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The Cuirassier of Verdun

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Gilles sat down on a weathered boulder by the road.  Despite the January chill he was sweating in his heavy greatcoat and his breath rasped from the exertion of the climb up through the woods from the front line.  Artillery rumbled from the lines to the north and he looked up sharply, suddenly aware that the fall of the ground may have exposed him to German snipers.  But the trenches were obscured by a small coppice and he relaxed, reaching inside his greatcoat for his Gauloises.

Sweat cooled rapidly and he became aware of the cold creeping through his buttocks.  The rock was moss-covered and damp, and his fingers tingled as he cupped them around his cigarette.  He should think about moving, get warm again, but the luxury of doing nothing, of being still, above all of being alone was seductive.  He drew deeply on the diminishing butt, drawing the fragrant smoke deep into his lungs, closing his eyes as he exhaled.  His mind, released from its bony cage, flitted through sunlit fields.

The sound of hooves brought him back and he looked around.  A bank of mist limited his view to the left and he leaned forward slightly to pierce the murk.  A dark figure slowly resolved from the greyness; strangely disproportioned, it formed itself into a figure sitting bolt-straight on a small grey horse.  As the apparition drew nearer, Gilles realised that he was looking at a cavalryman, a cuirassier, his breastplate and helmet flashing in the fading light, his sword drawn and held rigidly upright, his red plume bobbing with the motion of the overloaded  pony.

Emerging into the clearer air of the ridge, the horseman came into the view of the German lines a half-kilometre to the north.  Two or three rifles spat in the distance but the rider either didn’t hear or chose  to ignore them.  As he drew closer to the rock where Gilles sat, the young soldier stood to greet him, glancing cautiously at the shielding coppice to reassure himself that he remained hidden from the snipers.  The rider appeared to be in his sixties, his face embellished by a magnificent white moustache.  He sat to rigid attention, his thighs expertly absorbing the jolts of the trotting horse.  His head turned not a centimetre as he passed, but his eyes flicked momentarily down to meet those of Gilles looking up.

The old man was at least a foot too tall for the horse, but such was the majesty of his bearing that Gilles came to attention and saluted.  The grey head nodded sharply, almost imperceptibly, and the colourless eyes returned to the road ahead.  Gilles watched him ride away, heard cracks and whines as the snipers caught sight of their target again as the cavalryman trotted clear of the coppice.  Still there was no reaction from the unbending figure and he clip-clopped around the bend and out of sight.


Gilles was chilled to the bone when he pushed aside the gas curtain to enter the pungent fug of the dugout.  Four figures looked up from the rough-hewn table, their eye sockets shaded by the guttering, sputtering candles.  Monnier, the big, middle-aged caporal leaned back to look at the younger man as he entered, throwing his cards disgustedly into the jumble of notes and coins that surrounded the dusty wine bottle.

“Ah, it’s the new chap.  Been off looking for a Boche to surrender to, young Benoit?”

Gilles squeezed past the backs of the men at the table to warm his hands at the stove.  “No, I just took a walk up the hill to the road for a smoke.”

Monnier puffed at his pipe, which gurgled faintly.  “Why walk all that way in the cold when you can smoke here in the warm?”

Gilles shrugged, “I like to be on my own sometimes.  To think about things.”

There was a rumble of laughter and Monnier bowed slightly.  “Ah, our young friend is an intellectual!  And what did you think about, philosophy? Politics? Or maybe you were dreaming of the girls you never met before you came here to die?”

“I was thinking it was bloody cold, and wondering why I didn’t stay down here and smoke in the warm.”  He rubbed his palms together and held them out to the stove. “But I think I might have seen a ghost.”

He regretted the words even as he voiced them and waited for the howls of disdain.  One of the younger men, Lamy, started to speak, but Monnier silenced him with a gesture. “Ah, so you saw the Cuirassier. That is not so good for you.”

“You know about him? Who is he?”

“Who was he, you mean.  He was part of the last defence of Verdun in ’71.  They say that he has come back to defend the citadel from the Prussians.” Monnier glared at Lamy, who seemed absorbed in the contents of his tin mug, his shoulders shaking slightly. “But now he appears to those about to die.” Monnier raised his own mug in salute to Gilles.  “I’m sorry, Benoit, but you have seen the Cuirassier.  Your days are few.”

Gilles stared into the glow showing through the bars of the stove’s door, wondering how to answer.  His thoughts were shattered by an explosive splutter from Lamy.

“Lamy you dog’s arsehole, how can I ever get a good wind-up going when you can’t keep your face straight?”  Monnier picked up the pack of cards and threw them at the private as laughter spread around the table. “Go on, you’ve ruined the joke, you might as well tell him.”

Lamy collected himself and poured from the bottle into his mug, selecting and filling a fresh one before handing it to Gilles.

“Don’t worry, you just saw old Maillard out riding the baker’s pony to death.  He’s crazy like shit, rides along that road every night while the Boche take pot shots at him.”

“And who’s this Maillard?”

“Now he works in the boulangerie in Beaumont, but back in the last war he was a cuirassier, defending Verdun against the Prussians.  He was the only survivor of his peloton, and he spent a few months as a guest of the sausage-eaters before they sent him home. He never got over it, and now he seems to think he has to make up for it by riding the road. You should talk to him the next time you go to the rear. He’s always good for a laugh.”


Both armies seemed content to sit in their trenches and glare at one another, so Gilles would return most evenings to perch on the roadside boulder and wait for the old man to clop into view.  He would appear, true to his hour, and ride unconcerned through the sniper fire, nodding curtly as he passed and showing no sign of increased recognition of the soldier quietly smoking his Gauloises by the hedgerow.

On the afternoon of February 1st the lieutenant gave Gilles an envelope to carry to the staff HQ in Beaumont, ordering him to wait for a reply.  He set off up the hill to the road, turning right and running, hunched over, to avoid the ever-watchful snipers, along the stretch patrolled daily by the old cuirassier.

Beaumont was a small village, grown large with the cankers of tents and sandbags.  Many of the houses were boarded up and empty, but the little white church was well-kept and undamaged by war.  As he walked along the only street towards the nameless civic building that housed headquarters he noticed the boulangerie, still open and apparently thriving on the custom of locally billeted officers. The grey horse Gilles had seen on the road was tied to a cart outside, looking much more normal in size than he’d remembered.

He handed over his envelope and, advised that any answer would be at least thirty minutes before appearing, he walked back out into the road.

The sign above the baker’s door was newly painted in a garish blue and green, proudly announcing that Monsieur P. Delage was pleased to purvey fine breads and pastries to our brave soldiers.  Gilles entered a dimly lit room, warmed by the smells of yeast and baking.  He waited while a stooped and elderly dowager counted money, one sou at a time, into the shopkeeper’s outstretched hand.
Gilles stepped forward as she hobbled out of the shop. “Monsieur Delage?”


“Good afternoon sir. Do you have a man working here who rides each evening dressed as a Cuirassier?”

Delage nodded to an open door in the gloom at the back of the shop. “That would be Maillard. You want him?” Without waiting for an answer he bellowed towards the dark space, “Robert! Come out here for a moment!”

A large man came in, wiping his hands on a flour-dusted apron. Gilles revised his estimate of his age; at least seventy, but he was powerfully built and tall enough that he bowed his head as he passed through the doorway.

The baker waved towards Gilles. “This young man wants to speak to you.”

The old man looked at Gilles with eyes more alert and piercing than the young soldier had expected. “Yes? What can I do for you?”

Gilles hesitated. He hadn’t thought beyond this moment and had no idea what to say to this aproned giant. “I… Good day, my name is Gilles Benoit. I… er… is there somewhere we could go to talk?”

“I’m pleased to meet you Monsieur Benoit.” Maillard bowed crisply and gestured towards a table near the window. “We can sit here and maybe you can buy me a pastis?” He raised his eyebrows at the baker. “That alright, Boss?”

The baker nodded. “Pastis for you too, young sir?”

Maillard leaned his elbows on the small table and extended a huge hand, seamed with white flour in the wrinkles. “So, little Gilles Benoit, what can I do for you?”

Gilles shook the hand. “People tell me that you fought the Prussians before, in the war of ‘71?”

The old man’s eyes twinkled, mocking him gently. “Ah, you’re the one who sits by the road when we ride by, no?”

“Yes sir, I come up often to see you. I wondered why you do it.”

Maillard leaned back as the baker placed two glasses on the table and poured in the oily gold pastis, placing a small blue jug of water next to them.  The cavalryman’s fist engulfed it as he poured into his own and Gilles’  glass.

“Why? To keep the bloody Boche away, same as last time of course.”

“Same as last time?”

“No, not the same as last time. This time we will win. This time we will ride them down, crush their Prussian conceit beneath our hooves.” He sipped his drink. “Or die trying.  It does nothing either way.”

“So you fought them before? Was that here, at Verdun?”

“It was all across France. Back and forth.  They tried to bottle us up at Metz and we rode them down. Such a charge you never saw! We crushed them like weevils.” He banged the flat of his hand on the table, releasing a smoke of white flour.

“But they were too organised for us.” The old man swirled his drink, looking deep into the cloudy liquid.  “The Ninth regiment, that was us. Big men on big horses, not like the stunted nag I have to ride today. We were brave, but we were led by idiots. When they attacked, we would be facing the wrong way. When we reinforced, we would be sent to the wrong place. Never again.” He looked up at Gilles. “This time we will make our own decisions.”

Gilles sipped his drink. “It’s different today. We have good leaders now.”

Maillard laughed. “You say it even though you don’t believe it. How many have deserted from your regiment?”

“A few, but that’s cowardice, not the fault of High Command.”

“When one man deserts, that’s cowardice. When you have to put out armed patrols to stop an exodus – and then the patrols desert – that’s bad command.” Maillard waved a crooked finger at Gilles. “When did you last go to the rear?”

“Well, never, but I’ve only been here just over a month.”

“If you were British you’d have been rotated back for rest and recuperation at least once, maybe twice. Even the Boche look after their men better than we do. Do you have enough rations?”

“We don’t starve. You have to expect to go short on a battlefield.”

“Dogshit!” Maillard’s hand slammed on the table again. “You’re a few kilometres from one of France’s greatest cities. We have plenty of flour here to bake bread and sugar and eggs for brioche. Do you have brioche?”

Maillard stood and drained his glass, extending his great hand again to Gilles. “Which reminds me of my duties.  Stay there a moment.”

Maillard disappeared into the back of the shop, returning with a wrapped package which he handed to Gilles. “Here, share this with your fellows.”

Gilles felt the warm heaviness of fresh bread through the brown paper and put his hand in his pocket for money. Maillard waved his hand rapidly to and fro.  “No, take it as an apology for my preaching.  Come another time and you can ask me why a mad old man rides along the road in front of the snipers.”

He smiled for the first time and nudged Gilles’ arm with his elbow. “Go on, get back before you get posted for desertion yourself. And you can buy the pastis next time.”


There were three fresh, crusty loaves in the packet, still warm and moist in their centres when Gilles cut them back in the dugout. They crumbled bouillon cubes into boiling water, into which they dipped the fragrant chunks as he told his comrades of his meeting with the Cuirassier.

“Crazy he may be, but he knows how to bake bread,” said Monnier, releasing a fine spray of crumbs. “You say he even paid for the drinks? You should volunteer as a runner, Benoit. Keep us in fresh bread for the duration.”


Gilles was on sentry duty at twilight for the next four days, but on the fifth he walked up the hill again to sit by the road.  As dusk fell he heard the familiar clop-clop of hooves and saw the baker’s horse round the turn in the road to labour up the shallow climb to Gilles’ seat.  Maillard sat, as upright as ever, bobbing in perfect cadence with his mount’s movement, unconcerned as ever by the crackle of rifle fire from the German lines.

As he passed Gilles the young soldier heard the clink of spurs and harness; saw the clouds of vapour form the horse’s flared nostrils. The old cavalryman held his head rigid, staring forward under the burnished peak of his helmet.  Gilles stood and saluted, as had now become his routine as the horseman passed. Maillard glanced down as he came level and Gilles caught the ghost of a wink, and a faint twitch of the great white moustache.


The captain was delighted to accept Gilles’ offered services as a courier and two days later despatched him again to Beaumont with messages for headquarters. Gilles begged the loan of a bicycle and so arrived in the little village in good time. This time the reply was handed over within five minutes, but he reasoned that the captain had no way of knowing and decided to steal half an hour to talk to Maillard again.  They sat again at the little table by the window, glasses and the water jug between them.

“Tell me sir,” began Gilles hesitantly. “Don’t you worry that the snipers will hit you?”

“We ride that road every night at the same time. Every night they waste their bullets. They haven’t hit one of us yet. I think they never will.”

“So there are other cuirassiers who ride the road?”

Maillard looked at him with incomprehension. “You’ve seen us. I don’t understand your question.”

“I’ve seen you, sir, of course. But the others?”

The old man frowned. “The others, yes. What about them?”

“When do they ride?”

“Why, at the same time as me, of course. What do you mean, when do they ride?”

Gilles suddenly understood. “So you ride with your comrades each night? How many are you?”

Maillard nodded. “Every night. Three pelotons. Fifty-eight of us, and our captain leading. And the lieutenant behind with the squadron pennon.  And me hidden in the middle on my stunted little pit-pony. Except for me we make a fine sight to scare the Boche.”

“But they must have telescopes on their guns. It’s strange that they never hit any of you. It’s only 500 metres or so.”

“Who knows?” Maillard shrugged. “But they never do. And they never attack. You can call me mad,” Gilles looked up guiltily. “But I believe they don’t attack because they see that they can’t hit us or frighten us into ducking. While the Ninth is there to give them the bras d'honneur, they’ll cower in their trenches until they drown in their own stink.” The hatred in the old man’s voice was bayonet-cold. “These Germans, they have no honour, no esprit de corps. They are murdering thugs, nothing else.”

“You were captured by them in ’71, sir?”

“No! I was taken by the Prussians! I hated them, and I killed many. But they fought with honour. We were treated with respect. My lieutenant was given back his sword in exchange for his parole. Even enemies at war esteemed the word of a gentleman in those days.”

Maillard stood and fetched the pastis bottle from the counter. When he returned to refill their glasses he was smiling. “But don’t listen to an irascible old war-horse like me. Tell me about your home town, what you did before the war. Anything to shut me up and make me laugh.”


Three days later found Gilles sitting on the rock in a dank February drizzle that was slowly turning to sleet. He huddled inside his coat, pulling the collar up around his freezing ears. He was beginning to wonder whether the foul evening had kept even the brave old cuirassier indoors when the horse rounded the turn and trotted towards him, its hoof beats muffled by muddy slush.  The snipers were silent, probably discouraged by the poor visibility.

He stood to make his salute and received the secret wink in response as Maillard trotted stiffly by, the horse’s tail below the plume of his helmet hanging wetly down the back of his cuirass.  He watched the lone rider recede into the gloom and stood to head back for the warm dryness of the dugout.

As he turned away he heard a single rifle shot and turned in time to see Maillard sway in the saddle.  The horse trotted on for a few paces before the cavalryman sank forward and slid slowly to the ground.

Gilles ran onto the road, uncaring that he was exposed to the Germans’ fire as he slid in the churned mud, willing the still figure to stand.  The horse, relieved of its burden, galloped into the distance and out of sight. Maillard lay on the verge, an incongruously small hole in the side of his cuirass just in front of his left armpit. Blood leaked through the opposite armhole and stained the white stock at his throat. As Gilles knelt, the old pale eyes turned up to look at him. The lips moved and he caught faint whisper, “Be ready, now they will come.”  Then the eyes turned down to where the cavalryman’s right hand reached weakly for his sabre, just out of reach.

Gilles picked up the sword and placed the hilt in Maillard’s gloved hand.  The old man nodded once and let out a long sigh. The sword rolled from his hand onto the sleet-soaked grass.


Gefreiter Lukas Faber stepped down off the firestep and patted the breach of his Mauser.  He walked back along the newly dug sap that poked 100 metres towards the French lines. For weeks he, like other snipers he knew along the front, had fired off shot after shot at the fifty or so cuirassiers who rode every night along the road on the hill opposite. Mostly they’d aimed at the tall captain who rode at their head, or at the cavalryman behind him who bore a lance held stiffly upright, a pennon fluttering bravely from its point. But it seemed no matter whether they blazed away at the leaders or at the precise rows of horsemen who followed them, four abreast. Then tonight he’d caught a glimpse of a man on a much smaller horse, hidden before by the heavy mounts that surrounded it. On an impulse he’d shifted his aim.

And tonight, at long last, he hadn’t missed.

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