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RUDELY awakened in the dark, I open my eyes: "What? What's up?"
"Your turn on guard--it's two o'clock in the morning," says Corporal Bertrand at the opening into the hole where I am prostrate on the floor. I hear him without seeing him.
"I'm coming," I growl, and shake myself, and yawn in the little sepulchral shelter. I stretch my arms, and my hands touch the soft and cold clay. Then I cleave the heavy odor that fills the dug-out and crawl out in the middle of the dense gloom between the collapsed bodies of the sleepers. After several stumbles and entanglements among accouterments, knapsacks and limbs stretched out in all directions, I put my hand on my rifle and find myself upright in the open air, half awake and dubiously balanced, assailed by the black and bitter breeze.
Shivering, I follow the corporal; he plunges in between the dark embankments whose lower ends press strangely and closely on our march. He stops; the place is here. I make out a heavy mass half-way up the ghostly wail which comes loose and descends from it with a whinnying yawn, and I hoist myself into the niche which it had occupied.
The moon is hidden by mist, but a very weak and uncertain light overspreads the scene, and one's sight gropes its way. Then a wide strip of darkness, hovering and gliding up aloft, puts it out. Even after touching the breastwork and the loophole in front of my face I can hardly make them out, and my inquiring hand discovers, among an ordered deposit of things, a mass of grenade handles.
"Keep your eye skinned, old chap," says Bertrand in a low voice. "Don't forget that our listening-post is in front there on the left. Allons, so long." His steps die away, followed by those of the sleepy sentry whom I am relieving.
Rifle-shots crackle all round. Abruptly a bullet smacks the earth of the wall against which I am leaning. I peer through the loophole. Our line runs along the top of the ravine, and the land slopes downward in front of me, plunging into an abyss of darkness where one can see nothing. One's sight ends always by picking out the regular lines of the stakes of our wire entanglements, planted on the shore of the waves of night, and here and there the circular funnel-like wounds of shells, little, larger, or enormous, and some of the nearest occupied by mysterious lumber. The wind blows in my face, and nothing else is stirring save the vast moisture that drain from it. It is cold enough to set one shivering in perpetual motion. I look upwards, this way and that; everything is borne down by dreadful gloom. I might be derelict and alone in the middle of a world destroyed by a cataclysm.
There is a swift illumination up above--a rocket. The scene in which I am stranded is picked out in sketchy incipience around me. The crest of our trench stands forth, jagged and dishevelled, and I see, stuck to the outer wall every five paces like upright caterpillars, the shadows of the watchers. Their rifles are revealed beside them by a few spots of light. The trench is shored with sandbags. It is widened everywhere, and in many places ripped up by landslides. The sandbags, piled up and dislodged, appear in the starlike light of the rocket like the great dismantled stones of ancient ruined buildings. I look through the loophole, and discern in the misty and pallid atmosphere expanded by the meteor the rows of stakes and even the thin lines of barbed wire which cross and recross between the posts. To my seeing they are like strokes of a pen scratched upon the pale and perforated ground. Lower down, the ravine is filled with the motionless silence of the ocean of night.
I come down from my look-out and steer at a guess towards my neighbor in vigil, and come upon him with outstretched hand. "Is that you?" I say to him in a subdued voice, though I don't know him.
"Yes," he replies, equally ignorant who I am, blind like myself. "It's quiet at this time," he adds "A bit since I thought they were going to attack, and they may have tried it on, on the right, where they chucked over a lot of bombs. There's been a barrage of 75's--vrrrran, vrrrran--Old man, I said to myself, 'Those 75's, p'raps they've good reason for firing. If they did come out, the Boches, they must have found something.' Tiens, listen, down there, the bullets buffing themselves!"
He opens his flask and takes a draught, and his last words, still subdued, smell of wine: "Ah, la, la! Talk about a filthy war! Don't you think we should be a lot better at home!--Hullo! What's the matter with the ass?" A rifle has rung out beside us, making a brief and sudden flash of phosphorescence. Others go off here and there along our line. Rifle-shots are catching after dark.
We go to inquire of one of the shooters, guessing our way through the solid blackness that has fallen again upon us like a roof. Stumbling, and thrown anon on each other, we reach the man and touch him--"Well, what's up?"
He thought he saw something moving, but there is nothing more. We return through the density, my unknown neighbor and I, unsteady, and laboring along the narrow way of slippery mud, doubled up as if we each carried a crushing burden. At one point of the horizon and then at another all around, a gun sounds, and its heavy din blends with the volleys of rifle-fire, redoubled one minute and dying out the next, and with the clusters of grenade-reports, of deeper sound than the crack of Lebel or Mauser, and nearly like the voice of the old classical rifles. The wind has again increased; it is so strong that one must protect himself against it in the darkness; masses of huge cloud are passing in front of the moon.
So there we are, this man and I, jostling without knowing each other, revealed and then hidden from each other in sudden jerks by the flashes of the guns. oppressed by the opacity, the center of a huge circle of fires that appear and disappear in the devilish landscape.
'We're under a curse," says the man.
We separate, and go each to his own loophole, to weary our eyes upon invisibility. Is some frightful and dismal storm about to break? But that night it did not. At the end of my long wait, with the first streaks of day, there was even a lull.
Again I saw, when the dawn came down on us like a stormy evening, the steep banks of our crumbling trench as they came to life again under the sooty scarf of the low-hanging clouds, a trench dismal and dirty, infinitely dirty, humped with debris and filthiness. Under the livid sky the sandbags are taking the same hue, and their vaguely shining and rounded shapes are like the bowels and viscera of giants, nakedly exposed upon the earth.
In the trench-wall behind me, in a hollowed recess, there is a heap of horizontal things like logs. Tree-trunks? No, they are corpses.
* * * * * *
As the call of birds goes up from the furrowed ground, as the shadowy fields are renewed, and the light breaks and adorns each blade of grass, I look towards the ravine. Below the quickening field and its high surges of earth and burned hollows, beyond the bristling of stakes, there is still a lifeless lake of shadow, and in front of the opposite slope a wall of night still stands.
Then I turn again and look upon these dead men whom the day is gradually exhuming, revealing their stained and stiffened forms. There are four of them. They are our comrades, Lamuse, Barque, Biquet, and little Eudore. They rot there quite near us, blocking one half of the wide, twisting, and muddy furrow that the living must still defend.
They have been laid there as well as may be, supporting and crushing each other. The topmost is wrapped in a tent-cloth. Handkerchiefs had been placed on the faces of the others; but in brushing against them in the dark without seeing them, or even in the daytime without noticing them, the handkerchiefs have fallen, and we are living face to face with these dead, heaped up there like a wood-pile.
* * * * * *
It was four nights ago that they were all killed together. I remember the night myself indistinctly--it is like a dream. We were on patrol--they, I, Mesnil André, and Corporal Bertrand; and our business was to identify a new German listening-post marked by the artillery observers. We left the trench towards midnight and crept down the slope in line, three or four paces from each other. Thus we descended far into the ravine, and saw, lying before our eyes, the embankment of their International Trench. After we had verified that there was no listening-post in this slice of the ground we climbed back, with infinite care. Dimly I saw my neighbors to right and left, like sacks of shadow, crawling, slowly sliding, undulating and rocking in the mud and the murk, with the projecting needle in front of a rifle. Some bullets whistled above us, but they did not know we were there, they were not looking for us. When we got within sight of the mound of our line, we took a breather for a moment; one of us let a sigh go, another spoke. Another turned round bodily, and the sheath of his bayonet rang out against a stone. Instantly a rocket shot redly up from the International Trench. We threw ourselves flat on the ground, closely, desperately, and waited there motionless, with the terrible star hanging over us and flooding us with daylight, twenty-five or thirty yards from our trench. Then a machine-gun on the other side of the ravine swept the zone where we were. Corporal Bertrand and I had had the luck to find in front of us, just as the red rocket went up and before it burst into light, a shell-hole, where a broken trestle was steeped in the mud. We flattened ourselves against the edge of the hole, buried ourselves in the mud as much as possible, and the poor skeleton of rotten wood concealed us. The jet of the machine-gun crossed several times. We heard a piercing whistle in the middle of each report, the sharp and violent sound of bullets that went into the earth, and dull and soft blows as well, followed by groans, by a little cry, and suddenly by a sound like the heavy snoring of a sleeper, a sound which slowly ebbed. Bertrand and I waited, grazed by the horizontal hail of bullets that traced a network of death an inch or so above us and sometimes scraped our clothes, driving us still deeper into the mud, nor dared we risk a movement which might have lifted a little some part of our bodies. The machine-gun at last held its peace in an enormous silence. A quarter of an hour later we two slid out of the shell-hole, and crawling on our elbows we fell at last like bundles into our listening-post. It was high time, too, for at that moment the moon shone out. We were obliged to stay in the bottom of the trench till morning, and then till evening, for the machine-gun swept the approaches without pause. We could not see the prostrate bodies through the loop-holes of the post, by reason of the steepness of the ground--except, just on the level of our field of vision, a lump which appeared to be the back of one of them. In the evening, a sap was dug to reach the place where they had fallen. The work could not be finished in one night and was resumed by the pioneers the following night, for, overwhelmed with fatigue, we could no longer keep from falling asleep.
Awaking from a leaden sleep, I saw the four corpses that the sappers had reached from underneath, hooking and then hauling them into the sap with ropes. Each of them had several adjoining wounds, bullet-holes an inch or so apart--the mitrailleuse had fired fast. The body of Mesnil André was not found, and his brother Joseph did some mad escapades in search of it. He went out quite alone into No Man's Land, where the crossed fire of machine-guns swept it three ways at once and constantly. In the morning, dragging himself along like a slug, he showed over the bank a face black with mud and horribly wasted. They pulled him in again, with his face scratched by barbed wire, his hands bleeding, with heavy clods of mud in the folds of his clothes, and stinking of death. Like an idiot be kept on saying, "He's nowhere." He buried himself in a corner with his rifle, which he set himself to clean without hearing what was said to him, and only repeating "He's nowhere."
It is four nights ago since that night, and as the dawn comes once again to cleanse the earthly Gehenna, the bodies are becoming definitely distinct.
Barque in his rigidity seems immoderately long, his arms lie closely to the body, his chest has sunk, his belly is hollow as a basin. With his head upraised by a lump of mud, he looks over his feet at those who come up on the left; his face is dark and polluted by the clammy stains of disordered hair, and his wide and scalded eyes are heavily encrusted with blackened blood. Eudore seems very small by contrast, and his little face is completely white, so white as to remind you of the be-flowered face of a pierrot, and it is touching to see that little circle of white paper among the gray and bluish tints of the corpses. The Breton Biquet, squat and square as a flagstone, appears to be under the stress of a huge effort; he might be trying to uplift the misty darkness; and the extreme exertion overflows upon the protruding cheek-bones and forehead of his grimacing face, contorts it hideously, sets the dried and dusty hair bristling, divides his jaws in a spectral cry, and spreads wide the eyelids from his lightless troubled eyes, his flinty eyes; and his hands are contracted in a clutch upon empty air.
Barque and Biquet were shot in the belly; Eudore in the throat. In the dragging and carrying they were further injured. Big Lamuse, at last bloodless, had a puffed and creased face, and the eyes were gradually sinking in their sockets, one more than the other. They have wrapped him in a tent-cloth, and it shows a dark stain where the neck is. His right shoulder has been mangled by several bullets, and the arm is held on only by strips of the sleeve and by threads that they have put in since. The first night he was placed there, this arm hung outside the heap of dead, and the yellow hand, curled up on a lump of earth, touched passers-by in the face; so they pinned the arm to the greatcoat.
A pestilential vapor begins to hover about the remains of these beings with whom we lived so intimately and suffered so long.
When we see them we say, "They are dead, all four"; but they are too far disfigured for us to say truly, "It is they," and one must turn away from the motionless monsters to feel the void they have left among us and the familiar things that have been wrenched away.
Men of other companies or regiments, strangers who come this way by day--by night one leans unconsciously on everything within reach of the hand, dead or alive-give a start when faced by these corpses flattened one on the other in the open trench. Sometimes they are angry--"What are they thinking about to leave those stiffs there?"--"It's shameful." Then they add, "It's true they can't be taken away from there." And they were only buried in the night.
Morning has come. Opposite us we see the other slope of the ravine, Hill 119, an eminence scraped, stripped, and scratched, veined with shaken trenches and lined with parallel cuttings that vividly reveal the clay and the chalky soil. Nothing is stirring there; and our shells that burst in places with wide spouts of foam like huge billows seem to deliver their resounding blows upon a great breakwater, ruined and abandoned.
My spell of vigil is finished, and the other sentinels, enveloped in damp and trickling tent-cloths, with their stripes and plasters of mud and their livid jaws, disengage themselves from the soil wherein they are molded, bestir themselves, and come down. For us, it is rest until evening.
We yawn and stroll. We see a comrade pass and then another. Officers go to and fro, armed with periscopes and telescopes. We feel our feet again, and begin once more to live. The customary remarks cross and clash; and were it not for the dilapidated outlook, the sunken lines of the trench that buries us on the hillside, and the veto on our voices, we might fancy ourselves in the rear lines. But lassitude weighs upon all of us, our faces are jaundiced and the eyelids reddened; through long watching we look as if we had been weeping. For several days now we have all of us been sagging and growing old.
One after another the men of my squad have made a confluence at a curve in the trench. They pile themselves where the soil is only chalky, and where, above the crust that bristles with severed roots, the excavations have exposed some beds of white stones that had lain in the darkness for over a hundred thousand years.
There in the widened fairway, Bertrand's squad beaches itself. It is much reduced this time, for beyond the losses of the other night, we no longer have Poterloo, killed in a relief, nor Cadilhac. wounded in the leg by a splinter the same evening as Poterloo, nor Tirioir nor Tulacque who have been sent back, the one for dysentery, and the other for pneumonia, which is taking an ugly turn--as he says in the postcards which he sends us as a pastime from the base hospital where he is vegetating.
Once more I see gathered and grouped, soiled by contact with the earth and dirty smoke, the familiar faces and poses of those who have not been separated since the beginning, chained and riveted together in fraternity. But there is less dissimilarity than at the beginning in the appearance of the cave-men.
Papa Blaire displays in his well-worn mouth a set of new teeth, so resplendent that one can see nothing in all his poor face except those gayly-dight jaws. The great event of these foreign teeth's establishment, which he is taming by degrees and sometimes uses for eating, has profoundly modified his character and his manners. He is rarely besmeared with grime, he is hardly slovenly. Now that he has become handsome he feels it necessary to become elegant. For the moment he is dejected, because--a miracle--he cannot wash himself. Deeply sunk in a corner, he half opens a lack-luster eye, bites and masticates his old soldier's mustache--not long ago the only ornament on his face--and from time to time spits out a hair.
Fouillade is shivering, cold-smitten, or yawns, depressed and shabby. Marthereau has not changed at all. He is still as always well-bearded, his eye round and blue, and his legs so short that his trousers seem to be slipping continually from his waist and dropping to his feet. Cocon is always Cocon by the dried and parchment-like head wherein sums are working; but a recurrence of lice, the ravages of which we see overflowing on to his neck and wrists, has isolated him for a week now in protracted tussles which leave him surly when he returns among us. Paradis retains unimpaired the same quantum of good color and good temper; he is unchanging, perennial. We smile when he appears in the distance, placarded on the background of sandbags like a new poster. Nothing has changed in Pépin either, whom we can just see taking a stroll--we can tell him behind by his red-and-white squares of an oilcloth draught-board, and in front by his blade-like face and the gleam of a knife in his cold gray look. Nor has Volpatte changed, with his leggings, his shouldered blanket, and his face of a Mongolian tatooed with dirt; nor Tirette, although he has been worried for some time by blood-red streaks in his eyes--for some unknown and mysterious reason. Farfadet keeps himself aloof, in pensive expectation. When the post is being given out he awakes from his reverie to go so far, and then retires into himself. His clerkly hands indite numerous and careful postcards. He does not know of Eudoxie's end. Lamuse said no more to any one of the ultimate and awful embrace in which he clasped her body. He regretted--I knew it--his whispered confidence to me that evening, and up to his death he kept the horrible affair sacred to himself, with tenacious bashfulness. So we see Farfadet continuing to live his airy existence with the living likeness of that fair hair, which he only leaves for the scarce monosyllables of his contact with us. Corporal Bertrand has still the same soldierly and serious mien among us; he is always ready with his tranquil smile to answer all questions with lucid explanations, to help each of us to do his duty.
We are chatting as of yore, as not long since. But the necessity of speaking in low tones distinguishes our remarks and imposes on them a lugubrious tranquillity.
* * * * * *
Something unusual has happened. For the last three months the sojourn of each unit in the first-line trenches has been four days. Yet we have now been five days here and there is no mention of relief. Some rumors of early attack are going about, brought by the liaison men and those of the fatigue-party that renews our rations every other night--without regularity or guarantee. Other portents are adding themselves to the whispers of offensive--the stopping of leave, the failure of the post, the obvious change in the officers, who are serious and closer to us. But talk on this subject always ends with a shrug of the shoulders; the soldier is never warned what is to be done with him; they put a bandage on his eyes, and only remove it at the last minute. So, "We shall see."--"We can only wait."
We detach ourselves from the tragic event foreboded. Is this because of the impossibility of a complete understanding, or a despondent unwillingness to decipher those orders that are sealed letters to us, or a lively faith that one will pass through the peril once more? Always, in spite of the premonitory signs and the prophecies that seem to be coming true, we fall back automatically upon the cares of the moment and absorb ourselves in them-- hunger, thirst, the lice whose crushing ensanguines all our nails, the great weariness that saps us all.
"Seen Joseph this morning?" says Volpatte. "He doesn't look very grand, poor lad."
"He'll do something daft, certain sure. He's as good as a goner, that lad, mind you. First chance he has he'll jump in front of a bullet. I can see he will."
"It'd give any one the pip for the rest of his natural. There were six brothers of 'em, you know; four of 'em killed; two in Alsace, one in Champagne, one in Argonne. If André's killed he's the fifth."
"If he'd been killed they'd have found his body--they'd have seen it from the observation-post; you can't lose the rump and the thighs. My idea is that the night they went on patrol he went astray coming back--crawled right round, poor devil, and fell right into the Boche lines."
"Perhaps he got sewn up in their wire."
"I tell you they'd have found him if he'd been done in; you know jolly well the Boches wouldn't have brought the body in. And we looked everywhere. As long as he's not been found you can take it from me that he's got away somewhere on his feet, wounded or unwounded."
This so logical theory finds favor, and now it is known that Mesnil André is a prisoner there is less interest in him. But his brother continues to be a pitiable object--"Poor old chap, he's so young!" And the men of the squad look at him secretly.
"I've got a twist!" says Cocon suddenly. The hour of dinner has gone past and we are demanding it. There appears to be only the remains of what was brought the night before.
"What's the corporal thinking of to starve us? There he is--I'll go and get hold of him. Hey, corporal! Why can't you get us something to eat?"--"Yes, yes--something to eat!" re-echoes the destiny of these eternally hungry men.
"I'm coming," says bustling Bertrand, who keeps going both day and night.
"What then?" says Pépin, always hot-headed. "I don't feel like chewing macaroni again; I shall open a tin of meat in less than two secs?" The daily comedy of dinner steps to the front again in this drama.
"Don't touch your reserve rations!" says Bertrand; "as soon as I'm back from seeing the captain I'll get you something."
When he returns he brings and distributes a salad of potatoes and onions, and as mastication proceeds our features relax and our eyes become composed.
For the ceremony of eating, Paradis has hoisted a policeman's hat. It is hardly the right place or time for it, but the hat is quite new, and the tailor, who promised it for three months ago, only delivered it the day we came up. The pliant two-cornered hat of bright blue cloth on his flourishing round head gives him the look of a pasteboard gendarme with red-painted cheeks. Nevertheless, all the while he is eating, Paradis looks at me steadily. I go up to him. "You've a funny old face."
"Don't worry about it," he replies. "I want a chat with you. Come with me and see something."
His hand goes out to his half-full cup placed beside his dinner things; he hesitates, and then decides to put his wine in a safe place down his gullet, and the cup in his pocket. He moves off and I follow him.
In passing he picks up his helmet that gapes on the earthen bench. After a dozen paces he comes close to me and says in a low voice and with a queer air, without looking at me--as he does when he is upset--"I know where Mesnil André is. Would you like to see him? Come, then."
So saying, he takes off his police hat, folds and pockets it. and puts on his helmet. He sets off again and I follow him without a word.
He leads me fifty yards farther, towards the place where our common dug-out is, and the footbridge of sandbags under which one always slides with the impression that the muddy arch will collapse on one's back. After the footbridge, a hollow appears in the wall of the trench, with a step made of a hurdle stuck fast in the clay. Paradis climbs there, and motions to me to follow him on to the narrow and slippery platform. There was recently a sentry's loophole here, and it has been destroyed and made again lower down with a couple of bullet-screens. One is obliged to stoop low lest his head rise above the contrivance.
Paradis says to me, still in the same low voice, "It's me that fixed up those two shields, so as to see--for I'd got an idea, and I wanted to see. Put your eye to this----"
"I don't see anything; the hole's stopped up. What's that lump of cloth?"
"It's him," says Paradis.
Ah! It was a corpse, a corpse sitting in a hole, and horribly near----
Having flattened my face against the steel plate and glued my eye to the hole in the bullet-screen, I saw all of it. He was squatting, the head hanging forward between the legs, both arms placed on his knees, his hands hooked and half closed. He was easily identifiable--so near, so near!--in spite of his squinting and lightless eyes, by the mass of his muddy beard and the distorted mouth that revealed the teeth. He looked as if he were both smiling and grimacing at his rifle, stuck straight up in the mud before him. His outstretched hands were quite blue above and scarlet underneath, crimsoned by a damp and hellish reflection.
It was he, rain-washed and besmeared with a sort of scum, polluted and dreadfully pale, four days dead, and close up to our embankment into which the shell-hole where he had burrowed had bitten. We had not found him because he was too near!
Between this derelict dead in its unnatural solitude and the men who inhabited the dug-out there was only a slender partition of earth, and I realize that the place in it where I lay my head corresponds to the spot buttressed by this dreadful body.
I withdraw my face from the peep-hole and Paradis and I exchange glances. "Mustn't tell him yet," my companion whispers. "No, we mustn't, not at once----" "I spoke to the captain about rooting him out, and he said, too, we mustn't mention it now to the lad.'" A light breath of wind goes by. "I can smell it!"--"Rather!" The odor enters our thoughts and capsizes our very hearts.
"So now," says Paradis, "Joseph's left alone, out of six brothers. And I'll tell you what--I don't think he'll stop long. The lad won't take care of himself--he'll get himself done in. A lucky wound's got to drop on him from the sky, otherwise he's corpsed. Six brothers--it's too bad, that! Don't you think it's too bad?" He added, "It's astonishing that he was so near us."
"His arm's just against the spot where I put my head."
"Yes," says Paradis, "his right arm, where there's a wrist-watch."
The watch--I stop short--is it a fancy, a dream? It seems to me--yes, I am sure now--that three days ago, the night when we were so tired out, before I went to sleep I heard what sounded like the ticking of a watch and even wondered where it could come from.
"It was very likely that watch you heard all the same, through the earth," says Paradis, whom I have told some of my thoughts; "they go on thinking and turning round even when the chap stops. Damn, your own ticker doesn't know you--it just goes quietly on making little circles."
I asked, "There's blood on his hands; but where was be hit?"
"Don't know; in the belly, I think; I thought there was something dark underneath him. Or perhaps in the face--did you notice the little stain on the cheek?"
I recall the hairy and greenish face of the dead man. "Yes, there was something on the cheek. Yes, perhaps it went in there--"
"Look out!" says Paradis hurriedly, "there he is! We ought not to have stayed here."
But we stay all the same, irresolutely wavering, as Mesnil Joseph comes straight up to us. Never did he seem so frail to us. We can see his pallor afar off, his oppressed and unnatural expression; he is bowed as be walks, and goes slowly, borne down by endless fatigue and his immovable notion.
"What's the matter with your face?" he asks me--he has seen me point out to Paradis the possible entry of the bullet. I pretend not to understand and then make some kind of evasive reply. All at once I have a torturing idea--the smell! It is there, and there is no mistaking it. It reveals a corpse; and perhaps he will guess rightly
It seems to me that he has suddenly smelt the sign-- the pathetic, lamentable appeal of the dead. But he says nothing, continues his solitary walk, and disappears round the corner.
"Yesterday," says Paradis to me, "be came just here, with his mess-tin full of rice that he didn't want to eat. Just as if he knew what he was doing, the fool stops here and talks of pitching the rest of his food over the bank, just on the spot where--where the other was. I couldn't stick that, old chap. I grabbed his arm just as he chucked the rice into the air, and it flopped down here in the trench. Old man, he turned round on me in a rage and all red in the face, 'What the hell's up with you now?' he says. I looked as fat-headed as I could, and mumbled some rot about not doing it on purpose. He shrugs his shoulders, and looks at me same as if I was dirt. He goes off, saying to himself, 'Did you see him, the blockhead?' He's bad-tempered, you know, the poor chap, and I couldn't complain. 'All right, all right,' he kept saying; and I didn't like it, you know, because I did wrong all the time, although I was right."
We go back together in silence and re-enter the dugout where the others are gathered. It is an old headquarters post, and spacious. Just as we slide in, Paradis listens. "Our batteries have been playing extra hell for the last hour, don't you think?"
I know what he means, and reply with an empty gesture, "We shall see, old man, we shall see all right!"
In the dug-out, to an audience of three, Tirette is again pouring out his barrack-life tales. Marthereau is snoring in a corner; he is close to the entry, and to get down we have to stride over his short legs, which seem to have gone back into his trunk. A group of kneeling men around a folded blanket are playing with cards----
"My turn!"--"40, 42--48--49!--Good!"
"Isn't he lucky, that game-bird; it's imposs', I've got stumped three times I want nothing more to do with you. You're skinning me this evening, and you robbed me the other day, too, you infernal fritter!"--"What did you revoke for, mugwump?"--"I'd only the king, nothing else."
"All the same," murmurs some one who is eating in a corner, "this Camembert, it cost twenty-five sous, but you talk about muck! Outside there's a layer of sticky glue, and inside it's plaster that breaks."
Meanwhile Tirette relates the outrages inflicted on him during his twenty-one days of training owing to the quarrelsome temper of a certain major: "A great hog he was, my boy. everything rotten on this earth. All the lot of us looked foul when he went by or when we saw him in the officers' room spread out on a chair that you couldn't see underneath him, with his vast belly and huge cap. and circled round with stripes from top to bottom, like a barrel--he was hard on the private! They called him Loeb--a Boche, you see!"
"I knew him!" cried Paradis; "when war started he was declared unfit for active service, naturally. While I was doing my term he was a dodger already--but he dodged round all the street corners to pinch you--you got a day's clink for an unbuttoned button, and he gave it you over and above if there was some bit of a thing about you that wasn't quite O.K.--and everybody laughed. He thought they were laughing at you, and you knew they were laughing at him, but you knew it in vain, you were in it up to your head for the clink."
"He had a wife," Tirette goes on, "the old----"
"I remember her, too," Paradis exclaimed. "You talk about a bitch!"
"Some of 'em drag a little pug-dog about with 'em, but him, he trailed that yellow minx about everywhere, with her broom-handle hips and her wicked look. It was her that worked the old sod up against us. He was more stupid than wicked, but as soon as she was there he got more wicked than stupid. So you bet they were some nuisance----"
Just then, Marthereau wakes up from his sleep by the entry with a half-groan. He straightens himself up, sitting on his straw like a gaol-bird, and we see his bearded silhouette take the vague outline of a Chinese, while his round eye rolls and turns in the shadows. He is looking at his dreams of a moment ago. Then he passes his hand over his eyes and--as if it had some connection with his dream--recalls the scene that night when we came up to the trenches-- "For all that," he says, in a voice weighty with slumber and reflection, "there were some half-seas-over that night! Ah, what a night! All those troops, companies and whole regiments, yelling and surging all the way up the road! In the thinnest of the dark you could see the jumble of poilus that went on and up--like the sea itself, you'd say--and carrying on across all the convoys of artillery and ambulance wagons that we met that night. I've never seen so many, so many convoys in the night, never!" Then he deals himself a thump on the chest, settles down again in self-possession, groans, and says no more.
Blaire's voice rises, giving expression to the haunting thought that wakes in the depths of the men: "It's four o'clock. It's too late for there to be anything from our side."
One of the gamesters in the other corner yelps a question at another: "Now then? Are you going to play or aren't you, worm-face?"
Tirette continues the story of his major: "Behold one day they'd served us at the barracks with some suetty soup. Old man, a disease, it was! So a chap asks to speak to the captain, and holds his mess-tin up to his nose."
"Numskull!" some one shouts in the other corner. "Why didn't you trump, then?"
"'Ah, damn it,' said the captain, 'take it away from my nose, it positively stinks.'"
"It wasn't my game," quavers a discontented but unconvinced voice.
"And the captain, he makes a report to the major. But behold the major, mad as the devil, he butts in shaking the paper in his paw: 'What's this?' he says. 'Where's the soup that has caused this rebellion, that I may taste it?' They bring him some in a clean mess-tin and he sniffs it. 'What now!' he says, 'it smells good. They damned well shan't have it then, rich soup like this!'"
"Not your game! And he was leading, too! Bungler! It's unlucky, you know."
"Then at five o'clock as we were coming out of barracks, our two marvels butt in again and plank themselves in front of the swaddies coming out, trying to spot some little thing not quite so, and he said, 'Ah, my bucks, you thought you'd score off me by complaining of this excellent soup that I have consumed myself along with my partner here; just wait and see if I don't get even with you. Hey, you with the long hair, the tall artist, come here a minute!' And all the time the beast was jawing, his bag-o'-bones--as straight and thin as a post-- went 'oui, oui' with her head."
"That depends; if he hadn't a trump, it's another matter."
"But all of a sudden we see her go white as a sheet, she puts her fist on her tummy and she shakes like all that, and then suddenly, in front of all the fellows that filled the square, she drops her umbrella and starts spewing!"
"Hey, listen!" says Paradis, sharply, "they're shouting in the trench. Don't you hear? Isn't it 'alarm!' they're shouting?"
"Alarm? Are you mad?"
The words were hardly said when a shadow comes in through the low doorway of our dug-out and cries-- "Alarm, 22nd! Stand to arms!"
A moment of silence and then several exclamations. "I knew it," murmurs Paradis between his teeth, and he goes on his knees towards the opening into the molehill that shelters us. Speech then ceases and we seem to be struck dumb. Stooping or kneeling we bestir ourselves; we buckle on our waist-belts; shadowy arms dart from one side to another; pockets are rummaged. And we issue forth pell-mell, dragging our knapsacks behind us by the straps, our blankets and pouches.
Outside we are deafened. The roar of gunfire has increased a hundredfold, to left, to right, and in front of us. Our batteries give voice without ceasing.
"Do you think they're attacking?" ventures a man. "How should I know?" replies another voice with irritated brevity.
Our jaws are set and we swallow our thoughts, hurrying, bustling, colliding, and grumbling without words.
A command goes forth--"Shoulder your packs.--"There's a counter-command----" shouts an officer who runs down the trench with great strides, working his elbows, and the rest of his sentence disappears with him. A counter-command! A visible tremor has run through the files, a start which uplifts our heads and holds us all in extreme expectation.
But no; the counter-order only concerns the knapsacks. No pack; but the blanket rolled round the body, and the trenching-tool at the waist. We unbuckle our blankets, tear them open and roll them up. Still no word is spoken; each has a steadfast eye and the mouth forcefully shut. The corporals and sergeants go here and there, feverishly spurring the silent haste in which the men are bowed: "Now then, hurry up! Come, come, what the hell are you doing? Will you hurry, yes or no?"
A detachment of soldiers with a badge of crossed axes on their sleeves clear themselves a fairway and swiftly delve holes in the wall of the trench. We watch them sideways as we don our equipment.
"What are they doing, those chaps?"--"It's to climb up by."
We are ready. The men marshal themselves, still silently, their blankets crosswise, the helmet-strap on the chin, leaning on their rifles. I look at their pale, contracted, and reflective faces. They are not soldiers, they are men. They are not adventurers, or warriors, or made for human slaughter, neither butchers nor cattle. They are laborers and artisans whom one recognizes in their uniforms. They are civilians uprooted, and they are ready. They await the signal for death or murder; but you may see, looking at their faces between the vertical gleams of their bayonets, that they are simply men.
Each one knows that he is going to take his head, his chest, his belly, his whole body, and all naked, up to the rifles pointed forward, to the shells, to the bombs piled and ready, and above all to the methodical and almost infallible machine-guns--to all that is waiting for him yonder and is now so frightfully silent--before he reaches the other soldiers that he must kill. They are not careless of their lives, like brigands, nor blinded by passion like savages. In spite of the doctrines with which they have been cultivated they are not inflamed. They are above instinctive excesses. They are not drunk, either physically or morally. It is in full consciousness, as in full health and full strength, that they are massed there to hurl themselves once more into that sort of madman's part imposed on all men by the madness of the human race. One sees the thought and the fear and the farewell that there is in their silence, their stillness, in the mask of tranquillity which unnaturally grips their faces. They are not the kind of hero one thinks of, but their sacrifice has greater worth than they who have not seen them will ever be able to understand.
They are waiting; a waiting that extends and seems eternal. Now and then one or another starts a little when a bullet, fired from the other side, skims the forward embankment that shields us and plunges into the flabby flesh of the rear wall.
The end of the day is spreading a sublime but melancholy light on that strong unbroken mass of beings of whom some only will live to see the night. It is raining--there is always rain in my memories of all the tragedies of the great war. The evening is making ready, along with a vague and chilling menace; it is about to set for men that snare that is as wide as the world.
* * * * * *
New orders are peddled from mouth to mouth. Bombs strung on wire hoops are distributed--"Let each man take two bombs!"
The major goes by. He is restrained in his gestures, in undress, girded, undecorated. We hear him say, "There's something good, mes enfants, the Boches are clearing out. You'll get along all right, eh?"
News passes among us like a breeze. "The Moroccans and the 21st Company are in front of us. The attack is launched on our right."
The corporals are summoned to the captain, and return with armsful of steel things. Bertrand is fingering me; he hooks something on to a button of my greatcoat. It is a kitchen knife. "I'm putting this on to your coat," he says.
"Me too!" says Pépin.
"No," says Bertrand, "it's forbidden to take volunteers for these things."
"Be damned to you!" growls Pépin.
We wait, in the great rainy and shot-hammered space that has no other boundary than the distant and tremendous cannonade. Bertrand has finished his distribution and returns. Several soldiers have sat down, and some of them are yawning.
The cyclist Billette slips through in front of us, carrying an officer's waterproof on his arm and obviously averting his face. "Hullo, aren't you going too?" Cocon cries to him.
"No, I'm not going," says the other. "I'm in the 17th. The Fifth Battalion's not attacking!"
"Ah, they've always got the luck, the Fifth. They've never got to fight like we have!" Billette is already in the distance, and a few grimaces follow his disappearance.
A man arrives running, and speaks to Bertrand, and then Bertrand turns to us----
"Up you go," he says, "it's our turn."
All move at once. We put our feet on the steps made by the sappers, raise ourselves, elbow to elbow, beyond the shelter of the trench, and climb on to the parapet.
* * * * * *
Bertrand is out on the sloping ground. He covers us with a quick glance, and when we are all there he says, "Allons, forward!"
Our voices have a curious resonance. The start has been made very quickly, unexpectedly almost, as in a dream. There is no whistling sound in the air. Among the vast uproar of the guns we discern very clearly this surprising silence of bullets around us----
We descend over the rough and slippery ground with involuntary gestures, helping ourselves sometimes with the rifle. Mechanically the eye fastens on some detail of the declivity, of the ruined ground, on the sparse and shattered stakes pricking up, at the wreckage in the holes. It is unbelievable that we are upright in full daylight on this slope where several survivors remember sliding along in the darkness with such care, and where the others have only hazarded furtive glances through the loopholes. No, there is no firing against us. The wide exodus of the battalion out of the ground seems to have passed unnoticed! This truce is full of an increasing menace, increasing. The pale light confuses us.
On all sides the slope is covered by men who, like us, are bent on the descent. On the right the outline is defined of a company that is reaching the ravine by Trench 97--an old German work in ruins. We cross our wire by openings. Still no one fires on us. Some awkward ones who have made false steps are getting up again. We form up on the farther side of the entanglements and then set ourselves to topple down the slope rather faster--there is an instinctive acceleration in the movement. Several bullets arrive at last among us. Bertrand shouts to us to reserve our bombs and wait till the last moment.
But the sound of his voice is carried away. Abruptly, across all the width of the opposite slope, lurid flames burst forth that strike the air with terrible detonations. In line from left to right fires emerge from the sky and explosions from the ground. It is a frightful curtain which divides us from the world, which divides us from the past and from the future. We stop, fixed to the ground, stupefied by the sudden host that thunders from every side; then a simultaneous effort uplifts our mass again and throws it swiftly forward. We stumble and impede each other in the great waves of smoke. With harsh crashes and whirlwinds of pulverized earth, towards the profundity into which we hurl ourselves pell-mell, we see craters opened here and there, side by side, and merging in each other. Then one knows no longer where the discharges fall. Volleys are let loose so monstrously resounding that one feels himself annihilated by the mere sound of the downpoured thunder of these great constellations of destruction that form in the sky. One sees and one feels the fragments passing close to one's head with their hiss of red-hot iron plunged in water. The blast of one explosion so burns my hands that I let my rifle fall. I pick it up again, reeling, and set off in the tawny-gleaming tempest with lowered head, lashed by spirits of dust and soot in a crushing downpour like volcanic lava. The stridor of the bursting shells hurts your ears, beats you on the neck, goes through your temples, and you cannot endure it without a cry. The gusts of death drive us on, lift us up, rock us to and fro. We leap, and do not know whither we go. Our eyes are blinking and weeping and obscured. The view before us is blocked by a flashing avalanche that fills space.
It is the barrage fire. We have to go through that whirlwind of fire and those fearful showers that vertically fall. We are passing through. We are through it, by chance. Here and there I have seen forms that spun round and were lifted up and laid down, illumined by a brief reflection from over yonder. I have glimpsed strange faces that uttered some sort of cry--you could see them without hearing them in the roar of annihilation. A brasier full of red and black masses huge and furious fell about me, excavating the ground, tearing it from under my feet, throwing me aside like a bouncing toy. I remember that I strode over a smoldering corpse, quite black, with a tissue of rosy blood shriveling on him; and I remember, too, that the skirts of the greatcoat flying next to me had caught fire, and left a trail of smoke behind. On our right, all along Trench 97, our glances were drawn and dazzled by a rank of frightful flames, closely crowded against each other like men.
Now, we are nearly running. I see some who fall solidly flat, face forward, and others who founder meekly, as though they would sit down on the ground. We step aside abruptly to avoid the prostrate dead, quiet and rigid, or else offensive, and also--more perilous snares!-- the wounded that hook on to you, struggling.
The International Trench! We are there. The wire entanglements have been torn up into long roots and creepers, thrown afar and coiled up, swept away and piled in great drifts by the guns. Between these big bushes of rain-damped steel the ground is open and free.
The trench is not defended. The Germans have abandoned it, or else a first wave has already passed over it. Its interior bristles with rifles placed against the bank. In the bottom are scattered corpses. From the jumbled litter of the long trench, hands emerge that protrude from gray sleeves with red facings, and booted legs. In places the embankment is destroyed and its woodwork splintered--all the flank of the trench collapsed and fallen into an indescribable mixture. In other places, round pits are yawning. And of all that moment I have best retained the vision of a whimsical trench covered with many-colored rags and tatters. For the making of their sandbags the Germans had used cotton and woolen stuffs of motley design pillaged from some house-furnisher's shop; and all this hotch-potch of colored remnants, mangled and frayed, floats and flaps and dances in our faces.
We have spread out in the trench. The lieutenant, who has jumped to the other side, is stooping and summoning us with signs and shouts--"Don't stay there; forward, forward!"
We climb the wall of the trench with the help of the sacks, of weapons, and of the backs that are piled up there. In the bottom of the ravine the soil is shot-churned, crowded with jetsam, swarming with prostrate bodies. Some are motionless as blocks of wood; others move slowly or convulsively. The barrage fire continues to increase its infernal discharge behind us on the ground that we have crossed. But where we are at the foot of the rise it is a dead point for the artillery.
A short and uncertain calm follows. We are less deafened and look at each other. There is fever in the eyes, and the cheek-bones are blood-red. Our breathing snores and our hearts drum in our bodies.
In haste and confusion we recognize each other, as if we had met again face to face in a nightmare on the uttermost shores of death. Some hurried words are cast upon this glade in hell--"It's you! "--"Where's Cocon?"-- "Don't know."--"Have you seen the captain? "--"No."--"Going strong?"--"Yes."
The bottom of the ravine is crossed and the other slope rises opposite. We climb in Indian file by a stairway rough-hewn in the ground: "Look out!" The shout means that a soldier half-way up the steps has been struck in the loins by a shell-fragment; he falls with his arms forward, bareheaded, like the diving swimmer. We can see the shapeless silhouette of the mass as it plunges into the gulf. I can almost see the detail of his blown hair over the black profile of his face.
We debouch upon the height. A great colorless emptiness is outspread before us. At first one can see nothing but a chalky and stony plain, yellow and gray to the limit of sight. No human wave is preceding ours; in front of us there is no living soul, but the ground is peopled with dead--recent corpses that still mimic agony or sleep, and old remains already bleached and scattered to the wind, half assimilated by the earth.
As soon as our pushing and jolted file emerges, two men close to me are hit, two shadows are hurled to the ground and roll under our feet, one with a sharp cry, and the other silently, as a felled ox. Another disappears with the caper of a lunatic, as if he had been snatched away. Instinctively we close up as we hustle forward---always forward--and the wound in our line closes of its own accord. The adjutant stops, raises his sword, lets it fall, and drops to his knees. His kneeling body slopes backward in jerks, his helmet drops on his heels, and he remains there, bareheaded, face to the sky. Hurriedly the rush of the rank has split open to respect his immobility.
But we cannot see the lieutenant. No more leaders then---- Hesitation checks the wave of humanity that begins to beat on the plateau. Above the trampling one hears the hoarse effort of our lungs. "Forward!" cries some soldier, and then all resume the onward race to perdition with increasing speed.
* * * * * *
"Where's Bertrand?" comes the laborious complaint of one of the foremost runners. "There! Here!" He had stooped in passing over a wounded man, but he leaves him quickly, and the man extends his arms towards him and seems to sob.
It is just at the moment when he rejoins us that we hear in front of us, coming from a sort of ground swelling, the crackle of a machine-gun. It is a moment of agony--more serious even than when we were passing through the flaming earthquake of the barrage. That familiar voice speaks to us across the plain, sharp and horrible. But we no longer stop. "Go on, go on!"
Our panting becomes hoarse groaning, yet still we hurl ourselves toward the horizon.
"The Boches! I see them!" a man says suddenly. "Yes--their heads, there--above the trench-- it's there, the trench, that line. It's close, Ah, the hogs!"
We can indeed make out little round gray caps which rise and then drop on the ground level, fifty yards away, beyond a belt of dark earth, furrowed and humped. Encouraged they spring forward, they who now form the group where I am. So near the goal, so far unscathed, shall we not reach it? Yes, we will reach it! We make great strides and no longer hear anything. Each man plunges straight ahead, fascinated by the terrible trench, bent rigidly forward, almost incapable of turning his head to right or to left. I have a notion that many of us missed their footing and fell to the ground. I jump sideways to miss the suddenly erect bayonet of a toppling rifle. Quite close to me, Farfadet jostles me with his face bleeding, throws himself on Volpatte who is beside me and clings to him. Volpatte doubles up without slackening his rush and drags him along some paces, then shakes him off without looking at him and without knowing who be is, and shouts at him in a breaking voice almost choked with exertion: "Let me go, let me go, nom de Dieu! They'll pick you up directly--don't worry."
The other man sinks to the ground, and his face, plastered with a scarlet mask and void of all expression, turns in every direction; while Volpatte, already in the distance, automatically repeats between his teeth, "Don't worry," with a steady forward gaze on the line.
A shower of bullets spirts around me, increasing the number of those who suddenly halt, who collapse slowly, defiant and gesticulating, of those who dive forward solidly with all the body's burden, of the shouts, deep, furious, and desperate, and even of that hollow and terrible gasp when a man's life goes bodily forth in a breath. And we who are not yet stricken, we look ahead, we walk and we run, among the frolics of the death that strikes at random into our flesh.
The wire entanglements--and there is one stretch of them intact. We go along to where it has been gutted into a wide and deep opening. This is a colossal funnel-hole, formed of smaller funnels placed together, a fantastic volcanic crater, scooped there by the guns.
The sight of this convulsion is stupefying; truly it seems that it must have come from the center of the earth. Such a rending of virgin strata puts new edge on our attacking fury, and none of us can keep from shouting with a solemn shake of the head--even just now when words are but painfully torn from our throats--"Ah, Christ! Look what hell we've given 'em there! Ah, look!"
Driven as if by the wind, we mount or descend at the will of the hollows and the earthy mounds in the gigantic fissure dug and blackened and burned by furious flames. The soil clings to the feet and we tear them out angrily. The accouterments and stuffs that cover the soft soil, the linen that is scattered about from sundered knapsacks, prevent us from sticking fast in it, and we are careful to plant our feet in this debris when we jump into the holes or climb the hillocks.
Behind us voices urge us--- Forward, boys, forward, nome de Dieu!"
"All the regiment is behind us!" they cry. We do not turn round to see, but the assurance electrifies our rush once more.
No more caps are visible behind the embankment of the trench we are nearing. Some German dead are crumbling in front of it, in pinnacled heaps or extended lines. We are there. The parapet takes definite and sinister shape and detail; the loopholes--we are prodigiously, incredibly close!
Something falls in front of us. It is a bomb. With a kick Corporal Bertrand returns it so well that it rises and bursts just over the trench.
With that fortunate deed the squad reaches the trench.
Pépin has hurled himself flat on the ground and is involved with a corpse. He reaches the edge and plunges in--the first to enter. Fouillade, with great gestures and shouts, jumps into the pit almost at the same moment that Pépin rolls down it. Indistinctly I see--in the time of the lightning's flash--a whole row of black demons stooping and squatting for the descent, on the ridge of the embankment, on the edge of the dark ambush.
A terrible volley bursts point-blank in our faces, flinging in front of us a sudden row of flames the whole length of the earthen verge. After the stunning shock we shake ourselves and burst into devilish laughter--the discharge has passed too high. And at once, with shouts and roars of salvation, we slide and roll and fall alive into the belly of the trench!
* * * * * *
We are submerged in a mysterious smoke, and at first I can only see blue uniforms in the stifling gulf. We go one way and then another, driven by each other, snarling and searching. We turn about, and with our hands encumbered by knife, bombs, and rifle, we do not know at first what to do.
"They're in their funk-holes, the swine!" is the cry. Heavy explosions are shaking the earth--underground, in the dug-outs. We are all at once divided by huge clouds of smoke so thick that we are masked and can see nothing more. We struggle like drowning men through the acrid darkness of a fallen fragment of night. One stumbles against barriers of cowering clustered beings who bleed and howl in the bottom. Hardly can one make out the trench walls, straight up just here and made of white sandbags, which are everywhere torn like paper. At one time the heavy adhesive reek sways and lifts, and one sees again the swarming mob of the attackers. Torn out of the dusty picture, the silhouette of a hand-to-hand struggle is drawn in fog on the wall, it droops and sinks to the bottom. I hear several shrill cries of "Kamarad!" proceeding from a pale-faced and gray-clad group in the huge corner made by a rending shell. Under the inky cloud the tempest of men flows back, climbs towards the right, eddying, pitching and falling, along the dark and ruined mole.
* * * * * *
And suddenly one feels that it is over. We see and hear and understand that our wave, rolling here through the barrage fire, has not encountered an equal breaker. They have fallen back on our approach. The battle has dissolved in front of us. The slender curtain of defenders has crumbled into the holes, where they are caught like rats or killed. There is no more resistance, but a void, a great void. We advance in crowds like a terrible array of spectators.
And here the trench seems all lightning-struck. With its tumbled white walls it might be just here the soft and slimy bed of a vanished river that has left stony bluffs, with here and there the flat round hole of a pool, also dried up; and on the edges, on the sloping banks and in the bottom, there is a long trailing glacier of corpses--a dead river that is filled again to overflowing by the new tide and the breaking wave of our company. In the smoke vomited by dug-outs and the shaking wind of subterranean explosions, I come upon a compact mass of men hooked onto each other who are describing a wide circle. Just as we reach them the entire mass breaks up to make a residue of furious battle. I see Blaire break away, his helmet hanging on his neck by the chin-strap and his face flayed, and uttering a savage yell. I stumble upon a man who is crouching at the entry to a dug-out. Drawing back from the black hatchway, yawning and treacherous, he steadies himself with his left hand on a beam. In his right hand and for several seconds he holds a bomb which is on the point of exploding. It disappears in the hole, bursts immediately, and a horrible human echo answers him from the bowels of the earth. The man seizes another bomb.
Another man strikes and shatters the posts at the mouth of another dug-out with a pickax he has found there, causing a landslide, and the entry is blocked. I see several shadows trampling and gesticulating over the tomb.
Of the living ragged band that has got so far and has reached this long-sought trench after dashing against the storm of invincible shells and bullets launched to meet them, I can hardly recognize those whom I know, just as though all that had gone before of our lives had suddenly become very distant. There is some change working in them. A frenzied excitement is driving them all out of themselves.
"What are we stopping here for?" says one, grinding his teeth.
"Why don't we go on to the next?" a second asks me in fury. "Now we're here, we'd be there in a few jumps!'
"I, too, I want to go on."--"Me, too. Ah, the hogs!" They shake themselves like banners. They carry the luck of their survival as it were glory; they are implacable, uncontrolled, intoxicated with themselves.
We wait and stamp about in the captured work, this strange demolished way that winds along the plain and goes from the unknown to the unknown.
Advance to the right!
We begin to flow again in one direction. No doubt it is a movement planned up there, back yonder, by the chiefs. We trample soft bodies underfoot, some of which are moving and slowly altering their position; rivulets and cries come from them. Like posts and heaps of rubbish, corpses are piled anyhow on the wounded, and press them down, suffocate them, strangle them. So that I can get by, I must push at a slaughtered trunk of which the neck is a spring of gurgling blood.
In the cataclysm of earth and of massive wreckage blown up and blown out, above the hordes of wounded and dead that stir together, athwart the moving forest of smoke implanted in the trench and in all its environs, one no longer sees any face but what is inflamed, blood-red with sweat, eyes flashing. Some groups seem to be dancing as they brandish their knives. They are elated, immensely confident, ferocious.
The battle dies down imperceptibly. A soldier says, "Well, what's to be done now?" ft flares up again suddenly at one point. Twenty yards away in the plain, in the direction of a circle that the gray embankment makes, a cluster of rifle-shots crackles and hurls its scattered missiles around a hidden machine-gun, that spits intermittently and seems to be in difficulties.
Under the shadowy wing of a sort of yellow and bluish nimbus I see men encircling the flashing machine and closing in on it. Near to me I make out the silhouette of Mesnil Joseph, who is steering straight and with no effort of concealment for the spot whence the barking explosions come in jerky sequence.
A flash shoots out from a corner of the trench between us two. Joseph halts, sways, stoops, and drops on one knee. I run to him and he watches me coming. "It's nothing--my thigh. I can crawl along by myself." He seems to have become quiet, childish, docile; and sways slowly towards the trench.
I have still in my eyes the exact spot whence rang the shot that hit him, and I slip round there by the left, making a detour. No one there. I only meet another of our squad on the same errand--Paradis.
We are bustled by men who are carrying on their shoulders pieces of iron of all shapes. They block up the trench and separate us. "The machine-gun's taken by the 7th," they shout, "it won't bark any more. It was a mad devil--filthy beast! Filthy beast!"
"What's there to do now?"--"Nothing."
We stay there, jumbled together, and sit down. The living have ceased to gasp for breath, the dying have rattled their last, surrounded by smoke and lights and the din of the guns that rolls to all the ends of the earth. We no longer know where we are. There is neither earth nor sky--nothing but a sort of cloud. The first period of inaction is forming in the chaotic drama, and there is a general slackening in the movement and the uproar. The cannonade grows less; it still shakes the sky as a cough shakes a man, but it is farther off now. Enthusiasm is allayed, and there remains only the infinite fatigue that rises and overwhelms us, and the infinite waiting that begins over again.
* * * * * *
Where is the enemy? He has left his dead everywhere, and we have seen rows of prisoners. Yonder again there is. one, drab, ill-defined and smoky, outlined against the dirty sky. But the bulk seem to have dispersed afar. A few shells come to us here and there blunderingly, and we ridicule them. We are saved, we are quiet, we are alone, in this desert where an immensity of corpses adjoins a line of the living.
Night has come. The dust has flown away, but has yielded place to shadow and darkness over the long-drawn multitude's disorder. Men approach each other, sit down, get up again and walk about, leaning on each other or hooked together. Between the dug-outs, which are blocked by the mingled dead, we gather in groups and squat. Some have laid their rifles on the ground and wander on the rim of the trench with their arms balancing; and when they come near we can see that they are blackened and scorched, their eyes are red and slashed with mud. We speak seldom, but are beginning to think.
We see the stretcher-bearers, whose sharp silhouettes stoop and grope; they advance linked two and two together by their long burdens. Yonder on our right one hears the blows of pick and shovel.
I wander into the middle of this gloomy turmoil. In a place where the embankment has crushed the embankment of the trench into a gentle slope, some one is seated. A faint light still prevails. The tranquil attitude of this man as he looks reflectively in front of him is sculptural and striking. Stooping, I recognize him as Corporal Bertrand. He turns his face towards me, and I feel that he is looking at me through the shadows with his thoughtful smile.
"I was coming to look for you," he says; "they're organizing a guard for the trench until we've got news of what the others have done and what's going on in front. I'm going to put you on double sentry with Paradis, in a listening-post that the sappers have just dug."
We watch the shadows of the passers-by and of those who are seated, outlined in inky blots, bowed and bent in diverse attitudes under the gray sky, all along the ruined parapet. Dwarfed to the size of insects and worms, they make a strange and secret stirring among these shadow-hidden lands where for two years war has caused cities of soldiers to wander or stagnate over deep and boundless cemeteries.
Two obscure forms pass in the dark, several paces from us; they are talking together in low voices-- "You bet, old chap, instead of listening to him, I shoved my bayonet into his belly so that I couldn't haul it out."
"There were four in the bottom of the hole. I called to 'em to come out, and as soon as one came out I stuck him. Blood ran down me up to the elbow and stuck up my sleeves."
"Ah!" the first speaker went on, "when we are telling all about it later, if we get back, to the other people at home, by the stove and the candle, who's going to believe it? It's a pity, isn't it?"
"I don't care a damn about that, as long as we do get back," said the other; "I want the end quickly, and only that."
Bertrand was used to speak very little ordinarily, and never of himself. But he said, "I've got three of them on my hands. I struck like a madman. Ah, we were all like beasts when we got here!"
He raised his voice and there was a restrained tremor in it: "it was necessary," he said, "it was necessary, for the future's sake."
He crossed his arms and tossed his head: "The future!" he cried all at once as a prophet might. "How will they regard this slaughter, they who'll live after us, to whom progress--which comes as sure as fate--will at last restore the poise of their conscience? How will they regard these exploits which even we who perform them don't know whether one should compare them with those of Plutarch's and Corneille's heroes or with those of hooligans and apaches?
"And for all that, mind you," Bertrand went on. "there is one figure that has risen above the war and will blaze with the beauty and strength of his courage ----"
I listened, leaning on a stick and towards him, drinking in the voice that came in the twilight silence from the lips that so rarely spoke. He cried with a clear voice---"Liebknecht!"
He stood up with his arms still crossed. His face, as profoundly serious as a statue's, drooped upon his chest. But he emerged once again from his marble muteness to repeat, "The future, the future! The work of the future will be to wipe out the present, to wipe it out more than we can imagine, to wipe it out like something abominable and shameful. And yet--this present-- it had to be, it had to be! Shame on military glory, shame on armies, shame on the soldier's calling, that changes men by turns into stupid victims or ignoble brutes. Yes, shame. That's the true word, but it's too true; it's true in eternity, but it's not yet true for us. It will be true when there is a Bible that is entirely true, when it is found written among the other truths that a purified mind will at the same time let us understand. We are still lost, still exiled far from that time. In our time of to-day, in these moments, this truth is hardly more than a fallacy, this sacred saying is only blasphemy!"
A kind of laugh came from him, full of echoing dreams--"To think I once told them I believed in prophecies, just to kid them!"
I sat down by Bertrand's side. This soldier who had always done more than was required of him and survived notwithstanding, stood at that moment in my eyes for those who incarnate a lofty moral conception, who have the strength to detach themselves from the hustle of circumstances, and who are destined, however little their path may run through a splendor of events, to dominate their time.
"I have always thought all those things," I murmured.
"Ah!" said Bertrand. We looked at each other without a word, with a little surprised self-communion. After this full silence he spoke again. "It's time to start duty; take your rifle and come."
* * * * * *
From our listening-post we see towards the east a light spreading like a conflagration, but bluer and sadder than buildings on fire. It streaks the sky above a long black cloud which extends suspended like the smoke of an extinguished fire, like an immense stain on the world. It is the returning morning.
It is so cold that we cannot stand still in spite of our fettering fatigue. We tremble and shiver and shed tears, and our teeth chatter. Little by little, with dispiriting tardiness, day escapes from the sky into the slender framework of the black clouds. All is frozen, colorless and empty; a deathly silence reigns everywhere. There is rime and snow under a burden of mist. Everything is white. Paradis moves--a heavy pallid ghost, for we two also are all white. I had placed my shoulder-bag on the other side of the parapet, and it looks as if wrapped in paper. In the bottom of the hole a little snow floats, fretted and gray in the black foot-bath. Outside the hole, on the piled-up things, in the excavations, upon the crowded dead, snow rests like muslin.
Two stooping protuberant masses are crayoned on the mist; they grow darker as they approach and hail us. They are the men who come to relieve us. Their faces are ruddy and tearful with cold, their cheek-bones like enameled tiles; but their greatcoats are not snow-powdered, for they have slept underground.
Paradis hoists himself out. Over the plain I follow his Father Christmas back and the duck-like waddle of the boots that pick up white-felted soles. Bending deeply forward we regain the trench; the footsteps of those who replaced us are marked in black on the scanty whiteness that covers the ground.
Watchers are standing at intervals in the trench, over which tarpaulins are stretched on posts here and there, figured in white velvet or mottled with rime, and forming great irregular tents; and between the watchers are squatting forms who grumble and try to fight against the cold. to exclude it from the meager fireside of their own chests, or who are simply frozen. A dead man has slid down. upright and hardly askew, with his feet in the trench and his chest and arms resting on the bank. He was clasping the earth when life left him. His face is turned skyward and is covered with a leprosy of ice, the eyelids are white as the eyes, the mustache caked with hard slime. Other bodies are sleeping, less white than that one; the snowy stratum is only intact on lifeless things.
"We must sleep." Paradis and I are looking for shelter, a hole where we may hide ourselves and shut our eyes. "It can't be helped if there are stiffs in the dugouts," mutters Paradis; "in a cold like this they'll keep, they won't be too bad." We go forward, so weary that we can only see the ground.
I am alone. Where is Paradis? He must have lain down in some hole, and perhaps I did not hear his call. I meet Marthereau. "I'm looking where I can sleep, I've been on guard," he says.
"I, too; let's look together."
"What's all the row and to-do?" says Marthereau. A mingled hubbub of trampling and voices overflows from the communication trench that goes off here. "The communication trenches are full of men. Who are you?"
One of those with whom we are suddenly mixed up replies, "We're the Fifth Battalion." The newcomers stop. They are in marching order. The one that spoke sits down for a breathing space on the curves of a sand-bag that protrudes from the line. He wipes his nose with the back of his sleeve.
"What are you doing here? Have they told you to come?"
"Not half they haven't told us. We're coming to attack. We're going yonder, right up." With his head he indicates the north. The curiosity with which we look at them fastens on to a detail. "You've carried everything with you?"--"We chose to keep it, that's all."
"Forward!" they are ordered. They rise and proceed, incompletely awake, their eyes puffy, their wrinkles underlined. There are young men among them with thin necks and vacuous eyes, and old men; and in the middle, ordinary ones. They march with a commonplace and pacific step. What they are going to do seems to us, who did it last night, beyond human strength. But still they go away towards the north.
"The revally of the damned," says Marthereau.
We make way for them with a sort of admiration and a sort of terror. When they have passed, Marthereau wags his head and murmurs, "There are some getting ready, too, on the other side, with their gray uniforms. Do you think those chaps are feeling it about the attack? Then why have they come? It's not their doing, I know, but it's theirs all the same, seeing they're here.-- I know, I know, but it's odd, all of it."
The sight of a passer-by alters the course of his ideas: "Tiens, there's Truc, the big one, d'you know him? Isn't he immense and pointed, that chap! As for me, I know I'm not quite hardly big enough; but him, he goes too far. He always knows what's going on, that two-yarder! For savvying everything, there's nobody going to give him the go-by! I'll go and chivvy him about a funk-hole."
"If there's a rabbit-hole anywhere?" replies the elongated passer-by, leaning on Marthereau like a poplar tree, "for sure, my old Caparthe, certainly. Tiens, there"--and unbending his elbow he makes an indicative gesture like a flag-signaler---"'Villa von Hindenburg.' and there, 'Villa Glücks auf.' If that doesn't satisfy you, you gentlemen are hard to please. P'raps there's a few lodgers in the basement, but not noisy lodgers, and you can talk out aloud in front of them, you know!"
"Ah, nom de Dieu!" cried Marthereau a quarter of an hour after we had established ourselves in one of these square-cut graves, "there's lodgers he didn't tell us about, that frightful great lightning-rod, that infinity!" His eyelids were just closing, but they opened again and he scratched his arms and thighs: "I want a snooze! It appears it's out of the question. Can't resist these things."
We settled ourselves to yawning and sighing, and finally we lighted a stump of candle, wet enough to resist us although covered with our hands; and we watched each other yawn.
The German dug-out consisted of several rooms. We were against a partition of ill-fitting planks; and on the other side, in Cave No. 2, some men were also awake. We saw light trickle through the crannies between the planks and heard rumbling voices. "It's the other section," said Marthereau.
Then we listened, mechanically. "When I was off on leave," boomed an invisible talker, "we had the hump at first, because we were thinking of my poor brother who was missing in March--dead, no doubt--and of my poor little Julien, of Class 1915, killed in the October attacks. And then bit by bit, her and me, we settled down to be happy at being together again, you see. Our little kid, the last, a five-year-old, entertained us a treat. He wanted to play soldiers with me, and I made a little gun for him. I explained the trenches to him; and he, all fluttering with delight like a bird, he was shooting at me and yelling. Ah, the damned young gentleman, he did it properly! He'll make a famous poilu later! I tell you, he's quite got the military spirit!"
A silence; then an obscure murmur of talk, in the midst of which we catch the name of Napoleon; then another voice, or the same, saying, "Wilhelm, he's a stinking beast to have brought this war on. But Napoleon, he was a great man!"
Marthereau is kneeling in front of me in the feeble and scanty rays of our candle, in the bottom of this dark ill-enclosed hole where the cold shudders through at intervals, where vermin swarm and where the sorry crowd of living men endures the faint but musty savor of a tomb; and Marthereau looks at me. He still hears, as I do, the unknown soldier who said, "Wilhelm is a stinking beast, but Napoleon was a great man," and who extolled the martial ardor of the little boy still left to him. Marthereau droops his arms and wags his weary head--and the shadow of the double gesture is thrown on the partition by the lean light in a sudden caricature.
"Ah!" says my humble companion, "we're all of us not bad sorts, and we're unlucky, and we're poor devils as well. But we're too stupid, we're too stupid!"
Again he turns his eyes on me. In his bewhiskered and poodle-like face I see his fine eyes shining in wondering and still confused contemplation of things which he is setting himself to understand in the innocence of his obscurity.
We come out of the uninhabitable shelter; the weather has bettered a little; the snow has melted, and all is soiled anew. "The wind's licked up the sugar," says Marthereau.
* * * * *
I am deputed to accompany Mesnil Joseph to the refuge on the Pylônes road. Sergeant Henriot gives me charge of the wounded man and hands me his clearing order. "If you meet Bertrand on the way," says Henriot, "tell him to look sharp and get busy, will you?" Bertrand went away on liaison duty last night and they have been waiting for him for an hour; the captain is getting impatient and threatens to lose his temper.
I get under way with Joseph, who walks very slowly, a little paler than usual, and still taciturn. Now and again he halts, and his face twitches. We follow the communication trenches, and a comrade appears suddenly. It is Volpatte, and he says, "I'm going with you to the foot of the hill." As he is off duty, he is wielding a magnificent twisted walking-stick, and he shakes in his hand like castanets the precious pair of scissors that never leaves him.
All three of us come out of the communication trench when the slope of the land allows us to do it without danger of bullets--the guns are not firing. As soon as we are outside we stumble upon a gathering of men. It is raining. Between the heavy legs planted there like little trees on the gray plain in the mist we see a dead man. Volpatte edges his way in to the horizontal form upon which these upright ones are waiting; then he turns round violently and shouts to us, "It's Pépin!"
"Ah!" says Joseph, who is already almost fainting. He leans on me and we draw near. Pépin is full length, his feet and hands bent and shriveled, and his rain-washed face is swollen and horribly gray.
A man who holds a pickax and whose sweating face is full of little black trenches, recounts to us the death of Pépin: "He'd gone into a funk-hole where the Boches had planked themselves, and behold no one knew he was there and they smoked the hole to make sure of cleaning it out, and the poor lad, they found him after the operation, corpsed, and all pulled out like a cat's innards in the middle of the Boche cold meat that he'd stuck--and very nicely stuck too, I may say, seeing I was in business as a butcher in the suburbs of Paris."
"One less to the squad!" says Volpatte as we go away.
We are now on the edge of the ravine at the spot where the plateau begins that our desperate charge traversed last evening, and we cannot recognize it. This plain, which had then seemed to me quite level, though it really slopes, is an amazing charnel-house. It swarms with corpses, and might be a cemetery of which the top has been taken away.
Groups of men are moving about it, identifying the dead of last evening and last night, turning the remains over, recognizing them by some detail in spite of their faces. One of these searchers, kneeling, draws from a dead hand an effaced and mangled photograph--a portrait killed.
In the distance, black shell-smoke goes up in scrolls. then detonates over the horizon. The wide and stippled flight of an army of crows sweeps the sky.
Down below among the motionless multitude, and identifiable by their wasting and disfigurement, there are zouaves, tirailleurs, and Foreign Legionaries from the May attack. The extreme end of our lines was then on Berthonval Wood, five or six kilometers from here. In that attack, which was one of the most terrible of the war or of any war, those men got here in a single rush. They thus formed a point too far advanced in the wave of attack, and were caught on the flanks between the machine-guns posted to right and to left on the lines they had overshot. It is some months now since death hollowed their eyes and consumed their cheeks, but even in those storm-scattered and dissolving remains one can identify the havoc of the machine-guns that destroyed them, piercing their backs and loins and severing them in the middle. By the side of heads black and waxen as Egyptian mummies, clotted with grubs and the wreckage of insects, where white teeth still gleam in some cavities, by the side of poor darkening stumps that abound like a field of old roots laid bare, one discovers naked yellow skulls wearing the red cloth fez, whose gray cover has crumbled like paper. Some thigh-bones protrude from the heaps of rags stuck together with reddish mud; and from the holes filled with clothes shredded and daubed with a sort of tar, a spinal fragment emerges. Some ribs are scattered on the soil like old cages broken; and close by, blackened leathers are afloat, with water-bottles and drinking-cups pierced and flattened. About a cloven knapsack, on the top of some bones and a cluster of bits of cloth and accouterments, some white points are evenly scattered; by stooping one can see that they are the finger and toe constructions of what was once a corpse.
Sometimes only a rag emerges from long mounds to indicate that some human being was there destroyed, for all these unburied dead end by entering the soil.
The Germans, who were here yesterday, abandoned their soldiers by the side of ours without interring them-- as witness these three putrefied corpses on the top of each other, in each other, with their round gray caps whose red edge is hidden with a gray band, their yellow-gray jackets, and their green faces. I look for the features of one of them. From the depth of his neck up to the tufts of hair that stick to the brim of his cap is just an earthy mass, the face become an anthill, and two rotten berries in place of the eyes. Another is a dried emptiness flat on its belly, the back in tatters that almost flutter, the hands, feet, and face enrooted in the soil.
"Look! It's a new one, this----"
In the middle of the plateau and in the depth of the rainy and bitter air, on the ghastly morrow of this debauch of slaughter, there is a head planted in the ground, a wet and bloodless head, with a heavy beard.
It is one of ours, and the helmet is beside it. The distended eyelids permit a little to be seen of the dull porcelain of his eyes, and one lip shines like a slug in the shapeless beard. No doubt he fell into a shell-hole, which was filled up by another shell, burying him up to the neck like the cat's-head German of the Red Tavern at Souchez.
"I don't know him," says Joseph, who has come up very slowly and speaks with difficulty.
"I recognize him," replies Volpatte.
"That bearded man?" says Joseph.
"He has no beard. Look----" Stooping, Volpatte passes the end of his stick under the chin of the corpse and breaks off a sort of slab of mud in which the head was set, a slab that looked like a beard. Then he picks up the dead man's helmet and puts it on his head, and for a moment holds before the eyes the round handles of his famous scissors so as to imitate spectacles.
"Ah!" we all cried together, "it's Cocon!"
When you hear of or see the death of one of those who fought by your side and lived exactly the same life, you receive a direct blow in the flesh before even understanding. It is truly as if one heard of his own destruction. It is only later that one begins to mourn.
We look at the hideous head that is murder's jest, the murdered head already and cruelly effacing our memories of Cocon. Another comrade less. We remain there around him, afraid.
We should like to speak a little, but do not know what to say that would be sufficiently serious or telling or true.
"Come," says Joseph, with an effort, wholly engrossed by his severe suffering, "I haven't strength enough to be stopping all the time."
We leave poor Cocon, the ex-statistician, with a last look, a look too short and almost vacant.
"One cannot imagine----" says Volpatte.
No, one cannot imagine. All these disappearances at once surpass the imagination. There are not enough survivors now. But we have vague idea of the grandeur of these dead. They have given all; by degrees they have given all their strength, and finally they have given themselves, en bloc. They have outpaced life, and their effort has something of superhuman perfection.
* * * * * *
"Tiens, he's just been wounded, that one, and yet--" A fresh wound is moistening the neck of a body that is almost a skeleton.
"It's a rat," says Volpatte. "The stiffs are old ones, but the rats talk to 'em. You see some rats laid out--poisoned, p'raps--near every body or under it. Tiens, this poor old chap shall show us his." He lifts up the foot of the collapsed remains and reveals two dead rats.
"I should like to find Farfadet again," says Volpatte. 'I told him to wait just when we started running and he clipped hold of me. Poor lad, let's hope he waited!"
So he goes to and fro, attracted towards the dead by a strange curiosity; and these, indifferent, bandy him about from one to another, and at each step he looks on the ground. Suddenly he utters a cry of distress. With his hand he beckons us as he kneels to a dead man.
Acute emotion grips us. He has been killed; he, too, like the rest, he who most towered over us by his energy and intelligence. By virtue of always doing his duty. he has at last got killed. He has at last found death where indeed it was.
We look at him, and then turn away from the sight and look upon each other.
The shock of his loss is aggravated by the spectacle that his remains present, for they are abominable to see. Death has bestowed a grotesque look and attitude on the man who was so comely and so tranquil. With his hair scattered over his eyes, his mustache trailing in his mouth, and his face swollen--he is laughing. One eye is widely open, the other shut, and the tongue lolls out. His arms are outstretched in the form of a cross: the hands open, the fingers separated. The right leg is straight. The left, whence flowed the hemorrhage that made him die, has been broken by a shell; it is twisted into a circle, dislocated, slack, invertebrate. A mournful irony has invested the last writhe of his agony with the appearance of a clown's antic.
We arrange him, and lay him straight, and tranquillize the horrible masks. Volpatte has taken a pocket-book from him and places it reverently among his own papers, by the side of the portrait of his own wife and children. That done, he shakes his head: "He--he was truly a good sort, old man. When he said anything, that was the proof that it was true. Ah, we needed him badly!"
"Yes," I said, "we had need of him always."
"Ah, la, la!" murmurs Volpatte. and he trembles. Joseph repeats in a weak voice, "Ah, nom de Dieu! Ah, nom de Dieu!"
The plateau is as covered with people as a public square; fatigue-parties in detachments, and isolated men. Here and there, the stretcher-bearers are beginning (patiently and in a small way) their huge and endless task.
Volpatte leaves us, to return to the trench and announce our new losses, and above all the great gap left by Bertrand. He says to Joseph, "We shan't lose sight of you, eh? Write us a line now and again--just, 'All goes well; signed, Camembert,' eh?" He disappears among the people who cross each other's path in the expanse now completely possessed by a mournful and endless rain.
Joseph leans on me and we go down into the ravine. The slope by which we descend is known as the Zouaves' Cells. In the May attack, the Zouaves had all begun to dig themselves individual shelters, and round these they were exterminated. Some are still seen, prone on the brim of an incipient hole, with their trenching-tools in their fleshless hands or looking at them with the cavernous hollows where shrivel the entrails of eyes. The ground is so full of dead that the earth-falls uncover places that bristle with feet, with half-clothed skeletons, and with ossuaries of skulls placed side by side on the steep slope like porcelain globe-jars.
In the ground here there are several strata of dead and in many places the delving of the shells has brought out the oldest and set them out in display on the top of the new ones. The bottom of the ravine is completely carpeted with debris of weapons, clothing, and implements. One tramples shell fragments, old iron, loaves and even biscuits that have fallen from knapsacks and are not yet dissolved by the rain. Mess-tins, pots of jam. and helmets are pierced and riddled by bullets--the scrapings and scum of a hell-broth; and the dislocated posts that survive are stippled with holes.
The trenches that run in this valley have a look of earthquake crevasses, and as if whole tombs of uncouth things had been emptied on the ruins of the earth's convulsion. And there, where no dead are, the very earth is cadaverous.
We follow the International Trench, still fluttering with rainbow rags--a shapeless trench which the confusion of torn stuffs invests with an air of a trench assassinated-- to a place where the irregular and winding ditch forms an elbow. All the way along, as far as an earthwork barricade that blocks the way, German corpses are entangled and knotted as in a torrent of the damned, some of them emerging from muddy caves in the middle of a bewildering conglomerate of beams, ropes, creepers of iron, trench-rollers, hurdles, and bullet-screens. At the barrier itself, one corpse stands upright, fixed in the other dead, while another, planted in the same spot, stands obliquely in the dismal place, the whole arrangement looking like part of a big wheel embedded in the mud, or the shattered sail of a windmill. And over all this, this catastrophe of flesh and filthiness, religious images are broadcast, post-cards, pious pamphlets, leaflets on which prayers are written in Gothic lettering--they have scattered themselves in waves from gutted clothing. The paper words seem to bedeck with blossom these shores of pestilence, this Valley of Death, with their countless pallors of barren lies.
I seek a solid footway to guide Joseph in--his wound is paralyzing him by degrees, and he feels it extending throughout his body. While I support him, and he is looking at nothing, I look upon the ghastly upheaval through which we are escaping.
A German sergeant is seated, here where we tread, supported by the riven timbers that once formed the shelter of a sentry. There is a little hole under his eye; the thrust of a bayonet has nailed him to the planks through his face. In front of him, also sitting, with his elbows on his knees and his fists on his chin, there is a man who has all the top of his skull taken off like a boiled egg. Beside them--an awful watchman!--the half of a man is standing, a man sliced in two from scalp to stomach, upright against the earthen wall. I do not know where the other half of this human post may be, whose eye hangs down above and whose bluish viscera curl spirally round his leg.
Down below, one's foot detaches itself from a matrix of blood, stiffened with French bayonets that have been bent, doubled, and twisted by the force of the blow. Through a gap in the mutilated wall one espies a recess where the bodies of soldiers of the Prussian Guard seem to kneel in the pose of suppliants, run through from behind, with blood-stained gaps, impaled. Out of this group they have pulled to its edge a huge Senegalese tirailleur, who, petrified in the contorted position where death seized him, leans upon empty air and holds fast by his feet, staring at his two severed wrists. No doubt a bomb had exploded in his hands; and since all his face is alive, he seems to be gnawing maggots.
"It was here," says a passing soldier of an Alpine regiment, "that they did the white flag trick; and as they'd got Africans to deal with, you bet they got it hot!--Tiens, there's the white flag itself that these dunghills used."
He seizes and shakes a long handle that lies there. A square of white stuff is nailed to it, and unfolds itself innocently.
A procession of shovel-bearers advances along the battered trench. They have an order to shovel the earth into the relics of the trenches, to stop everything up, so that the bodies may be buried on the spot. Thus these helmeted warriors will here perform the work of the redresser of wrongs as they restore their full shape to the fields and make level the cavities already half filled by cargoes of invaders.
* * * * * *
Some one calls me from the other side of the trench, a man sitting on the ground and leaning against a stake. It is Papa Ramure. Through his unbuttoned greatcoat and jacket I see bandages around his chest. "The ambulance men have been to tuck me up," he says, in a weak and stertorous voice, "but they can't take me away from here before evening. But I know all right that I'm petering out every minute."
He jerks his head. "Stay a bit," he asks me. He is much moved, and the tears are flowing. He offers his hand and holds mine. He wants to say a lot of things to me and almost to make confession. "I was a straight man before the war," he says, with trickling tears; "I worked from morning to night to feed my little lot. And then I came here to kill Boches. And now, I've got killed. Listen, listen, listen, don't go away, listen to me----"
"I must take Joseph back--he's at the end of his strength. I'll come back afterwards."
Ramure lifted his streaming eyes to the wounded man. "Not only living, but wounded! Escaped from death! Ah, some women and children are lucky! All right, take him, take him, and come back--I hope I shall be waiting for you----"
Now we must climb the other slope of the ravine, and we enter the deformed and maltreated ditch of the old Trench 97.
Suddenly a frantic whistling tears the air and there is a shower of shrapnel above us. Meteorites flash and scatter in fearful flight in the heart of the yellow clouds. Revolving missiles rush through the heavens to break and burn upon the bill, to ransack it and exhume the old bones of men; and the thundering flames multiply themselves along an even line.
It is the barrage fire beginning again. Like children we cry, 'Enough, enough!"
In this fury of fatal engines, this mechanical cataclysm that pursues us through space, there is something that surpasses human strength and will, something supernatural. Joseph, standing with his hand in mine, looks over his shoulder at the storm of rending explosions. He bows his head like an imprisoned beast, distracted: "What, again! Always, then!" he growls; "after all we've done and all we've seen--and now it begins again! Ah, non, non!"
He falls on his knees, gasps for breath, and throws a futile look of full hatred before him and behind him. He repeats, "It's never finished, never!"
I take him by the arm and raise him. "Come; it'll be finished for you."
We must dally there awhile before climbing, so I will go and bring back Ramure in extremis, who is waiting for me. But Joseph clings to me, and then I notice a movement of men about the spot where I left the dying man. I can guess what it means; it is no longer worth while to go there.
The ground of the ravine where we two are closely clustered to abide the tempest is quivering, and at each shot we feel the deep simoom of the shells. But in the hole where we are there is scarcely any risk of being hit. At the first lull, some of the men who were also waiting detach themselves and begin to go up; stretcher-bearers redouble their huge efforts to carry a body and climb, making one think of stubborn ants pushed back by successive grains of sand; wounded men and liaison men move again.
"Let's go on," says Joseph, with sagging shoulders, as he measures the hill with his eye--the last stage of his Gethsemane.
There are trees here; a row of excoriated willow trunks, some of wide countenance, and others hollowed and yawning, like coffins on end. The scene through which we are struggling is rent and convulsed, with hills and chasms, and with such somber swellings as if all the clouds of storm had rolled down here. Above the tortured earth, this stampeded file of trunks stands forth against a striped brown sky, milky in places and obscurely sparkling--a sky of agate.
Across the entry to Trench 97 a felled oak twists his great body, and a corpse stops up the trench. Its head and legs are buried in the ground. The dirty water that trickles in the trench has covered it with a sandy glaze, and through the moist deposit the chest and belly bulge forth, clad in a shirt. We stride over the frigid remains, slimy and pale, that suggest the belly of a stranded crocodile; and it is difficult to do so, by reason of the soft and slippery ground. We have to plunge our hands up to the wrists in the mud of the wall.
At this moment an infernal whistle falls on us and we bend like bushes. The shell bursts in the air in front of us, deafening and blinding, and buries us under a horribly sibilant mountain of dark smoke. A climbing soldier has churned the air with his arms and disappeared, hurled into some hole. Shouts have gone up and fallen again like rubbish. While we are looking, through the great black veil that the wind tears from the ground and dismisses into the sky, at the bearers who are putting down a stretcher, running to the place of the explosion and picking up something inert--I recall the unforgettable scene when my brother-in-arms, Poterloo, whose heart was so full of hope, vanished with his arms outstretched in the flame of a shell.
We arrive at last on the summit, which is marked as with a signal by a wounded and frightful man. He is upright in the wind, shaken but upright, enrooted there. In his uplifted and wind-tossed cape we see a yelling and convulsive face. We pass by him, and he is like a sort of screaming tree.
* * * * * *
We have arrived at our old first line, the one from which we set off for the attack. We sit down on a firing-step with our backs to the holes cut for our exodus at the last minute by the sappers. Euterpe, the cyclist, passes and gives us good-day. Then he turns in his tracks and draws from the cuff of his coat-sleeve an envelope, whose protruding edge had conferred a white stripe on him.
"It's you, isn't it," be says to me, "that takes Biquet's letters that's dead?"--"Yes."--" Here's a returned one; the address has hopped it."
The envelope was exposed, no doubt, to rain on the top of a packet, and the address is no longer legible among the violet mottlings on the dried and frayed paper. Alone there survives in a corner the address of the sender. I pull the letter out gently--"My dear mother"--Ah, I remember! Biquet, now lying in the open air in the very trench where we are halted, wrote that letter not long ago in our quarters at Gauchin-l'Abbé, one flaming and splendid afternoon, in reply to a letter from his mother, whose fears for him had proved groundless and made him laugh--"You think I'm in the cold and rain and danger. Not at all; on the contrary, all that's finished. It's hot, we're sweating, and we've nothing to do only to stroll about in the sunshine. I laughed to read your letter----''
I return to the frail and damaged envelope the letter which, if chance had not averted this new irony, would have been read by the old peasant woman at the moment when the body of her son is a wet nothing in the cold and the storm, a nothing that trickles and flows like a dark spring on the wall of the trench.
Joseph has leaned his head backwards. His eyes close for a moment, his mouth half opens, and his breathing is fitful.
"Courage!" I say to him, and he opens his eyes again.
"Ah!" he replies, "it isn't to me you should say that. Look at those chaps, there, they're going back yonder, and you too, you're going back. It all has to go on for you others. Ah, one must be really strong to go on, to go on!"