The collected Gestes—the first volume of a four volume set
There are some works of fiction and their characters, that are familiar to practically everyone—whether they have read the books or not; King Solomon’s Mines and Alan Quatermain, The Prisoner of Zenda and Rudolf Rassendyll, The Hound of the Baskervilles with Sherlock Holmes and his faithful Doctor John Watson and The Thirty Nine Steps and Richard Hannay, to name but a few. Cinema, television, radio and even comics have all played a part in ensuring that books such as these and their central characters have become cultural icons that are forever part of the collective consciousness. There can be no doubt that the same applies to P. C. Wren’s novel Beau Geste, which features the memorable John Geste and his brothers. Wren, more than any other author, was responsible for bringing an awareness of the French Foreign Legion to the public. Having served in the Legion he knew it well, and through his popular and romantic novels, his tales of regiments of mercenaries comprised of the dregs of society, thieves, murderers and professional soldiers of fortune, it quickly captured the public imagination. So too did one of the Legion’s most infamous battlegrounds—the burning sands of colonial North Africa. Wren created a legend of the most potent kind—an image of a straggling line of tired, sweating men upon the endless dunes of the desert, all wearing the famous kepi-blanc with its familiar neck flap. These ‘heroes’ would battle their despotic officers as readily as the marauding Bedouin tribesmen and knew what it was to ‘march or die!’ It is often the case that modern readers know of the best known character or most famous work of an author but remain unaware that, at the time they first published, the public demanded more such adventures. There are, in fact, four full length novels and a number of short stories featuring the Gestes and the Foreign Legion and all have been gathered in this special four volume Leonaur collection for readers to own and enjoy.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Lejaune must have worked like a fiend, for within a few minutes of Gronau’s dropping of the rifles, every man in the fort was on the roof, and from every embrasure rifles poured their magazine-fire upon the yelling, swarming Arabs.
It had been a very near thing. A very close shave indeed.<br>
But for Gronau’s coming up and diverting attention from the inside of the fort to the outside, there probably would not have been a man of the garrison alive in the place by now—except those of the wounded sufficiently alive to be worth keeping for torture.
One wild swift rush in the half-light, and they would have been into the place—to find what? A disarmed garrison!<br>
As I charged my magazine and fired, loaded and fired, loaded and fired, I wondered if these things were “chance,” and Gronau’s arrival and idle glance round, at the last moment that gave a chance of safety, pure accidental coincidence.
A near thing indeed—and the issue yet in doubt, for it was a surprise attack. They had got terribly close, the oasis was in their hands, and there were many hundreds of them to our little half-company.<br>
And they were brave. There was no denying that, as they swarmed up to the walls under our well-directed rapid-fire, an Arab falling almost as often as a legionary pulled the trigger.<br>
While hundreds, along each side, fired at our embrasures at a few score yards’ range, a large band attacked the gate with stones, axes, heavy swords, and bundles of kindling-wood to burn it down.<br>
Here Lejaune, exposing himself fearlessly, led the defence, controlling a rapid volley-fire that had terrible effect, both physical and moral, until the whole attack ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and the Touaregs, as the sun rose, completely vanished from sight, to turn the assault into a siege and to pick us off, in safety, from behind the crests of the sand-hills.<br>
I suppose this whirlwind dawn attack lasted no more than ten minutes from the moment that the first shot was fired by Lejaune, but it had seemed like hours to me.<br>
I had shot at least a score of men, I thought. My rifle was hot and sweating grease, and several bullets had struck the deep embrasure in which I leaned to fire.<br>
Below, the plain was dotted over with little heaps of white or blue clothing, looking more like scattered bundles of washing than dead ferocious men who, a minute before, had thirsted and yelled for the blood of the infidel, and had fearlessly charged to drink it.
Our bugler blew the “cease fire,” and on the order, “Unload! Stand easy,” I looked round as I straightened myself up, unloaded my rifle, and stood at ease.<br>
It was a strange sight.<br>
At every embrasure there was a caricature of a soldier—in some cases almost naked—at his feet a litter of spent cartridges, and, in one or two instances, a pool of blood. As I looked, one of these wild figures, wearing nothing but a shirt and trousers, slowly sank to the ground, sat a moment and then collapsed, his head striking with a heavy thud. It was Blanc, the sailor.<br>
Lejaune strode over from his place in the middle of the roof.<br>
“Here,” he shouted. “No room nor time, yet, for shirkers,” and putting his arms round the man, dragged him from the ground and jerked him heavily into the embrasure.<br>
There he posed the body, for Blanc appeared to be dead. Into the embrasure it leaned, chest on the upward sloping parapet, and elbows wedged against the outer edges of the massive uprights of the crenellation.<br>
Lejaune placed the rifle on the flat top of the embrasure, a dead hand under it, a dead hand clasped round the small of the butt, the heel-plate against the dead shoulder, a dead cheek leaning against the butt.<br>
“Continue to look useful, my friend, if you can’t be useful,” he jeered; and as he turned away, he added:<br>
“Perhaps you’ll see that route to Morocco if you stare hard enough.”<br>
“Now then, Corporal Boldini,” he called, “take every third man below, get them fed and properly dressed, and double back here if you hear a shot, or the ‘assembly’ blown. If there’s no attack, take below one-half of the rest. . . Then the remainder. . . Have all klim-bim and standing-to again in thirty minutes. . . You, St. André, and Maris, more ammunition. A hundred rounds per man. . . Cordier, pails of water. Fill all water-flasks and then put filled pails there above the gate. . . They may try another bonfire against it. . . Sergeant Dupré, no wounded whatsoever will go below. Bring up the medical panniers. . . Are all prisoners out of the cells. . .?”<br>
He glared around, a competent, energetic, courageous soldier. “And where’s the excellent Schwartz?” he went on. “Here, you dog, up on to that lookout platform and watch those palm trees—till the Arabs get you. . . Watch that oasis, I say. . . You’ll have a little while up there for the thinking out of some more plots. . .” And he laid his hand on the butt of his revolver, as he scowled menacingly at the big German.<br>
Schwartz sprang up the ladder leading to the high lookout platform that towered far above the roof of the fort. It was the post of danger.<br>
“Now use your eyes, all of you,” bawled Lejaune, “and shoot as soon as you see anything to shoot at.”<br>
Ten minutes or so later, Boldini returned with the men whom he had taken below, now all dressed as for morning parade. They took their places and the corporal hurried round the roof, touching each alternate man on the shoulder.<br>
“Fall out, and go below,” he ordered.<br>
Ten minutes or so later they were back, fed, clothed, and in their right minds. Gone like magic were all signs of cafard, mutiny, and madness. These were eager, happy soldiers, revelling in a fight.<br>
With the third batch I went, hoping to be back before anything happened. Not a rifle-shot broke the stillness, as we hastily swallowed soupe and coffee, and tore at our bread. <br>