War And Peace

CHAPTER XIV

Chinese

AT FIVE O'CLOCK in the morning it was still quite dark. The troops of the centre, of the reserves, and of Bagration's right flank, were still at rest. But on the left flank the columns of the infantry, cavalry, and artillery, destined to be the first to descend from the heights, so as to attack the French right flank, and, according to Weierother's plan, to drive it back to the Bohemian mountains, were already up and astir. The smoke from the camp-fires, into which they were throwing everything superfluous, made the eyes smart. It was cold and dark. The officers were hurriedly drinking tea and eating breakfast; the soldiers were munching biscuits, stamping their feet rhythmically, while they gathered about the fires warming themselves, and throwing into the blaze remains of shanties, chairs, tables, wheels, tubs, everything superfluous that they could not take away with them. Austrian officers were moving in and out among the Russian troops, coming everywhere as heralds of their advance. As soon as an Austrian officer appeared near a commanding officer's quarters, the regiment began to bestir themselves; the soldiers ran from the fires, thrust pipes into boot-legs, bags into waggons, saw to their muskets, and formed into ranks. The officers buttoned themselves up, put on their sabres and pouches, and moved up and down the ranks shouting. The commissariat men and officers' servants harnessed the horses, packed and tied up the waggons. The adjutants and the officers in command of regiments and battalions got on their horses, crossed themselves, gave final orders, exhortations and commissions to the men who remained behind with the baggage, and the monotonous thud of thousands of feet began. The columns moved, not knowing where they were going, and unable from the crowds round them, the smoke, and the thickening fog, to see either the place which they were leaving, or that into which they were advancing.

The soldier in movement is as much shut in, surrounded, drawn along by his regiment, as the sailor is by his ship. However great a distance he traverses, however strange, unknown, and dangerous the regions to which he penetrates, all about him, as the sailor has the deck and masts and rigging of his ship, he has always everywhere the same comrades, the same ranks, the same sergeant Ivan Mitritch, the same regimental dog Zhutchka, the same officers. The soldier rarely cares to know into what region his ship has sailed; but on the day of battle—God knows how or whence it comes—there may be heard in the moral world of the troops a sterner note that sounds at the approach of something grave and solemn, and rouses them to a curiosity unusual in them. On days of battle, soldiers make strenuous efforts to escape from the routine of their regiment's interests, they listen, watch intently, and greedily inquire what is being done around them.

The fog had become so thick that though it was growing light, they could not see ten steps in front of them. Bushes looked like huge trees, level places looked like ravines and slopes. Anywhere, on any side, they might stumble upon unseen enemies ten paces from them. But for a long while the columns marched on in the same fog, going downhill and uphill, passing gardens and fences, in new and unknown country, without coming upon the enemy anywhere. On the contrary, the soldiers became aware that in front, behind, on all sides, were the Russian columns moving in the same direction. Every soldier felt cheered at heart by knowing that where he was going, to that unknown spot were going also many, many more of our men.

“I say, the Kurskies have gone on,” they were saying in the ranks.

“Stupendous, my lad, the forces of our men that are met together! Last night I looked at the fires burning, no end of them. A regular Moscow!”

Though not one of the officers in command of the columns rode up to the ranks nor talked to the soldiers (the commanding officers, as we have seen at the council of war, were out of humour, and displeased with the plans that had been adopted, and so they simply carried out their orders without exerting themselves to encourage the soldiers), yet the soldiers marched on in good spirits, as they always do when advancing into action, especially when on the offensive.

But after they had been marching on for about an hour in the thick fog, a great part of the troops had to halt, and an unpleasant impression of mismanagement and misunderstanding spread through the ranks. In what way that impression reached them it is very difficult to define. But there is no doubt that it did reach them, and with extraordinary correctness and rapidity, and spread imperceptibly and irresistibly, like water flowing over a valley. Had the Russian army been acting alone, without allies, possibly it would have taken a long time for this impression of mismanagement to become a general conviction. But as it was, it was so particularly pleasant and natural to ascribe the mismanagement to the senseless Germans, and all believed that there was some dangerous muddle due to a blunder on the part of the sausage-makers.

“What are they stopping for? Blocked up the way, eh? Or hit upon the French at last?”

“No, not heard so. There'd have been firing. After hurrying us to march off, and we've marched off—to stand in the middle of a field for no sense—all the damned Germans making a muddle of it. The senseless devils! I'd have sent them on in front. But no fear, they crowd to the rear. And now one's to stand with nothing to eat.”

“I say, will they be quick there?”

“The cavalry is blocking up the road, they say,” said an officer.

“Ah, these damned Germans, they don't know their own country,” said another.

“Which division are you?” shouted an adjutant, riding up.

“Eighteenth.”

“Then why are you here? You ought to have been in front long ago; you won't get there now before evening.”

“The silly fools' arrangements, they don't know themselves what they're about,” said the officer, and he galloped away. Then a general trotted up, and shouted something angrily in a foreign tongue.

Ta-fa-la-fa, and no making out what he's jabbering,” said a soldier, mimicking the retreating general. “I'd like to shoot the lot of them, the blackguards!”

“Our orders were to be on the spot before ten o'clock, and we're not halfway there. That's a nice way of managing things!” was repeated on different sides, and the feeling of energy with which the troops had started began to turn to vexation and anger against the muddled arrangements and the Germans.

The muddle originated in the fact that while the Austrian cavalry were in movement, going to the left flank, the chief authorities had come to the conclusion that our centre was too far from the right flank, and all the cavalry had received orders to cross over to the right. Several thousands of mounted troops had to cross in front of the infantry, and the infantry had to wait till they had gone by.

Ahead of the troops a dispute had arisen between the Austrian officer and the Russian general. The Russian general shouted a request that the cavalry should stop. The Austrian tried to explain that he was not responsible, but the higher authorities. The troops meanwhile stood, growing listless and dispirited. After an hour's delay the troops moved on at last, and began going downhill. The fog, that overspread the hill, lay even more densely on the low ground to which the troops were descending. Ahead in the fog they heard one shot, and another, at first at random, at irregular intervals; tratta-tat, then growing more regular and frequent, and the skirmish of the little stream, the Holdbach, began.

Not having reckoned on meeting the enemy at the stream, and coming upon them unexpectedly in the fog, not hearing a word of encouragement from their commanding officers, with a general sense of being too late, and seeing nothing before or about them in the fog, the Russians fired slowly and languidly at the enemy, never receiving a command in time from the officers and adjutants, who wandered about in the fog in an unknown country, unable to find their own divisions. This was how the battle began for the first, the second, and the third columns, who had gone down into the low-lying ground. The fourth column, with which Kutuzov was, was still on the plateau of Pratzen.

The thick fog still hung over the low ground where the action was beginning; higher up it was beginning to clear, but still nothing could be seen of what was going on in front. Whether all the enemy's forces were, as we had assumed, ten versts away from us, or whether they were close by in that stretch of fog, no one knew till nine o'clock.

Nine o'clock came. The fog lay stretched in an unbroken sea over the plain, but at the village of Schlapanitz on the high ground where Napoleon was, surrounded by his marshals, it was now perfectly clear. There was bright blue sky over his head, and the vast orb of the sun, like a huge, hollow, purple float, quivered on the surface of the milky sea of fog. Not the French troops only, but Napoleon himself with his staff were not on the further side of the streams, and the villages of Sokolnitz and Schlapanitz, beyond which we had intended to take up our position and begin the attack, but were on the nearer side, so close indeed to our forces that Napoleon could distinguish a cavalry man from a foot soldier in our army with the naked eye. Napoleon was standing a little in front of his marshals, on a little grey Arab horse, wearing the same blue overcoat he had worn through the Italian campaign. He was looking intently and silently at the hills, which stood up out of the sea of mist, and the Russian troops moving across them in the distance, and he listened to the sounds of firing in the valley. His face—still thin in those days—did not stir a single muscle; his gleaming eyes were fixed intently on one spot. His forecasts were turning out correct. Part of the Russian forces were going down into the valley towards the ponds and lakes, while part were evacuating the heights of Pratzen, which he regarded as the key of the position, and had intended to take. He saw through the fog, in the dip between two hills near the village of Pratzen, Russian columns with glittering bayonets moving always in one direction towards the valleys, and vanishing one after another into the mist. From information he had received over night, from the sounds of wheels and footsteps he had heard in the night at the outposts, from the loose order of the march of the Russian columns, from all the evidence, he saw clearly that the allies believed him to be a long way in front of them, that the columns moving close to Pratzen constituted the centre of the Russian army, and that the centre was by this time too much weakened to be able to attack him successfully. But still he delayed beginning the battle.

That day was for him a day of triumph—the anniversary of his coronation. He had slept for a few hours in the early morning, and feeling fresh, and in good health and spirits, in that happy frame of mind in which everything seems possible and everything succeeds, he got on his horse and rode out. He stood without stirring, looking at the heights that rose out of the fog, and his cold face wore that peculiar shade of confident, self-complacent happiness, seen on the face of a happy boy in love. The marshals stood behind him, and did not venture to distract his attention. He looked at the heights of Pratzen, then at the sun floating up out of the mist.

When the sun had completely emerged from the fog, and was glittering with dazzling brilliance over the fields and the mist (as though he had been waiting for that to begin the battle), he took his glove off his handsome white hand, made a signal with it to his marshals, and gave orders for the battle to begin. The marshals, accompanied by adjutants, galloped in various directions, and in a few minutes the chief forces of the French army were moving towards those heights of Pratzen, which were left more and more exposed by the Russian troops as the latter kept moving to the left towards the valley.

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