Paris. September 6th, 1914. The streets were quiet in the diffuse pre-dawn light as Henri left the requisitioned hotel on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais. It was not just the quiet of an early Sunday morning. The half-emptied city held its breath. The afternoon before, the distant booming of the guns had been heard like summer thunder disturbing the hot, humid afternoon. It had put the officers who gathered in the lobby on edge: a day too early. The battle was supposed to begin on the morning of the 6th, not the afternoon of the 5th.
General Joffre’s draft order of the day had been circulated ahead of time among the officers, the words which would be read on the morning of the 6th to soldiers about to go into battle:
“At this moment, the battle on which the salvation of La Patrie depends is about to begin, and the time for retreat is ended. Every effort is to be poured into the attack, to hurl back the enemy from our soil. Any soldiers who find themselves unable to advance further are to hold their positions at any cost and die on the spot rather than retreat.”
Rumor was not slow to confirm the implication of the final line: The retreat is over. He has ordered that any man or officer who abandons his post without orders is to be shot. My God, about time too. The soldiers will fight if only the orders to retreat will stop coming. They want to fight, not give up ever more French soil.
The talk had all been enthusiastic, and yet there was the lurking fear too: There is no more time. There is no more room. If they take Paris…
There were dual notices posted on the neo-classical columns of the Church of Saint-Pierre du Gros Caillou. Whatever the priests might think of their place of worship serving as a public noticeboard, since the Church-and-State law of 1905 the church buildings belonged to the government and some enterprising poster-bearer with his bucket of paste had decided that the smooth round columns were the perfect place to catch the eye of those hurrying in to pray for the preservation of the Republic. The first of these notices, already three days old, was the announcement that the government was abandoning Paris.
“PEOPLE OF FRANCE!” read the bold heading, with the rippling tricolor displayed above. But each succeeding paragraph shrank with shame into smaller type.
“For several weeks relentless battles have engaged our heroic troops and the army of the enemy. The valour of our soldiers has won victories at several points; but in the north the pressure of the German forces has compelled us to fall back.
“This situation has compelled the President of the Republic and the Government to take a painful decision. In order to watch over the national welfare, it is the duty of the public powers to remove themselves temporarily from the city of Paris.”
It continued on into smaller, denser text, promising that the struggle would continue despite all costs, as if by repetition of words such as “resolve” “tenacity” and “victory” it could erase the blow which its message conveyed. The other notice had been pasted up to partly cover these craven rationalizations and its message had the brevity of confidence.
“ARMY OF PARIS, INHABITANTS OF PARIS,
“The members of the Government of the Republic have left Paris to give a fresh impulse to national defence.
“I have been entrusted with the task of defending Paris against the invader.
“That task I will fulfil to the end.
“Commandant of the Army of Paris”
It was not the first time that Henri had seen General Gallieni’s proclamation, but he stopped to read it all the way through. There was a thrill to the short lines which was like the feeling when the whole company stood as a body and practiced the bayonet charge.
“That task I will fulfil to the end,” he repeated, tasting the words. Would the time come for him to stir men’s hearts with such sentiments?
An old woman, her curved back covered with a black knitted shawl despite the already warm morning, scowled at him as she hurried past into the church. The priest had doubtless already started and he was loitering on the steps reading government proclamations which had no right to be posted on a house of worship. And yet, surely this feeling of exultation at the chance to defend France was itself in some sense from God.
He found a place in one of the back rows of wooden chairs. The church was nearly full. The murmuring of many voices praying the rosary, one side of the church answering the other, provided an undertone punctuated by the occasional lines of Latin which the priest spoke in a louder voice. Henri took his own rosary beads from the pocket of his uniform tunic and joined in the congregation’s prayer, but despite his intention to focus on the prayer at hand in preparation for whatever the coming days might bring, his attention strayed almost immediately.
The divisions already deployed to the north and east of the city must already be stowing away their breakfast gear and forming into battle order, falling into formation just as his own company had drilled for the last three weeks. He’d given the company a late start for the Sunday, but they would be formed up and ready for the day’s exercises at 10:00 AM. Perhaps orders would come to deploy and instead of more drill they would march towards real battle.
No. The mass was what he should be thinking of right now. Can you not keep watch with me this one hour? Philomene always seemed able to focus on the prayers and on her missal. Perhaps she was at mass right now back home. Home… If only she was still safe despite the Germans.
It was the image of Philomene at mass, her head bowed, her face calm in prayer on which he found himself meditating rather than the mysteries of the rosary, and if that was not a strictly religious subject for contemplation surely the Lord would understand.
The distant thunder of guns could be heard already as he left the church, and so Henri hurried straight back to the hotel rather than going to a coffee house. As soon as any news about the battle became available, surely it would reach the hotel in which so many staff officers were quartered. The news he received on entering the lobby, however, was of another sort.
“Orders for you, Captain Fournier.”
The corporal behind the desk held out a slim white envelope. Henri tore it open, excitement making his fingers clumsy. “6th Battalion is to form up in marching order no later than 9:00 AM and proceed to Pantin where it will await the arrival of the 104th Regiment by train. The 6th Battalion will be attached to the 104th Regiment to serve as replacements.”
He found himself balling up the piece of paper in one hand as he thought about everything that would need to happen in the next few hours. They were going to fight.
Upstairs he found that his orderly had already arrived from camp and was packing his bags. Having seen that things were well in hand, Henri stopped only to buckle on his sword and pistol and hurried back down, eager to see what state the company was in. It was perhaps twelve kilometers from the encampment in the Bois de Boulogne to the northeastern suburb of Pantin. It would be an easy day’s march, but quartering would be a premium there near the rail heads, so the sooner the company got moving the better the chance the men would be able to have a roof over their heads that night.
The tents were already down by the time he reached the camp, and the company’s three horse-drawn carts were being loaded with the equipment too big to go on men’s packs. Soldiers knelt on the ground rolling their ground clothes and blankets together into the big sausage-like rolls which would be buckled over the top of their packs.
“They’ll be formed up by 8:50, sir,” Sergeant Carpentier assured him. “I’ve told the corporals to inspect ammunition pouches and be sure every man has his hundred and twenty rounds.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. I knew I could count on you. Are all three lieutenants in?”
“Not yet, sir, but their orderlies are getting them.”
Henri knew that the preparations for the march would go more smoothly if the non-commissioned officers were left to manage them without presence of officers, so he sought out the battalion headquarters. He found Commandant Lefevre watching the machine gun section load their ammunition wagon. The four supply carriers had put aside their coats and tunics and were hurrying back and from from the sand-bagged supply bunker to the wagon, each time carrying a case of machine gun ammunition in each hand. The guns themselves were still set up on their heavy tripods, the gunsmiths bustling around them with oil cloths and tools.
“I sent the mobile kitchen on ahead as soon as they were packed,” the commandant said, once he’d returned Henri’s salute. “The rest of these supplies will follow us, but there will be hot dinner waiting for the men when we arrive. I sent a couple orderlies along as well with instructions to secure quarters for the officers.”
“Do you know if we’ll be attached to the 104th as a complete battalion or used to fill in as reserves?” Henri asked.
The commandant shook his head. “That will rest with Colonel Monnerat. The regiment is supposed to arrive by train this afternoon, so hopefully we will know then.”
As they loaded the last cases of ammunition onto the wagon, the supply carriers were sweating and breathing hard. For a moment the two officers stood watching silently. Then the commandant turned back to Henri. “We’re going to be in it, at last,” he said, smiling. “No more waiting, no more retreat. By tomorrow we should be killing Germans.”
Henri nodded. “It will be good to be doing something at last, sir.” He hesitated, then added, “My family is in the invaded area, near Sedan.”
“I know.” The commandant clapped his hand on Henri’s shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze. “Another week or two and we shall be there. Mark my words.”
While the four companies were drawn up in neat ranks before nine o’clock, there were the inevitable delays in getting a thousand men and their supplies ready to move. It was nearly ten when the bugles sounded and the battalion set off on the march. Commandant Lefevre led the way on his gray horse, but since the battalion had originally been assigned to the garrison of Paris it had otherwise been stripped of all but baggage horses, leaving the captains to walk alongside their companies.
At times the distant rumble of guns could be heard in the city. Yet despite that sobering background it was a sunny, summer, Sunday morning. The long line of men marched down the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne and past the Arc de Triumph, and as they did so they began to draw a crowd: children ran along the road shouting, women in their Sunday dresses holding parasols waved from the sidewalk, old men put down their newspapers and watched while slowly puffing at their pipes.
They passed along the south edge of Montmartre and turned at last onto the newly renamed Avenue Jean Jaures, which until a month before had been the Avenue de Germany. First Section, which contained a large contingent of factory workers, gave a cheer for the socialist martyr as they passed the first sign that bore his name and then broke into singing L’Internationale. As a Paris battalion, the number of men who knew the song was not small, and the singing spread up and down the marching column. Others considered this an overly partisan display, and as soon as that song was over began La Marseillaise.
With a swinging step and voices filling the late morning air, they marched through the cut in the embankment which, along with various fortifications and strong points, formed the modern walls of Paris. The only fortification blocking the road itself was commercial, a tall wrought iron fence with two gates guarded by customs inspectors. These men now stood back and and waved cheerfully as the battalion split into two files to pour through both gates at once.
Outside the gates they gave the men a half hour’s break from the march, during which both officers and men took the opportunity to have a light meal. Then packs were shouldered again and they pressed on. For a time they marched along with the Ourcq Canal to their left. Then a bridge took them over a massive set of railway sidings, a dozen parallel lines of track. Several trains were moving slowly along, drawing the gaze of the soldiers. Marching over a train was a novel experience. Other trains sat on side spurs. A crowd of soldiers stood milling about next to one stopped train. Next to another, laborers were unloading artillery shells onto a line of carts.
On the far side of the bridge they found themselves morning through a traffic jam. Carts and even a few trucks were moving from the rail yards up the road to the north and east, carrying supplies to the front. The condition of the road made it clear that carts had been passing thickly for some time, prompting jokes among the soldiers about the Avenue de Merde.
The delays meant that they didn’t reach their billets until after five in the evening, despite the short distance that was being covered. The 104th Regiment had not arrived yet either, with word from division simply saying that its trains had been delayed.
Several warehouses had been requisitioned and made available for the men to sleep in, but in the lingering heat of the summer evening most of them preferred to remain outside. Henri told the non-commissioned officers to see that the men got to bed early in case orders came to move out during the night or the small hours. The sounds of artillery were more clear here than they had been inside Paris, and there was no word from division as to how things were developing.
The officers had their quarters in a large house whose owners had left in the face of the potential German advance. There were pale patches on the walls where pictures had been taken down, and the drawers and cabinets for silver and china stood open, but most of the other furnishings were still in place. Other units had clearly used the house in the last few days, but they had passed through with a light touch and the house remained opulent.
Commandant Lefevre ordered a bottle of cognac brought up from the cellar and the officers played billiards on the table in the smoking room while working through the cognac and a box of cigars which Lefevre produced from his own baggage.
It was nearly three in the morning, and Henri had dozed off in an armchair, the ashy remains of his cigar lying on a china saucer on the chair’s arm, when the officers of the 104th arrived.
Colonel Monnerat stood in the doorway of the smoking room, a dark wood walking stick with a polished brass head tucked under his arm, surveying the room. Commandant Lefevre had been playing billiards with one of the other captains, and the two of them were already standing at attention, their cues at their sides like lances. Henri scrambled to his feet and drew himself to attention, knocking over the saucer in the process. It fell to the floor and shattered, sending cigar ash and tiny shards of china flying in all directions.
“I hope that you had a good journey, sir,” said Commandant Lefevre, once the officers had exchanged salutes.
The colonel stood very straight, but his uniform clearly showed the last month’s combat in Lorraine. His tunic had been brushed, but it was sun-faded along the shoulders and there were stains on the dark blue wool. The polish on his boots could not conceal how much wear they had received recently.
After giving enough time to allow these contrasts to occur to the officers of 6th Battalion, the colonel replied. “We have been on trains for three days, bogged down with refugees, hospital trains and supply trains. I intend for my officers and men who have been in combat to get good rest tonight before they go back into combat again. What are your plans, Commandant Lefevre?”
Lefevre swallowed visibly before replying. “I ordered that the men get down to sleep promptly so that they would be ready for tomorrow, sir.”
Monerrat nodded. “Very good. And since they will be rested, I will appreciate your taking care of all morning supply and preparation duties. Good night, Commandant. Report to me at ten, and not before, to let me know when we’re to get back on trains to deploy to the front.”
The colonel turned and left, his battle-weary officers following him upstairs to the beds that awaited them. For a moment of the officers of the 6th Battalion remained at attention facing the empty door. At last, Commandant Lefevre said, “At ease,” and followed his own direction, turning away to return his billiard cue to the rack.
“All right, gentlemen. Let’s get to bed. Captain Fournier, send a runner off to division at six-thirty to find out what the orders are for transportation. Let me know as soon as you have a reply.”
“Yes, sir,” said Henri.
Henri took another sip of coffee, the hot brown liquid slowly pouring alertness into his tired and sour stomach, in which the previous evening’s plentiful cognac and minimal sleep had settled like a piece of uncomfortably cast cement.
“Please repeat the orders again,” he asked the runner.
“They said, sir: 104th Regiment to remain in billets until arrival of motor transport which will bring them to the front near Nanteuil le Haudouin.”
“That’s what they said, sir.”
The runner clearly knew no more what was meant by the words than Henri did.
“Very well. Thank you. You may go and get breakfast.”
The runner left the house in the direction of the mobile kitchens and Henri sat sipping his coffee and contemplating the words he had just been heard.
Commandant Lefevre was already deep into questions of supply and logistics by the time that Henri reported to him on transport.
“Motor transport? What the hell do they mean by that?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Then send a runner back over to 7th Division command and ask them. Don’t allow them to get away with ambiguity.”
“Yes, sir.” Would he have accepted the reply fatalistically back when he was a regular officer, or would too then have confidently demanded an explanation from the division?
“No, now I think of it, go yourself. It’s only a few kilometers and you’ll get better answers if you talk to them in person. I’ve got a list of people for you to see about supplies and equipment while you’re there. I talked to the 104th’s Chef de Materiale already this morning and they seem thoroughly fought out. The more we can do for their supply situation before the colonel is up and about, the better.”
“Taxis,” said the transport lieutenant. He had cut a ludicrous enough figure before he had spoken. The 7th Division had made a temporary headquarters of a school. The transport services had been assigned classroom as their offices, and so the lieutenant Henri had been directed to was crouched in a children’s school desk much too small for him, shuffling his ledger books which he didn’t have room to spread out before him.
“This isn’t a time for joking,” Henri said. “We have four thousand men we need to get forty kilometers up to Nanteuil le Haudouin today. I’m not going to the opera. I can’t just hail a taxi.”
The lieutenant sighed, took one of the army ration packets of cigarettes out of his tunic pocket, and lit it. He held the packet out to Henri, but he shook his head. “I’m not joking, Captain Fournier. Take a look at my board,” he waved towards the schoolroom blackboard, covered in carefully lettered lists. “Transportation is a disaster. Trains are running behind, I don’t have enough, and I need to use them for heavy supplies like fodder and artillery shells. If I try to find a couple trains to get the 104th up to Nanteuil on the local line, I have no idea when you’ll arrive. I’ve already stretching things to the limit getting the 101st and 102nd, and now I’ve got hospital trains to manage as well. So,” he dismissed the board with a wave. “General Gallieni has requisitioned twelve hundred taxis, and I’ve assigned seven hundred and twenty to the 104th, which should be enough to carry your,” he opened one of his ledgers and consulted a figure, “Three thousand, four hundred seventy eight effectives. The taxis will arrive at your billets beginning at four this afternoon. Send your supply carts and artillery ahead this morning by road and have the rest of your equipment ready to be carried by the men when they board the taxis. I’ve allowed for five enlisted men per taxi, so make sure they don’t take up more than their allotted space. Do you have all that?”
Henri raised an eyebrow.
“Sir,” the transport officer amended.
“I understand the plan.” He worked figures quickly in his head, wishing he had paper in front of him. “There’s not much margin for error with seven hundred and twenty taxis. Some of the men have a lot of equipment: machine gun sections, cyclist sections. If there any more space?”
The lieutenant threw out his arms. “Sir, we’ve conjured this transport plan out of thin air. I have no more miracles left. If you run out of room, take two trips.”
Henri shrugged. “I’ll tell the colonel it’s the best division can do.”
Commandant Lefevre shook his head. “This is the best the division can do?”
“That’s what the transport officer told me. It’s a snap judgement, but I thought he seemed as if he had done his best for us.”
“All right. Cigar?”
The two officers were standing in the street in front of the house in which they had been quartered for the night. During Lefevre’s busy morning an ad hoc supply dump had been assembled there, with cases of tinned rations, dry rations, ammunition and ammunition. Several soldiers stood guard with bayonets fixed, tasked to make sure that the supplied did not melt away before they could be distributed to the men.
“Not this early,” Henri replied. “One or two a day is enough for me.”
Lefevre cut the cigar in half, put one half in his tunic pocket, and lit the other half. “I’ve got a store of them, and if we haven’t beat the Germans by the time I run out, I’ll have to learn to smoke these cigarettes they’re handing out. God, they smell vile. Tobacco of the machine age. I like to think with a cigar it was rolled by hand on some caribbean isle by the dusky maiden on the box. Smoking one is like getting a few calming kisses from her.”
“It’s a nice thought,” Henri agreed. “Do you imagine the same with the boxes that have the old Indian chief on them?”
“Ha! You’re a romantic at heart I can see, Fournier. Yearning to make love to a feather headdress. Myself, I don’t smoke that kind.” He took one last draw on the cigar, then carefully stubbed it out against the sole of his boot and put it in his pocket to finish later. “Come on. Let’s go brief the colonel.”
They went up the garden walk and into the house.
“Do you want me to explain to him about the taxis, sir?” Henri asked. It was not how he wished to be brought to the colonel’s attention, but he had been the one who had borne the absurdist solution back from the division.
Lefevre shrugged. “It’s not your fault. You don’t don’t need to take responsibility for it.”
The colonel had set up his regimental headquarters in the library, and now an adjutant stopped them and told them to wait before entering the room in which they had relaxed and played billiards the night before.
“Have you given any thought to how we can load this many men onto taxis quickly?” Lefevre asked.
Henri nodded. “I was thinking about that on the way back from division.”
“All right. If it comes up, I’ll turn to you, and you can tell the colonel your plan.”
It was a good opportunity, though with the words “your plan” applied to the concepts he had been turning over they seemed suddenly inadequate. He began to rehearse the numbers to himself again, but then the adjutant returned: “Colonel Monerrat will see you now.”
Once Lefevre had explained the how the battalion would be transported to the front the colonel shook his head.
“First they put us into cattle cars for three days, now they order us taxis. Do they think we’re cattle or theater goers? Beef or burlesque?”
It was a limp jest but the two officers dutifully laughed at it. At least the morning’s show of efficiency seemed to have wiped out the prior night’s first impression.
“Well, there it is,” said the colonel. “Taxis. Do you have a plan for how we can load the men and get them off without total chaos?”
“Captain Fournier has a plan,” Lefevre said, and both men turned their eyes on Henri.
He squared his shoulders and made sure that his voice was calm and confident. “Not quite a plan, perhaps, but some principles of organization. We must load a number of taxis at once to save time, but a small enough number that we can assure good order. Five men will fit in each taxi. Three taxis per squad, twelve taxis per section.”
As shadows were lengthening that afternoon, the regiment was drawn up as Henri had proposed. Each battalion was assigned a loading zone of one hundred meters along the road. Along that stretch, a section formed up in skirmish order, one long line along the road. These sixty men would load simultaneously onto a dozen taxis, and then those would pull away while another section arrayed along the road and the process repeated. If it could all be kept moving with a section loading every five minutes, the battalion could load within an hour and a half.
After explaining the plan to the colonel, Henri had been required to explain it again to the assembled officers of the regiment, and then yet again to the non-commissioned officers who had been assigned to direct the traffic as the operation was carried out.
Now, with the regiment waiting, all that was needed were the taxis. Henri stood in the road using a borrowed pair of binoculars to search the distance. The taxis themselves were, of course, outside his control, and yet it seemed it would reflect badly on him if after spending so much time explaining his plan for loading the taxis they left everyone waiting by the road for hours on end.
And then, there they were, a line of blocky shapes visible against the horizon, which gradually grew as he watched them through the binoculars. Already he could see over a dozen, close together and moving steadily. The colors became visible despite the afternoon sun: Some were black, others deep green, but the majority had their metalwork painted a brilliant red.
“Here they come,” he called to his non-commissioned officers. Their motors became audible, a rattling hum which seemed to fill the air as the long line came into clear view. One, two, three, four, five… The first twelve were waved on to go all the way down to 1st Battalion, then another dozen for 2nd Battalion, a dozen for 3rd, and then they were waving aside the taxis which would take 6th Battalion’s first section.
They pulled to the side of the road and the soldiers began climbing on, one sitting in the open bench seat in front, next to the driver, and four climbing into the covered cabin. Supply men loaded cases of food and ammunition onto the floor of the automobile, next to the soldiers feet, and then the door was shut and the sergeants were waving it out into the road.
Already they were counting off the second dozen for 1st Battalion. The line had barely paused. The sergeant in charge of the loading area for 2nd Battalion was waving his signal flag: ready for the second section. Twelve more taxis.
After the first exciting moments the system developed the routine of an ant trail. The sergeants waved their flags and blew their whistles, the taxis pulled over to the loading zones, the men climbed aboard. Whatever slight disorders occurred seemed to sort themselves out, and suddenly Henri found himself superfluous. His plan was executing now without need of him.
He took a last look around and then walked over to join the officers of his company. All four sections of 22nd company had already departed.
“Are you ready, gentlemen?” he asked.
Nods all around.
Henri waved to one of the sergeants directing the traffic and a thirteenth taxi was sent to 6th battalion’s loading zone. The officers climbed into the compartment while Sergeant Carpentier climbed in front next to the driver.
The driver, a heavy, balding man who must have been approaching fifty, reached over and flipped the red lever on the meter into the up position which indicated he had a fare. The meter began to tick, and Henri wondered who the driver thought would pay him, or whether the action was simple one of long habit. Then with a slight jerk the driver put the taxi into gear and swung out from the side of the road into the flow of traffic -- traffic which, surreally enough, consisted exclusively of nearly identical taxis full of soldiers as far as the eye could see up the road.
For a time there was a fascination in the unusual experience of watching the fields flash by while hearing the rattle of the engine in the background. The taxi was certainly not any faster than a train, but there was something direct and unpredictable about the fact that it was not bound by track.
After half an hour, however, the endless fields began to exert a lulling influence, and feeling the lack of the previous night’s sleep Henri allowed himself to doze as the sun sank towards the horizon.
He awoke to a jolt. It was dark. The sun had been down some hours, and the moon, a waning gibbous three days past full, hung large and orange near the horizon ahead. The road seemed far rougher than before, or else there was something wrong with the car. Every jolt and rattle seemed to be transmitted from the road directly into the benches they sat on.
“What’s wrong?” asked Lieutenant Morel, seated next to him.
“I don’t know. I was asleep.”
“So was I.”
“It feels like a blown tire,” said Lieutenant Dupuis from the back bench.
A moment later the driver pulled the car over to the side of the road, inching as close as he could to the ditch without tipping the car into it. Then he shut off the engine and came around to the door, audibly cursing.
“Blown tire,” he said. “Everyone out while I put the spare on.”
The officers dutifully climbed out of the car and across the ditch into the field.
“Do you need help?” Lieutenant Dupuis asked. “My father has a car, and I’ve changed tires before.”
The driver, however, tersely advised exactly what the lieutenant could do with his father’s car.
The officers lit cigars and stood in the field, among leafy heads of sugar beat, watching the endless line of taxis roll by on the road. The driver lit a kerosene lantern, set aside his coat, tie and long sleeve shirt, and proceeded to jack the car up and put on the spare tire. Then he refilled the tank using the two large petrol cans which had been strapped to the running boards and invited the officers back into the car.
“Still running,” he said, indicating the meter, before he pulled back into the road. “Can’t drive all over goddamned country roads without getting blowouts. It goes on the clock.”
Henri looked at the meter, which indicated they had now been driving for over four hours. “We don’t have money to pay the bills with,” he said, cautiously.
The driver looked shocked. “Of course not. Of course not. What do you take me for? I’m a patriot. I wouldn’t try to charge soldiers. The union will sort it out with the army. Then we will all get paid.”
A gap appeared in the stream of cars and the driver swerved out to take a new place in the line.
As the night passed, the procession slowed to not much above a walking pace. Carts and wagons were on the road as well, some moving in the same direction, others going back down the road towards Paris. The taxis took the center of the road, with the horse-drawn vehicles forming two of traffic lanes going either direction to the sides. Then, around midnight, taxis began flowing back the other direction as well, having dropped their load of soldiers at the 7th Division’s camp. Several accidents occurred. They passed taxis with broken lamps and crumpled hoods pulled over to the side of the road. And to avoid a similar fate, the rest of the taxis slowed even further.
It was just past one in the morning when they reached the end point. The driver noted down the meter reading in a little notebook and held it out for Henri to sign, which he did. Then he pulled the taxi into the lane of traffic heading back towards Paris.
A corporal with transportation service tabs on his collar asked them which battalion and company they belonged to, then consulted a list and pointed them down a dirt track at the end of which he told them they would find a farmhouse in which they were quartered.
It seemed an endless walk in the pale moonlight, the countryside dark and unfamiliar. But at last a turn in the path took them around an embankment and a blaze of light appeared before them. A lantern hung from a post in the farmyard, and lights shone through opened curtains in all the downstairs rooms. They stumbled in, blinking, and found several other 6th Battalion officers already arrived. An orderly gave them glasses of coffee laced with brandy and then showed them to their rooms. Henri, Lieutenant Morel and Lieutenant Rejol were given a room together which contained only a single large bed. All three lay down on it without bothering even to take their boots off, and in a moment, they were asleep.
Read the next installment.