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Willa Cather (1873–1947). One of Ours. 1922.

Book Five: “Bidding the Eagles of the West Fly On”


WHEN Claude and David rejoined their Battalion on the 20th of September, the end of the war looked as far away as ever. The collapse of Bulgaria was unknown to the American army, and their acquaintance with European affairs was so slight that this would have meant very little to them had they heard of it. The German army still held the north and east of France, and no one could say how much vitality was left in that sprawling body.

The Battalion entrained at Arras. Lieutenant Colonel Scott had orders to proceed to the railhead, and then advance on foot into the Argonne.

The cars were crowded, and the railway journey was long and fatiguing. They detrained at night, in the rain, at what the men said seemed to be the jumping-off place. There was no town, and the railway station had been bombed the day before, by an air fleet out to explode artillery ammunition. A mound of brick, and holes full of water told where it had been. The Colonel sent Claude out with a patrol to find some place for the men to sleep. The patrol came upon a field of straw stacks, and at the end of it found a black farmhouse.

Claude went up and hammered on the door. Silence. He kept hammering and calling, “The Americans are here!” A shutter opened. The farmer stuck his head out and demanded gruffly what was wanted; “What now?”

Claude explained in his best French that an American battalion had just come in; might they sleep in his field if they did not destroy his stacks?

“Sure,” replied the farmer, and shut the window.

That one word, coming out of the dark in such an unpromising place, had a cheering effect upon the patrol, and upon the men, when it was repeated to them. “Sure, eh?” They kept laughing over it as they beat about the field and dug into the straw. Those who couldn’t burrow into a stack lay down in the muddy stubble. They were asleep before they could feel sorry for themselves.

The farmer came out to offer his stable to the officers, and to beg them not on any account to make a light. They had never been bothered here by air raids until yesterday, and it must be because the Americans were coming and were sending in ammunition.

Gerhardt, who was called to talk to him, told the farmer the Colonel must study his map, and for that the man took them down into the cellar, where the children were asleep. Before he lay down on the straw bed his orderly had made for him, the Colonel kept telling names and kilometers off on his fingers. For officers like Colonel Scott the names of places constituted one of the real hardships of the war. His mind worked slowly, but it was always on his job, and he could go without sleep for more hours together than any of his officers. Tonight he had scarcely lain down, when a sentinel brought in a runner with a message. The Colonel had to go into the cellar again to read it. He was to meet Colonel Harvey at Prince Joachim farm, as early as possible tomorrow morning. The runner would act as guide.

The Colonel sat with his eye on his watch, and interrogated the messenger about the road and the time it would take to get over the ground. “What’s Fritz’s temper up here, generally speaking?”

“That’s as it happens, sir. Sometimes we nab a night patrol of a dozen or fifteen and send them to the rear under a one-man guard. Then, again, a little bunch of Heinies will fight like the devil. They say it depends on what part of Germany they come from; the Bavarians and Saxons are the bravest.”

Colonel Scott waited for an hour, and then went about, shaking his sleeping officers.

“Yes, sir.” Captain Maxey sprang to his feet as if he had been caught in a disgraceful act. He called his sergeants, and they began to beat the men up out of the strawstacks and puddles. In half an hour they were on the road.

This was the Battalion’s first march over really bad roads, where walking was a question of pulling and balancing. They were soon warm, at any rate; it kept them sweating. The weight of their equipment was continually thrown in the wrong place. Their wet clothing dragged them back, their packs got twisted and cut into their shoulders Claude and Hicks began wondering to each other what it must have been like in the real mud, up about Ypres and Passchendaele, two years ago. Hicks had been training at Arras last week, where a lot of Tommies were “resting” in the same way, and he had tales to tell.

The Battalion got to Joachim farm at nine o’clock. Colonel Harvey had not yet come up, but old Julius Caesar was there with his engineers, and he had a hot breakfast ready for them. At six o’clock in the evening they took the road again, marching until daybreak, with short rests. During the night they captured two Hun patrols, a bunch of thirty men. At the halt for breakfast, the prisoners wanted to make themselves useful, but the cook said they were so filthy the smell of them would make a stew go bad. They were herded off by themselves, a good distance from the grub line.

It was Gerhardt, of course, who had to go over and question them. Claude felt sorry for the prisoners; they were so willing to tell all they knew, and so anxious to make themselves agreeable; began talking about their relatives in America, and said brightly that they themselves were going over at once, after the war—seemed to have no doubt that everybody would be glad to see them!

They begged Gerhardt to be allowed to do something. Couldn’t they carry the officers’ equipment on the march? No, they were too buggy; they might relieve the sanitary squad. Oh, that they would gladly do, Herr Offizier!

The plan was to get to Rupprecht trench and take it before nightfall. It was easy taking—empty of everything but vermin and human discards; a dozen crippled and sick, left for the enemy to dispose of, and several half-witted youths who ought to have been locked up in some institution. Fritz had known what it meant when his patrols did not come back. He had evacuated, leaving behind his hopelessly diseased, and as much filth as possible. The dugouts were fairly dry, but so crawling with vermin that the Americans preferred to sleep in the mud, in the open.

After supper the men fell on their packs and began to lighten them, throwing away all that was not necessary, and much that was. Many of them abandoned the new overcoats that had been served out at the railhead; others cut off the skirts and made the coats into ragged jackets. Captain Maxey was horrified at these depredations, but the Colonel advised him to shut his eyes. “They’ve got hard going before them; let them travel light. If they’d rather stand the cold, they’ve got a right to choose.”