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RELUCTANTLY the ashen dawn is bleaching the still dark and formless landscape. Between the declining road on the right that falls into the gloom, and the black cloud of the Alleux Wood--where we hear the convoy teams assembling and getting under way--a field extends. We have reached it, we of the 6th Battalion, at the end of the night. We have piled arms, and now, in the center of this circle of uncertain light, our feet in the mist and mud, we stand in dark clusters (that yet are hardly blue), or as solitary phantoms; and the heads of all are turned towards the road that comes from "down there." We are waiting for the rest of the regiment, the 5th Battalion, who were in the first line and left the trenches after us.
Noises; "There they are!" A long and shapeless mass appears in the west and comes down out of the night upon the dawning road.
At last! It is ended, the accursed shift that began at six o'clock yesterday evening and has lasted all night, and now the last man has stepped from the last communication trench.
This time it has been an awful sojourn in the trenches. The 18th company was foremost and has been cut up, eighteen killed and fifty wounded--one in three less in four days. And this without attack--by bombardment alone.
This is known to us, and as the mutilated battalion approaches down there, and we join them in trampling the muddy field and exchanging nods of recognition, we cry, "What about the 18th?" We are thinking as we put the question, "If it goes on like this, what is to become of all of us? What will become of me?"
The 17th, the 19th, and the 20th arrive in turn and pile arms. "There's the 18th!" It arrives after all the others; having held the first trench, it has been last relieved.
The light is a little cleaner, and the world is paling. We can make out, as he comes down the road, the company's captain, ahead of his men and alone. He helps himself along with a stick, and walks with difficulty, by reason of his old wound of the Marne battle that rheumatism is troubling; and there are other pangs, too. He lowers his hooded head, and might be attending a funeral. We can see that in his mind he is indeed following the dead, and his thoughts are with them.
Here is the company, debouching in dire disorder, and our hearts are heavy. It is obviously shorter than the other three, in the march past of the battalion.
I reach the road, and confront the descending mass of the 18th. The uniforms of these survivors are all earth-yellowed alike, so that they appear to be clad in khaki. The cloth is stiff with the ochreous mud that has dried underneath. The skirts of their greatcoats are like lumps of wood, jumping about on the yellow crust that reaches to their knees. Their faces are drawn and blackened; dust and dirt have wrinkled them anew; their eyes are big and fevered. And from these soldiers whom the depths of horror have given back there rises a deafening din. They talk all at once, and loudly; they gesticulate, they laugh and sing. You would think, to see them, that it was a holiday crowd pouring over the road!
These are the second section and its big sub-lieutenant, whose greatcoat is tightened and strapped around a body as stiff as a rolled umbrella. I elbow my way along the marching crowd as far as Marchal's squad, the most sorely tried of all. Out of eleven comrades that they were, and had been without a break for a year and a half, there were three men only with Corporal Marchal.
He sees me--with a glad exclamation and a broad smile. He lets go his rifle-sling and offers me his hands, from one of which hangs his trench stick--"Eh, vieux frère, still going strong? What's become of you lately?"
I turn my head away and say, almost under my breath, "So, old chap, it's happened badly."
His smile dies at once, and he is serious: "Eh, oui, old man; it can't be helped; it was awful this time. Barbier is killed."
"They told us--Barbier!"
"Saturday night it was, at eleven o'clock. He had the top of his back taken away by a shell," says Marchal, "cut off like a razor. Besse got a bit of shell that went clean through his belly and stomach. Barthlemy and Baubex got it in the head and neck. We passed the night skedaddling up and down the trench at full speed, to dodge the showers. And little Godefroy--did you know him?--middle of his body blown away. He was emptied of blood on the spot in an instant, like a bucket kicked over. Little as he was, it was remarkable how much blood he had, it made a stream at least fifty meters long. Gougnard got his legs cut up by one explosion. They picked him up not quite dead. That was at the listening post. I was there on duty with them. But when that shell fell I had gone into the trench to ask the time. I found my rifle, that I'd left in my place, bent double, as if some one had folded it in his hands, the barrel like a corkscrew, and half of the stock in sawdust. The smell of fresh blood was enough to bring your heart up."
"And Mondain--him, too?"
"Mondain--that was the day after, yesterday in fact, in a dug-out that a shell smashed in. He was lying down, and his chest was crushed. Have they told you about Franco, who was alongside Mondain? The fall of earth broke his spine. He spoke again after they'd got him out and set him down. He said, with his head falling to one side, 'I'm dying,' and he was gone. Vigile was with them, too; his body wasn't touched, but they found him with his head completely flattened out, flat as a pancake, and huge-as big as that. To see it spread out on the ground, black and distorted, it made you think of his shadow--the shadow one gets on the ground sometimes when one walks with a lantern at night."
"Vigile--only Class 1913--a child! And Mondain and Franco--such good sorts, in spite of their stripes. We're so many old special pals the less, mon vieux Marchal."
"Yes," says Marchal. But he is swallowed up in a crowd of his friends, who worry and catechise him. He bandies jests with them, and answers their raillery, and all hustle each other, and laugh.
I look from face to face. They are merry, and in spite of the contractions of weariness, and the earth-stains, they look triumphant.
What does it mean? If wine had been possible during their stay in the first line, I should have said, "All these men are drunk."
I single out one of the survivors, who hums as he goes, and steps in time with it flippantly, as hussars of the stage do. It is Vanderborn, the drummer.
"Hullo, Vanderborn, you look pleased with yourself!" Vanderborn, who is sedate in the ordinary, cries, "It's not me yet, you see! Here I am!" With a mad gesticulation he serves me a thump on the shoulder. I understand.
If these men are happy in spite of all, as they come out of hell, it is because they are coming out of it. They are returning, they are spared. Once again the Death that was there has passed them over. Each company in its turn goes to the front once in six weeks. Six weeks! In both great and minor matters, fighting soldiers manifest the philosophy of the child. They never look afar, either ahead or around. Their thought strays hardly farther than from day to day. To-day, every one of those men is confident that he will live yet a little while.
And that is why, in spite of the weariness that weighs them down and the new slaughter with which they are still bespattered, though each has seen his brothers torn away from his side, in spite of all and in spite of themselves, they are celebrating the Feast of the Survivors. The boundless glory in which they rejoice is this--they still stand straight.