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Joseph Conrad's winter nightmare
Published in Guardian on 2016-11-21T21:30:17+00:00

It is the terrible winter of Napoleons retreat from Moscow, and members of the sacred battalion recruited from officers with no troops to lead, are proud enough to preserve a semblance of order and formation.

The only stragglers were those who fell out to give up to the frost their exhausted souls, writes Joseph Conrad, in his short story The Duel, memorably filmed in 1977 by Ridley Scott as The Duellists.

Related: Proust's remembrance of summer rain

They plodded on, and their passage did not disturb the mortal silence of the plains, shining with the vivid light of snows under a sky the colour of ashes. Whirlwinds ran along the fields, broke against the dark column, enveloped it in a turmoil of flying icicles, and subsided, disclosing it creeping on its tragic way without the swing and rhythm of the military pace.

Whole ranks marched, elbow to elbow, never raising their eyes. In the dumb, black forests of pines the cracking of the overhead branches was the only sound they heard. Often from daybreak to dusk, no-one spoke in the whole column. It was like a macabre march of struggling corpses towards a distant grave. Only an alarm of Cossacks could restore to their eyes a semblance of martial resolution.

There would be a charge of horsemen, countered with muffled detonations and dark red flames of French muskets in the falling snow. In a very few moments, the horsemen would disappear, as if carried off yelling in the gale, and the sacred battalion standing still, alone in the blizzard, heard only the howling of the wind.

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