Part 6 out of 7
He crossed his arms and tossed his head: "The future!" he cried all
at once as a prophet might. "How will they regard this slaughter,
they who'll live after us, to whom progress--which comes as sure as
fate--will at last restore the poise of their conscience? How will
they regard these exploits which even we who perform them don't know
whether one should compare them with those of Plutarch's and
Corneille's heroes or with those of hooligans and apaches?
"And for all that, mind you," Bertrand went on. "there is one figure
that has risen above the war and will blaze with the beauty and
strength of his courage--"
I listened, leaning on a stick and towards him, drinking in the
voice that came in the twilight silence from the lips that so rarely
spoke. He cried with a clear voice--"Liebknecht!"
He stood up with his arms still crossed. His face, as profoundly
serious as a statue's, drooped upon his chest. But he emerged once
again from his marble muteness to repeat, "The future, the future!
The work of the future will be to wipe out the present, to wipe it
out more than we can imagine, to wipe it out like something
abominable and shameful. And yet--this present--it had to be, it
had to be! Shame on military glory, shame on armies, shame on the
soldier's calling, that changes men by turns into stupid victims or
ignoble brutes. Yes, shame. That's the true word, but it's too true;
it's true in eternity, but it's not yet true for us. It will be true
when there is a Bible that is entirely true, when it is found
written among the other truths that a purified mind will at the same
time let us understand. We are still lost, still exiled far from
that time. In our time of to-day, in these moments, this truth is
hardly more than a fallacy, this sacred saying is only blasphemy!"
A kind of laugh came from him, full of echoing dreams--"To think I
once told them I believed in prophecies, just to kid them!"
I sat down by Bertrand's side. This soldier who had always done more
than was required of him and survived notwithstanding, stood at that
moment in my eyes for those who incarnate a lofty moral conception,
who have the strength to detach themselves from the hustle of
circumstances, and who are destined, however little their path may
run through a splendor of events, to dominate their time.
"I have always thought all those things," I murmured.
"Ah!" said Bertrand. We looked at each other without a word, with a
little surprised self-communion. After this full silence he spoke
again. "It's time to start duty; take your rifle and come."
* * * * * *
From our listening-post we see towards the east a light spreading
like a conflagration, but bluer and sadder than buildings on fire.
It streaks the sky above a long black cloud which extends suspended
like the smoke of an extinguished fire, like an immense stain on the
world. It is the returning morning.
It is so cold that we cannot stand still in spite of our fettering
fatigue. We tremble and shiver and shed tears, and our teeth
chatter. Little by little, with dispiriting tardiness, day escapes
from the sky into the slender framework of the black clouds. All is
frozen, colorless and empty; a deathly silence reigns everywhere.
There is rime and snow under a burden of mist. Everything is white.
Paradis moves--a heavy pallid ghost, for we two also are all white.
I had placed my shoulder-bag on the other side of the parapet, and
it looks as if wrapped in paper. In the bottom of the hole a little
snow floats, fretted and gray in the black foot-bath. Outside the
hole, on the piled-up things, in the excavations, upon the crowded
dead, snow rests like muslin.
Two stooping protuberant masses are crayoned on the mist; they grow
darker as they approach and hail us. They are the men who come to
relieve us. Their faces are ruddy and tearful with cold, their
cheek-bones like enameled tiles; but their greatcoats are not
snow-powdered, for they have slept underground.
Paradis hoists himself out. Over the plain I follow his Father
Christmas back and the duck-like waddle of the boots that pick up
white-felted soles. Bending deeply forward we regain the trench; the
footsteps of those who replaced us are marked in black on the scanty
whiteness that covers the ground.
Watchers are standing at intervals in the trench, over which
tarpaulins are stretched on posts here and there, figured in white
velvet or mottled with rime, and forming great irregular tents; and
between the watchers are squatting forms who grumble and try to
fight against the cold. to exclude it from the meager fireside of
their own chests, or who are simply frozen. A dead man has slid
down. upright and hardly askew, with his feet in the trench and his
chest and arms resting on the bank. He was clasping the earth when
life left him. His face is turned skyward and is covered with a
leprosy of ice, the eyelids are white as the eyes, the mustache
caked with hard slime. Other bodies are sleeping, less white than
that one; the snowy stratum is only intact on lifeless things.
"We must sleep." Paradis and I are looking for shelter, a hole where
we may hide ourselves and shut our eyes. "It can't be helped if
there are stiffs in the dugouts," mutters Paradis; "in a cold like
this they'll keep, they won't be too bad." We go forward, so weary
that we can only see the ground.
I am alone. Where is Paradis? He must have lain down in some hole,
and perhaps I did not hear his call. I meet Marthereau. "I'm looking
where I can sleep, I've been on guard," he says.
"I, too; let's look together."
"What's all the row and to-do?" says Marthereau. A mingled hubbub of
trampling and voices overflows from the communication trench that
goes off here. "The communication trenches are full of men. Who are
One of those with whom we are suddenly mixed up replies, "We're the
Fifth Battalion." The newcomers stop. They are in marching order.
The one that spoke sits down for a breathing space on the curves of
a sand-bag that protrudes from the line. He wipes his nose with the
back of his sleeve.
"What are you doing here? Have they told you to come?"
"Not half they haven't told us. We're coming to attack. We're going
yonder, right up." With his head he indicates the north. The
curiosity with which we look at them fastens on to a detail. "You've
carried everything with you?"--"We chose to keep it, that's all."
"Forward!" they are ordered. They rise and proceed, incompletely
awake, their eyes puffy, their wrinkles underlined. There are young
men among them with thin necks and vacuous eyes, and old men; and in
the middle, ordinary ones. They march with a commonplace and pacific
step. What they are going to do seems to us, who did it last night,
beyond human strength. But still they go away towards the north.
"The revally of the damned," says Marthereau.
We make way for them with a sort of admiration and a sort of terror.
When they have passed, Marthereau wags his head and murmurs, "There
are some getting ready, too, on the other side, with their gray
uniforms. Do you think those chaps are feeling it about the attack?
Then why have they come? It's not their doing, I know, but it's
theirs all the same, seeing they're here.--I know, I know, but it's
odd, all of it."
The sight of a passer-by alters the course of his ideas: "Tiens,
there's Truc, the big one, d'you know him? Isn't he immense and
pointed, that chap! As for me, I know I'm not quite hardly big
enough; but him, he goes too far. He always knows what's going on,
that two-yarder! For savvying everything, there's nobody going to
give him the go-by! I'll go and chivvy him about a funk-hole."
"If there's a rabbit-hole anywhere?" replies the elongated
passer-by, leaning on Marthereau like a poplar tree, "for sure, my
old Caparthe, certainly. Tiens, there"--and unbending his elbow he
makes an indicative gesture like a flag-signaler--"'Villa von
Hindenburg.' and there, 'Villa Glucks auf.' If that doesn't
satisfy you, you gentlemen are hard to please. P'raps there's a few
lodgers in the basement, but not noisy lodgers, and you can talk out
aloud in front of them, you know!"
"Ah, nom de Dieu!" cried Marthereau a quarter of an hour after we
had established ourselves in one of these square-cut graves,
"there's lodgers he didn't tell us about, that frightful great
lightning-rod, that infinity!" His eyelids were just closing, but
they opened again and he scratched his arms and thighs: "I want a
snooze! It appears it's out of the question. Can't resist these
We settled ourselves to yawning and sighing, and finally we lighted
a stump of candle, wet enough to resist us although covered with our
hands; and we watched each other yawn.
The German dug-out consisted of several rooms. We were against a
partition of ill-fitting planks; and on the other side, in Cave No.
2, some men were also awake. We saw light trickle through the
crannies between the planks and heard rumbling voices. "It's the
other section," said Marthereau.
Then we listened, mechanically. "When I was off on leave," boomed an
invisible talker, "we had the hump at first, because we were
thinking of my poor brother who was missing in March--dead, no
doubt--and of my poor little Julien, of Class 1915, killed in the
October attacks. And then bit by bit, her and me, we settled down to
be happy at being together again, you see. Our little kid, the last,
a five-year-old, entertained us a treat. He wanted to play soldiers
with me, and I made a little gun for him. I explained the trenches
to him; and he, all fluttering with delight like a bird, he was
shooting at me and yelling. Ah, the damned young gentleman, he did
it properly! He'll make a famous poilu later! I tell you, he's quite
got the military spirit!"
A silence; then an obscure murmur of talk, in the midst of which we
catch the name of Napoleon; then another voice, or the same, saying,
"Wilhelm, he's a stinking beast to have brought this war on. But
Napoleon, he was a great man!"
Marthereau is kneeling in front of me in the feeble and scanty rays
of our candle, in the bottom of this dark ill-enclosed hole where
the cold shudders through at intervals, where vermin swarm and where
the sorry crowd of living men endures the faint but musty savor of a
tomb; and Marthereau looks at me. He still hears, as I do, the
unknown soldier who said, "Wilhelm is a stinking beast, but Napoleon
was a great man," and who extolled the martial ardor of the little
boy still left to him. Marthereau droops his arms and wags his weary
head--and the shadow of the double gesture is thrown on the
partition by the lean light in a sudden caricature.
"Ah!" says my humble companion, "we're all of us not bad sorts, and
we're unlucky, and we're poor devils as well. But we're too stupid,
we're too stupid!"
Again he turns his eyes on me. In his bewhiskered and poodle-like
face I see his fine eyes shining in wondering and still confused
contemplation of things which he is setting himself to understand in
the innocence of his obscurity.
We come out of the uninhabitable shelter; the weather has bettered a
little; the snow has melted, and all is soiled anew. "The wind's
licked up the sugar," says Marthereau.
* * * * *
I am deputed to accompany Mesnil Joseph to the refuge on the
Pylones road. Sergeant Henriot gives me charge of the wounded
man and hands me his clearing order. "If you meet Bertrand on the
way," says Henriot, "tell him to look sharp and get busy, will you?"
Bertrand went away on liaison duty last night and they have been
waiting for him for an hour; the captain is getting impatient and
threatens to lose his temper.
I get under way with Joseph, who walks very slowly, a little paler
than usual, and still taciturn. Now and again he halts, and his face
twitches. We follow the communication trenches, and a comrade
appears suddenly. It is Volpatte, and he says, "I'm going with you
to the foot of the hill." As he is off duty, he is wielding a
magnificent twisted walking-stick, and he shakes in his hand like
castanets the precious pair of scissors that never leaves him.
All three of us come out of the communication trench when the slope
of the land allows us to do it without danger of bullets--the guns
are not firing. As soon as we are outside we stumble upon a
gathering of men. It is raining. Between the heavy legs planted
there like little trees on the gray plain in the mist we see a dead
man. Volpatte edges his way in to the horizontal form upon which
these upright ones are waiting; then he turns round violently and
shouts to us, "It's Pepin!"
"Ah!" says Joseph, who is already almost fainting. He leans on me
and we draw near. Pepin is full length, his feet and hands
bent and shriveled, and his rain-washed face is swollen and horribly
A man who holds a pickax and whose sweating face is full of little
black trenches, recounts to us the death of Pepin: "He'd gone
into a funk-hole where the Boches had planked themselves, and behold
no one knew he was there and they smoked the hole to make sure of
cleaning it out, and the poor lad, they found him after the
operation, corpsed, and all pulled out like a cat's innards in the
middle of the Boche cold meat that he'd stuck--and very nicely stuck
too, I may say, seeing I was in business as a butcher in the suburbs
"One less to the squad!" says Volpatte as we go away.
We are now on the edge of the ravine at the spot where the plateau
begins that our desperate charge traversed last evening, and we
cannot recognize it. This plain, which had then seemed to me quite
level, though it really slopes, is an amazing charnel-house. It
swarms with corpses, and might be a cemetery of which the top has
been taken away.
Groups of men are moving about it, identifying the dead of last
evening and last night, turning the remains over, recognizing them
by some detail in spite of their faces. One of these searchers,
kneeling, draws from a dead hand an effaced and mangled
photograph--a portrait killed.
In the distance, black shell-smoke goes up in scrolls. then
detonates over the horizon. The wide and stippled flight of an army
of crows sweeps the sky.
Down below among the motionless multitude, and identifiable by their
wasting and disfigurement, there are zouaves, tirailleurs, and
Foreign Legionaries from the May attack. The extreme end of our
lines was then on Berthonval Wood, five or six kilometers from here.
In that attack, which was one of the most terrible of the war or of
any war, those men got here in a single rush. They thus formed a
point too far advanced in the wave of attack, and were caught on the
flanks between the machine-guns posted to right and to left on the
lines they had overshot. It is some months now since death hollowed
their eyes and consumed their cheeks, but even in those
storm-scattered and dissolving remains one can identify the havoc of
the machine-guns that destroyed them, piercing their backs and loins
and severing them in the middle. By the side of heads black and
waxen as Egyptian mummies, clotted with grubs and the wreckage of
insects, where white teeth still gleam in some cavities, by the side
of poor darkening stumps that abound like a field of old roots laid
bare, one discovers naked yellow skulls wearing the red cloth fez,
whose gray cover has crumbled like paper. Some thigh-bones protrude
from the heaps of rags stuck together with reddish mud; and from the
holes filled with clothes shredded and daubed with a sort of tar, a
spinal fragment emerges. Some ribs are scattered on the soil like
old cages broken; and close by, blackened leathers are afloat, with
water-bottles and drinking-cups pierced and flattened. About a
cloven knapsack, on the top of some bones and a cluster of bits of
cloth and accouterments, some white points are evenly scattered; by
stooping one can see that they are the finger and toe constructions
of what was once a corpse.
Sometimes only a rag emerges from long mounds to indicate that some
human being was there destroyed, for all these unburied dead end by
entering the soil.
The Germans, who were here yesterday, abandoned their soldiers by
the side of ours without interring them--as witness these three
putrefied corpses on the top of each other, in each other, with
their round gray caps whose red edge is hidden with a gray band,
their yellow-gray jackets, and their green faces. I look for the
features of one of them. From the depth of his neck up to the tufts
of hair that stick to the brim of his cap is just an earthy mass,
the face become an anthill, and two rotten berries in place of the
eyes. Another is a dried emptiness flat on its belly, the back in
tatters that almost flutter, the hands, feet, and face enrooted in
"Look! It's a new one, this--"
In the middle of the plateau and in the depth of the rainy and
bitter air, on the ghastly morrow of this debauch of slaughter,
there is a head planted in the ground, a wet and bloodless head,
with a heavy beard.
It is one of ours, and the helmet is beside it. The distended
eyelids permit a little to be seen of the dull porcelain of his
eyes, and one lip shines like a slug in the shapeless beard. No
doubt he fell into a shell-hole, which was filled up by another
shell, burying him up to the neck like the cat's-head German of the
Red Tavern at Souchez.
"I don't know him," says Joseph, who has come up very slowly and
speaks with difficulty.
"I recognize him," replies Volpatte.
"That bearded man?" says Joseph.
"He has no beard. Look--" Stooping, Volpatte passes the end of his
stick under the chin of the corpse and breaks off a sort of slab of
mud in which the head was set, a slab that looked like a beard. Then
he picks up the dead man's helmet and puts it on his head, and for a
moment holds before the eyes the round handles of his famous
scissors so as to imitate spectacles.
"Ah!" we all cried together, "it's Cocon!"
When you hear of or see the death of one of those who fought by your
side and lived exactly the same life, you receive a direct blow in
the flesh before even understanding. It is truly as if one heard of
his own destruction. It is only later that one begins to mourn.
We look at the hideous head that is murder's jest, the murdered head
already and cruelly effacing our memories of Cocon. Another comrade
less. We remain there around him, afraid.
We should like to speak a little, but do not know what to say that
would be sufficiently serious or telling or true.
"Come," says Joseph, with an effort, wholly engrossed by his severe
suffering, "I haven't strength enough to be stopping all the time."
We leave poor Cocon, the ex-statistician, with a last look, a look
too short and almost vacant.
"One cannot imagine--" says Volpatte.
No, one cannot imagine. All these disappearances at once surpass the
imagination. There are not enough survivors now. But we have vague
idea of the grandeur of these dead. They have given all; by degrees
they have given all their strength, and finally they have given
themselves, en bloc. They have outpaced life, and their effort has
something of superhuman perfection.
* * * * * *
"Tiens, he's just been wounded, that one, and yet--" A fresh wound
is moistening the neck of a body that is almost a skeleton.
"It's a rat," says Volpatte. "The stiffs are old ones, but the rats
talk to 'em. You see some rats laid out--poisoned, p'raps--near
every body or under it. Tiens, this poor old chap shall show us
his." He lifts up the foot of the collapsed remains and reveals two
"I should like to find Farfadet again," says Volpatte. "I told him
to wait just when we started running and he clipped hold of me. Poor
lad, let's hope he waited!"
So he goes to and fro, attracted towards the dead by a strange
curiosity; and these, indifferent, bandy him about from one to
another, and at each step he looks on the ground. Suddenly he utters
a cry of distress. With his hand he beckons us as he kneels to a
Acute emotion grips us. He has been killed; he, too, like the rest,
he who most towered over us by his energy and intelligence. By
virtue of always doing his duty. he has at last got killed. He has
at last found death where indeed it was.
We look at him, and then turn away from the sight and look upon each
The shock of his loss is aggravated by the spectacle that his
remains present, for they are abominable to see. Death has bestowed
a grotesque look and attitude on the man who was so comely and so
tranquil. With his hair scattered over his eyes, his mustache
trailing in his mouth, and his face swollen--he is laughing. One eye
is widely open, the other shut, and the tongue lolls out. His arms
are outstretched in the form of a cross: the hands open, the fingers
separated. The right leg is straight. The left, whence flowed the
hemorrhage that made him die, has been broken by a shell; it is
twisted into a circle, dislocated, slack, invertebrate. A mournful
irony has invested the last writhe of his agony with the appearance
of a clown's antic.
We arrange him, and lay him straight, and tranquillize the horrible
masks. Volpatte has taken a pocket-book from him and places it
reverently among his own papers, by the side of the portrait of his
own wife and children. That done, he shakes his head: "He--he was
truly a good sort, old man. When he said anything, that was the
proof that it was true. Ah, we needed him badly!"
"Yes," I said, "we had need of him always."
"Ah, la, la!" murmurs Volpatte. and he trembles. Joseph repeats in a
weak voice, "Ah, nom de Dieu! Ah, nom de Dieu!"
The plateau is as covered with people as a public square;
fatigue-parties in detachments, and isolated men. Here and there,
the stretcher-bearers are beginning (patiently and in a small way)
their huge and endless task.
Volpatte leaves us, to return to the trench and announce our new
losses, and above all the great gap left by Bertrand. He says to
Joseph, "We shan't lose sight of you, eh? Write us a line now and
again--just, 'All goes well; signed, Camembert,' eh?" He disappears
among the people who cross each other's path in the expanse now
completely possessed by a mournful and endless rain.
Joseph leans on me and we go down into the ravine. The slope by
which we descend is known as the Zouaves' Cells. In the May attack,
the Zouaves had all begun to dig themselves individual shelters, and
round these they were exterminated. Some are still seen, prone on
the brim of an incipient hole, with their trenching-tools in their
fleshless hands or looking at them with the cavernous hollows where
shrivel the entrails of eyes. The ground is so full of dead that the
earth-falls uncover places that bristle with feet, with half-clothed
skeletons, and with ossuaries of skulls placed side by side on the
steep slope like porcelain globe-jars.
In the ground here there are several strata of dead and in many
places the delving of the shells has brought out the oldest and set
them out in display on the top of the new ones. The bottom of the
ravine is completely carpeted with debris of weapons, clothing, and
implements. One tramples shell fragments, old iron, loaves and even
biscuits that have fallen from knapsacks and are not yet dissolved
by the rain. Mess-tins, pots of jam. and helmets are pierced and
riddled by bullets--the scrapings and scum of a hell-broth; and the
dislocated posts that survive are stippled with holes.
The trenches that run in this valley have a look of earthquake
crevasses, and as if whole tombs of uncouth things had been emptied
on the ruins of the earth's convulsion. And there, where no dead
are, the very earth is cadaverous.
We follow the International Trench, still fluttering with rainbow
rags--a shapeless trench which the confusion of torn stuffs invests
with an air of a trench assassinated--to a place where the irregular
and winding ditch forms an elbow. All the way along, as far as an
earthwork barricade that blocks the way, German corpses are
entangled and knotted as in a torrent of the damned, some of them
emerging from muddy caves in the middle of a bewildering
conglomerate of beams, ropes, creepers of iron, trench-rollers,
hurdles, and bullet-screens. At the barrier itself, one corpse
stands upright, fixed in the other dead, while another, planted in
the same spot, stands obliquely in the dismal place, the whole
arrangement looking like part of a big wheel embedded in the mud, or
the shattered sail of a windmill. And over all this, this
catastrophe of flesh and filthiness, religious images are broadcast,
post-cards, pious pamphlets, leaflets on which prayers are written
in Gothic lettering--they have scattered themselves in waves from
gutted clothing. The paper words seem to bedeck with blossom these
shores of pestilence, this Valley of Death, with their countless
pallors of barren lies.
I seek a solid footway to guide Joseph in--his wound is paralyzing
him by degrees, and he feels it extending throughout his body. While
I support him, and he is looking at nothing, I look upon the ghastly
upheaval through which we are escaping.
A German sergeant is seated, here where we tread, supported by the
riven timbers that once formed the shelter of a sentry. There is a
little hole under his eye; the thrust of a bayonet has nailed him to
the planks through his face. In front of him, also sitting, with his
elbows on his knees and his fists on his chin, there is a man who
has all the top of his skull taken off like a boiled egg. Beside
them--an awful watchman!--the half of a man is standing, a man
sliced in two from scalp to stomach, upright against the earthen
wall. I do not know where the other half of this human post may be,
whose eye hangs down above and whose bluish viscera curl spirally
round his leg.
Down below, one's foot detaches itself from a matrix of blood,
stiffened with French bayonets that have been bent, doubled, and
twisted by the force of the blow. Through a gap in the mutilated
wall one espies a recess where the bodies of soldiers of the
Prussian Guard seem to kneel in the pose of suppliants, run through
from behind, with blood-stained gaps, impaled. Out of this group
they have pulled to its edge a huge Senegalese tirailleur, who,
petrified in the contorted position where death seized him, leans
upon empty air and holds fast by his feet, staring at his two
severed wrists. No doubt a bomb had exploded in his hands; and since
all his face is alive, he seems to be gnawing maggots.
"It was here," says a passing soldier of an Alpine regiment, "that
they did the white flag trick; and as they'd got Africans to deal
with, you bet they got it hot!--Tiens, there's the white flag itself
that these dunghills used."
He seizes and shakes a long handle that lies there. A square of
white stuff is nailed to it, and unfolds itself innocently.
A procession of shovel-bearers advances along the battered trench.
They have an order to shovel the earth into the relics of the
trenches, to stop everything up, so that the bodies may be buried on
the spot. Thus these helmeted warriors will here perform the work of
the redresser of wrongs as they restore their full shape to the
fields and make level the cavities already half filled by cargoes of
* * * * * *
Some one calls me from the other side of the trench, a man sitting
on the ground and leaning against a stake. It is Papa Ramure.
Through his unbuttoned greatcoat and jacket I see bandages around
his chest. "The ambulance men have been to tuck me up," he says, in
a weak and stertorous voice, "but they can't take me away from here
before evening. But I know all right that I'm petering out every
He jerks his head. "Stay a bit," he asks me. He is much moved, and
the tears are flowing. He offers his hand and holds mine. He wants
to say a lot of things to me and almost to make confession. "I was a
straight man before the war," he says, with trickling tears; "I
worked from morning to night to feed my little lot. And then I came
here to kill Boches. And now, I've got killed. Listen, listen,
listen, don't go away, listen to me--"
"I must take Joseph back--he's at the end of his strength. I'll come
Ramure lifted his streaming eyes to the wounded man. "Not only
living, but wounded! Escaped from death! Ah, some women and children
are lucky! All right, take him, take him, and come back--I hope I
shall be waiting for you--"
Now we must climb the other slope of the ravine, and we enter the
deformed and maltreated ditch of the old Trench 97.
Suddenly a frantic whistling tears the air and there is a shower of
shrapnel above us. Meteorites flash and scatter in fearful flight in
the heart of the yellow clouds. Revolving missiles rush through the
heavens to break and burn upon the bill, to ransack it and exhume
the old bones of men; and the thundering flames multiply themselves
along an even line.
It is the barrage fire beginning again. Like children we cry,
In this fury of fatal engines, this mechanical cataclysm that
pursues us through space, there is something that surpasses human
strength and will, something supernatural. Joseph, standing with his
hand in mine, looks over his shoulder at the storm of rending
explosions. He bows his head like an imprisoned beast, distracted:
"What, again! Always, then!" he growls; "after all we've done and
all we've seen--and now it begins again! Ah, non, non!"
He falls on his knees, gasps for breath, and throws a futile look of
full hatred before him and behind him. He repeats, "It's never
I take him by the arm and raise him. "Come; it'll be finished for
We must dally there awhile before climbing, so I will go and bring
back Ramure in extremis, who is waiting for me. But Joseph clings to
me, and then I notice a movement of men about the spot where I left
the dying man. I can guess what it means; it is no longer worth
while to go there.
The ground of the ravine where we two are closely clustered to abide
the tempest is quivering, and at each shot we feel the deep simoom
of the shells. But in the hole where we are there is scarcely any
risk of being hit. At the first lull, some of the men who were also
waiting detach themselves and begin to go up; stretcher-bearers
redouble their huge efforts to carry a body and climb, making one
think of stubborn ants pushed back by successive grains of sand;
wounded men and liaison men move again.
"Let's go on," says Joseph, with sagging shoulders, as he measures
the hill with his eye--the last stage of his Gethsemane.
There are trees here; a row of excoriated willow trunks, some of
wide countenance, and others hollowed and yawning, like coffins on
end. The scene through which we are struggling is rent and
convulsed, with hills and chasms, and with such somber swellings as
if all the clouds of storm had rolled down here. Above the tortured
earth, this stampeded file of trunks stands forth against a striped
brown sky, milky in places and obscurely sparkling--a sky of agate.
Across the entry to Trench 97 a felled oak twists his great body,
and a corpse stops up the trench. Its head and legs are buried in
the ground. The dirty water that trickles in the trench has covered
it with a sandy glaze, and through the moist deposit the chest and
belly bulge forth, clad in a shirt. We stride over the frigid
remains, slimy and pale, that suggest the belly of a stranded
crocodile; and it is difficult to do so, by reason of the soft and
slippery ground. We have to plunge our hands up to the wrists in the
mud of the wall.
At this moment an infernal whistle falls on us and we bend like
bushes. The shell bursts in the air in front of us, deafening and
blinding, and buries us under a horribly sibilant mountain of dark
smoke. A climbing soldier has churned the air with his arms and
disappeared, hurled into some hole. Shouts have gone up and fallen
again like rubbish. While we are looking, through the great black
veil that the wind tears from the ground and dismisses into the sky,
at the bearers who are putting down a stretcher, running to the
place of the explosion and picking up something inert--I recall the
unforgettable scene when my brother-in-arms, Poterloo, whose heart
was so full of hope, vanished with his arms outstretched in the
flame of a shell.
We arrive at last on the summit, which is marked as with a signal by
a wounded and frightful man. He is upright in the wind, shaken but
upright, enrooted there. In his uplifted and wind-tossed cape we see
a yelling and convulsive face. We pass by him, and he is like a sort
of screaming tree.
* * * * * *
We have arrived at our old first line, the one from which we set off
for the attack. We sit down on a firing-step with our backs to the
holes cut for our exodus at the last minute by the sappers. Euterpe,
the cyclist, passes and gives us good-day. Then he turns in his
tracks and draws from the cuff of his coat-sleeve an envelope, whose
protruding edge had conferred a white stripe on him.
"It's you, isn't it," he says to me, "that takes Biquet's letters
that's dead?"--"Yes."--" Here's a returned one; the address has
The envelope was exposed, no doubt, to rain on the top of a packet,
and the address is no longer legible among the violet mottlings on
the dried and frayed paper. Alone there survives in a corner the
address of the sender. I pull the letter out gently--"My dear
mother"--Ah, I remember! Biquet, now lying in the open air in the
very trench where we are halted, wrote that letter not long ago in
our quarters at Gauchin-l'Abbe, one flaming and splendid
afternoon, in reply to a letter from his mother, whose fears for him
had proved groundless and made him laugh--"You think I'm in the cold
and rain and danger. Not at all; on the contrary, all that's
finished. It's hot, we're sweating, and we've nothing to do only to
stroll about in the sunshine. I laughed to read your letter--"
I return to the frail and damaged envelope the letter which, if
chance had not averted this new irony, would have been read by the
old peasant woman at the moment when the body of her son is a wet
nothing in the cold and the storm, a nothing that trickles and flows
like a dark spring on the wall of the trench.
Joseph has leaned his head backwards. His eyes close for a moment,
his mouth half opens, and his breathing is fitful.
"Courage!" I say to him, and he opens his eyes again.
"Ah!" he replies, "it isn't to me you should say that. Look at those
chaps, there, they're going back yonder, and you too, you're going
back. It all has to go on for you others. Ah, one must be really
strong to go on, to go on!"
FROM this point onwards we are in sight of the enemy
observation-posts, and must no longer leave the communication
trenches. First we follow that of the Pylones road. The trench
is cut along the side of the road, and the road itself is wiped out;
so are its trees. Half of it, all the way along, has been chewed and
swallowed by the trench; and what is left of it has been invaded by
the earth and the grass, and mingled with the fields in the fullness
of time. At some places in the trench--there, where a sandbag has
burst and left only a muddy cell--you may see again on the level of
your eyes the stony ballast of the ex-road, cut to the quick, or
even the roots of the bordering trees that have been cut down to
embody in the trench wall. The latter is as slashed and uneven as if
it were a wave of earth and rubbish and dark scum that the immense
plain has spat out and pushed against the edge of the trench.
We arrive at a junction of trenches, and on the top of the
maltreated hillock which is outlined on the cloudy grayness, a
mournful signboard stands crookedly in the wind. The trench system
becomes still more cramped and close, and the men who are flowing
towards the clearing-station from all parts of the sector multiply
and throng in the deep-dug ways.
These lamentable lanes are staked out with corpses. At uneven
intervals their walls are broken into by quite recent gaps,
extending to their full depth, by funnelholes of fresh earth which
trespass upon the unwholesome land beyond, where earthy bodies are
squatting with their chins on their knees or leaning against the
wall as straight and silent as the rifles which wait beside them.
Some of these standing dead turn their blood-bespattered faces
towards the survivors; others exchange their looks with the sky's
Joseph halts to take breath. I say to him as to a child, "We're
nearly there, we're nearly there."
The sinister ramparts of this way of desolation contract still more.
They impel a feeling of suffocation, of a nightmare of falling which
oppresses and strangles: and in these depths where the walls seem to
be coming nearer and closing in, you are forced to halt, to wriggle
a path for yourself, to vex and disturb the dead, to be pushed about
by the endless disorder of the files that flow along these hinder
trenches, files made up of messengers, of the maimed, of men who
groan and who cry aloud, who hurry frantically, crimsoned by fever
or pallid and visibly shaken by pain.
* * * * * *
All this throng at last pulls up and gathers and groans at the
crossways where the burrows of the Refuge open out.
A doctor is trying with shouts and gesticulations to keep a little
space clear from the rising tide that beats upon the threshold of
the shelter, where he applies summary bandages in the open air; they
say he has not ceased to do it, nor his helpers either, all the
night and all the day, that he is accomplishing a superhuman task.
When they leave his hands, some of the wounded are swallowed up by
the black hole of the Refuge; others are sent back to the bigger
clearing-station contrived in the trench on the Bethune road.
In this confined cavity formed by the crossing of the ditches, in
the bottom of a sort of robbers' den, we waited two hours, buffeted,
squeezed, choked and blinded, climbing over each other like cattle,
in an odor of blood and butchery. There are faces that become more
distorted and emaciated from minute to minute. One of the patients
can no longer hold back his tears; they come in floods, and as he
shakes his head he sprinkles his neighbors. Another, bleeding like a
fountain, shouts, "Hey, there! have a look at me!" A young man with
burning eyes yells like a soul in hell, "I'm on fire!" and he roars
and blows like a furnace.
* * * * * *
Joseph is bandaged. He thrusts a way through to me and holds out his
hand: "It isn't serious, it seems; good-by," he says.
At once we are separated in the mob. With my last glance I see his
wasted face and the vacant absorption in his trouble as he is meekly
led away by a Divisional stretcher-bearer whose hand is on his
shoulder; and suddenly I see him no more. In war, life separates us
just as death does, without our having even the time to think about
They tell me not to stay there, but to go down into the Refuge to
rest before returning. There are two entries, very low and very
narrow, on the level of the ground. This one is flush with the mouth
of a sloping gallery, narrow as the conduit of a sewer. In order to
penetrate the Refuge, one must first turn round and work backwards
with bent body into the shrunken pipe, and here the feet discover
steps. Every three paces there is a deep step.
Once inside you have a first impression of being trapped--that there
is not room enough either to descend or climb out. As you go on
burying yourself in the gulf, the nightmare of suffocation continues
that you progressively endured as you advanced along the bowels of
the trenches before foundering in here. On all sides you bump and
scrape yourself, you are clutched by the tightness of the passage,
you are wedged and stuck. I have to change the position of my
cartridge pouches by sliding them round the belt and to take my bags
in my arms against my chest. At the fourth step the suffocation
increases still more and one has a moment of agony; little as one
may lift his knee for the rearward step, his back strikes the roof.
In this spot it is necessary to go on all fours, still backwards. As
you go down into the depth, a pestilent atmosphere and heavy as
earth buries you. Your hands touch only the cold, sticky and
sepulchral clay of the wall, which bears you down on all sides and
enshrouds you in a dismal solitude; its blind and moldy breath
touches your face. On the last steps, reached after long labor, one
is assailed by a hot, unearthly clamor that rises from the hole as
from a sort of kitchen.
When you reach at last the bottom of this laddered sap that elbows
and compresses you at every step, the evil dream is not ended, for
you find yourself in a lone but very narrow cavern where gloom
reigns, a mere corridor not more than five feet high. If you cease
to stoop and to walk with bended knees, your head violently strikes
the planks that roof the Refuge, and the newcomers are heard to
growl--more or less forcefully, according to their temper and
condition--"Ah, lucky I've got my tin hat on:"
One makes out the gesture of some one who is squatting in an angle.
It is an ambulance man on guard, whose monotone says to each
arrival, "Take the mud off your boots before going in." So you
stumble into an accumulating pile of mud; it entangles you at the
foot of the steps on this threshold of hell.
In the hubbub of lamentation and groaning, in the strong smell of a
countless concentration of wounds, in this blinking cavern of
confused and unintelligible life, I try first to get my bearings.
Some weak candle flames are shining along the Refuge, but they only
relieve the darkness in the spots where they pierce it. At the
farthest end faint daylight appears, as it might to a dungeon
prisoner at the bottom of an oubliette. This obscure vent-hole
allows one to make out some big objects ranged along the corridor;
they are low stretchers, like coffins. Around and above them one
then dimly discerns the movement of broken and drooping shadows, and
the stirring of ranks and groups of specters against the walls.
I turn round. At the end opposite that where the faraway light leaks
through, a mob is gathered in front of a tent-cloth which reaches
from the ceiling to the ground, and thus forms an apartment, whose
illumination shines through the oily yellow material. In this
retreat, anti-tetanus injections are going on by the light of an
acetylene lamp. When the cloth is lifted to allow some one to enter
or leave, the glare brutally besplashes the disordered rags of the
wounded stationed in front to await their treatment. Bowed by the
ceiling, seated, kneeling or groveling, they push each other in the
desire not to lose their turn or to steal some other's, and they
bark like dogs, "My turn!"--"Me!"--"Me!" In this corner of
modified conflict the tepid stinks of acetylene and bleeding men are
horrible to swallow.
I turn away from it and seek elsewhere to find a place where I may
sit down. I go forward a little, groping, still stooping and curled
up, and my hands in front.
By grace of the flame which a smoker holds over his pipe I see a
bench before me, full of beings. My eyes are growing accustomed to
the gloom that stagnates in the cave, and I can make out pretty well
this row of people whose bandages and swathings dimly whiten their
beads and limbs. Crippled, gashed, deformed, motionless or restless,
fast fixed in this kind of barge, they present an incongruous
collection of suffering and misery.
One of them cries out suddenly, half rises, and then sits down
again. His neighbor, whose greatcoat is torn and his head bare,
looks at him and says to him--"What's the use of worrying?"
And he repeats the sentence several times at random, gazing straight
in front of him, his hands on his knees. A young man in the middle
of the seat is talking to himself. He says that he is an aviator.
There are burns down one side of his body and on his face. In his
fever he is still burning; it seems to him that he is still gnawed
by the pointed flames that leaped from his engine. He is muttering,
"Gott mit uns!" and then, "God is with us!"
A zouave with his arm in a sling, who sits awry and seems to carry
his shoulder like a torturing burden, speaks to him: "You're the
aviator that fell, aren't you?"
"I've seen--things," replies the flying-man laboriously.
"I too, I've seen some!" the soldier interrupts; "some people
couldn't stick it, to see what I've seen."
"Come and sit here," says one of the men on the seat to me, making
room as he speaks. "Are you wounded?"
"No; I brought a wounded man here, and I'm going back."
"You're worse than wounded then; come and sit down."
"I was mayor in my place," explains one of the sufferers, "but when
I go back no one will know me again, it's so long now that I've been
"Four hours now have I been stuck on this bench," groans a sort of
mendicant, whose shaking hand holds his helmet on his knees like an
alms-bowl, whose head is lowered and his back rounded.
"We're waiting to be cleared, you know," I am informed by a big man
who pants and sweats--all the bulk of him seems to be boiling. His
mustache hangs as if it had come half unstuck through the moisture
of his face. He turns two big and lightless eyes on me, and his
wound is not visible.
"That's so," says another; "all the wounded of the Brigade come and
pile themselves up here one after another, without counting them
from other places. Yes, look at it now; this hole here, it's the
midden for the whole Brigade."
"I'm gangrened, I'm smashed, I'm all in bits inside," droned one who
sat with his head in his hands and spoke through his fingers; "yet
up to last week I was young and I was clean. They've changed me.
Now, I've got nothing but a dirty old decomposed body to drag
"Yesterday," says another, "I was twenty-six years old. And now how
old am I?" He tries to get up, so as to show us his shaking and
faded face, worn out in a night, to show us the emaciation, the
depression of cheeks and eye-sockets, and the dying flicker of light
in his greasy eye.
"It hurts!" humbly says some one invisible.
"What's the use of worrying?" repeats the other mechanically.
There was a silence, and then the aviator cried, "The padres were
trying on both sides to hide their voices."
"What's that mean?" said the astonished zouave.
"Are you taking leave of 'em, old chap?" asked a chasseur wounded in
the hand and with one arm bound to his body, as his eyes left the
mummified limb for a moment to glance at the flying-man.
The latter's looks were distraught; he was trying to interpret a
mysterious picture which everywhere he saw before his eyes--"Up
there, from the sky, you don't see much, you know. Among the squares
of the fields and the little heaps of the villages the roads run
like white cotton. You can make out, too, some hollow threads that
look as if they'd been traced with a pin-point and scratched through
fine sand. These nets that festoon the plain with regularly wavy
marks, they're the trenches. Last Sunday morning I was flying over
the firing-line. Between our first lines and their first lines,
between their extreme edges, between the fringes of the two huge
armies that are up against each other, looking at each other and not
seeing, and waiting--it's not very far; sometimes forty yards,
sometimes sixty. To me it looked about a stride, at the great height
where I was planing. And behold I could make out two crowds, one
among the Boches, and one of ours, in these parallel lines that
seemed to touch each other; each was a solid, lively lump, and all
around 'em were dots like grains of black sand scattered on gray
sand, and these hardly budged--it didn't look like an alarm! So I
went down several turns to investigate.
"Then I understood. It was Sunday, and there were two religious
services being held under my eyes--the altar, the padre, and all the
crowd of chaps. The more I went down the more I could see that the
two things were alike--so exactly alike that it looked silly. One of
the services--whichever you like--was a reflection of the other, and
I wondered if I was seeing double. I went down lower; they didn't
fire at me. Why? I don't know at all. Then I could hear. I heard one
murmur. one only. I could only gather a single prayer that came up
to me en bloc, the sound of a single chant that passed by me on its
way to heaven. I went to and fro in space to listen to this faint
mixture of hymns that blended together just the same although they
were one against the other; and the more they tried to get on top of
each other, the more they were blended together up in the heights of
the sky where I was floating.
"I got some shrapnel just at the moment when, very low down, I made
out the two voices from the earth that made up the one--'Gott mit
uns!' and 'God is with us!'--and I flew away."
The young man shook his bandage-covered head; he seemed deranged by
the recollection. "I said to myself at the moment, 'I must be mad!'"
"It's the truth of things that's mad," said the zouave.
With his eyes shining in delirium, the narrator sought to express
and convey the deep disturbing idea that was besieging him, that he
was struggling against.
"Now think of it!" he said. "Fancy those two identical crowds
yelling things that are identical and yet opposite, these identical
enemy cries! What must the good God think about it all? I know well
enough that He knows everything, but even if He knows everything, He
won't know what to make of it."
"Rot!" cried the zouave.
"He doesn't care a damn for us, don't fret yourself."
"Anyway, what is there funny about it? That doesn't prevent people
from quarreling with each other--and don't they! And rifle-shots
speak jolly well the same language, don't they?"
"Yes," said the aviator, "but there's only one God. It isn't the
departure of prayers that I don't understand; it's their arrival."
The conversation dropped.
"There's a crowd of wounded laid out in there," the man with the
dull eyes said to me, "and I'm wondering all ways how they got 'em
down here. It must have been a terrible job, tumbling them in here."
Two Colonials, hard and lean, supporting each other like tipsy men,
butted into us and recoiled, looking on the ground for some place to
"Old chap, in that trench I'm telling you of," the hoarse voice of
one was relating, "we were three days without rations, three full
days without anything--anything. Willy-nilly, we had to drink our
own water, and no help for it."
The other explained that once on a time he had cholera. "Ah, that's
a dirty business--fever, vomiting, colics; old man, I was ill with
"And then, too," suddenly growled the flying-man, still fierce to
pursue the answer to the gigantic conundrum, "what is this God
thinking of to let everybody believe like that that He's with them?
Why does He let us all--all of us--shout out side by side, like
idiots and brutes, 'God is with us!'--'No, not at all, you're wrong;
God is with us'?"
A groan arose from a stretcher, and for a moment fluttered lonely in
the silence as if it were an answer.
* * * * * *
Then, "I don't believe in God," said a pain-racked voice; "I know He
doesn't exist--because of the suffering there is. They can tell us
all the clap-trap they like, and trim up all the words they can rind
and all they can make up, but to say that all this innocent
suffering could come from a perfect God, it's damned
"For my part," another of the men on the seat goes on, "I don't
believe in God because of the cold. I've seen men become corpses bit
by bit, just simply with cold. If there was a God of goodness, there
wouldn't be any cold. You can't get away from that."
"Before you can believe in God, you've got to do away with
everything there is. So we've got a long way to go!"
Several mutilated men, without seeing each other, combine in
head-shakes of dissent "You're right," says another, "you're right."
These men in ruins, vanquished in victory, isolated and scattered,
have the beginnings of a revelation. There come moments in the
tragedy of these events when men are not only sincere, but
truth-telling, moments when you see that they and the truth are face
"As for me," said a new speaker, "if I don't believe in God,
it's--" A fit of coughing terribly continued his sentence.
When the fit passed and his cheeks were purple and wet with tears,
some one asked him, "Where are you wounded?"
"I'm not wounded; I'm ill."
"Oh, I see!" they said, in a tone which meant "You're not
He understood, and pleaded the cause of his illness:
"I'm done in, I spit blood. I've no strength left, and it doesn't
come back, you know, when it goes away like that."
"Ah, ah!" murmured the comrades--wavering, but secretly convinced
all the same of the inferiority of civilian ailments to wounds.
In resignation he lowered his head and repeated to himself very
quietly, "I can't walk any more; where would you have me go?"
* * * * * *
A commotion is arising for some unknown reason in. the horizontal
gulf which lengthens as it contracts from stretcher to stretcher as
far as the eye can see, as far as the pallid peep of daylight, in
this confused corridor where the poor winking flames of candles
redden and seem feverish, and winged shadows cast themselves. The
odds and ends of heads and limbs are agitated, appeals and cries
arouse each other and increase in number like invisible ghosts. The
prostrate bodies undulate, double up, and turn over.
In the heart of this den of captives, debased and punished by pain,
I make out the big mass of a hospital attendant whose heavy
shoulders rise and fall like a knapsack carried crosswise, and whose
stentorian voice reverberates at speed through the cave. "You've
been meddling with your bandage again, you son of a lubber, you
varmint!" he thunders. "I'll do it up again for you, as long as it's
you, my chick, but if you touch it again, you'll see what I'll do to
Behold him then in the obscurity, twisting a bandage round the
cranium of a very little man who is almost upright, who has
bristling hair and a beard which puffs out in front. With dangling
arms, he submits in silence. But the attendant abandons him, looks
on the ground and exclaims sonorously, "What the--? Eh, come now,
my friend, are you cracked? There's manners for you, to lie down on
the top of a patient!" And his capacious hand disengages a second
limp body on which the first had extended himself as on a mattress;
while the mannikin with the bandaged head alongside, as soon as he
is let alone, puts his hands to his head without saying a word and
tries once more to remove the encircling lint.
There is an uproar, too, among some shadows that are visible against
a luminous background; they seem to be wildly agitated in the gloom
of the crypt. The light of a candle shows us several men shaken with
their efforts to hold a wounded soldier down on his stretcher. It is
a man whose feet are gone. At the end of his legs are terrible
bandages, with tourniquets to restrain the hemorrhage. His stumps
have bled into the linen wrappings, and he seems to wear red
breeches. His face is devilish, shining and sullen, and he is
raving. They are pressing down on his shoulders and knees, for this
man without feet would fain jump from the stretcher and go away.
"Let me go!" he rattles in breathless, quavering rage. His voice is
low, with sudden sonorities, like a trumpet that one tries to blow
too softly. "By God, let me go, I tell you! Do you think I'm going
to stop here? Allons, let me be, or I'll jump over you on my hands!"
So violently he contracts and extends himself that he pulls to and
fro those who are trying to restrain him by their gripping weight,
and I can see the zigzags of the candle held by a kneeling man whose
other arm engirdles the mutilated maniac, who shouts so fiercely
that he wakes up the sleepers and dispels the drowsiness of the
rest. On all sides they turn towards him; half rising, they listen
to the incoherent lamentations which end by dying in the dark. At
the same moment, in another corner, two prostrate wounded, crucified
on the ground, so curse each other that one of them has to be
removed before the frantic dialogue is broken up.
I go farther away, towards the point where the light from outside
comes through among the tangled beams as through a broken grating,
and stride over the interminable stretchers that take up all the
width of the underground alley whose oppressive confinement chokes
me. The human forms prone on the stretchers are now hardly stirring
under the Jack-o'-lanterns of the candles; they stagnate in their
rattling breath and heavy groans.
On the edge of a stretcher a man is sitting, leaning against the
wall. His clothes are torn apart, and in the middle of their
darkness appears the white, emaciated breast of a martyr. His head
is bent quite back and veiled in shadow, but I can see the beating
of his heart.
The daylight that is trickling through at the end, drop by drop,
comes in by an earth-fall. Several shells. falling on the same spot,
have broken through the heavy earthen roof of the Refuge.
Here, some pale reflections are cast on the blue of the greatcoats,
on the shoulders and along the folds. Almost paralyzed by the
darkness and their own weakness, a group of men is pressing towards
the gap, like dead men half awaking, to taste a little of the pallid
air and detach themselves from the sepulcher. This corner at the
extremity of the gloom offers itself as a way of escape, an oasis
where one may stand upright, where one is lightly, angelically
touched by the light of heaven.
"There were some chaps there that were blown to bits when the shells
burst," said some one to me who was waiting there in the sickly ray
of entombed light. "You talk about a mess! Look, there's the padre
hooking down what was blown up."
The huge Red Cross sergeant, in a hunter's chestnut waistcoat which
gives him the chest of a gorilla, is detaching the pendent entrails
twisted among the beams of the shattered woodwork. For the purpose
he is using a rifle with fixed bayonet, since he could not find a
stick long enough; and the heavy giant, bald, bearded and asthmatic,
wields the weapon awkwardly. He has a mild face, meek and unhappy,
and while he tries to catch the remains of intestines in the
corners, he mutters a string of "Oh's!" like sighs. His eyes are
masked by blue glasses; his breathing is noisy. The top of his head
is of puny dimensions, and the huge thickness of his neck has a
conical shape. To see him thus pricking and unhanging from the air
strips of viscera and rags of flesh, you could take him for a
butcher at some fiendish task.
But I let myself fall in a corner with my eyes half closed, seeing
hardly anything of the spectacle that lies and palpitates and falls
around me. Indistinctly I gather some fragments of sentences--still
the horrible monotony of the story of wounds: "Nom de Dieu! In that
place I should think the bullets were touching each other.--"His
head was bored through from one temple to the other. You could have
passed a thread through."
"Those beggars were an hour before they lifted their fire and
stopped peppering us." Nearer to me some one gabbles at the end of
his story, "When I'm sleeping I dream that I'm killing him over
Other memories are called up and buzz about among the buried
wounded; it is like the purring of countless gear-wheels in a
machine that turns and turns. And I hear afar him who repeats from
his seat, "What's the use of worrying?" in all possible tones,
commanding a pitiful, sometimes like a prophet and anon like one
shipwrecked; he metrifies with his cry the chorus of choking and
plaintive voices that try so terribly to extol their suffering.
Some one comes forward, blindly feeling the wall with his stick, and
reaches me. It is Farfadet! I call him, and he turns nearly towards
me to tell me that one eye is gone, and the other is bandaged as
well. I give him my place, take him by the shoulders and make him
sit down. He submits, and seated at the base of the wall waits
patiently, with the resignation of his clerkly calling, as if in a
I come to anchor a little farther away, in an empty space where two
prostrate men are talking to each other in low voices; they are so
near to me that I hear them without listening. They are two soldiers
of the Foreign Legion; their helmets and greatcoats are dark yellow.
"It's not worth while to make-believe about it," says one of them
banteringly. "I'm staying here this time. It's finished--my bowels
are shot through. If I were in a hospital, in a town, they'd operate
on me in time, and it might stick up again. But here! It was
yesterday I got it. We're two or three hours from the Bethune
road, aren't we? And how many hours, think you, from the road to an
ambulance where they can operate? And then, when are they going to
pick us up? It's nobody's fault, I dare say; but you've got to look
facts in the face. Oh, I know it isn't going to be any worse from
now than it is, but it can't be long, seeing I've a hole all the way
through my parcel of guts. You, your foot'll get all right, or
they'll put you another one on. But I'm going to die."
"Ah!" said the other, convinced by the reasoning of his neighbor.
The latter goes on--"Listen, Dominique. You've led a bad life. You
cribbed things, and you were quarrelsome when drunk. You've dirtied
your ticket in the police register, properly."
"I can't say it isn't true, because it is," says the other; "but
what have you got to do with it?"
"You'll lead a bad life again after the war, inevitably; and then
you'll have bother about that affair of the cooper."
The other becomes fierce and aggressive. "What the hell's it to do
with you? Shut your jaw!"
"As for me, I've no more family than you have. I've nobody, except
Louise--and she isn't a relation of mine, seeing we're not married.
And there are no convictions against me, beyond a few little
military jobs. There's nothing on my name."
"Well, what about it? I don't care a damn."
"I'm going to tell you. Take my name. Take it--I give it you; as
long as neither of us has any family."
"Yes; you'll call yourself Leonard Carlotti, that's all. 'Tisn't a
big job. What harm can it do you? Straight off, you've no more
convictions. They won't hunt you out, and you can be as happy as I
should have been if this bullet hadn't gone through my magazine."
"Oh Christ!" said the other, "you'd do that? You'd--that--well, old
chap, that beats all!"
"Take it. It's there in my pocket-book in my greatcoat. Go on, take
it, and hand yours over to me--so that I can carry it all away with
me. You'll be able to live where you like, except where I come from,
where I'm known a bit, at Longueville in Tunis. You'll remember
that? And anyway, it's written down. You must read it, the
pocket-book. I shan't blab to anybody. To bring the trick off
properly, mum's the word, absolutely."
He ponders a moment, and then says with a shiver "I'll p'raps tell
Louise, so's she'll find I've done the right thing, and think the
better of me, when I write to her to say good-by."
But he thinks better of it, and shakes his head with an heroic
effort. "No--I shan't let on, even to her. She's her, of course, but
women are such chatterers!"
The other man looks at him, and repeats, "Ah, nome de Dieu!"
Without being noticed by the two men I leave the drama narrowly
developing in this lamentable corner and its jostling and traffic
Now I touch the composed and convalescent chat of two poor
wretches--"Ah, my boy, the affection he had for that vine of his!
You couldn't find anything wrong among the branches of it--"
"That little nipper, that wee little kid, when I went out with him,
holding his tiny fist, it felt as if I'd got hold of the little warm
neck of a swallow, you know."
And alongside this sentimental avowal, here is the passing
revelation of another mind: "Don't I know the 547th! Rather! Listen,
it's a funny regiment. They've got a poilu in it who's called
Petitjean, another called Petitpierre, and another called
Petitlouis. Old man, it's as I'm telling you; that's the kind of
regiment it is."
As I begin to pick out a way with a view to leaving the cavern,
there is a great noise down yonder of a fall and a chorus of
exclamations. It is the hospital sergeant who has fallen. Through
the breach that he was clearing of its soft and bloody relics, a
bullet has taken him in the throat, and he is spread out full length
on the ground. His great bewildered eyes are rolling and his breath
comes foaming. His mouth and the lower part of his face are quickly
covered with a cloud of rosy bubbles. They place his head on a bag
of bandages, and the bag is instantly soaked with blood. An
attendant cries that the packets of lint will be spoiled, and they
are needed. Something else is sought on which to put the head that
ceaselessly makes a light and discolored froth. Only a loaf can be
found, and it is slid under the spongy hair.
While they hold the sergeant's hand and question him, he only
slavers new heaps of bubbles, and we see his great black-bearded
head across this rosy cloud. Laid out like that, he might be a
deep-breathing marine monster, and the transparent red foam gathers
and creeps up to his great hazy eyes, no longer spectacled.
Then his throat rattles. It is a childish rattle, and he dies moving
his head to right and to left as though he were trying very gently
to say "No."
Looking on the enormous inert mass, I reflect that he was a good
man. He had an innocent and impressionable heart. How I reproach
myself that I sometimes abused him for the ingenuous narrowness of
his views, and for a certain clerical impertinence that he always
had! And how glad I am in this distressing scene--yes, happy enough
to tremble with joy--that I restrained myself from an angry protest
when I found him stealthily reading a letter I was writing, a
protest that would unjustly have wounded him! I remember the time
when he exasperated me so much by his dissertation on France and the
Virgin Mary. It seemed impossible to me that he could utter those
thoughts sincerely. Why should he not have been sincere? Has he not
been really killed today? I remember, too, certain deeds of
devotion, the kindly patience of the great man, exiled in war as in
life--and the rest does not matter. His ideas themselves are only
trivial details compared with his heart--which is there on the
ground in ruins in this corner of Hell. With what intensity I
lamented this man who was so far asunder from me in everything!
Then fell the thunder on us! We were thrown violently on each other
by the frightful shaking of the ground and the walls. It was as if
the overhanging earth had burst and hurled itself down. Part of the
armor-plate of beams collapsed, enlarging the hole that already
pierced the cavern. Another shock--another pulverized span fell in
roaring destruction. The corpse of the great Red Cross sergeant went
rolling against the wall like the trunk of a tree. All the timber in
the long frame-work of the cave, those heavy black vertebrae,
cracked with an ear-splitting noise, and all the prisoners in the
dungeon shouted together in horror.
Blow after blow, the explosions resound and drive us in all
directions as the bombardment mangles and devours the sanctuary of
pierced and diminished refuge. As the hissing flight of shells
hammers and crushes the gaping end of the cave with its
thunderbolts, daylight streams in through the clefts. More sharply
now, and more unnaturally, one sees the flushed faces and those
pallid with death, the eyes which fade in agony or burn with fever,
the patched-up white-bound bodies, the monstrous bandages. All that
was hidden rises again into daylight. Haggard, blinking and
distorted, in face of the flood of iron and embers that the
hurricanes of light bring with them, the wounded arise and scatter
and try to take flight. All the terror-struck inhabitants roll about
in compact masses across the miserable tunnel, as if in the pitching
hold of a great ship that strikes the rocks.
The aviator, as upright as he can get and with his neck on the
ceiling, waves his arms and appeals to God, asks Him what He is
called, what is His real name. Overthrown by the blast and cast upon
the others, I see him who, bare of breast and his clothes gaping
like a wound, reveals the heart of a Christ. The greatcoat of the
man who still monotonously repeats, "What's the use of worrying?"
now shows itself all green, bright green, the effect of the picric
acid no doubt released by the explosion that has staggered his
brain. Others--the rest, indeed--helpless and maimed, move and creep
and cringe, worm themselves into the corners. They are like moles.
poor, defenseless beasts, hunted by the hellish hounds of the guns.
The bombardment slackens, and ends in a cloud of smoke that still
echoes the crashes, in a quivering and burning after-damp. I pass
out through the breach; and still surrounded and entwined in the
clamor of despair, I arrive under the free sky, in the soft earth
where mingled planks and legs are sunk. I catch myself on some
wreckage; it is the embankment of the trench. At the moment when I
plunge into the communication trenches they are visible a long way;
they are still gloomily stirring, still filled by the crowd that
overflows from the trenches and flows without end towards the
refuges. For whole days, for whole nights, you will see the long
rolling streams of men plucked from the fields of battle, from the
plain over there that also has feelings of its own, though it bleeds
and rots without end.
WE have been along the Boulevard de la Republique and then
the Avenue Gambetta, and now we are debouching into the Place du
Commerce. The nails in our polished boots ring on the pavements of
the capital. It is fine weather, and the shining sky glistens and
flashes as if we saw it through the frames of a greenhouse; it sets
a-sparkle all the shop-fronts in the square. The skirts of our
well-brushed greatcoats have been let down, and as they are usually
fastened back, you can see two squares on the floating lappets where
the cloth is bluer.
Our sauntering party halts and hesitates for a moment in front of
the Cafe de la Sous-Prefecture, also called the
"We have the right to go in!" says Volpatte.
"Too many officers in there," replies Blaire, who has lifted his
chin over the guipure curtains in which the establishment is dressed
up and risked a glance through the window between its golden
"Besides," says Paradis, "we haven't seen enough yet."
We resume our walk and, simple soldiers that we are, we survey the
sumptuous shops that encircle the Place du Commerce; the drapers,
the stationers, the chemists, and--like a General's decorated
uniform--the display of the jeweler. We have put forth our smiles
like ornaments, for we are exempt from all duty until the evening,
we are free, we are masters of our own time. Our steps are gentle
and sedate; our empty and swinging hands are also promenading, to
"No doubt about it, you get some good out of this rest," remarks
It is an abundantly impressive city which expands before our steps.
One is in touch with life, with the life of the people, the life of
the Rear, the normal life. How we used to think, down yonder, that
we should never get here!
We see gentlemen, ladies, English officers, aviators-recognizable
afar by their slim elegance and their decorations--soldiers who are
parading their scraped clothes and scrubbed skins and the solitary
ornament of their engraved identity discs, flashing in the sunshine
on their greatcoats; and these last risk themselves carefully in the
beautiful scene that is clear of all nightmares.
We make exclamations as they do who come from afar: "Talk about a
crowd!" says Tirette in wonder. "Ah, it's a wealthy town!" says
A work-girl passes and looks at us. Volpatte gives me a jog with his
elbow and swallows her with his eyes, then points out to me two
other women farther away who are coming up, and with beaming eye he
certifies that the town is rich in femininity--"Old man, they are
plump!" A moment ago Paradis had a certain timidity to overcome
before he could approach a cluster of cakes of luxurious lodging,
and touch and eat them; and every minute we are obliged to halt in
the middle of the pavement and wait for Blaire, who is attracted and
detained by the displays of fancy jumpers and caps, neck-ties in
pale blue drill, slippers as red and shiny as mahogany. Blaire has
reached the final height of his transformation. He who held the
record for negligence and grime is certainly the best groomed of us
all, especially since the further complication of his ivories, which
were broken in the attack and had to be remade. He affects an
off-hand demeanor. "He looks young and youthful," says Marthereau.
We find ourselves suddenly face to face with a toothless creature
who smiles to the depth of her throat. Some black hair bristles
round her hat. Her big, unpleasant features, riddled with
pock-marks, recalls the ill-painted faces that one sees on the
coarse canvas of a traveling show. 'She's beautiful,'' says
Volpatte. Marthereau. at whom she smiled, is dumb with shock.
Thus do the poilus converse who are suddenly placed under the spell
of a town. More and more they rejoice in the beautiful scene, so
neat and incredibly clean. They resume possession of life tranquil
and peaceful, of that conception of comfort and even of happiness
for which in the main houses were built.
"We should easily get used to it again, you know, old man, after
Meanwhile a crowd is gathered around an outfitter's shop-window
where the proprietor has contrived, with the aid of mannikins in
wood and wax, a ridiculous tableau. On a groundwork of little
pebbles like those in an aquarium, there is a kneeling German, in a
suit so new that the creases are definite, and punctuated with an
Iron Cross in cardboard. He holds up his two wooden pink hands to a
French officer, whose curly wig makes a cushion for a juvenile cap,
who has bulging, crimson cheeks, and whose infantile eye of adamant
looks somewhere else. Beside the two personages lies a rifle
bar-rowed from the odd trophies of a box of toys. A card gives the
title of the animated group--"Kamarad!"
"Ah, damn it, look!"
We shrug our shoulders at sight of the puerile contrivance, the only
thing here that recalls to us the gigantic war raging somewhere
under the sky. We begin to laugh bitterly, offended and even wounded
to the quick in our new impressions. Tirette collects himself, and
some abusive sarcasm rises to his lips; but the protest lingers and
is mute by reason of our total transportation, the amazement of
being somewhere else.
Our group is then espied by a very stylish and rustling lady,
radiant in violet and black silk and enveloped in perfumes. She puts
out her little gloved hand and touches Volpatte's sleeve and then
Blaire's shoulder, and they instantly halt, gorgonized by this
direct contact with the fairy-like being.
"Tell me, messieurs, you who are real soldiers from the front, you
have seen that in the trenches, haven't you?"
"Er--yes--yes." reply the two poor fellows, horribly frightened and
"Ah!" the crowd murmurs, "did you hear? And they've been there, they
When we find ourselves alone again on the flagged perfection of the
pavement, Volpatte and Blaire look at each other and shake their
"After all," says Volpatte, "it is pretty much like that you know!"
"Why, yes, of course!"
And these were their first words of false swearing that day.
* * * * * *
We go into the Cafe de l'Industrie et des Fleurs. A roadway
of matting clothes the middle of the floor. Painted all the way
along the walls, all the way up the square pillars that support the
roof, and on the front of the counter, there is purple convolvulus
among great scarlet poppies and roses like red cabbages.
"No doubt about it, we've got good taste in France," says Tirette.
"The chap that did all that had a cartload of patience," Blaire
declares as he looks at the rainbow embellishments.
"In these places," Volpatte adds, "the pleasure of drinking isn't
the only one."
Paradis informs us that he knows all about cafes. On Sundays
formerly, he frequented cafes as beautiful as this one and
even more beautiful. Only, he explains, that was a long time ago,
and he has lost the flavor that they've got. He indicates a little
enameled wash-hand basin hanging on the wall and decorated with
flowers: "There's where one can wash his hands." We steer politely
towards the basin. Volpatte signs to Paradis to turn the tap, and
says, "Set the waterworks going!"
Then all six of us enter the saloon, whose circumference is already
adorned with customers, and install ourselves at a table.
"We'll have six currant-vermouths, shall we?"
"We could very easily get used to it again, after all," they repeat.
Some civilians leave their places and come near us. They whisper,
"They've all got the Croix de Guerre, Adolphe, you
see---"--"Those are real poilus!"
Our comrades overhear, and now they only talk among themselves
abstractedly, with their ears elsewhere, and an unconscious air of
A moment later, the man and woman from whom the remarks proceeded
lean towards us with their elbows on the white marble and question
us: "Life in the trenches, it's very rough, isn't it?"
"Er--yes--well, of course, it isn't always pleasant."
"What splendid physical and moral endurance you have! In the end you
get used to the life, don't you?"
"Why, yes, of course, one gets used to it--one gets used to it all
"All the same, it's a terrible existence--and the suffering!"
murmurs the lady, turning over the leaves of an illustrated paper
which displays gloomy pictures of destruction. "They ought not to
publish these things, Adolphe, about the dirt and the vermin and the
fatigues! Brave as you are, you must be unhappy?"
Volpatte, to whom she speaks, blushes. He is ashamed of the misery
whence he comes, whither he must return. He lowers his head and
lies, perhaps without realizing the extent of his mendacity: "No,
after all, we're not unhappy, it isn't so terrible as all that!"
The lady is of the same opinion. "I know," she says, "there are
compensations! How superb a charge must be, eh? All those masses of
men advancing like they do in a holiday procession, and the trumpets
playing a rousing air in the fields! And the dear little soldiers
that can't be held back and shouting, 'Vive la France!' and even
laughing as they die! Ah! we others, we're not in honor's way like
you are. My husband is a clerk at the Prefecture, and just
now he's got a holiday to treat his rheumatism."
"I should very much have liked to be a soldier," said the gentleman,
"but I've no luck. The head of my office can't get on without me."
People go and come, elbowing and disappearing behind each other. The
waiters worm their way through with their fragile and sparkling
burdens--green, red or bright yellow, with a white border. The
grating of feet on the sanded floor mingles with the exclamations of
the regular customers as they recognize each other, some standing,
others leaning on their elbows, amid the sound of glasses and
dominoes pushed along the tables. In the background, around the
seductive shock of ivory balls, a crowding circle of spectators
emits classical pleasantries.
"Every man to his trade, mon brave," says a man at the other end of
the table whose face is adorned with powerful colors, addressing
Tirette directly; "you are heroes. On our side, we are working in
the economic life of the country. It is a struggle like yours. I am
useful--I don't say more useful than you, but equally so."
And I see Tirette through the cigar-smoke making round eyes, and in
the hubbub I can hardly hear the reply of his humble and dumbfounded
voice--Tirette, the funny man of the squad!--"Yes, that's true;
every man to his trade."
Furtively we stole away.
* * * * * *
We are almost silent as we leave the Cafe des Fleurs. It
seems as if we no longer know how to talk. Something like discontent
irritates my comrades and knits their brows. They look as if they
are becoming aware that they have not done their duty at an
"Fine lot of gibberish they've talked to us, the beasts!" Tirette
growls at last with a rancor that gathers strength the more we unite
and collect ourselves again.
"We ought to have got beastly drunk to-day!" replies Paradis
We walk without a word spoken. Then, after a time, "They're a lot of
idiots, filthy idiots," Tirette goes on; "they tried to cod us, but
I'm not on; if I see them again," he says, with a crescendo of
anger, "I shall know what to say to them!"
"We shan't see them again," says Blaire.
"In eight days from now, p'raps we shall be laid out," says
In the approaches to the square we run into a mob of people flowing
out from the Hotel de Ville and from another big public
building which displays the columns of a temple supporting a
pediment. Offices are closing, and pouring forth civilians of all
sorts and all ages, and military men both young and old, who seem at
a distance to be dressed pretty much like us; but when nearer they
stand revealed as the shirkers and deserters of the war, in spite of
being disguised as soldiers, in spite of their brisques. [note 1]
Women and children are waiting for them, in pretty and happy
clusters. The commercial people are shutting up their shops with
complacent content and a smile for both the day ended and for the
morrow, elated by the lively and constant thrills of profits
increased, by the growing jingle of the cash-box. They have stayed
behind in the heart of their own firesides; they have only to stoop
to caress their children. We see them beaming in the first
starlights of the street, all these rich folk who are becoming
richer, all these tranquil people whose tranquillity increases every
day, people who are full, you feel. and in spite of all, of an
unconfessable prayer. They all go slowly, by grace of the fine
evening, and settle themselves in perfected homes, or in
cafes where they are waited upon. Couples are forming, too,
young women and young men, civilians or soldiers, with some badge of
their preservation embroidered on their collars. They make haste
into the shadows of security where the others go, where the dawn of
lighted rooms awaits them; they hurry towards the night of rest and
And as we pass quite close to a ground-floor window which is half
open, we see the breeze gently inflate the lace curtain and lend it
the light and delicious form of lingerie--and the advancing throng
drives us back, poor strangers that we are!
We wander along the pavement, all through the twilight that begins
to glow with gold--for in towns Night adorns herself with jewels.
The sight of this world has revealed a great truth to us at last,
nor could we avoid it: a Difference which becomes evident between
human beings, a Difference far deeper than that of nations and with
defensive trenches more impregnable; the clean-cut and truly
unpardonable division that there is in a country's inhabitants
between those who gain and those who grieve, those who are required
to sacrifice all, all, to give their numbers and strength and
suffering to the last limit, those upon whom the others walk and
advance, smile and succeed.
Some items of mourning attire make blots in the crowd and have their
message for us, but the rest is of merriment, not mourning.
"It isn't one single country, that's not possible," suddenly says
Volpatte with singular precision, "there are two. We're divided into
two foreign countries. The Front, over there, where there are too
many unhappy, and the Rear, here, where there are too many happy."
"How can you help it? It serves its end--it's the background--but
"Yes, I know; but all the same, all the same, there are too many of
them, and they're too happy, and they're always the same ones, and
there's no reason--"
"What can you do?" says Tirette.
"So much the worse," adds Blaire, still more simply.
"In eight days from now p'raps we shall have snuffed it!" Volpatte
is content to repeat as we go away with lowered heads.
[note 1] See p. 117.
EVENING is falling upon the trench. All through the day it has been
drawing near, invisible as fate, and now it encroaches on the banks
of the long ditches like the lips of a wound infinitely great.
We have talked, eaten, slept, and written in the bottom of the
trench since the morning. Now that evening is here, an eddying
springs up in the boundless crevice; it stirs and unifies the torpid
disorder of the scattered men. It is the hour when we arise and
Volpatte and Tirette approach each other. "Another day gone by,
another like the rest of 'em," says Volpatte, looking at the
"You're off it; our day isn't finished," replies Tirette, whose long
experience of calamity has taught him that one must not jump to
conclusions, where we are, even in regard to the modest future of a
commonplace evening that has already begun.
"Allons! Muster!" We join up with the laggard inattention of custom.
With himself each man brings his rifle, his pouches of cartridges,
his water-bottle, and a pouch that contains a lump of bread.
Volpatte is still eating, with protruding and palpitating cheek.
Paradis, with purple nose and chattering teeth, growls. Fouillade
trails his rifle along like a broom. Marthereau looks at a mournful
handkerchief, rumpled and stiff, and puts it back in his pocket. A
cold drizzle is falling, and everybody shivers.
Down yonder we hear a droning chant--"Two shovels, one pick, two
shovels, one pick "The file trickles along to the tool-store,
stagnates at the door, and departs, bristling with implements.
"Everybody here? Gee up!" says the sergeant. Downward and rolling,
we go forward. We know not where we go. We know nothing, except that
the night and the earth are blending in the same abyss.
As we emerge into the nude twilight from the trench, we see it
already black as the crater of a dead volcano. Great gray clouds,
storm-charged, hang from the sky. The plain, too, is gray in the
pallid light; the grass is muddy, and all slashed with water. The
things which here and there seem only distorted limbs are denuded
trees. We cannot see far around us in the damp reek; besides, we
only look downwards at the mud in which we slide--"Porridge!"
Going across country we knead and pound a sticky paste which spreads
out and flows back from every step--"Chocolate cream--coffee
On the stony parts, the wiped-out ruins of roads that have become
barren as the fields, the marching troop breaks through a layer of
slime into a flinty conglomerate that grates and gives way under our
iron-shod soles--"Seems as if we were walking on buttered toast!"
On the slope of a knoll sometimes, the mud is black and thick and
deep-rutted, like that which forms around the horse-ponds in
villages, and in these ruts there are lakes and puddles and ponds,
whose edges seem to be in rags.
The pleasantries of the wags, who in the early freshness of the
journey had cried, "Quack, quack," when they went through the water,
are now becoming rare and gloomy; gradually the jokers are damped
down. The rain begins to fall heavily. The daylight dwindles, and
the confusion that is space contracts. The last lingering light
welters on the ground and in the water.
A steaming silhouette of men like monks appears through the rain in
the west. It is a company of the 204th, wrapped in tent-cloths. As
we go by we see the pale and shrunken faces and the dark noses of
these dripping prowlers before they disappear. The track we are
following through the faint grass of the fields is itself a sticky
field streaked with countless parallel ruts, all plowed in the same
line by the feet and the wheels of those who go to the front and
those who go to the rear.
We have to jump over gaping trenches, and this is not always easy,
for the edges have become soft and slippery, and earth-falls have
widened them. Fatigue, too, begins to bear upon our shoulders.
Vehicles cross our path with a great noise and splashing. Artillery
limbers prance by and spray us heavily. The motor lorries are borne
on whirling circles of water around the wheels, with spirting
As the darkness increases, the jolted vehicles and the horses' necks
and the profiles of the riders with their floating cloaks and slung
carbines stand out still more fantastically against the misty floods
from the sky. Here, there is a block of ammunition carts of the
artillery. The horses are standing and trampling as we go by. We
hear the creaking of axles, shouts, disputes, commands which
collide, and the roar of the ocean of rain. Over the confused
scuffle we can see steam rising from the buttocks of the teams and
the cloaks of the horsemen.
"Look out!" Something is laid out on the ground on our right--a row
of dead. As we go by, our feet instinctively avoid them and our eyes
search them. We see upright boot-soles, outstretched necks, the
hollows of uncertain faces, hands half clenched in the air over the
We march and march, over fields still ghostly and foot-worn, under a
sky where ragged clouds unfurl themselves upon the blackening
expanse--which seems to have befouled itself by prolonged contact
with so many multitudes of sorry humanity.
Then we go down again into the communication trenches. To reach them
we make a wide circuit, so that the rearguard can see the whole
company, a hundred yards away, deployed in the gloom, little obscure
figures sticking to the slopes and following each other in loose
order, with their tools amid their rifles pricking up on each side
of their heads, a slender trivial line that plunges in and raises
its arms as if in entreaty.
These trenches--still of the second lines--are populous. On the
thresholds of the dug-outs, where cart-cloths and skins of animals
hang and flap, squatting and bearded men watch our passing with
expressionless eyes, as if they were looking at nothing. From
beneath other cloths, drawn down to the ground, feet are projected,
"Nom de Dieu! It's a long way!" the trampers begin to grumble. There
is an eddy and recoil in the flow.
"Halt!" The stop is to let others go by. We pile ourselves up,
cursing, on the walls of the trench. It is a company of
machine-gunners with their curious burdens.
There seems to be no end to it, and the long halts are wearying.
Muscles are beginning to stretch. The everlasting march is
overwhelming us. We have hardly got going again when we have to
recoil once more into a traverse to let the relief of the
telephonists go by. We back like awkward cattle, and restart more
"Look out for the wire!" The telephone wire undulates above the
trench, and crosses it in places between two posts. When it is too
slack, its curve sags into the trench and catches the rifles of
passing men, and the ensnared ones struggle, and abuse the engineers
who don't know how to fix up their threads.
Then, as the drooping entanglement of precious wires increases, we
shoulder our rifles with the butt in the air, carry the shovels
under our arms, and go forward with lowered heads.
* * * * * *
Our progress now is suddenly checked, and we only advance step by
step, locked in each other. The head of the column must be in
difficult case. We reach a spot where failing ground leads to a
yawning hole--the Covered Trench. The others have disappeared
through the low doorway. "We've got to go into this blackpudding.
Every man hesitates before ingulfing himself in the narrow
underground darkness, and it is the total of these hesitations and
lingerings that is reflected in the rear sections of the column in
the form of wavering, obstruction, and sometimes abrupt shocks.
From our first steps in the Covered Trench, a heavy darkness settles
on us and divides us from each other. The damp odor of a swamped
cave steals into us. In the ceiling of the earthen corridor that
contains us, we can make out a few streaks and holes of pallor--the
chinks and rents in the overhead planks. Little streams of water
flow freely through them in places, and in spite of tentative
groping we stumble on heaped-up timber. Alongside, our knocks
discover the dim vertical presence of the supporting beams.
The air in this interminable tunnel is vibrating heavily. It is the
searchlight engine that is installed there--we have to pass in front
After we have felt our deep-drowned way for a quarter of an hour,
some one who is overborne by the darkness and the wet, and tired of
bumping into unknown people, growls, "I don't care--I'm going to
The brilliant beam of a little electric lamp flashes out, and
instantly the sergeant bellows, "Ye gods! Who's the complete ass
that's making a light? Are you daft? Don't you know it can be seen,
you scab, through the roof?"
The flash-lamp, after revealing some dark and oozing walls in its
cone of light, retires into the night. "Not much you can't see it!"
jeers the man, "and anyway we're not in the first lines." "Ah, that
can't be seen!"
The sergeant, wedged into the file and continuing to advance,
appears to be turning round as he goes and attempting some forceful
observations--"You gallows-bird! You damned dodger!" But suddenly he
starts a new roar--"What! Another man smoking now! Holy hell!" This
time he tries to halt, but in vain he rears himself against the wall
and struggles to stick to it. He is forced precipitately to go with
the stream and is carried away among his own shouts, which return
and swallow him up, while the cigarette, the cause of his rage,
disappears in silence.
* * * * * *
The jerky beat of the engine grows louder, and an increasing heat
surrounds us. The overcharged air of the trench vibrates more and
more as we go forward. The engine's jarring note soon hammers our
ears and shakes us through. Still it gets hotter; it is like some
great animal breathing in our faces. The buried trench seems to be
leading us down and down into the tumult of some infernal workshop,
whose dark-red glow is sketching out our huge and curving shadows in
purple on the walls.
In a diabolical crescendo of din, of hot wind and of lights, we flow
deafened towards the furnace. One would think that the engine itself
was hurling itself through the tunnel to meet us, like a frantic
motor-cyclist drawing dizzily near with his headlight and
Scorched and half blinded, we pass in front of the red furnace and
the black engine, whose flywheel roars like a hurricane, and we have
hardly time to make out the movements of men around it. We shut our
eyes, choked by the contact of this glaring white-hot breath.
Now, the noise and the heat are raging behind us and growing
feebler, and my neighbor mutters in his beard, "And that idiot that
said my lamp would be seen!"
And here is the free air! The sky is a very dark blue, of the same
color as the earth and little lighter. The rain becomes worse and
worse, and walking is laborious in the heavy slime. The whole boot
sinks in, and it is a labor of acute pain to withdraw the foot every
time. Hardly anything is left visible in the night, but at the exit
from the hole we see a disorder of beams which flounder in the
widened trench--some demolished dugout.
Just at this moment, a searchlight's unearthly arm that was swinging
through space stops and falls on us, and we find that the tangle of
uprooted and sunken posts and shattered framing is populous with
dead soldiers. Quite close to me, the head of a kneeling body hangs
on its back by an uncertain thread; a black veneer, edged with
clotted drops, covers the cheek. Another body so clasps a post in
its arms that it has only half fallen. Another, lying in the form of
a circle, has been stripped by the shell, and his back and belly are
laid bare. Another, outstretched on the edge of the heap, has thrown
his hand across our path; and in this place where there no traffic
except by night--for the trench is blocked just there by the
earth-fall and inaccessible by day--every one treads on that hand.
By the searchlight's shaft I saw it clearly, fleshless and worn, a
sort of withered fin.
The rain is raging and the sound of its streaming dominates
everything--a horror of desolation. We feel the water on our flesh
as if the deluge had washed our clothes away.
We enter the open trench, and the embrace of night and storm resumes
the sole possession of this confusion of corpses, stranded and
cramped on a square of earth as on a raft.