meuse came from, towards the setting sun, to drink in what life was left there. At last, when dusk had slowly come down, the six stood up; in this savage watch they were impatient with the slowness of nightfall, keeping a look-out in all directions, nerves on edge in case anybody should see them.

‘Oh blast it all!’ cried Chouteau. ‘Now’s the time!’

The countryside could still be seen in the dim light of dusk. Lapoulle ran first, followed by the five others. He had taken with him from the ditch a big round stone, and he rushed at the horse and began bashing in his skull with both arms straight as though using a club. But at the second blow the horse attempted to stand up. Chouteau and Loubet threw themselves across the horse’s legs, trying to hold him down and shouting for the others to help. The horse whinnyed in an almost human voice in his bewildered grief, and began to struggle and would have broken the men like glass if he had not already been half dead with starvation. But his head was moving too much and the blows were going wide. Lapoulle could not finish him off.

‘Christ, his bones aren’t half hard! Hold on to him and let me do him in!’

Jean and Maurice were frozen with horror and did not hear Chouteau calling, but stood there with arms dangling and unwilling to join in.

All of a sudden Pache, in an instinctive burst of religious compassion, fell on his knees, put his hands together and began to mumble some prayers as people do at the bedside of the dying:

‘Lord, have mercy upon him…’

Once again Lapoulle missed his aim and only took an ear off the wretched horse, who fell over with a loud cry.

‘What a minute,’ growled Chouteau, ‘we’ve got to finish this off, he’ll get us pinched… Don’t you let go, Loubet!’

He had taken a knife out of his pocket, a little knife with a blade hardly longer than your finger. And sprawling on top of the animal’s body, with one arm round its neck, he buried the blade, digging about in the living flesh, hacking lumps out until he found and severed the artery. He jumped to one side as the blood spurted out like water from a spout, while the feet pawed about and convulsive twitchings ran along the skin. It took nearly five minutes for the horse to die. His great staring eyes, full of grief and terror, were fixed on the grim-faced men waiting for his death. They grew dim and went out.

‘Oh God,’ muttered Pache, still on his knees, ‘succour him, take him into Thy holy keeping…’

Then, when the horse had stopped moving, they were very hard put to it as to how to get the best cuts. Loubet, who was a jack of all trades, did show them how to set about getting the fillet. But he was a clumsy butcher and in any case only had the little knife, and he floundered about in this warm flesh, still pulsing with life. Lapoulle, impatient as always, started helping him by opening up the belly quite unnecessarily and the carnage became appalling. They rummaged with furious haste in the blood and entrails like wolves worrying the carcass of the prey with their fangs.

‘I don’t know what cut this can be,’ Loubet finally said, straightening up, his arms burdened with an enormous lump of meat. ‘But anyhow here’s enough to fill us all up to the eyes.’

Sick with horror, Jean and Maurice had turned away. Nevertheless hunger was driving them, and they followed the rest when they ran away so as not to be caught near a horse that had been cut open. Chouteau had made a discovery, three large beetroots somebody had dropped, and took them. Loubet, to get his arms free, had thrown the meat over Lapoulle’s shoulders, and Pache carried the squad’s saucepan, which they took about with them in case they had any lucky find. All six ran and ran without stopping to breathe, as though they were being chased.

Loubet suddenly stopped them all.

‘This is silly, we’ve got to think where we can cook it.’

Jean, who was beginning to feel better now, suggested the quarries. They weren’t more than three hundred metres away, and there were hidden caves where you could light a fire without being seen. But when they got there all sorts of difficulties cropped up. First there was the question of wood; fortunately they found a quarryman’s wheelbarrow, and Lapoulle kicked the planks apart with his heel. Then there was absolutely no drinking water. During the day the hot sun had dried up the little pools of rainwater. There was a pump, but it was too far away, at the manor of La Tour à Glaire, and you queued there until midnight and thought yourself lucky if, in the scrimmage, some comrade didn’t knock the lot out of your can with his elbow. The little wells in the neighbourhood had been exhausted for two days and you got nothing out of them but mud. That left only the water of the Meuse, and the banks were just across the road.

‘I’ll go with the pan,’ said Jean.

They all protested.

‘Oh no! We don’t want to be poisoned, it’s full of corpses!’

It was true, the Meuse was carrying along bodies of men and horses. They could be seen floating past every minute, with swollen bellies and already decomposing and going green. Many of them had got caught in the weeds near the banks and were filling the air with stench as they constantly bobbed up and down in the water. Nearly all the soldiers who had drunk this abominable water had had sickness and dysentery after frightful colic.

And yet they had to make up their minds to it. Maurice explained that the water would no longer be dangerous once it had been boiled.

‘All right, I’ll go,’ said Jean again, taking Lapoulle with him.

By the time the pan was on the fire, full of water and with the meat in it, it was really dark. Loubet had peeled the beetroots so as to cook them in the broth – a stew that would be out of this world, as he put it – and they all kept the flames up by pushing pieces of the barrow under the pan. Their long shadows danced weirdly in this rocky cavern. But then they could wait no longer and threw themselves on to this disgusting brew and tore the meat into shares with wild, impatient fingers, without waiting to use a knife. But all the same it made them heave. It was the lack of salt in particular that upset them, for their stomachs refused to keep down this insipid mess of beetroot and bits of half-cooked, gluey meat tasting like earth. Almost at once they began throwing it up. Pache could not go on, Chouteau and Loubet cursed the devil’s own nag they had had so much trouble to turn into a stew and which was now giving them the belly-ache. Lapoulle was the only one who dined copiously, but later in the night it nearly did him in when he had gone back with the three others to sleep under the poplars.

On the way Maurice, without a word, had taken Jean’s arm and pulled him down a side path. The others filled him with a kind of furious disgust, and he had made a plan which was to go and sleep in the little copse where he had spent the first night. It was a good idea, and Jean strongly approved of it when he had lain down on sloping ground quite dry and sheltered by dense foliage. They stayed there until broad daylight and even slept a deep sleep which somewhat restored their strength.

The following day was a Thursday, but they no longer knew how they were living, and were simply glad that the fine weather seemed to have come back. Jean persuaded Maurice, in spite of his reluctance, to go back to the canal to see whether the regiment was to leave that day. Each day now prisoners were leaving for German fortresses in detachments of a thousand to twelve hundred. Two days earlier they had seen a party of officers and generals setting off for the train at Pont-à-Mousson. Everybody was in a frenzy of desire to get away from this awful Camp of Hell. Oh, if only their turn could come! When they found the 106th still camping on the towpath, in the growing confusion of so much suffering, they really were in despair.

And yet that day Jean and Maurice really thought they were going to get something to eat. Beginning that morning, quite a system of trading had developed between the prisoners and the Bavarians across the canal. Money was thrown to them in a handkerchief and they returned the handkerchief with some black bread or coarse tobacco scarcely dried Qut. Even the soldiers who had no money had contrived to do business by throwing over regulation white gloves which the Germans seemed to like. For two hours, all along the canal, this primitive bartering caused packages to fly to and fro. But when Maurice sent over a five-franc piece in his tie, the Bavarian who was sending back a loaf threw it, either out of clumsiness or for a nasty joke, so that it fell into the water. Roars of laughter from the Germans. Twice Maurice persisted, and twice the loaf went in. Then some officers ran up to see what the laughter was about, and they forbade the men to sell anything to the prisoners on pain of severe penalties. The trading stopped and Jean had to calm Maurice down, for he was shaking his fists at these robbers and yelling at them to return his five-franc pieces.

In spite of the bright sunshine it was another terrible day. There were alerts, two bugle calls that made Jean run to the shed where rations were supposed to be issued. But both times all he got out of it was jostling in the crush. The Prussians, so remarkably organized themselves, still showed a callous indifference towards the defeated army. As a result of complaints from Generals Douay and Lebrun they had indeed had a few sheep and cartloads of bread brought in, but they took so few precautions that the sheep were stolen and the carts ransacked as soon as they reached the bridge, so that troops camped more than a hundred metres away still got nothing. Only prowling thieves and gangs who attacked convoys got anything to eat. And so Jean, tumbling to it, as he put it, took Maurice with him to the bridge so that they too could lie in wait for food.

It was already four in the afternoon, and they had still had nothing to eat on this lovely sunny Thursday, when to their great joy they suddenly caught sight of Delaherche. A few of the better-off people in Sedan were managing with much trouble to get an authorization to go and see prisoners and take food to them, and more than once already Maurice had expressed his surprise at having no news of his sister. As soon as they recognized Delaherche a long way off, carrying a basket and with a loaf of bread under each arm, they made a rush, but even then they reached him too late, for there had been such an immediate pushing and shoving that the basket and one of the loaves had stayed in the scrum, been wafted away, done the vanishing trick. And Delaherche hadn’t even noticed.

‘Oh my poor friends,’ he stammered, dumbfounded, deflated, having come with a smile on his lips and the jolly man-to-man tone he adopted in his desire for popularity.

Jean had seized the last loaf and was defending it, and while Maurice and he sat at the roadside and devoured it in great mouthfuls Delaherche told them the news. His wife, thank God, was very well. He was a bit worried about the colonel, who had fallen into a state of great exhaustion, although Madame Delaherche sat with him from morning till night.

‘What about my sister?’ asked Maurice.

‘Oh yes, of course, your sister… She came with me and she carried the two loaves. But she had to stay there on the other side of the canal. The guards would never agree to let her pass… You know the Prussians have absolutely prohibited women from coming into the peninsula.’

Then he told them about Henriette and her vain efforts to see her brother and help him. By chance she had come face to face with cousin Gunther in Sedan – he was a captain in the Prussian Guard. He was going past with his stiff, hard look, pretending not to see her. And she herself, feeling sick as though he were one of her husband’s murderers, had at first quickened her step. But then, in a sudden reversal of mood that she did not understand herself, she had gone back and told him everything about Weiss’s death in a harsh, reproachful voice. On hearing about this horrible death of a relation of his he had simply made a gesture: it was the fortune of war and he might just as well have been killed himself. Hardly any change of expression had shown on his soldier’s face. Then, when she had mentioned her brother, now a prisoner, and begged him to use his influence so that she could see him, he had refused to take any step. Orders were explicit, and he spoke of the will of Germany as of a religion. On leaving him she had had the distinct impression that he thought he was in France as a righteous judge, with the intolerance and arrogance of the hereditary enemy brought up in hatred of the race he was chastising.

‘Anyway,’ Delaherche concluded, ‘you will have had something to eat tonight, and I am very sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t get another permit.’

He asked if they had any errands he could do, and kindly took pencilled letters that other soldiers entrusted to him, for Bavarians had been seen laughing as they lit their pipes with letters they had promised to send off.

As Maurice and Jean were walking with him to the bridge Delaherche exclaimed:

‘Look! There she is, Henriette!… You can see her waving her handkerchief.’

Beyond the line of sentries, in the crowd, they did make out a little, slim figure and a white point moving in the sun. They were both deeply moved and had tears in their eyes as they raised their arms and answered her with frantic waving.

The next day, Friday, was the most terrible of all for Maurice. And yet, after another quiet night in the little copse, he had had the good luck to eat some bread again, for Jean had discovered a woman in the Château de Villette who sold some at ten francs a pound. But that day they witnessed a gruesome scene which haunted them long afterwards like a nightmare.

On the previous day Chouteau had noticed that Pache had given up grumbling and looked dreamy and contented like a man who has eaten his fill. This at once suggested to him that the artful dodger must have a secret hoard somewhere, especially as that morning he had noticed that he went off for about an hour and then reappeared with a furtive smile and his mouth full. Surely he had had some stroke of luck and got hold of some food in one of the scrimmages. So Chouteau worked Loubet and Lapoulle up, especially the latter. Well, of all the filthy shits, to have something to eat and not share it out with his mates!

‘Tell you what, we’ll follow him tonight. We’ll see if he dares to stuff his guts all on his own when other poor sods are dying of hunger all round him.’

‘Yes, yes, you’re right, we’ll follow him,’ Lapoulle echoed furiously. ‘Then we shall see!’

His fists were clenched, and the mere hope of having something to eat at last was turning him into a madman. His huge appetite tormented him more than the others, and it was such a torture that he had tried to chew grass. Since the night before last, when the horsemeat and beetroot had given him such awful dysentery, he had had nothing at all, for his great body was so clumsy although it was so strong that he never got hold of anything in any scrum for food. He would have given his life-blood for a pound of bread.

As night was falling Pache slipped away among the trees of La Tour à Glaire and the three others stealthily followed.

‘He mustn’t suspect,’ whispered Chouteau. ‘Be careful in case he turns round.’

But some hundred paces further on Pache obviously thought he was alone, for he began walking fast without even bothering to look back. They had no trouble in following him as far as the quarries and were at his heels as he was moving two large stones and getting half a loaf out from underneath. It was the end of his provisions, still enough for one meal.

‘You fucking fraud!’ bawled Lapoulle. ‘So that’s why you hide! Give me that, it’s my share.’

Give up his bread, why should he? Little shrimp he might be, but anger stiffened him up, and he hugged the bread to his bosom with all his strength. He was hungry too.

‘Piss off, do you hear! It’s mine!’

As Lapoulle raised his fist he took to his heels and ran down from the quarry to the open land towards Donchery. The three others gave chase at full speed, breathing hard. But he was leaving them behind, for he was lighter in build and so frightened and so determined to keep what was his own that he seemed to be borne by the wind. He had covered nearly a kilometre and was nearing the little copse by the river when he ran into Jean and Maurice, who were coming back to their place for the night. As he went by he shouted for help, but they were so astonished by this man-hunt galloping past them that they remained rooted at the edge of a field. And so they saw it all.

As ill-luck would have it Pache tripped over a stone and went down. Already the three others had caught up, swearing, yelling and worked up by the chase, like a pack of wolves let loose on their prey.

‘Give us that, fuck you,’ shouted Lapoulle, ‘or I’ll do you in.’

He was raising his fist again when Chouteau handed him the knife, ready open, with which he had bled the horse.

‘Here you are, here’s the knife!’

Jean rushed forward to stop a murder, and he lost his head, too, and talked of turning them all in, which brought on him a nasty sneer from Loubet, who called him a Prussian because there were no higher ranks any more, and the Prussians were the only ones who issued orders.

‘For Christ’s sake,’ roared Lapoulle, ‘are you going to give it me?’

In spite of the terror that had drained the colour from his face Pache held the bread to his chest tighter still, with the obstinacy of a hungry peasant who won’t give up anything that is his.


Then it was all over, the brute thrust the knife into his throat so violently that the poor devil did not even make a sound. His arms slackened, the bit of bread fell to the ground into the blood that had spurted out.

In the face of this stupid, insane murder Maurice, who had not moved until then, seemed to go suddenly out of his mind as well. He threatened the three men with his fists and called them murderers with such vehemence that his whole body was shaking. But Lapoulle did not seem even to hear. He stayed on the ground, crouching by the body, devouring the bread, red splashes of blood and all, with a wild, brutish look as though besotted by the noise of his own jaws, while Chouteau and Loubet, seeing how terrible he was as he appeased his hunger, did not even dare to ask for their shares.

The real night had come, but it was a bright night with a beautiful starlit sky, and Maurice and Jean, who had come back to their copse, could now only see Lapoulle prowling to and fro along the Meuse. The two others had gone, no doubt back to the canal towpath, worried about the body they had left behind. But Lapoulle seemed afraid to go back there and rejoin his mates. Clearly what with the shock of the murder and the heavy discomfort after bolting the big hunk of bread too fast, he was overcome with uneasiness, and that kept him on the move but he did not dare to go back along the path blocked by the corpse, hesitating, unable to make up his mind. Was it remorse awakening in his muddled soul, or merely fear of being discovered? So he roamed up and down like an animal behind the bars of its cage, with a sudden, growing urge to run away, an urge that hurt like a physical pain which he felt would kill him if he did not satisfy it. He must run, run at once and get away from this prison in which he had killed a man. But he threw himself down and for a long time he stayed there cowering in the grass on the river bank.

Maurice too was in a restless state and said to Jean:

‘Look, I can’t stand it here any longer. I tell you I shall go mad… I’m surprised how my body has stood up to it. I feel pretty fit, but my mind is going, yes it is, I’m sure. If you keep me one more day in this hell I’m done for… Please, I beg of you, let’s get out, and at once!’

He began to develop extravagant plans for escape. They would swim across the Meuse, throw themselves upon the sentries and strangle them with a bit of string he had in his pocket, or again knock them out with bits of rock, or again buy them over with money, put on their uniforms and go through the Prussian lines.

‘Stop it, chum,’ said Jean, very worried. ‘It frightens me when you talk such rubbish. Is any of that sensible, is it possible? We’ll see tomorrow, chuck it.’

Although he too felt sick with anger and disgust, he hung on to his good sense even though weakened by hunger and in the midst of the nightmares of this existence that was reaching the rock-bottom of human suffering. And as his friend got more hysterical and wanted to dive into the Meuse, he had to hold him back and even rough-handle him, though his eyes were full of tears as he pleaded and scolded. But then suddenly:

‘Oh, look!’

They had heard a splash, and then they saw Lapoulle, who had made up his mind to drop into the river, having thrown off his cape so as to be freer in his movements, and his shirt was clearly visible as a light patch moving on the dark current. He began to swim and slowly went upstream, no doubt looking for a suitable place to land, but on the opposite bank the slender outlines of the motionless sentries could clearly be seen. A sudden flash tore through the darkness and the sound of a shot echoed as far as the rocks of Montimont. The water merely swirled as though a pair of oars were badly churning it up. That was all, and Lapoulle’s body, the white patch, was left to float gently downstream.

The next day, Saturday, at dawn, Jean took Maurice back to the camp of the 106th with the fresh hope that they would leave that day. But there were no orders, and it looked as though their regiment had been forgotten. Many had gone and the peninsula was emptying, and those left behind were falling into black depression. For eight long days minds had been getting more and more unhinged in this hell. The rain had stopped, but the pitiless glaring sun had only changed the kind of torture. The heat wave put the finishing touch to the men’s exhaustion and bade fair to turn the cases of dysentery into an alarming epidemic. The dung and urine of all this army of sick men filled the air with the vilest stenches. It was now impossible to walk along the Meuse or the canal, so overpowering was the stink of drowned horses and men rotting among the reeds. In the fields the horses that had died of starvation were now decomposing, and the pestilential smell was so violent that the Prussians, who were beginning to be afraid for themselves as well, had brought some picks and shovels and were forcing the prisoners to bury the bodies.

And yet that Saturday saw the end of the famine. As they were fewer and provisions were coming in from all directions, they went abruptly from extreme deprivation to the most generous abundance. They had as much bread, meat and even wine as they wanted, and ate from morn till night enough to kill themselves. Night came and they were still eating, and went on until the next morning. Many died of it.

All day long Jean had been wholly taken up with watching Maurice who, he felt, was capable of any folly. He had been drinking and was talking of clouting a German officer so as to be taken away. And in the evening, having discovered a free corner in a cellar in the outbuildings of La Tour à Glaire, Jean thought it might be wise to go and sleep there with his friend who might be calmed down by a good night’s rest. But it was the most terrible night of their stay, a night of sheer horror during which they never closed their eyes. The cellar was full of other soldiers, and two of them were lying in the same corner as them, dying of dysentery which had drained their bodies. As soon as it was quite dark they kept up a continuous inarticulate moaning, with disjointed cries that became a death-struggle of increasing intensity. In the pitch darkness this death-rattle was so horrible that the other men lying near-by who wanted to get to sleep lost their tempers and shouted to the dying men to shut up. They did not hear, and the death-rattle went on, swelled up and drowned everything else, while from the outside came the drunken bawlings of comrades who were still gorging, still not getting enough.

Then a time of distress set in for Maurice. He had tried to get away from this dreadful painful moaning which brought him out into a cold sweat of anguish, but as he was feeling his way on to his feet he had trodden on somebody’s limbs and fallen down again, hemmed in with these dying men. After that he did not even try to escape. The whole awful disaster came back to him from the time of leaving Rheims to the crushing blow at Sedan. It seemed to him that the agony of the army of Châlons was only now coming to its end in the inky blackness of that cellar where two soldiers were gasping out their lives and preventing their mates from sleeping. The army of despair, the herd of sacrificial victims sent as a burnt offering, had paid for the sins of all with the red streams of its blood at each of the stations of its Via Crucis. And now, slain without glory, spat upon, it was going down to martyrdom under this chastisement whose harshness it had not deserved. It was too much, and it filled him with wrath and made him hunger for justice, with a burning passion to be revenged on destiny.

When dawn came one of the soldiers was dead and the other still gasping.

‘Come on, boy, let’s clear out of here,’ said Jean gently. ‘We’ll get some fresh air, it’ll be better.’

But when they got outside, on this beautiful and already warm morning, and had gone along the river until they were near the village of Iges, Maurice became even more worked up, and shook his fist at the great sunny horizon of the battlefield, the Illy plateau straight opposite, Saint-Menges to the left and the Garenne wood to the right.

‘No, no, I can’t, I simply can’t look at that any more. It’s having that in front of me that turns me over inside and splits my head open. Take me away! Take me away, now!’

It was another Sunday, and peals of bells came from Sedan, and already a German band could be heard in the distance. But still there were no orders for the 106th and Jean, alarmed at Maurice’s increasingly hysterical condition, made up his mind to try a trick he had been meditating since the day before. In the road, in front of the Prussian post, a party was being assembled for leaving, that of another regiment, the 5th infantry. There was considerable confusion in the ranks, and an officer whose French was not much good was having trouble with checking. So both of them, having first pulled the collar band and buttons off their tunics so as not to be given away by the number, slipped into the middle of the crowd, crossed the bridge and found themselves outside. Evidently the same idea had occurred to Chouteau and Loubet, for they saw them behind, with their furtive, murderers’ eyes.

Oh what a relief that first happy minute was! In the outer world it seemed like a resurrection, with dancing light, unlimited air, all their hopes flowering anew. Whatever troubles they might have to face now, their fears had gone and they even laughed at them as they made their way out of the nightmare of the Camp of Hell.