The Attack on the Mill by Émile Zola.

1892 edition.
The Attack on the Mill (L'Attaque du Moulin) is a short story by Émile Zola first published in 1877 (the same year as L'Assommoir) in a Russian periodical, then in 1880 in Les Soirées de Médan, and again in The Attack on the Mill and Other Sketches of War (which also contains an essay by Edmund Gosse and Zola's Three Wars) in 1892. It is one of my favourite short stories by Zola.

Though published the same year as L'Assommoir, The Attack on the Mill shares themes with Zola's later novel The Debacle (1892), the penultimate novel of the Rougon Macquart series. The plot is centred around the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and events take place in Merlier's mill. It begins,
Old Merlier’s mill was in high feather, that fine summer evening. In the courtyard they had set out three tables, end to end, ready for the guests. All the country knew that, on that day, Merlier’s daughter Françoise was to be betrothed to Dominique, a fellow who had the name of being an idle loafer, but whom the women for eight miles round looked at with glistening eyes, so well-favored was he.
Zola paints an idyllic scene, a summer's day with a cool brook, old chestnut trees, meadows and wildflowers. Françoise Merlier, his daughter, is to marry Dominique Penquer, a Belgian, the following day despite the declaration of the war: Dominique is not expected to sign up with the rest of the men being as he is not French. However the war comes to them, the peace is shattered and there will be no wedding. The French soldiers arrive quickly followed by the Prussians and the Mill becomes the battleground:
... the firing kept up harder, and harder, between the French soldiers, stationed round the mill, and the Prussians, hidden behind the trees. The bullets whistled across the Morelle, without occasioning any loss on one side or the other. The shots were irregular, came from every bush; and all you saw was still the little clouds of smoke gently wafted away by the wind. This lasted for nearly two hours. The officer hummed a tune, as if indifferent. Françoise and Dominique, who had stayed in the courtyard, raised themselves up on tiptoe, and looked over the wall. They were particularly interested in watching a little soldier, stationed on the brink of the Morelle, behind the hulk of an old boat; he was flat on his belly, watched his chance, fired his shot, then let himself slide down into a ditch, a little behind him, to reload his rifle; and his movements were so droll, so cunning, so supple, that it made one smile to see him. He must have espied the head of some Prussian, for he got up quickly and brought his piece to his shoulder; but, before he fired, he gave a cry, turned over upon himself, and rolled into the ditch, where his legs stiffened out with the momentary, convulsive jerk of those of a chicken with its neck wrung. The little soldier had received a bullet full in the breast. He was the first man killed. 
This story, about thirty pages and divided into five chapters, tells of the effects of war upon civilians. The contrast of the gentle peace and way of life of the inhabitants of Rocreuse and the chaos and bloodshed of the war is stark and alarming; their lives and the mill itself is destroyed by the battle, which, ultimately, is deemed a success despite a very high body-count. It is vehemently anti-war in its tone, a tragic tale, a bitter end to the Second French Empire; the final stand as it were of a corrupt and dehumanising system that had already taken so many lives. The story can be read in full here.

And that was my 28th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - Four Figures by Virginia Woolf.


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