This is a fascinating and unusual book. Written in the early years of the Great War in Europe by a young professional officer of Chasseurs a Cheval, this is a lyrical work full of enthusiasm, idealism and conviction in the spirit of the Light Cavalry. In places the reader can easily imagine it is the account of a Napoleonic or 2nd Empire cavalryman - so similar are the scenes of campaigning against the common Prussian enemy. Dupont’s regiment is brigaded with the Chasseurs de Afrique engaged in mounted warfare at the Battle of the Marne and after. As 1915 approaches they are dismounted to fight as infantry in Belgium where Dupont takes part in the Battle of the Yser. This book offers a ‘snapshot’ in time - a view of war in which the writer still dreams of Lasalle and Murat untarnished by the war of attrition to come.
Then, at the very moment that I was putting the glasses to my eyes, I saw, at less than 100 yards distance, a whole line of sharpshooters, dressed in grey, rise quickly in front of me. For one short moment a terrible pang shot through us. How many were there? Perhaps 300. And almost at the same time a formidable volley of rifle shots rang out. They had been watching us for a long time. Lying in the grass that lined the road leading to the farm or else behind the stacks, with the admirable discipline which makes them so formidable, they had carried out their orders. Not one of them had shown himself. The Hauptmann (captain) alone, no doubt, put up his head from time to time in order to judge the favourable moment for ordering them to fire. It was he, no doubt, very fortunately for us, who had been perceived by Vercherin just for one moment. If it had not been for the prudence which we had gained by experience not one of us would have escaped. Fortunately every one of my men had kept the place exactly that I had assigned him. Not one of them flinched under the storm. And yet, Heaven knows what sinister music the bullets played around our ears! We had to be off.
I made a sign which was quickly understood. We all turned and galloped off towards the little depression we had emerged from just before. The bullets accompanied us with their hateful hissing, which made us duck our heads instinctively. But inwardly I rejoiced at their eagerness to lay us low, for in their hurry they aimed badly.
We had almost reached our shelter when I suddenly saw to the right of me “Ramier,” Lemaître’s horse, fall like a log. As I was trying to stop my mare, who showed an immoderate desire to put herself out of danger, I saw both horse and rider struggling for a moment on the ground, forming a confused mixture of hoofs in the air and waving arms. Then “Ramier” got up and set off alone, neighing sadly, and with a limping trot that did not look very promising.
But Lemaître was already on his legs, putting his crushed shako straight on his head. A bit stunned, he seemed to collect his ideas for an instant, and then I saw his good-natured ruddy face turned towards me. It lit up with a broad grin.
“Any damage, old fellow?” I asked.
“Nothing broken, sir.”
“Hurry up, then.”
And there was Lemaître, striding along with his short legs and heavy boots, jumping ditches and banks with a nimbleness of which I declare I should not have thought him capable. It is curious to note the agility the report of a rifle volley lends to the legs of a dismounted trooper. Lemaître came in to the shelter in the valley as soon as I did; and almost at the same time Finet, the sapper, brought in his old road-companion “Ramier,” which he had been able to catch. It was painful to see the poor animal; his lameness had already become more marked. He could only get along with great difficulty, and his eyes showed he was in pain.
I glanced hurriedly at the spot where the bullet had struck him. The small hole could hardly be seen against the brown skin, just at the point of the left buttock.
“Just wait here for us; I shall be back in a moment.”
I wanted to see if to the east of the village I could note anything interesting, and I turned round towards my other troopers, whose horses were panting behind us. I was horrified to see Corporal Madelaine’s face streaming with blood.
“It is nothing, sir ...; it passed in front of my nose.”
He wiped his face with the back of his hand. It had indeed been grazed by a bullet. One half-inch more, and the good fellow’s nose would have been carried off. Fortunately the skin was hardly broken. Madelaine went on:
“It’s nothing; ... but my mare....”
He had dismounted, and with a look of distress showed me his horse’s blood-stained thigh. “Attraction” was the name of his pretty and delicate little grey mare, which he loved and cared for passionately. A bullet had pierced her thigh right through, and the blood had flowed down her leg. I calmed him by saying, “Come, come; it will be nothing. Go on foot behind that wood, and get quietly under cover with Lemaître. I will soon come and join you.”
And I went off with Vercherin, Finet, and Wattrelot. I tried to get round to the right of Courgivault. But now that the first shots had been fired we were not allowed to come nearer. As soon as we appeared a violent fusillade burst from the outskirts of the village, which forced us to beat a rapid retreat. There was no longer any doubt about it; Courgivault was occupied, and occupied in strength.