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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
A Bivouac at Ligny
By Émile Erckmann (1822–1899) and Alexandre Chatrian (1826–1890)
 
From ‘Waterloo: A Sequel to the Conscript of 1813’

IT was dark already, and the dense masses of smoke made it impossible to see fifty paces ahead. Everything was moving toward the windmills; the clatter of the cavalry, the shouts, the orders of the officers, and the file-firing in the distance, all were confounded. Several of the squares were broken. From time to time a flash would reveal a lancer bent to his horse’s neck, or a cuirassier, with his broad white back and his helmet with its floating plume, shooting off like a bullet, two or three foot soldiers running about in the midst of the fray,—all would come and go like lightning. The trampled grain, the rain streaking the heavens, the wounded under the feet of the horses, all came out of the black night—through the storm which had just broken out—for a quarter of a second. Every flash of musket or pistol showed us inexplicable things by thousands. But everything moved up the hill and away from Ligny; we were masters. We had pierced the enemy’s centre; the Prussians no longer made any defense, except at the top of the hill near the mills and in the direction of Sombref, at our right. St. Armand and Ligny were both in our hands.  1
  As for us,—a dozen or so of our company there alone among the ruins of the cottages, with our cartridge boxes almost empty,—we did not know which way to turn. Zébédé, Lieutenant Bretonville, and Captain Florentin had disappeared, and Sergeant Rabot was in command. He was a little old fellow, thin and deformed, but as tough as steel; he squinted, and seemed to have had red hair when young. Now, as I speak of him, I seem to hear him say quietly to us, “The battle is won! by file right! forward, march!”  2
  Several wanted to stop and make some soup, for we had eaten nothing since noon, and began to be hungry. The sergeant marched down the lane with his musket on his shoulder, laughing quietly, and saying in an ironical tone:—  3
  “Oh! soup, soup! Wait a little; the commissary is coming!”  4
  We followed him down the dark lane; about midway we saw a cuirassier on horseback with his back toward us. He had a sabre-cut in the abdomen and had retired into this lane; the horse leaned against the wall to prevent him from falling off.  5
  As we filed past he called out, “Comrades!” But nobody even turned his head.  6
  Twenty paces farther on we found the ruins of a cottage, completely riddled with balls: but half the thatched roof was still there, and this was why Sergeant Rabot had selected it; and we filed into it for shelter.  7
  We could see no more than if we had been in an oven; the sergeant exploded the priming of his musket, and we saw that it was the kitchen, that the fireplace was at the right, and the stairway on the left. Five or six Prussians and Frenchmen were stretched on the floor, white as wax, and with their eyes wide open.  8
  “Here is the mess-room,” said the sergeant: “let every one make himself comfortable. Our bedfellows will not kick us.”  9
  As we saw plainly that there were to be no rations, each one took off his knapsack and placed it by the wall on the floor for a pillow. We could still hear the firing, but it was far in the distance on the hill.  10
  The rain fell in torrents. The sergeant shut the door, which creaked on its hinges, and then quietly lighted his pipe. Some of the men were already snoring when I looked up, and he was standing at the little window, in which not a pane of glass remained, smoking.  11
  He was a firm, just man; he could read and write, had been wounded and had his three chevrons, and ought to have been an officer, only he was not well formed. He soon laid his head on his knapsack, and shortly after all were asleep.  12
  It was long after this when I was suddenly awakened by footsteps and fumbling about the house outside. I raised up on my elbow to listen, when somebody tried to open the door. I could not help screaming out. “What’s the matter?” said the sergeant. We could hear them running away, and Rabot turned on his knapsack, saying, “Night-birds—rascals! clear out, or I’ll send a ball after you!” He said no more, and I got up and looked out of the window, and saw the wretches in the act of robbing the dead and wounded. They were going softly from one to another, while the rain was falling in torrents. It was something horrible.  13
  I lay down again, and fell asleep, overcome by fatigue.  14
  At daybreak the sergeant was up and crying “En route!”  15
  We left the cottage and went back through the lane. The cuirassier was on the ground, but his horse still stood beside him. The sergeant took him by the bridle and led him out into the orchard, pulled the bits from his mouth, and said:—  16
  “Go and eat; they will find you again by-and-by.”  17
  And the poor beast walked quietly away. We hurried along the path which runs by Ligny. The furrows stopped here, and some plots of garden ground lay along by the road. The sergeant looked about him as he went, and stooped down to dig up some carrots and turnips which were left. I quickly followed his example, while our comrades hastened on without looking round.  18
  I saw that it was a good thing to know the fruits of the earth. I found two beautiful turnips and some carrots, which are very good raw, but I followed the example of the sergeant and put them in my shako.  19
  I ran on to overtake the squad, which was directing its steps toward the fires at Sombref. As for the rest, I will not attempt to describe to you the appearance of the plateau in the rear of Ligny, where our cuirassiers and dragoons had slaughtered all before them. The men and horses were lying in heaps; the horses with their long necks stretched out on the ground, and the dead and wounded lying under them.  20
  Sometimes the wounded men would raise their hands to make signs, when the horses would attempt to get up and fall back, crushing them still more fearfully.  21
  Blood! blood! everywhere. The directions of the balls and shot were marked on the slope by the red lines, just as we see in our country the lines in the sand formed by the water from the melting snow. But will you believe it? These horrors scarcely made any impression upon me. Before I went to Lützen such a sight would have knocked me down. I should have thought then:—“Do our masters look upon us as brutes? Will the good God give us up to be eaten by wolves? Have we mothers and sisters and friends, beings who are dear to us, and will they not cry for vengeance?” I should have thought of a thousand other things, but now I did not think at all. From having seen such a mass of slaughter and wrong every day and in every fashion, I began to say to myself:—  22
  “The strongest are always in the right. The Emperor is the strongest, and he has called us, and we must come in spite of everything, from Pfalzburg, from Saverne, or other cities, and take our places in the ranks and march. One who showed the least sign of resistance would be shot at once. The marshals, the generals, the officers, down to the last man, follow their instructions,—they dare not make a move without orders; and everybody obeys the army. It is the Emperor who wills, who has the power and who does everything. And would not Joseph Bertha be a fool to believe that the Emperor ever committed a single fault in his life? Would it not be contrary to reason?”  23
  That was what we all thought, and if the Emperor had remained here, all France would have had the same opinion.  24
  My only satisfaction was in thinking that I had some carrots and turnips; for in passing in the rear of the pickets to find our place in the battalion we learned that no rations had been distributed except brandy and cartridges.  25
  The veterans were filling their kettles; but the conscripts, who had not yet learned the art of living while on the campaign, and who had unfortunately already eaten all their bread, as will happen when one is twenty years old and is on the march with a good appetite,—they had not a spoonful of anything.  26
  At last, about seven o’clock, we reached the camp. Zébédé came to meet me, and was delighted to see me, and said:—“What have you brought, Joseph? We have found a fat kid, and we have some salt, but not a mouthful of bread.”  27
  I showed him the rice which I had left, and my turnips and carrots.  28
  “That’s good,” said he; “we shall have the best soup in the battalion.”  29
  I wanted Buche to eat with us too, and the six men belonging to our mess, who had all escaped with only bruises and scratches, consented. Padoue the drum-major said, laughing, “Veterans are always veterans; they never come empty-handed.”  30
  We looked into the kettles of the five conscripts and winked; for they had nothing but rice and water in them, while we had a good rich soup, the odor of which filled the air around us.  31
  At eight we took our breakfast with an appetite, as you can imagine.  32
  Not even on my wedding day did I eat a better meal, and it is a pleasure even now to think of it. When we are old we are not so enthusiastic about such things as when we are young, but still we always recall them with satisfaction.  33
 
 
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