Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998
Marche Militaire, a story by Robert Wexelblatt
Olivier shivered in the chill of the November dusk, but his nose barely registered the smells of rot and mud, unwashed bodies, feces and wood smoke.
His unit had been taken off the line and ordered to Souville and the safety of its buried fort for a few days' rest. They had been on the line for weeks, hunkered down under barrages then pushing the Germans back by inches. The officers read them dispatches lauding their progress but omitting to mention the butcher's bill. The Battle of Verdun was in its ninth month and gave every indication of being interminable, something bound to outlive them, like the war itself.
Carefully balancing his tin bowl and cup, Olivier made his way through the gravel and mud to a corner without any sprawled and sleeping bodies, without hysterical laughter or weeping, without any men engaged in competitive complaining. He hunched down with his back against the wall and took a sip from his cup. The liquid might have been trying to be either coffee or tea but, in either case, without success. It wasn't even hot. He sniffed suspiciously at the slop that had been dropped in his bowl.
"What's this?" the man ahead of him had asked.
"A present from our great allies," cracked the cook and pointed over his shoulder to a heap of empty yellow tins.
Olivier squinted at the label on the nearest tin. Maconochie's Stew.
After the deafening barrages and terrifying advances against entrenched positions, after the machine guns, the grenades and barbed wire, after the unrelieved stench of corpses and latrines, after the rats and the lice, the trench foot and ulcers, after the deaths of Yves, Charles, Henri, and little Pierrot, who'd have thought the last straw would turn out to be a can of bully beef and colorless vegetables diluted with Aberdeen water? But that a Frenchman, even just a soldat 1.ème, should be given Scottish food—it was simply too much for Olivier who, it must be said, might not have been altogether in his right mind, a consideration that later became a matter for some speculation.
His plan was rudimentary. He would wait until full darkness then slip away, make his way to the Meuse and follow the river south to Langres from where it was only six kilometers to his parents' farm where he would hide out until either the war or the world came to an end. His father might need some persuading, might even want to turn him in; but Olivier would rather face the patriotic wrath of Carriveau père than another a bowl of British pozzy, let alone another MG08.
During the evening, Olivier moved from one group to another, making sure he was noticed, supposing that this would mean it would take longer for him to be missed in the morning. When the snoring was going like a pipe organ, Olivier gathered his gear—bedroll, gas mask, mess kit, and ammunition belt—and crept toward the entrance to the cave-like fort thinking of the hills and woods beyond. As a boy, he had hunted rabbits and fowl with his father and Uncle Bertrand. Olivier was a better shot than either and he had qualified as a sharpshooter. That is why the rifle slung over his shoulder was fitted with a telescopic sight.
As he neared the entrance, Olivier prayed that it would be unguarded. As it happened, only a single sentry had been set, and he had fallen asleep on a stool with his back against the metal grating. Olivier took a deep breath and judged this to be an acceptable reply to his prayer.
Making his way through the woods in the dark was difficult, but once Olivier found the Meuse he began to make good progress. When he encountered troops or vehicles on the move, he hid either in the foliage on the side of the road or in the reeds by the river. If hiding wasn't feasible, he saluted smartly, looked straight ahead and marched on as purposefully as though he were under strict orders to do precisely that.
It was close to dawn when the background noise of artillery and gunfire grew louder, though it wasn't close enough for Olivier to tell from which side of the river it came. Had there been a German breakthrough, a probing action? Were the French advancing? He kept moving forward but pulled up short outside St. Mihiel where he saw a checkpoint being set up. There were sandbags and six armed men plus an officer. Something was up. They meant business. Bayonets were fixed. They'd certainly want to know why he wasn't with his unit; they'd insist on seeing his papers. He hurried away from the road before they spotted him and headed into a thick stand of pines.
Olivier considered it would be prudent to make a large loop, working around the checkpoint and, if possible, all of St. Mihiel too. The terrain had both forest and fields and he was heartened and refreshed to see trees that hadn't been blasted to stumps and skeletons, fields not filled with craters or strewn with wire. He stuck as best he could to the wooded areas, avoiding open ground; but, for this reason, he found it hard to keep his bearings. In the early morning it had been easy to orient himself by the sun, but the day had grown overcast and he was unsure of his direction or his distance from the river. He made a guess and pressed on, using his rifle to push back the undergrowth, clambering up boulders, always keeping well away from the open country. It was as he came through a tangled patch near the top of a ridge that he heard below him the burst of a "coffee mill"— a heavy machine gun, a German one. He froze.
The 08 rattled again and Olivier, now focused intently on the sound, could tell it came from the other side of the ridge. He crawled carefully to the top and lay down on his belly.
The 08 had been mounted behind a stone wall and pointed at an open field. It was an ambush. There were the usual five men to service the weapon, all in field gray, plus an extra rifleman whose Mauser had a sight on it, just like Olivier's Lebel. Would that sniper too prefer to desert, Olivier briefly wondered.
Three poilus lay still in the high grass, wounded or dead. Olivier could make out others trying to hide behind the field's meager cover, just rocks and thin fallen limbs. Again, the machine gun raked the field. The wounded and terrified cried out. The German sniper, perfectly positioned to pick off any man attempting to retreat, rested his gun on the wall, using it to steady his aim. It was just what Olivier would have done.
For an instant, he thought of slipping back down the ridge. He couldn't. He sighed. Careful to make as little noise as possible, he extracted two clips from his ammunition belt and placed them on the ground, took off his pack and his helmet, checked the scope on his rifle and laid it down beside the clips, assumed a prone position, then went straight to work. He took out the man firing the machine gun first, then the man next to him, who fed belts into the machine. One of the remaining Germans turned, having figured out where the shots were coming from. He shouted and began to point. Olivier dropped him even before he raised his arm. One of the two men left dove for cover but moved too slowly and Olivier hit him square in the back with the last bullet in the clip. He fumbled to insert the new clip as the sniper threw down his rifle and began frantically trying to turn the machine gun around. The big gun gave the man some cover. Though he was exposing himself, Olivier stood up, sighted over the machine gun, drew a bead just below the man's helmet and fired two shots.
Everything grew terribly silent. Then a shout went up from the Frenchmen. They leapt up and ran from their cover. Some saw to their fallen comrades, others rushed to the German position, rifles at the ready.
Olivier knew he should just abandon his gear and run, run toward the Meuse if he could find it. But the men had seen him when he stood to shoot the last German. They were yelling and cheering and half a dozen were already halfway up the ridge. It was no use.
Four days later, Genéral de Brigade Jean-Philippe Tourdonnet, a decent and therefore troubled man, convened a court martial. He personally made sure the three officers he appointed understood both the facts and the law. "Your job is to advise me," he said in a tone meant to relieve them. Then, standing at rigid attention, he added unnecessarily, "The responsibility rests with me."
Private Carriveau would be represented by a young officer, Lieutenant Étienne Plamondan, a law graduate who had served six months at the front in 1915 before losing an arm. After a short period of recuperation, he had requested reassignment to the Department of Military Justice. To prosecute, the General selected Colonel Lionel Marcou who had a reputation for being punctilious. A wit among his men said of Colonel Marcou that he was "strict but fair—in that order."
Olivier had been the guest of honor at a banquet the night after his escapade on the ridge. He was stuffed with leek soup, roasted chicken with buttered potatoes, and the better part of an authentic Gâteau St. Honoré. He was hailed with five toasts and enjoyed a whole bottle of excellent Malbec followed by two large glasses of cognac. The troops insisted he must sleep on a decent bed and, to that end, commandeered a bedroom with a soft four-poster from a local landowner. By ten o'clock the following morning, however, Olivier was in a basement cell, behind bars. The official indictment wasn't precise in stating the charges and so, in the manner of a shotgun, broadcast them comprehensively: "desertion, disobedience, abandoning his post in the presence of the enemy, cowardice." At the same hour, Captain Armand Gautier, commander of the troops Olivier had rescued, was signing his recommendation that soldat 1.ème Olivier Carriveau receive the special decoration authorized by the government less than a year before, the Croix de Guerre.
Headquarters was in a commandeered château; the court martial convened in what had been its dining room. Olivier was seated on a wooden chair with a guard standing behind him. The chair was uncomfortable; it was too small, as if it had been comandeered from a primary school. Three bottles of mineral water and three tumblers had been set out on a deal table for the tribunal, two of whose members wore dress uniforms. The judges sat on chairs of normal size, no doubt three of those used by guests at pre-war dinner parties. The two advocates had matching chairs.
A sergeant-major stood by the side of the table, holding a folder. At a sign from the presiding officer, the sergeant-major opened the folder and read a concise account of Olivier's desertion from the fort at Souville as attested to both by his sergeant and the officer of the day. After a brief pause, he took a second paper from the folder and read Captain Gautier's commendation of his action against the German machine gun position in the St. Mihiel sector.
The presiding officer, a major who looked very grave indeed, asked if Olivier had anything to add to the statements or if he wished to challenge anything in them. Olivier might have put things somewhat differently but he just shook his head.
"Very well, then. Colonel Marcou, please proceed."
There was no podium, no lectern, not even a desk, so Marcou simply stood before the tribunal and delivered his argument forthrightly. He did so without notes, as if he had committed it to memory, like a schoolboy reciting Racine. It was very much to the point.
"The matter could not be plainer. Private Carriveau deserted. The penalty for desertion is death. This penalty is fixed, and the reason is self-evident. It is to be at once a deterrent to those tempted to make a similarly dishonorable choice and an encouragement to those patriotic soldiers with stouter hearts. Private Carriveau deserted the moment he departed the fort at Souville, which was his assigned post. Any actions he took subsequently are irrelevant. The principle of Carriveau's act in leaving the fort is clear and it is that principle we are to judge according to the law. In time of war a soldier leaves his post without permission. In doing so, he deprives the state of his service and endangers his comrades. We neither can nor should excuse such behavior since, by doing so, we would undermine discipline at a moment when the very existence of the Republic is in peril." Here, presumably for dramatic effect, Marcou fell silent for a couple of seconds before concluding in the style of Cato condemning Carthage: "Carriveau must be executed."
He then resumed his seat, looking ferocious and satisfied.
The president of the tribunal paused to take some mineral water before nodding to Olivier's defense advocate.
Lieutenant Plamondan got to his feet slowly. He held a single piece of paper in his remaining hand. Though not yet thirty, owing to his wounds, he moved like a man of advanced age. Where Marcou had spoken harshly and bluntly, stressing uncontested facts and absolute law, Plamondan's voice was softer and his argument, though logical, implied an appeal to feeling.
"Private Carriveau single-handedly eliminated an enemy position and saved the lives of twenty-two of our soldiers. Had he not left the fort at Souville, those men would most likely not be alive today. Should we judge him by the momentary impulse that impelled him to leave that fort—which, I will remind the court, was not under attack—or by a deliberate act of courage that preserved so many lives at the risk of his own? Private Carriveau is charged with desertion and flight in the face of the enemy. But the court must ask itself why, if he was so anxious to flee the enemy, he would engage half a dozen of them unaided? Concern has been expressed here about the message that would be sent by sparing Private Carriveau. It has been asserted that such a verdict would undermine morale and even endanger the Republic. Consider, though, the blow to morale of shooting to death a man who is a hero to the rank and file, and justly so. I submit that such a verdict would be a kind of idol-worship, a human sacrifice to an excessively narrow notion of law and its purpose. To condemn Carriveau by considering the so-called principle of one act while ignoring the far greater benefits of another is as unreasonable as it is cruel. With respect, I propose that the court martial follow the spirit of the law that gives life, not the letter that kills. I suggest you apply the principle of seeking the most desirable consequences, not blindly scrutinizing supposed motives which may be no more than passing whims or momentary lapses. I submit that the court pursue what philosophers call the principle of utility."
Here the lieutenant read from the paper trembling in his hand.
"'By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question. . .' Even though that sentence was written by an Englishman, I find the reasoning both sound and pertinent. Who are the parties whose interests are in question today? I submit there are many beyond just Private Olivier Carriveau's, though I would certainly not exclude his. There is also the interest of his parents who would like their son to remain alive; there is that of the Army, which has more uses for a gifted sharpshooter and popular hero who is breathing than for one who is not; there are also the interests of the troops rescued by Carriveau. Their happiness will certainly not be enhanced by killing the man who kept them from being killed, nor the happiness of the many who are grateful to Carriveau on their behalf. Do you truly imagine that the morale of the men in the trenches would be improved by standing the man who saved so many like them before a firing squad? Sirs, with respect, let me state what is obvious not only to every enlisted man but to every front-line combatant: Olivier Carriveau deserves a medal, not a bullet."
The latest effort to push the Germans back was having some success. The enemy was giving ground. After reading the afternoon's dispatches, General de Tourdonnet's mood was almost buoyant. Then his adjutant handed him the report of the court martial. The tribunal could not concur; in fact, they could not have been further from agreeing. The presiding officer was strongly in favor of Carriveau's prompt execution. A second member insisted with equal vehemence that the man be spared and his conspicuous valor properly recognized. The third member of the court apologized to the General, saying he was simply unable to decide between execution and reprieve. In good conscience, he therefore could not cast a vote, let alone a deciding one.
The general swore under his breath and endured a difficult night.
Five platoons of Carriveau's regiment, the 412th, were lined up in front of headquarters on the dirt parade ground that three years before had been the green lawn of the château. They stood at attention, presenting arms, as Olivier, escorted by two corporals, was marched on to the field from the basement brig. He stood with his back to the troops, facing a major, a colonel, and the general himself. The major read out the citation and General de Tourdonnet stepped forward, pinned the Croix de Guerre to Olivier's chest, kissed him on both cheeks, stepped back, and saluted smartly.
Confused, Olivier returned the salute and also stepped backward. He would have liked to continue stepping backward until he vanished into the ranks and became again just an undistinguished and indistinguishable poilu. He would have done just that too, if the two corporals had not blocked him and kept him in place.
Everything went still for a minute and then the colonel ordered Lieutenant Boivin and his "special squad" to detach themselves. Five soldiers marched together with the lieutenant to the edge of the field, where there was a high stone retaining wall. The colonel then read out a brief statement saying that Olivier had been found guilty of desertion from the fort at Souville. As General de Tourdonnet watched grimly, the colonel nodded to the corporals who grasped Olivier's arms, turned him around, and half-dragged him across the lawn to the wall where, with shocking rapidity, Lieutenant Boivin affixed the blindfold, stepped aside, and called out the orders to aim and shoot.
In his memoirs, General de Tourdonnet rehearses the details of the Carriveau case, calls it the worst dilemma of his career, and recalls the bad night it had given him. With the sophistication of the student of philosophy he had once been, the General considers again the demands of military justice and the objectivity gained by ruling out of consideration feelings, personalities, and consequences. He weighs these against the claims to consideration of all three in this case, especially given Carriveau's conspicuous bravery after deserting. What the private had done on that ridge, the General now admits, was more likely to have been undertaken deliberately than the desertion. There were hundreds of instances of men, provoked by months in the trenches fighting the war's longest battle slipping away or cowering in the mud, unable to move when ordered to, due to shell-shock or exhaustion. The General's uncertainty is revealed when, instead of defending his decision, he poses a chain of unanswered questions. "Should we judge a man's actions by his intentions when intentions are so hard to discern, or by their outcomes which he himself could hardly foresee? Are the law and the facts all that is required to ensure impartial justice or is such rigidity too inhumane and willfully blind to be called justice at all? Yet, if we depart so much as a centimeter from the law and the facts, do we risk partiality and unequal justice? If the purpose of military law—or any law—is not merely retribution but to convey a firm message, did the execution of Carriveau do anything to discourage desertion? Can we say that pardoning him would have encouraged it? Did awarding Carriveau the Croix de Guerre inspire the same valor in others or did executing him further embitter desperate and shell-shocked soldiers who saw it as just another sadistic joke on the part of the general staff?"
In the end, General de Tourdonnet, evidently not comforted even by the cheerful blaze in the fireplace of his post-war study, throws himself on the mercy of his readers: "If heroism was to be rewarded then surely desertion had to be punished. What alternative did I have?"
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg's Twitch, and Petites Suites; two books of essays, Professors at Playand The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awardedthe Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction. Hsi-wei Tales, a collection of Chinese stories, and Intuition of the News, a book of non-Chinese stories, are forthcoming.