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The Long Walk Home
The raucous cheers could be heard throughout the encampment. Dozens of soldiers sang the La Marseillaise as celebratory drinks slid down anxious throats . For some, it would be their first battle. Sitting with his comrades in the frozen evening, Jacques Moreau enjoyed a drink by the campfire. It was snowing and a penetrating cold swept through the Russian front. They all knew there would be heavy casualties in the battle tomorrow, both armies amassing a total of 111,000 troops, but The Grande Armée would be prepared .
Amid the chatter, Jacques Moreau was wondering if he was ever going to find his father. It was only six months ago that he had been hiding from the French forces roaming the countryside around Giverny conscripting everyone they find . His father had joined the army a year earlier to serve for the honor and glory of France, but Jacques could not see the honor in dying and went into hiding. After a year without his father, his loneliness got the better of him and he decided to enlist. He joined not for the glory of France, but to rescue his father from his misguided loyalty and bring him home. He was determined to get things back to normal—he wanted his family altogether to take care of the farm.
Jacques enlisted. He was rushed through training and was eventually sent into Marshal Augereau’s VII corps d’armee as an infantryman on the Russian front . In his corps, he learned to march, fire a musket, and fearlessly execute a bayonet charge . It turned out that he was a good soldier. He was excited, not for war, but for another opportunity to find his father. His unit had been following a Russian army for months. It was cold. He was afraid. He had not yet found his father.
The campfire provided the only warmth for the soldiers in the cold, Russian night. The flames danced across his brown eyes. Sighing loudly, he brought the brown bottle to his lips and took a long mournful swig causing two other recruits sitting against their packs to stop talking.
“Don’t idle your conversation on account of me,” Jacques said, breathing out the harsh burning sensation in his throat, “enjoy your last few hours.”
“There is no need for that kind of talk, we are assured of victory when we fight for France,” responded the upright young man sitting next to him.
“Who are you? What is your story?” asked Jacques.
“I am Michel Martin, and this man sitting next to me is Jean Leroy. I am a marche a regret and was taken from my home . There are not too many of us that want to be here; we are at war ! home. You do not need to act like you are the only one.”
“And I joined the army as I had nowhere else to go. Once the revolution broke out, my family was killed in the frenzy,” said Jean fondly remembering his home. Jacques was about to say something, but his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell backwards onto the ground.
“Did he just pass out?” Michel wondered aloud.
“I guess he is not much of an avoir sa pente,” Jean laughed .
Waking with a start, Jacques took a moment to remember where he was and to make sure he was still whole. His internal clock told him that he had been asleep for about an hour and this was reaffirmed as he noticed the moon still shining brightly in the sky. Groaning, he stood up and brushed the snow from his face. Michel and Jean came up to him and stood shoulder to shoulder. This caused some of the snow to be jostled from their blue sleeves . The cheap liquor bottles now sitting emptied at their feet, they once again laughed at his inability to drink.
“You have it wrong,” Jacques said while motioning them closer. “It is not like it will matter anyways as we will probably die, but I fall asleep unexplainably.” Jacques paused and realized he should not have admitted that, “You have to keep my secret.”
“Are you sure that’s not just your excuse?” Michel responded with a smirk.
“It has not happened much since I was a child, but I fear that perhaps it has come back," Jacques said while ignoring Michel. "Now I dread that it will be the death of me. Falling asleep in the middle of battle could mean I get buried, frozen, trampled, or be killed by gunfire.”
“It could be a blessing too, I suppose,” smiled Jean. “I can never fall asleep with all of Michel’s snoring.” Michel rolled his eyes and they all smiled in their newfound friendship. Realizing it was getting late, they all started getting ready to sleep by setting up the tents strapped on top of their backpacks .
“I am afraid of death too. I was an academic—a writer, not a fighter. A few quick months of training, and now I’m out here making up fatalistic poems in my mind, waiting to die. Bullets aren’t kind; if we aren’t killed when we are hit, we’ll die of infection . Either way, it will be a slow death out here in the snow.” explained Michel.
“Stop all this depressing talk!” Jacques said, realizing the irony of his exclamation.
“Let us hope for the best. We are going to be heroes. At least, let’s stay alive! Tomorrow, we will look out for each other no matter what,” Michel said resignedly. “Let’s go to sleep, so we will be ready for the fight.”
“Even if Jacques doesn't need it,” winked Jean. They got into their tents and put their heads down on their knapsacks. They arranged themselves side by side in their one man tents. They lay in close quarters to stay warm in the unforgiving foreign land.
The crisp February morning had a harsh, rousing bite to it, and at dawn Jacques was once again awake. He felt the frozen ground through his bedroll, and a deep shiver wracked his body. He closed his eyes, wondering if the 7th would be his last morning alive . The men prepared for battle as the entire camp was roused. Jacques slowly rose to his feet and wiped the sleep from his eyes. Gathering his new friends and their muskets, they joined the rest of their massing army. From the reports of the scouts, the Russians had taken up positions about a mile past a town called Eylau . Word that was just received from a messenger passed through the men like wildfire . An early attack by Marshal Soult’s Corps had ultimately failed and they were retreating from their confrontation . Jacque, Jean, Michel, and their divisions started their march to reinforce the first attack on the Russian position. Their fighting senses were peaked and they had a job to do. They, through sheer determination, were going to overtake the Russian forces.
Jacques was marching alongside Jean and Michel and asked,
“Have we always been in Marshal Augereau’s Corps together?”
“I have seen you before, but you always kept to yourself,” Michel responded snootily.
“I am surprised you did not recognize us earlier,” Jean laughed.
“Hmm. Well, I am always distracted looking for my father.”
“Really? Well, he could have been a good soldier and been promoted early on. He could be in the Imperial Guard . We will be meeting up with them when we reach the battle,” Michel added.
“Do not fall asleep on us before we get there,” Jean joked.
Contemplating finally seeing his father again, Jacques and the men were brought up to a steady speed as they continued marching in the unchanging white tundra. Snow flurries swirled around them. Their march was slowing as the snow got deeper and deeper. Eventually, they ground to a tiring trudge as the ground became covered a meter high.
“Why would anyone want to live here?” Jean wondered, but did not dare fall to his knees; the entire company needed to keep moving. They continued their march in silence for several more hours until the sound of gunfire could be heard over the next ridge. At the crest, the regiments could see the Russian position on the plateau. The Russians were split apart in their divisions, but luckily there did not seem to have any heavy artillery . The French forces were joined by Napoleon, who arrived from the South . The French Army was huge and outnumbered the meager Russian force currently on the plateau.
Jacques stayed with his friends and watched as Napoleon’s cavalry took its positions. As the entire French army amassed, the Russians realized that they would have to retreat and regroup with a larger, Russian army. Jacques held his musket firmly in his hands, the freezing metal plating now frosty with ice crystals. At his current three-hundred meters from the enemy, his obscured view due to the snow, and his shivering, he had no chance of using his weapon . He marched with his army as the cavalry made their charge on the fleeing enemy’s position.
“This war is not so bad, now is it? Despite being frozen, we have not had to do anything and we are already winning,” Jean said with a sense of accomplishment.
“I suppose. I am glad the bullets have not yet started to fly our way,” Michel said. Just as he finished speaking, one of the cavalrymen was shot in the shoulder and thrown off his horse. As his horse ran over him, the Marshal Soult’s force caught up. The snow made access for the flying ambulances impossible . A soldier gathered seven of his friends and broke off of the advancing group to create a gurney for the injured man made of coats, branches, and guns . They retreated through the charging force to take him to safety and medical care. Do not get shot.
The officers gave the order and the infantry stopped their advance and started forming lines. The falling snow clouded the soldiers’ vision, but they fired into the white void as they were commanded. They were running again before Jacques could get a shot off. He could not see anything. He decided to look down and follow his footsteps through the whiteout. The snow obscured even the swarming masses around him. He just hoped he was heading in the right direction and that his friends were nearby. When he looked up, he managed to see a Russian corps, approaching from the Northeast.
“It is the Russian Army,” a Captain gasped, “hold your positions. Reload and fire at will!”
“Ok gentlemen, this is where la fete begins,” Jean said to Michel as he loaded gunpowder and a rounded ball into his barrel . Bullets began whizzing past them as the two enormous forces traded shots. The hundreds of men fired and fell around Jacques as he took aim and fired. Clouds of gunpowder engulfed him, causing Jacques to cough violently . He hated gunpowder. The agonizing minutes it took to reload the standard issue musket gave him ample time to curse its name.
The gunpowder quickly disappeared, but the smell of fire remained burned into his nostrils. Time seemed to slow as his infantry division was falling apart. The inaccurate Russian shots did not seem so inaccurate anymore as the man in front of Jacques was shot in the head. Blood sprayed across Jacques face as the man collapsed onto his knees before toppling over in front of him. All the men started falling around him, and his eyes reached out for his friends. Half-cocking the musket hammer and biting off the cartridge from his hip box, he poured the powder onto the priming pan. He pulled the frizzen up to close the pan and then poured the charge powder down the barrel. Jacques could see the bullets flying towards him, but he remained focused. Dropping a ball in, he then proceeded to secure it with cartridge paper and ram it down the barrel. Fully cocking the gun, he brought it to eye level, and fired off a shot immediately . The round, imperfect bullet spiraled through the snow and straight into the center of the chest of a Russian soldier. Soon, more bullets fell from the sky. No! Jacques shouted in his head. It cannot end here. I have to find my father! Bullets whizzed past Jacques, thinning the mass of men around him until he felt almost alone. All of a sudden, everything went dark.
Jacques awoke. He took a moment to think. I was on the battlefield. He first made sure that he was alive. He waited a moment and felt his heartbeat. Sighing, he flexed each limb. It is amazing I am still in one piece. Sitting up, he found himself away from the battle in a giant tented military hospital. He could see the battlefield. The snow had done a good job of covering the dead, but he saw the clear outlines of thousands of bodies . French soldiers were checking for survivors and carting back bodies. Most people would not make it . The bodies of French and Russians, united in death, their common red blood staining the snow.
Jacque started to cry. As he lay in bed, he thought about Giverny, his father, the army, and the horrors of war. Where was his father? Did he survive a year of bloody battles? Was he alive? Maybe he had gone home. Maybe he was waiting for him there right now. Jacque made the decision right then to leave.
Seeing no medics nearby, he realized that this was his chance. Jacques prayed to God that his friends were okay, but he was going to look after himself and find his father at home. Perhaps, it was time to start his own family. Sneaking outside, he ran across an open stretch of snow into a nearby forest . He let himself calm slightly as he disappeared between the trees and into the countryside. Perhaps his curse had been a blessing all along. With snow up to his knees, he walked in the direction he knew led home.
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