Storming the Fort

Storming the Fort
Translated by Corry Cropper, 2005.

A soldier friend of mine, who died of a fever in Greece several years ago, told me one day of his first combat experience. His story struck me so profoundly that I wrote it down word for word as soon as I had time. Here it is:

“I met up with the regiment on the evening of September fourth. I found the colonel in the field. He greeted me rather brusquely at first; but after reading a letter of recommendation from general B***, his attitude toward me warmed and he spoke to me politely.

He introduced me to my captain who had just returned from a reconnaissance mission. This captain, that I barely had time to know, was large, tan, cold and crass. He had been a simple foot soldier and had earned his stripes and a cross on the battlefield. His voice, raspy and weak, contrasted strangely with his gigantic stature. They told me that his strange voice was due to a bullet that went right through him at the battle of Iena.

When he learned that I had just graduated from the Fontainebleau academy, he frowned and said: ‘My lieutenant died yesterday…’ I understood what he meant: ‘You have to replace him and you are incapable.’ An insult rose to my lips but I restrained myself.

The moon rose behind the fort of Cheverino, two cannon shots from our camp. It was large and red as it usually is when it rises. But this particular night it seemed extraordinarily large to me. For a moment the fort seemed to jump out, black against the brilliant moon. It looked like the top of a volcano when it erupts.

An old soldier next to me noticed the moon’s color. ‘It’s blood red,’ he said. ‘It’s a sign of what it will cost to take this damned fort!’ I have always been superstitious, and that sign, in that particular moment, rattled me. I lay down but could not sleep. I got up and walked for some time, looking at the immense line of fire that covered the hills beyond the village of Cheverino.

When the fresh, cool air of the night had sufficiently calmed me, I came back to the fire; I wrapped myself carefully in my coat and closed my eyes, hoping to keep them closed until morning. But sleeping proved difficult. My thoughts turned lugubrious. I realized I did not have a single friend among the one hundred thousand men covering the plain. If I were wounded I would end up in a hospital, treated indifferently by ignorant surgeons. What I had heard about military surgeries came into my mind. My heart beat violently and I unconsciously spread by scarf and wallet over my chest as if they would somehow protect me. Each time fatigue would sweep over me, I would begin to fall asleep, but then some sinister thought would forcefully jolt me awake again.

Sleep finally won out, however, and when reveille sounded I was completely asleep. We fell into ranks, took roll call, and then stacked our weapons: everything indicated that we would have a quiet day.

At about three o’clock a messenger from headquarters arrived, bringing orders. We took up our arms; our scouts spread out in the plain; we followed them slowly and after twenty minutes saw members of the Russian advance party retreat to the fort.

An artillery battery dug in to our right, another to our left, but both were well in front of us. They began firing at the enemy, who responded vigorously, and soon the fort of Cheverino disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

Our regiment was nearly entirely protected from the firepower of the Russians by a little fold in the terrain. Their cannonballs, when directed toward us, simply went over our heads or, at most, dusted us with dirt and pebbles.

As soon as the order to advance was given, my captain looked at me in a way that made me stroke my young mustache two or three times in as aloof a manner as possible. In any case, I was not afraid. My only real fear was that someone might think I was scared. The inoffensive cannonballs landing around us served only to embolden my calm heroism. My pride convinced me that I was in real danger since we were under fire. I was charmed to be so at ease and I thought of the pleasure it would be to relate the capture of the Cheverino fort in the salon of Madame de B***, rue de Provence.

The colonel passed in front of our company; he spoke to me: ‘Well! You’re going to see some harsh action today for you debut.’

I smiled a martial smile and brushed some dust, kicked up by a cannonball that fell thirty feet from me, from the sleeve of my uniform.

Apparently the Russians noticed their cannonballs were doing little damage and they started firing bombs that could more easily reach us in the depression where we were posted. A large explosion blew off my helmet and killed a man standing next to me.

‘Congratulations,’ the captain told me as I picked up my helmet, ‘you’re off the hook for the day.’ I knew the old military superstition that holds that the axiom non bis in idem is as applicable on the battlefield as in the courtroom. I proudly put my helmet back on. ‘That’s certainly a rude welcome,’ I said as cheerfully as I could. Under the circumstances, this bad joke seemed excellent. ‘Congratulations,’ the captain repeated, ‘you won’t get hit with anything else, and you’ll be the commander of a company before tonight. I feel like my number is up. Every time I’ve been wounded, the officer next to me has been knocked down by a near miss and,’ he added quietly and almost shamefully, ‘their names always started with a P.’

I forced myself to appear indifferent; many would have done the same; many would have been as profoundly struck by the captain’s prophetic words as I. Since I was drafted, I felt I could not share my feelings with anyone and that I always needed to appear cold and fearless.

After a half an hour, the Russian cannon fire slowed noticeably. We came out from behind our cover to march on the fort.

Our regiment was made up of three battalions. The second one was assigned to come at the fort from the side via a gorge; the two others had to engage in a frontal attack. I was in the third battalion.

As we came out from behind the small knoll that had protected us, we were hit with some small arms’ fire that did very little damage in our ranks. The whistling of the bullets surprised me: I turned my head several times but was teased by soldiers who were more familiar with the sound. ‘On the whole,’ I told myself, ‘a battle isn’t so bad.’

We ran forward, preceded by scouts. Suddenly, the Russians gave three shouts, three distinct shouts, and then remained silent without firing. ‘I don’t like this silence,’ my captain said; ‘it’s not a good sign.’ I thought our men were a bit too loud, and I could not help but contrast their tumultuous clamor with the imposing silence of the enemy.

We quickly reached the base of the fort: the palisades had been shattered and the ground broken up by our cannonballs. The soldiers leapt onto these new ruins, crying Long live the Emperor! louder than one would expect from men who had already done so much shouting.

I lifted my eyes and will never forget the spectacle that presented itself. Most of the smoke had lifted and hovered like a dais some twenty feet above the fort. Through a bluish haze I could see, behind a half-destroyed parapet, the Russian grenadiers, their rifles up, as immobile as statues. I can still see each soldier, their left eyes trained on us, their right eyes hidden behind their raised rifles. In an opening, just a few feet from us, stood a man ready to fire a cannon.

I trembled and thought that my final hour had come. ‘Let the dance begin,’ the captain shouted. ‘Goodnight.’ These were the last words I heard him speak.

A drum roll rang through the fort and I saw the rifles drop and aim at us. I closed my eyes and heard an deafening crash, followed by shouts and moans. I opened my eyes, surprised to still be alive. The fort was once again enveloped in smoke. Wounded and dead men surrounded me. The captain lay at my feet: a cannonball had scrambled his head and I was covered with his brains and his blood. Of my entire company, only six other men still stood.

This carnage was followed by a moment of stupor. The colonel placed his hat on the end of his sword and was the first to climb over the parapet, yelling Long live the Emperor! All the survivors immediately followed him. I have almost no memory of what happened next. We entered the fort, I am not sure how. We fought hand to hand in the midst of smoke so thick that we could not see. I think that I struck some men, because my sword was covered in blood. Finally I heard shouts of victory! and as the smoke dissipated I could see blood and bodies covering every inch of ground in the fort. The cannons were literally buried under piles of corpses. About two hundred men, in French uniforms, still stood, with no organization, some loading their rifles, others wiping their bayonets. Eleven Russian prisoners were with them.

The colonel was lying on a shattered caisson next to the gorge, covered with blood. Several soldiers were trying to save him. I approached: ‘Where is the most experienced captain?’ he asked a sergeant.

The sergeant very expressively shrugged his shoulders.

‘And the most experienced lieutenant?’

‘Here is a lieutenant that arrived yesterday,’ the sergeant said in a completely calm voice.

The colonel smiled bitterly. ‘Let’s go, sir,’ he said to me. ‘You’re in charge; fortify the gorge immediately with these wagons. The enemy is numerous but general C*** is going to send reinforcements.’

‘Colonel,’ I said, ‘are you seriously injured?’

‘F….., my man, but the fort is ours.'”