Part 3 out of 7
their company-how else could it be? At the end of the sixth day--at
the finish of my leave, and the very evening before returning--a
young man on a bicycle, son of the Florence family, brings me a
letter from Mariette to say that her permit had not yet come--"
"Ah, rotten luck," cried the audience.
"And that," continued Eudore, "there was only one thing to do.--I
was to get leave from the mayor of Mont-St-Eloi, who would get it
from the military, and go myself at full speed to see her at
"You should have done that the first day, not the sixth!"
"So it seems, but I was afraid we should cross and me miss
her--y'see, as soon as I landed, I was expecting her all the time,
and every minute I fancied I could see her at the open door. So I
did as she told me."
"After all, you saw her?"
"Just one day--or rather, just one night."
"Quite sufficient!" merrily said Lamuse, and Eudore the pale and
serious shook his head under the shower of pointed and perilous
jests that followed.
"Shut your great mouths for five minutes, chaps."
"Get on with it, petit."
"There isn't a great lot of it," said Eudore.
"Well, then, you were saying you had got a hump with your old
"Ah, yes. They had tried their best to make up for Mariette--with
lovely rashers of our own ham, and plum brandy, and patching up my
linen, and all sorts of little spoiled-kid tricks--and I noticed
they were still slanging each other in the old familiar way! But you
talk about a difference! I always had my eye on the door to see if
some time or other it wouldn't get a move on and turn into a woman.
So I went and saw the mayor, and set off, yesterday, towards two in
the afternoon--towards fourteen o'clock I might well say, seeing
that I had been counting the hours since the day before! I had just
one day of my leave left then.
"As we drew near in the dusk, through the carriage window of the
little railway that still keeps going down there on some fag-ends of
line, I recognized half the country, and the other half I didn't.
Here and there I got the sense of it, all at once, and it came back
all fresh to me, and melted away again, just as if it was talking to
me. Then it shut up. In the end we got out, and I found--the limit,
that was--that we had to pad the hoof to the last station.
"Never, old man, have I been in such weather. It had rained for six
days. For six days the sky washed the earth and then washed it
again. The earth was softening and shifting, and filling up the
holes and making new ones."
"Same here--it only stopped raining this morning."
"It was just my luck. And everywhere there were swollen new streams,
washing away the borders of the fields as though they were lines on
paper. There were hills that ran with water from top to bottom.
Gusts of wind sent the rain in great clouds flying and whirling
about, and lashing our hands and faces and necks.
"So you bet, when I had tramped to the station, if some one had
pulled a really ugly face at me, it would have been enough to make
me turn back.
"But when we did get to the place, there were several of us--some
more men on leave--they weren't bound for Villers, but they had to
go through it to get somewhere else. So it happened that we got
there in a lump--five old cronies that didn't know each other.
"I could make out nothing of anything. They've been worse shelled
over there than here, and then there was the water everywhere, and
it was getting dark.
"I told you there are only four houses in the little place, only
they're a good bit off from each other. You come to the lower end of
a slope. I didn't know too well where I was, no more than my pals
did, though they belonged to the district and had some notion of the
lay of it--and all the less because of the rain falling in
"It got so bad that we couldn't keep from hurrying and began to run.
We passed by the farm of the Alleux--that's the first of the
houses--and it looked like a sort of stone ghost. Bits of walls like
splintered pillars standing up out of the water; the house was
shipwrecked. The other farm, a little further, was as good as
"Our house is the third. It's on the edge of the road that runs
along the top of the slope. We climbed up, facing the rain that beat
on us in the dusk and began to blind us--the cold and wet fairly
smacked us in the eye, flop!--and broke our ranks like machine-guns.
"The house! I ran like a greyhound--like an African attacking.
Mariette! I could see her with her arms raised high in the doorway
behind that fine curtain of night and rain--of rain so fierce that
it drove her back and kept her shrinking between the doorposts like
a statue of the Virgin in its niche. I just threw myself forward,
but remembered to give my pals the sign to follow me. The house
swallowed the lot of us. Mariette laughed a little to see me, with a
tear in her eye. She waited till we were alone together and then
laughed and cried all at once. I told the boys to make themselves at
home and sit down, some on the chairs and the rest on the table.
"'Where are they going, ces messieurs?' asked Manette.
"'We are going to Vauvelles.'
"'Jesus!' she said, 'you'll never get there. You can't do
those two miles and more in the night, with the roads washed away,
and swamps everywhere. You mustn't even try to.'
"'Well, we'll go on to-morrow, then; only we must find somewhere to
pass the night.'
"'I'll go with you,' I said, 'as far as the Pendu farm--they're not
short of room in that shop. You'll snore in there all right, and you
can start at daybreak.'
"'Right! let's get a move on so far.'
"We went out again. What a downpour! We were wet past bearing. The
water poured into our socks through the boot-soles and by the
trouser bottoms, and they too were soaked through and through up to
the knees. Before we got to this Pendu, we meet a shadow in a big
black cloak, with a lantern. The lantern is raised, and we see a
gold stripe on the sleeve, and then an angry face.
"'What the hell are you doing there?' says the shadow, drawing back
a little and putting one fist on his hip, while the rain rattled
like hail on his hood.
"'They're men on leave for Vauvelles--they can't set off again
to-night--they would like to sleep in the Pendu farm.'
"'What do you say? Sleep here?--This is the police station--I am the
officer on guard and there are Boche prisoners in the buildings.'
And I'll tell you what he said as well--'I must see you hop it from
here in less than two seconds. Bonsoir.'
"So we right about face and started back again--stumbling as if we
were boozed, slipping, puffing, splashing and bespattering
ourselves. One of the boys cried to me through the wind and rain,
'We'll go back with you as far as your home, all the same. If we
haven't a house we've time enough.'
"'Where will you sleep?'
"'Oh, we'll find somewhere, don't worry, for the little time we have
to kill here.'
"'Yes, we'll find somewhere, all right,' I said. 'Come in again for
a minute meanwhile--I won't take no--and Mariette sees us enter once
more in single file, all five of us soaked like bread in soup.
"So there we all were, with only one little room to go round in and
go round again--the only room in the house, seeing that it isn't a
"'Tell me, madame,' says one of our friends, 'isn't there a cellar
"'There's water in it,' says Mariette; 'you can't see the bottom
step and it's only got two.'
"'Damn,' says the man, 'for I see there's no loft, either.'
"After a minute or two he gets up: 'Good-night, old pal,' he says to
me, and they get their hats on.
"'What, are you going off in weather like this, boys?'
"'Do you think,' says the old sport, 'that we're going to spoil your
stay with your wife?'
"'But, my good man--'
"'But me no buts. It's nine o'clock, and you've got to take your
hook before day. So good-night. Coming, you others?'
"'Rather,' say the boys. 'Good-night all.'
"There they are at the door and opening it. Mariette and me, we look
at each other--but we don't move. Once more we look at each other,
and then we sprang at them. I grabbed the skirt of a coat and she a
belt--all wet enough to wring out.
"'Never! We won't let you go--it can't be done.'
"'But me no buts,' I reply, while she locks the door."
"Then what?" asked Lamuse.
"Then? Nothing at all," replied Eudore. "We just stayed like that,
very discreetly--all the night--sitting, propped up in the corners,
yawning--like the watchers over a dead man. We made a bit of talk at
first. From time to time some one said, 'Is it still raining?' and
went and had a look, and said, 'It's still raining'--we could hear
it, by the way. A big chap who had a mustache like a Bulgarian
fought against sleeping like a wild man. Sometimes one or two among
the crowd slept, but there was always one to yawn and keep an eye
open for politeness, who stretched himself or half got up so that he
could settle more comfortably.
"Mariette and me, we never slept. We looked at each other, but we
looked at the others as well, and they looked at us, and there you
"Morning came and cleaned the window. I got up to go and look
outside. The rain was hardly less. In the room I could see dark
forms that began to stir and breathe hard. Mariette's eyes were red
with looking at me all night. Between her and me a soldier was
filling his pipe and shivering.
"Some one beats a tattoo on the window, and I half open it. A
silhouette with a streaming hat appears, as though carried and
driven there by the terrible force of the blast that came with it,
"'Hey, in the cafe there! Is there any coffee to be had?'
"'Coming, sir, coming,' cried Mariette.
"She gets up from her chair, a little benumbed. Without a word she
looks at her self in our bit of a mirror, touches her hair lightly,
and says quite simply, the good lass--
"'I am going to make coffee for everybody.'
"When that was drunk off, we had all of us to go. Besides, customers
turned up every minute.
"'Hey, la p'tite mere,' they cried, shoving their noses in at
the half-open window, 'let's have a coffee--or three--or four'--'and
two more again,' says another voice.
"We go up to Mariette to say good-by. They knew they had played
gooseberry that night most damnably, but I could see plainly that
they didn't know if it would be the thing to say something about it
or just let it drop altogether.
"Then the Bulgarian made up his mind: 'We've made a hell of a mess
of it for you, eh, ma p'tite dame?'
"He said that to show he'd been well brought up, the old sport.
"Mariette thanks him and offers him her hand--'That's nothing at
all, sir. I hope you'll enjoy your leave.'
"And me, I held her tight in my arms and kissed her as long as I
could--half a minute--discontented--my God, there was reason to
be--but glad that Mariette had not driven the boys out like dogs,
and I felt sure she liked me too for not doing it.
"'But that isn't all,' said one of the leave men, lifting the skirt
of his cape and fumbling in his coat pocket; 'that's not all. What
do we owe you for the coffees?'
"'Nothing, for you stayed the night with me; you are my guests.'
"'Oh, madame, we can't have that!'
"And how they set to to make protests and compliments in front of
each other! Old man, you can say what you like--we may be only poor
devils, but it was astonishing, that little palaver of good manners.
"'Come along! Let's be hopping it, eh?'
"They go out one by one. I stay till the last. Just then another
passer-by begins to knock on the window--another who was dying for a
mouthful of coffee. Mariette by the open door leaned forward and
cried, 'One second!'
"Then she put into my arms a parcel that she had ready. 'I had
bought a knuckle of ham--it was for supper--for us--for us two--and
a liter of good wine. But, ma foi! when I saw there were five of
you, I didn't want to divide it out so much, and I want still less
now. There's the ham, the bread, and the wine. I give them to you so
that you can enjoy them by yourself, my boy. As for them, we have
given them enough,' she says.
"Poor Mariette," sighs Eudore. "Fifteen months since I'd seen her.
And when shall I see her again? Ever?--It was jolly, that idea of
hers. She crammed all that stuff into my bag--"
He half opens his brown canvas pouch.
"Look, here they are! The ham here, and the bread, and there's the
booze. Well, seeing it's there, you don't know what we're going to
do with it? We're going to share it out between us, eh, old pals?"
The Anger of Volpatte
WHEN Volpatte arrived from his sick-leave, after two months'
absence, we surrounded him. But he was sullen and silent, and tried
to get away.
"Well, what about it? Volpatte, have you nothing to tell us?"
"Tell us all about the hospital and the sick-leave, old cock, from
the day when you set off in your bandages, with your snout in
parenthesis! You must have seen something of the official shops.
Speak then, nome de Dieu!"
"I don't want to say anything at all about it," said Volpatte.
"What's that? What are you talking about?"
"I'm fed up--that's what I am! The people back there, I'm sick of
them--they make me spew, and you can tell 'em so!"
"What have they done to you?"
"A lot of sods, they are!" says Volpatte.
There he was, with his head as of yore, his ears "stuck on again"
and his Mongolian cheekbones--stubbornly set in the middle of the
puzzled circle that besieged him; amid we felt that the mouth fast
closed on ominous silence meant high pressure of seething
exasperation in the depth of him.
Some words overflowed from him at last. He turned round--facing
towards the rear and the bases--and shook his fist at infinite
space. "There are too many of them," he said between his teeth,
"there are too many!" He seemed to be threatening and repelling a
rising sea of phantoms.
A little later, we questioned him again, knowing well that his anger
could not thus be retained within, and that the savage silence would
explode at the first chance.
It was in a deep communication trench, away back, where we had come
together for a meal after a morning spent in digging. Torrential
rain was falling. We were muddled and drenched and hustled by the
flood, and we ate standing in single file, without shelter, under
the dissolving sky. Only by feats of skill could we protect the
bread and bully from the spouts that flowed from every point in
space; and while we ate we put our hands and faces as much as
possible under our cowls. The rain rattled and bounced and streamed
on our limp woven armor, and worked with open brutality or sly
secrecy into ourselves and our food. Our feet were sinking farther
and farther, taking deep root in the stream that flowed along the
clayey bottom of the trench. Some faces were laughing, though their
mustaches dripped. Others grimaced at the spongy bread and flabby
meat, or at the missiles which attacked their skin from all sides at
every defect in their heavy and miry armor-plate.
Barque, who was hugging his mess-tin to his heart, bawled at
Volpatte: "Well then, a lot of sods, you say, that you've seen down
there where you've been?"
"For instance?" cried Blaire, while a redoubled squall shook and
scattered his words; "what have you seen in the way of sods?"
"There are--" Volpatte began, "and then--there are too many of
them, nom de Dieu! There are--"
He tried to say what was the matter with him, but could only repeat,
"There are too many of them!" oppressed and panting. He swallowed a
pulpy mouthful of bread as if there went with it the disordered and
suffocating mass of his memories.
"Is it the shirkers you want to talk about?"
"By God!" He had thrown the rest of his beef over the parapet, and
this cry, this gasp, escaped violently from his mouth as if from a
"Don't worry about the soft-job brigade, old cross-patch," advised
Barque, banteringly, but not without some bitterness. "What good
does it do?"
Concealed and huddled up under the fragile and unsteady roof of his
oiled hood, while the water poured down its shining slopes, and
holding his empty mess-tin out for the rain to clean it, Volpatte
snarled, "I'm not daft--not a bit of it--and I know very well
there've got to be these individuals at the rear. Let them have
their dead-heads for all I care--but there's too many of them, and
they're all alike, and all rotters, voila!"
Relieved by this affirmation, which shed a little light on the
gloomy farrago of fury he was loosing among us, Volpatte began to
speak in fragments across the relentless sheets of rain--
"At the very first village they sent me to, I saw duds, and duds
galore, and they began to get on my nerves. All sorts of departments
and sub-departments and managements and centers and offices and
committees--you're no sooner there than you meet swarms of fools,
swam-ms of different services that are only different in name-enough
to turn your brain. I tell you, the man that invented the names of
all those committees, he was wrong in his head.
"So could I help but be sick of it? Ah, mon vieux," said our
comrade, musing, "all those individuals fiddle-faddling and making
believe down there, all spruced up with their fine caps and
officers' coats and shameful boots, that gulp dainties and can put a
dram of best brandy down their gullets whenever they want, and wash
themselves oftener twice than once, and go to church, and never stop
smoking, and pack themselves up in feathers at night to read the
newspaper--and then they say afterwards, 'I've been in the war!'"
One point above all had got hold of Volpatte and emerged from his
confused and impassioned vision: "All those soldiers, they haven't
to run away with their table-tools and get a bite any old
way--they've got to be at their ease--they'd rather go and sit
themselves down with some tart in the district, at a special
reserved table, and guzzle vegetables, and the fine lady puts their
crockery out all square for them on the dining-table, and their pots
of jam and every other blasted thing to eat; in short, the
advantages of riches and peace in that doubly-damned hell they call
Volpatte's neighbor shook his head under the torrents that fell from
heaven and said," So much the better for them."
"I'm not crazy--" Volpatte began again.
"P'raps, but you're not fair."
Volpatte felt himself insulted by the word. He started, and raised
his head furiously, and the rain, that was waiting for the chance,
took him plump in the face. "Not fair--me? Not fair--to those
"Exactly, monsieur," the neighbor replied; "I tell you that you play
hell with them and yet you'd jolly well like to be in the rotters'
"Very likely--but what does that prove, rump-face? To begin with,
we, we've been in danger, and it ought to be our turn for the other.
But they're always the same, I tell you; and then there's young men
there, strong as bulls and poised like wrestlers, and then--there
are too many of them! D'you hear? It's always too many, I say,
because it is so."
"Too many? What do you know about it, vilain? These departments and
committees, do you know what they are?"
"I don't know what they are," Volpatte set off again, "but I
"Don't you think they need a crowd to keep all the army's affairs
"I don't care a damn, but--"
"But you wish it was you, eh?" chaffed the invisible neighbor, who
concealed in the depth of the hood on which the reservoirs of space
were emptying either a supreme indifference or a cruel desire to
take a rise out of Volpatte.
"I can't help it," said the other, simply.
"There's those that can help it for you," interposed the shrill
voice of Barque; "I knew one of 'em--"
"I, too, I've seen 'em!" Volpatte yelled with a desperate effort
through the storm. "Tiens! not far from the front, don't know where
exactly, where there's an ambulance clearing-station and a
sous-intendance--I met the reptile there."
The wind, as it passed over us, tossed him the question, "What was
At that moment there was a lull, and the weather allowed Volpatte to
talk after a fashion. He said: "He took me round all the jumble of
the depot as if it was. a fair, although he was one of the sights of
the place. He led me along the passages and into the dining-rooms of
houses and supplementary barracks. He half opened doors with labels
on them, and said, 'Look here, and here too--look!' I went
inspecting with him, but he didn't go back, like I did, to the
trenches, don't fret yourself, and he wasn't coming back from them
either. don't worry! The reptile, the first time I saw him he was
walking nice and leisurely in the yard--'I'm in the Expenses
Department,' he says. We talked a bit, and the next day he got an
orderly job so as to dodge getting sent away, seeing it was his turn
to go since the beginning of the war.
"On the step of the door where he'd laid all night on a feather bed,
he was polishing the pumps of his monkey master--beautiful yellow
pumps--rubbing 'em with paste, fairly glazing 'em, my boy. I stopped
to watch him, and the chap told me all about himself. Mon vieux, I
don't remember much more of the stuffing that came out of his crafty
skull than I remember of the History of France and the dates we
whined at school. Never, I tell you, bad be been sent to the front,
although he was Class 1903, [note 1] and a lusty devil at that, he
was. Danger and dog-tiredness and all the ugliness of war--not for
him, but for the others, oui. He knew damned well that if he set
foot in the firing-line, the line would see that the beast got it,
so he ran like hell from it, and stopped where he was. He said
they'd tried all ways to get him, but he'd given the slip to all the
captains, all the colonels, all the majors, and they were all
damnably mad with him. He told me about it. How did he work it? He'd
sit down all of a sudden, put on a stupid look, do the scrim-shanker
stunt, and flop like a bundle of dirty linen. 'I've got a sort of
general fatigue,' he'd blubber. They didn't know how to take him,
and after a bit they just let him drop--everybody was fit to spew on
him. And he changed his tricks according to the circumstances, d'you
catch on? Sometimes he had something wrong with his foot--he was
damned clever with his feet. And then he contrived things, and he
knew one head from another, and how to take his opportunities. He
knew what's what, he did. You could see him go and slip in like a
pretty poilu among the depot chaps, where the soft jobs were, and
stay there; and then he'd put himself out no end to be useful to the
pals. He'd get up at three o'clock in the morning to make the juice,
go and fetch the water while the others were getting their grub. At
last, he'd wormed himself in everywhere, he came to be one of the
family, the rotter, the carrion. He did it so he wouldn't have to do
it. He seemed to me like an individual that would have earned five
quid honestly with the same work and bother that he puts into
forging a one-pound note. But there, he'll get his skin out of it
all right, he will. At the front he'd be lost sight of in the throng
of it, but he's not so stupid. Be damned to them, he says, that take
their grub on the ground, and be damned to them still more when
they're under it. When we've all done with fighting, he'll go back
home and he'll say to his friends and neighbors, 'Here I am safe and
sound,' and his pals'll be glad, because be's a good sort, with
engaging manners, contemptible creature that he is, and--and this is
the most stupid thing of all--but he takes you in and you swallow
him whole, the son of a bug.
"And then, those sort of beings, don't you believe there's only one
of them. There are barrels of 'em in every depot, that hang on and
writhe when their time comes to go, and they say, 'I'm not going,'
and they don't go, and they never succeed in driving them as far as
"Nothing new in all that," said Barque, "we know it, we know it!"
"Then there are the offices," Volpatte went on, engrossed in his
story of travel; "whole houses and streets and districts. I saw that
my little corner in the rear was only a speck, and I had full view
of them. Non, I'd never have believed there'd be so many men on
chairs while war was going on--"
A hand protruded from the rank and made trial of space--"No more
sauce falling"--"Then we're going out, bet your life on it." So
"March!" was the cry.
The storm held its peace. We filed off in the long narrow swamp
stagnating in the bottom of the trench where the moment before it
had shaken under slabs of rain. Volpatte's grumbling began again
amidst our sorry stroll and the eddies of floundering feet. I
listened to him as I watched the shoulders of a poverty-stricken
overcoat swaying in front of me, drenched through and through. This
time Volpatte was on the track of the police--
"The farther you go from the front the more you see of them."
"Their battlefield is not the same as ours."
Tulacque had an ancient grudge against them. "Look," he said, "how
the bobbies spread themselves about to get good lodgings and good
food, and then, after the drinking regulations, they dropped on the
secret wine-sellers. You saw them lying in wait, with a corner of an
eye on the shop-doors, to see if there weren't any poilus slipping
quietly out, two-faced that they are, leering to left and to right
and licking their mustaches."
"There are good ones among 'em. I knew one in my country, the
Cote d'Or, where I--"
"Shut up!" was Tulacque's peremptory interruption; "they're all
alike. There isn't one that can put another right."
"Yes, they're lucky," said Volpatte, "but do you think they're
contented? Not a bit; they grouse. At least," he corrected himself,
"there was one I met, and he was a grouser. He was devilish bothered
by the drill-manual. 'It isn't worth while to learn the drill
instruction,' he said, 'they're always changing it. F'r instance,
take the department of military police; well, as soon as you've got
the gist of it, it's something else. Ah, when will this war be
over?' he says."
"They do what they're told to do, those chaps," ventured Eudore.
"Surely. It isn't their fault at all. It doesn't alter the fact that
these professional soldiers, pensioned and decorated in the time
when we're only civvies, will have made war in a damned funny way."
"That reminds me of a forester that I saw as well," said Volpatte,
"who played hell about the fatigues they put him to. 'It's
disgusting,' the fellow said to me, 'what they do with us. We're old
non-coms., soldiers that have done four years of service at least.
We're paid on the higher scale, it's true, but what of that? We are
Officials, and yet they humiliate us. At H.Q. they set us to
cleaning, and carrying the dung away. The civilians see the
treatment they inflict on us, and they look down on us. And if you
look like grousing, they'll actually talk about sending you off to
the trenches, like foot-soldiers! What's going to become of our
prestige? When we go back to the parishes as rangers after the
war--if we do come back from it--the people of the villages and
forests will say, "Ah, it was you that was sweeping the streets at
X--!" To get back our prestige, compromised by human injustice and
ingratitude, I know well,' he says, 'that we shall have to make
complaints, and make complaints and make 'em with all our might, to
the rich and to the influential!' he says."
"I knew a gendarme who was all right," said Lamuse. "'The police are
temperate enough in general,' he says, 'but there are always dirty
devils everywhere, pas? The civilian is really afraid of the
gendarme,' says he, 'and that's a fact; and so, I admit it, there
are some who take advantage of it, and those ones--the tag-rag of
the gendarmerie--know where to get a glass or two. If I was Chief or
Brigadier, I'd screw 'em down; not half I wouldn't,' he says; 'for
public opinion,' he says again. 'lays the blame on the whole force
when a single one with a grievance makes a complaint.'"
"As for me," says Paradis, "one of the worst days of my life was
once when I saluted a gendarme, taking him for a lieutenant, with
his white stripes. Fortunately--I don't say it to console myself,
but because it's probably true--fortunately, I don't think he saw
A silence. "Oui, 'vidently," the men murmured; "but what about it?
No need to worry."
* * * * * *
A little later, when we were seated along a wall, with our backs to
the stones, and our feet plunged and planted in the ground, Volpatte
continued unloading his impressions.
"I went into a big room that was a Depot office--bookkeeping
department, I believe. It swarmed with tables, and people in it like
in a market. Clouds of talk. All along the walls on each side and in
the middle, personages sitting in front of their spread-out goods
like waste-paper merchants. I put in a request to be put back into
my regiment, and they said to me, 'Take your damned hook, and get
busy with it.' I lit on a sergeant, a little chap with airs, spick
as a daisy, with a gold-rimmed spy-glass--eye-glasses with a tape on
them. He was young, but being a re-enlisted soldier, he had the
right not to go to the front. I said to him, 'Sergeant!' But he
didn't hear me, being busy slanging a secretary--it's unfortunate,
mon garcon,' he was saying; 'I've told you twenty times that
you must send one notice of it to be carried out by the Squadron
Commander, Provost of the C.A., and one by way of advice, without
signature, but making mention of the signature, to the Provost of
the Force Publique d'Amiens and of the centers of the district, of
which you have the list--in envelopes, of course, of the general
commanding the district. It's very simple,' he says.
"I'd drawn back three paces to wait till he'd done with jawing. Five
minutes after, I went up to the sergeant. He said to me, 'My dear
sir, I have not the time to bother with you; I have many other
matters to attend to.' As a matter of fact, he was all in a flummox
in front of his typewriter, the chump, because he'd forgotten, he
said, to press on the capital-letter lever, and so, instead of
underlining the heading of his page, he'd damn well scored a line of
8's in the middle of the top. So he couldn't hear anything, and he
played hell with the Americans, seeing the machine came from there.
"After that, he growled against another woolly-leg, because on the
memorandum of the distribution of maps they hadn't put the names of
the Ration Department, the Cattle Department, and the Administrative
Convoy of the 328th D.I.
"Alongside, a fool was obstinately trying to pull more circulars off
a jellygraph than it would print, doing his damnedest to produce a
lot of ghosts that you could hardly read. Others were talking:
'Where are the Parisian fasteners?' asked a toff. And they don't
call things by their proper names: 'Tell me now, if you please, what
are the elements quartered at X--?' The elements! What's all that
sort of babble?" asked Volpatte.
"At the end of the big table where these fellows were that I've
mentioned and that I'd been to, and the sergeant floundering about
behind a hillock of papers at the top of it and giving orders, a
simpleton was doing nothing but tap on his blotting-pad with his
hands. His job, the mug, was the department of leave-papers, and as
the big push had begun and all leave was stopped, he hadn't anything
to do--'Capital!' he says.
"And all that, that's one table in one room in one department in one
depot. I've seen more, and then more, and more and more again. I
don't know, but it's enough to drive you off your nut, I tell you."
"Have they got brisques?" [note 2]
"Not many there, but in the department of the second line every one
had 'em. You had museums of 'em there--whole Zoological Gardens of
"Prettiest thing I've seen in the way of stripes," said Tulacque,
"was a motorist, dressed in cloth that you'd have said was satin,
with new stripes, and the leathers of an English officer, though a
second-class soldier as he was. With his finger on his cheek, he
leaned with his elbows on that fine carriage adorned with windows
that he was the valet de chambre of. He'd have made you sick, the
dainty beast. He was just exactly the poilu that you see pictures of
in the ladies' papers--the pretty little naughty papers."
Each has now his memories, his tirade on this much-excogitated
subject of the shirkers, and all begin to overflow and to talk at
once. A hubbub surrounds the foot of the mean wall where we are
heaped like bundles, with a gray, muddy, and trampled spectacle
lying before us, laid waste by rain.
"--orderly in waiting to the Road Department, then at the Bakery,
then cyclist to the Revictualing Department of the Eleventh
"--every morning he had a note to take to the Service de
l'Intendance, to the Gunnery School, to the Bridges Department, and
in the evening to the A.D. and the A.T.--that was all."
"--when I was coming back from leave,' said that orderly, 'the
women cheered us at all the level-crossing gates that the train
passed.' 'They took you for soldiers,' I said."
"--'Ah,' I said, 'you're called up, then, are you?' 'Certainly,'
he says to me, 'considering that I've been a round of meetings in
America with a Ministerial deputation. P'raps it's not exactly being
called up, that? Anyway, mon ami,' he says, 'I don't pay any rent,
so I must be called up.' 'And me--'"
"To finish," cries Volpatte, silencing the hum with his authority of
a traveler returned from "down there," "to finish, I saw a whole
legion of 'em all together at a blow-out. For two days I was a sort
of helper in the kitchen of one of the centers of the C.O.A., 'cos
they couldn't let me do nothing while waiting for my reply, which
didn't hurry, seeing they'd sent another inquiry and a super-inquiry
after it, and the reply had too many halts to make in each office,
going and coming.
"In short, I was cook in the shop. Once I waited at table, seeing
that the head cook had just got back from leave for the fourth time
and was tired. I saw and I heard those people every time I went into
the dining-room, that was in the Prefecture, and all that hot and
illuminated row got into my head. They were only auxiliaries in
there, but there were plenty of the armed service among the number,
too. They were almost all old men, with a few young ones besides,
sitting here and there.
"I'd begun to get about enough of it when one of the broomsticks
said, 'The shutters must be closed; it's more prudent.' My boy. they
were a lump of a hundred and twenty-five miles from the firing-line,
but that pock-marked puppy he wanted to make believe there was
danger of bombardment by aircraft--"
"And there's my cousin," said Tulacque, fumbling, "who wrote to
me--Look, here's what he says: 'Mon cher Adolphe, here I am
definitely settled in Paris as attache to Guard-Room 60.
While you are down there. I must stay in the capital at the mercy of
a Taube or a Zeppelin!'"
The phrase sheds a tranquil delight abroad, and we assimilate it
like a tit-bit, laughing.
"After that," Volpatte went on, "those layers of soft-jobbers fed me
up still more. As a dinner it was all right--cod, seeing it was
Friday, but prepared like soles a la Marguerite--I know all
about it. But the talk!--"
"They call the bayonet Rosalie, don't they?"
"Yes, the padded luneys. But during dinner these gentlemen talked
above all about themselves. Every one, so as to explain why he
wasn't somewhere else, as good as said (but all the while saying
something else and gorging like an ogre), 'I'm ill, I'm feeble, look
at me, ruin that I am. Me, I'm in my dotage.' They were all seeking
inside themselves to find diseases to wrap themselves up in--'I
wanted to go to the war, but I've a rupture, two ruptures, three
ruptures.' Ah, non, that feast!--'The orders that speak of sending
everybody away,' explained a funny man, 'they're like the comedies,'
he explained, 'there's always a last act to clear up all the jobbery
of the others. That third act is this paragraph, "Unless the
requirements of the Departments stand in the way."' There was one
that told this tale, 'I had three friends that I counted on to give
me a lift up. I was going to apply to them; but, one after another,
a little before I put my request, they were killed by the enemy;
look at that,' he says, 'I've no luck!' Another was explaining to
another that, as for him, he would very much have liked to go, but
the surgeon-major had taken him round the waist to keep him by force
in the depot with the auxiliary. 'Eh bien,' he says, 'I resigned
myself. After all, I shall be of greater value in putting my
intellect to the service of the country than in carrying a
knapsack.' And him that was alongside said, 'Oui,' with his
headpiece feathered on top. He'd jolly well consented to go to
Bordeaux at the time when the Boches were getting near Paris, and
then Bordeaux became the stylish place; but afterwards he returned
firmly to the front--to Paris--and said something like this, 'My
ability is of value to France; it is absolutely necessary that I
guard it for France.'
"They talked about other people that weren't there--of the
commandant who was getting an impossible temper, and they explained
that the more imbecile he got the harsher he got; and the General
that made unexpected inspections with the idea of kicking all the
soft-jobbers out, but who'd been laid up for eight days, very
ill--'he's certainly going to die; his condition no longer gives
rise to any uneasiness,' they said, smoking the cigarettes that
Society swells send to the depots for the soldiers at the front.
'D'you know,' they said, 'little Frazy, who is such a nice boy, the
cherub, he's at last found an excuse for staying behind. They wanted
some cattle slaughterers for the abattoir, and he's enlisted himself
in there for protection, although he's got a University degree and
in spite of being an attorney's clerk. As for Flandrin's son, he's
succeeded in getting himself attached to the
roadmenders.--Roadmender, him? Do you think they'll let him stop
so?' 'Certain sure,' replies one of the cowardly milksops. 'A
road-mender's job is for a long time.'
"Talk about idiots," Marthereau growls.
"And they were all jealous, I don't know why, of a chap called
Bourin. Formerly he moved in the best Parisian circles. He lunched
and dined in the city. He made eighteen calls a day, and fluttered
about the drawing-rooms from afternoon tea till daybreak. He was
indefatigable in leading cotillons, organizing festivities,
swallowing theatrical shows, without counting the motoring parties,
and all the lot running with champagne. Then the war came. So he's
no longer capable, the poor boy, of staying on the look-out a bit
late at an embrasure, or of cutting wire. He must stay peacefully in
the warm. And then, him, a Parisian, to go into the provinces and
bury himself in the trenches! Never in this world! 'I realize, too,'
replied an individual, 'that at thirty-seven I've arrived at the age
when I must take care of myself!' And while the fellow was saying
that, I was thinking of Dumont the gamekeeper, who was forty-two,
and was done in close to me on Hill 132, so near that after he got
the handful of bullets in his head, my body shook with the trembling
"And what were they like with you, these thieves?"
"To hell with me, it was, but they didn't show it too much, only now
and again when they couldn't hold themselves in. They looked at me
out of the corner of their eyes, and took damn good care not to
touch me in passing, for I was still war-mucky.
"It disgusted me a bit to be in the middle of that heap of
good-for-nothings, but I said to myself, 'Come, it's only for a bit,
Firmin.' There was just one time that I very near broke out with the
itch, and that was when one of 'em said, 'Later, when we return, if
we do return.'--NO! He had no right to say that. Sayings like that,
before you let them out of your gob, you've got to earn them; it's
like a decoration. Let them get cushy jobs, if they like, but not
play at being men in the open when they've damned well run away. And
you hear 'em discussing the battles, for they're in closer touch
than you with the big bugs and with the way the war's managed; and
afterwards, when you return, if you do return, it's you that'll be
wrong in the middle of all that crowd of humbugs, with the poor
little truth that you've got.
"Ah, that evening, I tell you, all those heads in the reek of the
light, the foolery of those people enjoying life and profiting by
peace! It was like a ballet at the theater or the make-believe of a
magic lantern. There were--there were--there are a hundred thousand
more of them," Volpatte at last concluded in confusion.
But the men who were paying for the safety of the others with their
strength and their lives enjoyed the wrath that choked him, that
brought him to bay in his corner, and overwhelmed him with the
apparitions of shirkers.
"Lucky he doesn't start talking about the factory hands who've
served their apprenticeship in the war, and all those who've stayed
at home under the excuse of National Defense, that was put on its
feet in five secs!" murmured Tirette; "he'd keep us going with them
"You say there are a hundred thousand of them, flea-bite," chaffed
Barque. "Well, in 1914--do you hear me?--Millerand, the War
Minister, said to the M.P.'s, 'There are no shirkers.'"
"Millerand!" growled Volpatte. "I tell you, I don't know the man;
but if he said that, he's a dirty sloven, sure enough!"
* * * * * *
"One is always," said Bertrand, "a shirker to some one else."
"That's true; no matter what you call yourself, you'll
always--always--find worse blackguards and better blackguards than
"All those that never go up to the trenches, or those who never go
into the first line, and even those who only go there now and then,
they're shirkers, if you like to call 'em so, and you'd see how many
there are if they only gave stripes to the real fighters."
"There are two hundred and fifty to each regiment of two
battalions," said Cocon.
"There are the orderlies, and a bit since there were even the
servants of the adjutants."--"The cooks and the under-cooks."--"The
sergeant-majors, and the quartermaster-sergeants, as often as
not."--"The mess corporals and the mess fatigues."--"Some
office-props and the guard of the colors."--"The baggage-masters."
"The drivers, the laborers, and all the section, with all its
non-coms., and even the sappers."--"The cyclists." "Not all of
them."--"Nearly all the Red Cross service."--"Not the
stretcher-bearers, of course; for they've not only got a devilish
rotten job, but they live with the companies, and when attacks are
on they charge with their stretchers; but the hospital attendants."
"Nearly all parsons, especially at the rear. For, you know, parsons
with knapsacks on, I haven't seen a devil of a lot of 'em, have
"Nor me either. In the papers, but not here."
"There are some, it seems."--"Ah!"
"Anyway, the common soldier's taken something on in this war."
"There are others that are in the open. We're not the only ones."
"We are!" said Tulacque, sharply; "we're almost the only ones!"
He added, "You may say--I know well enough what you'll tell me--that
it was the motor lorries and the heavy artillery that brought it off
at Verdun. It's true, but they've got a soft job all the same by the
side of us. We're always in danger, against their once, and we've
got the bullets and the bombs, too, that they haven't. The heavy
artillery reared rabbits near their dug-outs, and they've been
making themselves omelettes for eighteen months. We are really in
danger. Those that only get a bit of it, or only once, aren't in it
at all. Otherwise, everybody would be. The nursemaid strolling the
streets of Paris would be, too, since there are the Taubes and the
Zeppelins, as that pudding-head said that the pal was talking about
"In the first expedition to the Dardanelles, there was actually a
chemist wounded by a shell. You don't believe me, but it's true all
the same--an officer with green facings, wounded!"
"That's chance, as I wrote to Mangouste, driver of a remount horse
for the section, that got wounded--but it was done by a motor
"That's it, it's like that. After all, a bomb can tumble down on a
pavement, in Paris or in Bordeaux."
"Oui, oui; so it's too easy to say, 'Don't let's make distinctions
in danger!' Wait a bit. Since the beginning, there are some of those
others who've got killed by an unlucky chance; among us there are
some that are still alive by a lucky chance. It isn't the same
thing, that, seeing that when you're dead, it's for a long time."
"Yes," says Tirette, "but you're getting too venomous with your
stories of shirkers. As long as we can't help it, it's time to turn
over. I'm thinking of a retired forest-ranger at Cherey, where we
were last month, who went about the streets of the town spying
everywhere to rout out some civilian of military age, and he smelled
out the dodgers like a mastiff. Behold him pulling up in front of a
sturdy goodwife that had a mustache, and he only sees her mustache,
so he bullyrags her--'Why aren't you at the front, you?'"
"For my part," says Pepin, "I don't fret myself about the
shirkers or the semi-shirkers, it's wasting one's time; but where
they get on my nerves, it's when they swank. I'm of Volpatte's
opinion. Let 'em shirk, good, that's human nature; but afterwards
they shouldn't say, 'I've been a soldier.' Take the engages,
[note 3] for instance--"
"That depends on the engages. Those who have offered for the
infantry without conditions, I look up to those men as much as to
those that have got killed; but the engages in the
departments or special arms, even in the heavy artillery, they begin
to get my back up. We know 'em! When they're doing the agreeable in
their social circle, they'll say, 'I've offered for the war.'--'Ah,
what a fine thing you have done; of your own free will you have
defied the machine-guns! '--'Well, yes, madame la marquise, I'm
built like that!' Eh, get out of it, humbug!"
"Oui, it's always the same tale. They wouldn't be able to say in the
drawing-rooms afterwards, 'Tenez, here I am; look at me for a
"I know a gentleman who enlisted in the aerodromes. He had a fine
uniform--he'd have done better to offer for the
Opera-Comique. What am I saying--'he'd have done better?'
He'd have done a damn sight better, oui. At least he'd have made
other people laugh honestly, instead of making them laugh with the
spleen in it."
"They're a lot of cheap china, fresh painted, and plastered with
ornaments and all sorts of falderals, but they don't go under fire."
"If there'd only been people like those, the Boches would be at
"When war's on, one must risk his skin, eh, corporal?"
"Yes," said Bertrand, "there are some times when duty and danger are
exactly the same thing; when the country, when justice and liberty
are in danger, it isn't in taking shelter that you defend them. On
the contrary, war means danger of death and sacrifice of life for
everybody, for everybody; no one is sacred. One must go for it,
upright, right to the end, and not pretend to do it in a fanciful
uniform. These services at the bases, and they're necessary, must be
automatically guaranteed by the really weak and the really old."
"Besides, there are too many rich and influential people who have
shouted, 'Let us save France!--and begin by saving ourselves!' On
the declaration of war, there was a big rush to get out of it,
that's what there was, and the strongest succeeded. I noticed
myself, in my little corner, it was especially those that jawed most
about patriotism previously. Anyway, as the others were saying just
now, if they get into a funk-hole, the worst filthiness they can do
is to make people believe they've run risks. 'Cos those that have
really run risks, they deserve the same respect as the dead."
"Well, what then? It's always like that, old man; you can't change
"It can't be helped. Grouse, complain? Tiens! talking about
complaining, did you know Margoulin?"
"Margoulin? The good sort that was with us, that they left to die at
le Crassier because they thought he was dead?"
"Well, he wanted to make a complaint. Every day he talked about
protesting against all those things to the captain and the
commandant. He'd say after breakfast, 'I'll go and say it as sure as
that pint of wine's there.' And a minute later, 'If I don't speak,
there's never a pint of wine there at all.' And if you were passing
later you'd hear him again, 'Tiens! is that a pint of wine there?
Well, you'll see if I don't speak! Result--he said nothing at all.
You'll say, 'But he got killed.' True, but previously he had God's
own time to do it two thousand times if he'd dared."
"All that, it makes me ill," growled Blaire, sullen, but with a
flash of fury.
"We others, we've seen nothing--seeing that we don't see
anything--but if we did see--!"
"Old chap," Volpatte cried, "those depots--take notice of what I
say--you'd have to turn the Seine, the Garonne, the Rhone and the
Loire into them to clean them. In the interval, they're living, and
they live well, and they go to doze peacefully every night, every
The soldier held his peace. In the distance he saw the night as they
would pass it--cramped up, trembling with vigilance in the deep
darkness, at the bottom of the listening-hole whose ragged jaws
showed in black outline all around whenever a gun hurled its dawn
into the sky.
Bitterly said Cocon: "All that, it doesn't give you any desire to
"Yes, it does," some one replies tranquilly. "Yes, it does. Don't
exaggerate, old kipper-skin."
[note 1:] Thirty or thirty-one years old in 1914.--Tr.
[note 2:] A-shape badges worn on the left arm to indicate the
duration of service at the front.--Tr.
[note 3:] Soldiers voluntarily enlisted in ordinary times for three.
four, or five years. Those enlisted for four or five year' have the
right to choose their arm of the service, subject to conditions.--
THE twilight of evening was coming near from the direction of the
country, and a gentle breeze, soft as a whisper, came with it.
In the houses alongside this rural way--a main road, garbed for a
few paces like a main street--the rooms whose pallid windows no
longer fed them with the limpidity of space found their own light
from lamps and candles, so that the evening left them and went
outside, and one saw light and darkness gradually changing places.
On the edge of the village, towards the fields, some unladen
soldiers were wandering, facing the breeze. We were ending the day
in peace, and enjoying that idle ease whose happiness one only
realizes when one is really weary. It was fine weather, we were at
the beginning of rest, and dreaming about it. Evening seemed to make
our faces bigger before it darkened them, and they shone with the
serenity of nature.
Sergeant Suilhard came to me, took my arm, and led me away. "Come,"
he said, "and I'll show you something."
The approaches to the village abounded in rows of tall and tranquil
trees, and we followed them along. Under the pressure of the breeze
their vast verdure yielded from time to time in slow majestic
Suilhard went in front of me. He led me into a deep lane, which
twisted about between high banks; and on each side grew a border of
bushes, whose tops met each other. For some moments we walked in a
bower of tender green. A last gleam of light, falling aslant across
the lane, made points of bright yellow among the foliage, and round
as gold coins. "This is pretty," I said.
He said nothing, but looked aside and hard. Then he stopped. "It
must be there."
He made me climb up a bit of a track to a field, a great quadrangle
within tall trees, and full of the scent of hay.
"Tiens!" I said, looking at the ground, "it's all trampled here;
there's been something to do."
"Come," said Suilhard to me. He led me into the field, not far from
its gate. There was a group of soldiers there, talking in low
voices. My companion stretched out his hand. "It's there," he said.
A very short post, hardly a yard high, was implanted a few paces
from the hedge, composed just there of young trees. "It was there,"
he said, "that they shot a soldier of the 204th this morning. They
planted that post in the night. They brought the chap here at dawn,
and these are the fellows of his squad who killed him. He tried to
dodge the trenches. During relief he stayed behind, and then went
quietly off to quarters. He did nothing else; they meant, no doubt,
to make an example of him."
We came near to the conversation of the others. "No. no, not at
all," said one. "He wasn't a ruffian, he wasn't one of those toughs
that we all know. We all enlisted together. He was a decent sort,
like ourselves, no more, no less--a bit funky, that's all. He was in
the front line from the beginning, he was, and I've never seen him
boozed, I haven't."
"Yes, but all must be told. Unfortunately for him, there was a
'previous conviction.' There were two, you know, that did the
trick--the other got two years. But Cajard, [note 1] because of the
sentence he got in civil life couldn't benefit by extenuating
circumstances. He'd done some giddy-goat trick in civil life, when
he was drunk."
"You can see a little blood on the ground if you look," said a
"There was the whole ceremonial," another went on, "from A to Z--the
colonel on horseback, the degradation; then they tied him to the
little post, the cattle-stoup. He had to be forced to kneel or sit
on the ground with a similar post."
"It's past understanding," said a third, after a silence, "if it
wasn't for the example the sergeant spoke about."
On the post the soldiers had scrawled inscriptions and protests. A
croix de guerre, cut clumsily of wood, was nailed to it, and read:
"A. Cajard, mobilized in August, 1914, in gratitude to France."
Returning to quarters I met Volpatte, still surrounded and talking.
He was relating some new anecdotes of his journey among the happy
[note 1:] I have altered the name of this soldier as well as that of
the village.--H. B.
THE weather was appalling. Water and wind attacked the passers-by;
riddled, flooded, and upheaved the roads.
I was returning from fatigue to our quarters at the far end of the
village. The landscape that morning showed dirty yellow through the
solid rain, and the sky was dark as a slated roof. The downpour
flogged the horse-trough as with birchen rods. Along the walls.
human shapes went in shrinking files, stooping, abashed, splashing.
In spite of the rain and the cold and bitter wind, a crowd had
gathered in front of the door of the barn where we were lodging. All
close together and back to back, the men seemed from a distance like
a great moving sponge. Those who could see, over shoulders and
between heads, opened their eyes wide and said, "He has a nerve, the
boy!" Then the inquisitive ones broke away, with red noses and
streaming faces, into the down-pour that lashed and the blast that
bit, and letting the hands fall that they had upraised in surprise,
they plunged them in their pockets.
In the center, and running with rain, abode the cause of the
gathering--Fouillade, bare to the waist and washing himself in
abundant water. Thin as an insect, working his long slender arms in
riotous frenzy, he soaped and splashed his head, neck, and chest,
down to the upstanding gridirons of his sides. Over his
funnel-shaped cheeks the brisk activity had spread a flaky beard
like snow, and piled on the top of his head a greasy fleece that the
rain was puncturing with little holes.
By way of a tub, the patient was using three mess-tins which he had
filled with water--no one knew how--in a village where there was
none; and as there was no clean spot anywhere to put anything down
in that universal streaming of earth and sky, he thrust his towel
into the waistband of his trousers, while the soap went back into
his pocket every time he used it.
They who still remained wondered at this heroic gesticulation in the
face of adversity, and said again, as they wagged their heads, "It's
a disease of cleanliness he's got."
"You know he's going to be carpeted, they say, for that affair of
the shell-hole with Volpatte." And they mixed the two exploits
together in a muddled way, that of the shell-hole, and the present,
and looked on him as the hero of the moment, while he puffed,
sniffled, grunted, spat, and tried to dry himself under the
celestial shower-bath with rapid rubbing and as a measure of
deception; then at last he resumed his clothes.
* * * * * *
After his wash, Fouillade feels cold. He turns about and stands in
the doorway of the barn that shelters us. The arctic blast discolors
and disparages his long face, so hollow and sunburned; it draws
tears from his eyes, and scatters them on the cheeks once scorched
by the mistral; his nose, too, weeps increasingly.
Yielding to the ceaseless bite of the wind that grips his ears in
spite of the muffler knotted round his head, and his calves in spite
of the yellow puttees with which his cockerel legs are enwound, he
reenters the barn, but comes out of it again at once, rolling
ferocious eyes, and muttering oaths with the accent one hears in
that corner of the land, over six hundred miles from here, whence he
was driven by war.
So he stands outside, erect, more truly excited than ever before in
these northern scenes. And the wind comes and steals into him, and
comes again roughly, shaking and maltreating his scarecrow's slight
and flesh-less figure.
Ye gods! It is almost uninhabitable, the barn they have assigned to
us to live in during this period of rest. It is a collapsing refuge,
gloomy and leaky, confined as a well. One half of it is under
water--we see rats swimming in it--and the men are crowded in the
other half. The walls, composed of laths stuck together with dried
mud, are cracked, sunken, holed in all their circuit, and
extensively broken through above. The night we got here--until the
morning--we plugged as well as we could the openings within reach,
by inserting leafy branches and hurdles. But the higher holes, and
those in the roof, still gaped and always. When dawn hovers there,
weakling and early, the wind for contrast rushes in and blows round
every side with all its strength, and the squad endures the hustling
of an everlasting draught.
When we are there, we remain upright in the ruined obscurity,
groping, shivering, complaining.
Fouillade, who has come in once more, goaded by the cold, regrets
his ablutions. He has pains in his loins and back. He wants
something to do, but what?
Sit down? Impossible; it is too dirty inside there. The ground and
the paving-stones are plastered with mud; the straw scattered for
our sleeping is soaked through, by the water that comes through the
holes and by the boots that wipe themselves with it. Besides, if you
sit down, you freeze; and if you lie on the straw, you are troubled
by the smell of manure, and sickened by the vapors of ammonia.
Fouillade contents himself by looking at his place, and yawning wide
enough to dislocate his long jaw, further lengthened by a goatee
beard where you would see white hairs if the daylight were really
"The other pals and boys," said Marthereau, "they're no better off
than we are. After breakfast I went to see a jail-bird of the 11th
on the farm near the hospital. You've to clamber over a wall by a
ladder that's too short--talk about a scissor-cut!" says Marthereau,
who is short in the leg; "and when once you're in the hen-run and
rabbit-hutch you're shoved and poked by everybody and a nuisance to
'em all. You don't know where to put your pasties down. I vamoosed
from there, and sharp."
"For my part," says Cocon, "I wanted to go to the blacksmith's when
we'd got quit of grubbing, to imbibe something hot, and pay for it.
Yesterday he was selling coffee, but some bobbies called there this
morning, so the good man's got the shakes, and he's locked his
Lamuse has tried to clean his rifle. But one cannot clean his rifle
here, even if he squats on the ground near the door, nor even if he
takes away the sodden tent-cloth, hard and icy, which hangs across
the doorway like a stalactite; it is too dark. "And then, old chap,
if you let a screw fall, you may as well hang yourself as try to
find it, 'specially when your fists are frozen silly."
"As for me, I ought to be sewing some things, but--what cheer!"
One alternative remains--to stretch oneself on the straw, covering
the head with handkerchief or towel to isolate it from the searching
stench of fermenting straw, and sleep. Fouillade, master of his time
to-day, being on neither guard nor fatigues, decides. He lights a
taper to seek among his belongings, and unwinds the coils of his
comforter, and we see his emaciated shape, sculptured in black
relief, folding and refolding it.
"Potato fatigue, inside there, my little lambs!" a sonorous voice
bellows at the door. The hooded shape from which it comes is
Sergeant Henriot. He is a malignant sort of simpleton, and though
all the while joking in clumsy sympathy he supervises the evacuation
of quarters with a sharp eye for the evasive malingerer.
Outside, on the streaming road in the perpetual rain. the second
section is scattered, also summoned and driven to work by the
adjutant. The two sections mingle together. We climb the street and
the hillock of clayey soil where the traveling kitchen is smoking.
"Now then, my lads, get on with it; it isn't a long job when
everybody sets to--Come--what have you got to grumble about, you?
That does no good."
Twenty minutes later we return at a trot. As we grope about in the
barn, we cannot touch anything but what is sodden and cold, and the
sour smell of wet animals is added to the vapor of the liquid manure
that our beds contain.
We gather again, standing, around the props that hold the barn up,
and around the rills that fall vertically from the holes in the
roof--faint columns which rest on vague bases of splashing water.
"Here we are again!" we cry.
Two lumps in turn block the doorway, soaked with the rain that
drains from them--Lamuse and Barque. who have been in quest of a
brasier, and now return from the expedition empty-handed, sullen and
vicious. "Not a shadow of a fire-bucket, and what's more, no wood or
coal either, not for a fortune." It is impossible to have any fire.
"If I can't get any, no one can," says Barque, with a pride which a
hundred exploits justify.
We stay motionless, or move slowly in the little space we have,
aghast at so much misery. "Whose is the paper?"
"It's mine," says Becuwe.
"What does it say? Ah, zut, one can't read in this darkness!"
"It says they've done everything necessary now for the soldiers, to
keep them warm in the trenches. They've got all they want, and
blankets and shirts and brasiers and fire-buckets and bucketsful of
coal; and that it's like that in the first-line trenches."
"Ah, damnation!" growl some of the poor prisoners of the barn, and
they shake their fists at the emptiness without and at the newspaper
But Fouillade has lost interest in what they say. He has bent his
long Don Quixote carcase down in the shadow, and outstretched the
lean neck that looks as if it were braided with violin strings.
There is something on the ground that attracts him.
It is Labri, the other squad's dog, an uncertain sort of mongrel
sheep-dog, with a lopped tail, curled up on a tiny litter of
straw-dust. Fouillade looks at Labri, and Labri at him.
Becuwe comes up and says, with the intonation of the Lille
district, "He won't eat his food; the dog isn't well. Hey, Labri,
what's the matter with you? There's your bread and meat; eat it up;
it's good when it's in your bucket. He's poorly. One of these
mornings we shall find him dead."
Labri is not happy. The soldier to whom he is entrusted is hard on
him, and usually ill-treats him--when he takes any notice of him at
all. The animal is tied up all day. He is cold and ill and left to
himself. He only exists. From time to time, when there is movement
going on around him, he has hopes of going out, rises and stretches
himself, and bestirs his tail to incipient demonstration. But he is
disillusioned, and lies down again, gazing past his nearly full
He is weary, and disgusted with life. Even if he has escaped the
bullet or bomb to which he is as much exposed as we, he will end by
dying here. Fouillade puts his thin hand on the dog's head, and it
gazes at him again. Their two glances are alike--the only difference
is that one comes from above and the other from below.
Fouillade sits down also--the worse for him!--in a corner, his hands
covered by the folds of his greatcoat, his long legs doubled up like
a folding bed. He is dreaming, his eyes closed under their bluish
lids; there is something that he sees again. It is one of those
moments when the country from which he is divided assumes in the
distance the charms of reality--the perfumes and colors of
l'Herault. the streets of Cette. He sees so plainly and so
near that he hears the noise of the shallops in the Canal du Midi,
and the unloading at the docks; and their call to him is distinctly
Above the road where the scent of thyme and immortelles is so strong
that it is almost a taste in the mouth, in the heart of the sunshine
whose winging shafts stir the air into a warmed and scented breeze,
on Mont St. Clair, blossoms and flourishes the home of his folks. Up
there, one can see with the same glance where the Lake of Thau,
which is green like glass, joins hands with the Mediterranean Sea,
which is azure; and sometimes one can make out as well, in the
depths of the indigo sky, the carven phantoms of the Pyrenees.
There was he born, there he grew up, happy and free. There he
played, on the golden or ruddy ground; played--even--at soldiers.
The eager joy of wielding a wooden saber flushed the cheeks now
sunken and seamed. He opens his eyes, looks about him, shakes his
head, and falls upon regret for the days when glory and war to him
were pure, lofty, and sunny things.
The man puts his hand over his eyes, to retain the vision within.
Nowadays, it is different.
It was up there in the same place, later, that he came to know
Clemence. She was just passing, the first time, sumptuous
with sunshine, and so fair that the loose sheaf of straw she carried
in her arms seemed to him nut-brown by contrast. The second time,
she had a friend with her, and they both stopped to watch him. He
heard them whispering, and turned towards them. Seeing themselves
discovered, the two young women made off, with a sibilance of
skirts, and giggles like the cry of a partridge.
And it was there, too, that he and she together set up their home.
Over its front travels a vine, which he coddled under a straw hat,
whatever the season. By the garden gate stands the rose-tree that he
knows so well--it never used its thorns except to try to hold him
back a little as he went by.
Will he return again to it all? Ah, he has looked too deeply into
the profundity of the past not to see the future in appalling
accuracy. He thinks of the regiment, decimated at each shift; of the
big knocks and hard he has had and will have, of sickness, and of
He gets up and snorts, as though to shake off what was and what will
be. He is back in the middle of the gloom, and is frozen and swept
by the wind, among the scattered and dejected men who blindly await
the evening. He is back in the present, and he is shivering still.
Two paces of his long legs make him butt into a group that is
talking--by way of diversion or consolation--of good cheer.
"At my place," says one, "they make enormous loaves, round ones, big
as cart-wheels they are!" And the man amuses himself by opening his
eyes wide, so that he can see the loaves of the homeland.
"Where I come from," interposes the poor Southerner, "holiday feasts
last so long that the bread that's new at the beginning is stale at
"There's a jolly wine--it doesn't look much, that little wine where
I come from; but if it hasn't fifteen degrees of alcohol it hasn't
Fouillade speaks then of a red wine which is almost violet, which
stands dilution as well as if it had been brought into the world to
"We've got the jurancon wine," said a Bearnais, "the
real thing, not what they sell you for jurancon, which comes
from Paris; indeed, I know one of the makers."
"If it comes to that," said Fouillade, "in our country we've got
muscatels of every sort, all the colors of the rainbow, like
patterns of silk stuff. You come home with me some time, and every
day you shall taste a nonsuch, my boy."
"Sounds like a wedding feast," said the grateful soldier.
So it comes about that Fouillade is agitated by the vinous memories
into which he has plunged, which recall to him as well the dear
perfume of garlic on that far-off table. The vapors of the blue wine
in big bottles, and the liqueur wines so delicately varied, mount to
his head amid the sluggish and mournful storm that fills the barn.
Suddenly he calls to mind that there is settled in the village where
they are quartered a tavern-keeper who is a native of
Beziers, called Magnac. Magnac had said to him, "Come and see
me, mon camarade, one of these mornings, and we'll drink some wine
from down there, we will! I've several bottles of it, and you shall
tell me what you think of it."
This sudden prospect dazzles Fouillade. Through all his length runs
a thrill of delight, as though he had found the way of salvation.
Drink the wine of the South--of his own particular South,
even--drink much of it--it would be so good to see life rosy again,
if only for a day! Ah yes, he wants wine; and he gets drunk in a
But as he goes out he collides at the entry with Corporal Broyer,
who is running down the street like a peddler, and shouting at every
opening, "Morning parade!"
The company assembles and forms in squares on the sticky mound where
the traveling kitchen is sending soot into the rain. "I'll go and
have a drink after parade," says Fouillade to himself.
And he listens listlessly, full of his plan, to the reading of the
report. But carelessly as he listens, he hears the officer read, "It
is absolutely forbidden to leave quarters before 5 p.m. and after 8
p.m.," and he hears the captain, without noticing the murmur that
runs round the poilus, add this comment on the order: "This is
Divisional Headquarters. However many there are of you, don't show
yourselves. Keep under cover. If the General sees you in the street,
he will have you put to fatigues at once. He must not see a single
soldier. Stay where you are all day in your quarters. Do what you
like as long as no one sees you--no one!"
We go back into the barn.
* * * * * *
Two o'clock. It is three hours yet, and then it will be totally
dark, before one may risk going outside without being punished.
Shall we sleep while waiting? Fouillade is sleepy no longer; the
hope of wine has shaken him up. And then, if one sleeps in the day,
he will not sleep at night. No! To lie with your eyes open is worse
than a nightmare. The weather gets worse; wind and rain increase,
without and within.
Then what? If one may not stand still, nor sit down, nor lie down,
nor go for a stroll, nor work--what?
Deepening misery settles on the party of benumbed and tired
soldiers. They suffer to the bone, nor know what to do with their
bodies. "Nom de Dieu, we're badly off!" is the cry of the
derelicts--a lamentation, an appeal for help.
Then by instinct they give themselves up to the only occupation
possible to them in there--to walk up and down on the spot, and thus
ward off anchylosis.
So they begin to walk quickly to and fro in the scanty place that
three strides might compass; they turn about and cross and brush
each other, bent forward, hands pocketed--tramp, tramp. These human
beings whom the blast cuts even among their straw are like a crowd
of the wretched wrecks of cities who await, under the lowering sky
of winter, the opening of some charitable institution. But no door
will open for them--unless it Le four days hence, one evening at the
end of the rest, to return to the trenches.
Alone in a corner, Cocon cowers. He is tormented by lice; but
weakened by the cold and wet he has not the pluck to change his
linen; and he sits there sullen, unmoving--and devoured.
As five o'clock draws near, in spite of all, Fouillade begins again
to intoxicate himself with his dream of wine, and he waits, with its
gleam in his soul. What time is it?--A quarter to five.--Five
minutes to five.--Now!
He is outside in black night. With great splashing skips he makes
his way towards the tavern of Magnac, the generous and communicative
Biterrois. Only with great trouble does he find the door in the dark
and the inky rain. By God, there is no light! Great God again, it is
closed! The gleam of a match that his great lean hand covers like a
lamp-shade shows him the fateful notice--"Out of Bounds." Magnac,
guilty of some transgression, has been banished into gloom and
Fouillade turns his back on the tavern that has become the prison of
its lonely keeper. He will not give up his dream. He will go
somewhere else and have vin ordinaire, and pay for it, that's all.
He puts his hand in his pocket to sound his purse; it is there.
There ought to be thirty-seven sous in it, which will not run to the
wine of Prou, but--
But suddenly he starts, stops dead, and smites himself on the
forehead. His long-drawn face is contracted in a frightful grimace,
masked by the night. No, he no longer has thirty-seven sous, fool
that he is! He has forgotten the tin of sardines that he bought the
night before--so disgusting did he find the dark macaroni of the
soldiers' mess--and the drinks he stood to the cobbler who put him
some nails in his boots.
Misery! There could not be more than thirteen sous left!
To get as elevated as one ought, and to avenge himself on the life
of the moment, he would certainly need--damn'ation--a liter and a
half, In this place, a liter of red ordinary costs twenty-one sous.
It won't go.
His eyes wander around him in the darkness, looking for some one.
Perhaps there is a pal somewhere who will lend him money, or stand
him a liter.
But who--who? Not Becuwe, he has only a marraine [note 1:]
who sends him tobacco and note-paper every fortnight. Not Barque,
who would not toe the line; nor Blaire, the miser--he wouldn't
understand. Not Biquet, who seems to have something against him; nor
Pepin who himself begs, and never pays, even when he is host.
Ah, if Volpatte were there! There is Mesnil Andre, but he is
actually in debt to Fouillade on account of several drinks round.
Corporal Bertrand? Following on a remark of Fouillade's, Bertrand
told him to go to the devil, and now they look at each other
sideways. Farfadet? Fouillade hardly speaks a word to him in the
ordinary way. No, he feels that he cannot ask this of Farfadet. And
then--a thousand thunders!--what is the use of seeking saviors in
one s imagination? Where are they, all these people, at this hour?
Slowly he goes back towards the barn. Then mechanically he turns and
goes forward again, with hesitating steps. He will try, all the
same. Perhaps he can find convivial comrades. He approaches the
central part of the village just when night has buried the earth.
The lighted doors and windows of the taverns shine again in the mud
of the main street. There are taverns every twenty paces. One dimly
sees the heavy specters of soldiers, mostly in groups, descending
the street. When a motor-car comes along, they draw aside to let it
pass, dazzled by the head-lights, and bespattered by the liquid mud
that the wheels hurl over the whole width of the road.
The taverns are full. Through the steamy windows one can see they
are packed with compact clouds of helmeted men. Fouillade goes into
one or two, on chance. Once over the threshold, the dram-shop's
tepid breath, the light, the smell and the hubbub, affect him with
longing. This gathering at tables is at least a fragment of the past
in the present.
He looks from table to table, and disturbs the groups as he goes up
to scrutinize all the merrymakers in the room. Alas, he knows no
one! Elsewhere, it is the same; he has no luck. In vain he has
extended his neck and sent his desperate glances in search of a
familiar head among the uniformed men who in clumps or couples drink
and talk or in solitude write. He has the air of a cadger, and no
one pays him heed.
Finding no soul to come to his relief, he decides to invest at least
what he has in his pocket. He slips up to the counter. "A pint of
"You, mon garcon, you're from the South," says the landlady,
handing him a little full bottle and a glass, and gathering his
He places himself at the corner of a table already overcrowded by
four drinkers who are united in a game of cards. He fills the glass
to the brim and empties it, then fills it again.
"Hey, good health to you! Don't drink the tumbler!" yelps in his
face a man who arrives in the dirty blue jumper of fatigues, and
displays a heavy cross-bar of eyebrows across his pale face, a
conical head, and half a pound's weight of ears. It is Harlingue,
It is not very glorious to be seated alone before a pint in the
presence of a comrade who gives signs of thirst. But Fouillade
pretends not to understand the requirements of the gentleman who
dallies in front of him with an engaging smile, and he hurriedly
empties his glass. The other turns his back, not without grumbling
that "they're not very generous, but on the contrary greedy, these
Fouillade has put his chin on his fists, and looks unseeing at a
corner of the room where the crowded poilus elbow, squeeze, and
jostle each other to get by.
It was pretty good, that swig of white wine, but of what use are
those few drops in the Sahara of Fouillade? The blues did not far
recede, and now they return.
The Southerner rises and goes out, with his two glasses of wine in
his stomach and one sou in his pocket. He plucks up courage to visit
one more tavern, to plumb it with his eyes, and by way of excuse to
mutter, as he leaves the place, "Curse him! He's never there, the
Then he returns to the barn, which still--as always--whistles with
wind and water. Fouillade lights his candle, and by the glimmer of
the flame that struggles desperately to take wing and fly away, he
sees Labri. He stoops low, with his light over the miserable
dog--perhaps it will die first. Labri is sleeping, hut feebly, for
he opens an eye at once, and his tail moves.
The Southerner strokes him, and says to him in a low voice, "It
can't be helped, it--" He will not say more to sadden him, but the
dog signifies appreciation by jerking his head before closing his
eyes again. Fouillade rises stiffly, by reason of his rusty joints,
and makes for his couch. For only one thing more he is now
hoping--to sleep, that the dismal day may die, that wasted day, like
so many others that there will be to endure stoically and to
overcome, before the last day arrives of the war or of his life.
[note 1:] French soldiers have extensively developed a system of
corresponding with French women whom they do not know from Eve and
whose acquaintance they usually make through newspaper
advertisements. As typical of the latter I copy the following:
"Officier artilleur, 30 ans, desire correspondance
discrete avec jeune marraine, femme du monde. Ecrire," etc.
The "lonely soldier" movement in this country is similar.--Tr.
"IT's foggy. Would you like to go?"
It is Poterloo who asks, as he turns towards me and shows eyes so
blue that they make his fine, fair head seem transparent.
Poterloo comes from Souchez, and now that the Chasseurs have at last
retaken it, he wants to see again the village where he lived happily
in the days when he was only a man.
It is a pilgrimage of peril; not that we should have far to
go--Souchez is just there. For six months we have lived and worked
in the trenches almost within hail of the village. We have only to
climb straight from here on to the Bethune road along which
the trench creeps, the road honeycombed underneath by our shelters,
and descend it for four or five hundred yards as it dips down
towards Souchez. But all that ground is under regular and terrible
attention. Since their recoil, the Germans have constantly sent huge
shells into it. Their thunder shakes us in our caverns from time to
time, and we see, high above the scarps, now here now there, the
great black geysers of earth and rubbish, and the piled columns of
smoke, as high as churches. Why do they bombard Souchez? One cannot
say why, for there is no longer anybody or anything in the village
so often taken and retaken, that we have so fiercely wrested from
But this morning a dense fog enfolds us, and by favor of the great
curtain that the sky throws over the earth one might risk it. We are
sure at least of not being seen. The fog hermetically closes the
perfected retina of the Sausage that must be somewhere up there,
enshrouded in the white wadding that raises its vast wall of
partition between our lines and those observation posts of Lens and
Angres, whence the enemy spies upon us.
"Right you are!" I say to Poterloo.
Adjutant Barthe, informed of our project, wags his head up and down,
and lowers his eyelids in token that he does not see.
We hoist ourselves out of the trench, and behold us both, upright,
on the Bethune road!
It is the first time I have walked there during the day. I have
never seen it, except from afar, the terrible road that we have so
often traveled or crossed in leaps, bowed down in the darkness, and
under the whistling of missiles.
"Well, are you coming, old man?"
After some paces, Poterloo has stopped in the middle of the road,
where the fog like cotton-wool unravels itself into pendent
fragments, and there he dilates his sky-blue eyes and half opens his
"Ah, la, la! Ah, la, la!" he murmurs. When I turn to him he points
to the road, shakes his head and says, "This is it, Bon Dieu, to
think this is it! This bit where we are, I know it so well that if I
shut my eyes I can see it as it was, exactly. Old chap, it's awful
to see it again like that. It was a beautiful road, planted all the
way along with big trees.
"And now, what is it? Look at it--a sort of long thing without a
soul--sad, sad. Look at these two trenches on each side, alive; this
ripped-up paving, bored with funnels; these trees uprooted, split,
scorched, broken like faggots, thrown all ways, pierced by
bullets--look, this pock-marked pestilence, here! Ah, my boy, my
boy, you can't imagine how it is disfigured, this road!" And he goes
forward, seeing some new amazement at every step.
It is a fantastic road enough, in truth. On both sides of it are
crouching armies, and their missiles have mingled on it for a year
and a half. It is a great disheveled highway, traveled only by
bullets and by ranks and files of shells, that have furrowed and
upheaved it, covered it with the earth of the fields, scooped it and
laid bare its bones. It might be under a curse; it is a way of no
color, burned and old, sinister and awful to see.
"If you'd only known it--how clean and smooth it was!" says
Poterloo. "All sorts of trees were there, and leaves, and
colors--like butterflies; and there was always some one passing on
it to give good-day to some good woman rocking between two baskets,
or people shouting [note 1] to each other in a chaise, with the good
wind ballooning their smocks. Ah, how happy life was once on a
He dives down to the banks of the misty stream that follows the
roadway towards the land of parapets. Stooping, he stops by some
faint swellings of the ground on which crosses are fixed--tombs,
recessed at intervals into the wall of fog, like the Stations of the
Cross in a church.
I call him--we shall never get there at such a funeral pace. Allons!
We come to a wide depression in the land, I in front and Poterloo
lagging behind, his head confused and heavy with thought as he tries
in vain to exchange with inanimate things his glances of
recognition. Just there the road is lower, a fold secretes it from
the side towards the north. On this sheltered ground there is a
Along the hazy, filthy, and unwholesome space, where withered grass
is embedded in black mud, there are rows of dead. They are carried
there when the trenches or the plain are cleared during the night.
They are waiting--some of them have waited long--to be taken back to
the cemeteries after dark.
We approach them slowly. They are close against each other, and each
one indicates with arms or legs some different posture of stiffened
agony. There are some with half-moldy faces, the skin rusted, or
yellow with dark spots. Of several the faces are black as tar, the
lips hugely distended--the heads of negroes blown out in
goldbeaters' skin. Between two bodies, protruding uncertainly from
one or the other, is a severed wrist, ending with a cluster of
Others are shapeless larvae of pollution, with dubious items of
equipment pricking up, or bits of bone. Farther on, a corpse has
been brought in in such a state that they have been obliged--so as
not to lose it on the way--to pile it on a lattice of wire which was
then fastened to the two ends of a stake. Thus was it carried in the
hollow of its metal hammock, and laid there. You cannot make out
either end of the body; alone, in the heap that it makes, one
recognizes the gape of a trouser-pocket. An insect goes in and out
Around the dead flutter letters that have escaped from pockets or
cartridge pouches while they were being placed on the ground. Over
one of these bits of white paper, whose wings still beat though the
mud ensnares them, I stoop slightly and read a sentence--"My dear
Henry, what a fine day it is for your birthday!" The man is on his
belly; his loins are rent from hip to hip by a deep furrow; his head
is half turned round; we see a sunken eye; and on temples, cheek and
neck a kind of green moss is growing.
A sickening atmosphere roams with the wind around these dead and the
heaped-up debris, that lies about them--tent-cloth or clothing in
stained tatters, stiff with dried blood, charred by the scorch of
the shell, hardened, earthy and already rotting, quick with swarming
and questing things. It troubles us. We look at each other and shake
our heads, nor dare admit aloud that the place smells bad. All the
same, we go away slowly.
Now come breaking out of the fog the bowed backs of men who are
joined together by something they are carrying. They are Territorial
stretcher-bearers with a new corpse. They come up with their old wan
faces, toiling, sweating, and grimacing with the effort. To carry a
dead man in the lateral trenches when they are muddy is a work
almost beyond human power. They put down the body, which is dressed
in new clothes.
"It's not long since, now, that he was standing," says one of the
bearers. "It's two hours since he got his bullet in the head for
going to look for a Boche rifle in the plain. He was going on leave
on Wednesday and wanted to take a rifle home with him. He is a
sergeant of the 405th, Class 1914. A nice lad, too."
He takes away the handkerchief that is over the face. It is quite
young, and seems to sleep, except that an eyeball has gone, the
cheek looks waxen, and a rosy liquid has run over the nostrils,
mouth, and eyes.
The body strikes a note of cleanliness in the charnel-house, this
still pliant body that lolls its head aside when it is moved as if
to lie better; it gives a childish illusion of being less dead than
the others. But being less disfigured, it seems more pathetic,
nearer to one, more intimate, as we look. And had we said anything
in the presence of all that heap of beings destroyed, it would have
been "Poor boy!"
We take the road again, which at this point begins to slope down to
the depth where Souchez lies. Under our feet in the whiteness of the
fog it appears like a valley of frightful misery. The piles of
rubbish, of remains and of filthiness accumulate on the shattered
spine of the road's paving and on its miry borders in final
confusion. The trees bestrew the ground or have disappeared, torn
away, their stumps mangled. The banks of the road are overturned and
overthrown by shell-fire. All the way along, on both sides of this
highway where only the crosses remain standing, are trenches twenty
times blown in and re-hollowed, cavities--some with passages into
them--hurdles on quagmires.
The more we go forward, the more is everything turned terribly
inside out, full of putrefaction, cataclysmic. We walk on a surface
of shell fragments, and the foot trips on them at every step. We go
among them as if they were snares, and stumble in the medley of
broken weapons or bits of kitchen utensils, of water-bottles,
fire-buckets, sewing-machines, among the bundles of electrical
wiring, the French and German accouterments all mutilated and
encrusted in dried mud, and among the sinister piles of clothing,
stuck together with a reddish-brown cement. And one must look out,
too, for the unexploded shells, which everywhere protrude their
noses or reveal their flanks or their bases, painted red, blue, and
"That's the old Boche trench, that they cleared out of in the end."
It is choked up in some places, in others riddled with shell-holes.
The sandbags have been torn asunder and gutted; they are crumbled,
emptied, scattered to the wind. The wooden props and beams arc
splintered, and point all ways. The dug-outs are filled to the brim
with earth and with--no one knows what. It is all like the dried bed
of a river, smashed, extended, slimy, that both water and men have
abandoned. In one place the trench has been simply wiped out by the
guns. The wide fosse is blocked, and remains no more than a field of
new-turned earth, made of holes symmetrically bored side by side, in
length and in breadth.
I point out to Poterloo this extraordinary field, that would seem to
have been traversed by a giant plow. But he is absorbed to his very
vitals in the metamorphosis of the country's face.
He indicates a space in the plain with his finger, and with a
stupefied air, as though he came out of a dream--"The Red Tavern!"
It is a flat field, carpeted with broken bricks.
And what is that, there? A milestone? No, it is not a milestone. It
is a head, a black head, tanned and polished. The mouth is all
askew, and you can see something of the mustache bristling on each
side--the great head of a carbonized cat. The corpse--it is
German--is underneath, buried upright.
"And that?" It is a ghastly collection containing an entirely white
skull, and then, six feet away, a pair of boots, and between the two
a heap of frayed leather and of rags, cemented by brown mud.
"Come on, there's less fog already. We must hurry."
A hundred yards in front of us, among the more transparent waves of
fog that are changing places with us and hide us less and less, a
shell whistles and bursts. It has fallen in the spot we are just
nearing. We are descending, and the gradient is less steep. We go
side by side. My companion says nothing, but looks to right and to
left. Then he stops again, as he did at the top of the road. I hear
his faltering voice, almost inaudible--"What's this! We're
there--this is it--"
In point of fact we have not left the plain, the vast plain, seared
and barren--but we are in Souchez!
The village has disappeared, nor have I seen a village go so
completely. Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, and Carency. these still retained
some shape of a place, with their collapsed and truncated houses,
their yards heaped high with plaster and tiles. Here, within the
framework of slaughtered trees that surrounds us as a spectral
background in the fog, there is no longer any shape. There is not
even an end of wall, fence, or porch that remains standing; and it
amazes one to discover that there are paving-stones under the tangle
of beams, stones, and scrap-iron. This--here--was a street.
It might have been a dirty and boggy waste near a big town, whose
rubbish of demolished buildings and its domestic refuse had been
shot here for years, till no spot was empty. We plunge into a
uniform layer of dung and debris, and make but slow and difficult
progress. The bombardment has so changed the face of things that it
has diverted the course of the millstream, which now runs haphazard
and forms a pond on the remains of the little place where the cross
Here are several shell-holes where swollen horses are rotting; in
others the remains of what were once human beings are scattered,
distorted by the monstrous injury of shells.
Here, athwart the track we are following, that we ascend as through
an avalanche or inundation of ruin, under the unbroken melancholy of
the sky, here is a man stretched out as if he slept, but he has that
close flattening against the ground which distinguishes a dead man
from a sleeper. He is a dinner-fatigue man, with a chaplet of loaves
threaded over a belt, and a bunch of his comrades' water-bottles
slung on his shoulder by a skein of straps. It must have been only
Back to Full Books