On Something/The Position

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On Something by Hilaire Belloc
The Position

There is a place where the valley of the Allier escapes from the central mountains of France and broadens out into a fertile plain.

Here is a march or boundary between two things, the one familiar to most English travellers, the other unfamiliar. The familiar thing is the rich alluvium and gravel of the Northern French countrysides, the poplar trees, the full and quiet rivers, the many towns and villages of stone, the broad white roads interminable and intersecting the very fat of prosperity, and over it all a mild air. The unfamiliar is the mass of the Avernian Mountains, which mass is the core and centre of Gaul and of Gaulish history, and of the unseen power that lies behind the whole of that business.

The plains are before one, the mountains behind one, and one stands in that borderland. I know it well.

I have said that in the Avernian Mountains was the centre of Gaul and the power upon which the history of Gaul depends. Upon the Margeride, which is one of their uttermost ridges, du Guesclin was wounded to death. One may see the huge stones piled up on the place where he fell. In the heart of those mountains, at Puy, religion has effects that are eerie; it uses odd high peaks for shrines - needles of rock; and a long way off all round is a circle of hills of a black-blue in the distance, and they and the rivers have magical names - the river Red Cap and Chaise Dieu, "God's Chair." In these mountains Julius Caesar lost (the story says) his sword; and in these mountains the Roman armies were staved off by the Avernians. They are as full of wonder as anything in Europe can be, and they are complicated and tumbled all about, so that those who travel in them with difficulty remember where they have been, unless indeed they have that general eye for a countryside which is rare nowadays among men.

Just at the place where the mountain land and the plain land meet, where the shallow valleys get rounder and less abrupt, I went last September, following the directions of a soldier who had told me how I might find where the centre of the manoeuvres lay. The manoeuvres, attempting to reproduce the conditions of war, made a drifting scheme of men upon either side of the River Sioule. One could never be certain where one would find the guns.

I had come up off the main road from Vichy, walking vaguely towards the sound of the firing. It was unfamiliar. The old and terrible rumble has been lost for a generation; even the plain noise of the field-piece which used to be called "90" is forgotten by the young men now. The new little guns pop and ring. And when you are walking towards them from a long way off you do not seem to be marching towards anything great, but rather towards something clever. Nevertheless it is as easy to-day as ever it was to walk towards the sound of cannon.

Two valleys absolutely lonely had I trudged-through since the sun rose, and it was perhaps eight o'clock when I came upon one of those lonely walled parks set in bare fields which the French gentry seem to find homelike enough. I asked a man at the lodge about how far the position was. He said he did not know, and looked upon me with suspicion.

I went down into the depth of the valley, and there I met a priest who was reading his Breviary and erroneously believed me (if I might judge his looks) to be of a different religion, for he tested philosophy by clothes; and this, by the way, is unalterably necessary for all mankind. When, however, he found by my method of address that I knew his language and was of his own faith, he became very courteous, and when I told him that I wanted to find the position he became as lively as a linesman, making little maps with his stick in the earth, and waving his arms, and making great sweeps with his hand to show the way in which the army had been drifting all morning, northward and eastward, above the Sioule, with the other division on the opposite bank, and how, whenever there was a bridge to be fought for, the game had been to pretend that one or the other had got hold of it. Of this priest it might truly be said, as was said of the priest of Thiers in the Forez, that chance had made him a choir-boy, but destiny had designed him for the profession of arms; and upon this one could build an interesting comedy of how chance and destiny are perpetually at issue, and how chance, having more initiative and not being so bound to routine, gets the better of destiny upon all occasions whatsoever.

Well, the priest showed me in this manner whither I should walk, and so I came out of the valley on to a great upland, and there a small boy (who was bullying a few geese near a pond) showed much the same excitement as the priest when he told me at what village I should find the guns.

That village was a few miles further on. As I went along the straight, bare road, with stubble upon either side, I thought the sound of firing got louder; but then, again, it would diminish, as the batteries took a further and a further position in their advance. It was great fun, this sham action, with its crescent of advancing fire and one's self in the centre of the curve. At the next village I had come across the arteries of the movement. By one road provisionment was going off to the right; by another two men with messages, one a Hussar on horseback, the other a Reservist upon a bicycle, went by me very quickly. Then from behind some high trees in a churchyard there popped out a lot of little Engineers, who were rolling a great roll of wire along. So I went onwards; and at last I came to a cleft just before the left bank of the Sioule. This cleft appeared deserted: there was brushwood on its sides and a tiny stream running through it. On the ridge beyond were the roofs of a village. The firing of the pieces was now quite close and near. They were a little further than the houses of the hamlet, doubtless in some flat field where the position was favourable to them. Down that cleft I went, and in its hollow I saw the first post, but as yet nothing more. Then when I got to the top of the opposing ridge I found the whole of the 38th lolling under the cover of the road bank. From below you would have said there were no men at all. The guns were right up beyond the line, firing away. I went up past the linesmen till I found the guns.

And what a pretty sight! They were so small and light and delicate! There was no clanking, and no shouting, and to fire them a man pulled a mere trigger. I thought to myself: "How simple and easy our civilization becomes. Think of the motor-cars, and how they purr. Think of the simple telephone, and all the other little things." And with this thought in my mind I continued to watch the guns. Without yells or worry a man spoke gently to other men, and they all limbered up, quite easily. The weight seemed to have gone since my time. They trotted off with the pieces, and when they crossed the little ditch at the edge of the field I waited for the heavy clank-clank and the jog that ought to go with that well-known episode; but I did not hear it, and I saw no shock. They got off the field with its little ditch on to the high road as a light cart with good springs might have done. And when they massed themselves under the cover of a roll of land it was all done again without noise. I thought a little sadly that the world had changed. But it was all so pretty and sensible that I hardly regretted the change. There was a stretch of road in front where nothing on earth could have given cover. The line was on its stomach, firing away, and it was getting fired at apparently, in the sham of the manoeuvre from the other side of the Sioule. As it covered this open space the line edged forward and upward. When a certain number of the 38th had worked up like this, the whole bunch of them, from half a mile down the road, right through the village, were moved along, and the head of the column was scattered to follow up the firing. It was like spraying water out of a tap. The guns still stood massed, and then at a sudden order which was passed along as though in the tones of a conversation (and again I thought to myself, "Surely the world is turning upside down since I was a boy") they started off at a sharp gallop and leapt, as it were, the two or three hundred yards of open road between cover and cover. They were very well driven. The middle horses and the wheelers were doing their work: it was not only the leaders that kept the traces taut. It was wonderfully pretty to see them go by: not like a storm but like a smoke. No one could have hit those gunners or those teams. Whether they were on the sky-line or not I could not tell, but at any rate they could have been seen just for that moment from beyond the Sioule. And when they massed up again, beyond - some seconds afterwards -one heard the pop-pop from over the valley, which showed they had been seen just too late.

Hours and hours after that I went on with the young fellows. The guns I could not keep with: I walked with the line. And all the while as I walked I kept on wondering at the change that comes over European things. This army of young men doing two years, with its odd silence and its sharp twittering movements, and the sense of eyes all round one, of men glancing and appreciating: individual men catching an opportunity for cover; and commanding men catching the whole countryside.... Then, in the early afternoon, the bugles and the trumpets sounded that long-drawn call which has attended victories and capitulations, and which is also sounded every night to tell people to put out the lights in the barrack-rooms. It is the French "Cease fire." And whether from the national irony or the national economy, I know not, but the stopping of either kind of fire has the same call attached to it, and you must turn out a light in a French barrack-room to the same notes as you must by command stop shooting at the other people.

The game was over. I faced the fourteen miles back to Gannat very stiff. All during those hours I had been wondering at the novelty of Europe, and at all these young men now so different, at the silence and the cover, and the hefty, disposable little guns. But when I had my face turned southward again to get back to a meal, that other aspect of Europe, its eternity, was pictured all abroad. For there right before me stood the immutable mountains, which stand enormous and sullen, but also vague at the base, and, therefore, in their summits, unearthly, above the Limagne. There was that upper valley of the Allier down which Cæsar had retreated, gathering his legions into the North, and there was that silent and menacing sky which everywhere broods over Auvergne, and even in its clearest days seems to lend the granite and the lava land a sort of doomed hardness, as though Heaven in this country commanded and did not allure. Never had I seen a landscape more mysterious than those hills, nor at the same time anything more enduring.