Corporal Jean Macquart, a sturdy French peasant, led the squad of infantry of which Private Maurice Levasseur was a member. The squad was a part of the 106th Regiment of the Seventh Corps of the French Army. A state of war existed between France and Prussia; the year was 1870. At the outset, it had been felt in France that the war would be nothing more than a quick promenade to Berlin, but shortages of equipment, the rivalry of the French commanders, and quick Prussian success made the outcome of the conflict doubtful.
Maurice, a scapegrace who had enlisted to get away from financial troubles in Paris, believed in the evolutionary necessity of war. As a member of the middle class, he loathed Jean, whose peasant common sense was unendurable to him.
Misinformation and lack of information led the leader of the Seventh Corps to order his divisions to fall back from their positions around Mulhausen, in Alsace. Defeat was in the air. Civilians, having heard that the Prussians were sweeping all before them, were fleeing westward. Demoralized, the troops threw away their packs and rifles. At Belfort, the corps entrained for Rheims, where the retreating and disorganized French forces were regrouping.
Prussian victories cost Emperor Napoleon III his command of the French armies. Napoleon, however, with his official entourage, remained with the troops. In Rheims, Maurice learned from battle veterans that the Prussians were young, healthy, well-organized, and well-equipped. He lost all hope for France when he caught sight of the sickly emperor in Rheims.
The army was ordered to march to Verdun. Mendacious ministers and journalists lulled the French forces into a false sense of security. When the troops reached the Ardennes, there were marches and countermarches, for the positions of the Prussian armies were unknown by the French commanders. Regiments became mobs as the French approached Sedan. By that time, Maurice had become reconciled to his fate, and had even grown to admire Jean, whose steadiness had kept the squad together.
Near Sedan, Maurice, Jean, and Honore, an artilleryman, rescued Honore’s father, old Fouchard, from pillaging soldiers. There, Honore also promised to marry Silvine, Fouchard’s servant, who had had a baby by Fouchard’s hired hand, Goliath. The hired man was suspected of being a Prussian spy, for at the beginning of hostilities he had disappeared from the Fouchard farm.
Sedan was a place of confusion, where men were separated from their units because there was no discipline and no organization. In the confusion, Jean and Maurice met at the house of Delaherche, a Sedan textile manufacturer, whose secretary, Weiss, was the husband of Maurice’s twin sister, Henriette. After a rest, Jean and Maurice rejoined their regiment. Napoleon III accompanied the troops to Sedan.
As the French poured into Sedan, it became evident that the Prussians were drawing a ring around the fortified town. Weiss and Delaherche went to Bazeilles, a village near Sedan, to check the safety of property which they owned there. Weiss, caught in a battle which took place in the village, joined the French forces against the Prussians. Delaherche hastened back to Sedan. Meanwhile, Maurice experienced his first artillery barrage.
At Bazeilles the Prussians closed in on inferior French forces. Weiss, in his house, was joined by a small group of French soldiers and one civilian to make a last-ditch stand. Weiss was captured by the Prussians, and they prepared him to be shot. Henriette appeared, and despite her plea to be shot with her husband, she was pushed aside while the Prussians shot Weiss. Nearly out of her mind with grief, Henriette wandered about the field where the battle was still raging.
The 106th Regiment was decimated in a futile attempt to retake a strategic hill. When Jean was wounded, Maurice carried him to safety. Honore Fouchard was killed at his gun. Napoleon had a white flag raised over a city roof, but it was torn down....
(The entire section is 1,236 words.)