This is the first of three closing chapters. Here we leave Henri.
In the next chapter, hopefully up by the end of this weekend, we'll see Walter celebrating Christmas in the trenches.
And this brings the novel past 251k words. I hope you enjoy it.
Paris. December 9th, 1914. “And so, how is your war? Are you on leave or is this a business visit?”
Henri kissed his father on both cheeks, then sat down across the cafe table from him. “A business visit of sorts. A few of us front line officers from the regiment were ordered back to the depot to give our reactions to the new infantry tactics manual which the general staff is preparing.”
“And what does that mean to those of us who are not initiates in the military arts?”
This was the problem Henri had suffered from throughout the trip. Looking out the window of the cafe, he could see people hurrying along the gray streets, sheltering under umbrellas from the cold December rain that was falling. A British officer, walking down the street in his khaki uniform, was the only hint that everything was not as it ought to be. Looking at those familiar streets, it was difficult to recall the world of trenches and raiding parties, of artillery barrages and machine gun emplacements, as anything other than a fevered nightmare, a dangerous alternate world into which he was in danger of slipping back at any moment, but one fundamentally apart from the world of Paris.
Paris was the regimental depot, and it was less than three hours by train from the front lines, so it was reasonable enough for the officers to return to Paris to review and discuss the draft of the infantry manual. And yet, once in Paris, the instincts and practices they had honed to stay alive during their stints in the front line seemed a distant and foreign experience. How could they make men here understand what was required there? And yet it was only through this near impossibility that the military project could be accomplished.
“In the Transportation Ministry you have policies and procedure manuals, don’t you?”
“Of course. And memos and circulars and any amount of bird cage lining which appears in my basket at intervals.”
“And yet, for the manager of a train station in a small town, he has to read those circulars carefully before lining his dear parakeet’s cage with them, because only by keeping up with all that paperwork will he know how to do his job in the way that the Ministry is directing, yes? For you, in the offices here in Paris, perhaps it’s all a joke, because you have people at the next desk and at the cafe to talk to about how things should be done. But for someone far out in the provinces, that paperwork may be the only connection he has, and if he did not read it he would not run his station properly and everyone would suffer.”
Etienne dug one of his half-smoked cigar stubs out of a pocket and rolled it between his hands before lighting it. “Point carried. But we’re not speaking of a rural train station, where the station master needs to know the signals and the proper channels to inquire for lost luggage. Surely you’re not going to tell me that soldiers consult a departmental memo in order to determine the best way to plunge a bayonet into the enemy or charge into the cannon’s mouth?”
“No, but contrary to what the newspapers might tell you, we spend very little time plunging bayonets and charging into the mouth of cannons.”
“Yet how else shall we win the war?”
It was impossible to make a civilian understand what happened at the front line. In a sense, he had more in common with the men on the other side -- although they would be happy enough to kill him and bring their own war closer to its conclusion -- than he did with the men and women who sat here in their Paris cafes. And yet, for all the troubles in his family, or perhaps because of them, Henri had never kept secrets from his father. If he did not try to make him understand, he would be allowing the war to take that from him too.