Julien Taine was an unremarkable boy. The only reason he was up and about so early on a Sunday morning was to collect the apples. The June morning was fine and the grass along the side of the lane was drying. Julien sauntered along towards Papelotte Farm, his untidy brown hair flopping over his baggy grey shirt, his thumbs thrust under the leather braces that held up his trousers, as he’d seen his father do. Every Sunday at this time of year the Taine family were allowed to send Julien to the orchard at Papelotte Farm, where he could take as many apples as he could carry. Hanging from the waistband of his trousers were three cloth bags given him by his mother.
“Go straight there and straight back,” his mother had said, wagging a warning finger at him, “The Wavre Road is crawling with foreign soldiers, so your father says, and the farm is full of them. Be polite but don’t hang about.”
He looked across the fields towards La Haye Farm. There were troops there too and columns of smoke from their fires rose into the still air.
His father had said to his mother, quietly, so he couldn’t overhear, “There’s going to be war today, Amandine, you see if there isn’t.”
Julien had found it quite exciting over the last few days, hearing foreign voices – German, English, Dutch and French. None of the foreign soldiers could understand what the locals were saying, though the French made some effort. All the military uniforms, the bright colours, the polished breastplates of the cavalry, the stovepipe shakos of the foot soldiers, the muskets, the
big artillery guns – Julien wished so much he could be old enough to be a soldier.
“This isn’t even our affair,” grumbled the old blacksmith who lived next door, “This is Bonaparte making his stand in our farmland. I reckon he’s run out of luck this time. The English Duke will drive him out.”
Julien walked under the lime trees to the big timber doors of the farm. Two Prussian sentries nodded him past and he squeezed through the gap between the doors which stood ajar. The cobbled farmyard was thronged with Prussian infantry in long, blue tunics with yellow collars and shoulder straps and white or grey trousers, their long boots caked with straw and slurry. There were heaps of bedding rolls and kitbags with their white webbing straps, and rows of black shakos and peaked caps with yellow bands. Hundreds of muskets stood in ranks against the old brick walls of the barns and stables. Julien looked straight ahead, as he had been told and made for the little door to the orchard.
Julien’s father, Monsieur Taine, was a carpenter and joiner and the family lived next door to Mathias the blacksmith. The two men made tools for the farms, pickaxes, hammers, ploughshares and scythes. It was a steady living, though Julien had no interest in it. He wanted to be a soldier and to marry Eloïse, the grocer’s daughter, from the village. Eloïse had lived in Brussels and wore new clothes and spoke good French. He thought of her, as he tugged the cloth bags out of his trousers and made his way over the tufty grass towards the apple trees.
Julien had not been prepared for the crowds of men in the orchard. Some were in full uniform,
some stripped to the waist and some stark naked. They sat under the gnarled old apple trees or
lay asleep or played cards or wrestled. A group of them was singing a German drinking song at the top of their voices. He breathed in the tobacco smoke from the clay pipes and looked away when he heard men swearing and making rude jokes. Julien spoke no German but it was clear what the men were saying from their expressions and their gestures. His uncle Etienne was just as bad. He came from Amiens and often told Julien rude jokes.
Julien saw to his consternation that nearly all the apples had been taken by the soldiers. The only ones left were at the tops of the trees and he would have to climb each one to reach the fruit. He clambered up the nearest, ignoring the scratches and scrapes and began to fill the first bag. Then a soldier strolled over to the foot of the tree with several companions. Julien could smell the red wine on their breath, even from his shaky foothold.
“Hey, Hauke, there’s a Frenchman in this tree stealing apples. Shall I shoot him down?”
“Good idea, Jürgen. Kill the enemy!”
The first man raised his musket into the branches of the tree. Julien thought he would faint. He dropped the cloth bag and all the apples tumbled to the ground. The men roared with laughter.
“Come down, boy! We will help you collect the apples again.”
Julien fell awkwardly to the ground and, while he lay winded, the men not only gathered his apples but took the other two cloth bags from him and began to climb the trees. In a very short time, Julien, together with three full bags, was sitting with the men under one of the apple trees. They seemed pleased to have the company of a young boy and spoke to him in their broken French. He listened to their talk and was impressed by the tanned and weather-beaten skin of some of them, veterans of foreign wars. They had travelled to places he could only dream of. They joked about women they’d known, although, out of consideration for Julien, they toned down their more vulgar reminiscences. Then they told Julien how they would defeat the Imperial armies of Bonaparte gathering against them in the surrounding countryside. They would send the French packing, with the help of the English, Dutch and Belgians. The life of a soldier was definitely what he wanted. How Eloïse would adore him in uniform! How he would captivate her with tales of his exploits overseas, living in a tent and firing his musket at the cowardly enemy! They would stroll out in the evening together. He would call in at Florian’s, the tobacconist, at Waterloo and buy some baccy for his pipe. Eloïse would gaze at him, spellbound, as he lit it and would melt against him as he put his arm protectively around her shoulder.
Thus they passed the drowsy morning, Julien losing all sense of time. The scent of warm apples hung in the air, together with wafts of rough country wine, pipe tobacco and coffee. Julien was flattered to be admitted into this circle of adult males, especially as they were all waiting for something to happen, for an order to be given. He was sitting among heroes, men who would make history, not like his father and blacksmith Mathias, who only talked about the events which these men actually caused to happen. He would be in the forefront when he became a man, bronzed by foreign suns and admired by ordinary folk. Some of the old villagers had never left Papelotte, apart from the occasional walk or cart ride to Waterloo for something special. Some of these soldiers had been to Spain and Portugal! It was unimaginable.
Then, all at once, everything changed. It must have been about midday. There was a crackle of musket fire and shouts of,
“Auf, auf, Kameraden, es geht los!”
Get up, lads, it’s starting! It was as if Julien had become invisible. The men scrambled to their
feet and ran to the farmyard to snatch up their kit. The orchard suddenly became deserted. Now the boom of heavy artillery made the grass shiver beneath Julien. He felt afraid and got up to run over to the farm buildings, clutching the bags to him, all knobly with apples.
He found himself in the shady closeness of a small hayloft. Bending forward, he fought to regain his breath, casting his eyes around him. Above his head was a low gallery with a ladder. Leaving his bags on the floor, he clambered up to get a better view of the increasingly frantic scene outside. He emerged on to a wooden floor scattered with old hay and lit by one narrow window like a low vertical slit. It had no glass in it and gave on to the lane which ran past the front of the farm building. He realised to his horror that there was no chance of his escaping from the farm and running back home. Would his parents still be in their house or would they and Mathias have fled, driven out by the French invaders? The whole stretch of fields and woods outside was an inferno of men and smoke. Drums were beating and, for the first time in his life, Julien saw and heard huge explosions and great spurts of earth flying skyward. Below his window men in their long blue tunics and peaked caps were wheeling big field guns in front of the walls of the building. Others pulled handcarts loaded with balls and canisters to be loaded for firing. There must be Frenchmen ready to shoot back at the farm, thought Julien with terror, trying to work out what he should do now. He knelt at his little window, tears pricking his eyes. Heaven alone knew where Farmer and Madame Schoonmaker were and what could have become of their two little girls.
The head and shoulders that appeared on the ladder took him by surprise.
“Du lieber Gott!” whispered the young soldier, seeing Julien, and then in passable French, “Whatever you do boy, stay up there. Don’t leave this barn. A big battle has begun. The French are attacking the farm.” The noise of muskets and rifles was continuous now and the field guns made the floor jump with each burst of thunder.
Then there was a clattering of boots on the ladder and the young infantryman came up and hurled himself down flat on the floor beside Julien, pointing his musket out of the window. He whipped his cap off and reached up to place it on Julien’s head. It fell over his ears but Julien laughed for the first time since he had left the orchard.
The young man half turned to Julien and began to say, “There are French soldiers everywhere, they’re in the lane and . . . .” Then Julien saw the back of his head explode with a mist of blood and brains and he lay still. He had taken a ball through his eye. Julien wedged himself against the wall, his hands pressed on the floor at his sides, as he gulped for air, speechless with panic, unable to take his eyes off the corpse before him. It was not as Julien had imagined death. One moment the young man was talking to him, full of life, and the next he was dead, the back of his skull missing and its contents splattered all around. This was not at all how it should be. Julien smelt blood and tissue and it reminded him of the butcher’s shop in the village. He swallowed hard to avoid throwing up and knew he had to get out of that barn.
Stepping gingerly round the mess on the floor, Julien climbed down to ground level and picked up his three bags. The noise coming from the farmyard outside was deafening. He hesitated to open the door. There were German voices yelling orders and the screams and cries of wounded men. There might be so much chaos that he could keep to the wall outside and slink unnoticed back to the orchard from where he could climb over the wall and into the field beyond. But what was in the field? It too was probably a scene of battle. Julien found that, once he had pushed the wooden door open, his plans evaporated and he froze against the wall. The sight before him on what had been the cobbled farmyard was worse than any of his childhood nightmares, because he could smell it and feel it too.
There were hundreds of soldiers before him, some preparing to go outside and do battle, others lying on bloody sheets and blankets, screaming and begging to have their pain cut short. Every few seconds stretcher bearers staggered into the yard with more barely recognisable mutilated bodies. Julien found he was panting with shortness of breath and reached out for support but there was none. All at once two men bearing a stretcher banged into him, so that a hand fell to one side and grasped his shirt. The remains of the man on the stretcher had two bloody stumps instead of legs, pumping blood into filthy rags which were makeshift dressings. The man, twitching and shivering pulled Julien closer as the stretcher bearers stopped.
Julien saw that the poor man begging for water was Jürgen who had pretended to shoot him in the apple tree. Now the man had lost half his body and might well die. It shocked Julien to see how they lay him down at the end of a row of other mutilated men and trotted away with the stretcher to collect another victim.
Julien staggered towards Jürgen, jostled this way and that by the crowds of men shuffling and pushing all around him. He had no idea what he intended to do but maybe he could fetch water for these dying men. He almost tripped over a man whose bloody face was completely wound in filthy bandages, leaving just a small hole for him to breathe through. The man tried to force his bayonet towards Julien. Julien knew he was being asked to finish him off, to put him out of his suffering. He backed away, only to be pushed over flat on his back, so that he found himself looking straight into the glazed stare of a corpse which still wore its cap.
“Clear off! This is no place for a boy, go now!”
Julien looked up to see where this heavily accented French had come from and beheld a burly Prussian, his shirt and trousers covered in blood and filth and his bare feet so black they looked as though they were shod. The man shouted above the din and pointed away towards the orchard, making it clear that Julien should make himself scarce in that direction. Still clutching his apples, as if fearing an attack by an imagined thief, he made off through the chaos, through the little wooden door and into the orchard. He kept his head turned away from the dreadful bonfire burning away to his left and ignored its spit and crackle. He knew what was burning on it, because he could taste it on the roof of his mouth. Going home was not an option, since all the fields and woods appeared to be part of the battle. So, he sat under the last apple tree before the low wall, drew his knees up under his chin and waited.
Only a child can sob gently and munch on an apple at the same time. As Julien sat eating with his mouth open and his nose running, he reconsidered his future. Now he understood that a soldier is a man who can cause injury or death to other men. He does this with sharp, pointed things and with lumps of iron or jagged fragments that fly through the air. This is not glorious and this is not heroic, this is bloody and this is painful. The swaggering soldier with his almost coquettish uniform hardly resembles the broken mess on the stretcher, with no legs, begging for water or for the blissful release of a bayonet through the heart. These are the men who fight for love of their country and Julien understood this and his father had explained to him why it was important. But oh, the price that had to be paid! Perhaps ladies love the soldier, because he is a fleeting apparition, passing across their field of vision just as a bird flies above the treetops and is gone forever. Julien sat there, slipping into adolescence and into the gradual realisation that this world is not what it seems in childhood. The romance of the fighting man is bought at such a cost and what Julien had seen had left him strangely empty, feeling outwards for new points of reference.
“Hey, boy, are you alright?”
Julien felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see the man he recognised as Hauke. Hauke’s face was matted with filth and his tunic was torn but he was grinning at Julien. “You are the boy who is going to be a soldier, no?”
“No, sir, I’m not going to be a soldier. I’m going to be a carpenter like my father and like his father before him.”