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From Under Fire: The Story of a Squad, by Henri Barbusse, 1917



THE next day, Barque began to address us, and said: "I'll just explain to you what it is. There are some i----"

A ferocious whistle cut his explanation off short, on the syllable. We were in a railway station, on a platform. A night alarm had torn us from our sleep in the village and we had marched here. The rest was over; our sector was being changed; they were throwing us somewhere else. We had disappeared from Gauchin under cover of darkness without seeing either the place or the people, without bidding them good-by even in a look, without bringing away a last impression.

A locomotive was shunting, near enough to elbow us, and screaming full-lunged. I saw Barque's mouth, stoppered by the clamor of our huge neighbor, pronounce an oath, and I saw the other faces grimacing in deafened impotence, faces helmeted and chin-strapped, for we were sentries in the station.

"After you!" yelled Barque furiously, addressing the white-plumed whistle. But the terrible mechanism continued more imperiously than ever to drive his words back in his throat. When it ceased, and only its echo rang in our ears, the thread of the discourse was broken for ever, and Barque contented himself with the brief conclusion, "Oui."

Then we looked around us. We were lost in a sort of town. Interminable strings of trucks, trains of forty to sixty carriages, were taking shape like rows of dark-fronted houses, low built, all alike, and divided by alleys. Before us, alongside the collection of moving houses, was the main line, the limitless street where the white rails disappeared at both ends, swallowed up in distance. Sections of trains and complete trains were staggering in great horizontal columns, leaving their places, then taking them again. On every side one heard the regular hammering on the armored ground, piercing whistles, the ringing of warning bells, the solid metallic crash of the colossal cubes telescoping their steel stumps, with the counter-blows of chains and the rattle of the long carcases' vertebrae. On the ground floor of the building that arises in the middle of the station like a town ball, the hurried bell of telegraph and telephone was at work, punctuated by vocal noises. All about on the dusty ground were the goods sheds, the low stores through whose doors one could dimly see the stacked interiors--the pointsmen's cabins, the bristling switches, the hydrants, the latticed iron posts whose wires ruled the sky like music-paper; here and there the signals, and rising naked over this flat and gloomy city, two steam cranes, like steeples.

Farther away, on waste ground and vacant sites in the environs of the labyrinth of platforms and buildings, military carts and lorries were standing idle, and rows of horses, drawn out farther than one could see.

"Talk about the job this is going to be!"--"A whole army corps beginning to entrain this evening!"--"Tiens, they're coming now!"

A cloud which overspread a noisy vibration of wheels and the rumble of horses' hoofs was coming near and getting bigger in the approach to the station formed by converging buildings.

"There are already some guns on board." On some flat trucks down there, between two long pyramidal dumps of chests, we saw indeed the outline of wheels, and some slender muzzles. Ammunition wagons, guns and wheels were streaked and blotched with yellow, brown, and green.

"They're camouflés. [note 1] Down there, there are even horses painted. Look! spot that one, there, with the big feet as if he had trousers on. Well, he was white, and they've slapped some paint on to change his color."

The horse in question was standing apart from the others, which seemed to mistrust it, and displayed a grayish yellow tone, obviously with intent to deceive. "Poor devil!" said Tulacque.

"You see," said Paradis, "we not only take 'em to get killed, but mess them about first!"

"It's for their good, any way!"

"Eh oui, and us too, it's for our good!"

Towards evening soldiers arrived. From all sides they flowed towards the station. Deep-voiced non-coms. ran in front of the files. They were stemming the tide of men and massing them along the barriers or in railed squares--pretty well everywhere. The men piled their arms, dropped their knapsacks, and not being free to go out, waited, buried side by side in shadow.

The arrivals followed each other in volume that grew as the twilight deepened. Along with the troops, the motors flowed up, and soon there was an unbroken roar. Limousines glided through an enormous sea of lorries, little, middling, and big. All these cleared aside, wedged themselves in, subsided in their appointed places. A vast hum of voices and mingled noises arose from the ocean of men and vehicles that beat upon the approaches to the station and began in places to filter through.

"That's nothing yet," said Cocon, The Man of Figures. "At Army Corps Headquarters alone there are thirty officers' motors; and you don't know," he added, "how many trains of fifty trucks it takes to entrain all the Corpsmen and all the box of tricks--except, of course, the lorries, that'll join the new sector on their feet? Don't guess, fiat-face. It takes ninety."

"Great Scott! And there are thirty-three Corps?"

"There are thirty-nine, lousy one!"

The turmoil increases; the station becomes still more populous. As far as the eye can make out a shape or the ghost of a shape, there is a hurly-burly of movement as lively as a panic. All the hierarchy of the non-coms. expand themselves and go into action, pass and repass like meteors, wave their bright-striped arms, and multiply the commands and counter-commands that are carried by the worming orderlies and cyclists, the former tardy, the latter maneuvering in quick dashes, like fish in water.

Here now is evening, definitely. The blots made by the uniforms of the poilus grouped about the hillocks of rifles become indistinct, and blend with the ground; and then their mass is betrayed only by the glow of pipes and cigarettes. In some places on the edge of the clusters, the little bright points festoon the gloom like illuminated streamers in a merry-making street.

Over this confused and heaving expanse an amalgam of voices rises like the sea breaking on the shore: and above this unending murmur, renewed commands, shouts, the din of a shot load or of one transferred, the crash of steam-hammers redoubling their dull endeavors, and the roaring of boilers.

In the immense obscurity, surcharged with men and with all things, lights begin everywhere to appear. These are the flash-lamps of officers and detachment leaders, and the cyclists' acetylene lamps, whose intensely white points zigzag hither and thither and reveal an outer zone of pallid resurrection.

An acetylene searchlight blazes blindingly out and depicts a dome of daylight. Other beams pierce and rend the universal gray.

Then does the station assume a fantastic air. Mysterious shapes spring up and adhere to the sky's dark blue. Mountains come into view, rough-modeled, and vast as the ruins of a town. One can see the beginning of unending rows of objects, finally plunged in night. One guesses what the great bulks may be whose outermost outlines flash forth from a black abyss of the unknown.

On our left, detachments of cavalry and infantry move ever forward like a ponderous flood. We hear the diffused obscurity of voices. We see some ranks delineated by a flash of phosphorescent light or a ruddy glimmering, and we listen to long-drawn trails of noise.

Up the gangways of the vans whose gray trunks and black mouths one sees by the dancing and smoking flame of torches, artillerymen are leading horses. There are appeals and shouts, a frantic trampling of conflict, and the angry kicking of some restive animal--insulted by its guide--against the panels of the van where he is cloistered.

Not far away, they are putting wagons on to railway trucks. Swarming humanity surrounds a hill of trusses of fodder. A scattered multitude furiously attacks great strata of bales.

"That's three hours we've been on our pins," sighs Paradis.

"And those, there, what are they?" In some snatches of light we see a group of goblins, surrounded by glowworms and carrying strange instruments, come out and then disappear.

"That's the searchlight section," says Cocon.

"You've got your considering cap on, camarade; what's it about?"

"There are four Divisions, at present, in an Army Corps," replies Cocon; "the number changes, sometimes it is three, sometimes five. Just now, it's four. And each of our Divisions," continues the mathematical one, whom our squad glories in owning, "includes three R.I.-- regiments of infantry; two B.C.P.--battalions of chasseurs pied; one R.T.I.--regiment of territorial infantry--without counting the special regiments, Artillery, Engineers, Transport, etc., and not counting either Headquarters of the D.I. and the departments not brigaded but attached directly to the D.I. A regiment of the line of three battalions occupies four trains, one for H.Q., the machine-gun company, and the C.H.R. (compagnie hors rang [note 2] and one to each battalion. All the troops won't entrain here. They'll entrain in echelons along the line according to the position of the quarters and the period of reliefs."

"I'm tired," says Tulacque. "We don't get enough solids to eat, mark you. We stand up because it's the fashion, but we've no longer either force or freshness."

"I've been getting information," Cocon goes on; "the troops--the real troops--will only entrain as from midnight. They are still mustered here and there in the villages ten kilometers round about. All the departments of the Army Corps will first set off, and the E.N.E.--éléments non endivisionnés," Cocon obligingly explains, "that is, attached directly to the A.C. Among the E.N.E. you won't see the Balloon Department nor the Squadron--they're too big goods, and they navigate on their own, with their staff and officers and hospitals. The chasseurs regiment is another of these E.N.E."

"There's no regiment of chasseurs," says Barque, thoughtlessly, "it's battalions. One says 'such and such a battalion of chasseurs.'"

We can see Cocon shrugging his shoulders in the shadows, and his glasses cast a scornful gleam. "Think so, duck-neb? Then I'll tell you, since you're so clever, there are two--foot chasseurs and horse chasseurs."

"Gad! I forgot the horsemen," says Barque.

"Only them!" Cocon said. "In the E.N.E. of the Army Corps, there's the Corps Artillery, that is to say, the central artillery that's additional to that of the divisions. It includes the H.A.--heavy artillery; the T.A.--trench artillery; the A.D.--artillery depot, the armored cars, the anti-aircraft batteries--do I know, or don't I? There's the Engineers; the Military Police--to wit, the service of cops on foot and slops on horseback; the Medical Department; the Veterinary ditto; a squadron of the Draught Corps; a Territorial regiment for the guards and fatigues at H.Q.--Headquarters; the Service de l'lntendance, [note 3] and the supply column. There's also the drove of cattle, the Remount Depot, the Motor Department--talk about the swarm of soft jobs I could tell you about in an hour if I wanted to!--the Paymaster that controls the pay-offices and the Post, the Council of War, the Telegraphists, and all the electrical lot. All those have chiefs, commandants, sections and sub-sections, and they're rotten with clerks and orderlies of sorts, and all the bally box of tricks. You can see from here the sort of job the C.O. of a Corp's got!"

At this moment we were surrounded by a party of soldiers carrying boxes in addition to their equipment, and parcels tied up in paper that they bore reluctantly and anon placed on the ground, puffing.

"Those are the Staff secretaries. They are a part of the H.Q.--Headquarters--that is to say, a sort of General's suite. When they're flitting, they lug about their chests of records, their tables, their registers, and all the dirty oddments they need for their writing. Tiens! see that, there; it's a typewriter those two are carrying, the old papa and the little sausage, with a rifle threaded through the parcel. They're in three offices, and there's also the dispatch-riders' section, the Chancellerie, the A.C.T.S.--Army Corps Topographical Section--that distributes maps to the Divisions, and makes maps and plans from the aviators and the observers and the prisoners. It's the officers of all the departments who, under the orders of two colonels, form the Staff of the Army Corps. But the H.Q., properly so called, which also includes orderlies, cooks, storekeepers, workpeople, electricians, police, and the horsemen of the Escort, is bossed by a commandant."

At this moment we receive collectively a tremendous bump. "Hey, look out! Out of the way!" cries a man, by way of apology, who is being assisted by several others to push a cart towards the wagons. The work is hard, for the ground slopes up, and so soon as they cease to buttress themselves against the cart and adhere to the wheels, it slips back. The sullen men crush themselves against it in the depth of the gloom, grinding their teeth and growling, as though they fell upon some monster.

Barque, all the while rubbing his back, questions one of the frantic gang: "Think you're going to do it, old duckfoot?"

"Nom de Dieu!" roars he, engrossed in his job, "mind these setts! You're going to wreck the show!" With a sudden movement he jostles Barque again, and this time turns round on him: "What are you doing there, dung-guts, numskull?"

"Non, it can't be that you're drunk?" Barque retorts. "'What am I doing here?' It's good, that! Tell me, you lousy gang, wouldn't you like to do it too!"

"Out of the way!" cries a new voice, which precedes some men doubled up under burdens incongruous, but apparently overwhelming.

One can no longer remain anywhere. Everywhere we are in the way. We go forward, we scatter, we retire in the turmoil.

"In addition, I tell you," continues Cocon, tranquil as a scientist, "there are the Divisions, each organized pretty much like an Army Corps----"

"Oui, we know it; miss the deal!"

"He makes a fine to-do about it all, that mountebank in the horse-box on casters. What a mother-in-law he'd make!"

"I'll bet that's the Major's wrong-headed horse, the one that the vet said was a calf in process of becoming a cow."

"It's well organized, all the same, all that, no doubt about it," says Lamuse admiringly, forced back by a wave of artillerymen carrying boxes.

"That's true," Marthereau admits; "to get all this lot on the way, you've not got to be a lot of turnip-heads nor a lot of custards--Bon Dieu, look where you're putting your damned boots, you black-livered beast!"

"Talk about a flitting! When I went to live at Marcoussis with my family, there was less fuss than this. But then I'm not built that way myself."

We are silent; and then we hear Cocon saying, "For the whole French Army that holds the lines to go by-- I'm not speaking of those who are fixed up at the rear, where there are twice as many men again, and services like the ambulance that cost nine million francs and can clear you seven thousand cases a day--to see them go by in trains of sixty coaches each, following each other without stopping, at intervals of a quarter of an hour, it would take forty days and forty nights."

"Ah!" they say. It is too much effort for their imagination; they lose interest and sicken of the magnitude of these figures. They yawn, and with watering eyes they follow, in the confusion of haste and shouts and smoke, of roars and gleams and flashes, the terrible line of the armored train that moves in the distance, with fire in the sky behind it.


[note 1:] The word is likely to become of international usage. It stands for the use of paint in blotches of different colors, and of branches and other things to disguise almost any object that may be visible to hostile aircraft.--Tr.

[note 2:] Non-combatant.--Tr.

[note 3:] Akin to the British A.S.C.--Tr.

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