"Quick about it now!" I took hold of the flimsy tent-pole, and shook it --- gingerly, for I should never forgive myself if I smashed that bit of wood of theirs. An eddy swirled under the tent. They had all sat up at once, full of anxiety for their lodging. "All right, but give us time to put on our boots."

Their boots! That had become a by-word, a thing that filled the men with fear for their poor feet. Those feet of theirs were a dreadful sight, a dreadful drag: feet with no socks, chafed by the leather of the heavy boots, skinned by all the cutting flints in the mountains; feet with their heels nearly wrenched off by weeks of climbing up, with their toes squashed flat by day after day of painful climbing down. Those boots!

For the past week the men had been taking care of them, warming them, massaging them, patiently working bully-beef fat into them, in the hope of making them soft. But, every time they had to force their swollen, bruised, bleeding feet into those boots, it was always the same story: "Ow, ow! ... Oh, my God! ... I'll never get them on! ... I'm going in my bare feet, and to hell with the whole bloody business!"

At 2.40, my company was at length assembled: some thirty men so fed up that they had got beyond saying how fed up they were. That week of "rest" in a bath had nearly finished them. There was no getting them into line, what with their coughing, their limping, their writhing with lumbago, and their breaking ranks every other moment to go and squat down behind a tree. The cabbage and pimento which they had raided from the Bulgar fields during the past few weeks, the dishfuls of dangerous vegetables with which they had stuffed themselves, just because they looked fresh and green, had played the mischief with their stomachs. "Don't half make a mess. Lieutenant, do they?" said my sergeant. "Come on, now! Form twos!"

We tramped for some time in the yellow, sticky snow, slipping and swearing. The dripping trees streamed on us, in drops bigger than your thumb, whose impact you could feel on your shoulders. Then, all at once, the blast of winter sprang at your face and hands, the krivetz sweeping from the Russian steppe beat upon your thighs and your stomach, bit your ears and your fingers, and bruised your eyes, as though it were driving them hard into the depths of your skull. "Shoulder arms! ... By the right ... slow ... march!'"

To shout that order, with your jaws feeling like wood, stiffer with the cold than even cocaine in a dentist's chair could make them, was fine fun. To obey it was even finer fun. I should simply be lying if I said that it was executed in superb style, and that my men looked every inch soldiers as they emerged into the clearing where the colonel was watching their arrival. The "old man" was standing at the door of the hunting-lodge where battalion headquarters had installed themselves --- and torn up all the floor to feed the fire. He shouted at my sections, doubled up with colic: "Now then, keep step there! And hold your rifles straight!"

He gave the order in fatherly fashion, not grousing a bit. He looked almost pleased to see such fine troops parade! By this time, the whole battalion was mustered, with arms grounded. I had not seen it since two months earlier, at a parade in Prilep, and I found it a shocking sight: a line-up of wan, wasted faces, sunken-cheeked, hollow-eyed. But there was something else that I did not grasp all at once. In the appearance of these men there was something strange, to which I could not yet put a name. Standing to attention in front of my company, I wondered what it was, and suddenly I realized it.

What had struck me was the way their uniforms sagged on them. Despite the straps of their cartridge-pouches which held them tight across their chests, their tunics seemed to hang from their shoulders as though from clothes-pegs; and their belts, loose for all their new notches, sank startlingly into their stomachs ... "Attention!" The colonel advanced into the centre of the square, with a sheet of paper in his hand. "My friends, I have great news to tell you. We have won! Since November 11th, the war is over on the French front." To tell the truth, we had more or less suspected it; but still, it was a solemn moment. The men's feelings were registered by the way they stood like stones, while the colonel's reading of the communiqué was chopped into bits by the gusts of wind. "In the fifty-second month of a war without precedent in history...." The krivetz bore down snatches of the historic sentences upon the companies' front: "... example of sublime endurance and daily heroism ... now themselves attacking and wresting victory ..."

Finally the colonel folded up his sheet of paper and added, in a casual tone of voice: "The armistice came into force this morning at eleven o'clock." He was quite right, the "old man," not to make much of this announcement. It had nothing whatever to do with us. For our part, we had had our armistice, nearly two months ago. It had marked, so far as our battalion was concerned, the start of that frightful march through the Balkans which had now landed us, utterly done up, in this stinking forest. Their armistice would be quite another thing: the Rhine, occupation, a fine life! ... For our part, we were still what we had been before: the "Salonika Army." On the French front, it was a term of derision. Still, on September 15th we had stormed the Sokol with scaling ladders: the Sokol, 449 feet sheer. But try to brag about that: they would ask you wasn't Sokol the name of a patent medicine! ...

Wasn't it all over, now that the communiqué had been read? Here were the men looking to the left with more interest than ever. I turned round, and I saw something unbelievable making ready: the band!

That the regimental band, which nobody had ever seen or heard, which was talked about simply as a legendary institution --- that the regimental band should really exist, that it should actually be here, whereas the standard-bearer, for his part, had been drowned with his mule crossing the Vardar, impressed us all infinitely more than the armistice.

There they were, a dozen of them: twelve bandsmen with their eyes anxiously fixed on the conductor; twelve bandsmen cautiously applying their lips to astonishingly battered instruments. The coronet player was sucking his frozen fingers methodically, one after the other; the bugler was getting ready to blow, the cymbalist to strike. What was to come of all this?

"Fa, fa, fa, si ..." murmured the conductor; and then it burst forth. The wind from Russia smote us, all bent one way, with every branch scudding south under the rout of the clouds. The stark tree-trunks, ranked behind our rifles, hemmed us in. The sinister stream swelled its muddy waves ever higher.

All this we forgot for the sake of that Marseillaise which the conductor beat out with arms and body. Its rhythmical roar bettered the stilted sentences of the communiqué and wrought a miracle: drooping heads were held high, wasted faces filled out again, and wretched bodies were endowed with new life.

Alas, the poor fellows blowing away and fumbling at their stops with benumbed fingers, crippled with cold, were playing without their score. It had been blown away into a ravine while we were crossing a pass, somewhere between Veles and Uskub. So they stumbled after the first few bars; and the battalion, with arms shouldered, listened in dismay to the bewildered belching of the trombone and the wild raving of the strayed clarinet. One by one the bandsmen gave up and their instruments fell silent. "Si, si, fa, re!" shouted the conductor, clinging to the survivors like a drowning man. One coronet and one bugle still kept on; but they ceased their roaring when it came to modulation ...

We waited. The officers were still holding their swords at Attention. The colonel glanced at the conductor anxiously. The conductor let his arms drop helplessly, and shook his head. There was no hope of starting again with any chance of success. It was all over. "By the right! Form fours!"

--- From Captain Conan
Roger Vercel
(University of
South Carolina Press)
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