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WE are in the flat country, a vast mistiness, but above it is dark blue. The end of the night is marked by a little falling snow which powders our shoulders and the folds in our sleeves. We are marching in fours, hooded. We seem in the turbid twilight to be the wandering survivors of one Northern district who are trekking to another.
We have followed a road and have crossed the ruins of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire. We have had confused glimpses of its whitish heaps of houses and the dim spider-webs of its suspended roofs. The village is so long that although full night buried us in it we saw its last buildings beginning to pale in the frost of dawn. Through the grating of a cellar on the edge of this petrified ocean's waves, we made out the fire kept going by the custodians of the dead town. We have paddled in swampy fields, lost ourselves in silent places where the mud seized us by the feet, we have dubiously regained our balance and our bearings again on another road, the one which leads from Carency to Souchez. The tall bordering poplars are shivered and their trunks mangled; in one place the road is an enormous colonnade of trees destroyed. Then, marching with us on both sides, we see through the shadows ghostly dwarfs of trees, wide-cloven like spreading palms; botched and jumbled into round blocks or long strips; doubled upon themselves, as if they knelt. From time to time our march is disordered and bustled by the yielding of a swamp. The road becomes a marsh which we cross on our heels, while our feet make the sound of sculling. Planks have been laid in it here and there. Where they have so far sunk in the mud as to proffer their edges to us we slip on them. Sometimes there is enough water to float them, and then under the weight of a man they splash and go under, and the man stumbles or falls, with frenzied imprecations.
It must be five o'clock. The stark and affrighting scene unfolds itself to our eyes, but it is still encircled by a great fantastic ring of mist and of darkness. We go on and on without pause, and come to a place where we can make out a dark hillock, at the foot of which there seems to be some lively movement of human beings.
"Advance by twos," says the leader of the detachment. "Let each team of two take alternately a plank and a hurdle." We load ourselves up. One of the two in each couple assumes the rifle of his partner as well as his own. The other with difficulty shifts and pulls out from the pile a long plank, muddy and slippery, which weighs full eighty pounds, or a hurdle of leafy branches as big as a door, which he can only just keep on his back as he bends forward with his hands aloft and grips its edges.
We resume our march, very slowly and very ponderously, scattered over the now graying road, with complaints and heavy curses which the effort strangles in our throats. After about a hundred yards, the two men of each team exchange loads, so that after two hundred yards, in spite of the bitter blenching breeze of early morning, all but the non-coms. are running with sweat.
Suddenly a vivid star expands down yonder in the uncertain direction that we are taking--a rocket. Widely it lights a part of the sky with its milky nimbus, blots out the stars, and then falls gracefully, fairy-like.
There is a swift light opposite us over there; a flash and a detonation. It is a shell! By the flat reflection that the explosion instantaneously spreads over the lower sky we see a ridge clearly outlined in front of us from east to west, perhaps half a mile away.
That ridge is ours--so much of it as we can see from here and up to the top of it, where our troops are. On the other slope, a hundred yards from our first line, is the first German line. The shell fell on the summit, in our lines; it is the others who are firing. Another shell another and yet another plant trees of faintly violet light on the top of the rise, and each of them dully illumines the whole of the horizon.
Soon there is a sparkling of brilliant stars and a sudden jungle of fiery plumes on the hill; and a fairy mirage of blue and white hangs lightly before our eyes in the full gulf of night.
Those among us who must devote the whole buttressed power of their arms and legs to prevent their greasy loads from sliding off their backs and to prevent themselves from sliding to the ground, these neither see nor hear anything. The others, sniffing and shivering with cold, wiping their noses with limp and sodden handkerchiefs, watch and remark, cursing the obstacles in the way with fragments of profanity. "It's like watching fireworks," they say.
And to complete the illusion of a great operatic scene, fairy-like but sinister, before which our bent and black party crawls and splashes, behold a red star, and then a green; then a sheaf of red fire, very much tardier. In our ranks, as the available half of our pairs of eyes watch the display, we cannot help murmuring in idle tones of popular admiration, "Ah, a red one!"--"Look, a green one!" It is the Germans who are sending up signals, and our men as well who are asking for artillery support.
Our road turns and climbs again as the day at last decides to appear. Everything looks dirty. A layer of stickiness, pearl-gray and white, covers the road, and around it the real world makes a mournful appearance. Behind us we leave ruined Souchez, whose houses are only flat heaps of rubbish and her trees but humps of bramble-like slivers. We plunge into a hole on our left, the entrance to the communication trench. We let our loads fall in a circular enclosure prepared for them, and both hot and frozen we settled in the trench and wait our hands abraded, wet, and stiff with cramp.
Buried in our holes up to the chin, our chests heaving against the solid bulk of the ground that protects us, we watch the dazzling and deepening drama develop. The bombardment is redoubled. The trees of light on the ridge have melted into hazy parachutes in the pallor of dawn, sickly heads of Medusae with points of fire; then, more sharply defined as the day expands, they become bunches of smoke-feathers, ostrich feathers white and gray, which come suddenly to life on the jumbled and melancholy soil of Hill 119, five or six hundred yards in front of us, and then slowly fade away. They are truly the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud, circling as one and thundering together. On the flank of the bill we see a party of men running to earth. One by one they disappear, swallowed up in the adjoining anthills.
Now, one can better make out the form of our "guests." At each shot a tuft of sulphurous white underlined in black forms sixty yards up in the air, unfolds and mottles itself, and we catch in the explosion the whistling of the charge of bullets that the yellow cloud hurls angrily to the ground. It bursts in sixfold squalls, one after another--bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. It is the 77 mm. gun.
We disdain the 77 mm. shrapnel, in spite of the fact that Blesbois was killed by one of them three days ago. They nearly always burst too high. Barque explains it to us, although we know it well: "One's chamber-pot protects one's nut well enough against the bullets. So they can destroy your shoulder and damn well knock you down, but they don't spread you about. Naturally, you've got to be fly, all the same. Got to be careful you don't lift your neb in the air as long as they're buzzing about, nor put your hand out to see if it's raining. Now, our 75 mm.----"
"There aren't only the 77's," Mesnil André broke in, "there's all damned sorts. Spell those out for me----" Those are shrill and cutting whistles, trembling or rattling; and clouds of all shapes gather on the slopes yonder whose vastness shows through them, slopes where our men are in the depths of the dug-outs. Gigantic plumes of faint fire mingle with huge tassels of steam, tufts that throw out straight filaments, smoky feathers that expand as they fall--quite white or greenish-gray, black or copper with gleams of gold, or as if blotched with ink.
The two last explosions are quite near. Above the battered ground they take shape like vast balls of black and tawny dust; and as they deploy and leisurely depart at the wind's will, having finished their task, they have the outline of fabled dragons.
Our line of faces on the level of the ground turns that way, and we follow them with our eyes from the bottom of the trench in the middle of this country peopled by blazing and ferocious apparitions, these fields that the sky has crushed.
"Those, they're the 150 mm. howitzers."--"They're the 210's, calf-head."--"There go the regular guns, too; the hogs! Look at that one!" It was a shell that burst on the ground and threw up earth and debris in a fan-shaped cloud of darkness. Across the cloven land it looked like the frightful spitting of some volcano, piled up in the bowels of the earth.
A diabolical uproar surrounds us. We are conscious of a sustained crescendo, an incessant multiplication of the universal frenzy. A hurricane of hoarse and hollow banging, of raging clamor, of piercing and beast-like screams, fastens furiously with tatters of smoke upon the earth where we are buried up to our necks, and the wind of the shells seems to set it heaving and pitching.
"Look at that," bawls Barque, "and me that said they were short of munitions!"
"Oh, la, la! We know all about that! That and the other fudge the newspapers squirt all over us!"
A dull crackle makes itself audible amidst the babel of noise. That slow rattle is of all the sounds of war the one that most quickens the heart.
"The coffee-mill! [note 1] One of ours, listen. The shots come regularly, while the Boches' haven't got the same length of time between the shots; they go crack--crack-crack-crack--crack-crack--crack----"
"Don't cod yourself, crack-pate; it isn't an unsewing-machine at all; it's a motor-cycle on the road to 31 dugout, away yonder."
"Well, I think it's a chap up aloft there, having a look round from his broomstick," chuckles Pépin, as he raises his nose and sweeps the firmament in search of an aeroplane.
A discussion arises, but one cannot say what the noise is, and that's all. One tries in vain to become familiar with all those diverse disturbances. It even happened the other day in the wood that a whole section mistook for the hoarse howl of a shell the first notes of a neighboring mule as he began his whinnying bray.
"I say, there's a good show of sausages in the air this morning," says Lamuse. Lifting our eyes, we count them.
"There are eight sausages on our side and eight on the Boches'," says Cocon, who has already counted them.
There are, in fact, at regular intervals along the horizon, opposite the distance-dwindled group of captive enemy balloons, the eight long hovering eyes of the army, buoyant and sensitive, and joined to the various headquarters by living threads.
'They see us as we see them. how the devil can one escape from that row of God Almighties up there?"
There's our reply!
Suddenly, behind our backs, there bursts the sharp and deafening stridor of the 75's. Their increasing crackling thunder arouses and elates us. We shout with our guns, and look at each other without hearing our shouts--except for the curiously piercing voice that comes from Barque's great mouth--amid the rolling of that fantastic drum whose every note is the report of a cannon.
Then we turn our eyes ahead and outstretch our necks, and on the top of the hill we see the still higher silhouette of a row of black infernal trees whose terrible roots are striking down into the invisible slope where the enemy cowers.
While the "75" battery continues its barking a hundred yards behind us--the sharp anvil-blows of a huge hammer, followed by a dizzy scream of force and fury--a gigantic gurgling dominates the devilish oratorio; that, also, is coming from our side. "It's a gran'pa, that one!"
The shell cleaves the air at perhaps a thousand yards above us; the voice of its gun covers all as with a pavilion of resonance. The sound of its travel is sluggish, and one divines a projectile bigger-boweled, more enormous than the others. We can hear it passing and declining in front with the ponderous and increasing vibration of a train that enters a station under brakes; then, its heavy whine sounds fainter. We watch the hill opposite. and after several seconds it is covered by a salmon-pink cloud that the wind spreads over one-half of the horizon. "It's a 220 mm."
"One can see them," declares Volpatte, "those shells, when they come out of the gun. If you're in the right line, you can even see them a good long away from the gun."
Another follows: "There! Look, look! Did you see that one? You didn't look quick enough, you missed it. Get a move on! Look, another! Did you see it?"
"I did not see it."--"Ass! Got to be a bedstead for you to see it! Look, quick, that one, there! Did you see it, unlucky good-for-nothing?"--" I saw it; is that all?"
Some have made out a small black object, slender and pointed as a blackbird with folded wings, pricking a wide curve down from the zenith.
"That weighs 240 lb., that one, my old bug," says Volpatte proudly, "and when that drops on a funk-hole it kills everybody inside it. Those that aren't picked off by the explosion are struck dead by the wind of it, or they're gas-poisoned before they can say 'ouf!'"
"The 270 mm. shell can be seen very well, too--talk about a bit of iron--when the howitzer sends it up--allez, off you go!"
"And the 155 Rimailho, too; but you can't see that one because it goes too straight and too far; the more you look for it the more it vanishes before your eyes."
In a stench of sulphur amid black powder, of burned stuffs and calcined earth which roams in sheets about the country, all the menagerie is let loose and gives battle. Bellowings, roarings, growlings, strange and savage; feline caterwaulings that fiercely rend your ears and search your belly, or the long-drawn piercing hoot like the siren of a ship in distress. At times, even, something like shouts cross each other in the air-currents, with curious variation of tone that make the sound human. The country is bodily lifted in places and falls back again. From one end of the horizon to the other it seems to us that the earth itself is raging with storm and tempest.
And the greatest guns, far away and still farther, diffuse growls much subdued and smothered, but you know the strength of them by the displacement of air which comes and raps you on the ear.
Now, behold a heavy mass of woolly green which expands and hovers over the bombarded region and draws out in every direction. This touch of strangely incongruous color in the picture summons attention, and all we encaged prisoners turn our faces towards the hideous outcrop.
"Gas, probably. Let's have our masks ready."--"The hogs!"
"They're unfair tricks, those," says Farfadet.
"They're what?" asks Barque jeeringly.
"Why, yes, they're dirty dodges, those gases----"
"You make me tired," retorts Barque, "with your fair ways and your unfair ways. When you've seen men squashed, cut in two, or divided from top to bottom, blown into showers by an ordinary shell, bellies turned inside out and scattered anyhow, skulls forced bodily into the chest as if by a blow with a club, and in place of the head a bit of neck, oozing currant jam of brains all over the chest and back--you've seen that and yet you can say 'There are clean ways!'"
"Doesn't alter the fact that the shell is allowed, it's recognized----"
"Ah, la, la! I'll tell you what--you make me blubber just as much as you make me laugh!" And he turns his back.
"Hey, look out, boys!"
We strain our eyes, and one of us has thrown himself flat on the ground; others look instinctively and frowning towards the shelter that we have not time to reach. and during these two seconds each one bends his head. It is a grating noise as of huge scissors which comes near and nearer to us, and ends at last with a ringing crash of unloaded iron.
That ore fell not far from us--two hundred yards away, perhaps. We crouch in the bottom of the trench and remain doubled up while the place where we are is lashed by a shower of little fragments.
"Don't want this in my tummy, even from that distance," says Paradis, extracting from the earth of the trench wall a morsel that has just lodged there. It is like a bit of coke, bristling with edged and pointed facets, and he dances it in his hand so as not to burn himself.
There is a hissing noise. Paradis sharply bows his head and we follow suit. "The fuse!--it has gone over." The shrapnel fuse goes up and then comes down vertically; but that of the percussion shell detaches itself from the broken mass after the explosion and usually abides buried at the point of contact, but at other times it flies off at random like a big red-hot pebble. One must beware of it. It may hurl itself on you a very long time after the detonation and by incredible paths, passing over the embankment and plunging into the cavities.
"Nothing so piggish as a fuse. It happened to me once--"
"There's worse things," broke in Bags of the 11th, "The Austrian shells, the 130's and the 74's. I'm afraid of them. They're nickel-plated, they say, but what I do know, seeing I've been there, is they come so quick you can't do anything to dodge them. You no sooner hear em snoring than they burst on you.
"The German 105's, neither, you haven't hardly the time to flatten yourself. I once got the gunners to tell me all about them."
"I tell you, the shells from the naval guns, you haven't the time to hear 'em. Got to pack yourself up before they come."
"And there's that new shell, a dirty devil, that breaks wind after it's dodged into the earth and out of it again two or three times in the space of six yards. When I know there's one of them about, I want to go round the corner. I remember one time----"
"That's all nothing, my lads," said the new sergeant, stopping on his way past, "you ought to see what they chucked us at Verdun, where I've come from. Nothing but whoppers, 380's and 420's and 244's. When you've been shelled down there you know all about it--the woods are sliced down like cornfields, the dug-outs marked and burst in even when they've three thicknesses of beams, all the road-crossings sprinkled, the roads blown into the air and changed into long heaps of smashed convoys and wrecked guns, corpses twisted together as though shoveled up. You could see thirty chaps laid out by one shot at the cross-roads; you could see fellows whirling around as they went up, always about fifteen yards, and bits of trousers caught and stuck on the tops of the trees that were left. You could see one of these 380's go into a house at Verdun by the roof, bore through two or three floors, and burst at the bottom, and all the damn lot's got to go aloft; and in the fields whole battalions would scatter and lie flat under the shower like poor little defenseless rabbits. At every step on the ground in the fields you'd got lumps as thick as your arm and as wide as that, and it'd take four poilus to lift the lump of iron. The fields looked as if they were full of rocks. And that went on without a halt for months on end, months on end!" the sergeant repeated as he passed on, no doubt to tell again the story of his souvenirs somewhere else.
"Look, look, corporal, those chaps over there--are they soft in the head?" On the bombarded position we saw dots of human beings emerge hurriedly and run towards the explosions.
"They're gunners," said Bertrand; "as soon as a shell's burst they sprint and rummage for the fuse is the hole, for the position of the fuse gives the direction of its battery, you see, by the way it's dug itself in; and as for the distance, you've only got to read it--it's shown on the range-figures cut on the time-fuse which is set just before firing."
"No matter--they're off their onions to go out under such shelling."
"Gunners, my boy," says a man of another company who was strolling in the trench, "are either quite good or quite bad. Either they're trumps or they're trash. I tell you----"
"That's true of all privates, what you're saying."
"Possibly; but I'm not talking to you about all privates; I'm talking to you about gunners, and I tell you too that--"
"Hey, my lads! Better find a hole to dump yourselves in, before you get one on the snitch!"
The strolling stranger carried his story away, and Cocon, who was in a perverse mood, declared: "We can be doing our hair in the dug-out, seeing it's rather boring outside."
"Look, they're sending torpedoes over there!" said Paradis, pointing. Torpedoes go straight up, or very nearly so, like larks, fluttering and rustling; then they stop, hesitate, and come straight down again, heralding their fall in its last seconds by a "baby-cry" that we know well. From here, the inhabitants of the ridge seem like invisible players, lined up for a game with a ball.
"In the Argonne," says Lamuse, "my brother says in a letter that they get turtle-doves, as he calls them. They're big heavy things, fired off very close. They come in cooing, really they do, he says, and when they break wind they don't half make a shindy, he says."
"There's nothing worse than the mortar-toad, that seems to chase after you and jump over the top of you, and it bursts in the very trench, just scraping over the bank."
"Tiens, tiens, did you hear it?" A whistling was approaching us when suddenly it ceased. The contrivance has not burst. "It's a shell that cried off," Paradis asserts. And we strain our ears for the satisfaction of hearing--or of not hearing--others.
Lamuse says: "All the fields and the roads and the villages about here, they're covered with dud shells of all sizes--ours as well, to say truth. The ground must be full of 'em, that you can't see. I wonder how they'll go on, later, when the time comes to say, 'That's enough of it, let's start work again.'"
And all the time, in a monotony of madness, the avalanche of fire and iron goes on; shrapnel with its whistling explosion and its overcharged heart of furious metal and the great percussion shells, whose thunder is that of the railway engine which crashes suddenly into a wall, the thunder of loaded rails or steel beams, toppling down a declivity. The air is now glutted and viewless, it is crossed and recrossed by heavy blasts, and the murder of the earth continues all around, deeply and more deeply, to the limit of completion.
There are even other guns which now join in---they are ours. Their report is like that of the 75's, but louder, and it has a prolonged and resounding echo, like thunder reverberating among mountains.
"They're the long 120's. They're on the edge of the wood half a mile away. Fine guns, old man, like gray-hounds. They're slender and fine-nosed, those guns---you want to call them 'Madame.' They're not like the 220's--they're all snout, like coal-scuttles, and spit their shells out from the bottom upwards. The 120's get there just the same, but among the teams of artillery they look like kids in bassinettes."
Conversation languishes; here and there are yawns. The dimensions and weight of this outbreak of the guns fatigue the mind. Our voices flounder in it and are drowned.
"I've never seen anything like this for a bombardment," shouts Barque.
"We always say that," replies Paradis.
"Just so," bawls Volpatte. "There's been talk of an attack lately; I should say this is the beginning of something."
The others say simply, "Ah!"
Volpatte displays an intention of snatching a wink of sleep. He settles himself on the ground with his back against one wall of the trench and his feet buttressed against the other wall.
We converse together on divers subjects. Biquet tells the story of a rat he has seen: "He was cheeky and comical, you know. I'd taken off my trotter-cases, and that rat, he chewed all the edge of the uppers into embroidery. Of course, I'd greased 'em."
Volpatte, who is now definitely out of action, moves and says, "I can't get to sleep for your gabbling."
"You can't make me believe, old fraud," says Marthereau, "that you can raise a single snore with a shindy like this all round you."
Volpatte replies with one.
* * * * * *
Fall in! March!
We are changing our spot. Where are they taking us to? We have no idea. The most we know is that we are in reserve, and that they may take us round to strengthen certain points in succession, or to clear the communication trenches, in which the regulation of passing troops is as complicated a job, if blocks and collisions are to be avoided, as it is of the trains in a busy station. It is impossible to make out the meaning of the immense maneuver in which the rolling of our regiment is only that of a little wheel, nor what is going on in all the huge area of the sector. But, lost in the network of deeps where we go and come without end, weary, harassed and stiff-jointed by prolonged halts, stupefied by noise and delay, poisoned by smoke, we make out that our artillery is becoming more and more active; the offensive seems to have changed places.
* * * * * *
Halt! A fire of intense and incredible fury was threshing the parapets of the trench where we were halted at the moment: "Fritz is going it strong; he's afraid of an attack, he's going dotty. Ah, isn't he letting fly!"
A heavy hail was pouring over us, hacking terribly at atmosphere and sky, scraping and skimming all the plain.
I looked through a loophole and saw a swift and strange vision. In front of us, a dozen yards away at most, there were motionless forms outstretched side by side--a row of mown-down soldiers--and the countless projectiles that hurtled from all sides were riddling this rank of the dead!
The bullets that flayed the soil in straight streaks amid raised slender stems of cloud were perforating and ripping the bodies so rigidly close to the ground, breaking the stiffened limbs, plunging into the wan and vacant faces. bursting and bespattering the liquefied eyes; and even did that file of corpses stir and budge out of line under the avalanche.
We could hear the blunt sound of the dizzy copper points as they pierced cloth and flesh, the sound of a furious stroke with a knife, the harsh blow of a stick upon clothing. Above us rushed jets of shrill whistling. with the declining and far more serious hum of ricochets. And we bent our heads under the enormous flight of noises and voices.
"Trench must be cleared--Gee up!" We leave this most infamous corner of the battlefield where even the dead are torn, wounded, and slain anew.
We turn towards the right and towards the rear. The communication trench rises, and at the top of the gully we pass in front of a telephone station and a group of artillery officers and gunners. Here there is a further halt. We mark time, and hear the artillery observer shout his commands, which the telephonist buried beside him picks up and repeats: "First gun, same sight; two-tenths to left; three a minute!"
Some of us have risked our heads over the edge of the bank and have glimpsed for the space of the lightning's flash all the field of battle round which our company has uncertainly wandered since the morning. I saw a limitless gray plain, across whose width the wind seemed to be driving faint and thin waves of dust, pierced in places by a more pointed billow of smoke.
Where the sun and the clouds trail patches of black and of white, the immense space sparkles dully from point to point where our batteries are firing, and I saw it one moment entirely spangled with short-lived flashes. Another minute, part of the field grew dark under a steamy and whitish film, a sort of hurricane of snow.
Afar, on the evil, endless, and half-ruined fields, caverned like cemeteries, we see the slender skeleton of a church, like a bit of torn paper; and from one margin of the picture to the other, dim rows of vertical marks, close together and underlined, like the straight strokes of a written page--these are the roads and their trees. Delicate meandering lines streak the plain backward and forward and rule it in squares, and these windings are stippled with men.
We can make out some fragments of lines made up of these human points who have emerged from the hollowed streaks and are moving on the plain in the horrible face of the flying firmament. It is difficult to believe that each of those tiny spots is a living thing with fragile and quivering flesh, infinitely unarmed in space, full of deep thoughts, full of far memories and crowded pictures. One is fascinated by this scattered dust of men as small as the stars in the sky.
Poor unknowns, poor fellow-men, it is your turn to give battle. Another time it will be ours. Perhaps to-morrow it will be ours to feel the heavens burst over our heads or the earth open under our feet, to be assailed by the prodigious plague of projectiles, to be swept away by the blasts of a tornado a hundred thousand times stronger than the tornado.
They urge us into the rearward shelters. For our eyes the field of death vanishes. To our ears the thunder is deadened on the great anvil of the clouds. The sound of universal destruction is still. The squad surrounds itself with the familiar noises of life, and sinks into the fondling littleness of the dug-outs.
[note 1] Military slang for machine-gun--Tr.