This fifth installment concludes Chapter 11. Chapter 12 will focus on Walter.
Ognes, France. September 9th, 1914. The stone row house in which the officers of 6th Battalion were quartered was narrow, just one room across. The two lieutenants who were the only remaining officers of 23rd company were sleeping in the sitting room, which made up the front half of the ground floor, and so Henri was seated at the table in the back room, which served as kitchen, laundry and dining room all in one. By the gently wavering light of a kerosene lantern he sat staring at the piece of stationery on which he had written the date, the name of the town and then: Monsieur Dupuis,
He wanted nothing more than to follow the example of so many other officers and dull the day’s exhaustion with enough cognac to assure a dreamless transition to deep sleep. Yet it would not become any easier to write to Lieutenant Dupuis’s father as more days passed, and if he himself were wounded or killed, the father might never receive word of his son’s last days. Surely he was owed that much.
And yet the blank paper lay in silent challenge. What could it benefit a father to hear?
I was with your son the moment he stood up in a moment of brave thoughtlessness and a German bullet blew fragments of his skull and brains into the grass.
Rejoice! With such a great hole blown in his head, your son cannot possibly have felt the wound that killed him. He did not even twitch when he hit the ground.
He mouthed the words and his conscience could not tell if it was a prayer or curse. Pere Lebas’s lenten retreat came back to him: sitting next to Philomene in the church back in Chateaux Ducloux each Friday night as the priest delivered his talks on the last words of Christ. But when Christ had called out “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” had He done so in the spirit of transcendent prayer which Pere Lebas seemed to imagine, or had He done so in the full, human horror of suffering and blood, of tormented body and despair?
What would Rejol say about those words after these last few days?
There was a knock at the kitchen door, and Henri escaped the blank sheet of stationery to answer it.
A staff car with dimmed lights was idling in the narrow alley, and on the step stood a Lieutenant Colonel, his uniform clean and crisp, his brass buttons gleaming even in the dim light against the blue-black expanse of his uniform tunic.
“What can I do for you, sir?” Henri asked, conscious of the grubbiness of his own uniform after two days in the field.
“I was told the officers of 6th Battalion were quartered in this house. Is that correct?”
“Good. I am Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine, executive officer of the 104th Regiment. I don’t believe we’ve met, Captain.”
Henri recalled the short officer with his reddish hair and precisely trimmed beard from the regimental maneuvers the last time the reserves had been called up, a year before, but it was no surprise that the active regiment’s second in command did not remember all of the officers in the attached reserve regiment.
“Captain Fournier, sir. 22nd Company, 6th Battalion.”
“Ah.” The Lieutenant Colonel looked Henri up and down. “Well, you’re the man I’m looking for, Captain Fournier. The gendarmes have picked up a man from your company, a deserter, found trying to steal civilian clothes. You’ll need to identify him.”
Henri wished himself back with his letter. That, at least, was both honorable and achieving some good. And yet this too would have to be dealt with.
“Very well, sir. Where must I go to identify him?”
Lemoine turned back to the car. “Corporal. Bring out the prisoner.”
A gendarme got out of the front seat next to the driver, and pulled a man in a bedraggled uniform from the back seat. Henri recognized him as one of the two men he had first sent for machine gun ammunition during the night attack. The man would not meet his gaze but looked down at his still-muddy boots.
“Do you recognize this man?” Lemoine asked.
“And can you tell me when he was last with his unit?”
“Why don’t you come inside, sir. I’ll tell you all about it.”
The lieutenant colonel directed the gendarme to return the prisoner to the car, then the two officers went into the house and sat down with the kitchen table between them.
“May I get you something to drink,sir? Coffee? Cognac?”
Lemoine accepted a glass of cognac and Henri poured himself one as well. Then he described the night attack, how he had sent the two soldiers for machine gun ammunition and how they had never returned.
The lieutenant colonel listened with grave interest. “It is as I feared,” he said at last, shaking his head. “These reserve battalions too easily crack under heavy fighting.”
Henri threw out his hands. “It was a confused situation. They attacked silently at night. The lines were infiltrated. This man will be dealt with. It will not happen again.”
“I’m sorry, but it is worse than you think,” said Lemoine, leaning forward, his elbows on the table. “You must understand your position. Tomorrow, the German right wing facing you will be reinforced yet more. We have no more reserves to send you, the Senegalese were the last. 6th Battalion will be back in the line, and you will have to weather the German attacks all day no matter how heavy the casualties. If you are flanked, the left of our line caves in. And how are you to tell your men that they must stand and fight even if that means dying before abandoning their positions, if men who slip away do so with impunity?”
The man’s tone seemed accusing. Henri squared his shoulders. “I understand the seriousness of our situation, sir. You may be assured: we will stand and fight. This man may be a coward, or he may have been panicked by the dark and confusion, but my company has held its ground and it will continue to do so.”
“I mean no disrespect to your company, Captain. But any soldiers can break under pressure. That is why GQG has made it clear that in such circumstances we must make the clearest possible example. We shall have to hold a summary court martial.”
“Tonight? It’s nearly ten.”
“Tonight. If guilty, he must be shot at dawn before the company goes back into the line.” The Lieutenant Colonel threw back the last of his cognac and rose from his chair. “I’ll send my subaltern around to find three officers to sit on the court. This house is hardly big enough, but I saw a church nearby. We can use that.”
Henri’s legs felt leaden. His neck and shoulders ached. A weight of exhaustion seemed to press down upon his mind, dulling it. Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine, by contrast, was full of energetic efficiency. Henri followed him in mute obedience as the officer rounded up two captains and a sergeant from 4th Battalion and ranged them in three chairs behind a table set up in the back of the church.
The deserter sat, under the watchful eyes of the gendarme, in the back pew. He was slumped forward, his elbows on his knees, his head bent, though whether this was an attitude of prayer, shame, or exhaustion Henri could not tell.
There was no injustice in holding the man to account for his desertion, Henri told himself. This was no mere loss of nerve under attack. Men like Corporal David had fled the line during the confusion of the night attack, only to later man his gun until gravely wounded.
The Lieutenant Colonel was describing to the two officers and one NCO who sat in judgement how the deserter had been caught six kilometers behind the lines, stealing civilian clothes which would have allowed him to slink away from the army for good. Others had died or been wounded because this man had abandoned his duty and the machine gun had run out of ammunition.
No, it was not unjust. And yet having to deal with this man’s case seemed sordid and offensive after the last two days of fighting. Why could the gendarmes and staff officers not do their own dirty work far away from the lines and leave them to defend France without thinking of this dirty business?
Lemoine called Henri to stand before the judges and with questions drew out of him an account of the night’s battle and the deserter’s failure to return.
Last of all the deserter himself was called. He stood before the table, his eyes down, his mustache occasionally twitching as he struggled for control of his expression.
He and the other soldier had gone back to the ammunition bunker. They had each picked up two cases of machine gun ammunition. They had started back to the front line. As they went they had met a man coming the other way. An injured man with a great gash in his stomach, using his arms to hold his intestines in.
“He looked at us, but his eyes didn’t really seem to see. He asked where the hospital was. Andre said he thought it must be back past the farm. Just then the man shifted his arm and something fell out of his stomach, like a big, glistening chain of sausage. He reached down, tucked it back in, calm as could be, and walked away.” The mustache twitched again. “We looked at each other, and we knew we couldn’t go back there. We dropped the cases and walked away.”
No, he did not know what had happened to his companion. They had gone their separate ways almost immediately, and he had not seen him again. Yes, he understood that without the ammunition his comrades had been left in danger without the protection of the machine gun.
“I knew it was wrong. But I’m not a soldier, sirs. I’m a waiter. I couldn’t go back there.”
Tears were rolling down the man’s face. Henri looked away, his eyes coming to rest instead on the crucifix which stood away at the head of the church, above the altar. Christ on the cross. “Could you not stay with me one hour?” No. Some men could not.
Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine had finished with his remarks and asked the three judges for their verdict.
For deserting his duty under fire, causing the death of his fellow soldiers, he would be executed by firing squad at seven in the morning. All of 22nd Company was to be present to witness the execution, and the firing squad was to be chosen from the deserter’s own section.
Lemoine thanked the three judges for their time, shook hands, and turned to Henri.
“The gendarmes can keep the prisoner here tonight. I’ll drive out in the morning to oversee. See to it that the company is drawn up in the orchard I saw just south of town by seven o’clock. There should be room there.”
Henri nodded. “I will see to it, sir.”
Lemoine clapped him on the shoulder. “It’s an ugly thing, but it must be done. We can’t let them waver. Heat forges steel, eh?”
They exchanged salutes. The lieutenant colonel turned to give instructions to the gendarme. Henri left.
The bugles were to blow at six. Henri got up early after a fitful sleep and gathered his officers in the pre-dawn darkness. He told them about the events of the night before as they sat around the kitchen table drinking scalding coffee.
Sergeant Gobin, the acting commander of Third Section since Lieutenant Dupuis’s death, hunched his shoulders and looked down at his cup, reluctant to meet the eyes of the others. “The men are tired. They’ve fought hard, and they’ll fight today. But they’re tired. This kind of disgrace won’t help them. They’re factory workers and porters and shop assistants, not executioners. Why couldn’t the bastard have got himself killed or had the decency to get clean away?”
They were the same questions Henri had asked himself the night before during the summary court martial, but the sergeant needed strength more than sympathy.
“It’s unfortunate, but the men are strong, Sergeant. And they’ll be stronger for the example that there is no alternative but to stand and fight.”
Gobon nodded, his lips compressed into a line.
Henri gave instructions to have the company drawn up in the orchard by seven o’clock. The officers dispersed to see to their units. Henri held back Lieutenant Rejol for a moment.
“The gendarmes have him down by the church, or somewhere near there if they found a place to spend the night. If you think it appropriate, you can leave your senior sergeant in charge of getting the section ready and go see if there’s anything you can do for the man. I don’t know if they will have brought a priest to see him on this notice.”
Rejol nodded silently and hurried away.
The orchard itself proved no sort of place to draw up nearly two hundred men. The neatly spaced trees were placed regularly in a grid, each tree twelve feet from its neighbors, running right up to the low stone wall of the enclosure. Just beyond that wall, however, there was an open grassy area, and here the company was standing, drawn up by companies when the Lieutenant Colonel was driven up in his staff car at precisely seven o’clock. Commandant Lefevre was with him, following quietly in the regimental officer’s wake: he too expected to witness the lesson which was being delivered to one of the companies of his battalion.
Lemoine walked up and down the line, inspecting the men. While he did so, the gendarme who had ridden with him pulled a wooden chair from the car’s boot and set it in front of the low stone wall, facing the company. It sat there, empty and ominous. Then the gendarme turned and marched away, back towards the town.
“The firing squad must be selected at random from the deserter’s section,” said the Lieutenant Colonel.
Henri turned to Sergeant Gobin, whose face was a set mask. “Third section to array in a line, single file.”
Gobin turned crisply on his heel and rapped out a set of commands, as precise as if he had been on the parade ground. The section filed forward and formed a line, standing shoulder to shoulder at attention, their rifle butts planted on the ground.
“Count off by fives,” ordered Henri, and the men sounded off.
“One.” “Two.” “Three.” “Four.” “Five.” “One.” “Two.”
As they counted Henri watched, trying to think of some means other than whim to pick which group of men would be forced to participate most directly in this ritual of death. Third section. Number three.
“Three’s take two paces forward and close ranks,” he ordered, once the men were finished. “Rest of section, reform column.”
The men moved with creditable precision. The month’s drilling in Paris since mobilization had brought them to a decent pitch, and it was for moments when precise movement was far preferable to thinking that drilling was designed.
Nine men stood, shoulder to shoulder, their rifles grounded, their backs straight and feet together. Henri looked at Sergeant Gobin and a silent question passed between them. He could make the sergeant command the squad. It was perhaps an NCO’s proper duty. And yet he commanded the company. The strength with which he recoiled from the action told him that he could not, in conscience, force another to do it for him.
“Open bolt.” he ordered. “Load one round. Close bolt. Ground weapon.” The men did the actions, the metallic sound of the nine rifle bolts audible in the silence. As if on queue, three gendarmes came into sight, marching between them the prisoner. He was a pitiful sight. He no longer wore his uniform tunic or overcoat, just the cotton long-sleeve shirt of pale blue and white stripes which the men wore as an undershirt. The little group stopped at the corner of the stone wall and waited.
“The whole company must be able to see,” Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine said. “Form them up two deep.”
Was he determined to rub their noses so deeply in it? Very well. Henri gave the order and the company reformed into a long line facing the prisoner, standing shoulder to shoulder, two deep, the second row looking between the heads of the first. However little they might relish the view every man in the company would have a clear sight of the proceedings.
Now the Lieutenant Colonel turned to address the men.
“You may be asking yourselves why you are called to see this spectacle today,” he said, pacing slowly along the line. “You take no joy in it, and neither do I. It is not a punishment. You held the line when this man ran and left you to your fate. But I must tell you that today France stands upon the brink. Unlike our adversary, France is a Republic. If our army breaks, if we cannot rely upon the citizens who stand to the right and left of us, if we are defeated in battle, it is not an autocrat who is brought low -- some king or emperor -- but rather each one of us: every French man and woman. We who wear the uniform of France hold a sacred trust, to guard the soil of France. We can tolerate no weakening. No man may leave his post. We must form a pact for France. A pact of blood: No surrender. No retreat. Attack! Attack!
“For some men it is enough simply to know their duty. But for others, it is necessary to know that there is no choice -- that abandoning his comrades to death at the enemy’s hands will only lead to his own death. That is why we are gathered here this morning. Because we cannot allow a man to desert his post and endanger both the lives of his comrades and the liberty of France. In this time of greatest danger, we must punish the desertion of a man’s post with the most severe penalty possible.”
Lemoine looked up and down the line, allowing this to sink in. Then he turned to the gendarmes.
“Prepare the prisoner.”
The gendarmes brought the prisoner forward and tied him to the wooden chair, a perfectly ordinary chair which had spent decades at some dinner table in a house in the town. Now the prisoner was tied to it, his arms at his sides. He looked desperately around, his head the only part of him that could move easily. Then the gendarmes tied a piece of cloth over his eyes, and his head sank, his chin nearly on his chest. He was just far enough away that distance provided a small degree of anonymity, but Henri felt sure he could see the man’s face twitching and contorting in silent sobs.
Some set of hopes and terrors which had proved more powerful than loyalty or honor during the night attack, now arrived at their definitive end, and no other human being would ever know what they were. Eternity, whether divinity or void, yawned wide. There was nothing unique in what was about to happen to this unhappy waiter forced into uniform. Over a hundred thousand of his fellow Frenchmen had been killed in the last month, their bodies torn apart by lead or steel, but most of these had in some sense been surprised by death. No matter how desperate the attack or defense, some survived even as some died. The great grinding machine of war chose its victims impersonally. Here, by contrast, was utter certainty. He was going to die. Now. Here. The string of being which had stretched unbroken from the time his mother and father had conceived him, through his childhood and youth, would end here in this grassy space, on a wooden chair, before a low stone wall.
The gendarmes marched away and stood in a little line by the staff car, well off to one side. Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine looked at Henri and nodded.
“Shoulder rifles,” ordered Henri. “Aim.”
He had stepped close to the nine men whose rifles now were leveled at the prisoner. He spoke to them now in a low voice which only they could hear. “You will do him no favors by doing this badly. Aim true and it will be over quickly.”
Then he gave the final command in a voice which carried across the whole line in a roar, just before the crash of rifles set everyone’s ears ringing, “Fire!”
Nine rifles fired and the wooden chair with the prisoner tied to it pitched backwards.
Henri drew his revolver and stepped forward to inspect the prisoner. “Please, God,” he said in a low tone.
His prayer was granted. The prisoner was clearly and obviously dead, his chest a bloody ruin. There was no requirement for Henri to act as the final executioner, delivering a fatal shot to the head at point blank range with his revolver.
“Squad, fall out,” he said, and the nine men returned to their section. “Company, dismissed.”
The men turned, and their NCOs marched them away. The lieutenant colonel climbed into his staff car and drove off.
Henri turned to the gendarmes. “This is your job,” he said, indicating the body.
Despite the early hour, the three men passed a flask between them, each taking a healthy swig. Then they went to untie the prisoner’s body from the chair.
Along with the other companies in the regiment, the 22nd collected their gear and marched to the front line, a kilometer to the north of town. The Senegalese regiment had spent the night deepening the rough trenchline which the 104th had begun the day before. There had been good reason. As they approached the trench the men passed several groups of dark skinned bodies horrifically torn by shrapnel, now laid out in neat rows to await the burial party.
“How do you find things?” Henri asked the captain of the company his was replacing in the line, a white colonial with sandy hair and a face deeply tanned and lined with long exposure to the sun.
“There were some hot moments during the night,” the captain said. He took a draw on the slim cheroot he was smoking and let the smoke dribble from his lips. “It’s been pretty quiet since dawn, however. I wish you joy of it.”
Things continued quiet as they settled into the position after the Senegalese had left to take their own turn at food and rest. The German artillery remained quiet. No gray masses of troops appeared moving across the fields.
Henri remembered all too vividly Lieutenant Colonel Lemoine’s warning the night before. “Tomorrow, the German right wing facing you will be reinforced yet more. We have no more reserves to send you.” He moved up and down the company’s line, checking the men, making sure they remained alert.
The hastily dug trench line was not something that an officer could walk down while it was manned. It was dug three to four feet deep, and just wide enough for a man to crouch down in it comfortably. The earth that had been dug out of the trench had been piled on the side facing the enemy, making a wall of earth another two feet high, enough that a man standing in the bottom of the trench could rest his elbows on the earth before him and fire his rifle with only his head and shoulders exposed. Since the enemy was currently quiet, Henri walked upright along the ground just behind the trench. This gave him a clearer view towards the German lines, but left him as an obvious target for any enterprising rifleman on the other side. However, although his eye was constantly drawn in the direction from which the attack must surely come, the minutes dragged into hours in near perfect quiet.
Just after noon runners arrived from the regimental headquarters and orders worked their way down the line: All battalions to advance.
The companies formed up in a double skirmish line in front of their trenches, exposed to any bullets or shrapnel that might be directed their way. At last the bugles sounded up and down the line and they set out, the officers walking in front and setting a deliberate pace.
Each moment Henri expected to hear the shriek of incoming artillery shells or the whisper of bullets, but there was nothing. The fields stretched out flat and wide before them, broken only by occasional stands of trees. After going a kilometer, the tension maddening, they reached some sketchily dug German defensive lines, but they were empty. Another kilometer and they passed the Rue de Soissons east of the town of Nanteuil le Haudoin. Here they found abandoned gun emplacements: piles of sandbags, empty 77mm shells, and the plentiful craters of counter-battery fire from the French artillery. Still there was no sign of the enemy. The Germans had withdrawn.
The reason for this absence could in no way make sense to those seeing the battle at the level of a company, a regiment or even a division. In the sort of warfare which involved masses of men moving towards each other, battering the enemy with artillery, rifle, and machine gun fire, and fighting to take or hold ground -- in short, within the scope of the battle as fought across the amount of landscape a man could see from some hill or tall building -- the German 1st Army and the French 6th Army, arrayed against each other between the Marne River and the Aisne, had both fought with bravery. The Germans had given as well as they got, and in a number of areas had in fact advanced over the four days of fighting. However this was precisely the problem, on the large maps -- both at the Oberste Heeresleitung and at the Grand Quartier Général -- a strategic gap had opened up between the German 1st and 2nd armies, a gap which could be seen by those who thought in terms of the whole hundred mile battle front. As the German 1st Army had advanced gradually to the west, pressing hard on the French 6th, and the German 2nd Army had advanced south, fighting intensely against the French 5th and 9th Armies, this gap had opened between the two German formations, and into that gap was moving the British Expeditionary Force.
Britain’s professional army was small compared to the large conscript armies of Germany and France. The BEF was less than half the size of either the German 1st or 2nd Army -- leave aside the 3rd through 7th ranged further east along the front -- but it was about to be situated to the rear of both, allowing it to play havoc with supply lines and attack either army from behind. And so the orders had been sent form from OHL: Fall back to the line of the Aisne River and reform.
None of this could be known by the men of 22nd Company, but the evidence that the German army had fallen back from their positions was clear enough for any eye. Order briefly broke as the officers requested orders and awaited them. The men rooted through the refuse of the Germans brief occupation, looking for souvenirs. One man in First Section took an empty brass 77mm cartridge case and strapped it to his pack.
“When I get back to my tools, I’ll put the date on it and have it as a memorial vase on the mantle. What do you think this battle is called?”
“I don’t know, brother. How do they name battles anyway?”
The runners returned from headquarters: Pursue the enemy and allow him no respite. Quarter for the night in Crepy-en-Valois.
Henri and the other company commanders gathered around Commandant Lefevre’s map. The battalion had been well provided with detailed maps of Alsace and Loraine immediately after mobilization and even a few optimistically selected maps of the Rhineland. It had not been anticipated, however, that the army would need detailed maps of the Marne and Aisne regions, only one or two days march from Paris, and once it had been realized it was far too late to print the thousands of maps needed. Lefevre’s jealously guarded map was one he had acquired himself, a small scale color map printed by the Motoring Society of Paris which distinguished paved roads from dirt ones, recommended camp and picnic sites, and was decorated across the top with the injunction: Plan Your Summer Holidays! It was, however, enough for them to see that they had another three kilometers of open fields to cross, then a belt of forest some two kilometers wide, and perhaps two kilometers more before they reached Crepy-en-Valois.
They reformed the skirmish line and set off. The leafy tops of sugar beets ruffled against Henri’s legs as he led the company. Looking out across the knee-high green expanse, he remembered all too clearly how easily men had disappeared if they dropped for cover in the beet field two days before. There could be a whole battalion ranged out in the fields before them, and he could never know it until they opened fire. He felt his shoulders growing tense and his pulse quickening and pushed the thought away. There might be Germans ahead, and there might not, but until he saw something other than the evidence of the empty field, worrying about it was no different from walking through a dark room as a child and imagining some terrifying creature until he actually became afraid and rushed for the door.
In pushing the memory of the fight across the beet field from his mind, he found it replaced by the image of the deserter executed that morning: the prisoner’s obvious terror, the stony faces of the men selected for the firing squad -- the men he had selected, there was no honesty in the passive voice -- and at last the bloody ruin of a chest, no trace of breath or motion, where so soon before there had been tenuous, terrified life.
It was not the first death he had ordered in the last few days. The company was down some forty men, some killed, most wounded, since they had boarded the long line of taxis in the outskirts of Paris, and he hoped that the company’s actions had been responsible for killing or wounding at least as many Germans. He remembered taking the grips of the machine gun and whipping the beet tops with its ten rounds a second. Many of the shadowy gray figures in the pre-dawn dimness had gone down, hit or diving for cover. But it was not those men that he himself had shot who recurred to mind. Other wounds had been more horrifying: Young Lieutenant Dupuis’s head blown suddenly open as he stood up, the steady gurgling of Corporal David’s chest wound. Those were injuries more shocking or drawn out, men that he cared about and valued, and yet the prisoner recurred, tied to his innocuous kitchen chair, his chest torn open by nine bullets.
The beet field gave way to a wheat field, which having already been harvested was a wide expanse of dirt and stubble. The trees were visible as a dark mass a kilometer off, and the exposed field stretched out to it, utterly flat and rendering the advancing company the clearest targets in the world. Henri looked up and down the line as he led. The order was still good: slight bends in the line and here and there a growing gap, but on the whole very good. He could see some men beginning to talk to those around them, however, bodies marching evenly while heads turned to one side. The march had become a routine.
Henri called to his sergeant, who trotted over with a peculiar scissoring run, legs nearly straight, arms held at his sides, as if he were marching in a speeded up fashion, like the jerky, comic films that could be seen for half a Franc in Paris.
“Get those men to pay attention,” Henri directed him.
The sergeant moved up and down the line as they marched, barking orders at the men. This drew some semblance of attention, but it was not until they heard bullets whine by, followed an instant later by the distant pop] of rifle reports among the trees three hundred meters ahead, that attention became truly and desperately immediate.
The firing was sporadic, however -- a small rear guard. The regiment’s whole line was still advancing towards the trees, and rather than break with it to have some sections provide covering fire, Henri judged they could advance into it and drive the skirmishers off.
A handful of men fell, but within a few minutes the line had rushed the treeline and the German rear guard had melted back into the trees, leaving no trace but a few spent cartridge cases and the strong smell of tobacco smoke hanging in the air where men had sat smoking for hours and waiting for their enemy to appear.
The regiment paused at the treeline to reform and collect their wounded. Sergeant Carpentier was among them. A bullet had passed in near his right hip and out through his buttock.
“Poor sergeant,” observed one of the men of Fourth Section. “There was no call for him to be Boche-buggered.” Within the last month two caricature images had become standard for the German soldiers, drawings showing them either with the heads of swine or with heads made of cabbages, a dual swing at German intelligence and culinary ability. Of these it was Boche, cabbage-head, which had caught on as a verbal epithet and become far more common than the proper word for German.
Once the wounded had been organized and left under the protection of a section from 21st company to wait for the motorized ambulances, the skirmish line entered the woodland. It was slow going, although there were only occasionally brushes with small groups of German rearguards.
The sun was sinking when they emerged from the woods and approached the town of Crepy-en-Valois beyond. There the citizens, leaving their cellars and opening their shutters at the sight of French uniforms, told them that the main German force had pulled out of the town a few hours before.
Given the size of the town, Henri and his two remaining lieutenants were able to get a house to themselves, where in return for a quartering fee a bent but energetic old lady served them white bread and a stew of summer vegetables.
“Those Boches stole all the meat,” she complained.
They assured her that the dinner was good enough without, and a few minutes later she appeared with two dusty bottles. “They got the meat, but they never found these.”
After dinner, their hostess showed Henri and Rejol into her tiny sitting room. Morel had left while they were still finishing the second bottle of wine.
“What are you getting up for?” Rejol demanded. “There’s still another glass here.”
“To find a woman.”
Rejol did not reply, and Morel left the priest and the married man to their wine as he ventured out upon the town. The old lady begged them not to smoke inside, but offered instead a small decanter of blackcurrant cordial which reminded Henri of home. Rejol took out his breviary and read silently for a time. Henri took out the letter he had begun to Lieutenant Dupuis’s father and stared at the mostly blank sheet of stationery.
He was still doing so when Rejol set aside his breviary and poured each of them another glass of cordial.
Henri knocked back the glass at once, the sweetness strong on his palate, and poured another.
“When we sit drinking, am I talking to the priest or the officer?” he asked.
Rejol finished his own glass and refilled it. “The man.”
With the alcohol flowing through his veins secrets yearned to burst forth. Henri had always confronted the wooden confessional box at the back of the church in Chateau Ducloux with discomfort, but now it was a relief to speak.
“I’m trying to write to Dupuis’s father, trying to find the right words to say. And yet, the image that haunts me isn’t seeing him shot before my eyes. It’s that deserter this morning.”
Rejol nodded but said nothing.
“Why is it that, of all things, that I can’t stop thinking about, Father? Was that a sin?”
Rejol was tilting his glass this way and then that, the sweet, dark liquid forming patterns on the side of the glass.
“I didn’t choose to do it. I was under orders. Surely it’s a crime to desert one’s fellow soldiers. Men died because that man ran instead of bringing those ammunition cases. Just authority has the power to order death, doesn’t it?”
“Why is it this that keeps haunting me? God can’t hold it against me, can He? It’s not a sin?”
At last Rejol met his eyes. “You did your duty. I would have done the same, I suppose. That scares me. Duty is a terrifying thing -- the way that we hold men’s lives in our hands. I’ll tell you: I’ve prayed more than once that I never have to take your place, never have to shoulder the burdens that you bear.”
The prisoner’s torn chest hovered in Henri’s mind despite the dulling haze of alcohol. He took another drink. “Then why is it this one thing that follows me. If it’s not a sin, why do I feel guilty?”
“Sin isn’t just a list of wrongs,” said Rejol. “Sin is any thing that divides you from God. If the thought won’t give you any peace… Well, that’s what we’ve been given confession for. To cleanse sin.”
Through the open window Henri could hear the sound of shouts and singing in the street, soldiers forgetting the events of the last few days. In the distance, three or four kilometers off, he could hear the dull thump of artillery, but not close enough to present any danger. Did this morning’s event divide him from God? Surely not. But then, in some sense, it divided him from everything. Any moment of quiet, any train of thought, the images and words of that morning interposed.
He got out of his chair and knelt, not facing Rejol but angled away, his eyes fixed on a blank spot on the wall. He tried to imagine the confessional’s screen in the church back at home.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was before the war.”
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