Humphrey Cobb: The paths of glory lead but to the rats
From Paths of Glory (1935)
The 181st had lost thirty-two men, the Tirailleurs seventeen. It wasn’t a bad record for a relief made during a heavy bombardment, nor did it make the slightest difference to the conduct of the war. Every day and every night men were killed at the rate of about four a minute. The line remained the same, everything remained the same – uniforms, equipment, faces, statures, men. Men standing at the same posts, listening to the same sounds, smelling the same smells, thinking the same thoughts, and saying the same words. Forty-nine men had been killed, and one set of collar numerals had been replaced by another. Rats weren’t interested in collar numerals, so it made no difference to them either.
The moon faded from his sight, and he was still for while. A rat climbed noiselessly up the jamb of the gallery entrance and looked at Paolacci for a long time. Then it turned and went down again. Two shells burst along the opposite wall, and a shower of gravel fell upon the unconscious lieutenant…
Later still, when the shadow cast by the moon was rising again on the side of the chalk pit, a rat climbed noiselessly up the jamb of the gallery entrance and watched Paolacci for a while. Then it stepped forward daintily, jumped onto the lieutenant’s chest and squatted there. It looked to the right and to the left, two of three times, quickly, then lowered its head and began to eat Paolacci’s under lip.
Assolant glanced at the the bundles of motionless clothing without pausing in his stride. He noted that one group wore the uniform of a line regiment and that another, a smaller one, wore that of the Tirailleurs. Large blue flies were buzzing indiscriminately over both groups, and clusters of them were busily feeding at eyes, nostrils, mouths, and open wounds.