Next> | <Prev | ToC

From One Man's Initiation: 1917, by John Dos Passos, 1920




Chapter III



AT Epernay the station was wrecked; the corrugated tin of the roof hung in strips over the crumbled brick walls.

"They say the Boches came over last night. They killed a lot of permissionaires."

"That river's the Maine."

"Gosh, is it? Let me get to the winder."

The third-class car, joggling along on a flat wheel, was full of the smell of sweat and sour wine. Outside, yellow-green and blue-green, crossed by long processions of poplars, aflame with vermilion and carmine of poppies, the countryside slipped by. At a station where the train stopped on a siding, they could hear a faint hollow sound in the distance: guns.



Croix de Guerre had been given out that day at the automobile park at Châlons. There was an unusually big dinner at the wooden tables in the narrow portable barracks, and during the last course the General passed through and drank a glass of champagne to the health of all present. Everybody had on his best uniform and sweated hugely in the narrow, airless building, from the wine and the champagne and the thick stew, thickly seasoned, that made the dinner's main course.

"We are all one large family," said the General from the end of the barracks . . . "to France."

That night the wail of a siren woke Martin suddenly and made him sit up in his bunk trembling, wondering where he was. Like the shriek of a woman in a nightmare, the wail of the siren rose and rose and then dropped in pitch and faded throbbingly out.

"Don't flash a light there. It's Boche planes."

Outside the night was cold, with a little light from a waned moon.

"See the shrapnel!" someone cried.

"The Boche has a Mercedes motor," said someone else. "You can tell by the sound of it."

"They say one of their planes chased an ambulance ten miles along a straight road the other day, trying to get it with a machinegun. The man who was driving got away, but he had shell-shock afterwards."

"Did he really?"

"Oh, I'm goin' to turn in. God, these French nights are cold!"




The rain pattered hard with unfaltering determination on the roof of the little arbour. Martin lolled over the rough board table, resting his chin on his clasped hands, looking through the tinkling bead curtains of the rain towards the other end of the weed-grown garden, where, under a canvas shelter, the cooks were moving about in front of two black steaming cauldrons. Through the fresh scent of rain-beaten leaves came a greasy smell of soup. He was thinking of the jolly wedding-parties that must have drunk and danced in this garden before the war, of the lovers who must have sat in that very arbour, pressing sunburned cheek against sunburned cheek, twining hands callous with work in the fields. A man broke suddenly into the arbour behind Martin and stood flicking the water off his uniform with his cap. His sand-coloured hair was wet and was plastered in little spikes to his broad forehead, a forehead that was the entablature of a determined rock-hewn face.

"Hello," said Martin, twisting his head to look at the newcomer. "You section twenty-four?"

"Yes. . . . Ever read 'Alice in Wonderland'?" asked the wet man, sitting down abruptly at the table.

"Yes, indeed."

"Doesn't this remind you of it?"

"What?"

"This war business. Why, I keep thinking I'm going to meet the rabbit who put butter in his watch round every corner."

"It was the best butter."

"That's the hell of it."

"When's your section leaving here?" asked Martin, picking up the conversation after a pause during which they'd both stared out into the rain. They could hear almost constantly the grinding roar of camions on the road behind the café and the slither of their wheels through the mud-puddles where the road turned into the village.

"How the devil should I know?"

"Somebody had dope this morning that we'd leave here for Soissons to-morrow." Martin's words tailed off into a convictionless mumble.

"It surely is different than you'd pictured it, isn't it, now?"

They sat looking at each other while the big drops from the leaky roof smacked on the table or splashed cold in their faces.

"What do you think of all this, anyway?" said the wet man suddenly, lowering his voice stealthily.

"I don't know. I never did expect it to be what we were taught to believe. . . . Things aren't."

"But you can't have guessed that it was like this . . . like Alice in Wonderland, like an ill-intentioned Drury Lane pantomime, like all the dusty futility of Barnum and Bailey's Circus."

"No, I thought it would be hair-raising," said Martin.

"Think, man, think of all the oceans of lies through all the ages that must have been necessary to make this possible! Think of this new particular vintage of lies that has been so industriously pumped out of the press and the pulpit. Doesn't it stagger you?"

Martin nodded.

"Why, lies are like a sticky juice overspreading the world, a living, growing flypaper to catch and gum the wings of every human soul. . . . And the little helpless buzzings of honest, liberal, kindly people, aren't they like the thin little noise flies make when they're caught?"

"I agree with you that the little thin noise is very silly," said Martin.




Martin slammed down the hood of the car and stood upright. A cold stream of rain ran down the sleeves of his slicker and dripped from his greasy hands.

Infantry tramped by, the rain spattering with a cold glitter on grey helmets, on gun-barrels, on the straps of equipment. Red sweating faces, drooping under the hard rims of helmets, turned to the ground with the struggle with the weight of equipment; rows and patches of faces were the only warmth in the desolation of putty-coloured mud and bowed mud-coloured bodies and dripping mud-coloured sky. In the cold colourlessness they were delicate and feeble as the faces of children, rosy and soft under the splattering of mud and the shagginess of unshaven beards.

Martin rubbed the back of his hand against his face. His skin was like that, too, soft as the petals of flowers, soft and warm amid all this dead mud, amid all this hard mud-covered steel.

He leant against the side of the car, his ears full of the heavy shuffle, of the jingle of equipment, of the splashing in puddles of water-soaked boots, and watched the endless rosy patches of faces moving by, the faces that drooped towards the dripping boots that rose and fell, churning into froth the soupy, putty-coloured mud of the road.




The schoolmaster's garden was full of late roses and marigolds, all parched and bleached by the thick layer of dust that was over them. Next to the vine-covered trellis that cut the garden off from the road stood a green table and a few cane chairs. The schoolmaster, something charmingly eighteenth-century about the cut of his breeches and the calves of his legs in their thick woollen golf-stockings, led the way, a brown pitcher of wine in his hand. Martin Howe and the black-haired, brown-faced boy from New Orleans who was his car-mate followed him. Then came a little grey woman in a pink knitted shawl, carrying a tray with glasses.

"In the Verdunois our wine is not very good," said the schoolmaster, bowing them into chairs. "It is thin and cold like the climate. To your health, gentlemen."

"To France."

"To America."

"And down with the Boches."

In the pale yellow light that came from among the dark clouds that passed over the sky, the wine had the chilly gleam of yellow diamonds.

"Ah, you should have seen that road in 1916," said the schoolmaster, drawing a hand over his watery blue eyes. "That, you know, is the Voie Sacrée, the sacred way that saved Verdun. All day, all day, a double line of camions went up, full of ammunition and ravitaillement and men."

"Oh, the poor boys, we saw so many go up, came the voice, dry as the rustling of the wind in the vine-leaves, of the grey old woman who stood leaning against the schoolmaster's chair, looking out through a gap in the trellis at the rutted road so thick with dust, "and never have we seen one of them come back."

"It was for France."

"But this was a nice village before the war. From Verdun to Bar-le-Duc, the Courrier des Postes used to tell us, there was no such village, so clean and with such fine orchards." The old woman leaned over the schoolmaster's shoulder, joining eagerly in the conversation.

"Even now the fruit is very fine," said Martin.

"But you soldiers, you steal it all," said the old woman, throwing out her arms. "You leave us nothing, nothing."

"We don't begrudge it," said the schoolmaster, "all we have is our country's."

"We shall starve then. . . ."

As she spoke the glasses on the table shook. With a roar of heavy wheels and a grind of gears a camion went by.

"O good God!" The old woman looked out on to the road with terror in her face, blinking her eyes in the thick dust.

Roaring with heavy wheels, grinding with gears, throbbing with motors, camion after camion went by, slowly, stridently. The men packed into the camions had broken through the canvas covers and leaned out waving their arms and shouting.

"Oh, the poor children," said the old woman, wringing her hands, her voice lost in the roar and the shouting.

"They should not destroy property that way," said the schoolmaster. . .. "Last year it was dreadful. There were mutinies."

Martin sat, his chair tilted back, his hands trembling, staring with compressed lips at the men who jolted by on the strident, throbbing camions. A word formed in his mind: tumbrils.

In some trucks the men were drunk and singing, waving their bidons in the air, shouting at people along the road, crying out all sorts of things: "Get to the front!" "Into the trenches with them!" "Down with the war!" In others they sat quiet, faces corpse-like with dust. Through the gap in the trellis Martin stared at them, noting intelligent faces, beautiful faces, faces brutally gay, miserable faces like those of sobbing drunkards.

At last the convoy passed and the dust settled again on the rutted road.

"Oh, the poor children!" said the old woman. "They know they are going to death."

They tried to hide their agitation. The schoolmaster poured out more wine.

"Yes," said Martin, "there are fine orchards on the hills round here."

"You should be here when the plums are ripe," said the schoolmaster.

A tall bearded man, covered with dust to the eyelashes, in the uniform of a commandant, stepped into the garden.

"My dear friends!" He shook hands with the schoolmaster and the old woman and saluted the two Americans. "I could not pass without stopping a moment. We are going up to an attack. We have the honour to take the lead."

"You will have a glass of wine, won't you?"

"With great pleasure."

"Julie, fetch a bottle, you know which. . . . How is the morale?"

"Perfect."

"I thought they looked a little discontented."

"No. . . . It's always like that. . . . They were yelling at some gendarmes. If they strung up a couple it would serve them right, dirty beasts."

"You soldiers are all one against the gendarmes."

"Yes. We fight the enemy but we hate the gendarmes." The commandant rubbed his hands, drank his wine and laughed.

"Hah! There's the next convoy. I must go."

"Good luck."

The commandant shrugged his shoulders, clicked his heels together at the garden gate, saluted, smiling, and was gone.

Again the village street was full of the grinding roar and throb of camions, full of a frenzy of wheels and drunken shouting.

"Give us a drink, you."

"We're the train de luxe, we are."

"Down with the war!"

And the old grey woman wrung her hands and said:

"Oh, the poor children, they know they are going to death!"






Next> | ^Top