A French Officer's Diary (23 August 1939-1 October 1940)
5 September 1939. The whole division sets out on the road, after dark, for fear of planes. With our horses and drivers still unused to the convoys, each climb is sheer purgatory, each descent an acrobatic feat. We look like a tribe of gypsies and Desouches dubs me 'The king of the Romanis'. These convoys remind me of the last war — I've been on leave for twenty years.... And here we are rolling along until midnight or 1 a.m. and even until ten or eleven the next morning, constantly being held up and with innumerable halts. Then I go ahead to see what is the matter; sometimes it is an infantry regiment, with all its accompanying gear, sometimes a convoy of artillery, a mile long, which has come to a standstill in front of us; wagons, guns, trucks, horses, men, doltish, passive, silent, asleep, standing by the ditch-side. A few of them enjoy a smoke and talk softly.
Are these dumb shadows emerging from the night for a few seconds the men I knew in the last war, the dead rising to stride to the front to wreak their vengeance on the Hun, to finish the work that we didn't end? Are they the new generation, marked by destiny as the victims of this war? Are they not rather fleeting shadows, wraiths whom night robs of being and substance?
Then a long way off a muffled noise is heard; it grows and grows in the night; the journey has begun once more. The vast river thaws, block by block the thaw comes nearer to us, whistles sound shrilly, wheels creak, drivers shout. On to the next stop? Why does one stop? No one will ever know.
About two o'clock in the morning we halt for a meal, the cooks pass along the column distributing the bread ration, a tin of bully-beef to every four or five men, and the coffee that they have prepared in the field kitchen en route. Everyone has a snack and will be able to hold out until daylight. My officers and I makc for the field kitchen. The 'juice' is hot and good, a tin of meat or sardines is opened; we joke and smoke a cigarette. Oh! All's well. Nothing to report, the men's spirits are high.
To reach the region of Hayanges (Hagondanges) we cross the valley of Briey. At Banvilliers-Monts, where we spend the day, official and commercial notices are in three languages, French, German and Polish. Miners with helmets on and lamp in hand make their way along the streets. This is one of those areas which was never bombarded by the French artillery and planes in the last war and this despite the fact that from the earliest days it had fallen into the hands of the Germans, who were thus able to extract without hindrance incredible quantities of iron to melt down into guns and shells. When you stand there, and see so clearly the military objectives within reach, you are reduced to wondering what could possibly be the key to the mystery. Ancient stories of mutual agreements between manufacturers of armaments on the one hand and German and allied military staffs, whose headquarters were never bombed, come to mind.
I impart some of my thoughts to Desouches, but I see that I worry him, and I have no business to do this. To put matters right, I turn everything into a joke; after all, he is young and care-free, and seemingly thinks no more about it. But if the war lasts long, if we suffer reverses, if these stories or others are brought out once more, he will remember my words. I feel remorseful, and all the more so, because even if such things are true, I shall continue to do my duty just as in the last war.
Each night we push over towards the right; at Mangiennes we faced Luxemburg, now we are south of the Sarre. After a particularly hard day's march to reach the tiny village of Rurange, we arrive in torrential rain at 2 a.m. We spend the next day there until nightfall, then on to the Maginot Line through the marshes of Gommelange-Bettange. We skirt some huge earth-works which seem to me very strong. But I am amazed to see that nothing, absolutely nothing, has been prepared in depth, neither in the rear, nor in the 6 to 8 miles separating them from the frontier. The Maginot Line is a single thread, 100 or 150 yards wide, including a ridiculous network of barbed wire, together with upturned ends of some rails stuck in the earth in the foreground to stop, so it appears, tanks. But supposing one or two of the works unfortunately fall? How will the men behind the Line be able to stem the flood which will pour through the gap and so outflank the forts? However, we have been told that an elastic system of defence, 30 miles deep, does exist, similar to that now being constructed in the Siegfried Line. Not in this sector at any rate! Desouchcs is riding at my side and I reveal my astonishment to him. He waxes quite indignant over my scepticism in regard to the solidity of the Line and tries to prove to me that if the works are protected by cross-fire from long-range guns, my fears would be vain, indeed quite improbable. I pretend to be convinced, perhaps he is right. Still, it is bettcr to have two strings to one's bow, and the miles of defence in depth that we constructed in 1914 came to my mind. After all, our war lords must also be mindful of this, and they are certainly better qualified than I.