Chapter III. After The Marne
At the end of the village the road climbed again from the ravine and emerged on open fields. A wall of timber, dark and impenetrable as the woods round an old chateau, rose at the farther end of these fields - the road cutting through it like a tunnel - and on the brow of the ravine, commanding the road and the little plain, was a line of trenches. Here evidently they had fought.
We walked on down the road. Below the northern horizon, where they were fighting now along the Aisne, rolled the sullen thunder of artillery, as it had been rolling since daylight. And the autumn wind, cold with the week of equinoctial rain, puffing out of thickets and across ravines, brought, every now and then, the horrible odor of death.
Ahead, to the right, one caught the glint of a French infantry's red trousers. A man was lying there, face downward, on the field. Then across the open space appeared another - and another - they were scattered all over that field, bright as the red poppies which were growing in the stubble and as still. They were in various positions. One lay on his back, with one knee raised like a man day-dreaming and looking up at the sky. Another was stretched stiff, with both hands clinched over his chest. One lay in the ditch close beside us, his head jammed into the muddy bank just as he had dived there in falling; another gripped a cup in one hand and a spoon in the other, as if, perhaps, he might have tried to feed himself in the long hours after the battle rolled on and left them there.
All these were French, but just at the edge of the thick timber was a heap - one could scarcely say of Germans, so utterly did the gray, sodden faces and sodden, gray uniforms merge into anonymity. A squad of French soldiers appeared at a turn in the road. Two officers rode beside them, and they were just moving off across the fields carrying shovels instead of rifles. Looking after them, beyond the belt of timber, one could see other parties like theirs on the distant slopes to the left, and here and there smoke. Two more French soldiers appeared pushing a wheelbarrow filled with cast-off arms. With the boyish good nature which never seems to desert these little men in red and blue, they stopped and offered us a few clips of German cartridges. They were burying their own men, they said, burning the Germans. The dead had been lying here for nearly a fortnight now while the battle line rolled northward, clear across France.
We turned back toward Crepy, passing again through the shattered village of Betz. For three days it had been the centre of a battle, the two forces lying outside it and shelling each other across the town. The main street, now full of French soldiers, was in ruins, the church on the edge of the ravine smashed and gaping, and a few peasant women stood about, arms folded patiently, telling each other over and over again what they had seen.
Past fields, where the wheat still waited to be stacked and thrashed, past the carcasses of horses sprawled stiff-legged in the ditch or in the stubble, we tramped on to Crepy-en-Valois. The country was empty, scoured by the flood that had swept across it, rolled back again, and now was thundering, foot by foot, farther and farther below the horizon to the north. The little hotel across from the railroad station in Crepy had kept open through it all. It was the typical Hotel de la Gare of these little old towns - a bar and coffee-room down-stairs, where the proprietor and his wife and daughters served their fleeting guests, a few chambers up-stairs, where one slept between heavy homespun sheets and under a feather bed. They were used to change, and the mere coming of armies could not be permitted to derange them.
Within a fortnight that little coffee-room of theirs had been crowded with English soldiers in retreat; then with Germans - stern, on edge, sure of being in Paris in a few days; then with the same Germans falling back, a trifle dismayed but in good order, and then the pursuing French. And now they were serving the men from the troop-trains that kept pouring up toward the Aisne, or those of the wounded who could hobble over from the hospital trains that as steadily kept pouring down.
Sometimes they coined money, and, again, when the locomotive unexpectedly whistled, saw a roomful of noisy men go galloping away, leaving a laugh and a few sous behind. Madame would come in from the kitchen, raise her arms and sigh something about closing their doors, but, after all, they knew they should keep right on giving as long as they had anything to give. One of their daughters, a strapping, light-hearted colt of a girl, told us some of the things they had seen as she paused in the hall after preparing our rooms. Her sister stood beside her, and together they declaimed in an inimitable sort of recitative.
How the English soldiers had come in, all laughing, and the young officers so handsome; but the German soldiers were all like this - and the young woman gave a quick gesture as of one taking nose and mouth in her hand and pulling it stiffly down a bit. The French officers and their men were like fathers and sons, but the Germans had a discipline you would not believe - she had seen one officer strike a man with his whip, she said, because he was not marching fast enough, and another, when a soldier had come too near, had kicked him. And they all thought surely they were going into Paris - "Two days more," they had laughed as they drank down-stairs, "Paris, and then - kaput!"