A soldier of my friends, who died of fever in Greece a few years ago, told me one day about the first affair he had attended. His account struck me so much that I wrote it from memory as soon as I had time. Here it is:
“I rejoined the regiment on the 4th of September in the evening. I found the colonel at the bivouac. He at first received me rather abruptly; but after reading General B’s letter of recommendation, he changed his manner, and addressed me a few obliging words.
“I was introduced to him by my captain, who was just returning from a recognition. This captain, whom I had scarcely time to know, was a tall, dark man, of a hard and repulsive countenance. He had been a simple soldier, and had won his epaulets and his cross on the battlefields. His voice, which was hoarse and weak, contrasted singularly with its almost gigantic stature. I was told that he owed this strange voice to a bullet that had pierced him from side to side during the battle of Jena.
“Learning that I was leaving the school at Fontainebleau, he made a grimace and said, ‘My lieutenant died yesterday.’ I understood that he meant to say: ‘It is you who must replace him, and you are not able to’. A piquant word came to my lips, but I confined myself.
“The moon rose behind the redoubt of Cheverino, situated at two cannon shots from our bivouac. It was wide and red, as is usual when it rises. But this evening she appeared to me extraordinary big. For a moment the redoubt detached in black on the bright disc of the moon. It resembled the cone of a volcano at the time of the eruption.
“An old soldier, with whom I stood, noticed the color of the moon. ‘It is very red,’ he said; ‘it is a sign that it will cost very much to have it, this famous redoubt!’ I was always superstitious, and this augur, at that moment especially, affected me. I went to bed, but could not sleep. I rose, and walked for some time, looking at the immense line of fires which covered the heights beyond the village of Cheverino.
“When I thought that the fresh and pungent air of the night had sufficiently refreshed my blood, I returned to the fire; I wrapped myself carefully in my cloak, and closed my eyes, hoping not to open them before dawn. But sleep kept me rigid. Insensibly my thoughts took a lugubrious tint. I told myself that I had no friend among the hundred thousand men who covered this plain. If I were wounded, I would be in a hospital, treated without consideration by ignorant surgeons. What I had heard of surgical operations came to my mind. My heart beat violently, and mechanically I placed the handkerchief and wallet I had on my breast as a kind of cuirass. Tiredness overwhelmed me, I fell asleep, every instant and every moment a sinister thought recurred with more force and awoke me with a start.
“Nevertheless fatigue had prevailed, and when it was given the reveille I was quite asleep. We put ourselves into battle, the call was made, then we put the weapons together, and all seemed that we were going to spend a quiet day.
“At about three o’clock an aide-de-camp arrived, bringing an order. We had to take back the weapons; our tirailleurs spread over the plain; we followed them slowly, and at the end of twenty minutes we saw all the outposts of the Russians falling back into the redoubt.
“A battery of artillery came to our right, another to our left, but both well ahead of us. They began a very violent fire upon the enemy, who retaliated vigorously, and soon Cheverino’s redoubt disappeared beneath thick clouds of smoke.
“Our regiment was almost covered with the fire of the Russians by a field fold. Their balls, which, moreover, were rare for us (for they preferred firing on our gunners), passed over our heads, or at most sent us earth and small stones.
“As soon as the order to march forward had been given to us, my captain looked at me with an attention that obliged me to pass two or three times the hand on my young mustache with an air as calm as possible. Besides, I was not afraid, and the only fear I felt was that I did not imagine that I was afraid. These inoffensive balls still contributed to keep me in my heroic calm. My self-love told me that I was in real danger, since at last I was under the fire of a battery. I was delighted to be so at my ease, and I thought of the pleasure of recounting the capture of Cheverino’s redoubt in the salon of Madame de B, Rue de Provence.
“The colonel passed by our company; he spoke to me: ‘Well, you’ll have a tough time for your start.’
“I smiled with a very martial air, brushing the sleeve of my coat, on which a ball, fallen thirty steps from me, had sent a little dust.
“It appears that the Russians perceived the bad success of their bullets, for they replaced them by shells which could more easily reach us in the hollow where we were positioned. A fairly loud gleam took away my shako and killed a man beside me.
“‘I give you my compliment,’ said the captain, as I had just picked up my shako, ‘you are leaving for the day.’ I knew this military superstition which believes that the axiom non bis in idem finds its application as well on a battlefield as in a court of justice. I proudly handed over my shako. ‘It is to greet people without ceremony,’ I said as cheerfully as I could. This bad joke, in view of the circumstance, appeared excellent. ‘I congratulate you,’ replied the captain, ‘you will have nothing more, and you will command a company this evening; because I feel that the oven heats for me. Whenever I have been wounded, the officer near me has received some dead bullet, and,’ he added in a lower and almost shameful tone, ‘their names always began with a P.’
“I made my mind strong; many people would have done as I did; many people would have been as well struck with these prophetic words. Conscripted as I was, I felt that I could not confide my feelings to anyone, and that I must always appear coldly intrepid.
“At the end of half an hour the fire of the Russians diminished considerably; then we went out to march on the redoubt.
“Our regiment was composed of three battalions. The second was charged with turning the redoubt on the side of the gorge; the other two were to assault. I was in the third battalion.
“Leaving behind the kind of retaining which had protected us, we were received by several discharges of musketry, which did little harm to our ranks. The whistling of the bullets surprised me: I turned often my head, and thus I attracted a few jokes from my comrades, who were more familiar with this noise. ‘On the whole,’ I said to myself, ‘a battle is not such a terrible thing.’
“We advanced on the double, preceded by tirailleurs: suddenly the Russians uttered three cheers, three distinct cheers, then remained silent, and without firing. ‘I do not like this silence,’ said my captain; ‘this does not bode well for us.’ I found that our people were a little too noisy, and I could not help comparing their tumultuous clamor with the imposing silence of the enemy.
“We soon reached the foot of the redoubt; the palisades had been broken and the earth was turned upside down by our cannon balls. The soldiers rushed upon these new ruins with cries of Vive 1’Empereur! Stronger than would have been expected from people who had already shouted so much.
“I looked up, and I never forgot the spectacle I saw. The greater part of the smoke had risen, and remained suspended like a canopy twenty feet above the redoubt. Through a bluish vapor, one could see behind their half destroyed parapet the Russian grenadiers, the weapon raised, motionless as statues. I still see every soldier, his left eye fixed on us, the right hidden by his raised gun. In a embrasure, a few feet from us, a man holding a fire-lance was near a cannon.
“I shivered, and I thought my last hour had come. ‘Here it is the dance that will begin,’ cried my captain. ‘Good evening.’ These were the last words I heard him uttering.
“A roll of drums resounded in the redoubt. I saw all the guns bent down. I closed my eyes, and I heard a terrible noise, followed by cries and groans. I opened my eyes, surprised to find myself still in the world. The redoubt was again enveloped in smoke. I was surrounded by wounded and dead. My captain was lying at my feet; his head had been crushed by a cannon-ball, and I was covered with his brain and his blood. From all my company, it remained up only six men and I.
“To this carnage succeeded a moment of astonishment. The colonel, putting his hat on the end of his sword, climbed the parapet first, crying Vive l’Empereur ! he was immediately followed by all the survivors. I have hardly any clear recollection of what followed. We entered the redoubt, I do not know how. We fought hand to hand in the midst of a smoke so thick that one could not see one another. I think I knocked, for my saber was all bloody. At last I heard victory! cry out and, with the smoke diminishing, I saw blood and dead beneath which the earth of the redoubt disappeared. The guns, above all, were buried under heaps of corpses. About two hundred men, standing in French uniform, were grouped without order, some loading their guns, others wiping their bayonets. Eleven Russian prisoners were with them.
“The colonel was overthrown, all bloody, on a broken box near the throat. Some soldiers crowded round him. I approached: ‘Where is the oldest captain?’ he asked a sergeant. – The sergeant shrugged his shoulders very expressively. – ‘And the oldest lieutenant?’ – ‘This is the gentleman who came yesterday,’ said the sergeant, in a calm tone. – The colonel smiled bitterly. ‘Come, sir,’ he said, ‘you command in chief; fortify promptly the throat of the redoubt with these chariots, for the enemy is in force; but General C *** will support you.’ – ‘Colonel,’ I asked, ‘are you seriously wounded?’ – ‘F…, my dear fellow, but the redoubt is taken.'”
Translated by Nicolae Sfetcu