South of France, winter 1869.
Pierre Naboulet is the second son of a family of tenant farmers who, in an effort to solve his family’s money problems, decides to sell himself into military service. After negotiating with a wealthy merchant who’s son, Arnaud, has drawn the wrong number at the lottery, Pierre replaces Arnaud and leaves his village of Campagnac on a fine morning in the spring for the military.
In the military, Pierre discovers barracks, training, and discipline. He meets a lot of young men like himself but from different areas, speaking different languages.
Suddenly, at the beginning of summer, 1870, an unforeseen war against the Prussians breaks out and is supported by the entire country of France including the politicians and the people. Pierre is sent to the front in Alsace (neighboring Germany) where he watches the first decimated regiments retreat. The war of 1870 becomes one of the first ‘industrial-butchery’ type wars. Soon, his company is surrounded, massacred, and scattered and he finds himself isolated behind the Prussian lines in an area no longer French, but not yet German.
He meets a child in an abandoned farm. They start drifting about in this no man’s land. They hardly communicate since the child speaks only Alsatian (similar to German). Trying to rejoin the French lines, they encounter the hostility of the local people who perceive Pierre to be a deserter.
Finally, they manage to find a boat at night and start to drift downriver heading west. But, in the middle of the night, guns fire from both sides. In the morning, the boat runs aground in which Pierre lies, dead. The child is given shelter by a commercial traveler. . .
Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, news of the disaster starts to spread. The people, devoted to the Second Empire of Napoleon the Third, can’t accept the idea of defeat. They blame the nobles, the priests, and the wealthy. In many town and villages, riotous tension comes close to the surface and ther is paranoia about the threat of a Prussian invasion.
In Campagnac, a strange couple turns up in the village square: a peculiar Flemish commercial traveler accompanied by a child who sounds Prussian. A flock of drunkards start to set on them. . .