Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Two Days in the Rain at the Tranchée de Calonne

Fighting in the Rain

From Maurice Genevoix's Under Verdun

Saturday, 19 September 1914

Forty hours we pass in a ditch full of water. The improvised roof of branches and straw soon lets all the rain through. Since then we live in the midst of a torrent.

Motionless, and packed tight together in cramped and painful attitudes, we shiver in silence. Our sodden clothes freeze our skin; our saturated caps bear down on our temples with slow and painful pressure. We raise our feet as high as we can before us, but often it occurs that our frozen fingers give way, letting our feet slip down into the muddy torrent rushing along the bottom of the trench. Already our knapsacks have slipped into the water, while the tails of our greatcoats trail in it.

The slightest movement causes pain. I couldn't get up if I wanted to. A short while ago the adjutant attempted to do so; the effort wrung a cry from him, so keen were the pains in his knees and back; and then he sank down on top of us before slipping back into the hole in the mud his body had made, and resuming his former huddled attitude, which had caused his ankles to stiffen.

Nowadays I find it difficult to recall all that befell in the course of those two days; memory is veiled and dim. It is as though I had lived in an atmosphere of numbness in which all light and beauty were but dead things. An intense pain about my heart, never moving, rendered me almost delirious.

I remember that we remained for a long time hidden in a large thicket. My section was stationed near the battalion horses, which had been picketed together. Every time they moved, branches broke and fell. And most certainly it was raining, there could be no doubt of that; for long afterwards the eternal pitter-patter of rain on the leaves remained in my ears. Afterwards, I do not know how long, we set out on the march.

Marching in the Rain

Almost insensibly a depressing evening settled down over fields and woods. Before us were extended the columns of infantry, clinging like ants on the side of the bare slope. Above us, the smoke balls of shrapnel, soft and pale, hung in the air. This shrapnel gave no warning of its approach, and shells burst with an abrupt snap which found no echo over the dull countryside. A deserted farm to the left had been stripped of its reddish tiles, which lay smashed to pieces on the earth. A horseman was moving slowly towards this farm, his head covered by the hood of his cloak; his horse seemed merely to glide onwards, strangely silent. The stillness was portentous, almost tangible.

We passed a night in another trench in reserve, where we are at present. Five or six of us in a bunch hung over a few damp pieces of wood we had collected in the hope of being able to make a fire; the sticks smoked but refused to burst into flame. I recollect that I was obsessed by a feverish and loquacious gaiety; I scorned my own sad condition and laboured tremendously to prevent myself giving way to the fever running riot in my veins. This lasted some time, and so nervous was I, so disordered was my speech, that those about me watched me queerly and significantly. The moment came when my ill-timed jests became an insult to the general depression. I fell silent then, and resignedly delivered myself up to that dumb despair which had been dogging my heels for days, waiting only the opportunity to enter into its kingdom.

The monotonous, incessant tapping of the rain on the leaves of the trees was in itself maddening. The sticks in the brazier hissed and spluttered. There was a single spark, a faint glow among the cinders, which I watched desperately.

In the morning firing was heard in the direction of the outposts. The Captain sent me with two sections to reinforce them. We marched in single file, slipping on the greasy clay, falling every few steps; laboriously climbing on hands and knees a little ascent which, but for the mud, I could have taken in a couple of strides.

Lt. Maurice Genevoix

Arriving at our destination, we were compelled to seek shelter behind the trunks of trees, for all along the edge of the wood bullets were whistling. There were no trenches and the men were lining a ditch, standing in the water with their knapsacks before them.

The rain did not cease. It flooded the vast ploughed lands, where here and there groups of walnut trees seemed to huddle shiveringly together. Two German vedettes posted before a wood facing ours seemed like two stone statues. Shortly afterwards infantry emerged from the wood and advanced over open ground, as dark as the soil itself, and scarcely visible. We killed several of them and they went back hastily, abandoning their dead.

Still the bullets continued to whistle. From time to time a cry burst from one of the men in the ditch, and he would come into the wood towards us, both hands pressed against his chest or staring at the blood dripping from his fingertips with wide, terrified eyes. At last the firing ceased and calmness reigned.

We returned into reserve, carrying one of my corporals who was wounded in the groin by a bullet that had passed right through it. That was a difficult journey over the muddy roads! The wounded man groaned feebly, his arms passed around the necks of two of his comrades, his head swaying, his face livid. Once the men carrying him slipped and fell to their knees, and the agonized cry which broke from the sufferer echoed in my ears long after it had died to silence.