LES BŒUFS

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Lou Messugo

It’s an overcast day with a hint of drizzle, the kind of weather I find perfect for weeding. The funny thing is that all the time I’ve been bent over, plucking and tugging beneath grey skies, a phrase has been running through my mind: “On this white and dusty path, beneath the blazing August sun …” Wishful thinking, maybe?

The line comes from a poem written by a local man, more than 60 years ago, and although I am not a great lover of poetry it has stuck in my mind for years, since a copy was given to me by one of our French neighbours, an adorable old lady.

It is a hot day in August 1944. A man is driving his oxen along the road, urging them to move faster, not to drag their heels, but to get a move on as they pull their load of beets and hay through the village, past the watching German troops. Come on, he encourages the sweating, straining animals, let’s look bright and lively, not like a funeral cortège. He smiles, and sings to encourage them.

Once they are out of the village, however, his tone changes. You’ll think me strange, he tells them, asking them to walk slowly, as he allows himself to weep for his dead son, whose body lies hidden beneath the straw and hay. The oxen somehow understand that they are pulling the young man whose voice they knew and loved, taking him home to his weeping mother. Be careful how you go; mind the holes and bumps on the road, so you don’t bang his head against the cart, says the father.

The poem was written to commemorate the death of a young man from a hamlet a kilometre from where we live. Wounded at the battle of Champagné St Hilaire, he died of his wounds the following day, in the arms of a friend, in the bloodsoaked room of the café-restaurant at Joussé, département 86.

LES BŒUFS 14 août 1944

Sur la route blanche et poudreuse

Sous ce chaud soleil de mois d’août

Avancez! mes bœufs, avancez!

La cariole est voyageuse

Lourde à trainer, mais malgré tout

A l’aiguillon, obéissez!

A me suivre, vous êtes braves

Mais bien trop lent à mon désir

Avancez! mes bœufs, avancez!

Nous transportons des betteraves

Du bon foin qu’on hume à plaisir

A l’aiguillon, obéissez!

Passons au travers du village

Devant ces allemands balourds

Gais et fiers, et le pas léger

C’est un innocent attelage

Mais de sa récolte trop lourde

Il me faut vous encourager

Avancez, mes bœufs, avancez!

L’ennemi m’a-t-il vu sourire?

Ne soyez pas si nonchalants!

Pour vous aider, je chanterai!

Ne prolongez pas mon martyre!

Mes bœufs, vous êtes ruisselants

De peine, mais moi je ne pourrai

Plus longtemps donner le change

Vous paraissez trop ténébreux

Mener un train d’enterrement

Avancez! mes bœufs, avancez!

Vous allez me trouver étrange

Ne plus me comprendre, mes bœufs

Allez lentement, doucement!

Vous voici maintenant en plaine

Allez posement, noblement

Laissez mes larmes lentement

Couler. Laisser crever ma peine.

Vous vous traîner péniblement

Ayant compris obscurément

Vous que charmait sa voix si forte

Que sous cette paille et ce foin

Cachant à tous mon desespoir

Doucement, mes bœufs, avancez!

C’est mon fils mort que je rapporte!

Mon fils! Ma raison de demain

Mons fils! Qui fut à son devoir

Mons fils! Lequel aimait tant vivre

Et qui partit pour le maquis

Pour que sa France de nouveau

Soit une France grande et libre!

Mon fils est mort pour son pays

Que pouvais-je donner plus beau?

Il fut blessé dans la bataille

Et ne mourut qu’au demain

C’est pourquoi, dans mon tombereau

Avancez! Mes bœufs, avancez!

J’emporte, cache sous la paille

Un francais, mon fils, au dédain

Des SS, de la Gestapo!

Mais que sa pauvre tête inerte

Ne heurte pas la tombereau

Evitez les trous, les cahoots.

La route est maintenant deserte

Le mère attend votre fardeau

Avec ses pleurs et ses sanglots

Avancez, mes bœufs, avancez!

14 août, 1944. Lendemain de la bataille de Champagne Saint Hilaire. Evocation de la mort du volontaire Robert Armand en les bras de Mitsou dans la chambre ensanglantée des Lhuguenot, Café-restaurant de Joussé (Vienne).

Mai 1945 – Jean Coste

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12 thoughts on “LES BŒUFS

    • Thanks for your visit, Jacqui. Every time we pass the sign to Villaret, I remember those words and wonder if there are any family members still living there, and whether there is a photo of the young man in a black frame.

  1. I love how there’s history as well as a hint of French esprit in this poem. The stubbornness to not show his sorrow. I realise I need to study more French when I read French poems- the language is a lot trickier. Good luck with the weeding!

    • The words paint a very vivid picture in my mind, of a proud father refusing to show his sorrow, determined to take his son home, and the oxen understanding that they too must hide their sadness from the enemy.

  2. I’m not a poetry reader/lover either but this poem is very moving and clearly powerful in that it’s stuck in your head for many years. How lovely of your neighbour to give you a copy, did she know the poet? Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance

    • I don’t know if Eglantine (isn’t that a beautiful name?) knew the family. It’s likely that she did, as Villaret is only a couple of miles from here, and in the ‘olden days’ everybody in the area would have known everybody else when they met for fairs and funerals. I’m not a poetry lover either, but those words conjured up a very vivid and tragic image of the stoic father, the mournful oxen and the body beneath the beets.

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