BOOKS / Off the Shelf: In the heat of battle: Kenneth Baxter on Hilaire Belloc's vivid The Girondin

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OF Hilaire Belloc's hundred or so books on a variety of subjects, The Girondin is one of the most entertaining. A pity that it should have been so long out of print. It is a young dandy turned soldier's account of how he came to witness the famous battle of Valmy in the first stage of the French Revolution.

Belloc himself did his military service with the artillery; and it is his experience of life with the regiment, together with his sense of history and eye for landscape, that give the book its special authority. An accomplished lyric poet, he was also called in his time the finest prose stylist in English. That is a matter of opinion; but again and again one is aware of the felicitous blend of strength and tenderness: in the transient relationship between the fugitive, Boutroux, and the peasant girl, Joyeuse, who ministers to his needs; in the fellowship between him and Pascal, his horse, and the real if unspoken comradeship of the conscript soldiers, half-trained and wholly bewildered by what they endure as they force-march through the mud, the mist and the pitiless rain, inadequately fed.

'In the afternoon the skies lifted somewhat, the landscape for a few miles could be discerned, and the tents of the line lay apparent far off upon the sloping flank of a high land beyond; they heard the distant bugles. They came to pickets, they saw moving over fields large ordered bodies of men; and when the column halted and was given its orders for stabling and quartering it had already mixed in spirit with the 20,000 and more which Kellermann was leading to join Dumouriez. Just before those thousands in their drenched clothes, with their hobbling horses, their limping, footsore men, their torn and lost accoutrements, their insufficient and haphazard guns, lay, one long day's march away, the roll of empty land, the great marshy plains, where they were called to meet the strict and brilliant army of the invasion.'

Belloc was, in fact, describing the actual conditions of the fighting, in September 1792, as the divided Revolutionary troops attempted to hold the forest barrier of the Argonne against the Prussians and Austrians under the Duke of Brunswick, advancing on Paris. The French had already been worsted in several minor engagements owing to their temporary disorganisation; but at Valmy Kellermann's infantry stood their ground, and the French guns gained a resounding victory against the odds: a victory which marked a turning point in the campaign. The enemy withdrew from France; and the tattered levies of the young republic went forward 'in the name of liberty and humanity'.

Much of tumult and frenzy was to follow, but one spectator at least grasped the significance of what he witnessed. 'From this place and this day,' wrote Goethe in his diary, 'dates a new epoch in the history of the world, and you will be able to say 'I was there'.' The reader of Belloc's brilliantly imagined and expressed narrative of events preceding that day may well feel, at second hand, some such emotion.