Chapter 11 is going to have 5 or 6 sections, and focuses on Henri. I'm determined to pick up the pace a bit. The next installment will go up Thursday night.
Paris. August 19th, 1914. The 22nd Company was drawn up on the trampled grass between the Allee de Longchamp and the surrounding trees of the Bois de Boulogne, the large wooded park to the west of the Paris city walls which since mobilization had become both an encampment and training ground. Two weeks after being called up, the men were beginning to show signs of martial precision. The four sections of the company were drawn up into four neat columns, each column five men across. Within each column, three rows of five men formed one squad, with its corporal the leftmost man in the first row as Henri faced them. Two squads formed a demi-section, commanded by a sergeant, with that sergeant prowling up and down next to his two blocks of men, making sure that all was as proper as it could be. Two demi-sections formed a section: sixty riflemen and their officers.
The commanders of the four sections -- his three lieutenants and the first sergeant -- stood quietly behind Henri, awaiting his verdict on their efforts.
“Very good,” he said, turning to them. “Have them fall in by sections. We’ll march down to the hippodrome at the double.”
They hurried to give their commands and one by one the sections stepped out onto the Allee de Longchamp, wheeled to face southwest down the road, and set off at a brisk pace. The maneuver was done with a precision far more creditable than the state of their uniforms would have suggested. Because the 6th Battalion had been left behind as part of Paris’s defense force when the rest of the 104th Infantry Regiment and its reserve counterpart the 304th had been dispatched from Paris to fight in Lorraine, they had been put at the very bottom of every supply list. Although the men all carried rifles and wore their dark blue army overcoats (oppressive in the August heat) half of them were still wearing grey or brown civilian trousers rather than red uniform trousers. The fourth section had not yet been issued blue uniform kepis, some of the men going bareheaded while the rest wore an assortment of workers caps, straw boaters, and dark bowler hats. But they could march. Henri had drilled them every day, and their marching was beginning to be downright soldierly.
The fourth section fell in, and Henri himself fell in next to them, marching alongside Sergeant Leon Carpentier, the company’s First Sergeant and thus the one non-commissioned officer to command a section.
Sergeant Carpentier was one of the handful of regular army non-commissioned officers assigned to the reserve battalion when it was mobilized in order to give the officers and men who had been out of active service for anywhere from one to ten years a bit of polish and order.
“The section is doing much better,” Henri offered. “The drilling shows.”
The sergeant gave a shrug. Then after a moment’s pause he responded, “For two week’s drilling.”
Henri looked over at the sergeant, trying to read his expression, but his eyes were straight forward and his mouth nearly obscured by his heavy, walrus mustache. Carpentier did not seem a talkative man at the best of times, and he followed strictly the view that men, non-commisioned officers, and officers were three distinct classes between whom the less mixing there was the better. One the day the company had been moved into the entrenched camp, he had caught one of the privates using the NCOs’ toilets and had insisted that the entire company be drawn up so that he could bawl at them, “This is the army, and there will be order! Lavatories are for officers. Toilets are for NCOs. Latrines are for men. If any of you forget this again, you’ll be cleaning latrines for a week.”
It seemed likely enough, however, that his taciturnity was also a result of resentment that he had been assigned to the reserve battalion left behind in Paris when the rest of the regiments had shipped out to Lorraine and combat. He was in his mid forties, several years Henri’s senior, and unlike Henri had spent his entire adult life as a professional soldier. To be relegated to drilling reservists behind the lines on the first time that the opportunity of war presented itself in his twenty-five year army career must smart, but it would only be a sign of weakness to allow him to indulge in bitterness publically.
“When we reach the hippodrome, the men are to fall out and have lunch. Then have them clean their rifles and do weapons drill. I’ll be back with the lieutenants at two, and then we will spend the afternoon on combat drill.”
The sergeant nodded crisply. “Yes, sir.”
It was Sous-Lieutenant Vincent Dupuis who knew the 16th Arrondisement well, and who selected the little cafe on the Rue de Passy for their lunch. The son of a banker, he was also the only one who was not alarmed by the prices on the menu when they sat down. Aware that the other two lieutenants had far less money than Lieutenant Dupuis, Henri had suggested moving to a less exclusive nearby cafe, but Lieutenant Dupuis’s offers to treat them all had shamed the other three men into waving off the expense and insisting they didn’t mind at all.
The food was excellent, and so was -- as Lieutenant Dupuis had promised -- the house wine. Although the cafe was crowded they were, for perhaps the first time since Henri had returned to Paris, the only soldiers in the establishment. This seemed to make them an object of curiosity and pride for the other cafe patrons. Two elderly gentlemen in pale grey summer suits repeatedly stole glances in their direction as they discussed their newspapers, and a stately woman in a wide, lace-trimmed hat (with two younger women kept sedately in her wake) stopped to say, “We are all of thinking of you. We think of all our brave soldiers.”
“I wish those two young ones would do more than think of us, eh?” said Lieutenant Dupois once the three women had put up their sun parasols and set off down the street.
“There’s the difference a uniform makes,” replied Lieutenant Gilbert Morel, the commander of First Section now, but in civilian life a lycee math instructor. “Ah, but you’re worse off, Rejol,” he added, addressing Lieutenant Maurice Rejol, the commander of Second Section. “If you were in your usual uniform perhaps those little angels would slip into a confessional with you and tell you all the naughty things they’re up to.”
Lieutenant Rejol, who since his two years service as a reserve officer had become a priest, shrugged but did not reply. Since learning his fellow officer’s peacetime occupation Morel had kept up a steady stream of anti-clerical pinpricks, but while not otherwise taciturn, the priest doggedly refused to rise to the bait of these.
Coffee and sponge cakes arrived, and Henri decided it would be as well to change the topic.
“After lunch I want to start putting the men through fire and movement drill.”
There was a pause. All three lieutenants reached for their coffees, took a sip, and surveyed the others.
“Very well,” said Dupuis. “I’ll be the one to play the fool. What is fire and movement drill, sir?”
“Fire and movement is a tactical method of attack. I wrote a paper on it when I was an active duty officer, based on battlefield accounts from the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War, and it was well received at the École de Guerre. Did you really never practice it?”
Presenting the paper had been a minor triumph, and for a time he had expected to be posted for a full course at the École de Guerre, and then perhaps a chance of joining the General Staff. However, it was at just that time, in the wake of the Dreyfus Affaire, that it became nearly impossible for officers who showed any attachment to the Church to gain advancement. The orders to attend the École de Guerre never came, but instead yet another transfer for garrison duty. With Philomene so desperately unhappy in the military life and far from home, and the way to promotion barred, he had offered his resignation.
Three blank faces looked at him over their coffee cups. Evidently the ideas had gained no more acceptance than their presenter, at least in the 104th Regiment.
“I’ll show you.” Henri selected two sponge cakes and set them a little apart on the white table cloth, then placed his coffee cup opposite them. “The cakes are two infantry squads. The coffee cup is a German unit, dug in behind cover. The squads are ordered to attack the Germans. How do they attack?”
There was a pause before the lieutenants realized that he expected an answer.
Lieutenant Dupuis shrugged, the solution seeming so readily obvious that Henri must be looking for some more subtle answer that he couldn’t guess. “They should fix bayonets and charge, sir. Dominate the battlefield through elan, and the enemy will not have time to respond. Show hesitance and the enemy will pin the attackers down.”
Henri shook his head and the three men looked at each other. Lieutenant Morel offered, “It’s necessary to use combined arms, sir. The field artillery shells the enemy position while the attacking force moves close. Then as soon as the artillery barrage lifts, the infantry charge.”
“Close. The approach you describe is similar, but still not as refined. And what if the artillery regiment is assigned to another part of the division’s line?”
The impatience which welled up in him was unreasonable. These were not bad officers, they had done well during the last two weeks in bringing some order to the company, and they might well prove to be as brave as he could ask if the company saw combat, but clearly the sort of new tactics which had been discussed among the professional officers had never been presented to them. And yet, if those battlefield accounts on which he had based his paper for the École de Guerre were to be trusted, he must bring his reservists to understand these tactics or he would lose a great many of them.
“The key is that a man can only do one thing at a time. If he is running forward in a charge, he is not shooting. A line of infantry in full charge with bayonets fixed may be a daunting sight, but the men charging are not able to shoot effectively. This means that the men they are charging, the defenders, can shoot at them with little fear of being shot themselves. So…” He moved the two sponge cakes towards the coffee cup. “The two squads charge at the same time. The Germans remain behind their cover and pour rifle fire into them.” He picked up one of the sponge cakes, dipped it into the coffee, and ate it. “If the men reach the German lines, they will have the momentum of the attack and may route the enemy, but long before they reach the enemy they suffer severe casualties because they cannot protect themselves from the defenders’ fire.”
Slow nods of understanding from the lieutenants. Rejol was the only one who spoke up. “So, in a sense, the attackers are actually the vulnerable ones, sir, while the defenders are strong?”
“Exactly. And the solution to this is fire and movement tactics.” Henri reached out and took another sponge cake, setting his battle line as before: coffee cup on the left, the two sponge cakes side-by-side facing it. “This squad takes what cover it can, lying prone in firing positions, and shoots any of the Germans who raise a head to shoot. While this squad,” he began to move the second sponge cake across the table cloth towards the coffee, “charges forward. Then, after advancing, say, fifty meters, this squad drops and takes cover. Now they fire on the enemy, forcing them to stay down under cover, while the other squad charges.” He moved the first sponge cake forward this time. “By alternating, they make it too dangerous for the defenders to rise up and shoot at the men who are charging them. The defenders are constantly under fire until the moment then the attackers fall upon them with bayonets.”
Henri picked up the defeated coffee cup and sipped it, leaving the victorious sponge cakes in possession of the field.
Lieutenant Moral was staring at the sponge cakes with knitted brows. “But sir, didn’t that only work because you had one unit of Germans and two of ours? If there had been an equal number of German squads, one of them could have targeted the charging squad while the other shot back at the squad firing on them. There would be too many targets for the one French squad that was shooting.”
“Perhaps. Though don’t think of it too literally. Remember, we’re not speaking of coffee cups and sponge cakes but groups of men. The point is, if one attacking unit provides suppressing fire while the other charges, the defenders will be too busy taking cover to be able to shoot at the attackers effectively. But it’s true, to make any sort of effective attack, we need first to concentrate our forces. If we have no more men than the defenders, we will find it almost impossible to successfully attack, because they will have nothing to do but to shoot at us, and we will need to assign men both to suppressing fire and to charging their positions.”
This seemed to sink in successfully with the younger officers.
“Is there anything more I can get for you, gentlemen?” the waiter asked, appearing at Henri’s shoulder.
“No, we must be going,” said Henri. “May we have the bill?”
“Already paid, sir. A gentleman said that he wished to pay your bill and asked that I convey his gratitude that you are defending France.”
The officers exchanged glances.
“Well then, thank him on behalf of all of us,” said Henri.
“If only we had known,” said Dupuis as they were leaving, “I would have been much freer in selecting the wine.”
The company was drawn up by sections on the polo field, which with the horses requisitioned for army use and the tent city of the entrenched camp just south on the racetrack, now served as a place for maneuvers to be carried out in the open. The men were in battle order -- packs on their backs, bayonets fixed -- and each corporal had inspected the rifles of every man in his squad to assure that they were unloaded, an important precaution in the heavily populated park.
Henri briefly explained the purpose of the exercise to the company. They were to imagine that the Germans were dug in along the tree line two hundred meters ahead. Two sections at a time would practice making an attack against the tree line. First and Second Section had been chosen to go first. Their section and squad commanders would give them the details.
Lieutenants Morel and Rejol each called together their sergeants and corporals
The flat expanse of the polo field offered them a clear area for maneuver. However the wide grassy expanse also provided the perfect area for spectators to gather. A scattering of civilians had stopped their afternoon promenade to watch the soldiers drill. Women with white parasols and men in summer suits and straw boaters were lined up along the path behind the company. Commandant Albert Lefevre, the commander of the battalion, rode up on his chestnut horse and settled a half dozen paces from Henri, the horse occasionally taking a nervous step or two as the commandant stayed in place in to watch the drill.
“What’s the exercise, Fournier?” he asked Henri in an undertone.
“Fire and movement drill, sir,” Henri replied, divided between pride at having been found to be drilling his men in a comparatively advanced tactic and nervousness at having his first foray into advanced tactics come under the commandant’s eye.
“That seems rather advanced for reservists,” Commandant Lefevre replied. As the head of the battalion, he was an active duty officer and a reminder of the path of advancement Henri had given up. Lefevre had in fact been three years behind Henri at the Ecole Polytechnique. Surely he too could have commanded a battalion by now, if not a regiment, if he had not resigned from the professional army and become a reserve officer.
“Dangerous too,” the commandant continued. “The trick with these call-ups is to keep them moving. Let them drop to provide covering fire and you’ll never get them up and moving again.”
“Let us see, sir,” said Henri, with more bravado than he felt.
The lieutenants were returning to him, their NCOs spreading the two sections into assault order. The two demi-sections of each section formed two attack lines, the men in each line three paces apart, with the second line set five paces behind the first. The lines were slightly staggered so that the men in the second line would have a clear line of fire through the gaps in the first line. Forming assault order was a drill the men had followed before, but there was still an embarrassing amount of delay, shouting by the NCOs, and shuffling about as the men who three weeks ago had been going about their lives as factory workers, clerks and shop assistants in Paris prepared to drill for the city’s defense.
Henri glanced up at the commandant, but Lefevre’s expression was politely blank.
“Are you ready, gentlemen?” Henri asked the two lieutenants.
“Very well. Begin the attack. First Section may lead.”
“Yes, sir!” Morel and Rejol hurried back to their sections at a near run.
Rejol gave the order for Second Section to drop to prone position and and take aim at the tree line. He himself dropped to one knee behind the firing line, his drawn sword in his hand.
Morel drew his own sword and took up his position at the head of the section. “Rifles at the ready!”
The sixty men of First Section lowered their rifles to waist-height, their bayonets pointing forward, steel flashing in the afternoon sun.
“Vive la France!” Lieutenant Morel shouted, and the line of men echoed the shout back with a strength that echoed up and down the polo field, making the blood of all the observers surge with pride and the unique thrill which comes from words and actions in which a crowd becomes one: “Vive la France!”
Lieutenant Morel rushed forward, flourishing his sword above him as he ran. The men rushed forward after him, giving out a wordless cheer which seemed to join with and continue his command. Henri found himself gripping his sword hilt tightly and tightening his jaw to prevent himself from letting out a cheer. The two waves of charging men gradually bent and flexed as the men rushed forward, some faster than others, but even so it was an exaltation to see the sixty men rushing forwards as a single battle line. Several of the civilians watching were not so controlled and actively cheered and clapped.
From the line where Second Section lay prone in firing order, he could just hear the clicking of those sixty men working the bolts of their rifles, dry firing steading as if they were pouring fire into the Germans lurking in the tree line, keeping them down.
Then at once it became clear to Henri that the moment was dragging out too long. First Section was already halfway to the tree line. Their line was bunched and ragged now, some men clearly out of breath and falling well behind while others sprinted forward. Lieutenant Morel, fit and also not held back by the weight of an enlisted man’s pack, was still out in front of the whole line, sword held high as he led the charge.
Lieutenant Rejol, sensing that Second Section had missed their cue, rose to his feet with his own sword held aloft and stepped forward, ahead of his section.
“Second Section, at the ready!” he ordered, and the men scrambled eagerly to their feet, rifles held at the ready. “Charge!”
They too rushed forward, Lieutenant Rejol leading the way, and charged after First Section towards the tree line. First Section reached the trees and stopped, those who still had the breath for it letting out a cheer which echoed back across the field. A moment later Second Section joined them, and both units fell to milling about at the edge of the field, a few men even dropping to the ground to rest.
Henri looked over at the commandant again, but the other man’s expression remained carefully neutral.
He turned to the company bugler. “Call them back,” he ordered, striving to keep the anger and disappointment from his voice. The bugler sounded the recall and off by the treeline the men shouldered their rifles and began trudging back.
“It was well thought, Fournier,” said the commandant. “But they are reservists. It’s too much for them, especially since if we’re to see action at all before the war is over it will be within the next few weeks.”
“I believe with time, sir, they can master it. This is only the first time that we have tried this exercise. Give me a day or two.” The words came evenly enough, though he felt like growling threats that there would be no rest until they could produce a less disgraceful performance.
Commandant Lefevre shrugged. “There’s no harm in it. Don’t take it too hard. They’re good men. If they can charge with that spirit in the face of the enemy, nothing can stop them.” He turned his horse and trotted back towards the hippodrome and its tent city. Henri watched him go, wishing that he had chosen some other time to come watch 22nd Company at their drill.
The two lieutenants approached Henri, their demeanor sheepish.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Lieutenant Morel said.
Henri nodded, making sure to give the younger man a smile and hoping that it did not look as forced as it in fact was. “It’s all right. What do you think would have made it go better?”
Morel considered a moment. “There’s such a rush to it, sir. It’s easy to be carried along. And by the time I realized we’d gone too far, it was hard to know how to stop. I think if I picked out ahead of time where it was that we needed to drop and provide supporting fire, it would be all right.”
“That’s a good idea. Form the men up and try it again.”
The two lieutenants nodded and went to organize their sections. Watching the tired movements of the men, Henri reflected that having rushed the distance without pause the first time they might be more open to stopping this time around. Alternatively, if a real German rifle company were firing at them from the tree line, it might be all too easy to get them to take cover.
After a few minutes shouting from the NCOs the two sections were ready to begin and Henri gave the command. Morel raised his sword and ordered the charge. Again the men of his section rushed after him, their bayonets leveled.
Though Henri was gratified the commandant was no longer there watching, the crowd of civilians had grown, and as the men of First Section rushed forward with a cheer there was an answering cheer from the civilians on the footpath. The white parasols of the ladies bobbed in the air as their owners clapped their gloved hands.
After charging fifty meters, Lieutenant Morel shouted, “Suppressing fire!” and dropped to a crouch. His two sergeants and one of the corporals dropped to one knee as well, but the men continued charging.
Seeing Morel drop, Lieutenant Rejol had stood up and given his own cry of, “Charge!” and the Second Section rushed on, once again, behind the first.
Realizing he had been left behind by his section, Morel got back to his feet, and the sergeants began to shout after the men. “Halt! Halt, you idiots!” Second section stopped in a confused mass at the point where Lieutenant Morel was standing, and the two lieutenants turned and walked back toward Henri, their heads low, while the NCOs herded the men of both sections back to the rest of the company.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Lieutenant Morel, his embarrassment so acutely visible that Henri felt the desire to look away, but he made himself meet the younger man’s eyes.
“You picked a spot, and you stuck to it. That was good. What do you think needs to be done in order to make sure the men stop as well.”
Morel shrugged. “More drill I suppose, sir.”
Sergeant Carpentier of Fourth Section joined the group. “I think I have an idea, sir.”
Henri turned to him. “Yes?”
“It’s the civilians, sir. Especially the women. The men have pride. They’re being cheered on as they charge, and they don’t want to be seen dropping to take cover like cowards.”
Henri looked from the sergeant to the two lieutenants and back again. “Well, if so, that’s easily mended. We’ll march them a few kilometers out into farmland and put them through it again.”
The old sergeant nodded. “If you’d like, sir. I can issue ammunition to a few of the other sergeants. We’ll take the enemy’s position and fire a few rounds over their heads when they’re supposed to drop. They’ll dive for cover pretty quickly then, sir, if I know anything about it.”
At this Henri could not prevent of a grin from forming. “I believe I will indulge you, sergeant.”
Read the next installment.