Lieutenant Gérard rode briskly back to his squadron's bivouac area. He immediately summoned Sergeant Rainier, and together they walked to the lieutenant's "space," a small, dry, level clearing under a pine tree, which he had chosen for his own for the evening. Close enough to the men in case of emergency, yet with a few feet of separation to preserve the necessary distance of a junior officer from his men. The maintenance of discipline is a necessary task, even in the egalitarian Grande Armée!
Sergeant Rainier quickly glanced around. Though it would be a comfortable enough place for his scant evening rest tonight, the young officer had had no time to prepare any comforts of the field. Indeed, he mused, the lieutenant may not yet even know any of the little tricks a soldier learns, to enable him to somehow stay dry in the rain, warm in the cold . . . . And, perhaps, here is some more time we can use to bring this young gentleman within sight of his soldiers. They need more time to know him -- to become comfortable with him. And clearly, he could use some help in relaxing. "Sir, if you please, I notice that you have had scant time to arrange for your personal needs, here. While you were gone, some of the sergeants and I have taken the liberty of constructing a headquarters area, which might be more conducive to the presentation of your orders. May I invite you to have a look?"
Lieutenant Gérard considered for a moment. Indeed, the sergeant had a point. There was scarcely a comfortable place here to sit on the frozen ground, let alone a prepared area where he and his subordinates could talk. I should have been better prepared. "Certainly, yes, Sergeant – let us take a look," he said with a tired smile.
The two walked the few yards to where the soldiers had pitched their camp. Sergeant Rainier took the opportunity to briefly lead the lieutenant around the troop area, to point out the steps that had been taken to prepare the horses and equipment, and to feed and rest the men. Most were gathered around various camp-fires, keeping warm, heating a warm drink, or roasting a piece of meat or a potato. Suddenly, the lieutenant realized he had not had a proper meal since the previous evening -- with everything occupying his thoughts, and the nervousness, he'd simply forgotten about food. He suddenly was ravenous, and at the same time noticed he was exhausted. The men are well taken care of, that is certainly obvious. I hope I can give these orders correctly -- I hadn't noticed my personal state.
A few more feet, behind a low mound and some trees, and they reached the headquarters area. The two were greeted by the sight of a roaring fire, 8-10 feet in diameter at the base, with flames leaping high into the gathering dusk. A generous supply of firewood had been collected -- more than would be needed to keep the fire at this height all night! The corporals and sergeants had knocked together some remarkably comfortable, low chairs, out of pine boughs lashed together with cord, in which several were reclining happily, in their greatcoats, boots off and feet to the fire.
Chickens, potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, bread and butter had been bartered for at a nearby farm. The initially reluctant farmer was consoled with an Austrian musket and copious quantities of fresh powder and ball. Such a tool would be useful for hunting, and protecting his family and livestock from the wolves native to the region. The food had been cooked, and the sergeants had all had their fill -- surprisingly, a good deal was left.
The two had walked up unannounced; as the group around the fire noticed their lieutenant was present, all immediately moved to stand up and acknowledge him with a salute. Just as quickly, the lieutenant said "At ease, gentlemen," and raised his hand, indicating that they should remain at rest. "Sergeant Rainier has asked me to inspect your headquarters area -- and I must say," he said with a smile reflecting genuine admiration, "you all have organized everything in a thoroughly professional manner." The men responded with a low chuckle, of pride and mirth.
"Sir, have you eaten? The men are all well taken care of -- even the legendary appetite of Corporal Lemieux is momentarily sated," Sergeant Rainier said, as he nudged a dozing trooper whose bare feet were toward the fire, bonnet de police covering his eyes. Another chuckle from the group. "Of course, it is your choice -- the orders group can happen immediately, if you wish. But the food is excellent, and it will not stay warm for long! We know that you may not have had time to think of eating, recently," he added.
The lieutenant quickly concealed surprise at the last remark, and considered. Once reassured that all others had already eaten, the young officer chose to take a quick meal. He was offered one of the chairs by the fire, and was silently amazed at how comfortable it was. While he was eating, Sergeant Rainier took the chair next to him, and suggested that the lieutenant give the operations order to all the sergeants, at one time. "Sir, I do not mind relaying the orders, if you wish. But consider the advantage of time saved. Also, the men may bring up questions that I had not thought of."
Sergeant Rainier did not say it – but the most important reason for his suggestion was that the officer needed to be perceived by the squadron to be the real leader. Of course the lieutenant already was, in terms of his rank. But he had not yet had a chance to gain the confidence and respect of the men. This would take time. And, ultimately, the young officer would have to earn that confidence and respect, most probably in the midst of combat. Here -- presenting the formal orders before a battle of decision -- would be the beginning of that process.
As Lieutenant Gérard and Sergeant Rainier conversed, the other sergeants round the fire, who were not asleep or otherwise preoccupied, would occasionally glance over at them. It was obvious to the onlookers that Sergeant Rainier, experienced as he was, was not jealous and was showing the officer every mark of respect. Though each of them had his own opinions about officers, especially new ones such as this, they took their cue from Sergeant Rainier. For now, they would show respect to the rank, as a professional does. But, very soon, the time would come when the lieutenant would have to make his own way in the world. And, very soon, it would be time to find out what the young man was really made of. Not that any of them wished him ill. It was simply that they knew that their very lives were in his hands. So, all took an acute interest in determining whether this young man was fit to be their leader.
Lieutenant Gérard had agreed that giving the order directly to all the sergeants was a good idea. He, too, had silently recognized the chance to take charge and make an impression. So, once he had finished eating, everyone was assembled by the fire, and the lieutenant presented the orders as he had received them earlier. Strolling before the fire, he could ensure he had their attention.
Most of the sergeants had heard combat orders many times. Though all listened to the content, they also watched to see if the officer had a grasp of what he was talking about. They looked for confidence, though they knew he was a novice. They all knew what a formal order should contain -- and though some of the same information as had been given in ten previous orders was again covered tonight, they listened to ensure that the lieutenant missed nothing. They listened for a chance to begin having confidence in him -- or a reason not to.
When Lieutenant Gérard had finished, he asked for questions. Several sergeants asked if the lieutenant knew the lay of the land they would be fighting on. Though he did not know exactly where they might expect to fight tomorrow, the lieutenant rapidly constructed a terrain model in the sandy soil near the fire, indicating the major features in the area such as the Goldbach stream and the villages along it, the Pratzen plateau, the Santon, the marshes to the south, etc. He described, as best he could, the dispositions of the French forces and what was known of those of the enemy. He explained what he'd been told about how the battle might proceed, and then indicated likely points in the battle at which they might be committed, indicating possible locations on the terrain model. Most of the remaining questions were satisfied by this.
A couple of the sergeants tossed questions about formations and other standard
procedures at the lieutenant, just to see if they could catch him off-guard with something simple.
But he answered them clearly, and finally, the meeting was finished. The lieutenant took his
leave of the group to report to the captain, as he'd been instructed to do, before the close of the evening. Sergeant Rainier organized the sentinel postings for the night, then left to visit
a friend in a neighboring squadron. Alone for a little while, the sergeants exchanged thoughts.
"Well -- ?"
"Yes, he's young, but he seems to have a grasp of things already."
"Too young, too new -- I don't trust him."
"All lieutenants are young -- "
" -- and book-learned. Too many books, and not enough experience. If I could read, I could give an order like that -- "
(Laughter) "Yes, of course, Corporal Durand -- but I wouldn't even follow you into a cathouse!" (More laughter).
"Well, he can give an order well enough -- but so can most of them. We'll see what happens tomorrow. He will show us, with everything he does, how things will go."
Lieutenant Gérard made his evening report to the captain. He furnished details on the inspection he'd conducted, and reported on the readiness of the unit – number of men and horses fit for duty, and the reasons for each that was not; condition of equipment, etc. He covered the bivouacking of the men, and their feeding. He concluded by talking about the operation order he'd presented, and finally stated that he and the squadron were ready for action.
The captain listened carefully, and watched the lieutenant closely. Though he knew that, in any case, Sergeant Rainier would have ensured that all was ready, he was impressed by the thoroughness and clarity of the report. Also, he sensed that the lieutenant was in control of his emotions, and was as ready as he could be for the new experiences of the morrow.
The captain was known for a stern demeanor and, despite his normally reserved
disposition, he had a temper which could flare violently when things were not as he thought they
should be. Had the lieutenant's report been less than professional, he would have experienced
that temper firsthand. However, the captain was impressed. And, knowing what he did from his
own observations, he knew that the report was not only thorough, but accurate. So, he elected to send the young man on his way to get some rest, if he could.
"Very well, Lieutenant. You have covered all the necessary issues, and your report has satisfied all my questions regarding your unit's readiness. Make your way now back to your squadron, and get some sleep."
"A vos ordres, mon Capitaine," the lieutenant said as he saluted.
"Vive la France!" spoke the captain as he returned the salute. "Good luck tomorrow."
Sergeant Rainier returned from his visit as the lieutenant returned from his report. They exchanged a few brief words about the report to the captain, and about such things as the evening sentinel posting and the wake-up time the next morning. By this point, about 8 P.M., most of the men were gathered around the fires relaxing, or were trying to get warm on makeshift beds consisting of pine boughs and straw thrown down to cover the frozen ground. Greatcoats, and any blankets or rags that could be found, served to cover the individual and give some warmth.
The conversation was drawing to a close, and the lieutenant was about to make his leave and return to his own area, when Sergeant Rainier said, "Sir, I have a little extra energy I need to dispose of, before I can rest easily. I am thinking of having a walk – would you care to join me?"
The lieutenant, despite his growing fatigue, was full of nervous anticipation of the next day, and knew he would not be able to sleep for awhile, if at all, on this night. "A walk might be just the thing I need. Where would we walk?"
The sergeant said, "I would go in the general direction of the Pratzen plateau, if you
agree. I usually like to see at least some of the ground we may have to traverse tomorrow. At
any rate, we are not permitted to cross the Goldbach stream, but we could see if we come to it.
And, the ground that way is rather open – it is really a beautiful evening, despite the cold."
"Agreed! Let's be on our way!"
After a quick change into drab fatigue uniforms and greatcoats, the two left instructions to the sergeant of the sentinels, and were off. The clear sky was completely dark now, save for the moon, whose light reflected off the snow lying on the ground. Once their eyes had adjusted to the night, they were able to see quite well, and could make their way without difficulty over the open fields of winter grass. In the distance, the Pratzen displayed a myriad of small points of light, which were the camp-fires of the Allied army. The wind occasionally brought brief fragments of shouts and laughter from in front and behind, as the two dark forms trudged out into the mysterious stretch of land that, for a while yet, separated the mass of the two armies.
Silently they walked, side by side, blending well with the shadows of the trees and bushes they passed. Somehow, for these two men, still strangers to each other, the tense thoughts of the battle fell away, for awhile, and they took in the crisp night air from the gusts that blew around them. Suddenly it was easy to forget that they were soldiers, and they each wondered quietly at the beauty of the starry night, in this snowy winter field somewhere in the depths of ancient Moravia, far from home.
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