Part 3 out of 3
la Princesse Moreau paid us a visit, and distributed caps all
round; I got a fine green one. The little chap who had such a bad
wound in the belly died at 2 o'clock. ..."
Auger closes his book and puts it back under his bolster.
He has a face that it does one good to look at. His complexion is
warm and fresh; his hair stiff and rather curly. He has a youthful
moustache, a well-shaped chin, with a lively dimple in the middle,
and eyes which seem to be looking out on a smiling landscape, gay
with sunshine and running waters.
"I am getting on splendidly," he says with great satisfaction.
"Would you like to see Mariette?"
He lifts up the sheet, and I see the apparatus in which we have
placed the stump of his leg. It makes a kind of big white doll,
which he takes in both hands with a laugh, and to which he has
given the playful name of "Mariette."
Auger was a sapper in the Engineers. A shell broke his thigh and
tore off his foot. But as the foot was still hanging by a strip of
flesh, Auger took out his pocket-knife, and got rid of it. Then he
said to his terror-stricken comrades: "Well, boys, that's all
right. It might have been worse. Now carry me somewhere out of
"Did you suffer terribly?" I asked him.
"Well, Monsieur, not as much as you might think. Honestly, it did
not hurt so very, very much. Afterwards, indeed, the pain was
I understand why every one is fond of Auger. It is because he is
reassuring. Seeing him and listening to him one opines that
suffering is not such a horrible thing after all. Those who live
far from the battle-field, and visit hospitals to get a whiff of
the war, look at Auger and go away well satisfied with everything:
current events, him, and themselves. They are persuaded that the
country is well defended, that our soldiers are brave, and that
wounds and mutilations, though they may be serious things, are not
Yet pain has come to Auger as to the rest. But there is a way of
He suffers in an enlightened, intelligent, almost methodical
fashion. He does not confuse issues, and complain
indiscriminately. Even when in the hands of others, he remains the
man who had the courage to cut off his own foot, and finish the
work of the shrapnel. He is too modest and respectful to give
advice to the surgeon, but he offers him valuable information.
"Just there you are against the bone, it hurts me very much. Ah!
there you can scrape, I don't feel it much. Take care! You're
pressing rather too hard. All right: you can go on, I see what
it's for. ..."
And this is how we work together.
"What are you doing? Ah, you're washing it. I like that. It does
me good. Good blood! Rub a little more just there. You don't know
how it itches. Oh! if you're going to put the tube in, you must
tell me, that I may hold on tight to the table."
So the work gets on famously. Auger will make a rapid and
excellent recovery. With him, one need never hesitate to do what
is necessary. I wanted to give him an anaesthetic before scraping
the bone of his leg. He said:
"I don't suppose it will be a very terrible business. If you don't
mind, don't send me to sleep, but just do what is necessary. I
will see to the rest."
True, he could not help making a few grimaces. Then the Sergeant
said to him:
"Would you like to learn the song of the grunting pigs?"
"How does your song go?"
The Sergeant begins in a high, shrill voice:
Quand en passant dedans la plai-ai-ne
On entend les cochons ...
Cela prouve d'une facon certai-ai-ne
Qu'ils non pas l'trooo du ... bouche.
Auger begins to laugh; everybody laughs. And meanwhile we are
bending over the wounded leg and our work gets on apace.
"Now, repeat," says the Sergeant.
He goes over it again, verse by verse, and Auger accompanies him.
Quand en passant dedans la plai-ai-ne ...
Auger stops now and then to make a slight grimace. Sometimes, too,
his voice breaks. He apologises simply:
"I could never sing in tune."
Nevertheless, the song is learnt, more or less, and when the
General comes to visit the hospital, Auger says to him:
"Mon General, I can sing you a fine song."
And he would, the rascal, if the head doctor did not look
reprovingly at him.
It is very dismal, after this, to attend to Gregoire, and to hear
"Ah! don't pull like that. You're dragging out my heart."
I point out that if he won't let us attend to him, he will become
much worse. Then he begins to cry.
"What do I care, since I shall die anyhow?"
He has depressed the orderlies, the stretcher-bearers, everybody.
He does not discourage me; but he gives me a great deal of
All you gentlemen who meet together to discuss the causes of the
war, the end of the war, the using-up of effectives and the future
bases of society, excuse me if I do not give you my opinion on
these grave questions. I am really too much taken up with the
wound of our unhappy Gregoire.
It is not satisfactory, this wound, and when I look at it, I
cannot think of anything else; the screams of the wounded man
would prevent me from considering the conditions of the decisive
battle and the results of the rearrangement of the map of Europe
with sufficient detachment.
Listen: Gregoire tells me he is going to die. I think and believe
that he is wrong. But he certainly will die if I do not take it
upon myself to make him suffer. He will die, because every one is
forsaking him. And he has long ago forsaken himself.
"My dear chap," remarked Auger to a very prim orderly, "it is no
doubt unpleasant to have only one shoe to put on, but it gives one
a chance of saving. And now, moreover, I only run half as much
risk of scratching my wife with my toe-nails in bed as you do.
"Quite so," added the Sergeant; "with Mariette he will caress his
good lady, so to speak."
Auger and the Sergeant crack jokes like two old cronies. The
embarrassed orderly, failing to find a retort, goes away laughing
I sat down by Auger, and we were left alone.
"I am a basket-maker," he said gravely. "I shall be able to take
up my trade again more or less. But think of workers on the land,
like Groult, who has lost a hand, and Lerondeau, with his useless
leg! ... That's really terrible!"
Auger rolls his r's in a way that gives piquancy and vigour to his
conversation. He talks of others with a natural magnanimity which
comes from the heart, like the expression of his eyes, and rings
true, like the sound of his voice. And then again, he really need
not envy any one. Have I not said it! He is a prince.
"I have had some very grand visitors," he says. "Look, another
lady came a little while ago, and left me this big box of sweets.
Do take one, Monsieur, it would be a pleasure to me. And please,
will you hand them round to the others, from me?"
He adds in a lower tone:
"Look under my bed. I put everything I am given there. Really,
there's too much. I'm ashamed. There are some chaps here who never
get anything, and they were brave fellows who did their duty just
as well as I did."
It is true, there are many brave soldiers in the ward, but only
one Military Medal was given among them, and it came to Auger. Its
arrival was the occasion of a regular little fete; his comrades
all took part in it cordially, for strange to say, no one is
jealous of Auger. A miracle indeed! Did you ever hear of any other
prince of whom no one was jealous?
"Are you going?" said Auger. "Please just say a few words to
Groult. He is a bit of a grouser, but he likes a talk."
Auger has given me a lesson. I will go and smoke a cigarette with
Groult, and above all, I will go and see Gregoire.
Groult, indeed, is not altogether neglected. He is an original, a
perverse fellow. He is pointed out as a curious animal. He gets
his share of presents and attention.
But no one knows anything about Gregoire; he lies staring at the
wall, and growing thinner every day, and Death seems the only
person who is interested in him.
You shall not die, Gregoire! I vow to keep hold of you, to suffer
with you, and to endure your ill-temper humbly. You, who seem to
be bearing the misery of an entire world, shall not be miserable
Kind ladies who come to see our wounded and give them picture-
books, tri-coloured caps and sweetmeats, do not forget Gregoire,
who is wretched. Above all, give him your sweetest smiles.
You go away well pleased with yourselves because you have been
generous to Auger. But there is no merit in being kind to Auger.
With a single story, a single clasp of his hand, he gives you much
more than he received from you. He gives you confidence; he
restores your peace of mind.
Go and see Gregoire who has nothing but his suffering to give, and
who very nearly gave his life.
If you go away without a smile for Gregoire, you may fear that you
have not fulfilled your task. And don't expect him to return your
smile, for where would your liberality be in that case?
It is easy to pity Auger, who needs no pity. It is difficult to
pity Gregoire, and yet he is so pitiable.
Do not forget; Auger is touched with grace; but Gregoire will be
damned if you do not hold out your hand to him.
God Himself, who has withheld grace from the damned, must feel
pity for them.
It is a very artless desire for equality which makes us say that
all men are equal in the presence of suffering. No! no! they are
not. And as we know nothing of Death but that which precedes and
determines it, men are not even equal in the presence of Death.
NIGHTS IN ARTOIS
One more glance into the dark ward, in which something begins to
reign which is not sleep, but merely a kind of nocturnal stupor.
The billiard-table has been pushed into a corner; it is loaded
with an incoherent mass of linen, bottles, and articles of
furniture. A smell of soup and excrements circulates between the
stretchers, and seems to insult the slender onyx vases that
surmount the cabinet.
And now, quickly! quickly! Let us escape on tiptoe into the open
The night is clear and cold, without a breath of wind: a vast
block of transparent ice between the snow and the stars. Will it
suffice to cleanse throat and lungs, nauseated by the close
effluvium of suppurating wounds?
The snow clings and balls under our sabots. How good it would be
to have a game. ... But we are overwhelmed by a fatigue that has
become a kind of exasperation. We will go to the end of the lawn.
Here is the great trench in which the refuse of the dressing-ward,
all the residuum of infection, steams and rots. Further on we come
to the musical pines, which Dalcour the miner visits every night,
lantern in hand, to catch sparrows, Dalcour, the formidable
Zouave, whom no one can persuade not to carry about his stiff leg
and the gaping wound in his bandaged skull in the rain.
Let us go as far as the wall of the graveyard, which time has
caused to swell like a protuberance on the side of the park, and
which is so providentially close at hand.
The old Chateau looms, a stately mass, through the shadows. To-
night, lamps are gleaming softly in every window. It looks like a
silent, illuminated ship, the prow of which is cutting through an
ice-bank. Nothing emerges from it but this quiet light. Nothing
reveals the nature of its terrible freight.
We know that in every room, in every storey, on the level of every
floor, young mutilated bodies are ranged side by side. A hundred
hearts send the over-heated blood in swift pulsations towards the
suffering limbs. Through all these bodies the projectile in its
furious course made its way, crushing delicate mechanisms, rending
the precious organs which make us take pleasure in walking,
Up there, this innocent joy of order no longer exists; and in
order to recapture it, a hundred bodies are performing labours so
slow and hard that they call forth tears and sighs from the
But how the murmurs of this centre of suffering are muffled by the
walls! How silently and darkly it broods in space!
Like a dressing on a large inflamed wound, the Chateau covers its
contents closely, and one sees nothing but these lamps, just such
lamps as might illuminate a studious solitude, or a conversation
between intimate friends at evening, or a love lost in self-
We are now walking through thickets of spindle-wood, resplendent
under the snow, and the indifference of these living things to the
monstrous misery round them makes the impotent soul that is
strangling me seem odious and even ridiculous to me. In spite of
all protestations of sympathy, the mortal must always suffer alone
in his flesh, and this indeed is why war is possible. ...
Philippe here thinks perhaps as I do; but he and I have these
thoughts thrust on us in the same pressing fashion. Men who are
sleeping twenty paces from this spot would be wakened by a cry;
yet they are undisturbed by this formidable presence, inarticulate
as a mollusc in the depths of the sea.
In despair, I stamp on the soft snow with my sabot. The winter
grass it covers subsists obstinately, and has no solidarity with
anything else on earth. Let the pain of man wear itself out; the
grass will not wither. Sleep, good folks of the whole world. Those
who suffer here will not disturb your rest.
And suddenly, beyond the woods a rocket rises and bursts against
the sky, brilliant as a meteor. It means something most certainly,
and it warns some one; but its coarse ingenuity does not deceive
me. No barbarous signal such as this could give me back confidence
in my soul to-night.
The little room adjoining the closet where I sleep has been set
apart for those whose cries or effluvia make them intolerable to
the rest. As it is small and encumbered, it will only admit a
single stretcher, and men are brought in there to die in turn.
But lately, when the Chateau was reigning gracefully in the midst
of verdure, the centre of the great star of alleys piercing its
groves of limes and beeches, its owners occasionally entertained a
brilliant society; and if they had under their roof some gay and
lovely milk-white maiden, they gave her this little room at the
summit of the right wing, whence the sun may be seen rising above
the forests, to dream, and sleep, and adorn herself in.
To-day, the facade of the Chateau seems to be listening, strained
and anxious, to the cannonade; and the little room has become a
Madelan was the first we put there. He was raving in such a brutal
and disturbing manner, in spite of the immobility of his long,
paralysed limbs, that his companions implored us to remove him. I
think Madelan neither understood nor noticed this isolation, for
he was already given over to a deeper solitude; but his incessant
vociferation, after he was deprived of listeners, took on a
strange and terrible character.
For four days and four nights, he never ceased talking vehemently;
and listening to him, one began to think that all the life of the
big body that was already dead, had fled in frenzy to his throat.
For four nights I heard him shouting incoherent, elusive things,
which seemed to be replies to some mysterious interlocutor.
At dawn, and from hour to hour throughout the day, I went to see
him where he sprawled on a paillasse on the floor, like some red-
haired stricken beast, with out-stretched limbs, convulsed by
spasms which displaced the dirty blanket that covered him.
He lost flesh with such incredible rapidity that he seemed to be
evaporating through the gaping wound in the nape of his neck.
Then I would speak to him, saying things that were kindly meant
but futile, because conversation is impossible between a man who
is being whirled along by the waters of a torrent, and one who is
seated among the rushes on the bank. Madelan did not listen to me,
and he continued his strange colloquy with the other. He did not
want us or any one else; he had ceased to eat or to drink, and
relieved himself as he lay, asking neither help nor tendance.
One day, the wind blew the door of the room to, and there was no
key to open it. A long ladder was put up to the window, and a pane
of glass was broken to effect an entrance. Directly this was done,
Madelan was heard, continuing his dream aloud.
He died, and was at once replaced by the man with his skull
battered in, of whom we knew nothing, because when he came to us
he could neither see nor speak, and had nothing by way of history
but a red and white ticket, as large as the palm of a child's
This man spent only one night in the room, filling the silence
with painful eructations, and thumping on the partition which
separated him from my bed.
Listening alertly, with the cold air from the open window blowing
on my face, I heard in turn the crowing of the cocks in the
village, the irregular breathing of Philippe, sleeping the sleep
of exhaustion not far from me, and the blows and the death-rattle
of the man who took so long to die. He became silent, however, in
the morning, when the wind began to drop, and the first detonation
of the day boomed through the vault-like quiet of the darkness.
Then we had as our neighbour the hospital orderly, Sergeant Gidel,
who was nearing his end, and whose cruel hiccough we had been
unable to alleviate for a week past. This man knew his business,
he knew the meaning of probe, of fever, of hardened abdomen. He
knew too that he had a bullet in the spinal cord. He never asked
us for anything, and as we dared not tell him lies, we were
overcome by a kind of shame in his presence. He stayed barely two
days in the room, looking with dim eyes at the engravings on the
walls, and the Empire bureau on which vases were piled.
But what need is there to tell of all those whom this unhappy room
swallowed up and ejected?
We have no lights this evening. ... We must learn to do without
them. ... I grope my way along the passages, where the wind is
muttering, to the great staircase. Here there is a fitful lamp
which makes one prefer the darkness. I see the steps, which are
white and smeared with mud, pictures and tapestries, a sumptuous
scheme of decoration flooded at the bottom by filth and
desolation. As I approach the room where the wounded are lying, I
hear the calm sound of their conversation. I go in quietly. They
cease talking; then they begin to chat again, for now they know
At first one can only distinguish long forms ranged upon the
ground. The stretchers seem to be holding forth with human voices.
One of these is narrating:
"We were all three sitting side by side ... though I had told the
adjutant that corner was not a good place. ... They had just
brought us a ration of soup with a little bit of meat that was all
covered with white frost. Then bullets began to arrive by the
dozen, and we avoided them as well as we could, and the earth flew
about, and we were laughing, because we had an idea that among all
those bullets there was not one that would find its billet. And
then they stopped firing, and we came back to sit on the ledge.
There were Chagniol and Duc and I, and I had them both to the
right of me. We began to talk about Giromagny, and about
Danjoutin, because that's the district we all came from, and this
went on for about half an hour. And then, all of a sudden, a
bullet came, just a single one, but this time it was a good one.
It went through Chagniol's head, then through Duc's, and as I was
a little taller than they, it only passed through my neck. ..."
"Then it went off to the devil! Chagniol fell forward on his face.
Duc got up, and ran along on all fours as far as the bend in the
trench, and there he began to scratch out the earth like a rabbit,
and then he died. The blood was pouring down me right and left,
and I thought it was time for me to go. I set off running, holding
a finger to each side of my neck, because of the blood. I was
thinking: just a single bullet! It's too much! It was really a
mighty good one! And then I saw the adjutant. So I said to him: 'I
warned you, mon adjutant, that that corner was not a good place!'
But the blood rushed up into my mouth, and I began to run again."
There was a silence, and I heard a voice murmur with conviction:
"YOU were jolly lucky, weren't you?"
Mulet, too, tells his story:
"They had taken our fire ... 'That's not your fire,' I said to
him. 'Not our fire?' he said. Then the other came up and he said:
'Hold your jaw about the fire ...' 'It's not yours,' I said. Then
he said: 'You don't know who you're talking to.' And he turned his
cap, which had been inside out ... 'Ah! I beg your pardon,' I
said, 'but I could not tell ...' And so they kept our fire. ..."
Maville remarks calmly: "Yes, things like that will happen
Silence again. The tempest shakes the windows with a furious hand.
The room is faintly illuminated by a candle which has St. Vitus'
dance. Rousselot, our little orderly, knits away industriously in
the circle of light. I smoke a pipe at once acrid and consoling,
like this minute itself in the midst of the infernal adventure.
Before going away, I think of Croquelet, the silent, whose long
silhouette I see at the end of the room. "He sleeps all the time,"
says Mulet, "he sleeps all day." I approach the stretcher, I bend
over it, and I see two large open eyes, which look at me gravely
and steadily in the gloom. And this look is so sad, so poignant,
that I am filled with impotent distress.
"You sleep too much, my poor Croquelet."
He answers me with his rugged accent, but in a feeble voice:
"Don't listen to him; it's not true. You know quite well that I
can't sleep, and that you won't give me a draught to let me get a
real nap. This afternoon, I read a little. ... But it wasn't very
interesting. ... If I could have another book. ..."
"Show me your book, Croquelet."
He thrusts out his chin towards a little tract. I strike a match,
and I read on the grey cover: "Of the Quality of Prayers addressed
"All right, Croquelet, I'll try to get you a book with pictures in
it. How do you feel this evening?"
"Ah! bad! very bad! They're thawing now. ..."
He has had frost-bite in his feet, and is beginning to suffer so
much from them that he forgets the wound in his side, which is
mortal, but less active.
I have come to take refuge among my wounded to smoke in peace, and
meditate in the shadow. Here, the moral atmosphere is pure. These
men are so wretched, so utterly humiliated, so absorbed in their
relentless sufferings that they seem to have relinquished the
burden of the passions in order to concentrate their powers on the
one endeavour: to live.
In spite of their solidarity they are for the time isolated by
their individual sufferings. Later on, they will communicate; but
this is the moment when each one contemplates his own anguish, and
fights his own battle, with cries of pain. ...
They are all my friends. I will stay among them, associating
myself with all my soul in their ordeal.
Perhaps here I shall find peace. Perhaps all ignoble discord will
call a truce on the threshold of this empire.
But a short distance from us the battle-field has thundered
unceasingly for days. Like a noisy, complicated mechanism which
turns out the products of its internal activity, the stupid
machine of war throws out, from minute to minute, bleeding men. We
pick them up, and here they are, swathed in bandages. They have
been crushed in the twinkling of an eye; and now we shall have to
ask months and years to repair or palliate the damage.
How silent they are this evening! And how it makes one's heart
ache to look at them! Here is Bourreau, with the brutal name and
the gentle nature, who never utters a complaint, and whom a single
bullet has deprived of sight for ever. Here is Bride, whom we fear
to touch, so covered is he with bandages, but who looks at us with
touching, liquid eyes, his mind already wandering. Here is
Lerouet, who will not see next morning dawn over the pine-trees,
and who has a gangrened wound near his heart. And the others, all
of whom I know by their individual misfortunes.
How difficult it is to realise what they were, all these men who a
year ago, were walking in streets, tilling the land, or writing in
an office. Their present is too poignant. Here they lie on the
ground, like some fair work of art defaced. Behold them! The
creature par excellence has received a great outrage, an outrage
it has wrought upon itself.
We are ignorant of their past. But have they a future? I consider
these innocent victims in the tragic majesty of the hour, and I
feel ashamed of living and breathing freely among them.
Poor, poor brothers! What could one do for you which would not be
insufficient, unworthy, mediocre? We can at least give up
everything and devote ourselves heart and soul to our holy and
But no! round the beds on which your solitary drama is enacted,
men are still taking part in a sinister comedy. Every kind of
folly, the most ignoble and also the most imbecile passions,
pursue their enterprises and their satisfactions over your heads.
Neither the four corpses we buried this morning, nor your daily
agonies will disarm these appetites, suspend these calculations,
and destroy these ambitions the development and fruition of which
even your martyrdom, may be made to serve.
I will spend the whole evening among my wounded, and we will talk
together, gently, of their misery; it will please them, and they
will make me forget the horrible atmosphere of discussion that
Alas! during the outburst of the great catastrophe, seeing the
volume of blood and fire, listening to the uproar, smelling the
stench of the vast gangrene, we thought that all passions would be
laid aside, like cumbersome weapons, and that we should give
ourselves up with clean hearts and empty hands to battle against
the fiery nightmare. He who fights and defends himself needs a
pure heart: so does he who wanders among charnel houses, gives
drink to parched lips, washes fevered faces and bathes wounds. We
thought there would be a great forgetfulness of self and of former
hopes, and of the whole world. O Union of pure hearts to meet the
But no! The first explosion was tremendous, yet hardly had its
echoes died away when the rag-pickers were already at work among
the ruins, in quest of cutlet-bones and waste paper.
And yet, think of the sacred anguish of those first hours!
Well, so be it! For my part, I will stay here, between these
stretchers with their burdens of anguish.
At this hour one is inclined to distrust everything, man and the
universe, and the future of Right. But we cannot have any doubts
as to the suffering of man. It is the one certain thing at this
So I will stay and drink in this sinister testimony. And each time
that Beal, who has a gaping wound in the stomach, holds out his
hands to me with a little smile, I will get up and hold his hands
in mine, for he is feverish, and he knows that my hands are always
Bride is dead. We had been working all day, and in the evening we
had to find time to go and bury Bride.
It is not a very long ceremony. The burial-ground is near. About a
dozen of us follow the lantern, slipping in the mud, and stumbling
over the graves. Here we are at the wall, and here is the long
ditch, always open, which every day is prolonged a little to the
right, and filled in a little to the left. Here is the line of
white crosses, and the flickering shadows on the wall caused by
The men arrange the planks, slip the ropes, and lower the body,
disputing in undertones, for it is not so easy as one might think
to be a grave-digger. One must have the knack of it. And the night
is very dark and the mud very sticky.
At last the body is at the bottom of the trench, and the muddy
ropes are withdrawn. The little consumptive priest who stands at
the graveside murmurs the prayer for the dead. The rain beats in
our faces. The familiar demon of Artois, the wind, leaps among the
ancient trees. The little priest murmurs the terrible words: Dies
irae, dies illa. ...
And this present day is surely the day of wrath ... I too utter my
prayer: "In the name of the unhappy world, Bride, I remit all thy
sins, I absolve thee from all thy faults! Let this day, at least,
be a day of rest."
The little priest stands bare-headed in the blast. An orderly who
is an ecclesiastic holds the end of an apron over his head. A man
raises the lantern to the level of his eye. And the rain-drops
gleam and sparkle furtively.
Bride is dead. ...
Now we meet again in the little room where friendship reigns.
Pierre and Jacques, gallant fellows, I shall not forget your
beautiful, painful smile at the moment which brings discouragement
to the experienced man. I shall not forget.
The beef and rice, which one needs to be very hungry to swallow,
is distributed. And a gentle cheerfulness blossoms in the circle
of lamplight, a cheerfulness which tries to catch something of the
gaiety of the past. Man has such a deep-seated need of joy that he
improvises it everywhere, even in the heart of misery.
And suddenly, through the steam of the soup, I see Bride's look
It was no ordinary look. The extremity of suffering, the approach
of death, perhaps, and also the hidden riches of his soul, gave it
extraordinary light, sweetness, and gentleness. When one came to
his bedside, and bent over him, the look was there, a well-spring
But Bride is dead: we saw his eyes transformed into dull,
Where is that well-spring? Can it be quenched?
Bride is dead. Involuntarily, I repeat aloud: "Bride is dead."
Have I roused a responsive echo in these sympathetic souls? A
religious silence falls upon them. The oldest of all problems
comes and takes its place at the table like a familiar guest. It
breathes mysteriously into every ear: "Where is Bride? Where is
A lantern advances, swinging among the pines. Who is coming to
Philippe recognises the figure of Monsieur Julien. Here is the
man, indeed, with his porter's livery, and his base air as of an
insolent slave. He waves a stable-lantern which throws grotesque
shadows upwards on his face; and he is obviously furious at having
been forced to render a service.
He brandishes the lantern angrily, and thrusts out his chin to
show us the advancing figures: two men are carrying a stretcher on
which lies a big body wrapped in a coarse winding sheet. The two
men are weary, and set the stretcher down carefully in the mud.
"Is it Fumat?"
"Yes. He has just died, very peacefully."
"Where are you going?"
"There is no place anywhere for a corpse. So we are taking him to
the chapel in the burial-ground. But he is heavy."
"We will give you a hand."
Philippe and I take hold of the stretcher. The men follow us in
silence. The body is heavy, very heavy. We drag our sabots out of
the clay laboriously. And we walk slowly, breathing hard.
How heavy he is! ... He was called Fumat ... He was a giant. He
came from the mountains of the Centre, leaving a red-tiled village
on a hill-side, among juniper-bushes and volcanic boulders. He
left his native place with its violet peaks and strong aromatic
scents and came to the war in Artois. He was past the age when men
can march to the attack, but he guarded the trenches and cooked.
He received his death-wound while he was cooking. The giant of
Auvergne was peppered with small missiles. He had no wound at all
proportionate to his huge body. Nothing but splinters of metal.
Once again, David has slain Goliath.
He was two days dying. He was asked: "Is there anything you would
like?" And he answered with white lips: "Nothing, thank you." When
we were anxious and asked him "How do you feel?" he was always
quite satisfied. "I am getting on very well." He died with a
discretion, a modesty, a self-forgetfulness which redeemed the
egotism of the universe.
How heavy he is! He was wounded as he was blowing up the fire for
the soup. He did not die fighting. He uttered no historic word. He
fell at his post as a cook. ... He was not a hero.
You are not a hero, Fumat. You are only a martyr. And we are going
to lay you in the earth of France, which has engulfed a noble and
innumerable army of martyrs.
The shadow of the trees sweeps like a huge sickle across space. An
acrid smell of cold decay rises on the night. The wind wails its
threnody for Fumat.
"Open the door, Monsieur Julien."
The lout pushes the door, grumbling to himself. We lay the body on
the pavement of the chapel.
Renaud covers the corpse carefully with a faded flag. And
suddenly, as if to celebrate the moment, the brutal roar of guns
comes to us from the depths of the woods, breaks violently into
the chapel, seizes and rattles the trembling window-panes. A
hundred times over, a whole nation of cannon yells in honour of
Fumat. And each time other Fumats fall in the mud yonder, in their
They ought not to have cut off all the light in this manner, and
it would not have been done, perhaps, if ...
There is a kind of mania for organisation which is the sworn enemy
of order; in its efforts to discover the best place for
everything, it ends by diverting everything from its right
function and locality, and making everything as inopportune as
itself. It was a mistake to cut off all the lights this evening,
on some pretext or the other. The rooms of the old mansion are not
packed with bales of cotton, but with men who have anxious minds
and tortured bodies.
A mournful darkness suddenly reigned; and outside, the incessant
storm that rages in this country swept along like a river in
Little Rochet was dreaming in the liquid light of the lamp, with
hands crossed on his breast, and the delicate profile of an
He was dreaming of vague and exquisite things, for cruel fever has
moments of generosity between two nightmares. He was dreaming so
sweetly that he forgot the abominable stench of his body, and that
a smile touched the two deep wrinkles at the corners of his mouth,
set there by a week of agony.
But all the lamps have been put out, and the noise of the
hurricane has become more insistent, and the wounded have ceased
talking, for darkness discourages conversation.
There are some places where the men with whom the shells have
dealt mercifully and whose wounds are only scratches congregate.
These have only the honour of wounds, and what may be called their
delights. ... But here, we have only the worst cases; and here
they have to await the supreme decision of death.
Little Rochet awoke to a reality full of darkness and despair. He
heard nothing but laboured breathing round him, and rising above
it all, the violent breath of the storm. He was suddenly conscious
of his lacerated stomach, of his lost leg, and he realised that
the fetid smell in the air was the smell of his flesh. And he
thought of the loving letter he had received in the morning from
his four big sisters with glossy hair, he thought of all his lost,
Renaud hurries up, groping his way among the dark ambushes of the
"Come, come quickly. Little Rochet has thrown himself out of bed."
Holding up a candle, I take in the melancholy scene. We have to
get Rochet into bed again, readjust his bandages, wipe up the
fetid liquid spilt on the floor.
Rochet's lips are compressed. I stoop to his ear and ask softly:
"Why did you do this?"
His face remains calm, and he answers gently, looking me full in
the eyes: "I want to die."
I leave the room, disarmed, my head bowed, and go in search of
Monet, who is a priest and an excellent orderly. He is smoking a
pipe in a corner. He has just had news that his young brother has
been killed in action, and he had snatched a few minutes of
"Monet," I say, "I think Rochet is a believer. Well, go to him. He
may want you."
Monet puts away his pipe, and goes off noiselessly.
As to me, I go and wander about outside. On the poplar-lined road,
in company with the furious rain and the darkness, I shall perhaps
be able to master the flood of bitterness that sweeps over me.
At the end of an hour, my anxiety brings me back to Rochet's
bedside. The candle is burning away with a steady flame. Monet is
reading in a little book with a clasp. The profile of the wounded
man has still the pitiful austerity of a tortured saint.
"Is he quieter now?"
Monet lifts his fine dark eyes to my face, and drops his book.
"Yes. He is dead."
Why has Hell been painted as a place of hopeless torture and
I believe that even in the lowest depths of Hell, the damned sing,
jest, and play cards. I am led to imagine this after seeing these
men rowing in their galleys, chained to them by fever and wounds.
Blaireau, who has only lost a hand, preludes in an undertone:
Si tu veux fair' mon bonheur....
This timid breath kindles the dormant flame. Houdebine, who has a
fractured knee, but who now expects to be fairly comfortable till
the morning, at once responds and continues:
The two sing in unison, with delighted smiles:
Si tu veux fair' mon bonheur
Maville joins in at the second verse, and even Legras, whose two
legs are broken, and the Chasseur Alpin, who has a hole in his
Panchat, the man who had a bullet through his neck, beats time
with his finger, because he is forbidden to speak.
All this goes on in low tones; but faces light up, and flush, as
if a bottle of brandy had been passed round.
Then Houdebine turns to Panchat and says: "Will you have a game of
dummy manilla, Panchat?"
Dummy manilla is a game for two; and they have to be content with
games for two, because no one in this ward can get up, and
communication is only easy for those in adjacent beds.
Panchat makes a sign of consent. Why should he not play dummy
manilla, which is a silent game. A chair is put between the two
beds, and he shuffles the cards.
The cards are so worn at the corners that they have almost become
ovals. The court cards smile through a fog of dirt; and to deal,
one has to wet one's thumb copiously, because a thick, tenacious
grease makes the cards stick together in an evil-smelling mass.
But a good deal of amusement is still to be got out of these
precious bits of old paste-board.
Panchat supports himself on his elbow, Houdebine has to keep on
his back, because of his knee. He holds his cards against his
chin, and throws them down energetically on the chair with his
The chair is rather far off, the cards are dirty, and sometimes
Houdebine asks his silent adversary: "What's that?"
Panchat takes the card and holds it out at arm's length.
Houdebine laughs gaily.
He plays his cards one after the other, and dummy's hand also:
"Trump! Trump! Trump! And ace of hearts!"
Even those who cannot see anything laugh too.
Panchat is vexed, but he too laughs noiselessly. Then he takes out
the lost sou from under his straw pillow.
Meanwhile, Mulet is telling a story. It is always the same story,
but it is always interesting.
An almost imperceptible voice, perhaps Legras', hums slowly:
Si tu veux fair' mon bonheur.
Who talks of happiness here?
I recognise the accents of obstinate, generous life. I recognise
thine accents, artless flesh! Only thou couldst dare to speak of
happiness between the pain of the morning and that of the evening,
between the man who is groaning on the right, and the man who is
dying on the left.
Truly, in the utmost depths of Hell, the damned must mistake their
need of joy for joy itself.
I know quite well that there is hope here.
So that in hell too there must be hope.
But lately, Death was the cruel stranger, the stealthy-footed
visitor.... Now, it is the romping dog of the house.
Do you remember the days when the human body seemed made for joy,
when each of its organs represented a function and a delight? Now,
each part of the body evokes the evil that threatens it, and the
special suffering it engenders.
Apart from this, it is well adapted for its part in the laborious
drama: the foot to carry a man to the attack; the arm to work the
cannon; the eye to watch the adversary or adjust the weapon.
But lately, Death was no part of life. We talked of it covertly.
Its image was at once painful and indecent, calculated to upset
the plans and projects of existence. It worked as far as possible
in obscurity, silence and retirement. We disguised it with
symbols; we announced it in laborious paraphrases, marked by a
kind of shame.
To-day Death is closely bound up with the things of life. And this
is true, not so much because its daily operations are on a vast
scale, because it chooses the youngest and the healthiest among
us, because it has become a kind of sacred institution, but more
especially because it has become a thing so ordinary that it no
longer causes us to suspend our usual activities, as it used to
do: we eat and drink beside the dead, we sleep amidst the dying,
we laugh and sing in the company of corpses.
And how, indeed, can it be otherwise? You know quite well that man
cannot live without eating, drinking, and sleeping, nor without
laughing and singing.
Ask all those who are suffering their hard Calvary here. They are
gentle and courageous, they sympathise with the pain of others;
but they must eat when the soup comes round, sleep, if they can,
during the long night; and try to laugh again when the ward is
quiet, and the corpse of the morning has been carried out.
Death remains a great thing, but one with which one's relations
have become frequent and intimate. Like the king who shows himself
at his toilet, Death is still powerful, but it has become familiar
and slightly degraded.
Lerouet died just now. We closed his eyes, tied up his chin, then
pulled out the sheet to cover the corpse while it was waiting for
"Can't you eat anything?" said Mulet to Maville. Maville, who is
very young and shy, hesitates: "I can't get it down."
And after a pause, he adds: "I can't bear to see such things."
Mulet wipes his plate calmly and says: "Yes, sometimes it used to
take away my appetite too, so much so that I used to be sick. But
I have got accustomed to it now."
Pouchet gulps down his coffee with a sort of feverish eagerness.
"One feels glad to get off with the loss of a leg when one sees
"One must live," adds Mulet.
"Well, for all the pleasure one gets out of life...."
Beliard is the speaker. He had a bullet in the bowel, yet we hope
to get him well soon. But his whole attitude betrays indifference.
He smokes a great deal, and rarely speaks. He has no reason to
despair, and he knows that he can resume his ordinary life. But
familiarity with Death, which sometimes makes life seem so
precious, occasionally ends by producing a distaste for it, or
rather a deep weariness of it.
A whole nation, ten whole nations are learning to live in Death's
company. Humanity has entered the wild beast's cage, and sits
there with the patient courage of the lion-tamer.
Men of my country, I learn to know you better every day, and from
having looked you in the face at the height of your sufferings, I
have conceived a religious hope for the future of our race. It is
mainly owing to my admiration for your resignation, your native
goodness, your serene confidence in better times to come that I
can still believe in the moral future of the world.
At the very hour when the most natural instinct inclines the world
to ferocity, you preserve, on your beds of suffering, a beauty, a
purity of outlook which goes far to atone for the monstrous crime.
Men of France, your simple grandeur of soul redeems humanity from
its greatest crime, and raises it from its deep abyss.
We are told how you bear the misery of the battle-field, how in
the discouraging cold and mud, you await the hour of your cruel
duty, how you rush forward to meet the mortal blow, through the
unimaginable tumult of peril.
But when you come here, there are further sufferings in store for
you; and I know with what courage you endure them.
The doors of the Chateau close on a new life for you, a life that
is also one of perpetual peril and contest. I help you in this
contest, and I see how gallantly you wage it.
Not a wrinkle in your faces escapes me. Not one of your pains, not
one of the tremors of your lacerated flesh. And I write them all
down, just as I note your simple words, your cries, your sighs of
hope, as I also note the expression of your faces at the solemn
hour when man speaks no more.
Not one of your words leaves me unmoved; there is not one of your
actions which is not worthy of record. All must contribute to the
history of our great ordeal.
For it is not enough to give oneself up to the sacred duty of
succour. It is not enough to apply the beneficent knife to the
wound, or to change the dressings skilfully and carefully.
It is also my mission to record the history of those who have been
the sacrificial victims of the race, without gloss, in all its
truth and simplicity; the history of the men you have shown
yourselves to be in suffering.
If I left this undone, you would, no doubt, be cured as perfectly,
or would perish none the less; but the essence of the majestic
lesson would be lost, the most splendid elements of your courage
would remain barren.
And I invite all the world to bow before you with the same
attentive reverence, WITH HEARTS THAT FORGET NOTHING.
Union of pure hearts to meet the ordeal! Union of pure hearts that
our country may know and respect herself! Union of pure hearts for
the redemption of the stricken world!