33 Days

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Authors: Leon Werth
feelings are political or not. But I give in to the absurdity of a memorable statement and reply to the Lerouchon woman that at this moment she cannot imagine how much I prefer French soldiers to German soldiers. I believe I even had the weakness to add that it wasn’t a matter of politics or patriotism, but of dignity … My wife, with a great deal of common sense, shuts me up.
    We follow the Germans. We cross some fields. It’s dark. We haven’t eaten anything since morning. One of the fields is cut by a ditch at least two meters deep. The soldiers climb in, sinking knee-high into water. One of them takes the baby in his arms. They help the women get across.
    We arrive at a farmhouse where the Germans are billeting. We sit down on the steps of a kind of porch. Heavy shadows are passing through the courtyard. A few of these shadows approach us, join our group. There’s some rapid conversation between the shadows, Soutreux and Lerouchon.
    Lerouchon makes sure to translate the essence of the conversation for us. The Germans are giving her information about the war. She shouts to us, in a tone of triumph, “They’ve bombed Dreux; they’ve bombed Juvisy …” She shouts this to us as if she were announcing both a victory for her own country and a personal triumph. Then we can only hear a few sounds, at once raucous and muffled, a torrent of accented syllables. Lerouchon isn’t translating whatever the source of the jubilation is. Suddenly, she yells in French, “You know … a French general surrendered … He came alone to surrender …”
    I see Madame Aufresne crying. She told me later that she was crying from shame.
    The Germans leave us. They are bringing hay into a kind of cellar. They spread it on the floor and over some barrels. This is our designated refuge for the night.
    Soutreux and Lerouchon are speaking German to each other in loud voices. To tell the truth, where there are Germans, they feel too much at home. They are forgetting that they’re only guests. A noncommissioned officer brusquely orders them to shut up. He’s right, after all.
    We lie down on the straw, some of us on the ground, others onthe barrels. Toward three in the morning someone declares that the shell impacts are getting closer and that our shelter is far from strong. We dash across fields. Mortar shells are whistling … I don’t like the sound. But after the jolt caused by the initial explosions, I can’t help but ignore the mortars. I manage with great difficulty to overcome the idea that the mortars are not part of my personal universe … We don’t speak the same language. This game of artillery is as alien to me as the game of belote.
    Before reaching Lorris, lying on the grass with a pain in my shoulders while the trucks filed by endlessly, I’d already rediscovered the soldier in me, the soldier of 1915, lost in events. This was only a kind of camping trip that I imagined as temporary. Now, I feel only desolate and numb. Yes, it’s as if everything inside me were frozen … I rediscover the soul, the torpor and the passions of a soldier. I’m sleepy, I’m hungry and I’m full of certainties. The 1914 war was limited in its goals, modestly territorial, modestly economic. At stake this time is the totality of man, the totality of all men. So vast that to express it, the masses and their masters can no longer come up with token lies. Those conducting this war haven’t invented stories of severed hands; neither have the masses.
    We reach a farm around which German soldiers are camping. Some refugees are leaving; they have gathered their bundles in a wheelbarrow. Others have settled in. Once they have understood that we’re only temporary guests, they welcome us and offer us coffee.
    We sleep in the barn until daybreak. I wander through the courtyard. A German soldier comes over to me, speaking to me gently, but I can’t manage to understand him. Nevertheless, we seem to agree on the uncomplicated idea that

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