I feel as though I am in the dock, standing before some accusation, unsure whether to deny or accept the charge. I have waited so many weeks for this moment. So much planning and preparation, so much pent-up apprehension and excitement for the unknown, that now I am ashamed that I yearned for this day. A soldier is only a soldier when he is called upon to perform his work. Until then he is simply a man who plays with rifles and stomps around like a fool. In the barracks being a soldier is serious stuff. It requires firmness, morale, and dedication to duty. We train and propose scenarios, attack and defeat the enemy, but all in our heads. What rubbish it all is. It is rhetoric, a farce of emotion to mask what it is we prepare for. For what are we preparing? To defend our hearth and home? Democracy? The Republic? For our brother next to us? Maybe, but that is not what the battlefield is made of. It is made of death, of hurling missiles and men at each other for no high purpose of Democracy, or freedom, but to hurl missiles and men at each other—to destroy another. That is what it comes down to. There are no thoughts of democracy when one is holding the shattered body of a friend.
None of us pretended it would be easy. We knew some of us would die, but it was glorious in our heads. We were nearly jealous of those we imagined killed by the enemy. Dignity, honor, sacrifice, they would be remembered in stone. But we expected it to be a competition, not a one-sided slaughter. And slaughter it was, for the ones who fell were killed like sheep—without fanfare or hardly notice. I didn’t know Pelotte or Volcy were killed. No one saw them die. They didn’t run when the rest of us did. They just never got up.
When we finally ran from the trenches outside Crecyville, our world had collapsed. I didn’t even know why I still carried my rifle. We narrowly escaped the enemy encirclement of our position, and joined the mass of fleeing citizenry and soldiers heading south. Why south? There was no enemy there. Yet it was inevitable, the south was no more defensible than Belgium—it was less. I was thrown into a crowd of unknowns packed onto the narrow road leading away from Crecyville. To the right and left was wide open plains, miles of open field. Yet everyone was struggling along this tight strip of road. A road going nowhere. I tumbled along in a lorry with my fellow soldiers until the deadlock obliged us to take to foot. We covered twice as much ground in half the time. It was here that I became separated from my friends in the chaos of the enemy planes.
The air was so stuffy and hot. It smelt of exhaust, manure, sweat and fear. Pollen from the fields of lavender and grain mingled in the mélange. I sneezed my way through the crowd. Then over the rumble of the noise, the baying of cows and crying of children, the faint sound of a radial engine settled over the plain. Low and droning, it fell in and out of our ears with the wind. It had occurred to no one that we could be attacked. The war, or whatever it was, was on the battlefield, not among civilians on a deserted road. There was no strategic value in women and children, in bakers and butchers and dentists, fleeing their village. There weren’t even enough soldiers or equipment among the crowd to draw attention from the sky. The battlefield was miles away, well beyond the boom of artillery and rifle fire. One couldn’t even see smoke from Crecyville. It might as well be a typical spring day in May.
The buzz turned into a drone, ominous but not otherwise impeding our day. It was a friendly plane, yes, it must be. No enemy could be flying in the vicinity uncontested and alone. And if it were an enemy plane it would be on reconnaissance—unarmed and tame. But the soothed apprehension remained unconvincing, despite the facts or the logic. What if logic were defied? The non-plausible, however dangerous or real, does not move people to action. Logic is familiar and comforting, and anything contradictory is dismissed. As the aircraft drew closer to the road, noses began to turn upward. People attempted to spot the plane to alleviate their fear. The traffic slowed as drivers peered toward the sky. If any one of those people had truly believed the plane might attack, they would have left the road and run into the lavender fields. I did not, and I would have looked a fool for acting so prudent. The plane turned away from us, banked and turned again parallel to the highway. This did not bode well. A few dozen individuals and families abandoned the road and took to the hot fields. Those who remained watched them with glassy stares and quiet contempt. They were abandoning the common goal, creating a diffuse body of people on the road. Those stares were really jealous stares. Though the field was large, there was nowhere to go. If everyone took to the field, then the situation remained the same. But individuals were safe because the mass presented a target. And they were resented for not sharing in the danger.
Imagine the scene when the airplane approached closer, closer. Louder, impending. Necks stretched and eyes strained to identify the machine. Friend or foe? Someone said it was friendly—and were contradicted by others who swore it was enemy. The war wasn’t old enough for anyone, much less civilian, to identify anything. The war was so different, so uncertain. Recent experience in Poland shocked everyone, but not enough to really believe that war itself had changed. There is a divide between familiarity and events sometimes. This had never happened before, ergo it will not. But it had. And it did.
The crowd of traffic was not unlike a nervous herd of cattle. They found strength in the group only so long as the group as a whole was safe. The uncertainty drove people to push ahead at a quicker pace. Move, move. As if the road one hundred meters ahead were any different from the last ten miles. It was no safer. Nothing was safe. The tension reached a climax when the pitch of the airplane increased into a dive. The crowd hoped against the truth, but this was no friendly machine.
The tenuous order broke when the first crack of the dual machine guns dashed the tense peace. Men and women, children and beast alike broke away. In this horrible situation one’s fellow man was, in a way, the enemy. Each man himself was not a target, certainly not a child, but the mass itself. To free oneself from the mass would be to cease being a target. Lorries and cars lurched for the ditch, horses reared and bucked, carts overturned, children screamed, men shouted. And death visited the crowd.
It happened in seconds. A mere moment in time. The aircraft swept over us like the angel attending death upon the Egyptians. My world was ripped to shreds. Then it was over. The plane was gone and the survivors were left to decide what to do. I had only recently thrown myself under a wagon, and I pushed three other people off me to get up. Smoke and dust settled over the scene as the refugees picked themselves up and continued on. There was nothing I or anyone could do. The dead were dead. The wounded could not be helped. We shuffled past shot-out sedans filled with them. Horses in the throes of death, frothed blood spewing from nostrils, eyes full of terror, kicked and thrashed in madness. A kind Poilu fired his rifle into the beast’s head. The animal was a lucky one. No such mercy could be shown the wounded souls.
Out of the chaos a lieutenant approached me from ahead. He was fighting the flow of traffic, against the inevitable tide. In his tow were a half-dozen riflemen. One man was wrapped in bandages from arm to head. His rifle was slung uselessly over his back. The others were tired and defeated. They were a different kind of soldier than France expected. The officer was not.
“Corporal” he charged, addressing me by my lapel. I might as well have been an admiral.
“Where are your men?” he asked.
I had no idea. “Dead.”
He turned to look at his pitiful crew, paused, and said, “Well you can fall in with us, we’re heading in a different direction than this rabble. I’m Lieutenant Prevot.”
“Where are we going Lieutenant?”
“North”, he said, “the Germans are pushing us faster than we can run.”
“Are these all your men?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said sheepishly, but not without an air of defiance, “our gun was smashed in a lorry accident up the road. This damned traffic is blocking the entire regiment.”
“There’s little use in the eight of us running off to fight.”
“The Germans are attacking Crecyville?”
“They hold Crecy’.” I replied.
“But I received word they attacked only this morning.”
“They did, but that was this morning.”
The Lieutenant didn’t know what to do. He knew his duty, he remembered his training. He knew how to attack a town, but not with eight men. This wasn’t what Lieutenant Prevot was supposed to do. Everything was different.
“The Germans will be sweeping up this column any moment, Lieutenant, it could be a matter of hours.”
“They will roll it up if we don’t hold them back. We cannot allow it.”
“You are right, we cannot allow it, but we cannot stop it either.”
The Lieutenant’s shoulders straightened, “Your tone is not appreciated, Corporal. What is your name?”
“Corporal Mertens, sir. I was billeted in Crecyville. My men were smashed in a Stuka attack this morning, I haven’t been able to locate the rest since we were caught in this quagmire.”
“Let’s get out of this mess.” He said. “We’ll take to the east ditch and bring up any stragglers as we go.”
My conscience compelled me to not speak my mind. After all, I was a soldier. My men were dispersed and dead, I was lost. But I was a soldier, but to do and die. I was already dead anyway, this was only the beginning. The last war had drained the country dry. Four eternal years. Victory had cost France more than defeat had Germany.
We pushed against the flow, picking up three or four men on the way. The Lieutenant’s morale sank with every step. The road to Crecyville was ten miles away, and the clogged road stretched for most of the length. It probably went beyond the Germans. Death’s hand was everywhere. A crumpled Renault in the ditch contained the charred bodies of a family who probably were dead before the fire ignited. The stench in the heat of May was unbearable, two men vomited as we passed another burnt out hulk.
A voice in the wind called to us.
“Officier!” it was a man just ahead, he stumbled toward us, shirt torn open and blood running down his elbows. “Thank God!” he blurted in American English. “My driver, he’s terribly hurt.” He turned back to the road expecting us to follow. We had nothing better to do. He walked back to a black sedan. The engine was hissing and the polished roof was punctured through. A man in the driver’s seat was dying.
“My driver, he’s been shot!” screamed the American.
I looked around: the road behind was untouched. We had found the beginning of the strafing run, and this driver had been the rather unlucky one to receive the first volley. Blood was dripping from the shut door. He was all but gone.
But the American wouldn’t hear of it. “Help him, he’s dying!” hyperventilating and attempting to open the smashed door, the poor fellow was out of his head. It wasn’t until the driver gurgled his last gasp in his own blood that Lieutenant Prevot convinced him to sit in the grass away from the Renault. Prevot was the symbol of order in the midst of absolute breakdown.
No sooner had the American calmed a bit down than the shrieks of the mass signaled a return of the aircraft. We stood rooted, attempting to locate the source of the drone.
Nothing, where was it? Above the clouds? Behind the row of trees? People weren’t waiting around to find out. They crowded around the ditch and ventured a few yards into the lavender. Eyes uplifted, not in supplication, but terror.
We saw the plane, swooping low from about two thousand feet, it lined up for a strafe. This time, however, yellow tracers of ground fire rose to meet it. Hope swelled in our hearts. “Down the bastard!”
But it was too little. The fighter slipped through the anti-aircraft fire and unleashed cannon fire into the packed human density.
Am I a soldier? Shards of road and debris bit into my cheek. It stung. But Lieutenant Prevot caught a sharper piece in his leg. A vehicle on the road exploded. Then the screams started. Am I a soldier? No! I had ceased to be a protection for these people when the plane first began its descent. I was now merely a member of the striving mass—attempting survival. As soon as the fighter passed over a woman stumbled down the embankment singed nearly naked. She wore only one shoe and the tatters of her dress barely clothed her. Clearly she was attempting to find help, as if that word existed now. She stumbled and pitched into the ditch. The American crawled over to her and tried to comfort her. She was beyond reason. Shocked into another dimension, she would never forget this day—if she made it through this day.
Prevot instructed one of the men to help him bind his wound.
“You should get off this road, Lieutenant, I’m sure we could locate a field hospital at the crossroad.”
“Crossroad?” He said, “I’ve just come from there. There’s no damn hospital. We’re going to Crecyville.”
I stared at him. “You won’t make it.”
“I will be fine, I can walk on this. We can make it by dark.”
“We won’t make it beyond the panzers!”
“I do not care for your tone, Corporal. Are you fighting a war or not?”
“No sir, I am not fighting a war, this is an orgy.”
The Lieutenant was angry. “You have a weapon, Corporal? You will use it as instructed. This is the French Army for god’s sake!”
“How can you sit in judgment? Look around you!”
The woman was going into hysterics that the American was simply unable to help, the wind whipped the flaming automobile into a raging inferno, carrying the cries of the injured.
I didn’t hear Lieutenant Prevot’s response because the airplane returned. All of us threw our bodies to the ground as destruction rained farther down the line. Prevot’s mind was made for him. The wind changed suddenly and brought in its graces the aroma of war. Burnt fuel, flesh, metal, and desperation.
I rose and walked to the woman, now on her knees, head in hands. I unbuttoned my tunic and draped it across her shoulders. She hardly noticed, but shrank further into the grass, into her misery. Here and there somebody ran along the ditch, terror-filled eyes upraised in expectation. I walked up into the terrible highway from where the woman had come.
Everywhere there were screams. Impassioned, despairing, hopeless and pained. Curiously there was no noise emanating from the center of the road. I saw a black Mercedes—ruined beyond recognition. The silver emblem on the engine was the only clue. I regarded it only as a specimen of a larger picture of sin. Melted tires ran into the cracked asphalt. Deep black. The twenty-millimeter cannons had swept through the auto. I think I saw bodies inside. I wasn’t sure, they were disfigured beyond even that basic identification.
It was only this morning that this automobile contained living, breathing people with ideas for solving the world, emotions for loving another. The passenger door was unscathed, but sheathed in flame. The driver had simply been eviscerated and blown into oblivion, as had the left half of the auto. I stepped round the other side. Spilling out of the right door were two or three children. How many, exactly, I will never know. But there, as if in a nightmare: an infant. Between the shattered metal and charred upholstery, between the burning body and the dismembered pieces of her siblings, a child. Between death on one hand and destruction on the other, a little girl of one or two years of age had survived the hand of death. Death had touched her family in total desolation. Yet she was preserved.
No tears ran down her soiled cheek. No cry elicited her lips. But her eyes—her eyes met mine in a simple plea. Here all alone, literally, she saw me. I cannot explain what the gaze meant, it rather explains itself. There she sat as if on an outing to the country, all fussed up in her blue dress with white stockings and patent shoes. She was dressed in her Sunday best.
She must have a purpose in this cruel world. I leant inside the burning pyre and grasped her plump little body, shielded her innocent eyes from the brutality and pulled her from her torment. It was a peculiarly long walk across the tarmac, neither of us emitted a sound of any sort. Nothing but the crunch of grit and gravel underfoot. Down the embankment we descended and approached our group. The American motioned toward us, and the injured woman turned her gaze. Her tired and bloodshot eyes locked with the infant’s, she raised her arms. The little girl’s pent-up and confused emotions surged forward in a beautiful sob as she met her mothers’ embrace. The mother murmured her child’s name over and over again, soothing her infant while embracing the overwhelming joy, and grief unimaginable. “Aimeé! Aimeé! Aimeé!”
Each one of us shed a tear, I know we all did, even Lieutenant Prevot.