Part 2 out of 3
watches the process with a certain interest. I ask:
"Did I hurt you? Is it very unpleasant?"
Bouchard gives a melancholy smile and shakes his head:
"Oh, no, not at all! In fact it rather amuses me. It makes a few
minutes pass. The day is so long. ..."
THOUGHTS OF PROSPER RUFFIN
... God! How awful it is in this carriage! Who is it who is
groaning like that? It's maddening! And then, all this would never
have happened if they had only brought the coffee at the right
time. Well now, a wretched 77 ... oh, no! Who is it who is
groaning like that? God, another jolt! No, no, man, we are not
salad. Take care there. My kidneys are all smashed.
Ah! now something is dripping on my nose. Hi! You up there, what's
happening? He doesn't answer. I suppose it's blood, all this mess.
Now again, some one is beginning to squeal like a pig. By the way,
can it be me? What! it was I who was groaning! Upon my word, it's
a little too strong, that! It was I myself who was making all the
row, and I did not know it. It's odd to hear oneself screaming.
Ah! now it's stopping, their beastly motor.
Look, there's the sun! What's that tree over there? I know, it's a
Japanese pine. Well, you see, I'm a gardener, old chap. Oh, oh,
oh! My back! What will Felicie say to me?
Look, there's Felicie coming down to the washing trough. She
pretends not to see me. ... I will steal behind the elder hedge.
Felicie! Felicie! I have a piece of a 77 in my kidneys. I like her
best in her blue bodice.
What are you putting over my nose, you people? It stinks horribly.
I am choking, I tell you. Felicie, Felicie. Put on your blue
bodice with the white spots, my little Feli ... Oh, but ... oh,
Oh, the Whitsuntide bells already! God--the bells already ... the
Whitsun bells ... the bells. ...
I remember him very well, although he was not long with us.
Indeed I think that I shall never forget him, and yet he stayed
such a short time. ...
When he arrived, we told him that an operation was necessary, and
he made a movement with his head, as if to say that it was our
business, not his.
We operated, and as soon as he recovered consciousness, he went
off again into a dream which was like a glorious delirium, silent
His breathing was so impeded by blood that it sounded like
groaning; but his eyes were full of a strange serenity. That look
was never with us.
I had to uncover and dress his wounds several times; and THOSE
WOUNDS MUST HAVE SUFFERED. But to the last, he himself seemed
aloof from everything, even his own sufferings.
"Come in here. You can see him once more."
I open the door, and push the big fair artilleryman into the room
where his brother has just died.
I turn back the sheet and uncover the face of the corpse. The
flesh is still warm.
The big fellow looks like a peasant. He holds his helmet in both
hands, and stares at his brother's face with eyes full of horror
and amazement. Then suddenly, he begins to cry out:
"Poor Andre! Poor Andre!"
This cry of the rough man is unexpected, and grandiose as the
voice of ancient tragedians chanting the threnody of a hero.
Then he drops his helmet, throws himself on his knees beside the
death-bed, takes the dead face between his hands and kisses it
gently and slowly with a little sound of the lips, as one kisses a
I take him by the arm and lead him away. His sturdy body is shaken
by sobs which are like the neighing of a horse; he is blinded by
his tears, and knocks against all the furniture. He can do nothing
but lament in a broken voice:
"Poor Andre! Poor Andre!"
La Gloriette is amongst the pine-trees. I lift up a corner of the
canvas and he is there. In spite of the livid patches on the skin,
in spite of the rigidity of the features, and the absence for all
time of the glance, it is undoubtedly the familiar face.
What a long time he suffered to win the right to be at last this
thing which suffers no more!
I draw back the winding-sheet. The body is as yet but little
touched by corruption. The dressings are in place, as before. And
as before, I think, as I draw back the sheet, of the look he will
turn on me at the moment of suffering.
But there is no longer any look, no longer any suffering, no
longer even any movements. Only, only unimaginable eternity.
For whom is the damp autumn breeze which flutters the canvas hung
before the door? For whom the billowy murmur of the pine-trees and
the rays of light crossed by a flight of insects? For whom this
growling of cannon mingling now with the landscape like one of the
sounds of nature? For me only, for me, alone here with the dead.
The corpse is still so near to the living man that I cannot make
up my mind that I am alone, that I cannot make up my mind to think
as when I am alone.
For indeed we spent too many days hoping together, enduring
together, and if you will allow me to say so, my comrade,
suffering together. We spent too many days wishing for the end of
the fever, examining the wound, searching after the deeply rooted
cause of the disaster--both tremulous, you from the effort to bear
your pain, I sometimes from having inflicted it.
We spent so many days, do you remember, oh, body without a soul
... so many days fondly expecting the medal you had deserved. But
it seems that one must have given an eye or a limb to be put on
the list, and you, all of a sudden, you gave your life. The medal
had not come, for it does not travel so quickly as death.
So many days! And now we are together again, for the last time.
Well! I came for a certain purpose. I came to learn certain things
at last that your body can tell me now.
I open the case. As before, I cut the dressings with the shining
scissors. And I was just about to say to you, as before: "If I
hurt you, call out."
At the edge of the beetroot field, a few paces from the road, in
the white sand of Champagne, there is a burial-ground.
Branches of young beech encircle it, making a rustic barrier that
shuts out nothing, but allows the eyes and the winds to wander at
will. There is a porch like those of Norman gardens. Near the
entrance four pine-trees were planted, and these have died
standing at their posts, like soldiers.
It is a burial-ground of men.
In the villages, round the churches, or on the fair hill-sides,
among vines and flowers, there are ancient graveyards which the
centuries filled slowly, and where woman sleeps beside man, and
the child beside the grandfather.
But this burial-ground owes nothing to old age or sickness. It is
the burial-ground of young, strong men.
We may read their names on the hundreds of little crosses which
repeat daily in speechless unison: "There must be something more
precious than life, more necessary than life ... since we are
THE DEATH OF MERCIER
Mercier is dead, and I saw his corpse weep. ... I did not think
such a thing possible. The orderly had just washed his face and
combed his grey hair.
I said: "You are not forty yet, my poor Mercier, and your hair is
almost white already."
"It is because my life has been a very hard one, and I have had so
many sorrows. I have worked so hard ... so hard! And I have had so
There are pitiful little wrinkles all over his face; a thousand
disappointments have left indelible traces there. And yet his eyes
are always smiling; from out his faded features they shine, bright
with an artless candour and radiant with hope.
"You will cure me, and perhaps I shall be luckier in the future."
I say "yes," and I think, "Alas! No, no."
But suddenly he calls me. Great dark hollows appear under the
smiling eyes. A livid sweat bathes his forehead.
"Come, come!" he says. "Something terrible is taking hold of me.
Surely I am going to die."
We busy ourselves with the poor paralysed body. The face alone
labours to translate its sufferings. The hands make the very
slightest movement on the sheet. The bullets of the machine-gun
have cut off all the rest from the sources of life.
We do what we can, but I feel his heart beating more feebly; his
lips make immense efforts to beg for one drop, one drop only from
the vast cup of air.
Gradually he escapes from this hell. I divine that his hand makes
a movement as if to detain mine.
"Stay by me," he says; "I am afraid."
I stay by him. The sweat no longer stands on his brow. The
horrible distress passes off. The air flows again into the
miserable breast. The gentle eyes have not ceased to smile.
"You will save me after all," he says; "I have had too miserable a
life to die yet, Monsieur."
I press his hand to give him confidence, and I feel that his hard
hand is happy in mine. My fingers have groped in his flesh, his
blood has flowed over them, and this creates strong ties between
Calm seems completely restored. I talk to him of his beautiful
native place. He was a baker in a village of Le Cantal. I passed
through it once as a traveller in peace time. We recall the scent
of the juniper-bushes on the green slopes in summer, and the
mineral fountains with wonderful flavours that gush forth among
"Oh!" he exclaims, "I shall always see you!"
"You will see me, Mercier?"
He is a very simple fellow; he tries to explain, and merely adds:
"In my eyes. ... I shall always see you in my eyes."
What else does he see? What other thing is suddenly reflected in
"I think ... oh, it is beginning again!"
It is true; the spasm is beginning again. It is terrible. In spite
of our efforts, it overcomes the victim, and this time we are
"I feel that I am going to die," he says.
The smiling eyes are still fixed imploringly upon me.
"But you will save me, you will save me!"
Death has already laid a disfiguring hand on Mercier.
"Stay by me."
Yes, I will stay by you, and hold your hand. Is there nothing more
I can do for you?
His nostrils quiver. It is hard to have been wretched for forty
years, and to have to give up the humble hope of smelling the
pungent scent of the juniper-bushes once more. ...
His lips contract, and then relax gradually, so sadly. It is hard
to have suffered for forty years, and to be unable to quench one's
last thirst with the wonderful waters of our mountain springs. ...
Now the dark sweat gathers again on the hollow brow. Oh, it is
hard to die after forty years of toil, without ever having had
leisure to wipe the sweat from a brow that has always been bent
over one's work.
The sacrifice is immense, and we cannot choose our hour; we must
make it as soon as we hear the voice that demands it.
The man must lay down his tools and say: "Here I am."
Oh, how hard it is to leave this life of unceasing toil and
The eyes still smile feebly. They smile to the last moment.
He speaks no more. He breathes no more. The heart throbs wildly,
then stops dead like a foundered horse.
Mercier is dead. The pupils of his eyes are solemnly distended
upon a glassy abyss. All is over. I have not saved him. ...
Then from those dead eyes great tears ooze slowly and flow upon
his cheeks. I see his features contract as if to weep throughout
I keep the dead hand still clasped in mine for several long
We were going northward by forced marches, through a France that
was like a mournful garden planted with crosses. We were no longer
in doubt as to our appointed destination; every day since we had
disembarked at B----our orders had enjoined us to hasten our
advance to the fighting units of the Army Corps. This Army Corps
was contracting, and drawing itself together hurriedly, its head
already in the thick of the fray, its tail still winding along the
roads, across the battle-field of the Marne.
February was closing in, damp and icy, with squalls of sleet,
under a sullen, hideous sky, lowering furiously down to the level
of the ground. Everywhere there were graves, uniformly decent, or
rather according to pattern, showing a shield of tri-colour or
black and white, and figures. Suddenly, we came upon immense
flats, whence the crosses stretched out their arms between the
poplars like men struggling to save themselves from being
engulfed. Many ancient villages, humble, irremediable ruins. And
yet here and there, perched upon these, frail cabins of planks and
tiles, sending forth thin threads of smoke, and emitting a timid
light, in an attempt to begin life again as before, on the same
spot as before. Now and again we chanced upon a hamlet which the
hurricane had passed by almost completely, full to overflowing
with the afflux of neighbouring populations.
Beyond P----, our advance, though it continued to be rapid, became
very difficult, owing to the confluence of convoys and troops. The
main roads, reserved for the military masses which were under the
necessity of moving rapidly, arriving early, and striking
suddenly, were barred to us. From every point of the horizon
disciplined multitudes converged, with their arsenal of formidable
implements, rolling along in an atmosphere of benzine and hot oil.
Through this ordered mass, our convoys threaded their way
tenaciously and advanced. We could see on the hill sides, crawling
like a clan of migrating ants, stretcher-bearers and their dogs
drawing handcarts for the wounded, then the columns of orderlies,
muddy and exhausted, then the ambulances, which every week of war
loads a little more heavily, dragged along by horses in a steam of
From time to time, the whole train halted at some cross-road, and
the ambulances allowed more urgent things to pass in front of
them--things designed to kill, sturdy grey mortars borne along
post haste in a metallic rumble.
A halt, a draught of wine mingled with rain, a few minutes to
choke over a mouthful of stale bread, and we were off again,
longing for the next halt, for a dry shelter, for an hour of real
Soon after leaving C----we began to meet fugitives. This
complicated matters very much, and the spectacle began to show an
odious likeness to the scenes of the beginning of the war, the
scenes of the great retreat.
Keeping along the roadsides, the by-roads, the field-paths, they
were fleeing from the Verdun district, whence they had been
evacuated by order. They were urging on miserable old horses,
drawing frail carts, their wheels sunk in the ruts up to the nave,
loaded with mattresses and eiderdowns, with appliances for eating
and sleeping, and sometimes too, with cages in which birds were
twittering. On they went, from village to village, seeking an
undiscoverable lodging, but not complaining, saying merely:
"You are going to Verdun? We have just come from X----. We were
ordered to leave. It is very difficult to find a place to settle
Women passed. Two of them were dragging a little baby-carriage in
which an infant lay asleep. One of them was quite young, the other
old. They held up their skirts out of the mud. They were wearing
little town shoes, and every minute they sank into the slime like
ourselves, sometimes above their ankles.
All day long we encountered similar processions. I do not remember
seeing one of these women weep; but they seemed terrified, and
Meanwhile, the sound of the guns became fuller and more regular.
All the roads we caught sight of in the country seemed to be
bearing their load of men and of machines. Here and there a horse
which had succumbed at its task lay rotting at the foot of a
hillock. A subdued roar rose to the ear, made up of trampling
hoofs, of grinding wheels, of the buzz of motors, and of a
multitude talking and eating on the march.
Suddenly we debouched at the edge of a wood upon a height whence
we could see the whole battle-field. It was a vast expanse of
plains and slopes, studded with the grey woods of winter. Long
trails of smoke from burning buildings settled upon the landscape.
And other trails, minute and multi-coloured, rose from the ground
wherever projectiles were raining. Nothing more: wisps of smoke,
brief flashes visible even in broad daylight, and a string of
captive balloons, motionless and observant witnesses of all.
But we were already descending the incline and the various planes
of the landscape melted one after the other. As we were passing
over a bridge, I saw in a group of soldiers a friend I had not met
since the beginning of the war. We could not stop, so he walked
along with me for a while, and we spent these few minutes
recalling the things of the past. Then as he left me we embraced,
though we had never done so in times of peace.
Night was falling. Knowing that we were now at our last long lap,
we encouraged the worn-out men. At R----I lost touch with my
formation. I halted on the roadside, calling aloud into the
darkness. An artillery train passed, covering me with mud to my
eyes. Finally, I picked up my friends, and we marched on through
villages illumined by the camp fires which were flickering under a
driving rain, through a murky country which the flash of cannon
suddenly showed to be covered with a multitude of men, of horses,
and of martial objects.
It was February 27. Between ten and eleven at night we arrived at
a hospital installed in some wooden sheds, and feverishly busy. We
were at B----, a miserable village on which next day the Germans
launched some thirty monster-shells, yet failed to kill so much as
The night was spent on straw, to the stentorian snores of fifty
men overcome by fatigue. Then reveille, and again, liquid mud over
the ankles. As the main road was forbidden to our ambulances there
was an excited discussion as a result of which we separated: the
vehicles to go in search of a by-way, and we, the pedestrians, to
skirt the roads on which long lines of motor-lorries, coming and
going, passed each other in haste like the carriages of an immense
We had known since midnight where we were to take up our quarters;
the suburb of G----was only an hour's march further on. In the
fields, right and left, were bivouacs of colonial troops with
muddy helmets; they had come back from the firing line, and seemed
strangely quiet. In front of us lay the town, half hidden, full of
crackling sounds and echoes. Beyond, the hills of the Meuse, on
which we could distinguish the houses of the villages, and the
continuous rain of machine-gun bullets. We skirted a meadow strewn
with forsaken furniture, beds, chests, a whole fortune which
looked like the litter of a hospital. At last we arrived at the
first houses, and we were shown the place where we were expected.
There were two brick buildings of several storeys, connected by a
glazed corridor; the rest of the enclosure was occupied by wooden
sheds. Behind lay orchards and gardens, the first houses of the
suburb. In front, the wall of a park, a meadow, a railway track,
and La Route, the wonderful and terrible road that enters the town
at this very point.
Groups of lightly wounded men were hobbling towards the hospital;
the incessant rush of motors kept up the feverish circulation of a
As we approached the buildings, a doctor came out to meet us.
"Come, come. There's work enough for a month."
It was true. The effluvium and the moans of several hundreds of
wounded men greeted us. Ambulance No----, which we had come to
relieve, had been hard at it since the night before, without
having made much visible progress. Doctors and orderlies, their
faces haggard from a night of frantic toil, came and went,
choosing among the heaps of wounded, and tended two while twenty
more poured in.
While waiting for our material, we went over the buildings. But a
few days before, contagious diseases had been treated here. A
hasty disinfection had left the wards reeking with formaline which
rasped the throat without disguising the sickly stench of the
crowded sufferers. They were huddled round the stoves in the
rooms, lying upon the beds of the dormitories, or crouching on the
flags of the passages.
In each ward of the lower storey there were thirty or forty men of
every branch of the service, moaning and going out from time to
time to crawl to the latrines, or, mug in hand, to fetch something
As we explored further, the scene became more terrible; in the
back rooms and in the upper building a number of severely wounded
men had been placed, who began to howl as soon as we entered. Many
of them had been there for several days. The brutality of
circumstances, the relief of units, the enormous sum of work, all
combined to create one of those situations which dislocate and
overwhelm the most willing service.
We opened a door, and the men who were lying within began to
scream at the top of their voices. Some, lying on their stretchers
on the floor, seized us by the legs as we passed, imploring us to
attend to them. A few bewildered orderlies hurried hither and
thither, powerless to meet the needs of this mass of suffering.
Every moment I felt my coat seized, and heard a voice saying:
"I have been here four days. Dress my wounds, for God's sake."
And when I answered that I would come back again immediately, the
poor fellow began to cry.
"They all say they will come back, but they never do."
Occasionally a man in delirium talked to us incoherently as we
moved along. Sometimes we went round a quiet bed to see the face
of the sufferer, and found only a corpse.
Each ward we inspected revealed the same distress, exhaled the
same odour of antiseptics and excrements, for the orderlies could
not always get to the patient in time, and many of the men
relieved themselves apparently unconcerned.
I remember a little deserted room in disorder, on the table a bowl
of coffee with bread floating in it; a woman's slippers on the
floor, and in a corner, toilet articles and some strands of fair
hair. ... I remember a corner where a wounded man suffering from
meningitis, called out unceasingly: 27, 28, 29 ... 27, 28, 29 ...
a prey to a strange obsession of numbers. I see a kitchen where a
soldier was plucking a white fowl ... I see an Algerian non-
commissioned officer pacing the corridor. ...
Towards noon, the head doctor arrived followed by my comrades, and
our vehicles. With him I made the round of the buildings again
while they were unpacking our stores. I had got hold of a syringe,
while waiting for a knife, and I set to work distributing morphia.
The task before us seemed immense, and every minute it increased.
We began to divide it hastily, to assign to each his part. The
cries of the sufferers muffled the sound of a formidable
cannonade. An assistant at my side, whom I knew to be energetic
and resolute, muttered between his teeth: "No! no! Anything rather
But we had first to introduce some order into our Inferno.
In a few hours this order appeared and reigned. We were exhausted
by days of marching and nights of broken sleep, but men put off
their packs and set to work with a silent courage that seemed to
exalt even the least generous natures. Our first spell lasted for
thirty-six hours, during which each one gave to the full measure
of his powers, without a thought of self.
Four operation-wards had been arranged. The wounded were brought
in unceasingly, and a grave and prudent mind pronounced upon the
state of each, upon his fate, his future. ... Confronted by the
overwhelming flood of work to be done, the surgeon, before seizing
the knife, had to meditate deeply, and make a decision as to the
sacrifice which would ensure life, or give some hope of life. In a
moment of effective thought, he had to perceive and weigh a man's
whole existence, then act, with method and audacity.
As soon as one wounded man left the ward, another was brought in;
while the preparations for the operation were being made, we went
to choose among and classify the patients beforehand, for many
needed nothing more; they had passed beyond human aid, and
awaited, numb and unconscious, the crowning mercy of death.
The word "untransportable" once pronounced, directed all our work.
The wounded capable of waiting a few hours longer for attention,
and of going elsewhere for it were removed. But when the buzz of
the motors was heard, every one wanted to go, and men begging to
be taken away entered upon their death agony as they assured us
they felt quite strong enough to travel. ...
Some told us their histories; the majority were silent. They
wanted to go elsewhere ... and above all, to sleep, to drink.
Natural wants dominated, and made them forget the anguish of their
I remember one poor fellow who was asked if he wanted anything.
... He had a terrible wound in the chest, and was waiting to be
examined. He replied timidly that he wanted the urinal, and when
the orderly hurried to him bringing it, he was dead.
The pressure of urgent duty had made us quite unmindful of the
battle close by, and of the deafening cannonade. However, towards
evening, the buildings trembled under the fury of the detonations.
A little armoured train had taken up its position near us. The
muzzle of a naval gun protruded from it, and from moment to moment
thrust out a broad tongue of flame with a catastrophic roar.
The work was accelerated at the very height of the uproar. Rivers
of water had run along the corridors, washing down the mud, the
blood and the refuse of the operation-wards. The men who had been
operated on were carried to beds on which clean sheets had been
spread. The open windows let in the pure, keen air, and night fell
on the hillsides of the Meuse, where the tumult raged and
Sometimes a wounded man brought us the latest news of the battle.
Between his groans, he described the incredible bombardment, the
obstinate resistance, the counter-attacks at the height of the
All these simple fellows ended their story with the same words,
surprising words at such a moment of suffering:
"They can't get through now. ...
Then they began to moan again.
During the terrible weeks of the battle, it was from the lips of
these tortured men that we heard the most amazing words of hope
and confidence, uttered between two cries of anguish.
The first night passed under this stress and pressure. The morning
found us face to face with labours still vast, but classified,
divided, and half determined.
A superior officer came to visit us. He seemed anxious.
"They have spotted you," he said. "I hope you mayn't have to work
upon each other. You will certainly be bombarded at noon."
We had forgotten this prophecy by the time it was fulfilled.
About noon, the air was rent by a screeching whistle, and some
dozen shells fell within the hospital enclosure, piercing one of
the buildings, but sparing the men. This was the beginning of an
irregular but almost continuous bombardment, which was not
specially directed against us, no doubt, but which threatened us
No cellars. Nothing but thin walls. The work went on.
On the third day a lull enabled us to complete our organisation.
The enemy was bombarding the town and the lines persistently. Our
artillery replied, shell for shell, in furious salvos; a sort of
thunderous wall rose around us which seemed to us like a rampart.
... The afflux of wounded had diminished. We had just received men
who had been fighting in the open country, as in the first days of
the war, but under a hail of projectiles hitherto reserved for the
destruction of fortresses. Our comrade D----arrived from the
battlefield on foot, livid, supporting his shattered elbow. He
stammered out a tragic story: his regiment had held its ground
under a surging tide of fire; thousands of huge shells had fallen
in a narrow ravine, and he had seen limbs hanging in the thicket,
a savage dispersal of human bodies. The men had held their ground,
and then had fought. ...
A quarter of an hour after his arrival D----, refreshed and
strengthened, was contemplating the big wound in his arm on the
operating table, and talking calmly of his ruined future. ...
Towards the evening of this day, we were able to go out of the
building, and breathe the unpolluted air for a few minutes.
The noise reigned supreme, as silence reigns elsewhere. We were
impregnated, almost intoxicated with it....
A dozen of those captive balloons which the soldiers call
"sausages" formed an aerial semi-circle and kept watch.
On the other side of the hills the German balloons also watched in
the purple mist to the East.
Night came, and the balloons remained faithfully at their posts.
We were in the centre of a circus of fire, woven by all the
lightnings of the cannonade. To the south-west, however, a black
breach opened, and one divined a free passage there towards the
interior of the country and towards silence. A few hundred feet
from us, a cross-road continually shelled by the enemy echoed to
the shock of projectiles battering the ground like hammers on an
anvil. We often found at our feet fragments of steel still hot,
which in the gloom seemed slightly phosphorescent.
From this day forth, a skilful combination of our hours and our
means enabled us to take short spells of rest in turn. However,
for a hundred reasons sleep was impossible to me, and for several
weeks I forgot what it was to slumber.
I used to retire, then, from time to time to the room set apart
for my friend V----and myself, and lie down on a bed, overcome by
a fatigue that verged on stupefaction; but the perpetual clatter
of sabots and shoes in the passage kept the mind alert and the
eyes open. The chorus of the wounded rose in gusts; there were
always in the adjoining wards some dozen men wounded in the head,
and suffering from meningitis, which provoked a kind of monotonous
howling; there were men wounded in the abdomen, and crying out for
the drink that was denied them; there were the men wounded in the
chest, and racked by a low cough choked with blood ... and all the
rest who lay moaning, hoping for an impossible repose. ...
Then I would get up and go back to work, haunted by the terrible
fear that excess of fatigue might have made my eye less keen, my
hand less steady than imperious duty required.
At night more especially, the bombardment was renewed, in
The air, rent by projectiles, mewed like a furious cat; the
detonations came closer, then retired methodically, like the
footsteps of a giant on guard around us, above us, upon us.
Every morning the orderlies took advantage of a moment of respite
to run and inspect the new craters, and unearth the fuses of
shells. ... I thought of the delightful phrase of assistant-
surgeon M----whom we had attended for a wound on the head, and
who said to me as I was taking him back to bed, and we heard the
explosions close by:
"Oh, the marmites (big shells) always fall short of one."
But to a great many of the wounded, the perpetual uproar was
intolerable. They implored us with tears to send them somewhere
else; those we kept were, as a fact, unable to bear removal; we
had to soothe them and keep them, in spite of everything. Some,
overcome by fatigue, slept all day; others showed extraordinary
indifference, perhaps due to a touch of delirium, like the man
with a wound in the abdomen which I was dressing one morning, and
who when he saw me turn my head at the sound of an explosion which
ploughed up a neighbouring field, assured me quietly that "those
things weren't dangerous."
One night a policeman ran in with his face covered with blood.
He was waving a lantern which he used to regulate the wheeled
traffic, and he maintained that the enemy had spotted his lamp and
had peppered him with bullets. As a fact, he had only some slight
scratches. He went off, washed and bandaged, but only to come back
to us the next day dead. A large fragment of iron had penetrated
There was an entrance ward, where we sorted the cases. Ten times a
day we thought we had emptied this reservoir of misery; but we
always found it full again, paved with muddy stretchers on which
men lay, panting and waiting.
Opposite to this ante-room was a clearing ward; it seemed less
dismal than the other, though it was just as bare, and not any
lighter; but the wounded there were clean; they had been operated
on, they wore white bandages, they had been comforted with hot
drinks and with all sorts of hopes, for they had already escaped
the first summons of Death.
Between these two rooms, a clerk lived in the draught, the victim
of an accumulation of indispensable and stupefying documents.
In the beginning, the same man sat for three days and three nights
chained to this ungrateful task until at last we saw him, his face
convulsed, almost mad after unremittingly labelling all this
suffering with names and figures.
The first days of March were chilly, with alternations of snow and
sunshine. When the air was pure, we heard it vibrate with the life
of aeroplanes and echo to their contests. The dry throb of
machine-guns, the incessant scream of shrapnel formed a kind of
crackling dome over our heads. The German aeroplanes overwhelmed
the environs with bombs which gave a prolonged whistle before
tearing up the soil or gutting a house. One fell a few paces from
the ward where I was operating on a man who had been wounded in
the head. I remember the brief glance I cast outwards and the
screams and headlong flight of the men standing under the windows.
One morning I saw an airship which was cruising over the hills of
the Meuse suddenly begin to trail after it, comet-wise, a thick
tail of black smoke, and then rush to the earth, irradiated by a
burst of flame, brilliant even in the daylight. And I thought of
the two men who were experiencing this fall.
The military situation improved daily, but the battle was no less
strenuous. The guns used by the enemy for the destruction of men
produced horrible wounds, certainly more severe on the whole than
those we had tended during the first twenty months of a war that
has been pitiless from its inception. All doctors must have noted
the hideous success achieved in a very short time, in perfecting
means of laceration. And we marvelled bitterly that man could
adventure his frail organism through the deflagrations of a
chemistry hardly disciplined as yet, which attains and surpasses
the brutality of the blind forces of Nature. We marvelled more
especially that flesh so delicate, the product and the producer of
harmony, could endure such shocks and such dilapidations without
Many men came to us with one or several limbs torn off completely,
yet they came still living .... Some had thirty or forty wounds,
and even more. We examined each body systematically, passing from
one sad discovery to another. They reminded us of those derelict
vessels which let in the water everywhere. And just because these
wrecks seemed irredeemably condemned to disaster, we clung to them
in the obstinate hope of bringing them into port and perhaps
floating them again.
When the pressure was greatest, it was impossible to undress the
men and get them washed properly before bringing them into the
operating-ward. The problem was in these cases to isolate the work
of the knife as far as possible from the surrounding mud, dirt and
vermin: I have seen soldiers so covered with lice that the
different parts of the dressings were invaded by them, and even
the wounds. The poor creatures apologised, as if they were in some
way to blame....
At such moments patients succeeded each other so rapidly that we
knew nothing of them beyond their wounds: the man was carried
away, still plunged in sleep; we had made all the necessary
decisions for him without having heard his voice or considered his
We avoided overcrowding by at once evacuating all those on whom we
had operated as soon as they were no longer in danger of
complications. We loaded them up on the ambulances which followed
one upon the other before the door. Some of the patients came back
a few minutes later, riddled with fragments of shell; the driver
had not succeeded in dodging the shells, and he was often wounded
himself. In like manner the stretcher-bearers as they passed along
the road were often hit themselves, and were brought in on their
One evening there was a "gas warning." Some gusts of wind arrived,
bearing along an acrid odour. All the wounded were given masks and
spectacles as a precaution. We hung them even on the heads of the
beds where dying men lay ... and then we waited. Happily, the wave
spent itself before it reached us.
A wounded man was brought in that evening with several injuries
caused by a gas-shell. His eyes had quite disappeared under his
swollen lids. His clothing was so impregnated with the poison that
we all began to cough and weep, and a penetrating odour of garlic
and citric acid hung about the ward for some time.
Many things we had perforce to leave to chance, and I thought,
during this alarm, of men just operated on, and plunged in the
stupor of the chloroform, whom we should have to allow to wake,
and then mask them immediately, or ...
Ah, well! ... in the midst of all this unimaginable tragedy,
laughter was not quite quenched. This phenomenon is perhaps one of
the characteristics, one of the greatnesses of our race--and in a
more general way, no doubt, it is an imperative need of humanity
Certain of the wounded took a pride in cracking jokes, and they
did so in words to which circumstances lent a poignant
picturesqueness. These jests drew a laugh from us which was often
closely akin to tears.
One morning, in the sorting room, I noticed a big, curly-haired
fellow who had lost a foot, and had all sorts of wounds and
fractures in both legs. All these had been hastily bound up,
clothing and all, in the hollow of the stretcher, which was stiff
with blood. When I called the stretcher-bearers and contemplated
this picture, the big man raised himself on his elbow and said:
"Please give me a cigarette."
Then he began to smoke, smiling cheerfully and telling absurd
stories. We took off one of his legs up to the thigh, and as soon
as he recovered consciousness, he asked for another cigarette, and
set all the orderlies laughing.
When, on leaving him, I asked this extraordinary man what his
calling was, he replied modestly:
"I am one of the employees of the Vichy Company."
The orderlies in particular, nearly all simple folks, had a desire
to laugh, even when they were worn out with fatigue, which made a
pretext of the slightest thing, and notably of danger. One of
them, called Tailleur, a buffoon with the airs of an executioner's
assistant, would call out at the first explosions of a hurricane
"Number your arms and legs! Look out for your nuts! The winkles
are tumbling about!"
All my little band would begin to laugh. And I had not the heart
to check them, for their faces were drawn with fatigue, and this
moment of doleful merriment at least prevented them from falling
asleep as they stood.
When the explosions came very close, this same Tailleur could not
"I am not going to be killed by a brick! I am going outside."
I would look at him with a smile, and he would repeat: "As for me,
I'm off," carefully rolling a bandage the while, which he did with
His mixture of terror and swagger was a perpetual entertainment to
us. One night, a hand-grenade fell out of the pocket of one of the
wounded. In defiance of orders, Tailleur, who knew nothing at all
about the handling of such things, turned it over and examined it
for some time, with comic curiosity and distrust.
One day a pig intended for our consumption was killed in the pig-
sty by fragments of shell. We ate it, and the finding by one of
the orderlies of some bits of metal in his portion of meat gave
occasion for a great many jests.
For a fortnight we were unable to go beyond the hospital
enclosure. Our longest expedition was to the piece of waste ground
which had been allotted to us for a burial ground, a domain the
shells were always threatening to plough up. This graveyard
increased considerably. As it takes a man eight hours to dig a
grave for his brother man, one had to set a numerous gang to work
all day, to ensure a place for each corpse.
Sometimes we went into the wooden shed which served as our
mortuary. Pere Duval, the oldest of our orderlies, sewed there all
day, making shrouds of coarse linen for "his dead."
They were laid in the earth carefully, side by side, their feet
together, their hands crossed on their breasts, when indeed they
still possessed hands and feet. ... Duval also looked after the
human debris, and gave it decent sepulture.
Thus our function was not only to tend the living, but also to
honour the dead. The care of what was magniloquently termed their
"estate" fell to our manager, S----. It was he who put into a
little canvas bag all the papers and small possessions found on
the victims. He devoted days and nights to a kind of funereal
bureaucracy, inevitable even under the fire of the enemy. His
occupation, moreover, was not exempt from moral difficulties. Thus
he found in the pocket of one dead man a woman's card which it was
impossible to send on to his family, and in another case, a
collection of songs of such a nature that after due deliberation
it was decided to burn them.
Let us purify the memories of our martyrs!
We had several German wounded to attend. One of these, whose leg I
had to take off, overwhelmed me with thanks in his native tongue;
he had lain for six days on ground over which artillery played
unceasingly, and contemplated his return to life and the care
bestowed on him with a kind of stupefaction.
Another, who had a shattered arm, gave us a good deal of trouble
by his amazing uncleanliness. Before giving him the anaesthetic,
the orderly took from his mouth a set of false teeth, which he
confessed he had not removed for several months, and which exhaled
an unimaginable stench.
I remember, too, a little fair-haired chap of rather chilly
demeanour, who suddenly said "Good-bye" to me with lips that
quivered like those of a child about to cry.
The interpreter from Headquarters, my friend C----, came to see
them all as soon as they had got over their stupor, and
interrogated them with placid patience, comparing all their
statements in order to glean some trustworthy indication.
Thus days and nights passed by in ceaseless toil, under a
perpetual menace, in the midst of an ever-growing fatigue which
gave things the substance and aspects they take on in a nightmare.
The very monotony of this existence was made up of a thousand
dramatic details, each of which would have been an event in normal
life. I still see, as through the mists of a dream, the orderly of
a dying captain sobbing at his bedside and covering his hands with
kisses. I still hear the little lad whose life blood had ebbed
away, saying to me in imploring tones: "Save me, Doctor! Save me
for my mother!" ... and I think a man must have heard such words
in such a place to understand them aright, I think that every day
this man must gain a stricter, a more precise, a more pathetic
idea of suffering and of death.
One Sunday evening, the bombardment was renewed with extraordinary
violence. We had just sent off General S----, who was smoking on
his stretcher, and chatting calmly and cheerfully; I was operating
on an infantryman who had deep wounds in his arms and thighs.
Suddenly there was a great commotion. A hurricane of shells fell
upon the hospital. I heard a crash which shook the ground and the
walls violently, then hurried footsteps and cries in the passage.
I looked at the man sleeping and breathing heavily, and I almost
envied his forgetfulness of all things, the dissolution of his
being in a darkness so akin to liberating death. My task
completed, I went out to view the damage.
A shell had fallen on an angle of the building, blowing in the
windows of three wards, scattering stones in all directions, and
riddling walls and ceilings with large fragments of metal. The
wounded were moaning, shrouded in acrid smoke. They were lying so
close to the ground that they had been struck only by plaster and
splinters of glass; but the shock had been so great that nearly
all of them died within the following hour.
The next day it was decided that we should change our domicile,
and we made ready to carry off our wounded and remove our hospital
to a point rather more distant. It was a very clear day. In front
of us, the main road was covered with men, whom motor vehicles
were depositing in groups every minute. We were finishing our
final operations and looking out occasionally at these men
gathered in the sun, on the slopes and in the ditches. At about
one o'clock in the afternoon the air was rent by the shriek of
high explosives and some shells fell in the midst of the groups.
We saw them disperse through the yellowish smoke, and go to lie
down a little farther off in the fields. Some did not even stir.
Stretcher-bearers came up at once, running across the meadow, and
brought us two dead men, and nine wounded, who were laid on the
As we tended them during the following hour we looked anxiously at
the knots of men who remained in the open, and gradually
increased, and we asked whether they would not soon go. But there
they stayed, and again we heard the dull growl of the discharge,
then the whistling overhead, and the explosions of some dozen
shells falling upon the men. Crowding to the window, we watched
the massacre, and waited to receive the victims. My colleague M----
drew my attention to a soldier who was running up the grassy
slope on the other side of the road, and whom the shells seemed to
These were the last wounded we received in the suburb of G----.
Three hours afterwards, we took up the same life and the same
labours again, some way off, for many weeks more. ...
Thus things went on, until the day when we, in our turn, were
carried off by the automobiles of the Grand' Route, and landed on
the banks of a fair river in a village where there were trees in
blossom, and where the next morning we were awakened by the sound
of bells and the voices of women.
We had had all the windows opened. From their beds, the wounded
could see, through the dancing waves of heat, the heights of Berru
and Nogent l'Abbesse, the towers of the Cathedral, still crouching
like a dying lion in the middle of the plain of Reims, and the
chalky lines of the trenches intersecting the landscape.
A kind of torpor seemed to hang over the battle-field. Sometimes,
a perpendicular column of smoke rose up, in the motionless
distance, and the detonation reached us a little while afterwards,
as if astray, and ashamed of outraging the radiant silence.
It was one of the fine days of the summer of 1915, one of those
days when the supreme indifference of Nature makes one feel the
burden of war more cruelly, when the beauty of the sky seems to
proclaim its remoteness from the anguish of the human heart.
We had finished our morning round when an ambulance drew up at the
"Doctor on duty!"
I went down the steps. The chauffeur explained:
"There are three slightly wounded men. I am going to take on
further, and then there are some severely wounded ..."
He opened the back of his car. On one side three soldiers were
seated, dozing. On the other, there were stretchers, and I saw the
feet of the men lying upon them. Then, from the depths of the
vehicle came a low, grave, uncertain voice which said:
"I am one of the severely wounded, Monsieur."
He was a lad rather than a man. He had a little soft down on his
chin, a well-cut aquiline nose, dark eyes to which extreme
weakness gave an appearance of exaggerated size, and the grey
pallor of those who have lost much blood.
"Oh! how tired I am!" he said.
He held on to the stretcher with both hands as he was carried up
the steps. He raised his head a little, gave a glance full of
astonishment, distress, and lassitude at the green trees, the
smiling hills, the glowing horizon, and then he found himself
inside the house.
Here begins the story of Gaston Leglise. It is a modest story and
a very sad story; but indeed, are there any stories now in the
world that are not sad?
I will tell it day by day, as we lived it, as it is graven in my
memory, and as it is graven in your memory and in your flesh, my
Leglise only had a whiff of chloroform, and he fell at once into a
sleep closely akin to death.
"Let us make haste," said the head doctor. "We shall have the poor
boy dying on the table."
Then he shook his head, adding:
"Both knees! Both knees! What a future!"
The burden of experience is a sorrowful one. It is always
sorrowful to have sufficient memory to discern the future.
Small splinters from a grenade make very little wounds in a man's
legs; but great disorders may enter by way of those little wounds,
and the knee is such a complicated, delicate marvel!
Corporal Leglise is in bed now. He breathes with difficulty, and
catches his breath now and again like a person who has been
sobbing. He looks about him languidly, and hardly seems to have
made up his mind to live. He contemplates the bottle of serum, the
tubes, the needles, all the apparatus set in motion to revive his
fluttering heart, and he seems bowed down by grief. He wants
something to drink, but he must not have anything yet; he wants to
sleep, but we have to deny sleep to those who need it most; he
wants to die perhaps, and we will not let him.
He sees again the listening post where he spent the night, in
advance of all his comrades. He sees again the narrow doorway
bordered by sandbags through which he came out at dawn to breathe
the cold air and look at the sky from the bottom of the
communication-trench. All was quiet, and the early summer morning
was sweet even in the depths of the trench. But some one was
watching and listening for the faint sound of his footsteps. An
invisible hand hurled a bomb. He rushed back to the door; but his
pack was on his back, and he was caught in the aperture like a rat
in a trap. The air was rent by the detonation, and his legs were
rent, like the pure air, like the summer morning, like the lovely
The days pass, and once more, the coursing blood begins to make
the vessels of the neck throb, to tinge the lips, and give depth
and brilliance to the eye.
Death, which had overrun the whole body like an invader, retired,
yielding ground by degrees; but it has halted now, and makes a
stand at the legs; these it will not relinquish; it demands
something by way of spoil; it will not be baulked of its prey
We fight for the portion Death has chosen. The wounded Corporal
looks on at our labours and our efforts, like a poor man who has
placed his cause in the hands of a knight, and who can only be a
spectator of the combat, can only pray and wait.
We shall have to give the monster a share; one of the legs must
go. Now another struggle begins with the man himself. Several
times a day I go and sit by his bed. All our attempts at
conversation break down one by one. We always end in the same
silence and anxiety. To-day Leglise said to me:
"Oh! I know quite well what you're thinking about!"
As I made no answer, he intreated:
"Perhaps we could wait a little longer? Perhaps to-morrow I may be
Then suddenly, in great confusion:
"Forgive me. I do trust you all. I know what you do is necessary.
But perhaps it will not be too late in two or three days. ..."
Two or three days! We will see to-morrow.
The nights are terribly hot; I suffer for his sake.
I come to see him in the evening for the last time, and encourage
him to sleep. But his eyes are wide open in the night and I feel
that they are anxiously fixed on mine.
Fever makes his voice tremble.
"How can I sleep with all the things I am thinking about?"
Then he adds faintly:
"Must you? Must you?"
The darkness gives me courage, and I nod my head: "Yes!"
As I finish his dressings, I speak from the depths of my heart:
"Leglise, we will put you to sleep to-morrow. We will make an
examination without letting you suffer, and we will do what is
"I know quite well that you will take it off."
"We shall do what we must do."
I divine that the corners of his mouth are drawn down a little,
and that his lips are quivering. He thinks aloud:
"If only the other leg was all right!"
I have been thinking of that too, but I pretend not to have heard.
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
I spend part of the afternoon sewing pieces of waterproof stuff
together. He asks me:
"What are you doing?"
"I am making you a mask, to give you ether."
"Thank you; I can't bear the smell of chloroform."
I answer "Yes, that's why." The real reason is that we are not
sure he could bear the brutal chloroform, in his present state.
Leglise's leg was taken off at the thigh this morning. He was
still unconscious when we carried him into the dark room to
examine his other leg under the X-rays.
He was already beginning to moan and to open his eyes, and the
radiographer was not hurrying. I did all I could to hasten the
business, and to get him back into his bed. Thus he regained
consciousness in bright sunshine.
What would he, who once again was so close to the dark kingdom,
have thought if he had awakened in a gloom peopled by shadows,
full of whisperings, sparks and flashes of light?
As soon as he could speak, he said to me:
"You have cut off my leg?"
I made a sign. His eyes filled, and as his head was low, the great
tears trickled on to the pillow.
To-day he is calmer. The first dressings were very painful. He
looked at the raw, bloody, oozing stump, trembling, and said:
"It looks pretty horrible!"
We took so many precautions that now he is refreshed for a few
"They say you are to have the Military Medal," the head doctor
Leglise confided to me later, with some hesitation:
"I don't suppose they would really give me the medal!"
"And why not?"
"I was punished; one of my men had some buttons off his overcoat."
Oh, my friend, scrupulous lad, could I love my countrymen if they
could remember those wretched buttons for an instant?
"My men!" he said gravely. I look at his narrow chest, his thin
face, his boyish forehead with the serious furrow on it of one who
accepts all responsibilities, and I do not know how to show him my
respect and affection.
Leglise's fears were baseless. General G----arrived just now. I
met him on the terrace. His face pleased me. It was refined and
"I have come to see Corporal Leglise," he said.
I took him into the ward, full of wounded men, and he at once went
towards Leglise unhesitatingly, as if he knew him perfectly.
"How are you?" he asked, taking the young man's hand.
"Mon General, they've cut off my leg ..."
"Yes, yes, I know, my poor fellow. And I have brought you the
He pinned it on to Leglise's shirt, and kissed my friend on both
cheeks, simply and affectionately.
Then he talked to him again for a few minutes.
I was greatly pleased. Really, this General is one of the right
The medal has been wrapped in a bit of muslin, so that the flies
may not soil it, and hung on the wall over the bed. It seems to be
watching over the wounded man, to be looking on at what is
happening. Unfortunately, what it sees is sad enough. The right
leg, the only leg, is giving us trouble now. The knee is diseased,
it is in a very bad state, and all we have done to save it seems
to have been in vain. Then a sore has appeared on the back, and
then another sore. Every morning, we pass from one misery to
another, telling the beads of suffering in due order.
So a man does not die of pain, or Leglise would certainly be dead.
I see him still, opening his eyes desperately and checking the
scream that rises to his lips. Oh! I thought indeed that he was
going to die. But his agony demands full endurance; it does not
even stupefy those it assails.
I call on every one for help.
"Genest, Barrassin, Prevot, come, all of you."
Yes, let ten of us do our best if necessary, to support Leglise,
to hold him, to soothe him. A minute of his endurance is equal to
ten years of such effort as ours.
Alas! were there a hundred of us he would still have to bear the
heaviest burden alone.
All humanity at this hour is bearing a very cruel burden. Every
minute aggravates its sufferings, and will no one, no one come to
We made an examination of the wounded man, together with our
chief, who muttered almost inaudibly between his teeth:
"He must be prepared for another sacrifice."
Yes, the sacrifice is not yet entirely consummated.
But Leglise understood. He no longer weeps. He has the weary and
somewhat bewildered look of the man who is rowing against the
storm. I steal a look at him, and he says at once in a clear,
calm, resolute voice:
"I would much rather die."
I go into the garden. It is a brilliant morning, but I can see
nothing, I want to see nothing. I repeat as I walk to and fro:
"He would much rather die."
And I ask despairingly whether he is not right perhaps.
All the poplars rustle softly. With one voice, the voice of Summer
itself, they say: "No! No! He is not right!"
A little beetle crosses the path before me. I step on it
unintentionally, but it flies away in desperate haste. It too has
answered in its own way: "No, really, your friend is not right."
"Tell him he is wrong," sing the swarm of insects that buzz about
And even a loud roar from the guns that travels across the
landscape seems to say gruffly: "He is wrong! He is wrong!"
During the evening the chief came back to see Leglise, who said to
him with the same mournful gravity:
"No, I won't, Monsieur, I would rather die."
We go down into the garden, and the chief says a strange thing to
"Try to convince him. I begin at last to feel ashamed of demanding
such a sacrifice from him."
And I too ... am I not ashamed?
I consult the warm, star-decked night; I am quite sure now that he
is wrong, but I don't know how to tell him so. What can I offer
him in exchange for the thing I am about to ask him? Where shall I
find the words that induce a man to live? Oh you, all things
around me, tell me, repeat to me that it is sweet to live, even
with a body so grievously mutilated.
This morning I extracted a little projectile from one of his
wounds. He secretly concluded that this would perhaps make the
great operation unnecessary, and it hurt me to see his joy. I
could not leave him this satisfaction.
The struggle began again; this time it was desperate. For we have
no time to lose. Every hour of delay exhausts our man further. A
few days more, and there will be no choice open to him: only
death, after a long ordeal. ...
"I am not afraid, but I would rather die."
Then I talk to him as if I were the advocate of Life. Who gave me
this right? Who gave me eloquence? The things I said were just the
right things, and they came so readily that now and then I was
afraid of holding out so sure a promise of a life I am not certain
I can preserve, of guaranteeing a future that is not in man's
Gradually, I feel his resistance weakening. There is something in
Leglise which involuntarily sides with me and pleads with me.
There are moments when he does not know what to say, and
formulates trivial objections, just because there are others so
"I live with my mother," he says. "I am twenty years old. What
work is there for a cripple? Ought I to live to suffer poverty and
"Leglise, all France owes you too much, she would blush not to pay
And I promise again, in the name of our country, sure that she
will never fall short of what I undertake for her. The whole
French nation is behind me at this moment, silently ratifying my
We are at the edge of the terrace; evening has come. I hold his
burning wrist in which the feeble pulse beats with exhausted fury.
The night is so beautiful, so beautiful! Rockets rise above the
hills, and fall slowly bathing the horizon in silvery rays. The
lightning of the guns flashes furtively, like a winking eye. In
spite of all this, in spite of war, the night is like waters dark
and divine. Leglise breathes it in to his wasted breast in long
draughts, and says:
"Oh, I don't know, I don't know! ... Wait another day, please,
We waited three whole days, and then Leglise gave in. "Well, do
what you must. Do what you like."
On the morning of the operation, he asked to be carried down to
the ward by the steps into the park. I went with him, and I saw
him looking at all things round him, as if taking them to witness.
If only, only it is not too late!
Again he was laid on the table. Again we cut through flesh and
bones. The second leg was amputated at the thigh.
I took him in my arms to lay him on his bed, and he was so light,
This time when he woke he asked no question. But I saw his hands
groping to feel where his body ended.
A few days have passed since the operation. We have done all it
was humanly possible to do, and Leglise comes back to life with a
kind of bewilderment.
"I thought I should have died," he said to me this morning, while
I was encouraging him to eat.
"When I went down to the operation-ward, I looked well at
everything, and I thought it was for the last time."
"Look, dear boy. Everything is just the same, just as beautiful as
"Oh!" he says, going back to his memories, "I had made up my mind
To make up one's mind to die is to take a certain resolution, in
the hope of becoming quieter, calmer, and less unhappy. The man
who makes up his mind to die severs a good many ties, and indeed
actually dies to some extent.
With secret anxiety, I say gently, as if I were asking a question:
"It is always good to eat, to drink, to breathe, to see the light.
He does not answer. He is dreaming. I spoke too soon. I go away,
We have some bad moments yet, but the fever gradually abates. I
have an impression that Leglise bears his pain more resolutely,
like one who has given all he had to give, and fears nothing
When I have finished the dressing, I turned him over on his side,
to ease his sore back. He smiled for the first time this morning,
"I have already gained something by getting rid of my legs. I can
lie on my side now."
But he cannot balance himself well; he is afraid of falling.
Think of him, and you will be afraid with him and for him.
Sometimes he goes to sleep in broad daylight and dozes for a few
minutes. He has shrunk to the size of a child. I lay a piece of
gauze over his face, as one does to a child, to keep the flies
off. I bring him a little bottle of Eau de Cologne and a fan, they
help him to bear the final assaults of the fever.
He begins to smoke again. We smoke together on the terrace, where
I have had his bed brought. I show him the garden and say: "In a
few days, I will carry you down into the garden."
He is anxious about his neighbours, asks their names, and
inquires about their wounds. For each one he has a compassionate
word that comes from the depths of his being. He says to me:
"I hear that little Camus is dead. Poor Camus!"
His eyes fill with tears. I was almost glad to see them. He had
not cried for so long. He adds:
"Excuse me, I used to see Camus sometimes. It's so sad."
He becomes extraordinarily sensitive. He is touched by all he sees
around him, by the sufferings of others, by their individual
misfortunes. He vibrates like an elect soul, exalted by a great
When he speaks of his own case, it is always to make light of his
"Dumont got it in the belly. Ah, it's lucky for me that none of my
organs are touched; I can't complain."
I watch him with admiration, but I am waiting for something more,
something more. ...
His chief crony is Legrand.
Legrand is a stonemason with a face like a young girl. He has lost
a big piece of his skull. He has also lost the use of language,
and we teach him words, as to a baby. He is beginning to get up
now, and he hovers round Leglise's bed to perform little services
for him. He tries to master his rebellious tongue, but failing in
the attempt, he smiles, and expresses himself with a limpid
glance, full of intelligence.
Leglise pities him too:
"It must be wretched not to be able to speak."
To-day we laughed, yes, indeed, we laughed heartily, Leglise, the
orderlies and I.
We were talking of his future pension while the dressings were
being prepared, and someone said to him:
"You will live like a little man of means."
Leglise looked at his body and answered:
"Oh, yes, a little man, a very little man."
The dressing went off very well. To make our task easier, Leglise
suggested that he should hold on to the head of the bed with both
hands and throw himself back on his shoulders, holding his stumps
up in the air. It was a terrible, an unimaginable sight; but he
began to laugh, and the spectacle became comic. We all laughed.
But the dressing was easy and was quickly finished.
The stumps are healing healthily. In the afternoon, he sits up in
bed. He begins to read and to smoke, chatting to his companions.
I explain to him how he will be able to walk with artificial legs.
He jokes again:
"I was rather short before; but now I can be just the height I
I bring him some cigarettes that had been sent me for him, some
sweets and dainties. He makes a sign that he wants to whisper to
me, and says very softly:
"I have far too many things. But Legrand is very badly off; his
home is in the invaded district, and he has nothing, they can't
send him anything."
I understand. I come back presently with a packet in which there
are tobacco, some good cigarettes, and also a little note. ...
"Here is something for Legrand. You must give it to him. I'm off."
In the afternoon I find Leglise troubled and perplexed.
"I can't give all this to Legrand myself, he would be offended."
So then we have to devise a discreet method of presentation.
It takes some minutes. He invents romantic possibilities. He
becomes flushed, animated, interested.
"Think," I say, "find a way. Give it to him yourself, from some
one or other."
But Leglise is too much afraid of wounding Legrand's
susceptibilities. He ruminates on the matter till evening.
The little parcel is at the head of Legrand's bed. Leglise calls
my attention to it with his chin, and whispers:
"I found some one to give it to him. He doesn't know who sent it.
He has made all sorts of guesses; it is very amusing!" Oh,
Leglise, can it be that there is still something amusing, and that
it is to be kind? Isn't this alone enough to make it worth while
So now we have a great secret between us. All the morning, as I
come and go in the ward, he looks at me meaningly, and smiles to
himself. Legrand gravely offers me a cigarette; Leglise finds it
hard not to burst out laughing. But he keeps his counsel.
The orderlies have put him on a neighbouring bed while they make
his. He stays there very quietly, his bandaged stumps in view, and
sings a little song, like a child's cradle-song. Then, all of a
sudden, he begins to cry, sobbing aloud.
I put my arm round him and ask anxiously: "Why? What is the
Then he answers in a broken voice: "I am crying with joy and
Oh! I did not expect so much. But I am very happy, much comforted.
I kiss him, he kisses me, and I think I cried a little too.
I have wrapped him in a flannel dressing-gown, and I carry him in
my arms. I go down the steps to the park very carefully, like a
mother carrying her new-born babe for the first time, and I call
out: "An arm-chair! An arm-chair."
He clings to my neck as I walk, and says in some confusion:
"I shall tire you."
No indeed! I am too well pleased. I would not let any one take my
place. The arm-chair has been set under the trees, near a grove. I
deposit Leglise among the cushions. They bring him a kepi. He
breathes the scent of green things, of the newly mown lawns, of
the warm gravel. He looks at the facade of the mansion, and says:
"I had not even seen the place where I very nearly died."
All the wounded who are walking about come and visit him; they
almost seem to be paying him homage. He talks to them with a
cordial authority. Is he not the chief among them, in virtue of
his sufferings and his sacrifice?
Some one in the ward was talking this morning of love and
marriage, and a home.
I glanced at Leglise now and then; he seemed to be dreaming and he
"Oh, for me, now..."
Then I told him something I knew: I know young girls who have
sworn to marry only a mutilated man. Well, we must believe in the
vows of these young girls. France is a country richer in warmth of
heart than in any other virtue. It is a blessed duty to give
happiness to those who have sacrificed so much. And a thousand
hearts, the generous hearts of women, applaud me at this moment.
Leglise listens, shaking his head. He does not venture to say
Leglise has not only the Military Medal, but also the War Cross.
The notice has just come. He reads it with blushes.
"I shall never dare to show this," he says; "it is a good deal
He hands me the paper, which states, in substance, that Corporal
Leglise behaved with great gallantry under a hail of bombs, and
that his left leg has been amputated.
"I didn't behave with great gallantry," he says; "I was at my
post, that's all. As to the bombs, I only got one."
I reject this point of view summarily.
"Wasn't it a gallant act to go to that advanced post, so near the
enemy, all alone, at the head of all the Frenchmen? Weren't they
all behind you, to the very end of the country, right away to the
Pyrenees? Did they not all rely on your coolness, your keen sight,
your vigilance? You were only hit by one bomb, but I think you
might have had several, and still be with us. And besides, the
notice, far from being exaggerated, is really insufficient; it
says you have lost a leg, whereas you have lost two! It seems to
me that this fully compensates for anything excessive with regard
to the bombs."
"That's true!" agrees Leglise, laughing. "But I don't want to be
made out a hero."
"My good lad, people won't ask what you think before they
appreciate and honour you. It will be quite enough to look at your
Then we had to part, for the war goes on, and every day there are
Leglise left us nearly cured. He left with some comrades, and he
was not the least lively of the group.
"I was the most severely wounded man in the train," he wrote to
me, not without a certain pride.
Since then, Leglise has written to me often. His letters breathe a
contented calm. I receive them among the vicissitudes of the
campaign; on the highways, in wards where other wounded men are
moaning, in fields scoured by the gallop of the cannonade.
And always something beside me murmurs, mutely:
"You see, you see, he was wrong when he said he would rather die."
I am convinced of it, and this is why I have told your story. You
will forgive me, won't you, Leglise, my friend?
THE THIRD SYMPHONY
Every morning the stretcher-bearers brought Vize-Feldwebel Spat
down to the dressing ward, and his appearance always introduced a
certain chill in the atmosphere.
There are some German wounded whom kind treatment, suffering, or
some more obscure agency move to composition with the enemy, and
who receive what we do for them with a certain amount of
gratitude. Spat was not one of these. For weeks we had made
strenuous efforts to snatch him from death, and then to alleviate
his sufferings, without eliciting the slightest sign of
satisfaction from him, or receiving the least word of thanks.
He could speak a little French, which he utilised strictly for his
material wants, to say, for instance, "A little more cotton-wool
under the foot, Monsieur," or, "Have I any fever to-day?"
Apart from this, he always showed us the same icy face, the same
pale, hard eyes, enframed by colourless lashes. We gathered, from
certain indications, that the man was intelligent and well
educated; but he was obviously under the domination of a lively
hatred, and a strict sense of his own dignity.
He bore pain bravely, and like one who makes it a point of honour
to repress the most excusable reactions of the martyred flesh. I
do not remember ever hearing him cry out, though this would have
seemed to me natural enough, and would by no means have lowered
Monsieur Spat in my opinion. All I ever heard from him was a
stifled moan, the dull panting of the woodman as he swings his
One day we were obliged to give him an anaesthetic in order to
make incisions in the wounds in his leg; he turned very red and
said, in a tone that was almost imploring: "You won't cut it off,
gentlemen, will you?" But no sooner did he regain consciousness
than he at once resumed his attitude of stiff hostility.
After a time, I ceased to believe mat his features could ever
express anything but this repressed animosity. I was undeceived by
an unforeseen incident.
The habit of whistling between one's teeth is a token, with me as
with many other persons, of a certain absorption. It is perhaps
rather a vulgar habit, but I often feel impelled to whistle,
especially when I have a serious piece of work in hand.
One morning accordingly, I was finishing Vize-Feldwebel Spat's
dressing, and whistling something at random. I was looking at his
leg, and was paying no attention to his face, when I suddenly
became curiously aware that the look he had fixed upon me had
changed in quality, and I raised my eyes.
Certainly, something very extraordinary had taken place: the
German's face glowed with a kind of warmth and contentment, and
was so smiling and radiant that I hardly recognised it. I could
scarcely believe that he had been able to improvise this face,
which was sensitive and trustful, out of the features he generally
"Tell me, Monsieur," he murmured, "it's the Third Symphony, isn't
it, that you are ... what do you call it?--yes ... whistling."
First, I stopped whistling. Then I answered: "Yes, I believe it is
the Third Symphony"; then I remained silent and confused.
A slender bridge had just been flung across the abyss.
The thing lasted for a few seconds, and I was still dreaming of it
when once more I felt an icy, irrevocable shadow falling upon me--
the hostile glance of Herr Spat.
It is a common saying that all men are equal in the presence of
suffering, but I know very well that this is not true.
Auger! Auger! humble basket-maker of La Charente, who are you, you
who seem able to suffer without being unhappy? Why are you touched
with grace, whereas Gregoire is not? Why are you the prince of a
world in which Gregoire is merely a pariah?
Kind ladies who pass through the wards where the wounded lie, and
give them cigarettes and sweet-meats, come with me.
We will go through the large ward on the first floor, where the
windows are caressed by the boughs of chestnut-trees. I will not
point out Auger, you will give him the lion's share of the
cigarettes and sweets of your own accord; but if I don't point out
Gregoire, you will leave without, noticing him, and he will get no
sweets, and will have nothing to smoke.
It is not because of this that I call Gregoire a pariah. It is
because of a much sadder and more intimate thing ... Gregoire
lacks endurance, he is not what we call a good patient.
In a general way those who tend the wounded call the men who do
not give them much trouble "good patients." Judged by this
standard, every one in the hospital will tell you that Gregoire is
not a good patient.
All day long, he lies on his left side, because of his wound, and
stares at the wall. I said to him a day or two after he came:
"I am going to move you and put you over in the other corner;
there you will be able to see your comrades."
He answered, in his dull, surly voice:
"It's not worth while. I'm all right here."
"But you can see nothing but the wall."
"That's quite enough."
Scarcely have the stretcher-bearers touched his bed, when Gregoire
begins to cry out in a doleful, irritable tone:
"Ah! don't shake me like that! Ah, you mustn't touch me."
The stretcher-bearers I give him are very gentle fellows, and he
always has the same: Paffin, a fat shoe-maker with a stammer, and
Monsieur Bouin, a professor of mathematics, with a grey beard and
very precise movements.
They take hold of Gregoire most carefully to lay him on the
stretcher. The wounded man criticises all their movements
"Ah! don't turn me over like that. And you must hold my leg better
The sweat breaks out on Baffin's face. Monsieur Bouin's eye-
glasses fall off. At last they bring the patient along.
As soon as he comes into the dressing ward, Gregoire is pale and
perspiring. His harsh tawny beard quivers, hair by hair. I divine
all this, and say a few words of encouragement to him from afar.
"I shan't be long with you this morning, Gregoire. You won't have
time to say 'oof'!"
He preserves a sulky silence, full of reservations. He looks like
a condemned criminal awaiting execution. He is so pre-occupied
that he does not even answer when the sarcastic Sergeant says as
he passes him:
"Ah! here's our grouser."
At last he is laid on the table which the wounded men call the
Then, things become very trying. I feel at once that whatever I
do, Gregoire will suffer. I uncover the wound in his thigh, and he
screams. I wash the wound carefully, and he screams. I probe the
wound, from which I remove small particles of bone, very gently,
and he utters unimaginable yells. I see his tongue trembling in
his open mouth. His hands tremble in the hands that hold them, I
have an impression that every fibre of his body trembles, that the
raw flesh of the wound trembles and retracts. In spite of my
determination, this misery affects me, and I wonder whether I too
shall begin to tremble sympathetically. I say:
"Try to be patient, my poor Gregoire."
He replies in a voice hoarse with pain and terror: "I can't help
I add, just to say something: "Courage, a little courage."
He does not even answer, and I feel that to exhort him to show
courage, is to recommend an impossible thing, as if I were to
advise him to have black eyes instead of his pale blue ones.
The dressing is completed in an atmosphere of general discomfort.
Nothing could persuade me that Gregoire does not cordially detest
me at this moment. While they are carrying him away, I ask myself
bitterly why Gregoire is so deficient in grace, why he cannot
The Sergeant says, as he sponges the table: "He's working against
one all the time." Well, the Sergeant is wrong. Gregoire is not
deliberately hostile. Sometimes I divine, when he knits his brows,
that he is making an effort to resist suffering, to meet it with a
stouter and more cheerful heart. But he does not know how to set
If you were asked to lift a railway-engine, you would perhaps make
an effort; but you would do so without confidence and without
success. So you must not say hard things of Gregoire.
Gregoire is unable to bear suffering, just as one is unable to
talk an unknown language. And, then, it is easier to learn Chinese
than to learn the art of suffering.
When I say that he is unable to bear suffering, I really mean that
he has to suffer a great deal more than others. ... I know the
human body, and I cannot be deceived as to certain signs.
Gregoire begins very badly. He reminds one of those children who
have such a terror of dogs that they are bound to be bitten.
Gregoire trembles at once. The dogs of pain throw themselves upon
this defenceless man and pull him down.
A great load of misery is heavy for a man to bear alone, but it is
supportable when he is helped. Unfortunately Gregoire has no
friends. He does nothing to obtain them, it almost seems as if he
did not want any.
He is not coarse, noisy and foul-mouthed, like the rascal Groult
who amuses the whole ward. He is only dull and reserved.
He does not often say "Thank you" when he is offered something,
and many touchy people take offence at this.
When I sit down by his bed, he gives no sign of any pleasure at my
visit. I ask him:
"What was your business in civil life?"
He does not answer immediately. At last he says: "Odd jobs; I
carried and loaded here and there."
"Are you married?"
"Have you any children?"
The conversation languishes. I get up and say: "Good-bye till to-
"Ah! you will hurt me again to-morrow."
I reassure him, or at least I try to reassure him. Then, that I
may not go away leaving a bad impression, I ask:
"How did you get wounded?"
"Well, down there in the plain, with the others. ..."
That is all. I go away. Gregoire's eyes follow me for a moment,
and I cannot even say whether he is pleased or annoyed by my
Good-bye, poor Gregoire. I cross the ward and go to sit down by
Auger is busy writing up his "book."
It is a big ledger some one has given him, in which he notes the
important events of his life.
Auger writes a round schoolboy hand. In fact, he can just write
sufficiently well for his needs, I might almost say for his
"Would you care to look at my book?" he says, and he hands it to
me with the air of a man who has no secrets.
Auger receives many letters, and he copies them out carefully,
especially when they are fine letters, full of generous
sentiments. His lieutenant, for instance, wrote him a remarkable
He also copies into his book the letters he writes to his wife and
his little girl. Then he notes the incidents of the day: "Wound
dressed at 10 o'clock. The pus is diminishing. After dinner Madame