The Warrior's Soul

The old officer with the long white moustaches gave rein to his indignation.

‘Is it possible that you youngsters have no more sense than that? Some of you had better wipe the milk off your upper lip before you pass judgment on the few poor stragglers of a generation which has done and suffered not a little in its time.’

His hearers having expressed much compunction the ancient warrior became appeased, but he was not silenced.

‘I am one of them—the survivors I mean,’ he began patiently. ‘And what did we do? What have we achieved? He—the great Napoleon*—started upon us to emulate the Macedonian Alexander,* with a ruck of nations behind him. We opposed empty spaces to French impetuosity, then we offered them an interminable battle so that their army went at last to sleep in its positions lying down on the heaps of its dead. Then came the wall of fire in Moscow. It toppled down on them.

‘Then began the long rout of the Grand Army.* I have, seen it go on, like the doomed flight of haggard, spectral sinners across the innermost frozen circle of Dante’s Inferno* ever widening before their despairing eyes.

‘The lot that escaped must have had their souls doubly riveted inside their bodies, to carry them out of Russia through that frost fit to split rocks. But to say that it was our fault that a single one of them got away is mere ignorance. Why! Our own men suffered nearly to the limit of their strength. Their Russian strength.

‘Of course our spirit was not broken, and then our cause was good—it was Holy. But that did not temper the wind much to men and horses.

‘The flesh is weak. Good or evil purpose, humanity has to pay the price. Why, in that very fight for that little village of which I have been telling you, we were fighting for the shelter of these old houses as much as for victory. And with the French it was the same.

‘It wasn’t for the sake of glory or for the sake of strategy. The French knew that they would have to retreat before morning and we knew perfectly well that they would go. As far as the war was concerned there was nothing to fight about. Yet our infantry and theirs fought like wild cats, or like heroes if you like that better, amongst the houses—hot work enough—while the supports out in the open stood freezing in a tempestuous north wind which drove the snow on earth and the great masses of clouds in the sky at a terrific pace. The very air was inexpressibly sombre by contrast with the white earth. I’ve never seen God’s creation look more sinister than on that day.

‘We, the cavalry (were only a handful) had not much to do except turn our backs to the wind and receive some stray French round shot. This I may tell you was the last of the French guns, and it was the last time they had their artillery in position. These guns never went away from there either. We found them abandoned next morning. But that afternoon they were keeping up a truly infernal fire on our attacking columns; the furious wind carried away the smoke and even the noise, but we could see the constant flicker of darting fire along the French front. Then a driving flurry of snow would hide everything except the dark red flashes in the white swirl.

‘At intervals when the air cleared, we could see away across the plain to our right, a sombre column moving endlessly; the column of the great rout creeping on all the time, while the fight on our left went on with a great din and fury. The cruel whirlwinds of snow swept over that broken mob time after time. And then the wind fell as suddenly as it had risen in the morning.

‘Presently we got orders to charge the retreating column; I don’t know why, unless to prevent us from getting frozen in our saddles, by giving us something to do. The order was welcome enough. So we

  By PanEris using Melati.

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