14 December 1914
The first thing I noticed about the winter in the province of Champagne was that it snowed much more in the northern region than in Clermont. Of course, this made sense, but I had never seen so much snow, nor experienced winter for such an incredibly extended period of time. In the trenches, it was always terribly chilly, so I resorted to drinking more gin to warm me up. The alcohol certainly worked; I felt a pleasing, tingling sensation come to my cheeks after only a few mouthfuls of gin. I would often press my icy hands against those cheeks, radiating with heat, so that I could hold my rifle more securely. The Poilus around me also had a rosy glow upon their cheeks, drink clearly taking the edge off the harshness of war. The men sang their rowdy drinking songs, conversing amiably. Though it was, indeed, quite frigid, the mere proximity of bodies within the sleeping quarters helped everyone stay rather comfortable.
At my side, Alain was sprawled out upon my bed, rendered exhausted from the tireless assault we had launched on the Germans, starting only four days prior. Since then, my friend had fought with little sleep, and he was there the entire time, defending our trenches bravely as most fell on the battlefield from shells and bullets. I let him take my bed, of course, leaving Sébastien to take Alain’s place for the time being, sharing a bed with Mercier.
I often found myself looking over at Mercier, watching him as he worked away diligently on his lighter. When I had thought he had finished, he always had more details to add, which I found astounding. Getting up from where I was, I walked over and sat beside the man, wrapping an arm around his shoulder. “What are you making, there?” I asked gently, and the other man only smiled shyly. He showed me the lighter, and I accepted it, admiring the detail with awe. Carved into the bronze was a depiction of a woman lovingly embracing a man, who had clearly just come back from war. “Do you have a wife?” I asked gently. When Mercier made no response, and instead, almost looked quite sad, what immediately came into my mind was perhaps his wife had died in a traumatic event. Putting two and two together, I wagered that was also why he could not speak. Feeling an immense amount of pity, I pulled Mercier into my arms, unsure of exactly what I could say to comfort him. Luckily, it seemed as though I did not need to, as he returned my hug gently. It was then that I could once again feel his trembling form, and I began to worry very much.
Though, I wondered, for a fleeting moment; if his hands shook all the time, how could he have possibly carved such intricate designs on the small lighter? Or, perhaps, he was frightened of me. Nonetheless, I kept holding him, and I could feel his small body tremble, as it fought to hold back sobs. I was not entirely aware of what I was doing, but suddenly, I could feel the coarse fabric of the other’s uniform as I stroked Mercier’s back comfortingly. “You will be home soon,” I vowed in a whisper. As he held me tighter, I could feel his bones through his unusually feminine structure, and I knew that he was starving. “When was the last time you ate, Merc?” I asked, looking down at the soldier with genuine concern.
When he lifted up three bony fingers, I knew that meant that it had been at least three days. “I know the food is bad, friend, but you will die if you have nothing to eat. Wait right here.” I felt bad for leaving the man alone, after he had shown such a weakness to me, but he needed food. I would have none of my friends die in such a preventable way, especially when there was something I could have done about it. It only took me a maximum of ten minutes to get the bowl of soup and dry loaf of bread, but I had explained my situation as kindly and gently as I could, and I received an extra piece of chicken in my soup. I bowed graciously, and headed back to the crammed little room in the trench, sitting down beside Mercier, who had curled up in a ball, staring ahead blankly.
I kneeled beside the man, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Here, eat this. It will make you feel better. I must apologise, it is a little cold…Oh, do forgive me for that. But you must understand, this was all that was left…” Mercier took the bowl with trembling, hesitant little hands, and looked up at me with trusting eyes. It was at that moment that I noticed striking similarities to someone, a name on the tip of my tongue.
“Armand!” A man called my name cheerfully, and I turned my head to see Sébastien across the room, sitting on a table. “There’s an accordion over here. Want to try your hand at it?” I hesitated, uncertain. Of course, I had learned how to play the accordion back at home, but how Sébastien knew, I was not certain. Perhaps he did not, and it was all nothing more than a coincidence. With a small smile, I stood, giving Mercier’s shoulder a final squeeze before standing and walking over to Sébastien. I looked at the accordion that he held in his hands, a childish sort of glee upon his face. He thrust the instrument into my arms, and I played a few notes, assessing the resistance, the size of the keys, and whether or not it worked. Luckily, it did.
Upon hearing my warm-up of sorts, several Poilus gathered around, eager for a show. Suddenly shy, I felt like putting the accordion back and pretending that it never happened. I despised being the centre of attention, and felt horribly put on the spot. However, I saw that Mercier had also joined the crowd, looking quite interested, despite his apparent fatigue. I sighed, smiling broadly in defeat. “Fine, then. I shall play some music you can dance to, and that will warm us up.” I started with a quick canon to start, while everyone was still getting themselves organised. With each line I sung, I heard it repeated back to me with good energy, feeling the smile plaster itself upon my face.
“Sur la route de Louviers,
Y avait un cantonnier,
Et qui cassait,
Des tas de cailloux,
Et qui cassait des tas de cailloux,
Pour mettr’ su’ l’passag’ des roues.”
I could not help but laugh at the ridiculousness of the song; then again, it was one to sing whilst in a room filled with drunken men, as were many more. Casting a sly look towards Sébastien, I told him, “You had better find a partner for this one.” I began to play the opening chords, my gaze sweeping across the room. I could see the eyes of the men light up as the words came back to them. Our combined voices filled the room as we sang A Genevilliers, a song that truly revealed just how much these Poilus adored and missed their women; or, perhaps, how much they wanted to bed them.
“A Genevilliers y’a d’si tant belles filles
Mais y’en a un’ si parfait’ en beauté
Qu’elle a séduit tambours et grenadiers - !
Beau grenadier, monte dedans ma chambre
Nous y ferons l’amour en liberté
Dedans les bras de la “volupté” !”
During the song, I could see both Sébastien and Mercier dancing around quite happily, and though it appeared Mercier did not know the words, but I remembered it was only because he could not talk. Soon, Sébastien was singing of the pretty women in Genevilliers and how two lovers fought to death over her. This was ironic, only because Sébastien was not inclined towards women in the slightest, yet he seemed to sing with the most energy of everyone in the room. The soldiers seemed to enjoy these songs, perhaps as a way to exact revenge from those who deserved it. No doubt there would be many unfaithful women during the war, but my Caroline was not one of them. Even if it were so; I would do as the song said, and not fight my wife, but the man. Should a woman fall into temptation, it is surely the fault of the stronger sex!
As the night progressed, Sébastien eventually pulled me into the crowd, in an attempt to have me dance, sing, and play accordion at the same time. I was somewhat unsure of where to put my feet, and forgot several of the lyrics, and soon, Sébastien saw that it was a lost cause. One of the songs fell to ruins, as I had broken down into a laughing fit with my dear friend. Mercier watched on with a sort of fond smile, but he was clearly enjoying himself. Soon, Sébastien took the accordion from me, and told me that I should have some time to dance with Mercier. I rolled my eyes at the remark, but the Poilu insisted that the little soldier was an excellent dancer.
It was not long before I heard the familiar strains of La Madelon, and rolled my eyes dramatically at Sébastien. As if on cue, Alain stirred in his bed, at first mildly upset at the commotion, then grinning broadly upon recognising the tune. “Aye, Sébastien, you bastard!” he laughed. “You were gonna play La Madelon without me?” The Poilu demanded as he stumbled to his feet. Taking a rather large swig of gin, he wrapped a broad arm around Sébastien’s shoulders.
“Nous avons tous au pays une payse
Qui nous attend et que l’on épousera
Mais elle est loin, bien trop loin pour qu’on lui dise
Ce qu’on fera quand la Classe rentrera.
En comptant les jours, on soupire
Et quand le temps nous semble long
Tout ce qu’on ne peut pas lui dire
On va le dire à Madelon.
On l’embrass’ dans les coins, elle dit : “Veux-tu finir ...”
On s’figure que c’est l’autr’, ça nous fait bien Plaisir !”
I must admit, I had had quite a lot to drink at this time as well, to the point where singing songs about infidelity while dancing with another man seemed perfectly acceptable. Mercier did not seem to mind, simply smiling at me in that charming way that he often had. Though none of us had gotten much rest that night, it was perfectly alright, as we had all had quite a great deal of merriment. When the first signs of dawn streamed in through the open door to our casemate, it was only then did I notice how exhausted Mercier was. Sighing gently, I set the man down in his bed beside Sébastien, who had long since passed out from all his drinks, and went over to the bed I now shared with Alain. He had somehow snuck out while I was occupied, and I had not seen him, but I supposed that there was nothing I could do to stop him. If he wanted to guard the camp, what was so wrong with that? At any rate, it gave me an entire bed, all to myself. I snuggled up under the blankets, falling asleep so quickly that I did not even have time to realise that I had forgotten to write a letter to my wife.