We were going northward by forced marches, through a France that was like a mournful garden planted with crosses. We were no longer in doubt as to our appointed destination; every day since we had disembarked at B——our orders had enjoined us to hasten our advance to the fighting units of the Army Corps. This Army Corps was contracting, and drawing itself together hurriedly, its head already in the thick of the fray, its tail still winding along the roads, across the battle-field of the Marne.
February was closing in, damp and icy, with squalls of sleet, under a sullen, hideous sky, lowering furiously down to the level of the ground. Everywhere there were graves, uniformly decent, or rather according to pattern, showing a shield of tri-colour or black and white, and figures. Suddenly, we came upon immense flats, whence the crosses stretched out their arms between the poplars like men struggling to save themselves from being engulfed. Many ancient villages, humble, irremediable ruins. And yet here and there, perched upon these, frail cabins of planks and tiles, sending forth thin threads of smoke, and emitting a timid light, in an attempt to begin life again as before, on the same spot as before. Now and again we chanced upon a hamlet which the hurricane had passed by almost completely, full to overflowing with the afflux of neighbouring populations.
Beyond P——, our advance, though it continued to be rapid, became very difficult, owing to the confluence of convoys and troops. The main roads, reserved for the military masses which were under the necessity of moving rapidly, arriving early, and striking suddenly, were barred to us. From every point of the horizon disciplined multitudes converged, with their arsenal of formidable implements, rolling along in an atmosphere of benzine and hot oil. Through this ordered mass, our convoys threaded their way tenaciously and advanced. We could see on the hill sides, crawling like a clan of migrating ants, stretcher-bearers and their dogs drawing handcarts for the wounded, then the columns of orderlies, muddy and exhausted, then the ambulances, which every week of war loads a little more heavily, dragged along by horses in a steam of sweat.
From time to time, the whole train halted at some cross-road, and the ambulances allowed more urgent things to pass in front of them—things designed to kill, sturdy grey mortars borne along post haste in a metallic rumble.
A halt, a draught of wine mingled with rain, a few minutes to choke over a mouthful of stale bread, and we were off again, longing for the next halt, for a dry shelter, for an hour of real sleep.
Soon after leaving C——we began to meet fugitives. This complicated matters very much, and the spectacle began to show an odious likeness to the scenes of the beginning of the war, the scenes of the great retreat.