All the troops have been withdrawn to positions behind the Maginot Line. Only reconnaissance squads, the eyes of the division, hold the front, withdrawing little by little until relieved by another division. These men are our antennae, and our shield, they prepare our advance or cover our retreat, acting as a very mobile but thin screen, being able to put up an intense fire from their automatic weapons. We are evacuating the ground taken from the Boche.
Is this good tactics, I wonder? The Boche is showing himself more aggressive now, Captain Vinchon, of the reconnaissance squad, held a German village; it received 500 shells - 105's - in half an hour, he had to retire, and the enemy then occupied it. But during the night Vinchon retook the village by means of hand-grenades. Thirteen killed altogether. Vinchon is a notary of Rheims, one of the best. We lunched together a week ago.
The troops retire gradually to the other side of the Line. The munition dumps are broken up.
We have little to do so Viry has introduced Sunday amusements for our men: concerts in a barn, football, horse-racing (using our clumsy farm animals), hunting the rose. In this last game a cluster of ribbons is tied to a rider's shoulder; the rider twists and turns about times without number in order to escape, the man who seizes his flower must fix it to his own shoulder and in turn be chased. Reward to the winners; a bottle of wine, naturally.
The Russians have just attacked Poland. Why? To share the spoils, or to stop the German hordes? Poland is done for; since yesterday activity has slowed down, no more artillery, no fresh troops. The Staff give me to understand that the offensive will not take place. What a pity that nearly a fortnight has been wasted before being able to attack.
Daladier spoke on the wireless two days ago. You should have seen my clerks’ passionate interest while listening to him. The Marseillaise was played at the end, and many eyes glistened with tears while the brave lads stood rigidly to attention. I think that at this moment, millions of men and women, in France, in the Maginot Line, in billets, and in barracks, in Paris, in the most distant villages, are consumed by the same flame of love for France and the certainty of victory.
The news from Warsaw is disastrous; will our intervention be in time? When the Stuttgart traitor broadcasts his tall yarns and heavy jokes, what bursts of sarcastic laughter come from our men; this so-called Frenchman has not our style, he is completely Germanized – ‘bochified’.
I am going to reconnoitre some positions where we shall be able to put the men, horses and reserve vehicles under cover, at four to five hundred yard intervals, when the shelling begins. I must also be prepared for a check to our attack and a successful German counter-attack; for to be more than half a mile ahead of the Maginot Line is like being caught in a mouse trap—it is impossible to cross over the Line through the fields because of the barbed wire and the anti-tank traps. One is forced to keep to the roads which alone are clear. But the roads are narrow, they will be terribly shelled, littered up with wounded men, and with troops going up or returning. So I look out for ditches, hollows and folds of the ground near the Maginot Line where I can camouflage my company while awaiting a free passage along a road.
Holling church has been fitted up to receive the wounded. The chairs and pews on the left of the choir have been replaced by a boarded floor, bearing large notices at intervals: “Seriously Wounded', ‘Gassed', 'Extremely Urgent', 'Urgent’. On Sundays, officers and men squash together on the right side of the choir, the numerous officers in front. Beneath the priest's chasuble, I recognize the gaiters and heavy boots of an army medical corps sergeant who is officiating. The acolytes, two poilus. At the organ is a M.O. who has collected an excellent body of singers.
During the whole service there is, in the background, the rumbling of nearby gunfire; the windows shake during communion. Nearly all the men have their prayer books; they haven't forgotten them, it is part of the few poor, but precious possessions packed away in their kits or haversacks. The religious fervour of all these worthy fellows, singing wholeheartedly, stirs my innermost feelings. I contemplate their young faces, tanned, clean-shaven this day, aglow with faith, their eyes shining as they think of God and of France too. See more
On coming out, the officers chat and laugh, pass on the news, invite each other to their mess. Then each one returns to his billet, some by car, others on horseback. In the evening we listen to the wireless in our café, giving news of the war in Poland and we refuse to believe in the smashing advance announced by the Germans. Besides, things will change.
The whole division sets out on the road, after dark, for fear of planes. With our horses and drivers still unused to the convoys, each climb is sheer purgatory, each descent and acrobatic feat. We look like a tribe of gypsies[...]… And here we are rolling along until midnight or 1 a.m. and even until ten or eleven the next morning, constantly being held up and with innumerable halts. Then I go ahead to see what is the matter; sometimes it is an infantry regiment, with all its accompanying gear, sometimes a convoy of artillery, a mile long, which has come to a standstill in front of us; wagons, guns, trucks, horses, men, doltish, passive, silent, asleep, standing by the ditch-side. A few of them enjoy a smoke and talk softly. See more
Are these dumb shadows emerging from the night for a few seconds the men I knew in the last war, the dead rising to stride to the front to wreak their vengeance on the Hun, to finish the work that we didn't end? Are they the new generation, marked by destiny as the victims of this war? Are they not rather fleeting shadows, wraiths whom night robs of being and substance?
Sometimes at the officer’s meetings rather amusing details crop up. In a tiny town the use of the church bells had been limited to sound the alert. On Sunday, when they rang for evensong, the whole population, civil and military, rushed to the trench-shelters. The General has decided that henceforth a bugle only shall be used to sound the alert.
From six in the morning until dark I have been busy organizing my unit, forming teams of horses, etc. Things are shaping well. I believe that I shall have a good batch of N.C.O.s; most important. Stifling heat. Mother Maquin’s fleas frightfully aggressive!
We begin to collect harness, stores and rations, etc. The requisitioning parties send us fine horses quite unused to sleeping tethered in the open.
An officers’ mess is established in a little restaurant half-way between the Jeanne D’Arc barracks and Dommartin; the tables are laid for eighteen to twenty men. We are still cold and reserved in the mess.
Bets are made on the chances of the war. Here, as elsewhere, no one believes that it will come to anything, and the stakes are low and few. I refrain for fear of revealing my pessimism.
The train for Toul is full of officers and men; the men as usual joke and laugh. The officers talk to each other about their particular branch of the service. I lunch in the dinner-car next to a young lieutenant in the infantry on his way to the Maginot Line. He tells me that he has travelled considerably in Germany for his Insurance Company; only a few weeks ago he did a round there. We agree in thinking that the shortage of food, supposed to exist there, is all eye-wash. He also believes in a long and hard war, and in the swift crushing of Poland. His company is detailed to occupy a gap between two works of the Maginot Line.
I take leave of my sister, who is very brave and, as usual, full of energy. Once more I advise her to leave Paris, since no other ties exist to keep her there. She prefers to remain, she isn’t afraid. We feel sad, however, believing war to be inevitable. We do not doubt our victory, but wonder what price we shall have to pay.
We arrived at Toul about four o’clock in the afternoon. The barracks, named after Joan of Arc, stand at the other end of the town. There, I am told to command of the 92/20 Horse Transport Company of the Headquarters of the 2ndNorth African Division whose Staff is stationed at Dommartin-les-Toul, a suburb quite near to the barracks. I take possession of the Journal de Mobilisation of my company, a bulky volume, which tells me what I have to do and what stores I have to draw day by day. Much work and all perfectly planned. I plunge into this mass of work, endeavouring to get my bearings.