Chapter 11 is going to have 5 or 6 sections, and focuses on Henri. I'm determined to pick up the pace a bit. The next installment will go up Thursday night.
Paris. August 19th, 1914. The 22nd Company was drawn up on the trampled grass between the Allee de Longchamp and the surrounding trees of the Bois de Boulogne, the large wooded park to the west of the Paris city walls which since mobilization had become both an encampment and training ground. Two weeks after being called up, the men were beginning to show signs of martial precision. The four sections of the company were drawn up into four neat columns, each column five men across. Within each column, three rows of five men formed one squad, with its corporal the leftmost man in the first row as Henri faced them. Two squads formed a demi-section, commanded by a sergeant, with that sergeant prowling up and down next to his two blocks of men, making sure that all was as proper as it could be. Two demi-sections formed a section: sixty riflemen and their officers.
The commanders of the four sections -- his three lieutenants and the first sergeant -- stood quietly behind Henri, awaiting his verdict on their efforts.
“Very good,” he said, turning to them. “Have them fall in by sections. We’ll march down to the hippodrome at the double.”
They hurried to give their commands and one by one the sections stepped out onto the Allee de Longchamp, wheeled to face southwest down the road, and set off at a brisk pace. The maneuver was done with a precision far more creditable than the state of their uniforms would have suggested. Because the 6th Battalion had been left behind as part of Paris’s defense force when the rest of the 104th Infantry Regiment and its reserve counterpart the 304th had been dispatched from Paris to fight in Lorraine, they had been put at the very bottom of every supply list. Although the men all carried rifles and wore their dark blue army overcoats (oppressive in the August heat) half of them were still wearing grey or brown civilian trousers rather than red uniform trousers. The fourth section had not yet been issued blue uniform kepis, some of the men going bareheaded while the rest wore an assortment of workers caps, straw boaters, and dark bowler hats. But they could march. Henri had drilled them every day, and their marching was beginning to be downright soldierly.
The fourth section fell in, and Henri himself fell in next to them, marching alongside Sergeant Leon Carpentier, the company’s First Sergeant and thus the one non-commissioned officer to command a section.
Sergeant Carpentier was one of the handful of regular army non-commissioned officers assigned to the reserve battalion when it was mobilized in order to give the officers and men who had been out of active service for anywhere from one to ten years a bit of polish and order.
“The section is doing much better,” Henri offered. “The drilling shows.”
The sergeant gave a shrug. Then after a moment’s pause he responded, “For two week’s drilling.”
Henri looked over at the sergeant, trying to read his expression, but his eyes were straight forward and his mouth nearly obscured by his heavy, walrus mustache. Carpentier did not seem a talkative man at the best of times, and he followed strictly the view that men, non-commisioned officers, and officers were three distinct classes between whom the less mixing there was the better. One the day the company had been moved into the entrenched camp, he had caught one of the privates using the NCOs’ toilets and had insisted that the entire company be drawn up so that he could bawl at them, “This is the army, and there will be order! Lavatories are for officers. Toilets are for NCOs. Latrines are for men. If any of you forget this again, you’ll be cleaning latrines for a week.”
It seemed likely enough, however, that his taciturnity was also a result of resentment that he had been assigned to the reserve battalion left behind in Paris when the rest of the regiments had shipped out to Lorraine and combat. He was in his mid forties, several years Henri’s senior, and unlike Henri had spent his entire adult life as a professional soldier. To be relegated to drilling reservists behind the lines on the first time that the opportunity of war presented itself in his twenty-five year army career must smart, but it would only be a sign of weakness to allow him to indulge in bitterness publically.
“When we reach the hippodrome, the men are to fall out and have lunch. Then have them clean their rifles and do weapons drill. I’ll be back with the lieutenants at two, and then we will spend the afternoon on combat drill.”
The sergeant nodded crisply. “Yes, sir.”
It was Sous-Lieutenant Vincent Dupuis who knew the 16th Arrondisement well, and who selected the little cafe on the Rue de Passy for their lunch. The son of a banker, he was also the only one who was not alarmed by the prices on the menu when they sat down. Aware that the other two lieutenants had far less money than Lieutenant Dupuis, Henri had suggested moving to a less exclusive nearby cafe, but Lieutenant Dupuis’s offers to treat them all had shamed the other three men into waving off the expense and insisting they didn’t mind at all.
The food was excellent, and so was -- as Lieutenant Dupuis had promised -- the house wine. Although the cafe was crowded they were, for perhaps the first time since Henri had returned to Paris, the only soldiers in the establishment. This seemed to make them an object of curiosity and pride for the other cafe patrons. Two elderly gentlemen in pale grey summer suits repeatedly stole glances in their direction as they discussed their newspapers, and a stately woman in a wide, lace-trimmed hat (with two younger women kept sedately in her wake) stopped to say, “We are all of thinking of you. We think of all our brave soldiers.”
“I wish those two young ones would do more than think of us, eh?” said Lieutenant Dupois once the three women had put up their sun parasols and set off down the street.
“There’s the difference a uniform makes,” replied Lieutenant Gilbert Morel, the commander of First Section now, but in civilian life a lycee math instructor. “Ah, but you’re worse off, Rejol,” he added, addressing Lieutenant Maurice Rejol, the commander of Second Section. “If you were in your usual uniform perhaps those little angels would slip into a confessional with you and tell you all the naughty things they’re up to.”
Lieutenant Rejol, who since his two years service as a reserve officer had become a priest, shrugged but did not reply. Since learning his fellow officer’s peacetime occupation Morel had kept up a steady stream of anti-clerical pinpricks, but while not otherwise taciturn, the priest doggedly refused to rise to the bait of these.
Coffee and sponge cakes arrived, and Henri decided it would be as well to change the topic.
“After lunch I want to start putting the men through fire and movement drill.”
The Parentheses of Palms
1 hour ago