La defense de la République
They are singing.
Blasted rich-boys, playing at revolution, and they're singing! Good Christ in Heaven, if we sang like that before a battle, the Captain would have us all flogged. Still, they're singing. I guess they have no reason to fear they'll give away their position; that mound of furniture they're hiding behind is hardly inconspicuous.
It's all a farce anyhow. Their patron saint, Lamarque, copped it a few weeks ago, and the red-coats have decided that this means revolution! So they've built a few barricades and obtained a few muskets, and they think that this befits them to take on the French Army.
If it were up to me, we wouldn't be firing on these misguided boys at all. We'd be trying to reason with them: please, lads. Give up. Go home to your nice warm beds and stop playing soldier. Your day will come eventually— but not like this. Not by blood and fire. Your bullets are no more than pinpricks to a giant—they just enrage him more.
But they are far past reason right now. So we must lose our minds along with them. I realize, ethereal as that possibility seems, that in just a few short minutes, I will have to bring my musket to bear on a flower of France's youth. They do not realize their cause is doomed; we must make them realize it.
Binet marches beside me, so do Lafond, Lecerf, Dufour. We are all friends, the five of us. We think alike, and as I glance at their faces, pale and drawn beneath the moustaches they are so proud of— I cannot help but assume they think the same as me. No soldier wishes to fire on his own people. Hopefully, they will shoot first.
Sometimes, on the approach to battle, the ranks are thick with energy, as if someone had lit a fire under us. We shall meet the enemy in single combat, and flay him 'till he's dead. Occasionally, the Captain orders us to sing, and we sing gladly, the songs of men who are glad to pick up the musket for God and country. None of that today. The Captain is as deep in thought as we all are.
It rained last night, and the air is still damp. If it rains again, maybe the red-coats will lose their gunpowder, and we won't have to fire. Maybe they'll see us coming, realize they can never defeat us, and give up. Maybe my cat will sprout wings.
We can hear them singing, louder now. In just a few short minutes, some of us will be dead, killed by our own citizens! It's a damned strange thought. But it gives me resolve. We'll go against these miserable schoolboys, bash them in the teeth. We'll show them that the government is the government— and don't piss it off.
If they fire first, I am vindicated. If we fire first, I am damned.
Dufour spits into the gutter. We keep marching.
And then— we're there. A pile of furniture in the centre of the street. It'll be their graveyard.
Behind the furniture, something stirs. The Captain gives the order: "Company, halt!"
We halt, our boots scraping on the cobbles. The Captain yells again: "Form a line!"
We spread out, as much as we can, into two ranks. The front rank gets down on one knee; the back rank, which includes me, stand behind them. We unsling our Charlevilles, which are already charged, and unwrap the "safety cloths", bits of rag we wind around the trigger and firing pan, to prevent the musket from firing accidentally.
They could fire any time now, and kill us all in one blow. But they aren't soldiers. Probably they're watching us, like the curious schoolboys they are in real life. I sight down the barrel, slip my finger into the brass trigger guard. We're all ready.
The Captain steps forward, sword drawn. He opens his mouth and yells: "Mon cher amis, please, stop this nonsense. We bear you no ill will, and we don't wish to kill our own people."
"Please, my friends. Let's all return home in peace. This is not your battle."
Someone yells "What of those who have no home to return to?" The rest of the barricade erupts in cheers.
The Captain mutters something under his breath. The man in the barricade yells again: "All of France will rise to our flag. It is you who will run!"
"So be it," says the Captain. "But this choice is irreversible."
The barricade cheers once more.
The Captain raises his sword: "FIRE!"
I pull the trigger. The pan-flash blinds me, the musket jerks and kicks like a mule, but I keep it on target. Our bullets shred the furniture.
Maybe it's cruel to say so, but I hope I killed the yelling man. Self-righteous people annoy the pants off me.
I reload my musket: pull the hammer back, pour some powder into the pan, grab a cartridge, tear the top off with my teeth, pour the powder and ball into the barrel. I'm reaching for the rammer when the barricade fires back at us. They score four hits, none kills. The rest of the bullets whine past us, or hit the pavement.
We shoot. Some kid pokes his head over the furniture and gets it shot off for his trouble. Exultation surges through me. We will win the day.
The barricade fires again. No hits. Even with untrained civilians, that's pretty pathetic. We reload faster this time, so we can get more shots off. We fire again. There are more screams from the barricade.
I try not to think about the children in my sights.
They fire back, again. This time the bullets rip into our ranks, sending soldiers stumbling back, pulling their legs out from underneath them. One near me goes down, his head hitting the cobbles with a sickening crack. The stretcher-bearers move up.
Now the schoolboys are playing for keeps, it seems. The Captain sends out a runner, ordering him, doubtless, to tell the artillery boys to bring up the falconets.
We can show them that whatever they throw at us, we shall hit them twice as hard.
My trepidation at shooting these youths— these revolutionaries— is gradually being replaced by anger: the cold, hard anger of battle. How dare their shots hit? How dare they kill us? We will smash them.
Reload. As we bring our muskets to bear, a curly blond head pokes up from behind an overturned couch. I have always been a good shot, and this fool is mine. Is his curiosity so great that he must observe the agents of his own death?
His loss, I think.
"FIRE!" comes the command. I keep my bead centred on his forehead and pull the trigger. The musket leaps, the smoke blows into my eyes. When it clears, the boy is lying on the couch, his arms dangling over the side. His blood mixes with bright red of his coat.
I doubt that I hit him. I can't have been the only one aiming for him, and his youth and idle curiosity must have been as much an affront to the others as to me.
Dufour catches my eye and grins. We're already winning. Then the shots rattle out again, grab Dufour and dash him to the pavement, his hat falling off, his blue tunic spattered dark red. He says only one word: "Merde".
The stretcher-bearers move up again, but Dufour doesn't stir.
I feel the blood boil in my veins. Bastards, they killed my friend. Bastards. Bastards!
The clanking and rattling behind me tells me they're bringing up the cannon. Good. Kill the fuckers. I have no more sympathy.
Sure, I've seen friends fall before, but no one like Dufour. He and I, we were close as brothers, maybe closer. He knew a hundred card tricks, and played the flute like no one else I've known.
And now he's dead. Like that!
I could cry right now, I'm sure, but I haven't cried in four years and I'm not starting now. Dufour is dead. I have to reload, but the tears are stinging my eyes more than the smoke ever could. Dufour is dead.
"FIRE!" Dufour is dead. I shoot blindly.
They fire back. Dufour is dead. Dufour is dead. Dufour is dead.
They've brought up the cannon.
It thuds against the brittle wood of the barricade. Once, then again. I'm a machine, steam-powered, blind-firing.
So we charge against the barricade, clambering over desiccated furniture, bayonets fixed. Near me, a pistol goes off, and somebody falls, writhing. The boy who fired looks pleased with himself, reaches for his pocket, where he must keep spare ammunition.
For Dufour! I yell in my head, and jam my bayonet through his sternum. Arterial blood spurts in a warm fountain over my chest. I yank and twist, jerking the blade free, and he falls like a rag doll. His blood drips off my moustache, into my mouth.
Somebody else rears up in front of me, brandishing a knife. My rifle and bayonet have a longer reach; I skewer him. He sags on the muzzle of my musket.
I can't feel anything. Dufour is still dead. Fuck!
So I hack and slash my way through a whole multitude of humanity. They might even give me a medal for this. But even if they did, it would truly belong to Dufour, not me.
And then it's over.
And I'm talking with one of the stretcher-bearers, and I say, "It's such a waste, you know? So many casualties on our side, and theirs."
He smiles grimly. "Well, at least they didn't kill any of our guys."
"Except for Dufour," I add, tears surging up again.
"No," repeats the stretcher-bearer. "No one from our side is dead."
"But— but I saw Dufour go down."
"Dufour, huh? Short guy, black hair?"
"Oh, he's fine. The bullet just winged him. It wasn't even a serious injury."
I don't hear anything else. All I can see are the rows upon rows of bodies. Our own boys, good French kids, slaughtered by the dozens.
I was killing to avenge Dufour. Turns out, Dufour didn't need avenging.
And that's when I start to cry, great heaving sobs that threaten to turn my stomach inside out, as the stretcher-bearer reaches out to steady me and two more soldiers look on quizzically.
We've gotten our leave, and Dufour and I are sitting in the corner of a smoky bar, him listening as I tell him the story of my actions on that day.
"So really," I finish, "this medal belongs to you. I don't want it." I push across the table towards him. He doesn't move.
"Nah. I feel like, coming with a story like that, the blasted thing's cursed."
"That blond kid still shows up in my nightmares. Christ! What an absolute waste that all was."
"Ah, they deserved it. Stinking Republican Yids and boy-lovers."
They did deserve it. That's what I have to tell myself, to keep sane.
But I have Dufour back. I have a medal, even if I don't want it. I have a promotion, six weeks' furlough, and my pay in my pocket.
I order another round.
All is well.