Part 5 out of 7
"Halt!" cries a sentry--"Good Lord!" he stammers as he sees the four
poilus. "Where the--where are you coming from, that way?"
They laugh, jump about like puppets, full-blooded and streaming with
perspiration, blacker than ever in the night. The German officer's
helmet is gleaming in the hands of Pepin. "Oh, Christ!"
murmurs the sentry, with gaping mouth, "but what's been up?"
An exuberant reaction excites and bewitches them. All talk at once.
In haste and confusion they act again the drama which hardly yet
they realize is over. They had gone wrong when they left the sleepy
sentry and had taken the International Trench, of which a part is
ours and another part German. Between the French and German sections
there is no barricade or division. There is merely a sort of neutral
zone, at the two ends of which sentries watch ceaselessly. No doubt
the German watcher was not at his post, or likely he hid himself
when he saw the four shadows, or perhaps be doubled back and had not
time to bring up reinforcements. Or perhaps, too, the German officer
had strayed too far ahead in the neutral zone. In short, one
understands what happened without understanding it.
"The funny part of it," says Pepin, "is that we knew all
about that, and never thought to be careful about it when we set
"We were looking for matches," says Volpatte.
"And we've got some!" cries Pepin. "You've not lost the
flamers, old broomstick?"
"No damned fear!" says Blaire; "Boche matches are better stuff than
ours. Besides, they're all we've got to light our fire! Lose my box?
Let any one try to pinch it off me!"
"We're behind time--the soup-water'll be freezing. Hurry up, so far.
Afterwards there'll be a good yarn to tell in the sewer where the
boys are, about what we did to the Boches."
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
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
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
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.
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 Andre 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
"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 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
"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 Pepin, 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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"Trench must be cleared--Gee up!" We leave this most infamous corner
of the battlefield where even the dead are torn, wounded, and slain
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
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
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.
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
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
"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 Andre, 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 Andre 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
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
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 Pepin
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
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 Andre's killed he's the
"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
"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
This so logical theory finds favor, and now it is known that Mesnil
Andre 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
"What then?" says Pepin, 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
"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
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
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 Andre 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
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
"It's him," says Paradis.
Ah! It was a corpse, a corpse sitting in a hole, and horribly
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
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,
"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
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
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
"'Ah, damn it,' said the captain, 'take it away from my nose, it
"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
"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
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,
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 Pepin.
"No," says Bertrand, "it's forbidden to take volunteers for these
"Be damned to you!" growls Pepin.
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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,
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
With that fortunate deed the squad reaches the trench.
Pepin 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 Pepin 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
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
"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
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
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,
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
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."