This has been a long time in coming, not for any lack of effort. The installment nearly five times as long as the average installment, but there are big events to cover as Henri goes into the Battle of the Marne.
Near Nanteuil le Hardouin, France. September 8th, 1914. It was dark in the room. Then a dancing light began to play upon the walls, and he caught the slight smell of sulfur in the air. It must have been the pop of a match being struck that had awakened him. Henri sat up in the bed and saw Lieutenant Rejol lighting a pair of stubby candles on the dressing table.
Fishing his watch out of his pocket, Henri looked at the time. 5:40 AM.
“What are you doing, Lieutenant?” he asked, keeping his voice to a whisper.
From the dressing table Rejol picked up a strip of cloth on which gold embroidery glinted in the candle light. He draped the stole over his shoulders, a jarring contrast with his uniform tunic, and lifted each end in turn to kiss the crosses embroidered on it. “You’re religious, aren’t you, Captain? Can you serve mass for me?”
“The bugles aren’t going to blow until six.”
Rejol nodded. “There’s only just time.”
“Why on a Tuesday? Can’t you wait for Sunday?”
The lieutenant shrugged. “Who knows which of us will be alive on Sunday.”
Who indeed. The last twenty-four hours had been devoted so fully to getting them to this place that he had been allowed little time to think of the purpose for which they were here.
“I didn’t grow up religious. I was never an altar boy. I don’t know how.” But Henri was getting out of bed, being careful not to jostle Morel, who was clearly a sound sleeper.
“It’s not difficult.” Rejol opened his missal and laid it flat on the dressing table. “All you have to do is say the responses. When we reach one, I’ll point to it and you just pronounce it as best you can.”
Henri shook his head in disbelief, but knelt down next to his lieutenant, remembering how the altar boys knelt next to the priest at the beginning of mass.
Father Rejol murmured Latin phrases in a voice too low for Henri to hear, even as he knelt right next to him. Several times the priest crossed himself. Then he said in a soft but audible voice, “Kyrie Eleison.”
He pointed to the missal, and Henri repeated the response, “Kyrie Eleison.”
The mass was brief. No organ, no murmured rosary by the congregation, no sermon. When the time came Rejol poured a sip’s worth of wine from a flask into the little gold chalice and put a single, small host onto the patten. He leant over them, as if whispering to the bread and wine the part that they would be asked to play. His hands made the sign of the cross over them three times and then spoke softly to them again.
There some something curiously involving about this short, quiet sacrifice said on a dressing table. Henri had never been so close, seen the details of the priest’s actions and heard his low voice during the many quiet parts of the service. The darkness around the candles’ little pool of light isolated them from the surrounding world, taking them out of time. How many other times and places had these words been said? Perhaps five hundred years ago, knights following Joan of Arc had knelt thus next to a priest to hear mass before putting on their armor and taking up their weapons to drive English invaders off of French soil.
They were done before six o’clock, and Lieutenant Rejol packed away the mass kit in a black leather-bound box which he returned to his pack.
“Thank you, Captain.”
Henri shrugged. The experience was one which seemed violated by discussion or by any outside observer. He was glad that Morel had not awakened. Even Rejol, at this moment disconcertingly filling the roles of both lieutenant and priest simultaneously, seemed an invasion of privacy. A few minutes before he had been playing a part in something that was not his own, something far older than either of them. Now he was a more junior officer who had seen Henri in a moment of prayer.
“I’m going to go down and see if the orderlies have made coffee,” said Henri. “Make sure that Morel is awake before you come down.” He escaped downstairs. When Rejol appeared after having obeyed his instructions, they would simply be fellow officers, the awkwardness of this other connection gone.
In the kitchen, a coffee pot was bubbling on the black enameled stove whose bulk crouched against the wall opposite the back staircase. A kerosene lantern burned on the table, making the room cheery, although the bluish pre-dawn light straggling in through the windows was still weak. The door banged and an orderly came in, carrying a coal scuttle. He wrapped the coffee pot in a towel and carried it over to the kitchen table, then used a lid lifter to pick up the iron burner plate so he could shake a few pieces of coal into the fire below.
“I’m afraid it’s a little primitive here, sir,” he said. “But I found lots of jam in the pantry and there’s fresh bread on the table from the mobile bakery.”
Henri poured himself a cup of coffee and spread jam on a slice of the heavy, brown army bread. Outside the bugles sounded. Six o’clock.
Lieutenants Rejol and Morel came down the stairs with a clatter of steel shod boots on wood, and a moment later they were followed by Lieutenant Dupuis and Sergeant Carpentier, who had spent the night in the attic bedroom.
It was as Henri was pouring a second cup of coffee that the first German shell struck out in the farm yard. The sound was sharper than a thunderclap.The glass in the window panes rattled and cups and silverware on the table vibrated. Henri poured hot coffee over his hand and swore, dropping the cup which chattered on the the floor.
He ran for the kitchen door, the other officers following him, urgent to see what was happening outside. As he was about to reach it another shell landed, closer to the house, and the kitchen window exploded inwards, spraying glass shards into the room along with acrid smoke which burned in his nostrils.
The explosion sent Henri to his knees, though by the time he was crouched on the floor against the door it was already too late to take cover from the actual debris of the explosion. His pulse pounded in his ears. He felt somehow safer crouching against the wood of the door, and yet it was entirely possible that the next shell would come smashing into the kitchen itself. It might mean death to go. It might mean death to stay. But the men were outside, and this artillery fire might indicate the beginning of an attack.
He forced himself to his feet, pulled the door open, and went out into the farm yard, willing himself to move at a steady walk despite the fear which made him want to either crouch down or run as fast as he could. If the men saw him running desperately, they would be that much more afraid themselves.
Some men were running. Others crouched against the walls of buildings. He could see a small crowd of men just inside the big barn doors, across the farm yard, hesitant to come out of the building which provided at least some illusion of shelter. Chickens and ducks ran squawking and fluttering, adding to the confusion. Another shell screamed over and struck on the far side of the farm house. They were coming from the east, across the fields beyond the barn. He would have to get out of the farm yard in order to see clearly.
“Get the men out of the farm buildings,” he called back towards the lieutenants. “We’ll form up in the fields east of the barn.”
Henri set off, around the barn. He could hear his officers calling to the men. Just as he was coming around the barn he heard another shell coming over and unconsciously ducked. Even as he did so he knew it was useless. Any shell coming close enough to be avoided by ducking would kill him anyway either in the explosion or with flying shrapnel.
The shell clipped the roof of the farmhouse, sending slates flying, then exploded in the front garden beyond. They must be targeting the buildings, and at the rate they were closing in the next one would go straight into the house. Had the orderlies grabbed the officers’ baggage before leaving the building? He pushed the question away. No time for that now. His hand went to the breast of his tunic. Through the wool he could feel the crinkling thickness of the last letter had received from Philomene and the children, safely tucked in the inner pocket of his tunic. That, at least, was safe, so long as he was. His other baggage he could live without.
There was a small orchard beyond the barn, and beyond that recently harvested fields strewn with stubble rose gently up for perhaps five hundred meters to a line of trees which formed the near horizon. It could hardly be called a hill, but it was enough of a rise that it was impossible to see what was directly beyond it. In the further distance fields punctuated by lines of trees stretched away into the hazy twilight of the pre-dawn.
That line of trees along the top of the rise was clearly the place for the company to form a defensive line, if they could reach it first, if it was not already held by the enemy.
Soldiers were gathering among the trees of the orchard, some crouching down on the ground, gripping their rifles, some milling about nervously. Henri called the section leaders to him. Behind them an artillery shell slammed into the farmhouse, sending wood, plaster and roof slates flying. A burning smell and haze of smoke was gradually added to the morning’s chaos.
“We need to take that tree line if the enemy doesn’t already hold it. From there we will command the fields beyond, and if artillery arrives we could put observers there. Given how well the Germans are placing their shells, they must at least have forward observers there, but there’s no telling how strongly it’s held without attacking.”
Nervous faces nodded. It could be a case straight out of the reserve officer’s training manual: secure the high ground, take advantage of screening terrain.
“This orchard will anchor our right wing. Sergeant Carpentier, have your section dig in here as quickly as possible. They will provide covering fire during the attack. Morel, First Section will do likewise on the left flank. Take them two hundred meters out north and have them dig in. Rejol and Dupuis, Second and Third Sections will lead the attack. Form up in the center in skirmish order. Make sure the men don’t clump together, clumps make good targets. Two paces between each man. Fix bayonets and make sure the men have their magazines loaded.”
He pulled out his watch. 6:41. Ten minutes before they had all been having breakfast. Now he was deploying men for an attack in which some of them would die. He had spent twenty years as a cadet, officer and then reserve officer, and now he would lead men into battle for the first time.
His officers were looking at him, waiting. “Any questions?”
A chorus of, “No, sir.”
“We will attack at 6:50. That gives nine minutes to get your men in order and for the flanks to scrape out some cover. Lieutenant Dupuis, I will join you and your section in the attack. Let us fight, gentlemen.”
There were nods and the officers hurried off to give orders. With nothing to do until the time for the attack, Henri went to the edge of the orchard and stood watching the tree line, straining to see whether there was any movement among those trees.
Hoofbeats sounded and he turned to see Commandant Lefevre ride up along with his adjutant and a bugler.
Henri snapped a salute. “Good morning, sir.”
Lefevre swung down from his house with the practiced ease of a horseman. “It is a good morning. You’re out and about early, captain. What’s the situation?”
As if to provide wordless explanation, another German shell shrilled overhead and slammed into the farmhouse, blowing out a section of the wall as it exploded.
“We’ve been taking sporadic shelling for the last twenty minutes. I believe there must be artillery observers in that treeline. They zeroed in on the farm buildings very effectively. My intention is to take the treeline to secure the high ground and provide artillery observation if field guns become available. From that position, we’ll be able to see the enemy’s disposition beyond.”
Lefevre compressed his lips, troubled by the news. “When and how do you plan to attack?”
Henri pulled out his watch. 6:47. “Almost immediately, sir. First and Fourth Sections will provide covering fire while Second and Third charge the tree line.”
“The regiment is preparing an overall advance at nine o’clock,” Lefevre said, his tone hesitant. “Still, the attack you’re planning is small. It’s really just a re-position.”
“The reason I wanted to move immediately upon the tree line, sir, is that if the Germans hold it in force first, any attack upon it will be very costly.”
The commandant nodded, his doubts dispelled. “Very good then. But no half measures, Fournier. Charge with all your sections.”
“Sir, I don’t know how heavily the treeline is held. I want to have covering fire to protect the men advancing.”
“The more Germans in that treeline, captain, the more bayonets you will need to throw at them. You will not intimidate the enemy by failing to commit half your men. Charge with your entire company.” Lefevre swung back onto his horse. The discussion was clearly over.
Henri looked back up at the menacing tree line, straining for any indication of how many men might be up there.
The commandant’s horse shifted restlessly and snorted, but Lefevre did not turn to go. He must intend to watch the attack, or at least make sure that his directions were followed. Henri stepped over to Carpentier.
“There’s been a change of plan, sergeant. All four sections will charge. Pass the word to your men.”
The sergeant looked around at the men of his section who had spent the last few minutes frantically digging out rifle pits among the tree roots with their short handled entrenching spades. “Very well, sir.” Carpentier was a professional non-commissioned officer. There would be no argument from him.
Henri paced down the line to First Squad. Morel was standing with his squad leaders while in a staggered line in front of them his men were making rapid progress digging in at the edge of the field.
“You’ll be joining us after all, Morel. The commandant suggests that all four sections make the attack.”
Morel grinned and snapped Henri a crisp salute. Then he turned to his sergeants. “Tell the men they don’t have to grub around in the dirt anymore. We attack!”
To the men who had actually been digging holes in the few minutes that had been granted them, this appeared not to be as universally welcome news. Henri saw one man throw his shovel into his half finished rifle pit, hurling profanity after it. Others were cheerfully fixing bayonets as they moved into the skirmish line beyond their abandoned fighting holes.
As he walked back to join Third Section for the assault, Henri consulted his watch. 6:52. They would be jumping off late.
Dupuis was standing slightly behind his section, shifting from one foot to the other, but whatever uncertainty he might be feeling his men were lined up property and ready to go. Still, he was the youngest of the section leaders. That was why Henri had chosen him to accompany during the attack. He clapped a hand on the younger man’s shoulder.
“They look ready. You’ve done well.”
“Thank you, sir.” The lieutenant flashed him a nervous grin. “It’s strange to think we’ve finally come down to it, sir.”
Henri looked up and down the line. The company stretched across two hundred and fifty meters of front. The men stood ready. Bayonets flashed. The horizon ahead was brightening. In another fifteen minutes a blinding disc of sun would come up above the horizon. With any luck, by that time they would be dug in along the tree line.
“All right, lieutenant. Let us take our places.”
He stepped through the line of men and Dupuis followed him. One last look up and down the line. All were ready. Lefevre was on his horse, watching. Henri drew his sword and held it upright in front of him. Then he took a deep breath, to make sure he was heard as far up and down the line as possible, and ordered, “Company, advance!”
The order echoed up and down the line from the lieutenants, sergeants and corporals. Henri started forward as a steady marching pace. He allowed a glance sideways and could see Dupuis next to him, his sword out as well. Further over he could see Rejol out in front of Second Section, walking ahead of his men, a walking stick tucked under his arm. To the other side he could see Sergeant Carpentier leading Fourth Section. The whole line was moving forward. He focused his eyes on the tree line up ahead.
For one long minute there was no sign of movement at all among the trees ahead. Then there was a flash, followed a moment later by the popping sound of a distant rifle’s shot carrying across the morning air. More flashes. Henri tried to count. Perhaps twenty men. They were firing steadily now, each flash repeating every few seconds. He heard a scream followed by cries of, “Stretcher! Stretcher!” The company support staff -- the drummer, bugler, wagon drivers and cooks -- would be responsible for trying to retrieve the wounded, since there was no field hospital assigned to them with real stretcher bearers.
They were perhaps three hundred meters from the tree line now, and the defenders were clearly finding some targets.
“Third Section, halt!” he called out. “Rifles at the ready. Aim.” He looked over his shoulder to make sure the men were in fact planted and ready to fire. From his position as the lead man, the fear that no one was following him gnawed constantly at his mind. But the men stood behind him in their wide skirmish line, their rifles leveled. “Fire!”
There was a booming roar that echoed back at them across the field as sixty rifles fired at once. Even at this distance he could see branches of the trees up ahead thrash as sixty bullets ripped into the trees in front of them.
“Reload.” He could hear the metallic snick-snack as the men worked the bolts of their rifles. The Lebel was an aging model. It held a generous eight rounds in its tubular magazine below the barrel, but was dangerously slow to load under combat conditions, requiring men to fumble with loose cartridges, sliding them down into the magazine one at a time while the bolt was open. Yet perhaps they would only need eight. “March!” he ordered, and started forward again.
The commanders of the other sections clearly got the idea. A moment later, Second Section erupted in fire. Then First and Fourth did so almost simultaneously. There was stillness in the treeline. All four sections now advancing again. Then the scattered shots from among the trees began again.
It was a waste of time. Unless by sheer luck one of their bullets managed to hit a man they could not see in the trees, they were only causing the Germans to duck their heads for a few moments. The amount of time it took the company to stop and fire was longer than the safety it won them. If Lefevre had let him assign some men to providing constant covering fire, they might have forced them to keep their heads down the whole time, or to flee the wood, but now they would have to just keep walking into the rifle fire. Forward was the fastest way to safety.
He heard another scream for stretchers. Glancing over his shoulder he could see that the line was holding firm. It bowed gently forward and back as some men moved faster than others, but the soldiers were marching steadily behind their officers.
A bullet hissed by somewhere near. He focused his attention on the tree line. The flashes winked out among the trees. He could hear the report of each shot, though still as a pop rather than an explosion. A hundred meters remained. A scream off to one side, and then another. It was target practice now, and of a sort even nervous conscripts could excel at. A hundred meters. A hundred strides. How many men would be hit in that time? He looked over his shoulder again. The line was still holding, though he could just see two huddled lumps of red and blue left behind them on the dirt and stubble. They were close enough. They could rush the line without being out of breath when they arrived.
He raised his sword above his head. “Vive la France!” The whole line echoed back the same words, a deep throated yell which seemed to settle into his bones. At that moment, with those words flowing through him, he felt he could have taken the tree line on his own. “Charge!”
He ran, the trees pounding closer with every step. There were more flashes in the trees, the reports close now, a barking thud which he felt in the air around him. An angry buzz went by his his head. A dozen more paces. Suddenly there was movement among the trees. He saw men in spiked helmets scrambling up from their positions and turning to run. One of the running men suddenly staggered and fell to the ground, hit by a bullet from one of the Frenchmen who had paused to fire as he neared the trees. The German struggled, then was on his feet again, his rifle left behind, one hand held to his side as he ran.
Henri stopped as he reached the trees. It was a narrow belt of woodland, no more than twenty feet across, a windbreak and a border between fields. On the far side the next field sloped gently away for half a mile, covered in green, leafy sugar beet tops which reached nearly to the knees of the retreating Germans. Beyond that field he could see the line of a road, a cluster of farm buildings, then another field stretching gently up. He heard a rattle of rifle fire to both sides of him, but now it was his own men, firing at the retreating Germans. He counted seventeen. Another rattle of rifle fire and one of them fell and disappeared among the foliage. Seeing that man drop somehow ended the exhilaration he had felt ever since the final rush. The fighting was over. Now it was his own men engaging in target practice. He turned away.
The men could continue firing for a few minutes, until the range made it a complete waste of ammunition, but as the excitement of the charge ebbed away, other concerns began to intrude themselves. He looked up and down the line and spotted each of his four section commanders. Good, no losses there.
“Corporal,” he addressed the nearest NCO. “I need two men to run messages.”
A moment later and two of the younger soldiers were saluting him. He asked their names, then sent one off to ask the four section commanders to join him and the other to report back to Commandant Lefevre with the news of their success and what they could see beyond the treeline.
As he waited for these messages to be delivered he returned to the edge of the trees and to see how the Germans had fared. There were fifteen now; two more either hit or taking cover. That leafy sugar beet field would be the devil if the Germans attacked and used it as cover. The remaining men were walking now, clearly not worried by the few rifle shots still being sent their way, and making directly for the cluster of farm buildings on the far side of the field. The battery that had been firing on them was nowhere in sight. It must be on the next ridge or beyond. Did they have a fallback artillery observer post at the farm?
“Sir.” The section commanders had arrived.
He asked for their casualty counts. Nine in total out of the four sections. Men were being sent back to help those who were only wounded. Nine men out of the two hundred and forty who had made the charge. A small toll. As soon as he formed the thought he felt guilty for it. These were nine men he might not have had to lose if he’d been able to attack with covering fire. And if they hadn’t outnumbered the Germans twelve to one, it could have been far worse.
“There’s to be a regiment-wide advance at nine o’clock, but that’s still two hours away and a great deal can happen in that time. Have the men dig in. Spread them out. Then make sure that the men have all eaten and have canteens full. We can send back small parties for food and water if necessary. Any questions?”
There were none, and as the section commanders went about their work Henri started back towards the farm. Commandant Lefevre was riding up the field to meet him.
“Brilliant work, Captain. That was straight out of the exercise book.” The commandant swung down from the saddle and gripped Henri’s hand. “I want to see the view.”
Together they walked through the belt of trees and looked out over the fields beyond.
“The German artillery must be just beyond that next ridge. That’s three kilometers from here, they could hardly be much further. This is good ground, Fournier. You were right to want to take it. Leaving this to the Germans would have been a serious error.”
The commandant was pacing, a few steps out, then back, energy seemed to radiate from him.
“This is where we should be attacking from at nine. I’ve got two hours. Spread out for now and secure 750 meters of the tree line. The 104th regiment has been assigned a kilometer-and-a-half of front for the attack, and since 6th Battalion is fresh, we’ve been assigned half of that. I’ll send the other companies up to join you as soon as they can get formed up. I’m going to send you the machine gun section as well. Find them two gun positions which can provide covering fire for the whole battalion as we attack. And I’ll send a recommendation up to division for a field artillery battery to go here. They could hit the German artillery on the far ridge and anything that they send across the fields towards us.”
They discussed the details of disposition and preparation. Finally, Lefevre’s energy spent itself, or at least required new objects to work upon, and he mounted his horse and rushed off to talk to the other companies, his bugler and adjutant trailing behind him.
The results of his activity soon became evident. The battalion machine guns arrived at half past seven. The six man crews carried the guns and their heavy tripods, but it took two four-horse wagons to carry the ammunition.
Henri had already put Carpentier and Rejol’s sections in charge of digging out two emplacements for them three hundred meters apart: waist deep pits wide enough to accommodate the gun and its crew, dug just beyond the tree line where there was an open field of fire into the plain below.
The crew stacked ammunition cases two high on each side of the gun, then sent the remainder back down to the farm to be placed in the ammunition bunker.
Just as these were being situated, a half battery of field artillery arrived, two 75mm cannon with their crew and ammunition wagons. They unlimbered the guns halfway between the treeline and the farm, where they would be invisible to observers beyond the tree line and able to send their shells arcing over the tree tops and down into the fields below. The observers, walking backwards up the hill with big wooden spools of wire, set up a field telephone running from the guns up to the front line, so that they could call corrections back to the gunners.
Henri walked down to shake hands with the lieutenant in command of the guns, then was immediately called away to meet the other arriving infantry companies. He shook hands with Captain Caquot of the 21st Company and Captain Valette of the 23rd. The one he sent to replace the part of the line Morel’s section had been holding, the other to replace Rejol’s, a company of two hundred and forty replacing a section of sixty. By the time they were ready to attack there would be nearly a thousand men along a line of attack just seven hundred and fifty meters wide.
The field between the farm and the treeline was churned up by the passing of so many men, horses and carts. The intensity and fear of their advance across that same ground ninety minutes before seemed a distant memory as he hurried from one group to another, followed by runners with question on where men and supplies should go.
All this was driven from his mind in a series of four earsplitting blasts. Smoke and fire burst among the trees up and down the wooded line. He managed to keep his feet and his appearance of calm, thankful for the hundred meters distance between him and the line. Half the soldiers in the column of men from 24th Company, whom he had been directing to their position on the right flank when the shells it, had dropped to the ground. Some covered their heads with their hands.
“On your feet!” he said, hurrying up the line. “It’s the shrapnel you need to fear, and there are rifle pits already dug along the tree line. Come on.”
He led the way and they followed, walking towards the place where shells had just landed, with the automatic faith which frightened men place in someone who shows calm direction. In the privacy of his mind Henri was counting the seconds since the last shell had landed. How many more before the next salvo? The first set of explosions had been so rapid they must have been fired from four guns. Two or three kilometers away, beyond the next rise, were the German crews working as fast as they could to reload the guns, orders given to fire for effect? Or was this simply harassing fire, the men moving slowly as an officer looked at a watch and counted the minutes until ordering the next salvo?
Another round of explosions worked down the treeline. Four bursts, the puffs of smoke blossoming like unholy flowers, gray as death among the treetops. He heard whistling and hissing sounds as unseen pieces of shrapnel and debris flew by. Again the men staggered and dropped down.
“Come on!” he called. “It’s more dangerous here in the open than dug in up there. Come on!”
They reached the trees and the newcomers from 24th Company began to tumble into the relative safety of the holes dug by Carpentier’s section. The men had spent the last hour expanding and in places even connecting their rifle pits, forming a shallow, interrupted trench line. They were not happy to abandon the safety they had spent time and blisters digging out, and there was grumbling as they moved to the left to take up the smaller stretch of line that would be their part of 22nd Company’s sector now that all the companies had arrived.
The complaints were cut short as another salvo of shrapnel shells shrieked in and exploded among the treetops, sending shell fragments snarling in every direction and the men diving into the safety of the protecting soil.
Henri sought out the two artillery observers in their hole and climbed in to share the small space which accommodated them and their field telephone.
“Can you do anything about these guns?” He pulled out his watch. Fifteen more minutes until the attack at nine o’clock.
The sergeant who had been looking across the fields with his binoculars lowered them and shook his head. “We can’t see the guns laying down this fire, and we’d need a larger battery to hunt them down by guesswork. Besides, we’ll need our fire for them.”
He pointed and handed his binoculars to Henri.
Over the next wooded rise, around three kilometers away, four gray clad columns were moving out into the open and marching towards them. He tried to estimate the number of men he was seeing. Perhaps each column was a company, in which case this was a battalion strength attack: one thousand men. They too were a battalion, and they were dug in while the Germans were attacking across several kilometers of open ground.
“Have you reported this to the guns?” Henri asked.
“Oh yes, sir. We’ll provide them a little French hospitality soon. But first we’ll let them get well beyond the tree line. Once they are inside the door, we shall shut it on them and teach them a few nice lessons as they are trapped in the open with nowhere to run. It’s no good opening fire now, when they can return so easily to cover.”
“We’re supposed to begin our own attack at nine o’clock. Call down to the guns and ask them to send a runner to Commandant Lefevre. Ask if we should still attack while the Germans are advancing.”
The sergeant worked the field telephone and relayed Henri’s question.
“Ah, there we go. More meat for the mill,” said the other observer, who had been using the binoculars. He pointed and handed the binoculars to Henri.
More columns were advancing to the left and right of the first four. Not one battalion but three, a whole regiment was advancing towards them. Another round of shells burst in the treetops above them, sending fragments flying among the trees, but Henri only ducked briefly as he watched the moving men through the field glasses and listened to the artillery observers gleefully anticipate opening up on the Germans in the open with shrapnel shells.
If the attack was not delayed, 6th Battalion would soon be in the open as well, and the Germans evidently had four guns trained on this stretch of the front, not two.
Five more minutes and the response came back over the telephone: The attack will go forward but is delayed until 9:10. The whole 7th Division is attacking, we’ll have them outnumbered.
Henri took the binoculars and gazed off across the fields again. At least a regiment of Germans were marching towards them, and they would shortly attack in their turn with an entire division. The two hundred thirty-one remaining men of his company were just a tiny part of the twelve thousand or so who would be attacking across these fields. Lefevre had said their front was three kilometers, even more than he could see in the vista stretching before him. He and his company would be one piece of this huge struggle. Would there be anyone to know or care if he or even his whole company were ground into the soil of those fields by the flailing of German artillery?
In truth, far away at the Grand Quartier General, or GQG, where the markers for regiments and divisions were moved on the large scale maps by staff officers, this little stretch of front, just two miles long, was but the northwest corner of a battle line which stretched along a hundred miles. Some interest had been invested in this particular corner; staff officers had examined the contour lines which indicated the flat, gently rolling fields, and the green markings which indicated treelines and woods. With the arrival the of the 7th Division by rail and taxi, for the next few hours advantage of numbers was with the French. If they could turn the German flank before more German reinforcements arrived, Sixth Army could begin to cave in the whole north western side of the battle. And so, everything must be thrown into the fight.
The instructions had passed down from GQG to army to division to regiment to Commandant Lefevre and the other battalion commanders. However exposed the men would be as they marched into the open fields under the eyes of German artillery observers, if the enemy was to be driven back the soldiers must move forward.
“Don’t worry,” the sergeant observer assured him. “They’ll be in no great shape by the time you reach them.”
Ah, but what shape will we be in?
It was nearing nine o’clock. The German columns were nearing the road which divided the near field from the far one. The artillery observers were talking busily over the field telephone.
“All right,” said the sergeant. “Fire your ranging shots.”
From behind him Henri could hear first one explosion, then the other, the sound of the 75s firing mingling with the screaming whistle of the sixteen pound shrapnel shells passing overhead towards their target. The first shell burst in a puff of white smoke short of the German column, the explosion of the shell hurling the three hundred lead balls packed inside into a widening blast pattern to rain down death upon the soldiers below. The second shell burst directly over the next column, most of its projectiles harmlessly peppering the well-tramped field beyond.
The observers called back corrections and a second pair of shells both burst just where desired. The columns shuddered but kept moving, leaving behind gray heaps which lay or thrashed upon the ground.
“On target. Fire for effect.”
Since cannons had first been mounted on wheeled carriages so that they could be quickly pulled to the field of battle by teams of horses, making them “field artillery”, there had been two great limits on the speed of artillery fire. Solid, muzzle-loading cannon had required a crew with swabs and rammers to clean any lingering powder sparks out of the barrel and ram home the next round, and the tremendous recoil of the cannon firing had sent the whole gun rolling backwards, causing the crew to re-aim the cannon after every shot. The Canon de 75 modele 1897 had brought together all of the newest technological developments in artillery into a single, revolutionary whole. It was loaded with a self contained, mass produced, brass shell. The breech of the gun was opened by a rotating breech lock mechanism, which expelled the spent shell and allowed the crew to load the next into place and re-lock the breech in a few, quick motions. And perhaps most importantly, the barrel was mounted on a hydraulic recoil mechanism.
When the gun fired, the barrel slid backwards on the the recoil rail, the motion driving a piston in a hydraulic cylinder. This piston drove oil down the first cylinder and into a second, in which its movement caused a floating piston to compress air, smoothly absorbing the energy of the recoil. When the air was fully compressed and the force of the recoil spent, the compressed air expanded, reversing the process and driving the piston out, returning the barrel to its exact position. No longer was there any need to re-aim the cannon after each shot, and it could be fired as quickly as the crew could slam fresh shells into place and pull the firing cord.
The barrels of the two field guns pumped up and down, the pistons at the steel heart of industrial war’s engine. The two 75s were now firing a round every three seconds. Twenty shrapnel shells a minute, each raining down three hundred lead balls with every burst. Six thousand pieces of shrapnel every minute, pounding in a leaden rain on a kompanie of two hundred forty-five men.
The artillery observers crowed and slapped each other’s backs as in the course of a minute two of the columns slowed and then shattered. Some men went to ground: dead, wounded or desperately seeking cover. Others ran forward, back, to either side. In close order, in the open, under of the impact of screaming, bursting shells the two neatly squared formations ceased to exist, leaving only carnage and running men. The observers began to call in directions to re-aim the fire at the next two columns.
Henri could not share in their glee at the destruction of the enemy. Even as he saw the men who might have shot down or bayoneted his men destroyed, he knew that the same storm of death could be directed as his own men by the German 77mm canons which had, in lazy fashion, been dropping shrapnel shells on the treeline for the last half hour. Right now, with the men sheltering in their rifle pits, that was causing few enough casualties. But in the open, the rain of shrapnel which had broken upon the Germans could be directed at his own men as well.
As the 75s chewed into two more columns, the German battery decided that the French artillery was a more important target that the troops in the treeline. The difficulty was that the German artillery observers could not see where the 75s were in order to direct the fire. Instead, the 77s increased to their maximum rate of fire -- not as fast as the French 75s, but still a pounding fifteen rounds a minute from each of the four guns -- and they began to sweep methodically back and forth, up and down, raining down shrapnel at intervals across the field.
Commandant Lefevre appeared on the edge of the artillery observers’ shelter.
“It’s time to form up your men for the attack, Fournier. Let’s use this time while the German guns are focused elsewhere.”
Henri climbed out of the hole and went down the line, speaking to each section commander. Soon the men were standing in a rough line under cover of the trees. Their blue coats and red trousers were smudged with dirt from the holes they had dug and sheltered in, but otherwise they stood as tall and eager as they had on the training round.
Pride and fear pumped through Henri’s heart, looking at this deadly yet fragile thing which he was about to lead towards enemy troops and artillery fire. For some, for him too, these might be the last minutes on this earth, the last minutes with whole bodies untorn by lead and steel. He tried to bring up Philomene’s image in his mind, to somehow reach across the battle lines, across the miles, and feel some contact with the person who most in all the world he wanted to be with. But his memory would not be his servant. He could not summon her face, catching only a fleeting image of her in church, head bowed, looking away from him towards the eternal. Instead images of the moment crowded out thoughts of home: their training exercises back in the fields just outside the Paris walls, the long line on men strung out to each side of him that morning, the shrapnel bursts blossoming over the German lines as he looked through the field glasses.
“Fix bayonets,” he ordered, and the command went up and down the line from officers to NCOs to men. “Load a round.” The metallic sound of two hundred rifle bolts simultaneously working was a clatter.
Commandant Lefevre had stepped beyond the treeline with the battalion bugler. The bugle call for the charge rang out. Henri drew his sword and held it up as he stepped forward.
It was easy at first. The leafy green sea of sugar beet tops was the only resistance, flapping at his knees and crunching under foot. He set an even pace. They had a long way to go.
Unlike the Germans he had watched, they did not march in column but in a double skirmish line: two meters between each man in the line, and two meters between the two lines. This provided no protection against the artillery when it came, but it meant that fewer of the loosely spread men would be killed by each burst.
The enemy columns ahead of them had already been scattered by artillery, but while gray clad bodies were scattered on the ground there were more men still up and moving, dispersed into small groups, some advancing, some retreating, some seeking out some natural defensive position from which to hold their ground.
Looking from side to side Henri could see the skirmish line of his own company stretching out a hundred meters to each side. The section commanders, like him, were out in front of their sections. Morel had his sword out, held at waist level with the tip resting back against his shoulder as if on parade. Rejol was carrying his officer’s walking stick, jauntily resting it over one shoulder like a gentleman walking with a furled umbrella. Dupuis carried his walking stick in the fist of his left hand and his revolver in his right. Carpentier had taken advantage of his sergeant’s rank to carry a rifle, making him the only one of them capable of threatening an enemy more than twenty meters away.
To the left and right the other companies of 6th Battalion stretched on, and beyond them the other battalions in the regiment. There were breaks in the line where some units had started sooner or later, curves and gaps where men had worked around some natural obstacle, but the line of attack stretched off as far as he could see in either direction as the division made its morning attack.
The German artillery observers could see it too. Their attempts at counter battery fire had failed to silence the French 75s beyond the treeline. Elsewhere up and down the line, other French guns had opened up, and scattering the German columns in the open. Now the German artillery turned their efforts on what they could see and hit clearly: the 7th Division as it crossed the open ground. The long skirmish line did not present the same dense target which the marching columns had for French gunners, but it was good enough. Puffs of white smoke began to appear up and down the line, some falling short, some long, as the line advanced steadily, but enough of them sent their blasts of lead shot into the line to tear holes in it, leaving crumpled lumps of red and blue among the leafy sugar beet tops.
Advancing in front on the line, he could not see the men in the skirmish line who were hit by the flying shrapnel, though all of them would see if he was hit in his turn. In some small way this made it easier. And yet it was a struggle with each stride to keep his pace even, to keep advancing across that wide and deadly field. As each explosion made him want to dive down and hug the earth, trying to vanish into its safety, he held himself under control by recalling the number of eyes that were upon him. He himself was armed only with a sword and a pistol, no great threat to the enemy, but two hundred men’s eyes were on him and if he could keep those men and their rifles moving calmly he was bringing an avalanche of fire down upon the enemy.
They were end of the sugar beet field. In another two hundred meters they would read the road, and just beyond it was the cluster of farm buildings. A hundred and fifty meters. The artillery fire seemed to intensify. Explosions rolled like thunder overhead. The air throbbed with the concussions. The shrapnel balls whispered through air around him, and he could hear the occasional thud of one slapping the ground near him. Would it sound different if it struck flesh?
From the dimness of the barn door up ahead, he saw flashes, then heard something pass with an angrier buzz than the shrapnel. There were Germans in the farm buildings shooting at them.
Even as he realized this new threat, the old one lifted. The shrapnel shells ceased to burst above them, leaving a sudden quiet in which he realized his ears were ringing. They must be too close to the German soldiers defending the farm buildings; the gunners were afraid of hitting their own men. There were more flashes up ahead and again he heard the whine of a bullet passing near. Up ahead, the road was on a slight embankment above the field. There would be cover there. He raised his sword higher. “Come on! Nearly there!”
He crossed the last hundred meters at a run and allowed himself to drop onto the grass of the embankment. Rolling onto his back, in a half sitting position, cradled in the curve of the embankment, his head just below the level of the road, he could at last look back in relative safety at his men and the field they had crossed.
A moment later Lieutenant Dupuis dropped heavily onto the grass next to him. The rest of Third Section was not far behind, and soon there were men close beside them along along the embankment. From here, the field they had cross looked dauntingly wide, but curiously untouched by their passage. At this angle he could not see the fallen men who lay dead or suffering among that greenery. From somewhere behind them, however, he could hear voice crying out, “Oh, God! Oh, God! Someone, please! Oh, God!”
Another bullet whined overhead. Henri turned to Dupuis, “How many men have you lost?”
Dupuis looked up and down the line of men lying in the shelter of the embankment and broke into an uncontrollable nervous laugh. “I don’t know. I don’t know how many men. We crossed that whole goddamn field under fire!”
Henri reached out and grabbed Dupuis’s shoulder, and the younger man stopped laughing which a choking sound that sounded very much like a sob. He squeezed his eyes shut tight and shook his head, then look a long, shuddering breath and lay quiet on the grass, looking up at the sky.
Within his chest Henri felt a tightly wound spring of emotion which, if allowed, would unwind even more uncontrollably. He clenched his teeth tightly and for a moment put all his energy into keeping his breathing slow and steady. For a moment a memory seized him with such force it supplanted his surroundings: Last fall, Philomene sobbing over the lost child, her hands gripping his shoulders fiercely. He had gently stroked her back, and for a moment, the feeling of her pain and despair, her body trembling beneath his hands, had opened a door through which he had stared briefly into the abyss of his own emotions. The desire to give himself over to sobs for the child, for his wife, for nature’s betrayal of their intimacy, had seized his throat like choking hands and sought to take control of him, and yet knowing that if he allowed it to start he would lose all ability to comfort his wife, he had forced the door closed and kept it so for weeks until late one night, after several glasses of cognac, he had locked himself in his office next to the store and allowed the feelings to wring him like a dog wrings a rat.
The image of Philomene which came with this brief, intense memory was so welcome that he held onto it for as long as he could, an instant of oblivion as he lay on the grass adjusting to the fact he was still alive. Then he closed the door. The reason he was an infantry captain was because he was trusted to have the age and experience to remain calm and provide orders, even as soldiers or more junior officers were wracked with the feelings of being under fire.
Gripping Dupuis by the shoulder, Henri shook him.
“There are German soldiers in these farm buildings. We’re going to need to attack them. Gather all your sergeants and squad leaders you can find and gather them here. Keep your head down.”
Dupuis nodded, his featured under control again. He crawled away down the embankment, looking for his NCOs.
Henri took his kepi off, to avoid too-obvious shape and color, and very slowly poked his head up over the edge of the embankment. There was a barn, the large sliding door standing open, facing them. Beyond that he could see a low, wood-fenced enclosure and also a small building, a chicken house, he realized. The small farm house was beyond these. To the right, there was a metal sided shed and several large fluid tanks. To Henri they looked a strange, industrial intrusion into this farm scene, but they were in fact a refinery for boiling down and processing the sugar beets into raw sugar. Barn, chicken coop, house, shed: four buildings which might contain German soldiers, plus the large fluid tanks behind which people might be sheltering.
There was a muzzle flash from inside the barn and Henri heard the crack as the same time that the bullet slapped into the ground close enough to his head to throw up bits of gravel from the road which hit his face. He hurriedly crouched back down in the shelter of the embankment.
Dupuis was working his way back down the line followed by a sergeant and three corporals. The sergeant in charge of the first demi-section was gone, as was the corporal leading third squad. Henri put the sergeant of second demi-section in charge of third squad and gave his orders.
“First and second squads are to move well down the embankment to the left, then rush across the road and work around behind the buildings. Lieutenant Dupuis, you go with them and stay with First Squad. They are to take the barn. Second Squad takes the house and the chicken coop. Third Squad will work to the right, rush the road, and take the metal-sided shed. Fourth Squad will stay here with me. When I first blow my whistle, we will open fire on all the buildings. First, second and third squads rush the road as we open fire. We’ll continue suppressing fire while you work around into your attack positions. I’ll give you three minutes. Then I’ll blow a second blast on the whistle. At that signal, we’ll stop firing in order to avoid hitting you as you rush in. You attack on that second whistle blast. Any questions?”
“What about the other sections?” Dupuis asked.
“We’ve spread out as we crossed the field. I think they’re at least a hundred meters away in each direction, and we have the men to take the farm. But if you make contact with them have them join your attack.”
“Anything else?” Henri asked.
Tight-lipped men shook their heads.
“Vive la France,” said Henri, and gripped Dupuis by the hand.
“Vive la France,” the others all replied.
“Go,” said Henri.
Dupuis stood up and turned to the left, forgetting in the solemnity of the moment to move in a crouch. The crack of the rifle sounded before Henri could move or speak, and Dupuis was thrown back, his head snapping sideways, the exit wound blowing a gaping hole in his left temple. Henri and Sergeant Gobin were by him instantly, but there was no last look, no fluttering of the eyes. The body had hit the ground already inert.
They turned away. The shock was so great, so sudden that there was no response but numbness. There would be time to feel after they had killed the German who had shot him.
“Go,” said Henri. “I’ll give you five minutes to get the men in position and explain the plan.”
He pulled out his watch and noted the time. Fourth squad’s corporal moved along the embankment, talking to his men, while the other NCOs moved off, crouching low, to their own squads.
Time passed. Henri lay, glassy eyed, watching the second hand traverse his watch five times, his mind comfortably and completely blank except for the awareness of what must happen next. At four minutes and thirty seconds he took his whistle, on its lanyard, from his tunic pocket and gripped it in his teeth. Then he unbuttoned his holster and pulled out his revolver. He checked the cylinders. They were all loaded. The second hand reached the twelve for the last time. He blew a long blast on his whistle, then rolled over into a prone position, pulling himself up so that his hands, gripping his revolver, rested on the gravel of the road and his head was just high enough to see over the embankment. Around him he could hear the clatter of the men rolling into similar positions, elbows resting on the road, rifles trained on the buildings. He took aim at the dimness of the open barn door and pulled the trigger.
The revolver kicked back in his hand, and he brought it back down into line. Silently he counted before firing again. One, two, three, four, five. He fired again, then counted, this time up to ten. There was a muzzle flash in the dimness of the barn and gravel kicked up in the road in front of one of the soldiers to his left. Henri took aim at the point where he had seen the flash and squeezed out another shot. Then he began silently counting again.
Up and down the embankment, the thirteen men for fourth squad were pouring a ready fire into the farm buildings as well. Henri’s revolver clicked on an empty cartridge. He rolled on his back and slipped down below the lip of the embankment while he reloaded, then returned to position and continued firing. When he finished reloading the second time, he checked his watch. It had been a minute and a half. Never had three minutes seemed so slow. He counted again between shots, trying to make sure that he was firing often enough to help keep the Germans ducking down under cover, yet not so fast as to waste ammunition.
At last it was time. He shouted to the men, “Cease firing!” And then he blew his whistle.
He heard a burst of firing off to the left and right, which died down to occasional, isolated shots. One German soldier rushed around the corner of the barn, then froze when he saw the line of French soldiers pointing rifles in his direction. For an instant no one moved. Then half a dozen of Fourth Squad’s rifles cracked at once and several bullets caught the soldier in the chest at once, knocking him backwards even as the look of surprise remained on his face. His feet kicked and strained at the ground, but he did not get up. After a moment the German gave a horrific, burbling scream, his voice the weaker because half the air was bubbling out through a hole in his lung rather than through his mouth. The scream subsided into sobs. There was no other sound.
Carefully, Henri stood up. No shots rang out. No bullet whispered by. “Come on,” he said, and Fourth Squad rose up and followed, rifles at the ready.
Henri wanted to keep his eyes away from the writhing German on the ground and knew what he should be keeping his eye upon possible danger instead, but it was impossible not to look. The solder had rolled on his side, exposing the tears and dark, bloody stains of exit wounds in the back of his grey tunic. His arms were clutched tightly to his stomach and he rocked slightly back and forth, pulling in deep, gurgling breaths and letting them out in the form of soft moans.
“Captain!” Sergeant Gobin, who had led Third Squad to attack the metal shed, was approaching from the right. Henri gratefully turned away from the spectacle of suffering before him.
“How did it go?”
“One dead, one injured, sir, and the same for them. The rest took off across the field like hares. A couple of the men are still trying to bring them down. But I’ve found the artillery observation post.”
They had indeed. A ladder stood next to one of the tall, steel sugar refining tanks. On top, thick horse blankets had been draped to make a sort of nest, protecting the observer from the heat of the sun-warmed steel. The view was indeed good from the top. Henri could see the other sections of his company already making their way up the next field towards the line of trees. He threw down the field telephone before climbing back down, and several of the men from Third Squad set to work smashing it.
“You’ll need to take command of the section,” Henri told Sergeant Gobin was they walked toward the farm yard. “Appoint a new corporal to take Third Squad.”
“I’d pick Roux, sir,” Sergeant Gobin replied immediately.
Henri remembered Roux to be a big man nearing thirty, with the dark red hair his name suggested and plentiful freckles, but beyond that he could remember little specific of the man’s soldiering. “All right then. Put him in place immediately, and next time we’re in camp with the rest of the battalion remind me and we’ll make sure that he’s entered in the books so he gets corporal pay.” He excused himself and went to see how first and second squads had fared with the other buildings.
In the barn, two Germans had been killed and a half dozen taken prisoner, four of those wounded; in the house, one killed and one so badly wounded he had not been able to flee with the rest. Two of his own men had been killed and another five injured, though none so badly that they couldn’t walk.
From the barn yard came desperate screaming squeals. He had imagined some horrifically wounded man, but when Henri investigated he found instead that a pig, whose pen had come into the line of fire, was suffering from two bullet wounds that bled profusely. It ran back and forth within the pen, squealing horribly and leaving spatters of blood in the churned up mud. One of the soldiers from first squad began to climb over the rails into the pen, but another grabbed him by the shoulder.
“You idiot. That animal weighs two hundred fifty kilos, and it’s injured and scared. It could trample you without thinking twice.”
The second man trained his rifle on the pig, following it back and forth for a moment, then dropped it with a well placed shot to the head.
He put his rifle down. “What a goddamned waste,” he said, and it sounded to Henri as if the man was near to tears. “There must be a hundred and thirty kilos of cuts in that animal, not to mention the sausage and the black pudding, and there’s no way to hang it up properly and process it. That hog would have made half a week’s good business at the shop. What a goddamned waste.”
Henri and Sergeant Gobin put the section in order. The prisoners were sent back with a guard of walking wounded. They had only just apportioned everyone when the German battery realized that their observation post must now be entirely in enemy hands and shells began to fall thickly on the farm: high explosive shells as well as shrapnel. One of these came down into the barn and set the hayloft on fire. Smoke and flames rose behind them as they continued on up the field toward the treeline.
The sun was climbing higher in the sky, and it was growing hot. The bare earth of the recently harvested field exhaled the smell of warming humus. It was almost ten o’clock. Surely they would soon reach the treeline and be able to catch their breath before moving on to the next objective.
It was not to be. The other sections had already begun to slow their advance under shelling and long range machine gun fire from the treeline above. As Third Section reached them, it too ground to a halt. The remains of the German battalion which had been so ruthlessly scattered by French artillery earlier was now dug into defensive positions in front of the treeline. Small and desperate engagements were fought all up and down the line. With little communication up and down the line and no room to maneuver, the battle of regiments was fought by companies and sections, even squads, as individual officers and men tried to destroy the positions pouring down fire upon them. Bullets, shells and boots churned dust out of the fields, which added its own choking misery to the fight.
After two hard fought hours the orders came down the line from the regimental HQ: fall back to the road and dig in defensive positions.
The withdrawal took them temporarily out of rifle and machine gun fire, but the artillery continued to play up and down the line mercilessly. Soldiers plied their shovels to turn the roadside ditch into something deep enough to protect them from shrapnel. In this shallow, makeshift trench they at last could take the time to pull out canteens and tinned food. The tinned cans of beef all featured the label “treated beef” and an image of the island of Madagascar.
“Do they even have cows on Madagascar? Isn’t that down in darky country?”
“Don’t believe it, friend. This is monkey meat.”
In the mid-afternoon, the Germans made another attempt at attack, this time in regimental strength. Once again the French 75s showed their mettle. In few places did the attack get close enough to the troops dug in along the road to require them to lay down rifle fire. As shadows lengthened the French made their own second attempt. Now it was the turn of the German artillery and machine guns to hold the line, and once again the attack went to ground, men hugging the earth to avoid the storm of lead and steel above. Again they fell back to the road and the defensive positions they had dug along it.
As dark was falling, Henri received orders to fall back to the tree line from which they had jumped off in the morning. For a moment Henri simply stared at the runner who had just relayed the order to him. All thought the long hot day they had held this line, dug for it, bled for it, some had died for it. And now they were ordered to walk away, to return to the line they had left that morning as if none of the day’s sufferings had happened.
To the rational part of his mind, the tactical problem was clear. They were under constant and accurate artillery fire, stretched out like a target range for the artillery observers on the ridge ahead. Behind their own treeline, they could at least spend the night in a position where German artillery observers could not see them. They would lose fewer men during the night if they fell back. And yet to give up this soil hurt.
He heard the same objections from the officers and men as he passed the order on to the section commanders and squads. He explained the reason, but he knew that reason was not enough. It was a grumbling company that formed up and marched back, in loose order due to the ever present bombardment.
Henri inspected the line that evening as his men expanded and deepened the positions they had dug ten hours before along the treeline. There was more room now. Having begun the day with two hundred and forty men, 22nd Company was now down to under two hundred. Twenty three men who had been alive that morning were dead, and even more had walked or been carried back to the field hospitals.
The mess-men were going up and down the line with their steaming pots of coffee, from which the men dipped out servings with their tin mugs, when Henri at last felt able to step away from the line to have his own food and coffee. Lieutenant Morel and Lieutenant Rejol were already at the ruins of the farm house, making a dinner of tinned beef spread over slices of army bread. Sergeant Carpentier produced a small bottle of gin from which they all took turns drinking.
The kitchen was open on one side now, but as Henri went upstairs he found the bed he had slept in still intact. The windows had been blown out and there was a hole in the wall and ceiling where a high explosive shell had exploded against the wall of the house. He shook the debris off the coverlet and lay down, the warmth of Sergeant Carpentier’s gin still working its way through his stomach to spread its calming numbness to the rest of his body. Thunder growled in the distance -- real thunder, not guns -- and with it a welcome cool breath blew in through the shattered windows.
Rain began to patter outside as he lay down. Long instinct told him that he must get up and close the windows, but no, the windows were past being closed and the house was half a ruin. He settled back and sleep took him instantly.
His rest was sound and dreamless, until he was awaked by the sound of shouting and distant firing.
“Night attack! Night attack!”
The waning gibbous moon washed the room in a pale, bluish illumination by which he could just read his watch: three in the morning.
He hurried from the bed, shaking Morel and Rajol as he did so. The shouting was from outside in the farmyard. “Night attack! Everyone to the line!”
The farmyard was lit by fire as he rushed out the kitchen door. For a moment he thought this was the work of attackers or of shelling. Then he saw a supply service corporal rush by with makeshift torch. They were setting fire to the haystacks. As these conflagrations grew, they illuminated the field above right up to the treeline in reddish light.
From above, near the treeline, he could hear the pop of rifles and the steady tak-tak-tak of machine guns. Three men were coming down the field, moving in the opposite direction. In the dim light Henri could clearly see their French uniforms, but all three were missing backs and two did not even have a rifle. They seemed to bear away, preferring to pass with enough distance from him to avoid words, but Henri moved quickly to intercept them.
“What’s the situation?” he asked. He needed news, and the men would be more pliant if he did not directly challenge their flight.
“It wasn’t our watch,” said the man with the rifle. “I was sound asleep, though I half wonder if the idiots on watch were too. First thing I know is screaming all around that the Germans have got into the line.”
How this had resulted in their flight he did not volunteer, and Henri did not ask.
“Come on,” he said.
There was a moment in which they clearly hesitated. In that instant, Henri’s mind was racing. He could draw his revolver and order them forward. He was entitled to shoot them if they refused to return to their post. But to reach for the gun would turn the encounter into a confrontation and might well make them more determined. Even if he cowed them, what sort of fighters would they make if they entered the line already beaten. It had to seem their own idea, as if they had never thought otherwise.
“Let’s check on the artillery first. We can’t let that be overrun.” He started walking towards the emplacement which had been expanded to a full battery of four 75s in the afternoon. It was a struggle not to look back, to show no question that he would be obeyed.
After that first group it was easy to add more men to his following. He had a squad-sized group following him by the time he reached the battery. The gunners were on alert, pistols out.
“Do you still have contact with your observer in the line?” Henri asked.
“No, sir,” replied the lieutenant commanding the battery.
“All right. I’ll assign you six men to help protect the guns. Send a man able to act as an observer with me. We’ll follow the field telephone wire up and re-establish the observation post. How many illumination shells do you have?”
The answer was prompt. Whatever initiative the young man might have lacked in dealing with the night attack he clearly knew his guns and had them in good order. “Three for each gun, sir.”
“Give us one minute to get near the line, then start firing illumination rounds: one at a time but I want constant illumination for as long as possible.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll send a couple of men back to the ammunition depot to see if we can get more.”
“Good. Once we have the observation post up, we’ll let you know where to direct fire.”
He picked out six men to leave. Only half were armed, but rifles were in short supply among those who had fled. They could at least make themselves useful to the artillerymen.
As they neared the lines, they began to pass rifles that had been dropped by fleeing soldiers. In the stark, blue-white light put out by the hissing flare of the first illumination round, the weapons stood out against the bare field.
“If you need a rifle, pick one up now,” Henri ordered. Men who, not long before, had thrown their rifles away before running now picked up new weapons and followed him towards the fight.
They were nearing the trees. For a moment, all was dark. One illumination round had burnt out and the next one had not yet been fired. Accustomed as they had become to their stark light, the moon was no longer enough for them to see anything by in the moment between flares. Then there was a boom as one of the 75s went off, a pause, pop and hiss as the the flare began to burn, lighting the landscape one again.
In the sudden light Henri saw a German soldier who had just left the tree, advancing towards them, his rifle held at waist height. Henri raised his revolver, all the while expecting to see the flash and hear the report of the rifle, unless a bullet stopped his seeing first. The German charged them instead, the blade of his bayonet held out towards them like a spear. Henri fired, and at nearly the same moment several of the men following him fired their rifles at the same man. The German collapsed, hit by several bullets. One of the men rushed forward to take his rifle, then threw it away in disgust. It was clear now the German had rushed with his bayonet rather than firing: the bolt from his rifle had been removed, rendering it nothing more than ungainly spear.
Henri had seen it in the pages of an infantry manual: When preparing a night attack, it may be advantageous to order the men to remove the bolts from their rifles in order to assure that they fight at close quarters with the bayonet. This assures the element of surprise, as no man can accidentally fire a shot, giving away the surprise to the sleeping enemy. It also allows for easy identification of the enemy in the dark of a close quarter fight, as anyone who fires a shot is marked as a foe.
He had never, however, imagined actually ordering men to attack with no means of firing their rifles. Apparently, some officer on the other side of the lines had.
Knowing this, led the men in a rush right up to the artillery observation post, rather than working slowly up under cover. They found three Germans, one of them going through the ballistics books and other papers next to the field telephone. Half a dozen rifles barked at once and two of the men fell. The third jumped out of the shallow trench and ran, then dropped down, taking cover. Looking after him, Henri realized that the sugar beet field was a nearly perfect hiding place in the sharp light and deep shadows of the illumination flares. It looked like a dark, leafy sea of shadows, standing knee high. The man who had dropped down on his stomach perhaps twenty paces from them was completely invisible. He fired two shots at the place he thought he’d seen the man drop. The leaves briefly lashed as the bullets whipped through them, but then they went back to gently swaying in the nighttime breeze. It would be difficult to tell the waving of the beet tops caused by a man crawling along the ground from the normal movement caused by the wind.
The artilleryman had already got the field telephone working again.
“Ask them to start laying down shrapnel up and down the front,” said Henri. “As close as they can put it to us without danger of falling short onto our lines.”
He left four riflemen, in addition to the artillery observer, giving them orders to shoot at any suspicious movements among the plants. Hopefully the shrapnel shells would soon be threshing this harvest.
The next step was to secure the machine guns. Advancing along the line they passed other officers, NCOs, and private soldiers doing the same thing, cleaning the trench of Germans who had broken in during the attack. Lieutenant Rejol passed, leading a half dozen men from other companies.
“Have you seen Second Section, sir?”
“A few men back that way.” Henri indicated over his shoulder. “The dispositions are thoroughly mixed up. Find your part of the line and prepare for another attack with whatever men you’ve found. We can re-sort men tomorrow.”
Rejol nodded and continued down the line.
The machine gun position had already been cleared of enemy soldiers, but of the crew of six only two remained: one dead and the other with a stomach wound from a bayonet. He sat with his back against the earthen wall of the hole, his pale face beaded with sweat and the arms of his overcoat slicked with blood where he hugged them against his wound.
“Can you walk?” asked Henri.
His lips tightened and he shook his head. “No, sir,” he said. “I put three rounds into the bastard with my pistol, but he just kept coming.” His voice was strained with pain, but he seemed eager to speak with someone, reaching out to another across that gap between persons which was growing suddenly wider for him.
“We’re going to man the gun,” Henri told him. “But as soon as we can get some stretcher bearers up here to the line, they’ll take you back to the hospital.” They would take him, if he lasted till then, but if the wound was down among his stomach and intestines the chance of infection was high enough to approach a death warrant.
The man nodded. “The firing gauntlet is by the gun. There was no warning when they attacked. I was sitting here on watch, and the first I saw was when that big one jumped into our position and came at me.”
Henri organized the men into a machine gun crew. None of them had used a machine gun before. Henri himself had not used one since a weapons demonstration before he retired from active duty to the reserves, but he knew the instructions and careful line drawings from the Infantry Officer’s Manual.
He did a quick mental assessment of the men he had available to him. Men who had fled the lines during a night attack were not the pool from which he would have wished to choose a machine gun team, but he picked the most likely ones.
“Corporal David, you will be the gunner. Private Fontaine, loader and backup gunner. Private Poirier, loader. The rest of you will be responsible for the defending the position.” He spread them out, their rifles trained on the sugar beet field, and ordered them to watch for any movement.
With the gun team he ran through the drill of loading and firing the weapon. The loader fed the aluminum strips holding twenty-four rounds each into the gun from the left. Pull the bolt back here. Now it’s ready to fire. That’s the trigger. Yes, give it a try. Good. Now if it jams and you need to clear a shell, you lift this here. Then you pull the bolt back again and let is slide home.
They fired a set of practice bursts out into the beet field, the bullets churning the leafy greens down the slope. Hot cartridge cases flew out of the gun, some of them clattering on the metal firing gauntlet the gunner had put on.
“Good. You see how it works. And now we wait.”
They waited. The illumination shells became less frequent, with intervals of darkness in between. Henri sent one of the men down to the artillery observer post as a runner to ask why the lengthening intervals.
Not enough illumination rounds, the answer came back. They were trying to conserve them. Henri checked his watch. 3:40 AM. The first light of dawn would not be for another three hours. He sent the runner back: Send one every ten minutes and put it high enough and far enough out to cast light all the way down to the road. If they were going to have to wait through stretches of darkness they had better make sure that they would see an attack starting a long way off.
The waits were agonizing. At first the blackness seemed total, and the mind provided images of German hosts advancing up the beet field unseen. Then their eyes gradually became adjusted to the pale moonlight. For minute after drawn out minute, the beet field was empty except for the movements of the leaves in the wind. Depending on the man’s mood this either left them jumping at every half-seen movement, or fighting to remain awake.
Just after 4:30 the illumination rounds ran out. It was at five that the Germans attacked again. The artillery observer must have seen them first, for the first thing that Henri’s machine gun group saw of the attack was when the French artillery came to life and began to pour shrapnel shells onto the beetfield. In the flashes of the detonations, they could see the figures moving up the field in loose waves.
Corporal David opened up with the machine gun, the two loaders feeding strips in as he swept back and forth across bullet whipped field of greens. They kept coming. Henri could see some men fall, but others appeared out of the shadowy distance. Spent cartridges and empty ammunition trays piled up around the machine gun’s tripod. The loaders opened another case. There were only two more. They were running out of ammunition and out in the dimness of the field the Germans kept coming.
Henri dispatched two men -- who at least had the recommendation of being from Third Section in his own company, though they too were men he had picked up as they fled the front line -- giving them orders to bring back more cases of ammunition from the supply bunker down in the farmyard.
The Germans continued to advance. The attack took on a nightmarish quality. The men approached them up the hill silently. No shots were fired back at them. Either they were again attacking without bolts in their rifles, or they were holding their fire until close, enduring the artillery and machine gun fire until they were able to engage with the infantry. Their casualties must be horrific, and yet, spector-like, the silent figures continued to come.
There was only one case of machine gun ammunition left. Surely the men sent for ammunition should have been back by now. Had the Germans broken through elsewhere and already taken the farm?
Henri ordered Private Poirier to take two other men and go for ammunition. “Run. Even with short bursts we’ll be out of ammunition within a few minutes.”
The Germans were nearly on them, and Corporal David could not restrict himself to short bursts. He raked the oncoming tide of men until the last strip of ammunition was gone. The gun fell silent, and from the dimness ahead they could hear a cheer. Henri pulled out his revolver and the men knelt, resting their rifles on the edge of the fighting hole.
A soldier suddenly loomed out of the dark, his rifle leveled. Every gun in the machine gun position, except the machine gun itself, fired. The soldier toppled forward. Then two appeared in his place. More shots rang out. One stumbled but the other kept coming and jumped into the fighting hole, plunging his bayonet into Corporal David’s chest as he did so. Henri fired his revolver at him, catching him in the shoulder. Then Private Fontaine threw himself on the German and the two struggled, grappling and pounding each other until one of the other men was able to reach in with his rifle and deliver a shot to the head, the range so close that the shot left black soot marks from the rifle on the man’s forehead around the neat, round hole that had been punched in it.
Another figure tumbled into the machine gun position from the side, and Henri raised his revolver to shoot him, then froze. It was Poirier who was gasping on the ground, completely blown after running all the way back uphill. He had brought two cases of machine gun ammunition. A minute later the two men who had gone with him puffed up, each carrying two more cases.
Fontaine opened a case and fed a strip into the gun, and Henri took it by the grips and began to sweep the beet field with bursts of fire.
The tide gradually ebbed. As the first hints of dawn began to light the sky the German attack petered out. The machine gun barrel steamed in the cool morning air. Corporal David sat next to the machine gunner who had been stabbed the night before. His wound gurgled with air. His lung had been pierced. But his chances would be far better than with a stomach wound. If they could get him to a hospital before his lungs filled with blood he would survive.
With dawn the stretcher bearers came. They carried away Corporal David, lying painfully with his wounded side down so that his good lung wouldn’t fill with fluid. The machine gunner had lapsed out of consciousness during the last hour of the night, but he was still breathing and they carried him away as well.
Henri began to move up and down the line, finding men from his own company and organizing them into sectors by section. Just before seven he met Commandant Lefevre, who was inspecting the line.
“Rough handling during the night,” Lefevre said. “Caquot’s company was overwhelmed before he could find them. Valette was killed. You seem to have things tolerably under control in your sector. I hear Lieutenant Rejol helped rally Valette’s company. He’s a good soldier, for all of being a blackbird.”
“He’s a good soldier, sir; being a priest has nothing to do with it,” Henri replied.
Lefevre shrugged. “I was intemperate; I apologize. I forgot that you were religious.” He paused to look out across the fields now lit with morning light, nothing like the ghostly plain they had lashed with machine gun bullets during the night. The commandant sighed. “You’ve all done well. It would have been a good night’s fighting even for a regular army unit, for reservists it was extraordinary. I’m proud of you. But there are orders from division. We’re pulling out and leaving this ground to the Germans. We’ll take positions north of Ognes to prevent a flanking attack.”
Henri’s first thought was of the machine gunner, sitting with his back to the dirt wall of the emplacement, his arms clamped against the wound in his stomach and of Corporal David being carried away, rounded side down so that his good lung wouldn’t fill with blood. They had claimed this ground with blood. And yet it was France that matters, not a single treeline. If abandoning this ground, however dearly bought, would allow them to destroy the German army, it would be a price worth paying.
“I understand, sir. When do we move out?”
“The supply wagons and artillery will move out at eight. We will follow them once they are away. It’s a seven kilometer march. It won’t take more than a couple of hours.”
“Very well, sir. We shall be ready.”
“There is one good piece of news you can give them: There’s hot porridge and sausages to be had if they go down to the mobile kitchens. Have them send mess men down to bring up food to be distributed.”
This did serve to soften the blow, and soon men on food detail were coming back up the field with the big company pots full of food and coffee. The men sat in their holes and grumbled amicably over their breakfast. They would not have been soldiers if there had been no complaining, but the hot breakfast softened what might otherwise have been a very ugly mood.
By ten o’clock the supply train had gone and the 6th Battalion marched away to the south and west. They reached their new positions just after noon and dug shallow trenches in a line a kilometer north of Ognes, a tiny village of three streets, while the artillery set up on the outskirts of town.
It was this artillery which had the hot day of it. There were three full batteries of 75s, twelve guns, and when the first scattering of German cavalry were followed by thick waves of infantry, the guns opened up, pumping shrapnel into the advancing enemy formations, which foundered before they French infantry.
The German artillery briefly pounded the French lines and shelled the town, but the 75s immediately turned to counter-battery fire, a spotter in the church tower easily identifying the German guns in the flat plain and directing a torrent of fire down upon them. Within twenty minutes, the 77s had been silenced and the French artillery was able to return to pounding the advancing infantry.
This brief artillery duel had given the third German assault the chance to escape the blast of lead and steel and fall upon the French trench line. The men obeyed orders, crouching down in their shallow, hastily dug trenches and pouring steady rifle fire into the oncoming line, until the attackers were only a hundred meters away.
Then it became too much for men who had been schooled so thoroughly in the necessity of attack. Whether it was other officers who first led the charge or a spontaneous movement of men who had lost patience with crouching in the cramped safety of the earth Henri never knew. Suddenly the shout was ringing fiercely up and down the line, “Charge!”
Men climbed out with rifles lowered and rushed forward at the remaining Germans who had walked four hundred meters through a storm of bullets. It was only for an instant that Henri stayed in the trench, watching men abandon the safety from which they could have shot down the enemy as they came. However foolish the gesture was, his sense of honor would not allow him to remain still as others rushed forward. He pulled out his revolver and joined the rush.
Under the lashing shrapnel of the artillery and the hissing bullets of the infantry, the Germans had persevered. They were attacking, and they would push forward until they could fall upon the enemy who tormented them, stabbing with bayonets and clubbing with rifle stocks. Heads down, rifles held at waist level, they were ready to advance through the last hundred meters of death to reach their goal. When the French line suddenly rose up, screaming defiance, and rushed at them it seemed immediately that something was wrong. Men faltered, wavered, and felt themselves suddenly the attacked rather than the attackers. Had they been dug in, ready for the defense, they would have stood against such a charge easily. In the open, unprepared for this sudden reversal, it was too much. One man ran, then a dozen. The whole line was falling back. At least half did so in an orderly fashion, walking backwards with their rifles lowered, firing at intervals, and providing cover to their comrades who had panicked. But retreat they did.
When the company had covered a hundred meters and the Germans were in full retreat Henri stopped and sounded his whistle. If the men went too far they could easily go from hunters to hunted. They slowed, their first fury spent, and with shouts and waves he directed them back into the trench.
There they stayed until dinner time, when a company of Senegalese troops relieved them: dark skinned men in closely fitted blue coats and billowy white cotton trousers. Their uniforms were spotless; they were clearly reaching the front line for the first time. Several of the men tried to ask them where they had been and what they had seen of the battle, but the soldiers did not speak more than the rudiments of French.
This relief allowed the company to fall back on the town, where hot stew and army bread were being served from the mobile kitchens.
Once the men were fed, and Henri had been able to wash down his own meal with half a bottle of wine, he went in search of Lieutenant Rejol. He found him, as Sergeant Carpentier had told him he would, at the town’s little stone church, a squat structure with a slightly lopsided air. It seemed clear that the design, whatever architect had drawn it up nearly a thousand years before, had been intended to have two towers. Only one tower had been built, however, the rest of the church sloping down away from it in a long, awkward angle. During the day it had also received more than its share of shelling, the Germans having quickly realized that the bell tower must be serving as an observation post. Several gaping holes had been blown into the long, sideways sloping, tiled roof.
A group of soldiers were just leaving the church when Henri reached it, and inside he found Rejol packing his mass kit back into its leather case.
“Don’t you think it will make it difficult to command men if you allow them to see you acting as a priest as well?” Henri asked.
Rejol shrugged. “Half those men weren’t even from my section, sir. But no, I don’t have that fear. The men see enough of me as an officer to judge me on those grounds.”
“Fair enough. I’m sure you know your business. Come and have some dinner?”
They walked together in silence for a few moments, Henri hesitant to bring up the topic which had sent him searching for Rejol, yet knowing that he had to speak.
“It was a mass for the dead,” Rejol said after a moment, filling the silence. “I think even the non-religious men can respect that from someone who has stood in the line with them.”
There was nothing to be gained by putting the issue off. “You’ve been leading your men without drawing your sword or revolver.”
“Sergeant Michon complained to you?”
“I’ve seen it myself.” It was true, but it was also a deflection. “I would not say he complained. He is worried about you.”
Rejol sighed. “I’m a priest, Captain. You know that. I wear the uniform of France and since I must, I’m proud to do my duty. But I can’t kill with the same hands I use to hold our Lord and Savior.”
And what of my hands? The words seemed an attack, even though Rejol’s tone was mild. “But surely in a defensive war… Didn’t one of the apostles have a sword on the Mount of Olives? It’s not wrong to defend ourselves.”
“No. But a priest’s hands are not for killing.” Rejol smiled. “It’s not just women we give up. We’re no longer creatures of this world.”
Henri snorted. “You won’t be a creature of this world long if you don’t defend yourself.”
“Yes, well… God’s will be done.” There was a hint of humor on Rejol’s tone, but after a pause he continued more gravely. “I’ve never heard that a sword or rifle can stop bullets. A lot of men have died these last two days with rifles in their hands.”
In the end, it was his own skin. And perhaps he was right. Henri shrugged it off. “Well. Let’s go get you some dinner. The stew isn’t bad, and there should still be a some wine. I could do with another glass myself.’
Read the next installment.