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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDr. Dumany's Wife - Part 2 - Chapter 12. Seeking For Death
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Dr. Dumany's Wife - Part 2 - Chapter 12. Seeking For Death Post by :mobiaus Category :Long Stories Author :Maurus Jokai Date :May 2012 Read :3284

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Dr. Dumany's Wife - Part 2 - Chapter 12. Seeking For Death

PART II CHAPTER XII. SEEKING FOR DEATH

To tell the truth, on my arrival at the camp I felt like an apprentice in the presence of his masters. French surgery in general occupies a foremost place. French camp-surgeons have acquired skill and experience in their great military expeditions; there their studies receive the finishing-touch, whereas the little skill and practice which I had came entirely from the clinic and the dissecting-table.

But, nevertheless, I was very cordially received by the old, experienced masters of the profession, to whom I stated that I had come, as a voluntary apprentice, to aid in the work of philanthropy as best I could. My immediate superior was old Duval, who had served as camp-surgeon at Sebastopol, and I succeeded in acquiring his good graces. He asked me if I had ever been on a battle-field before, and I answered, a little ashamed, that I had never had that opportunity. In spite of my descent from the chivalrous Hungarian nation, I know the sound of the cannon only from hearing the salutes fired on our King's birthday, or other occasions equally peaceful.

"It does not matter," said the old man, encouragingly. "You will get over your first irritation at the noise, and then you will feel as much at home and as safe as in your own study. There is not the least danger for us. We hoist the Geneva flag with its red cross, and every civilised foe respects that ensign. After the battle is over, and the enemy has fled, beaten, shattered, and in disorder, we carry our ambulances to the gory field, and take up the wounded, friend and foe alike. The severely injured we attend to at once, dressing their wounds on the spot, and then we place them all on our beds, and take them to our hospital-tents for treatment."

This had been the old man's practice in many wars. The French had invariably been victors and masters of the field; the enemy had retreated, and then the French had taken up the wounded and nursed them faithfully, whether friend or foe. That a time could come when the French would be driven from the field, and the enemy would take up the wounded, was deemed preposterous and out of the question.

We were attached to Marshal Douay's corps, but, unfortunately, I did not receive the privilege of participating in the first battle at Saarbruecken, where old Dr. Duval's experience was confirmed; the Prussian advance was repulsed, and the victorious French gathered up the wounded.

The first wounded soldiers whom we treated were foes; one an Englishman, the other a German from Baden. Both were officers in the German army. Three daring officers from the German camp, on horseback and in full uniform, had galloped into the heart of the French camp in broad daylight; there they had cut down the sentinel, ordered food and drink, taken notes as to the camp, the position and order of the forces, the number of the batteries, etc., until at last the French awoke from their illusion, and recognised them as foes. They retreated firing, cutting their way through the French lines, killing two French officers, one of whom, as he expires, finds strength enough to return the fire, and one of the three, the Englishman, falls shot in the abdomen. A second, the Badener, is hewn down from his horse; but the third escapes unhurt, and cuts his way back to the German camp.

This incident I regarded as a bad omen. The French were so confident, so presumptuous, that they neglected the outpost service. Next day the Germans attacked Marshal Douay at Weissenburg with three times his force. This was the fault of the French, who ought to have attacked the Germans with an overwhelming force, instead of waiting to be attacked by them.

The French fought heroically against the crushing superiority of the Germans, vainly hoping that the report of the cannonade would attract assistance from a corps stationed in the neighbourhood of the battle-field; but in this heroic fight their lines were sadly decimated. At first they fought in the village, then they were forced out by the Germans, and had to defend themselves among the vineyards and the thickets. The soil was saturated with blood, and the dead and wounded were lying about in ditches, copses, and everywhere.

"Sir," said I to Dr. Duval, "to-day the enemy will be master of the field, and he will gather up the wounded, unless we prevent this by picking them up while the fight lasts. Now, while the balls are flying about, is our chance! Give me leave to go there with the ambulance."

"With all my heart! Try it if you have a mind to."

"If I had a mind to?" Why, of course, I had come for that; it was the opportunity I had craved, the chance for the immortalising cannon-ball to send me up to heaven and glory! So, taking the twelve men who were given me as aids, I started off with the ambulance to the scene of the battle.

There is not the slightest braggadocio about this. Soldiers, even in the hottest ardour of battle, will carefully avoid firing at the life-saving corps, which is distinguished by the sign of the red cross. But it is impossible to prevent an exploding shell from sending its splinters among them, and on that eventful day I had occasion to watch the course of these splinters.

The firing did not cease for a moment. The roar of the artillery, the cracking of the rifles created a deafening noise; the hoarse, grating sounds from the French mitrailleuses, in particular, made a horrible accompaniment to the dying groans of the wounded. But the French mitrailleuses had found their match in the Krupp cannon. These fire no balls, but some fiendish contrivances, longitudinal, cylindrical projectiles, which explode as they alight, and scatter their deadly fragments far and near.

All the injured men whom we took from the field were wounded by these splinters. As we toiled, the hellish projectiles were flying over our heads; but my experienced aids worked with the coolness of the harvester when he hastens to save his crops from the threatening rain. They knew well that these messages of death were not sent to them, but to the French artillery, which was opposing the advance of the Germans. All this while I felt that indescribable intoxication which is sure to overtake every novice. I stood there in the terrible realm of death, in the presence of the awful Moloch, Hamoves, the angel with the scythe. I felt a chill, a shudder, and I bowed down before the omnipotent Lord of life and death, the Almighty Ruler of the universe.

This short-lived sensation of terror every novice has to overcome. Nor is anyone spared the humiliation of this experience. The eye can hardly perceive anything of the effect of the shots, for the cannon-smoke envelopes the surrounding objects in a thick cloud of fog. The Prussian infantry were crouching down, and, while creeping and cringing thus, they were pressing forward. Nothing but the smoke of their rifles betrayed the level of their faces, and the French infantry were hidden in ditches, behind bushes and trees, and firing from these vantage-grounds. Only the Zouaves and the Turcos might now and then be recognised by their red caps.

While the artillery was pealing, the bugle was sounding the commands. All at once a strange drumbeat was heard from beside us, and the veteran sergeant at my elbow said--

"Sir, we must get out of this with our beds at once. Cavalry is advancing."

"Cavalry of the enemy?" I asked.

"Brother and enemy is all one in such a case. If we are in their way they will crush us under their horses' hoofs, without observing what body we belong to."

So we hastily picked up our beds with the wounded, and retreated with all speed behind the line of battle. We had hardly reached security when, from both sides, the cavalry advanced, both friends and enemies. The earth shook with the stamping of the hoofs, "_Quadrupedante putrem crepitu quatit ungula campum_."

Avoiding our right wing, a regiment of Prussian hussars was galloping towards us; a regiment of French chasseurs on horseback, under command of the commander-in-chief, Marshal Douay, in person, was dashing from the hills to meet them. The strong west wind was blowing clouds of dust in the faces of the French, the backs of the Germans. All at once the Prussian regiment divided itself, wheeling to right and left; behind them a whole battery of artillery appeared, and a powerful discharge saluted the chasseurs.

The shells made a fearful gap in the French horsemen, but still they dashed bravely on, shouting wildly, and giving the enemy's artillery no time for a second shot. The Prussians wheeled swiftly, and hussars, battery and all, fled before the lines of the French chasseurs. We thought this wild retreat meant victory for the French, but we discovered that it was only a ruse.

When the clouds of dust had dispersed, we saw that on the battle-field horses, struggling in deadly convulsions, and men in the throes of death, were strewn thickly around. We hastened thither to save whom we could, but, oh! what an awful sight it was! Man and beast piled in confusion and crushing each other. The neighing of the wounded horse mingled with the last prayer, or the death-groan, of its rider. Maddened horses, with their dead or wounded riders hanging in the saddle, were galloping on, while the less-injured soldiers, who had been thrown from their slain horses, or were struggling to extricate themselves from beneath them, were cursing and swearing, and invoking God and Devil for vengeance on the Prussians.

Among those who were fatally injured was Marshal Douay himself. As the old sergeant drew him out from under his horse, the blood rushed from an awful gash on his neck. "_O, mon general_!" sobbed the old soldier, trying to close the gash with his pocket-handkerchief.

"Don't cry!" said the dying chief, hoarsely. "Go shout to them '_En avant_!' in my place."

It was a fatal command, this "_En avant_!" The French chasseurs had pursued the German hussars to a hop plantation, which proved to be full of concealed Prussian sharp-shooters. At this point the hussars attacked the chasseurs in the rear, while the sharp-shooters received them with a volley from their quick-firing rifles, and a general onslaught was begun upon the brave corps. The chasseurs endeavoured to break into the hop field, but such a plantation is a terrible fortification, with its walls of vines fastened to other walls of stout poles, and behind each a hidden foe with a quick-slaying weapon. The whole fine corps of cavalry was destroyed then and there.

The fall of the commander-in-chief, Marshal Douay, had decided the fate of the battle. When finally, all too late, MacMahon arrived with his troops, Douay's unfortunate command was shattered, and the battle of Weissenburg lost.

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