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EVENING is falling upon the trench. All through the day it has been drawing near, invisible as fate, and now it encroaches on the banks of the long ditches like the lips of a wound infinitely great.
We have talked, eaten, slept, and written in the bottom of the trench since the morning. Now that evening is here, an eddying springs up in the boundless crevice; it stirs and unifies the torpid disorder of the scattered men. It is the hour when we arise and work.
Volpatte and Tirette approach each other. "Another day gone by, another like the rest of 'em," says Volpatte, looking at the darkening sky.
"You're off it; our day isn't finished," replies Tirette, whose long experience of calamity has taught him that one must not jump to conclusions, where we are, even in regard to the modest future of a commonplace evening that has already begun.
"Allons! Muster!" We join up with the laggard inattention of custom. With himself each man brings his rifle, his pouches of cartridges, his water-bottle, and a pouch that contains a lump of bread. Volpatte is still eating, with protruding and palpitating cheek. Paradis, with purple nose and chattering teeth, growls. Fouillade trails his rifle along like a broom. Marthereau looks at a mournful handkerchief, rumpled and stiff, and puts it back in his pocket. A cold drizzle is falling, and everybody shivers.
Down yonder we hear a droning chant--"Two shovels, one pick, two shovels, one pick " The file trickles along to the tool-store, stagnates at the door, and departs, bristling with implements.
"Everybody here? Gee up!" says the sergeant. Downward and rolling, we go forward. We know not where we go. We know nothing, except that the night and the earth are blending in the same abyss.
As we emerge into the nude twilight from the trench, we see it already black as the crater of a dead volcano. Great gray clouds, storm-charged, hang from the sky. The plain, too, is gray in the pallid light; the grass is muddy, and all slashed with water. The things which here and there seem only distorted limbs are denuded trees. We cannot see far around us in the damp reek; besides, we only look downwards at the mud in which we slide--"Porridge!"
Going across country we knead and pound a sticky paste which spreads out and flows back from every step--"Chocolate cream--coffee creams!"
On the stony parts, the wiped-out ruins of roads that have become barren as the fields, the marching troop breaks through a layer of slime into a flinty conglomerate that grates and gives way under our iron-shod soles--"Seems as if we were walking on buttered toast!"
On the slope of a knoll sometimes, the mud is black and thick and deep-rutted, like that which forms around the horse-ponds in villages, and in these ruts there are lakes and puddles and ponds, whose edges seem to be in rags.
The pleasantries of the wags, who in the early freshness of the journey had cried, "Quack, quack," when they went through the water, are now becoming rare and gloomy; gradually the jokers are damped down. The rain begins to fall heavily. The daylight dwindles, and the confusion that is space contracts. The last lingering light welters on the ground and in the water.
A steaming silhouette of men like monks appears through the rain in the west. It is a company of the 204th, wrapped in tent-cloths. As we go by we see the pale and shrunken faces and the dark noses of these dripping prowlers before they disappear. The track we are following through the faint grass of the fields is itself a sticky field streaked with countless parallel ruts, all plowed in the same line by the feet and the wheels of those who go to the front and those who go to the rear.
We have to jump over gaping trenches, and this is not always easy, for the edges have become soft and slippery, and earth-falls have widened them. Fatigue, too, begins to bear upon our shoulders. Vehicles cross our path with a great noise and splashing. Artillery limbers prance by and spray us heavily. The motor lorries are borne on whirling circles of water around the wheels, with spirting tumultuous spokes.
As the darkness increases, the jolted vehicles and the horses' necks and the profiles of the riders with their floating cloaks and slung carbines stand out still more fantastically against the misty floods from the sky. Here, there is a block of ammunition carts of the artillery. The horses are standing and trampling as we go by. We hear the creaking of axles, shouts, disputes, commands which collide, and the roar of the ocean of rain. Over the confused scuffle we can see steam rising from the buttocks of the teams and the cloaks of the horsemen.
"Look out!" Something is laid out on the ground on our right--a row of dead. As we go by, our feet instinctively avoid them and our eyes search them. We see upright boot-soles, outstretched necks, the hollows of uncertain faces, hands half clenched in the air over the dark medley.
We march and march, over fields still ghostly and foot-worn, under a sky where ragged clouds unfurl themselves upon the blackening expanse--which seems to have befouled itself by prolonged contact with so many multitudes of sorry humanity.
Then we go down again into the communication trenches. To reach them we make a wide circuit, so that the rearguard can see the whole company, a hundred yards away, deployed in the gloom, little obscure figures sticking to the slopes and following each other in loose order, with their tools amid their rifles pricking up on each side of their heads, a slender trivial line that plunges in and raises its arms as if in entreaty.
These trenches--still of the second lines--are populous. On the thresholds of the dug-outs, where cart-cloths and skins of animals hang and flap, squatting and bearded men watch our passing with expressionless eyes, as if they were looking at nothing. From beneath other cloths, drawn down to the ground, feet are projected, and snores.
"Nom de Dieu! It's a long way!" the trampers begin to grumble. There is an eddy and recoil in the flow.
"Halt!" The stop is to let others go by. We pile ourselves up, cursing, on the walls of the trench. It is a company of machine-gunners with their curious burdens.
There seems to be no end to it, and the long halts are wearying. Muscles are beginning to stretch. The everlasting march is overwhelming us. We have hardly got going again when we have to recoil once more into a traverse to let the relief of the telephonists go by. We back like awkward cattle, and restart more heavily.
"Look out for the wire!" The telephone wire undulates above the trench, and crosses it in places between two posts. When it is too slack, its curve sags into the trench and catches the rifles of passing men, and the ensnared ones struggle, and abuse the engineers who don't know how to fix up their threads.
Then, as the drooping entanglement of precious wires increases, we shoulder our rifles with the butt in the air, carry the shovels under our arms, and go forward with lowered heads.
* * * * * *
Our progress now is suddenly checked, and we only advance step by step, locked in each other. The head of the column must be in difficult case. We reach a spot where failing ground leads to a yawning hole--the Covered Trench. The others have disappeared through the low doorway. "We've got to go into this blackpudding. then?"
Every man hesitates before ingulfing himself in the narrow underground darkness, and it is the total of these hesitations and lingerings that is reflected in the rear sections of the column in the form of wavering, obstruction, and sometimes abrupt shocks.
From our first steps in the Covered Trench, a heavy darkness settles on us and divides us from each other. The damp odor of a swamped cave steals into us. In the ceiling of the earthen corridor that contains us, we can make out a few streaks and holes of pallor--the chinks and rents in the overhead planks. Little streams of water flow freely through them in places, and in spite of tentative groping we stumble on heaped-up timber. Alongside, our knocks discover the dim vertical presence of the supporting beams.
The air in this interminable tunnel is vibrating heavily. It is the searchlight engine that is installed there--we have to pass in front of it.
After we have felt our deep-drowned way for a quarter of an hour, some one who is overborne by the darkness and the wet, and tired of bumping into unknown people, growls, "I don't care--I'm going to light up."
The brilliant beam of a little electric lamp flashes out, and instantly the sergeant bellows, "Ye gods! Who's the complete ass that's making a light? Are you daft? Don't you know it can be seen, you scab, through the roof?"
The flash-lamp, after revealing some dark and oozing walls in its cone of light, retires into the night. "Not much you can't see it!" jeers the man, "and anyway we're not in the first lines." "Ah, that can't be seen!"
The sergeant, wedged into the file and continuing to advance, appears to be turning round as he goes and attempting some forceful observations--"You gallows-bird! You damned dodger!" But suddenly he starts a new roar--"What! Another man smoking now! Holy hell!" This time he tries to halt, but in vain he rears himself against the wall and struggles to stick to it. He is forced precipitately to go with the stream and is carried away among his own shouts, which return and swallow him up, while the cigarette, the cause of his rage, disappears in silence.
* * * * * *
The jerky beat of the engine grows louder, and an increasing heat surrounds us. The overcharged air of the trench vibrates more and more as we go forward. The engine's jarring note soon hammers our ears and shakes us through. Still it gets hotter; it is like some great animal breathing in our faces. The buried trench seems to be leading us down and down into the tumult of some infernal workshop, whose dark-red glow is sketching out our huge and curving shadows in purple on the walls.
In a diabolical crescendo of din, of hot wind and of lights, we flow deafened towards the furnace. One would think that the engine itself was hurling itself through the tunnel to meet us, like a frantic motor-cyclist drawing dizzily near with his headlight and destruction.
Scorched and half blinded, we pass in front of the red furnace and the black engine, whose flywheel roars like a hurricane, and we have hardly time to make out the movements of men around it. We shut our eyes, choked by the contact of this glaring white-hot breath.
Now, the noise and the heat are raging behind us and growing feebler, and my neighbor mutters in his beard, "And that idiot that said my lamp would be seen!"
And here is the free air! The sky is a very dark blue, of the same color as the earth and little lighter. The rain becomes worse and worse, and walking is laborious in the heavy slime. The whole boot sinks in, and it is a labor of acute pain to withdraw the foot every time. Hardly anything is left visible in the night, but at the exit from the hole we see a disorder of beams which flounder in the widened trench--some demolished dugout.
Just at this moment, a searchlight's unearthly arm that was swinging through space stops and falls on us, and we find that the tangle of uprooted and sunken posts and shattered framing is populous with dead soldiers. Quite close to me, the head of a kneeling body hangs on its back by an uncertain thread; a black veneer, edged with clotted drops, covers the cheek. Another body so clasps a post in its arms that it has only half fallen. Another, lying in the form of a circle, has been stripped by the shell, and his back and belly are laid bare. Another, outstretched on the edge of the heap, has thrown his hand across our path; and in this place where there no traffic except by night--for the trench is blocked just there by the earth-fall and inaccessible by day--every one treads on that hand. By the searchlight's shaft I saw it clearly, fleshless and worn, a sort of withered fin.
The rain is raging and the sound of its streaming dominates everything--a horror of desolation. We feel the water on our flesh as if the deluge had washed our clothes away.
We enter the open trench, and the embrace of night and storm resumes the sole possession of this confusion of corpses, stranded and cramped on a square of earth as on a raft.
The wind freezes the drops of sweat on our foreheads. It is near midnight. For six hours now we have marched in the increasing burden of the mud. This is the time when the Paris theaters are constellated with electroliers and blossoming with lamps; when they are filled with luxurious excitement, with the rustle of skirts, with merrymaking and warmth; when a fragrant and radiant multitude, chatting, laughing, smiling, applauding, expanding. feels itself pleasantly affected by the cleverly graduated emotions which the comedy evokes, and lolls in contented enjoyment of the rich and splendid pageants of military glorification that crowd the stage of the music-hall.
"Aren't we there? Nom de Dieu, shan't we ever get there?" The groan is breathed by the long procession that tosses about in these crevices of the earth, carrying rifles and shovels and pickaxes under the eternal torrent. We march and march. We are drunk with fatigue, and roll to this side and that. Stupefied and soaked, we strike with our shoulders a substance as sodden as ourselves.
"Halt!"--"Are we there?"--"Ah, yes, we're there!"
For the moment a heavy recoil presses us back and then a murmur runs along: "We've lost ourselves." The truth dawns on the confusion of the wandering horde. We have taken the wrong turn at some fork, and it will be the deuce of a job to find the right way again.
Then, too, a rumor passes from mouth to mouth that a fighting company on its way to the lines is coming up behind us. The way by which we have come is stopped up with men. It is the block absolute.
At all costs we must try to regain the lost trench--which is alleged to be on our left--by trickling through some sap or other. Utterly wearied and unnerved, the men break into gesticulations and violent reproaches. They trudge awhile, then drop their tools and halt. Here and there are compact groups--you can glimpse them by the light of the star-shells--who have let themselves fall to the ground. Scattered afar from south to north, the troop waits in the merciless rain.
The lieutenant who is in charge and has led us astray, wriggles his way along the men in quest of some lateral exit. A little trench appears, shallow and narrow.
"We most go that way, no doubt about it," the officer hastens to say. "Come, forward, boys."
Each man sulkily picks up his burden. But a chorus of oaths and curses rises from the first who enter the little sap: "It's a latrine!"
A disgusting smell escapes from the trench, and those inside halt butt into each other, and refuse to advance. We are all jammed against each other and block up the threshold.
"I'd rather climb out and go in the open!" cries a man. But there are flashes rending the sky above the embankments on all sides, and the sight is so fearsome of these jets of resounding flame that overhang our pit and its swarming shadows that no one responds to the madman's saying.
Willing or unwilling, since we cannot go back, we must even take that way. "Forward into the filth!" cries the leader of the troop. We plunge in, tense with repulsion. Bullets are whistling over. "Lower your heads!" The trench has little depth; one must stoop very low to avoid being hit, and the stench becomes intolerable. At last we emerge into the communication trench that we left in error. We begin again to march. Though we march without end we arrive nowhere.
While we wander on, dumb and vacant, in the dizzy stupefaction of fatigue, the stream which is running in the bottom of the trench cleanses our befouled feet.
The roars of the artillery succeed each other faster and faster, till they make but a single roar upon all the earth. From all sides the gunfire and the bursting shells hurl their swift shafts of light and stripe confusedly the black sky over our heads. The bombardment then becomes so intense that its illumination has no break. In the continuous chain of thunderbolts we can see each other clearly--our helmets streaming like the bodies of fishes, our sodden leathers, the shovel-blades black and glistening; we can even see the pale drops of the unending rain. Never have I seen the like of it; in very truth it is moonlight made by gunfire.
Together there mounts from our lines and from the enemy's such a cloud of rockets that they unite and mingle in constellations; at one moment, to light us on our hideous way, there was a Great Bear of star-shells in the valley of the sky that we could see between the parapets.
* * * * * *
We are lost again, and this time we must be close to the first lines; but a depression in this part of the plain forms a sort of basin, overrun by shadows. We have marched along a sap and then back again. In the phosphorescent vibration of the guns, shimmering like a cinematograph, we make out above the parapet two stretcher-bearers trying to cross the trench with their laden stretcher.
The lieutenant, who at least knows the place where he should guide the team of workers, questions them, "Where is the New Trench?"--"Don't know." From the ranks another question is put to them, "How far are we from the Boches?" They make no reply, as they are talking among themselves.
"I'm stopping," says the man in front; "I'm too tired."
"Come, get on with you, nom de Dieu!" says the other in a surly tone and floundering heavily, his arms extended by the stretcher. "We can't step and rust here."
They put the stretcher down on the parapet, the edge of it overhanging the trench, and as we pass underneath we can see the prostrate man's feet. The rain which falls on the stretcher drains from it darkened.
"Wounded?" some one asks down below.
"No, a stiff," growls the bearer this time, "and he weighs twelve stone at least. Wounded I don't mind--for two days and two nights we haven't left off carrying 'em--but it's rotten, breaking yourself up with lugging dead men about.' And the bearer, upright on the edge of the bank, drops a foot to the base of the opposite bank across the cavity, and with his legs wide apart, laboriously balanced, he grips the stretcher and begins to draw it across, calling on his companion to help him.
A little farther we see the stooping form of a hooded officer, and as he raises his hand to his face we see two gold lines on his sleeve. He, surely, will tell us the way. But he addresses us, and asks if we have not seen the battery he is looking for. We shall never get there!
But we do, all the same. We finish up in a field of blackness where a few lean posts are bristling. We climb up to it, and spread out in silence. This is the spot.
The placing of us is an undertaking. Four separate times we go forward and then retire, before the company is regularly echeloned along the length of the trench to be dug, before an equal interval is left between each team of one striker and two shovelers. "Incline three paces more--too much--one pace to the rear. Come, one pace to the rear--are you deaf?--Halt! There!"
This adjustment is done by the lieutenant and a noncom. of the Engineers who has sprung up out of the ground. Together or separately they run along the file and give their muttered orders into the men s ears as they take them by the arm, sometimes, to guide them. Though begun in an orderly way, the arrangement degenerates, thanks to the ill temper of the exhausted men, who must continually be uprooting themselves from the spot where the undulating mob is stranded.
"We're in front of the first lines," they whisper round me. "No." murmur other voices, "we're just behind."
No one knows. The rain still falls, though less fiercely than at some moments on the march. But what matters the rain! We have spread ourselves out on the ground. Now that our backs and limbs rest in the yielding mud, we are so comfortable that we are unconcerned about the rain that pricks our faces and drives through to our flesh, indifferent to the saturation of the bed that contains us.
But we get hardly time enough to draw breath. They are not so imprudent as to let us bury ourselves in sleep. We must set ourselves to incessant labor. It is two o'clock of the morning; in four hours more it will be too light for us to stay here. There is not a minute to lose.
"Every man," they say to us, "must dig five feet in length, two and a half feet in width, and two and three-quarter feet in depth. That makes fifteen feet in length for each team. And I advise you to get into it; the sooner it's done, the sooner you'll leave."
We know the pious claptrap. It is not recorded in the annals of the regiment that a trenching fatigue-party ever once got away before the moment when it became absolutely necessary to quit the neighborhood if they were not to be seen, marked and destroyed along with the work of their hands.
We murmur, "Yes, yes---all right; it's not worth saying. Go easy."
But everybody applies himself to the job courageously, except for some invincible sleepers whose nap will involve them later in superhuman efforts.
We attack the first layer of the new line--little mounds of earth, stringy with grass. The ease and speed with which the work begins--like all entrenching work in free soil--foster the illusion that it will soon be finished, that we shall be able to sleep in the cavities we have scooped: and thus a certain eagerness revives.
But whether by reason of the noise of the shovels, or because some men are chatting almost aloud, in spite of reproofs, our activity wakes up a rocket, whose flaming vertical line rattles suddenly on our right.
"Lie down!" Every man flattens himself, and the rocket balances and parades its huge pallor over a sort of field of the dead.
As soon as it is out one hears the men, in places and then all along, detach themselves from their secretive stillness, get up, and resume the task with more discretion.
Soon another star-shell tosses aloft its long golden stalk, and still more brightly illuminates the flat and motionless line of trenchmakers. Then another and another.
Bullets rend the air around us, and we hear a cry, "Some one wounded!" He passes, supported by comrades. We can just see the group of men who are going away, dragging one of their number.
The place becomes unwholesome. We stoop and crouch, and some are scratching at the earth on their knees. Others are working full length; they toil, and turn, and turn again, like men in nightmares. The earth, whose first layer was light to lift, becomes muddy and sticky; it is hard to handle, and clings to the tool like glue. After every shovelful the blade must be scraped.
Already a thin heap of earth is winding along, and each man has the idea of reinforcing the incipient breastwork with his pouch and his rolled-up greatcoat, and he hoods himself behind the slender pile of shadow when a volley comes----
While we work we sweat, and as soon as we stop working we are pierced through by the cold. A spell seems to be cast on us, paralyzing our arms. The rockets torment and pursue us, and allow us but little movement. After every one of them that petrifles us with its light we have to struggle against a task still more stubborn. The hole only deepens into the darkness with painful and despairing tardiness.
The ground gets softer; each shovelful drips and flows, and spreads from the blade with a flabby sound. At last some one cries, "Water!" The repeated cry travels all along the row of diggers--"Water--that's done it!"
"Mélusson's team's dug deeper, and there's water. They've struck a swamp."--"No help for it."
We stop in confusion. In the bosom of the night we hear the sound of shovels and picks thrown down like empty weapons. The non-coms. go gropingly after the officer to get instructions. Here and there, with no desire for anything better, some men are going deliciously to sleep under the caress of the rain, under the radiant rockets.
* * * * * *
It was very nearly at this minute, as far as I can remember, that the bombardment began again. The first shell fell with a terrible splitting of the air, which seemed to tear itself in two; and other whistles were already converging upon us when its explosion uplifted the ground at the head of the detachment in the heart of the magnitude of night and rain, revealing gesticulations upon a sudden screen of red.
No doubt they had seen us, thanks to the rockets, and had trained their fire on us.
The men hurled and rolled themselves towards the little flooded ditch that they had dug, wedging, burying, and immersing themselves in it, and placed the blades of the shovels over their heads. To right, to left, in front and behind, shells burst so near that every one of them shook us in our bed of clay; and it became soon one continuous quaking that seized the wretched gutter, crowded with men and scaly with shovels, under the strata of smoke and the falling fire. The splinters and debris crossed in all directions with a network of noise over the dazzling field. No second passed but we all thought what some stammered with their faces in the earth, "We're done, this time!"
A little in front of the place where I am. a shape has arisen and cried, "Let's be off!" Prone bodies half rose out of the shroud of mud that dripped in tails and liquid rags from their limbs, and these deathful apparitions cried also, "Let's go!" They were on their knees, on all-fours, crawling towards the way of retreat: "Get on, allez, get on!"
But the long file stayed motionless, and the frenzied complaints were in vain. They who were down there at the end would not budge, and their inactivity immobilized the rest. Some wounded passed over the others, crawling over them as over debris, and sprinkling the whole company with their blood.
We discovered at last the cause of the maddening inactivity of the detachment's tail--"There's a barrage fire beyond."
A weird imprisoned panic seized upon the men with cries inarticulate and gestures stillborn. They writhed upon the spot. But little shelter as the incipient trench afforded, no one dared leave the ditch that saved us from protruding above the level of the ground, no one dared fly from death towards the traverse that should be down there. Great were the risks of the wounded who had managed to crawl over the others, and every moment some were struck and went down again.
Fire and water fell blended everywhere. Profoundly entangled in the supernatural din, we shook from neck to heels. The most hideous of deaths was falling and bounding and plunging all around us in waves of light, its crashing snatched our fearfulness in all directions--our flesh prepared itself for the monstrous sacrifice! In that tense moment of imminent destruction, we could only remember just then how often we had already experienced it, how often undergone this outpouring of iron, and the burning roar of it, and the stench. It is only during a bombardment that one really recalls those he has already endured.
And still, without ceasing, newly-wounded men crept over us, fleeing at any price. In the fear that their contact evoked we groaned again, "We shan't get out of this; nobody will get out of it."
Suddenly a gap appeared in the compressed humanity, and those behind breathed again, for we were on the move.
We began by crawling, then we ran, bowed low in the mud and water that mirrored the flashes and the crimson gleams, stumbling and falling over submerged obstructions, ourselves resembling heavy splashing projectiles, thunder-hurled along the ground. We arrive at the starting-place of the trench we had begun to dig.
"There's no trench--there's nothing."
In truth the eye could discern no shelter in the plain where our work had begun. Even by the stormy flash of the rockets we could only see the plain, a huge and raging desert. The trench could not be far away, for it had brought us here. But which way must we steer to find it?
The rain redoubled. We lingered a moment in mournful disappointment, gathered on a lightning-smitten and unknown shore--and then the stampede.
Some bore to the left, some to the right, some went straight forward--tiny groups that one only saw for a second in the heart of the thundering rain before they were separated by sable avalanches and curtains of flaming smoke.
* * * * * *
The bombardment over our heads grew less; it was chiefly over the place where we had been that it was increasing. But it might any minute isolate everything and destroy it.
The rain became more and more torrential--a deluge in the night. The darkness was so deep that the star-shells only lit up slices of water-seamed obscurity, in the depths of which fleeing phantoms came and went and ran round in circles.
I cannot say how long I wandered with the group with which I had remained. We went into morasses. We strained our sight forward in quest of the embankment and the trench of salvation, towards the ditch that was somewhere there, as towards a harbor.
A cry of consolation was heard at last through the vapors of war and the elements--"A trench!" But the embankment of that trench was moving; it was made of men mingled in confusion, who seemed to be coming out and abandoning it.
"Don't stay there, mates!" cried the fugitives; "clear off, don't come near. It's hell--everything's collapsing--the trenches are legging it and the dug-outs are bunged up--the mud's pouring in everywhere. There won't be any trenches by the morning--it's all up with them about here!"
They disappeared. Where? We forgot to ask for some little direction from these men whose streaming shapes had no sooner appeared than they were swallowed up in the dark.
Even our little group crumbled away among the devastation, no longer knowing where they were. Now one, now another, faded into the night, disappearing towards his chance of escape.
We climbed slopes and descended them. I saw dimly in front of me men bowed and hunchbacked, mounting a slippery incline where mud held them back, and the wind and rain repelled them under a dome of cloudy lights.
Then we flowed back, and plunged into a marsh up to our knees. So high must we lift our feet that we walked with a sound of swimming. Each forward stride was an enormous effort which slackened in agony.
It was there that we felt death drawing near. But we beached ourselves at last on a sort of clay embankment that divided the swamp. As we followed the slippery back of this slender island along, I remember that once we had to stoop and steer ourselves by touching some half-buried corpses, so that we should not be thrown down from the soft and sinuous ridge. My hand discovered shoulders and hard backs, a face cold as a helmet, and a pipe still desperately bitten by dead jaws.
As we emerged and raised our heads at a venture we heard the sound of voices not far away. "Voices! Ah, voices!" They sounded tranquil to us, as though they called us by our names, and we all came close together to approach this fraternal murmuring of men.
The words became distinct. They were quite near--in the hillock that we could dimly see like an oasis: and yet we could not hear what they said. The sounds were muddled, and we did not understand them.
"What are they saying?" asked one of us in a curious tone.
Instinctively we stopped trying to find a way in. A doubt, a painful idea was seizing us. Then, clearly enunciated, there rang out these words--"Achtung!--Zweites Geschütz--Schuss----" Farther back, the report of a gun answered the telephonic command.
Horror and stupefaction nailed us to the spot at first--"Where are we? Oh, Christ, where are we?" Turning right about face, slowly in spite of all, borne down anew by exhaustion and dismay, we took flight, as overwhelmed by weariness as if we had many wounds, pulled back by the mud towards the enemy country, and retaining only just enough energy to repel the thought of the sweetness it would have been to let ourselves die.
We came to a sort of great plain. We halted and threw ourselves on the ground on the side of a mound, and leaned back upon it, unable to make another step.
And we moved no more, my shadowy comrades nor I. The rain splashed in our faces, streamed down our backs and chests, ran down from our knees and filled our boots.
We should perhaps be killed or taken prisoners when day came. But we thought no more of anything. We could do no more; we knew no more.