A first-hand account of the twilight of the arme-blanche at war
This book is particularly engaging for several reasons. It principally concerns the opening campaigns of the Great War in Europe, before the time of trenches and wire, at a time when the fighting was still mobile. Cavalry on both sides was not only being employed in much the same way as it had been during the Napoleonic era, but the cavalrymen were dressed—complete with Corinthian helmets and horse-tails—in a style which would have been recognised by their great-grandfathers a century earlier. This first-hand account by an ordinary French cavalry trooper of a dragoon regiment rewards the reader with an intimate and immediate view of the conflict and of life within a cavalry regiment of the period. This concise, but fascinating recollection concerns the authors experiences in the fighting at Compiegne, Staden, Ypres and Loos. This Leonaur book contains images and photographs which were not included in the original edition.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
We were ordered to incline, and we climbed up again to the forest. All the men were alarmed at the loss of the machine-guns, abandoned in the marsh, and the face of Desoil, the non-commissioned officer with the machine-guns, was heart-breaking. His mouth worked but no words came.
With this discouragement all of us felt a renewal of hunger which was painfully acute. Thirst too burnt our throats, and fatigue weighed down our exhausted limbs. Ah, how I envied the horses which nibbled the leaves and the grass. For two days our water-bottles had been empty, we had already finished our reserve rations and this contributed to the gloom on our faces.
Towards midnight, the village of Bonneuil-en-Valois was vaguely outlined in the night at the edge of the forest. The hungry and tired horses stumbled at each step; almost all the men were dozing on their wallets, and we committed the irreparable fault of dismounting and of sleeping heavily on the open ground, instead of utilising the cover of night to join one of the neighbouring divisions by a forced march. A small post composed of a corporal and four men was the only guard for our bivouac. Each of us had passed his horse’s reins under his arm, and all of us slept, officers and men alike, like tired brutes. We did not suspect that our sentinels were posted hardly three hundred metres from the German sentries, who were concealed from us by a fold in the ground which held a regiment of Prussian infantry, who had chanced to get there, within rifle range, just at the same time as we.
At dawn a neighing horse, some clash of arms, probably gave away our position, and the alarm was given in the enemy’s camp, which was separated from us only by a field of standing lucerne. The troopers slept on, and the German scouts crept up, absolutely invisible.
A sudden musketry fire woke us up, and the German infantry was on us. I cannot think of these moments without giving credit to the admirable presence of mind which saved the situation by the avoidance of all panic. The horses were not girthed up, many of the kits had slipped round, reins were unbuckled; no matter, we had to mount. I have a crazy recollection of my loose girth, of my saddle slipping round, of the blanket which had worked forward on to my horse’s neck; no matter, “Forward! Forward!” a second’s delay might be our ruin.
A hail of bullets fell amongst us. Alongside of me, Alaire, a quite young non-commissioned officer, was hit in the belly. He was the first in the regiment whom I had seen fall. God! what a horrible toss he took, dragged by his horse, maddened by fear, crying out, “Rolland, Rolland, don’t abandon me.” Then, in a last contortion, his foot came out of the stirrup and he died convulsed by a final spasm. Near me, the captain’s orderly gave a loud shout; horses, mortally wounded, galloped wildly for some metres and then suddenly fell as if pole-axed.
I saw a man who, as if seized with madness, sent his wounded horse headlong to the bottom of a ravine and then threw himself after.
“Forward! Forward!” I followed the others, who made off towards the village. My horse trod on a German whose throat, gashed by a lance thrust, poured out such a stream of blood that the earth under me was red and streaming with it. “Forward! Forward!”
We were not going to view them then, these enemies who killed us without our seeing them, so hidden were they amongst the grass that they blended with the soil? Yes, we were though, and suddenly surprise stopped short the rush of the squadrons. Before us, some metres off, and so near that we could almost touch it with our lances, an aeroplane got up, like a partridge surprised in a stubble. A cry of rage burst from every throat. We tried to charge it with our lances in the air, but it mocked our efforts, and our rearing horses were on the spot ten seconds too late. The enemy seemed also to have flown. All that remained were two or three grey corpses that strewed the soil. We trotted into the village with our heads down, humiliated at having been fooled like children.